BOKKEN (木剣, bok(u), "wood", and ken, "sword"), is a wooden Japanese sword used for training, usually the size and shape of a katana, but sometimes shaped like other swords, such as the wakizashi and tantō. It should be noted that bokken (木剣) is not a proper, nor a common term in Japan. Ken (剣) is used as a prefix for terms having to do with the sword as in Kendō (剣道 "way of the sword") and Kenjutsu (剣術 "art of the sword"). In contrast, tō (刀) is used as a suffix as in shōtō (小刀:しょうとう, short sword) and daitō (大刀:だいとう); thus bokutō (木刀, "wood sword") is the correct terminology. These should not be confused with shinai, the bamboo sword used in kendo.
A bokken is used as an inexpensive and relatively safe substitute for a real sword, in training for several martial arts.
Bokken are also used in the AJKF Nihon kendo kata, a form of training to develop technically correct movements.
In 2003, the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) introduced a type of practice using bokken. Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon-waza Keiko-ho is a set of basic exercises using a bokuto. This form of practice, is intended primarily for kendoka up to ni-dan, but is very useful for all kendo students.Suburito are bokken designed for use in suburi. Suburi, literally "bare swinging," are solo cutting exercises. Suburito are thicker and heavier than normal bokken and users of suburito have to develop both strength and technique. Their weight makes them unsuitable for paired practice or kata.
Historically, bokken are as old as Japanese swords, and were used for the training of warriors. Miyamoto Musashi, a kenjutsu master, was renowned for fighting fully armed foes with only one or two bokken. In a famous legend, he defeated Sasaki Kojiro with a bokken he had carved from an oar while traveling on a boat to the predetermined island for the duel.
The following list is the basic styles of bokken made:
Daitō or tachi (katana-sized), long sword;
Shoto or kodachi or wakizashi bo, short sword, (wakizashi-sized);
Tanto bo (tantō-sized); and
Suburito can be made in daito and shoto sizes but are meant for solo training. They are much heavier and harder to use, developing greater muscles, increasing skills with 'normal' sized bokken. One famous user of the suburi-sized bokken is Miyamoto Musashi who used one in his duel against Sasaki Kojiro.
Bokken can be made in any style of weapon required such asnagamaki, no-dachi, yari, naginata, kama, etc. The examples above are the most widely-used.
The All Japan Kendo Federation specify the dimensions of bokken for use in kendo kata.
Tachi: Total length, approx. 102 cm; tsuka (handle)approx. 24 cm.
Kodachi: Total length, approx. 55 cm; tsuka (handle)approx. 14 cm.
The quality of the bokken depends on several factors. The type and quality of the wood and skill of the craftsman are all critical factors in the manufacture of a good quality bokken. Almost all mass produced inexpensive bokken are made from porous, loose-grained southeast Asian wood. These bokken may be easily broken when used in even light to medium contact drills and are best left for non contact work, such as in kata. Furthermore, the wood is often so porous, that if the varnish is stripped off the inexpensive bokken, one can see the use of wood fillers to fill the holes.
While most species of North American red oak are unsuitable for construction of bokken, there are some Asian species of red oak that have a significantly tighter grain and will last longer.
Superior woods, such as American white oak, also known as Kashi(not to be confused with Japanese white oak, known as Shiro Kashi, which is an evergreen species and lacks the weaker spring growth rings of the American oaks), has been a proven staple, having a tighter grain than red oak wood. Another choice, hickory wood, seems to have a very good blend of hardness and impact resistance, while still having a relatively low cost.
The use of exotic hardwoods is not unusual when looking at some of the more expensive bokken. Some are made from Brazilian cherrywood (Jatoba), others from purpleheart, and some very expensive ones made from lignum vitae. Tropical woods are often quite heavy, a feature often sought in bokken despite the brittleness of these heavy and hard materials. Many of the exotics are suitable for suburi (solo practice), but not for paired practice where there is hard contact with other bokken.
Some online retailers offer bokken constructed from polypropelene plastics. The exact applications and benefits of such a weapon vary depending upon the user.