Japanese martial arts focus on personal development and traditional values, while providing efficient self-defense skills. The wooden katana, also called the bokuto, became ideal for training because it is inexpensive, durable, and nonlethal compared to the real samurai sword.
Here’s a guide to help you choose the best wooden katana for training and where to get them.
What Is Wooden Katana Used For?
Since it is too dangerous to use the Japanese samurai sword in training, martial arts practitioners use the wooden katana, which replicates the qualities of the real sword. In Japan, it is common to train with bokken without armor. In Australia, wooden katana is not used against each other as weapons—only the shinai or bamboo sword, along with protective armor.
Modern aikido students train with the bokken, especially when practicing falling and knee-walking techniques. Practitioners also use bokuto in the older iaido, the art of drawing the sword. However, the disadvantage of using a wooden katana in iaido is that there is no saya or scabbard. Hence, the practitioner will not benefit from the saya practice with the left hand, so the iaito or blunt katana sword is used. However, iaido students never use their metal blades in contact drills.
The Japanese kendo still prefers shinai or bamboo swords for sparring and competitions, but recently, training in the kendo dojo requires the bokken. Many also utilize the wooden katana as a self-defense weapon, as well as in cosplay and collection.
Difference Between Bokuto and Bokken
Generally, the bokken, meaning wooden blade, is the wooden sword used in Japanese martial arts. In Japan, the term bokuto specifically refers to a wooden katana. While a bokken can be a wooden katana, it can also be another type of sword. However, in the West, it is widely accepted that it has the same meaning as the bokuto or wooden katana.
How to Choose the Best Training Sword?
The quality of the wooden katana will determine its behavior during practice. Some factors to consider are the type of wood, size, length, weight, sword construction, and its use in practice.
Type of Wood
There are a variety of woods used for a wooden katana, but oak is the most popular. Outside Japan, red oak is preferred over white oak since it tends to warp less in Western climates. However, white oak makes a superior wooden practice sword—it has finer grains and is sturdier than the other. It is no wonder a wooden katana made of white oak is more expensive.
You can also find wooden katana made of ebony, an Asian relative of the persimmon. This dark hard wood also creates a high quality wood sword. Some training swords are crafted from North American hardwoods such as persimmon, walnut, hickory, and ironwood. There are other alternative materials, but make sure it is sturdy enough for training.
Size and Length
In some martial arts, the training sword should fit the height of the practitioner. Sometimes, measurements will also depend on specific schools, competitions, and practices. As a rule of thumb, the practice sword should not be too long or too short for the practitioner, as it can hinder some cutting techniques.
A wooden katana reproduces the weight and balance of a steel blade. So, a training sword should feel balanced, properly weighted, and move lightly. If it is for suburi practice or sword-swinging exercises, you’ll need a heavier wooden sword called suburito with a longer, wider, and thicker blade. Martial arts practitioners use the suburito to develop muscle strength, but not in bogyo-waza with a partner.
The wooden katana must be properly constructed for the wear and tear of practice. The bokken must be solid one-piece wood, similar to a full-tang blade of a samurai sword. It is usually equipped with a tsuba or handguard to protect the hands during practice. Unlike carbon steel blades, a wooden sword is not kept in a saya or scabbard, only in a cloth bag for protection.
Type of Practice
When choosing a training sword, it is best to opt for one that you can use for both individual practice and in contact drills. Some materials are strong enough to withstand heavy blows, but others are only ideal for sparring and quick footwork. Also, some swords are durable to use in practice with a partner but are not balanced. In some practices and competitions, the shinai or bamboo sword is used rather than the wooden katana.
Historical Facts about Wooden Katana
The bokken has a rich history, from samurai training to modern martial arts. Here are the things you need to know about the wooden katana or bokuto:
The use of bokken in martial arts training began in the Muromachi period.
After long years of civil wars, the ryu systems of teaching martial arts emerged. From 1336 to 1600, many practiced sword techniques using the wooden katana instead of the real samurai sword. Apart from its obvious safety factor, the bokken became a way to preserve the edges of expensive steel blades.
In feudal Japan, wooden swords were made from biwa.
A wood resembling cypress, biwa is quite durable and heavy for a wooden katana, but a folk superstition makes it an unappealing material for the practice sword. Some still believe that a bruise or other injury inflicted by a biwa would not heal and could eventually kill the swordsman. In feudal times, many swordsmen carefully wielded the biwa bokken, though others refused to use them.
The wooden sword served not only as a training sword but also as a weapon of real combat.
In Japanese history and folklore, swordsman Miyamoto Musashi defeated Sasaki Kojiro with a wooden sword. In another account, Ittosai Kagehisa defeated Mikogami Tenzen with a bokken—some stories even say a mere piece of wood—even if his rival wielded a sharp steel sword.
Kendo replaced the bokken with the shinai, a bamboo sword.
By the 16th century, the bokken became the training weapon of over 900 ryu in Japan devoted to kenjutsu, the art of the sword. With the fall of the Tokugawa dynasty and feudalism in Japan in 1867, the martial arts of the samurai declined. Kenjutsu evolved into kendo and sporting competition.
The shinai was a safer alternative to both real katana and wooden katana. It is made of four strips of bamboo bound together, equipped with a tsuba. Since the bamboo sword had no curvature, it encouraged kendo practitioners to hit rather than cut.
The wooden katana or bokuto is just one type of bokken widely used today.
Japanese martial arts weapons include wooden swords in different blade lengths to replicate the daito or long sword, either a katana or tachi. A wooden tachi is sometimes called kidachi, though the term is not common even in Japan. In aikido, practitioners also use a wooden tanto dagger. Others also utilize the wooden wakizashi in some practices.
As a history enthusiast, Abigail loves learning about the events that shaped the world. She’s particularly interested in the rise and fall of empires, accounts of war and conquest, and ancient and classical history. Apart from being a writer, she also dabbles in fashion modeling and acting.
Juliana has been writing for nearly thirty years and concentrates on Tudor and Medieval history. She has written for Tudor Dynasty, Tudor Writing Circle, Historian Matt Lewis, and others. Juliana currently writes for Pen and Sword Publishers and is the author of several books, including Medicine in the Middle Ages and A History of Insanity and the Asylum.