With translation assistance from Jun Akiyama
About Japanese sword training
During the feudal ages in Japan, the sword was considered to be the life-line of the Japanese warrior. A samurai often found himself on the cusp between life and death, and it was his skill with the sword that determined which path he would take.
In order to trust himself in such precarious situations, a warrior strove daily to master the sword and to hone his skills of inner discipline and concentration. Only through diligent and rigorous training day and night, was a samurai able to develop the confidence and abilities necessary to become undefeatable.
Of all of the kinds of sword training a warrior undertook, the most common involved regular practice with a wooden sword -- the bokken. Because this practice included training in a very realistic, combative manner, with the bokken serving as a substitute for a live blade, injuries were common and frequent, even within the safer confines of a dojo.
As the swordsman progressed from the practice of set forms, kata, to severe and realistic practice, he could often suffer bruises, broken bones, crippling injuries, and even death. Due to these dangerous training situations, even an experienced warrior could, in a single instant of broken concentration, suffer an injury so great as to prevent him from ever using a sword again. We might wonder about the scores of potentially great swordsmen whose careers were cut short and whose names have disappeared from history. Yet, at the same time, we can appreciate the greatness of those who survived this harsh environment intact and who possessed the skills and abilities necessary to survive. These were the men who would leave their names for future generations to remember.
Even as Japan made the transition from the bloody feudal ages into the era of the Great Peace in the 1600's, this type of combat preparation continued. Although the nation eventually was unified, swordsmanship was still considered important, as one's skill with the sword reflected upon many other virtues of the Japanese warrior.
Eventually, with peace came a shift in the manner of training in the dojo. Swordsmen, using either bokken or katana, would imagine a particular combative situation and would devise appropriate responses. These attacks and responses, which practitioners repeated over and over in the dojo, became the kata practice of the koryu arts (ancient arts) today. Through repetitive training, the forms became assimilated into the practitioner's body and had the potential to become applicable in real-life combative situations. Yet training also involved freestyle (randori) practice, inevitable for further improvement in skill. Hence, injuries were still quite prevalent.
Introduction of the shinai
Within the great number of existing Japanese styles of swordsmanship, the first ryu to modify its manner of practice and utilize flexible, split bamboo as a training tool, was the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu School of swordsmanship.
The founder of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu was Yagyu Sekishusai Muneyoshi. At the age of 68, he was invited to a samurai's estate in Takagamine in Kyoto by the shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa. Waiting at the house was Tokugawa himself, who attacked Yagyu with a bokken. Yagyu empty-handedly disarmed the shogun without harming him.
Thus convinced of Yagyu's skills, Tokugawa gave Yagyu the mandate to become the tactical advisor to the Tokugawa clan. Those in the Yagyu lineage served the Tokugawa clan for 300 years as advisors to the shogun.
The shinai used in Yagyu Ryu was known as "fukurojinai". Fukuro means "a case" or "a sack", and "jinai" - or "shinai" - means "bamboo sword". The fukurojinai consisted of a sword-length piece of bamboo, the upper third of which was split into eighths, which was covered in a casing of deer hide, the only leather available at that time, since bovine species were not native to Japan. These fukurojinai were used in both kata practice and in freestyle sparring, and unlike bokken, the more flexible shinai allowed practitioners to train with intensity and speed, free of concern of debilitating injuries. All practitioners, especially the younger, less experienced ones, benefited by incurring fewer injuries and therefore substantially prolonging their training years. This allowed a greater number of aspiring swordsmen to develop their talents, and it ultimately increased the number of accomplished and gifted practitioners and teachers.
The Yagyu Shinkage Ryu continues to be practiced today as a kobudo through its kata practice, and the fukurojinai is a mainstay of the training. As in the past, the fukurojinai are still made of bamboo encased in deer hide, which is stained red and coated with lacquer to harden the hide slightly. The bamboo placed within the casing is split into eighths at the top to provide flexibility. Of all the varieties of bamboo that are found in Japan, the one used for shinai is the one known as madake. Depending on the maturity of the plant, bamboo can be harvested to produce varying diameters of shinai, thus providing a choice of grip sizes. However, the madake bamboo canes are relatively thin and their longevity as a shinai varies.
The shinai in aikido
The first person to introduce the use of fukurojinai into aikido was the aikido shihan, Mitsugi Saotome. In 1977 in Sarasota, Florida, Saotome sensei, who had studied Yagyu Shinkage Ryu during his time as uchi deshi with the Founder, began using these fukurojinai within kumitachi (paired sword exercises) and tachidori (sword takeaway techniques) practices. The use of the fukurojinai has since then been seen as an effective aid in aikido training and now can be witnessed in use in many parts of America as well as in Europe today.
Bu Jin Design Shinai
Bu Jin Design began producing fukurojinai in 1978 but changed the use of traditional deer hide to cowhide suede, and made them available in four colors - black, rust, chocolate, and navy. Since cowhide is thicker than deer hide, the outer casing is more durable and does not require lacquer (or varnish or polyurethane) to strengthen it, although some individuals may choose to apply it. The bamboo has also been changed from the Japanese madake to Calcutta bamboo, imported from India. Calcutta bamboo, prized for its strength and flexibility, has walls that are three to four times thicker than the madake bamboo and can withstand vigorous strikes. These shinai may be ordered through the Bu Jin Design catalog.
For more information about shinai, visit the Shinai FAQ.