Weapons – Refining Technique, Forging Spirit

This is the twenty-third in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

W is for Weapons.

At most Aikido schools training with weapons is an integral part of the practice. Much of Aikido comes from working with weapons. We train with weapons to refine our technique, posture, connection, and attention.

In Aikido we use wooden weapons, often referred to simply as “sticks.” Commercially-available ones are usually made of oak or hickory. Some woodworkers offer them in other woods, too. Resilience is important, since we parry and block, making forceful contact with our partners’ sticks. A weapon made of brittle wood or one with flaws in the grain could be very dangerous in practice.

Kinds of weapons:

If you visit many dojo or travel to seminars you will see a lot of types of weapons, including long and short wooden swords, various lengths of staffs, practice knives, and other interesting things. The three most common ones you will see in an Aikido dojo are:

  • The bokken [BOH-ken], which is a striking or bludgeoning instrument, and also used as a stand-in for a sword, so that we may safely practice sword techniques. A bokken is about 40″ long with an oval cross-section, and a slight curve along its length. It has a handle end and a tip end, and also a front and back. In training we treat the front side as if it were a sharp edge of a blade, like a sword. This is so we can practice realistic techniques without getting into sloppy habits like grabbing the blade. That would be a problem with a real sword!
  • The jo [JOE] is a staff – a weapon in its own right – not a wooden version of anything else. It is used primarily for thrusting or striking. A jo is about 50″ long, and is simply a straight, slender, round stick. Basically a very high-quality broom handle.
  • The tanto [TAN-toe] is a wooden practice knife, about 12″ long. Like the bokken, a tanto has a handle end and a blade end, and a front (edge) and back. We also treat it as if it were a sharp, “live” blade.

What we do with weapons.

There are several kinds of practice that feature weapons.

  • Suburi [soo-BURR-ee] are individual techniques, like a single strike or thrust. I think of these as being analogous to words. We practice suburi with the bokken and jo. In the school of weapons we practice at our dojo there are 7 bokken suburi and 20 jo suburi.
  • Kata [KAH-tah] are set sequences of techniques that make up a choreographed solo demonstration. If suburi are like words, then doing a kata would be like reciting a sentence or two.
  • Dori [DOOR-ee] are take-aways. We do these with all three types of weapons. Your partner comes at you with their weapon, and you take it from them, throwing or pinning them in the process. In this context we use a different word for sword, so we say tachi-dori instead of bokken-dori. We also practice jo-dori, and tanto-dori.
  • Nage [NAH-gay] is the same word we saw earlier, under “N.” In this context it means to use your weapon to throw your partner. You have a weapon, your partner tries to take it, but you keep it, and throw them instead. These are called tachi-nage and jo nage.
  • There are also many partner practices where both people have weapons, either the same kind (jo vs. jo) or different (jo vs. bokken).

Training in most Aikido techniques requires a partner. But weapons suburi and kata are excellent for practicing solo, at home or anywhere else you have a safe, large space. This is great if you have a cold or can’t come to the dojo for some reason. At least you can get a little practice in.

Why practice with weapons?

It’s very unlikely the someone would ever attack you with a sword, or a staff. Maybe a knife, but that’s still a long shot. Unless we are just into doing Samurai period historical reenactments, why bother? Good question. Originally I had no interest in messing around with weapons, pretending to be a ninja, swinging fake swords. Blecch. But then a few months into training I got my days mixed up and accidentally found myself in an hour-long weapons class. It wasn’t anything like I’d expected.

Here are a few reasons to include weapons practice in your training:

  • Alignment is critical in all Aikido techniques. Weapons practice helps us work our alignment, both our own body’s posture and positioning, and our orientation relative to our partner.
  • We develop our senses and skills around spacing and timing in all Aikido techniques. For instance, we move in as soon as our partner shows an intention to attack. In weapons partner practices, the correctness of the spacing and timing becomes immediately clear, giving us useful feedback and helping us to continuously improve.
  • Many empty-hand techniques come from weapons techniques. Understanding their derivation can help us practice and refine the empty-hand techniques more effectively.
  • Weapons practice, even more so than regular training, can be a moving meditation. When we are working on our own we can go slowly and deliberately, feeling our way through. We can notice more – how our breath is in sync with the motion, how we settle into a stable stance at the end of a strike, how our energy and intention is forward, directed into our partner’s center, not shrinking back, recoiling. It’s not uncommon to repeat the same suburi (a single, solo technique) over, and over, and over, sometimes hundreds of times, being aware of every detail.
  • Training with weapons can be very challenging, and sometimes scary. Our partner is swinging a heavy stick at our head, and we have to get out of the way! It improves our ability to remain calm and respond appropriately, even when things get difficult.
  • It’s a lot of fun!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through the forging fire, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion.”
~ Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei
The founder of Aikido

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


A sword with a live (sharp) blade is called a shinken. When we are handling one of these 3-foot long razor blades – which is essentially what they are – we need to be alert and totally present. This is not the time to be thinking about your presentation at work tomorrow, or glancing over to see who just walked into the dojo. Being distracted, inattentive, or careless could easily cost us a few fingers, or even get someone killed.

There is a special sense to the attitude we have when working with live blades, right down to a specific way of handing a sword to someone. We need to have our attention fully on what we are doing, always being aware of the blade, and also aware of things around us. This intense, serious focus is also called shinken, after the word for sword. This quality of presence is desirable in all our training, and is especially important when working with weapons, even wooden ones.

In Japan, the word shinken is used for the attitude we should have when dealing with any very serious issue, reflecting the life-or-death nature of the matter. Like so many things in Aikido, we can benefit in our daily life from the lessons from training with weapons. If we are able to stay calm and focused on the mat, we can take that skill out into other conflicts or challenges in our lives.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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