You aren’t very likely to be attacked by someone wielding a sword today. Or tomorrow for that matter. However for the Samurai in Feudal Japan (1185-1603 ad) this was a very real possibility. The evolution of Aikdo from the secret techniques of Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu used on battlefields to it’s present form retained the martial use of the sword and it’s counterpart the jo staff.
But why? We don’t walk around wearing suits of armor and the daily need for vital strikes are few and far between. The answer is two-fold: 1.) Focus. The proper application of Aikido as a martial art (and it is an effective one) requires complete focus of attention and intention. You aren’t facing life or death in the dojo but if you never train for it, how can you rely upon it in a situation where you are?
So the use of weapons is one way to bring your focus to the point it has to be. Okay he’s going to hit me…wait not with his fist…with a knife…or a sword! See how your focus upon the task at hand increases? Theoretically it should be the same as all of the striking techniques in Aikido: Yokomen uchi; Shomen uchi; and Tsuki derive from weapon strikes with a sword or jo or knife. Hence the first reason we train with weapons in Aikido. Reason 2.) Refinement. Again, since the striking techniques of Aikido derive from weapon strikes, training with weapons helps you refine your open hand practice.
This is the practice of Aikido. Cutting away the rough edges, honing, in the same fashion that a sculptor starts with a block of marble or stone or wood and seeing the shape from the start, chips away what doesn’t belong, what isn’t needed, to arrive at final form.
The Sword. The legendary sword of the Samurai was the katana. A shorter sword, the wakizashi, was typically worn on the opposite side and a long knife or tanto was tucked into one’s waist belt, or obi. By edict, order and custom, only Samurai were permitted to display the katana in public. It was forbidden to the lower and non-military classes of society.
For reasons which should be obvious, Aikido dojos train with wooden swords, or bokken, instead of live blades. In fact until they became proficient in the use of the katana, students training at sword schools used bokken almost exclusively, a practice which continues to this day. There is a modern sword practice called Iaido, a ritualized form of drawing one’s sword from sheath for selected vital strikes and returning it. All with economy of movement. This practice is philosophically aligned with Aikido. In the Japanese Art of Kendo, in which armor is worn, live blades are replaced with bamboo (or more recently, carbon fiber) shinai. The strikes of a Kendo master are potentially lethal irrespective of this.
The Jo. The jo staff is a 4.1 ft (1.276 m) wooden staff. This is a full foot or two shorter than the bo staff used in some Japanese Martial Arts. Its use is native to Japan and continues to be an iconic fixture of some Japanese police forces.
Legend holds that the jo staff was cut for purpose by Musō Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi (夢想 權之助 勝吉, fl. c.1605 -unk.) following inglorious defeat at the hand the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, 1584–1645). The first of their duels is said to have occurred between 1608 and 1611. A record referencing this famous duel, the Nitenki, recounts:
- “When Musashi was in Edo, he met an adept named Musō Gonnosuke, who asked to fight him. Gonnosuke used a wooden sword. Musashi was in the process of making a small bow; he picked up a piece of firewood. Gonnosuke attacked him without even bowing, but he received a blow from Musashi that made him fall down. He was impressed and left.”
Another reference source, the Kaijo Monogatari (dated to 1666) has a differing account of this, casting Gonnosuke as a boastful and brash warrior who duels Musashi intending to see how Musashi compares with Musashi’s father in swordsmanship. Following his defeat, Gonnosuke fashions a staff along the proportions of the jo and returns to fight Musashi to either a draw or a win, representing the only defeat in Musashi’s career, depending upon whom one believes. Properly wielded, the jo staff does have advantages in reach over the sword. It is a martial weapon in every sense of the word.