Shinken: The Life Giving Sword

In the study of kenjutsu (Japanese sword arts) the katana (sword) is an extension of the will of the person who holds it, and the point of interaction between them and their training partner. Without holding a sword, understanding what it represents and can ultimately do in the hands of a trained student one can’t e studying kenjutsu. Layered over this is the fact that there are many different swords besides the popular and well known katana.
When we distill things down to practice in the dojo there are three types of swords used by students and understanding their place untimely helps with understanding the lessons of kenjutsu.
The first sword isn’t a sword at all, but rather a piece of wood, but even here this is misleading on the surface- well touch more on that in a moment so keep it in mind. Known as a bokken, it is a rough estimation of a sword in size, length, and weight. They type of wood is important- Japanese white oak being optimal. As a new student the bokken is your first step on the journey. There is an illusion of safety since it is wood and not steel with an edge, upkeep is minimal other than some wood polish or other oil from time to time, and the cost is minimal- around forty bucks. That said, even with a bokken in hand discipline needs to be maintained- it is easy to hurt your training partner though a moment of neglect resulting in broken bones or stitches which I have witnessed. At least with a bokken in hand you present the least danger to yourself in training. A subset of the bokken is the fukuro shinai which is a piece of bamboo wrapped in leather or cloth to train with- essentially a padded sword out of natural materials- but even with this we have to be mindful since split and splintered bamboo is razor sharp. Most student to student interaction in class is with a bokken or fukuro shinai.
The next step on the training ladder is an iaito- essentially a metal sword without an edge, often made of a zinc alloy so not only can it not take an edge, but your finger oils, and dust won’t affect the blade. It will have the same “furniture” as a “real” sword and is often used to practice drawing the sword out of the scabbard and for solo forms practice. In the training I have experienced it is rare to have two training partners interact with iaito as the steel can still break bones and the tip, although dull, is as pointy as any spear. Sometimes you will see a teacher and a high ranking student with decades of training interact with each other using iaito.
The third sword type is the shinken or “live sword”- the real deal. Sharp, mirror polished, a work of art, cultural artifact, and a spiritual symbol. In the sake of safety there is never a reason to practice with a shinken- that is what wood and other practice swords are. The only practice with shinken is when you train in cutting targets under the supervision of a direct teacher. For but a few times each year my shinken just sits on a rack atop myself and spends more time in my hands being cleaned and maintained then actually cutting.
A word on historical swords and their place in training…
Years ago, during a cutting session one of the students brought in a sword that his father had captured at the close of world war II. We won’t comment on this statement for the moment and its implications in budo, other than to say the sword was quite old and in pretty good shape. He cut with it at the training, and allowed myself, and another student to cut with it also. I should have politely refused, and now know better, but at the time to be able to cut with such a sword seemed important. Our cuts went well, quite a different flavor to the cut with the sword vs. newly made shinken, but when the second student cut with it, his form was off and the sword cut past the target into the ground dulling the point of the sword.
Historical swords should remain just that- there is NO reason to use them- they are a historical and cultural artifact to be appreciated since no more are being made. Even with good form there is the chance of injury- maybe the blade has been stressed or has a crack that was polished out and it snaps in half mid cut?
Stuff happens to shinken all the time in practice, better damage a new sword then a historical one, not that I want to ruin either…
Kids, leave your dad’s sword on his shelf.

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Located in Westchester New York, the Bujinkan Shinmyoken Dojo is a martial arts training group founded in 2005 with the aim of coming together as martial arts friends to study the Japanese martial art of Masaaki Hatsumi through the lessons of the Bujinkan dojo.

As friends (buyu) we come together to grow, learn, and share our individual potential in this wonderful martial art.

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