There’s a time, when I was a brown belt working in as a retail shop assistant. My colleagues didn’t know about my martial arts background.
One of my colleague was a funny, peppy fella who knew what Steven Seagal and his martial arts flicks. He was impressed with how Steven Seagal took out people using his fighting skills and I asked him to show me one of his moves.
He promptly went to show a kotegaishi and I asked him to try it on me. He took my hand and deftly did what he has seen on TV and I helped myself with a break fall, which looked pretty dramatic.
Until now I can still remember the look on his face, when he saw me flipped and landed as he did his kotegaishi. It is just one of those crazy things you did when you were younger.
In this safe island city of Singapore, when will be weapons be used in a violent confrontation? And when we do, do we know how to use them?
In Aikido, we handle ‘classical’ weapons like Bokken, Jo and Tanto. These are made of wood to minimize injuries, but we still need to handle them like the real thing. I ‘cut’ Sunny’s left eyebrow when my Bokken slipped during after class training many years ago. Bokken, although blunt, but when used applicably, it is still a weapon.
Rules are rules, always use common sense when handling anything labeled as a ‘weapon’ or anything seemingly dangerous.
1- Always be alert, and never take it for granted, be it a training weapon, an M-16 rifle, or a rubber knife. When in training, always practice due diligence. Training time is not playtime. Weapon, any weapon, is not a toy.
2- Know the weapon parts well. We all know the ‘bladed’ part of the Bokken is actually not the real blade. Duh. Train with an attitude that the ‘bladed’ part is the REAL THING. If you are not careful, you WILL lose fingers.
3- Practice safety distance. know your ma-ai well. Empty hand ma-ai and weapon ma-ai is very different. Footwork, body movement changes as well.
4- Never fear the weapon. Practice point 1,2,3 well, apprehension should go away. A weapon is simply a manifestation of the user’s intention.
5- Train long and hard with your weapon. Time invested in conditioning will help us become more familiar we become with it.
To sum it up, weapons training extend our reach and improve our understanding on how it works, so that we can be skillful when we use it, and when it is used against us, we have some understanding on how to deal with it.
Its not much to take away, but then again its never, ever enough.
Any decent Aikidoka will own at least one bokken, 木剣. Or two; or more.
I have two, and each has its own story, well, perhaps the later one.
The one at the bottom was my very first one, made in Taiwan, bought in Liang Seng. Anyone who is a decent martial artist fanatic in Singapore, will know about this martial arts shop, still located at Marina Square. It was a casual purchase, and since everyone who is ‘on’ enough in Aikido, will get one of these training weapons.
I also have a jo, of course. But with any Samurai influence, the bokken, a wooden representation of the Katana, is the ego status of any budding Japanese martial artist.
Choosing a Bokken
There is no special way in choosing a bokken. really, nothing special. Wood is wood. Of course, these wood are carved, very often by a machine to take the shape of a practice sword. And other than checking for surface crack, there is really no way to ensure that the one you have is going to be the one that last.
So it is very much an economic purchase, which comes with a need. I needed a bokken for practice, which is why I got the ‘Made in Taiwan’ type. What is the difference anyway?
My Second Bokken
The darker coloured one was my second and a very expensive carved, curved wooden stick. but it reaffirmed the way I looked at a bokken, because it felt like a very different bokken.
I bought it when I went to Japan in 2000, for the 8th IAF congress, some kind of once-every-four-years pilgrimage most devoted Aikidoka will go, at least once in their life. I was out with my fellow Aikido friends, and we walked into…a martial arts shop in Tokyo!
We were just browsing and didn’t really thought of buying anything. Sunny, my friend and I went up to the weapons rack and ‘toyed’ with some of their bokken and jo. They have some big-ass bokken for some really heavy-duty training. But it was this brown looking one, that I serendipitously picked up; that caught my attention.
The bokken feels solid, and balanced in my hand. It got me excited, and I let Sunny held it, he nodded his head, agree in assessment that the bokken was balanced and felt good. It gives a kind of assurance and confidence when you held it, very skillfully crafted.
I was in Tokyo, on kind of a shoestring.
I didn’t plan to buy anything from that martial arts shop, maybe a good set of Japanese Gi, hakama, perhaps, certainly not a bokken.
I bought that bokken.
It was a happy purchase and it felt right in my hands. And to affirm my happy purchase, Sunny said he’d have bought it, had I not buy it first.
When I brought it back home, and excitedly pit it against my first Taiwanese made bokken, it really felt different. The Japanese one really does have a certain balance when you swing it.
It is a very precious purchase, and of course, I’d bring the Taiwanese one out for training, I wouldn’t want to damage my ‘silver bullet’!, but that was my mindset back then.
Although that Japanese piece of wood has been with me for the past 18 years, and I liked it fondly, I’m not so attached to it so much as to not want to use it. In fact nowadays, for combined training, where the school says bring your bokken/ jo for weapons class, I have the tendency to use those already in the dojo.
It is not that I won’t like to scratch or damage, or worse, break my precious Japanese one, it is a matter of pragmatics. I have to train myself to be able to use any weapon, not just my own personal one. so my mindest these days is to use any bokken available, never mind if it is made in Taiwan, old, banged-up, I’d use it, I’d train with it, being less selective, is to be less judgmental. It is just a bokken, why get so attached to it?
On the other hand, I’m also lazy to carry 2 wooden sticks out, especially when the place of training will provide for those who didn’t have it, or didn’t bring it.
The Japanese bokken
It is a valuable training tool, having the proper one, because it does help correct my swing, and balance, and you know it when you got it right, the sound of the quiet ‘whoop’ as the bokken cuts through the air. The Taiwanese one, or any bokken for that matter, will make the same sound, if you swing hard enough.
The difference is, the Japanese bokken, you don’t really have to swing it that hard, you just have to swing it correctly, and when you hear that sound, you know you are corrected.
(I have a blueband around both bokken, as it is a universally accepted colour, especially in the military to represent dummy, training, inert equipment. Besides, it is quite signature, and provide me with easy identification, in a mass training classes, with too many bokken and jo mixed together.)