Studying the sword isn’t that simple when so many different types of swords are used throughout a variety of books, videos, and direct instruction. Why are some swords made out of wood and used in certain exercises and at other times live steel being used? Let’s take a look at the various training tools used in kenjutsu…
Most of the training is undertaken with what is called a bokken- a wooden sword approximating the size and shape of the sword used in ones tradition. Normally they are carved out of a hard wood like oak, ash, or something exotic like purple heart, etc. so they can stand up to daily practice over the years. Soft wood like pine or compressed wood used by the mass market martial arts swords is a danger- splinters, cracking, and breaking during training can cause serious injury.
It goes without saying that while wooden swords have the appearance of being “safe”, in the mind of the student there is no difference between the wooden sword and a real sword (shinken). One is reminded to remember the sword saint Musashi who frequently used a wooden sword to the same effect as a steel one.
Used alongside this is a shinai which is a split bamboo sword sometimes covered with leather and cord which allows a greater degree of interaction with a training partner often used in competitions (kendo). Just like the bokken care and diligence has to be maintained to check for splintering and wear on the bamboo.
After a few years of training a student might be instructed to buy a mogito (alloy sword) which has the blade being made out of an alloy type steel that is unsharpened taking a step up in the training from the bokken. Often use to practice drawing cuts this is as close as one can get to a real sword without practicing with one.
Which then leads to a fully sharpened sword known as a shinken (live blade) which one might obtain after a decade of practice. Sometimes used in cutting practice, a real sword is NEVER used in solo or partnered practice as the risk of permanent injury of death is just not worth it. Safety is always the number one focus.