Shiai with bokuto without the use of bogu

When you think about kenjutsu study in classical times we think about all the different styles practising without wearing bogu and using bokuto. Starting about a 100 years ago various schools started to use men, kote, and dou. This allowed for more freedom in practise and was a way to train your body, polish your techniques, and had the advantage of allowing you to strike each other amongst other things.

This was a lot different than the classical period method of practising where – if you went too far – you could cause injury to yourself and your opponent. Due to this there was also an element of fear in this type of training. As you move you can sometimes strike strongly even though the movement was light, or strike lightly even through you thought you were strong. Practising armour-less with bokuto becomes very hard without a sufficient understanding of this matter.

Amongst classical kenshi there were not a few that had inter-school matches (taryujiai) using habiki (blunt metal blades) or bokuto. In these matches there were countless people beaten senseless or even killed. For those of these that called themselves masters, causing injury to others seeking to follow the same way is shameful. In normal practise you don’t aim to injure your students after all. However, for those of us that study the way, we should not be stuck in set shapes, but be able to respond to various changes in our opponent, and we cannot say that we always control our strikes.

Advanced people showing the way to those with less ability is the way of heaven (i.e. its natural). There is no room for argument in this point. If thats the case, then why is it that people who do the popular armoured-shiai (the most popular term at the time was gekkiken) only strive to win? In that world its natural that there are winners and losers, yet isn’t it the case that those that are of higher ability feel no danger (even when armour is not used) when they are fighting?

In the case that you do have an unarmoured shiai, please understand the value of the sense of the danger you feel and use this when you wear armour and fight.

In a unarmoured shiai, if a kenshi full of vigour is attacking someone more skilled than they are and they attempt to fight as if they are using armour injuries will definitely occur. If you think about this point deeply, and do some research, it may be possible to conduct armour-less shiai without injury. (Editors note: I do not condone this)

Someone who causes injury or death during a armour-less shiai cannot call themselves someone who follows the True Path of the Sword.

Yamaoka Tesshu, Meiji 17 (1884), January.

山岡鉄舟:剣禅話 。徳間書店.高野 澄(翻訳)

By George

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8 replies on “Shiai with bokuto without the use of bogu”

Thanks for the translation, George. I think this touches upon a perennial tension in kendo — that is, what is the place of such a budo in modern society where it has no “practical” application. We have to take it seriously, but what does that really entail? If we’re not training to kill someone with a sword, then what exactly are we doing? One can say that it’s self improvement through practice, but on a deeper (perhaps darker) level, to really train seriously one has to somehow approximate the frame of mind of actually “killing” one’s opponent, whether it’s kendo or iaido.

We can apply noble aphorisms such as “katsu-jin ken” (life-giving sword) to the purpose of practicing budo in a modern world, but how does our own practice, safe as it is with the benefits of shinai and bogu, compare to training in the world that Yamaoka Tesshu describes, where you could get killed even during practice or shiai. Different frame of mind, I would imagine.

Hey Paul,

Thanks for commenting. I was a bit wary about releasing this translation because I think some people would misinterpret my intentions, or take it literally, so I am more than delighted at the insightfulness of your comment. Its caused me to re-read the original a few times again, and gives me something further to ponder. Cheers!!!!

I can see that this is not an entirely recent article, yet I wanted to add a comment. I once tried jiyu-keiko with my sensei; I was not worried for my own safety, simply because I trust his control. I was, however, quite nervous that I might hit him by accident. Not that I get that many strikes “in” on him, but I have occassionally hit his elbow by accident (and such), and this was the same feeling, only multiplied.
This had me thinking; I once was told an anecdotal story – but I cannot say if it is historically correct or not – that some sensei had pointed out, that the essential benefit of the kendo bogu, was not that it protected the wearer, but that it released his partner/opponent from feelings of guilt and hesitation; thus allowing him to attack freely, energetically and wholeheartedly. As mentioned; I do not know if this has ever actually been said – but the point does seem to me, at least occasionally, relevant.

I failed to mention that the jiyu-keiko was with shinai, but without bogu. Otherwise it would appear to be a rather mundane occurance in the world of kendo.. 😀

I have a firm belief that wooden swords offer more than shinai. It is sad that so many look only at the reasons not to undergo such training, as it was so incredibly necessary in the days kenjutsu at it’s highest point. Moderation in training is a virtue, even if others see it as an excessive act- as is the case with wooden swords. But, kenjutsu and kendo have long since diverged, as such, a point like this one becomes a catalyst for argument as opposed to thought.
Regardless, I stand by the notion of the wooden sword as critical to one’s training path.
It does yield a profoundly different insight.

Dear Al Kilgore.

I wasn’t sure about replying to you, as I’ve seen your name on various forums here and there over the years, so I am familiar not only with your claims, but with peoples efforts to expose you as fraudulent. Its not my desire to start an argument either way here (and I will moderate any rude comments should they be made), but part of our mission here at kenshi247 is to produce accurate and informed information based on experience and – when possible – using primary material. Therefore when I see a comment based on what looks like sheer opinion that somehow belittles kendo, I do feel the desire to respond with facts.

The “high-point” of kenjutsu training (if there ever was one) was probably in the mid-late 19th century, when Japan was under internal strife. At that point schools flourished but most subliminated kata training to shinai/armoured training. Nascent armoured sparring of this type has been recorded at least 200 years earlier than that, with example perhaps further in the past. In otherwords, many people (professional warriors for the most part) chose to forgoe fighting unarmoured (with bokuto) simply because there was a better alternative. Record of what Yamaoka refers to above wasn’t common. Looking at both these things, I can’t see how bokuto sparring was a necessity (as you claim). If you somehow have deeper insight, its opposed to the thought and actions of those you are desperatly trying to emulate, and thus is more fantasy than reality. The above Yamaoka Tesshu article is an example in point.

I am sorry you are upset, but, I assure you that I am neither desperately emulating nor fraudulent. If I had nothing of profound substance to offer, my dojo would have closed a long, long time ago because there are more people reading about this stuff than there are actually doing it. I do not do kendo or iaido. The thing about you being the moderator is that you have all of the power to be rude and argumentative, you have a bully pulpit and so you take your shots, still, you may chose to drop that line of thinking, and open yourself to an idea that has been around for a very long time.
Now, about the use of wooden swords.
A common sense reading of Tesshu’s piece on the subject at hand reveals a genuine disparity between what it takes to do armored shobu with shinai as opposed to unarmored shobu with wooden swords. I assure you, these are quite different from one another- I have done both with some very good practitioners- have you?. Tesshu’s thoughts on the subject are clear- and lest you sell them short, anyone insightful enough can see that he was not asserting the need to move away from bogu as you know it. Rather he was indicating quite plainly that what is required of the swordsman is substantially different- and these are not all phisical differences, and thus brought very real insight to the practitioner of the art.
Historically speaking, Tesshu was not alone in this viewpoint; anyone who cares to look can find multiple references to this. Today, most folks like you may feel it poses too much danger or is, perhaps an archaic form of training, lord knows I have heard all of these things from folks who do not approach training in this manner. I see it as no reason to attack me, after all I have my own dojo and I am busy doing my own thing for my own reasons. My comment about what a wooden sword offers should be looked at- and this is because technical aspects you may not see as viable open up, the path of control becomes more rigid and the Way of strategy becomes less ephemeral. Concepts about kamae become unbelievably critical, so much to the point where you can easily find yourself unable to move if faced with a strong practitioner- all of which you may have no concrete point of reference for due to how you train and what it’s for.
I am not saying Kendo is wrong, I just believe deeply that it’s focus is different- this is important because the aspects of kendo and iaido that you are talking about have been leaking into kenjutsu for years and has begun to change those related arts. I can’t be the only one who sees this, its so apparent.
As for fighting with wooden swords in preparation for a real encounter, consider this.
If you knew you would have to use a real sword, what would your preparation for it really be?
Would you do kendo or iaido? Or would you seek insight into what is really involved?
I posit to you- and many may not accept this- that in this difference, we find those elements that have the biggest impact on the self.
Is kendo or iaido as it is done today historically relevant, would these concurrent training practices be one to one relative to early or mid Edo period swordsmen. And did those swordsmen of the past have great skill and personal refinement? Would they be able to win a modern kendo match? Anyone who has read their history knows the answer to this.
My point here is that the use of wooden swords are and remain a valuable tool for those who care to use it. There are only so many ways to block; only so many ways to cut, everything else is methodology. I happen to belive Tesshu was correct in what shobu with wooden swords offers to those who train in that manner. I know from direct personal experience it does.
I dont’s expect to change your view or win your respect, but if you just take the message about the wooden sword and go to your dojo and try to apply it, you might be able to understand what is being said rather than attack me here.

Al Kilgore,

I am far from upset and was not attempting to be rude. I’m sorry if you feel attacked, but I think you’d better look to yourself for that one. I did slightly pause as to whether to allow a controversial figure like yourself post, but only briefly, as I have only moderated a single person (who used very rude/insulting language) since this site started. My mistake was replying to you when I should have left it.

I practise kendo and koryu under extremely experienced teachers here in Japan, I also read and speak the language somewhat. I thus have access to historical primary written information, as well as living breathing carriers of verbal/physical traditions. Although I am not very competent technically, and am nowhere near as mentally experienced as my sempai and sensei, being in this situations means that I have learned to spot a fake a mile away… whether that be in physical execution of techniques/body movement or in dubious verbiage. Personally, I don’t mind people playing around and having a fantasy hobby, but if they start saying its something other than that, well, thats sad. If they start posting on serious websites, however, then thats just a pain.