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The History of Aikido Training Weapons

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Hello everyone, my name is Hal. A lifelong sports participant and fan, the spiritual aspects of martial arts have always intrigued me.

Let's look back on three prominent training weapons in Aikido.

Let's look back on three prominent training weapons in Aikido.

Exploring the Weapons Used in Aikido Training

Even though Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883–1969) revolutionized the art of unarmed combat, he still understood the importance of being skilled in weaponry.

In particular, he was extremely gifted with the Jo staff and developed the technique known as Aiki-jo.

Morihiro Saito, one of Ueshiba's most famous students, has further refined the art, and it remains one of the more popular martial arts weapons to study.

Morihei Ueshiba taught that Aikido is a technique that incorporates moves that are more defensive than offensive. In fact, the martial art of Aikido seeks not to injure but to defend against and stop an attacker.

This is the main reason live weapons are rarely used in Aikido. However, there are some advanced Aikido users that choose to go into live weapons training.

Let's take a look at the three basic weapons used in Aikido training: the wooden Tanto, the Jo staff, and the Bokken sword.

Various weapons used in Aikido

Various weapons used in Aikido

The Tanto or Short Sword: Favored by the Samurai

First, let's take a look at the tanto knife a.k.a. short sword.

The tanto is a Japanese short sword or dagger with a blade of varying length, ranging anywhere from 5" to 12", with the traditional length being just under 12" (about 30cm). Blades that were bigger (13" to 14") are known by ko-wakizashi or "small short sword".

The tanto weapon was originally designed with a single-edged blade and a curved shape. The angled grind from the edge to the tip is heavier and stronger than with other blades.

It can be used on soft targets as well as armor, and it was thought to be a favorite weapon of the samurai as it is extremely effective when used in close-quarters fighting.

Samurai carried them as a secondary weapon to be kept on him at all times.

Tanto styles and uses differ by blade shape. The best known are:

  • Hira-zukuri: designed for slashing and piercing as it has a flat, narrow, thick blade
  • Shobu-zukuri: with a blood groove and ridgeline
  • Moroha: the infamous and quite rare double-edged tanto
  • Kissaki-moroha-zukuri: having a very long and sharp point (o-kissaki)
  • Kaikan: short tanto with small guards; favored by women
Wood Training Tanto

Wood Training Tanto

When used on the battlefield, the main advantage of the tanto was its ability to penetrate the armor of an opponent in close-quarters combat. Tantos with long, narrow blades and thick spines were best for this. The point was directed under or up through the armor.

Tantos were traditionally carried in a wide cloth belt (obi) with the edge pointing up and the handle turned to the right to facilitate a quick draw.

In Samurai homes, the tanto was often placed alongside the wakizashi (short sword).

Women in the homes of samurai were taught how to use the tanto to defend themselves or, if violated, to take their own lives.

Making a Wood Tanto

Jo: The Wooden Staff of Japan

Sometimes known as "The Wooden Staff of Japan" the Jo is made of hardwood and is cylindrical or octagonal in shape with a length ranging from about 50" to 56" and a diameter of about 1".

It can be used alone in kata or with other Jo and has historical links with the Japanese sword. Staves are preferred by many martial artists above all other weapons due to their elegance and simplicity.

The Jo is called the four-foot staff or short staff to distinguish it from the long or Bo staff (six-foot stick), and the hanbo or half (three-foot) stick.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, adapted the Jo to teach the principles of Aikido. His use of the Jo is called Aiki-jo. Aiki-jo is like jodo because both involve fencing to a degree.

Jodo techniques are faster and sharper because angular attacks and defenses are used. Aiki-jo techniques are slower and softer using circular movements to blend attacks and defenses to reduce or negate an encounter.

Overall dimensions of the Jo are not terribly critical to techniques, but to practice with a partner, a staff long enough to pass just underneath your armpit when standing is best.

Two Jo sticks of different thickness

Two Jo sticks of different thickness

Some History of the Jo Staff

Divine Insight Leads to the Jo Staff

The beginnings of the Jo staff are of both noble heritage and divine inspiration.

Use of the Jo began sometime between 1608 and 1611 when Samurai Muso Gonnosuke suffered his first and only defeat at the hands of Japan's greatest swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.

Muso used his favorite weapon: the six-foot Bo staff. Musashi, using both a long and a short sword, blocked and parried the staff in such a way that Muso could not use the Bo effectively.

Miyamoto spared Muso's life and Muso retreated to the mountains to meditate on his defeat.

As we will soon see, this drama was not yet entirely played out.

Musashi Miyamoto with two Bokken (wooden quarterstaves)

Musashi Miyamoto with two Bokken (wooden quarterstaves)

Samurai Gonnosuke Gets a Rematch With Miyamoto Musashi

During Muso's search for a new weapon to use in a possible rematch, he was inspired by a dream. As a result of this inspiration, he designed a staff that was shorter and thinner than any others being used at the time.

The new weapon, the Jo staff, was designed to be much faster and would allow Gonnosuke to get a lot closer to his opponent.

The shorter Jo was the edge Gonnosuke needed when the two fought again.

Having defeated the master swordsman, Gonnosuke returned the favor and spared Miyamoto Musashi's life, becoming the only man ever to best the most honored of all Japanese swordsmen.

Bokken Sword and Scabbard

Bokken Sword and Scabbard

The Bokken Sword: The Path to Katana Mastery

A bokken (bok/wood and ken/ sword), is an inexpensive Japanese wooden sword used as a safe substitute for a real sword in several martial arts training classes such as kendo, aikido, and kenjutsu.

It is usually shaped like a katana, but sometimes like other swords, such as the wakizashi and tanto.

Bokken is synonymous with bokuto in Japan, but bokken is more widely used in the west.

Historically, bokkens have been around as long as Japanese swords and were mainly used for the training of warriors and samurai. In Japan, the sword and its artistry go back before the times of written history.

Swords began to be shorter with a curve in addition to the longer, two-handed hilt. As Japanese warfare turned to the use of cavalry, these types of swords were better suited for slashing from atop a horse.

In early history, Japanese swords were copied from the Chinese but as Japanese arts changed, their swords did as well. The Chinese swords were long and straight, used more for thrusting into an opponent.

You'll find quite a few Japanese legends that tell of warriors for one particular reason or another utilizing the bokken against a steel blade-carrying opponent.

There are just as many legends of those exact same warriors beating their opponents.

Occasionally these types of victories were simply because of the talent of the warrior using the bokken, other occasions it was due to the fragility of the katana.

Making a Bokken Sword

The bokken is created from a single piece of wood whereas the katana has its edge connected to the handle by two metal pins.

Throughout a fight, there can be tremendous strain placed on any part of the katana and the blades or pins can split, the pins may well suffer rust even while using the best of care. The bokken was made of wood, which at times may rot.

Japan is an island and the effects of dampness might reach any sword, armor or other types of weapon and lay unseen right until the crucial moment of a battle. Any damage to the wood of the bokken, on the other hand, could be seen and attended to.

The price of a bokken will normally range from $40–70. Although a bit pricey to some, keep in mind that if the average bokken is taken care of properly, it is good for several years of use.

Aikido News and Views

  • The Aikikai Foundation
    The Aikikai Foundation, officially recognized by the Japanese government in 1940, was founded in order to preserve and promote the ideals of the true Aikido created by Morihei Ueshiba.
  • United States Aikido Federation
    The United States Aikido Federation (USAF) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to spreading and maintaining the Japanese martial art of Aikido as created and exemplified by its founder, Morihei Ueshiba.
  • California Aikido Association
    The Aikido of Northern California Yudansha Kai was organized in 1974 by black belt holders dedicated to the task of exploring the path shown by Master Ueshiba, and to teaching Aikido philosophy.

Martial Arts Poll

Is a Tanto knife, Jo stick or Nunchucks for close quarter combat your style? Or perhaps you like the tactical advantage of a Bow and Arrow. Maybe Shurikens around looks cool to you. Sound off on your martial arts favorite weapon, and if it's not listed, please leave a comment.

Nunchucks, Sai and Jo Staff

Nunchucks, Sai and Jo Staff

© 2010 Hal Gall

Reader Comments - Tell Me What You Think

WriterJanis2 on January 26, 2013:

How much talent and work one must have to master such an art.

Darcie French from Abbotsford, BC on January 12, 2013:

9 year old daughter just started Sun Hang Do - eventually she'll learn to use martial arts weapons

Takkhis on January 10, 2013:

I am big fan of martial art.

anonymous on January 09, 2013:

Nice ways to fight for Peace! :)

LaurenIM on December 12, 2012:

I trained with these things but I learned a lot from your description of the tanto especially. One of mine was gifted to me by a guy who just whittled one for me so it wouldn't really fit into the "real" tanto specs though.

KandDMarketing on December 06, 2012:

Another great lens! Thank you.

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on December 06, 2012:

We live on dangerous times. I hope I'll never need one of these;)

mrducksmrnot on November 27, 2012:

Very well done from a retired Vet trained in Aikido. The Tanto knife is the military weapon of choice for SF(Special Forces) and the art of Aikido is well stated in your lens. One must understand the art of Aikido uses the force of the opponent against him/herself and usually involves tendons being torn if the need arises. This from a retired Navy Special Forces UDT which was later called SEALS at the end of the Viet-Nam War. As with any martial art - self discipline is taught first and foremost otherwise you have lost your battle with your opponent before it begins. Well written and well documented info not to be taken lightly. Shalom

kopox on October 31, 2012:

cool knife

Hal Gall (author) from Bloomington, IN on January 18, 2012:

@gbrettmiller: So true, thanks for stopping by.

gbrettmiller on January 30, 2011:

Aikido may be the way of peace, but even here weapons can play an important part in success. Another great Aikido lens.