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Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword

I suppose that some may wonder--rightly, I guess--why on earth I would read a book on the use of the traditional Japanese wooden practice sword, the bokken or bokuto. It is not as if I'm ever likely to come within shouting distance of the traditional Japanese sword arts, and one would think that there would be little relationship between its skills and those required in Okinawan karate, my particular interest. However, in my opinion, those thinking so are wrong. One need not delve very far into the somewhat nebulous history of the Okinawan combative arts to realize that Japanese swordsmanship has had substantial influence on Okinawan techniques and execution. Even before the Satsuma clan invaded Okinawa and Sokon Matsumura earned his menkyo (certificate indicating proficiency in the techniques of the ryu or permission to teach, possibly both, I suppose) in their Jigen-Ryu system of swordsmanship, it seems indisputable that Japanese sword techniques had a profound influence on the hereditary martial art of Okinawa's ruling Motobu clan, sometimes referred to as Motobu Udun Ti, and although one might question just how much influence the techniques of Motobu Udun Ti had on Okinawan technique prior to the last century, there is absolutely no doubt that Seikichi Uehara, the first non-family member to inherit that art, was part of at least one research group that also included such notables as Sian Toma and the remarkable Seiyu Oyata, who was primarily responsible for introducing close-quarter grappling techniques called tuite and pressure-point techniques called kyusho-jitsu to the Western world, and it seems likely, therefore, that Uehara--and Japanese swordsmanship--has had at least some influence in some quarters of the Okinawan karate world. And since, as mentioned, no less a luminary than Matsumura--probably the single most influential Okinawan karateka of the nineteenth century, bodyguard and instructor to the Okinawan king--was a skilled Jigen-Ryu swordsman, one is not entirely unjustified in surmising that his karate, too, was at least somewhat influenced by Japanese swordsmanship.

In our little practice group, the bokken occupies the place held in some systems by the chi-ishi and stone locks: auxiliary training equipment that develops a very particular type of power and movement peculiar to the needs of that system. It seems to me that we have certain elements of footwork in common with those of the Japanese swordsman, and the way we deliver a punch seems distinctly reminiscent of the way the sword is handled. Of course, there is a very distinct effect on one's physical fitness as well. As Mr. Lowry notes in the book (suburi, by the way, is practice with the bokken):
It is only fair to warn, though, that suburi is an extremely strenuous exercise.

Just the act of swinging the bokken up and down without any force is likely to bring on stiff and sore muscles. This author has conducted seminars on suburi training on occasion, with classes filled with strong karateka or judoka, all young men in their early 20s, black belt holders with the strength and conditioning of professional athletes. Even so, at the end of the session, they were all pitifully tired and sore. "It was like jumping rope," one of them said, "with a lead chain for a rope."

Suburi training involves quick footwork and light, fast body shifting, but it also demands strength and a focusing of physical power, cutting with the bokken in a solid, well-connected movement. Because of this duality, its exercises can be geared for emphasizing whatever specific activity one wishes. There are several movements requiring constant motion in different directions, and these can be performed lightly and smoothly a number of times to increase stamina. Other actions, like the basic cuts and strikes, are simpler, and a great deal of power may be applied in learning them, to develop strength.
Practice with the bokken, then, is a useful adjunct to our bare-handed training, and it was with this in mind that I picked up Dave Lowry's Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword. Mr. Lowry is singularly well suited for the task of writing such a book. He is probably the Western World's most well-known exponent of traditional Japanese swordsmanship--and by "traditional Japanese swordsmanship," I mean not the relatively modern discipline of kendo, but the older combative samurai arts, the koryu--and has cross-trained in other martial arts, including, if I am not mistaken, Judo, Aikido, and Japanese karate (Caveat: modern Japanese karate is distinctly different, in my opinion, from the original Okinawan article). The book has been out for about twenty years now, and as far as I know, has never gone out of print.

It is a simple book. If all you do is read the text, I suppose a fairly fast reader could get through it in an hour or two. Of course, since you will constantly be looking from the text to the pictures, and then--presumably--to your own posture, the reality is that it will take just as long to read as it takes you to develop the skills you seek. The first few sections--the introduction, "Origins of the Bokken," "Training with the Bokken," and "Selecting the Bokken and Equipment" are, as you might expect, largely devoted to background information and the sorts of things you need to know to get started. In the process, Mr. Lowry passes on some interesting information and stories from Japan's feudal background and a fair amount of personal opinion. The stories and the history are interesting, and Mr. Lowry's passion for the subject comes through in his opinions, for some of which I cannot personally find much enthusiasm. For instance, he seems much concerned with identifying with the old samurai, and I find that I cannot. I have enjoyed stories of their bravery and single-mindedness in combat, and I have great admiration for their battlefield arts and desire to add some small part of that treasure-trove of skills to my personal inventory. But I am not a samurai, and I find that I simply don't have their attitude. The things that I admire about them are also things that I find present and admirable in my own cultural background.

The rest of the book consists of instruction, given via text and photographs. First is kihon, or fundamentals; then uchi kata, or striking methods; then renraku waza, or combination techniques; and then kumitachi, or techniques with a partner. Instruction is given for details ranging from the proper way of gripping the weapon to proper stepping methods. Much of this information is interesting, and for the most part, it is clear and easy to follow, with only one caveat necessary: it sometimes seems--looking at the text--as though a photograph is missing. I don't know that this is so, but part of me wonders if it is not a fairly difficult thing to avoid in the creation of such books. The upshot is that sometimes you have to dig a little for useful information. For instance, when looking at the information on naname okuri ashi (oblique advancing step), one is left clueless as to how long the step taken is to be. Clueless, that is, for about ten pages, for when giving instruction on shomen uchi (cutting down, or the overhead cut), we find
This method of stepping is exactly like that of naname okuri ashi, except that the movement is straight to the front rather than at an angle.
together with a photograph illustrating the length of the step! This kind of thing occurs more than once throughout the book. The information does seem to be all there, but sometimes you have to flip a few pages to find it. It would probably be worthwhile to give the book a thorough reading from front to back before actually picking up a bokken and trying out some of the techniques.

I think it is likely that most people will probably not end up mastering all the material, as it simply may not be necessary to achieve their particular goals. For instance, I don't anticipate trying any of the kumitachi, or partner drills, anytime soon. I am mostly interested in the effects the handling of the weapon has on my management of my body's mass and momentum, the way my punches are thrown (I have made mention of the peculiar way punches, or tsuki, are thrown in our system more than once. I don't wish to go into the sort of detail that would amount to me giving instruction that I am in no way qualified to give, but I will just say here that those interested can, between the material in Kiyoshi Arakaki's excellent The Secrets of Okinawan Karate: Essence and Techniques and the material on pages 40-41 of this book, gain considerable insight. At least if you give it any serious thought.), together with some of the physical fitness benefits. For my purposes, gaining a grasp of some of the basics and practicing shihogiri (cutting in four directions) is probably sufficient.

Overall, I would recommend the book as a good start for anyone interested in gaining some of the benefits peculiar to practicing the art of the sword, and especially for those interested in some of the older Okinawan systems, or aikido.

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