Densho: The Importance of Note-Taking

The word “densho” is a common one which many who are involved in older Japanese martial systems are familiar with. It has a special place in many people’s minds to be a treasure of secret knowledge of how to do amazing techniques and invoke mystic powers. Did you know that you too can have your own special densho? It’s possible, as long as you bring a pen and notebook to class.


The word densho (伝書) means “a document of transmission” in Japanese. As the name implies, these are documentations that contain information pertaining to a martial system. These were written on different mediums, like orihon (折り本, folding book), makimono (巻物, scroll), tojihon (綴じ本, binding book), etc., depending on the time period. Densho is not only limited to martial arts, other fields used this form of transmission as well.

There are different grades of densho. They can come in the form of listing (目録, mokuroku), varying levels of grading such as shoden (初伝) and chūden (中伝), licensing (免状, menjō), mastery (皆伝, kaiden), and inheritance (継承, keishō). Those that represent inheritance are generally designated to one or few people, as it contains more important yet private information, which generally wasn’t shown to anyone else. Those that inherit a martial system as a new successor have to maintain their particular tradition, and not only have the right to add content to it that they see fit, but can also edit and change original content. This is expected by successors to take the time and update the knowledge every generation if they want the system to stay relevant in each generation.


Online presentation of sections from a densho of Muhen Mukyoku ryū (無邊無極流). From Bujutsushi Ryōshūi.


Contents of a densho can range from philosophy of said system, to technique names (plus descriptions, if required), lineage list, poems, deeper instructions, invocations, and so on. Reviewing public densho shows that this is a tradition many martial schools practiced for many generations. The same can be said for this generation as well. The difference is that while in the past generations secrecy was of utmost importance for many martial schools, much of the contents are shared between just about anyone nowadays, especially with the openness and ease of access the internet provides.


A student should take notes of what they are learning each day they go to train in their respective martial arts style. There are several points that are important for this. For starters, taking notes help promote active learning, since it will engage you to analyze what you have physically learned. Note-taking also helps to prevent forgetting the lessons you are learning. Along with this, one should review and ensure their notes are correct, especially through clarification with their teacher.

If you stick with a particular school or style for several years and train diligently, you’ll eventually learn much of the necessary contents. Through note-taking, you’ll be able to maintain your own “densho” of that particular style, as you jot down the basics necessary for structural development, forms, techniques, philosophy, and so on. If a person puts confidence into their training, and are serious about the martial system they are learning, this will be illustrated in the notes they take. Thus, their “densho” can compare to that which is a few hundred years old…at least in terms of practical use.


While it’s possible to make your personal notes just as valuable as many have done generations ago, it still will not outweigh the ones that are in the possession of a headmaster who oversees a martial system. The reason is because theirs represent the tradition that is in their hands to maintain. Along with that, there are contents of said martial system that are not, and should not be, made knowledgeable to just anyone, even to their own students. The exception to this are those who will be selected as the next successor, or possibly to those who will inherit the system themselves. This is nothing new, and has been common practice for hundreds of years. Not knowing these contents are fine, as there is a lot of weight to bear for those individuals given such responsibility.

Two piles of notepads and other random pieces of papers I used for note-taking for most of my martial arts career (2 left pics). They’ve accumulated over the years. To reduce paper waste I’ve resorted to using a digital notepad on my smartphone, which helps in keeping neater and organized notes (right pic). Someday I’ll find time to sit down and compile them into actual books personal to me that I can treasure.


Another thing worth mentioning is it is not necessary to write every single aspect of the art we study down. Other than information that represents the identity of the martial style one is studying, such as poems and stories of the originator of said style, it is seen as near impossible. One reason is that if one is active in their training, then notes are supposed to literally be just notes; your notes are to be an outline and a reminder of key elements of the art we study, but the full art should be ingrained in our bodies. For example, a quick look at our notes should be to remember the specific sequence of a form, or the name of a technique, which after briefly looked upon, we should be able to perform or explain near flawlessly. Notes cannot capture the entire feeling of a movement, or the intention for making slight adjustments in our techniques. If anything, it is important to understand the philosophy and principles behind the techniques of what we are learning, and retain those in our notes. This is how a densho can be made and retained. That way, a student won’t be taught to move in a mechanical fashion, or demonstrate techniques only in limited context.


Densho is a means to pass down a martial system, which has been used for hundreds of years. It is an ageless method, and is used by martial arts schools in Japan today. By understanding its meaning, this is something that many students all over the world also do when they take down notes. Treasure your notes as something valuable, and in turn it’ll be a true densho with contents that can be passed down to future generations.

Nisshin Geppo in Martial Arts

There are many benefits in studying martial arts. While each individual has their own reasons for pursuing martial arts, everyone can gain in different ways if done long enough. In kobudō (Classical Japanese martial arts), which my group studies, we take part in many sessions of repeated drills, going through kata geiko, and engaging conditioning. The reason for this is to develop a mentality of “nisshin geppo”, an idiom of old in Japan that is still used with the advancement of society¹, which hints to how we can utilize what we are learning to benefit in the long run.

The phrase nisshin geppo is written with the characters as “日進月歩”, which translates as “steady progress, rapid advance”. In simpler terms, this phrase also stands for “self-improvement”, and how it’s written describes how we can do so. Self-improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but is something that we have to work towards on a daily basis. Each day we can get better at the tasks at hand or the activities we are involved in as long as we put time & effort in it. Consistency is the key here, for if we develop a regular routine, in time we can see growth in ourselves. Even if it’s not every day, a few times a week is also fine, just so long as there aren’t too many breaks in between.



Writing of the word “nisshin geppo”

As an example, having long practice sessions in a curriculum is standard for kobudō. This, along with reviewing & challenging what we are learning, keeps us from becoming complacent and thinking that we are already “good”. We have to consider that there will always be plenty of areas for growth, and prepare to adapt to the unexpected. Such as when we are sick or tired, when walking on wet surfaces due to rain or snow, after eating, growing older, and so on. A martial artist being in a constant state of 100% is not possible, which is why one should be ready to accept that training can be a lifetime activity of continuous work. This is an interpretation of nisshin geppo. On a positive side, possessing such an outlook will keep an individual in top shape and help develop a high level of skill.

Outside of combat, martial arts can be used for self-improvement as a human being. From a least noticeable perspective, some skill sets are multi-purpose, which make them beneficial even in our normal daily lives. For example, in our Chikushin group we have a special exercise called “Ukimi no Ho”, which entails training in different methods of stepping. While it’s prime purpose is to develop better footwork when performing techniques both empty-handed and while utilizing a weapon, its overall benefits extend to improving our natural habits for walking as it can be applied at any time during our daily routines. Another example is “ukemigata”, the method of performing breakfalls. Greatly seen by does who practice grappling systems such as jūdō and aikidō, ukemigata is necessary for avoiding damage from otherwise dangerous throws. Outside of the dojo, ukemigata can help to develop a natural ability to avoid serious injuries in unexpected scenarios, such as slipping while walking on an icy sidewalk, or catching oneself if tripping over computer wires while at work.

By understanding the meaning behind the idiom nisshin geppo, it is easy to understand that the notion of self-improvement exists in many fields of activities. Those dedicated in kobudō also have the means to strive for constant betterment in themselves through training. For the martial artist who has patience and desire for this, then walking this path is not at all difficult.

1) While my wife (who is a native of Japan) and I discussed the word nisshin geppo and its roots being that of personal growth for people and the activities they engage in, she also pointed out that nowadays this word can be seen used widely in relations to the advancement of technology in Japan.

Training A Healthy Life: Body Maintenance

In today’s society, martial arts is considered a good way for developing a strong, healthy body. This is true, especially those that can be participated in by elders. Outside of the combat elements, however, there are several routines related to martial arts that are essential for taking care of the body. On their own, these routines can support and promote a long, healthy life. Coined as “body maintenance”, below is an explanation of several components of this, as well as tips from my own experience.


A form of body maintenance is stretching, which is a basic routine essential for almost all types of martial arts. Called jūnan taisō¹ in Japanese, oftentimes this is reserved for the begnning of a traning session, where one stretches the arms, legs, waist, and so on in order to increase the flexibility in one’s muscles, and tendons. Stretching is vital as it not only allows a person to perform punches, kicks, and body movements required in given martial system, but can prevent serious injuries from certain joint and body strains or sudden falls one may get if their body isn’t supple enough.

Picture on the left, reaching both hands behind our backs, while in the picture on the right, front leg lifts.

In order to maximize one’s ability to stretch, there are other important segments to remember. One of these is loosening the joints up before doing deep, long stretches. This can be done by rotating one’s arms, swinging one’s legs, rotating the hips, and so on. Loosening one’s joints should be done with control and care, especially for beginners; excessive and/or overpowered limb and joint manipulation could lead to strains, tears, or severe joint injuries.


Another routine for body maintenace is body massages. In some martial systems great emphasis is placed on this, as massages can loosen and relax muscles, and promote good blood flow. Massages can warm up the muscles to prevent injuries during active times while training, such as muscle pulls. This is also true in sports. In my group, several basic massaging routines used include those that can be self-applied. This includes simply rubbing and pressing the muscles on the calves, forearms, sides, feet, and back.

Various ways to increase flexibility in the wrists

A unique way to actively massage the body is through light body strikes. Just like a regular massage, a practicioner can self-apply this all over the body using different parts of the hand, such as the palm or sides. While this gives you similar results to regular massages, light body strikes also works as conditioning for the body, for the impact toughens the skin and gets one’s body used to the striking sensation. One must also be careful to do this moderately and to one’s capacity, for striking too intensely can cause unforeseen damage.


Body maintenance should not only be performed in class, but outside during one’s daily routines as well. Actually, it cannot be stressed enough about the necessity of doing this on a daily basis. For example, I personally did stretching up to 3 times a day while growing up, and this was outside of training. I would stretch once in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and once at night, preferably before going to bed. This routine has benefited me greatly over the years health-wise, as well as avoiding long term injuries. Of course, there are some guidelines to keep in mind:

Examples of ground stretches for the legs and body.

① Never stretch immediately upon waking up. Walk around abit and warm up the muscles & joints before beginning stretching.

② Do not stretch immediately after eating. For the afternoon, stretch before eating lunch, or save it for early evening after eating lunch.

③ If going to bed immediately after stretching, then stretch lightly and less vigorously. Stretching stimulates the blood and can wake up the body.

While stretching is a must before training, stretching after a training session is also important. After training sessions is good for loosening tight, fatique muscles, and improving blood flow. It should not be as vigorous as the before-training stretch, nor as long.


Body maintenance is an important, non-combative element in martial arts. It should be performed as much as the combative elements. Body maintenance can be achieved almost anywhere and anytime. For a martial artist, body maintenance not only can keep us healthy, but allow us to keep training in our techniques even when we get old, if done correctly.

1) 柔軟体操. Along with stretching, jūnan taisō also refers to movements and motor skills found in calisthenics.

Benefits of Overcoming Difficult Things

In classical Japanese martial arts, just about everyone runs into techniques, routines, or concepts that are difficult to handle. Like a very high wall, these may seem near impossible to overcome, whether it means adapting this particular thing into one’s repertoire or working on it for long periods until it becomes something natural to do. In some cases the difficulty is due to a lack of physical strength or coordination, while in others it’s a mental block. Then there are those cases where our lack of interest causes us not to proceed forward with that particular area of training. However, with a bit of drive, we can overcome such difficult things, as well as gain an overall benefit in our journey of learning the martial arts.

Examples of flexible weapons. Top left is a kusari fundō, bottom left is a kyoketsu shoge, while on the right are a kusarigama and ōgama. All are handmade training weapons which are light, fairly soft materials with no sharp parts.

A case that sticks out particularly in my own experience is the difficulty of using flexible weapons. In my younger days, I made a point to be as proficient as I could with all that was taught to me at my previous dojo. Yet, I was more inclined to not further my studies on such martial tools like the kusari fundō (鎖分銅, chain with weights on opposite ends), hayanawa (早縄, fast-tie ropes for restraining), and kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain with a sickle and weight on either ends). These types of weapons are much more difficult to use than non-flexible ones, and require more personal training time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn how to use them, it’s just that I saw no real value in doing so; other than twirling them, I couldn’t grasp any practical applications with them. Exaggerated images of using flexible weapons for lassoing was one of the dominant reasons for my personal mental block. Despite getting training in them, my notes and experience on flexible weapons were often pushed to the side to collect dust.

Many years later, I began doing research on the style of kusari fundō used in the martial system I was studying at the time. I also explored similar weapons studied in different martial arts schools and observed how these flexible tools were being used. Little by little I began to realize that my understanding of flexible weapons were flawed and misinformed. To correct this I continued with my research, sought out advice, and began retraining outside of my normal training regiment for several years. Focus on structured handling, and practical applications of flexible weapons based on classical teachings has given me a new outlook.

Pics from a past training session with a fellow buyu (武友, martial arts buddy). Working with a kyoketsu shoge (距跋渉毛), a unique tool that consists of a knife with a hook on the side connected to a rope with a metal ring on the other end. For training purposes, a handmade “safe version” is used. Also, instead of a rope, a plastic chain is used for strength building purposes.

For example, the use of kamae (構え, one’s posture based on the given moment) is critical in understanding where each part of a flexible weapon is at all times, which is an important fundamental that extends to every weapon one studies in classical Japanese martial arts. The image of mindlessly swinging them has also been eliminated from my mind, for I’ve learned that doing so is actually not the core principle for using flexible weapon, but something that serves several purposes, such as improving one’s control through furigata (振り型, practice of swinging flexible weapons in specific directions and under specific conditions) . While it was a difficult endeavor to make these adjustments, my motivation was reinvigorated, and I was driven to put great amounts of energy into the training of flexible weapons and learning them correctly.

Although my journey is far from over, I have grown as a person and am in a better place with handling flexible weapons I originally could not understand. Everyone encounters difficult things in activities they engage in, especially classical Japanese martial arts. My advice is to hang in there, seek help, and work even harder to overcome them. In time, you will notice results, one step at a time, and be more inclined to tackle any obstacles that may come your way.

Foundation and Context

Recently, I had a discussion with a good training buddy of mine about how training can be conducted during one’s class. While we hit on many topics, one interesting point that came up was being productive in one’s training while studying techniques. For traditional Japanese martial arts, there are stories about students (usually those that are new) working on only one technique for the duration of a class. While there is much practicality in this in terms of building one’s foundation in a certain area, this is not a practice to embrace all the time, especially in today’s fast-paced society where martial arts classes only meet but a few times a week for around 2 hours. When working on technique, contextual training is necessary along with foundational conditioning. Both can be incorporated together to ensure a balanced learning experience, while adjusting according which one to focus on more based on a student’s level.

As an example, let’s look at a technique called “Jōdan Uke¹”, which is a basic blocking method in Taijutsu². Jōdan Uke is something new students will learn early in their martial arts career, as it is pretty basic and simple to mimic. However, what appears simple in appearance can be difficult in application without proper training. In the beginning, physical structure is an important point and one that needs to be focused on for a long time. Simply going through the motion of transitioning from shizentai³ into Jōdan Uke, then back into shizentai is effective, and can be a good way to train mental and spiritual endurance (during and outside of class). However, this may not prove to be the best way to understand Jōdan Uke if this is all that is done, especially in a 2-hour session. In a class setting where Jōdan Uke is the focus, let’s look at a method where both foundational conditioning and contextual training are combined for a balanced training session.

Demonstration of Jōdan Uke against a strike.

After class begins, with stretching, warm ups, and other formalities completed, students spread out to work on drilling Jōdan Uke. Working both left side and right side, they spend around 15 minutes going through the motion as a group under the teacher’s guidance. Next, they pair up with one another and again drill Jōdan Uke against a straight punch. This gives them a stimulus where they can learn how to not only execute it correctly with proper body form, but see their errors as well as understand where this technique fails if not done properly. This can be worked on with a similar time duration. The following exercise can then be worked on in the form of uke–tori⁴ practice, where one person (uke) executes a series of pre-set punch attacks (starting off, 2-3), while the other person (tori) works on defending against these with preset movements, with Jōdan Uke being one of those movements. The purpose of this exercise is to have the one using Jōdan Uke continue to learn how it works in order to overcome their opponent. If kept short (5-10 minutes) and time permits, several uke-tori practice drills can be used for the remainder of the training session, with the next using a different scenario that teaches how to apply Jōdan Uke (i.e. against a shirt grab, against a kick-punch sequence, etc.). To note, since the premise of this training is for beginners or newer students, it’s best that only defensive applications of Jōdan Uke are worked on, to ensure proper foundation building.

This is an interpretation of how one can apply a balance between foundational conditioning and contextual training. There is no official way to go about this, but one must achieve a correct approach that is productive in the long run, as well as effective.

1) 上段受け. Simple translation would be “high-block”.

2) 体術. Taijutsu is an older term for hand-to-hand combat, and is still used today by some traditional martial arts groups in Japan.

3) 自然体. Means to stand in a normal posture where you are neither on the offense or defense. Usually, one’s hands are to are sides.

4) 受捕. This is a joint word referring to training where one person take the role as the attacker and lose (uke), while the other takes the role as the defender and win (tori).

Reihō and Sahō in Traditional Martial Arts

Within the traditional martial arts of Japan are customary practices called reihō¹ and sahō². They both have strong cultural ties, and play an essential role both in and out of martial training. When traditional martial arts were introduced to western countries, such as the United States, some individuals made efforts to retain both reihō and sahō. However, not everyone sees the significance in them, and may even feel that these 2 practices can be excluded. For this post, I will discuss about the importance of reihō and sahō, from their roles on a cultural aspect to the lessons that lay hidden in them.


Let’s first look at the practice of reihō, which has the dictionary meaning of “etiquette” or “manners”. It’s function is a bit deeper than these definitions, though. An integral part of Japan’s history, the idea of reihō is practiced daily within the culture of Japan as showing respect to people, objects, customs, and so on. It is like a code of conduct, an unwritten behavior of sorts that has evolved over time. For martial arts, reihō is simply showing respect to one’s teacher, training partners, the weapons & equipment one uses, as well as to the art itself. While a customary practice, for those who aren’t native to Japan generally have to be taught reihō³.

A misconception of reihō is that it is ritualistic, or religious by nature. Actually this is not the case. Reihō is very simple in presentation and has reason behind its existence. There are few exceptions where certain groups and schools (i.e. Ogasawara ryu, Imagawa ryu, and Ise ryu) have “ritualized” their reihō, especially during the peaceful times of Edo period. Focusing on a visually appealing presentation, very structured rules and procedures are used within their formalized reihō, which can be seen in practices such as rope tying for both armor and packaging, flower arrangement, and style of clothing worn for martial events. While they may have been influential in certain aspects, what these groups do is not considered the norm.

The 3 pics above show the reiho used during kenjutsu training in Chikushin Martial and Cultural Training Group. Click on each pic for further descriptions.

Bowing one’s head is the obvious indication of reihō. For martial arts there are a few that can be considered standard, or commonly see. Some of these are the following:

  • Shizen rei (自然礼) = Standing bow, to peers, teacher, etc.
  • Shinzen rei (神前礼) = Bow to the kamidana (small shrine in a dojo), in respect to the art and forefathers
  • Shi rei (師礼) = Bow to teacher before, and after, training

Keep in mind that the types of reihō practiced depends on a martial school’s history, customs, what type of martial system it specializes in, and so forth.

Other than showing respect, reihō can serve some unique purposes not often considered. One is it helps to develop habits of “staying human” during training. What does “staying human” mean? In an activity where one learns techniques that can potentially hurt another, reihō acts like a reminder to be gentle with training partners during practice, and be thankful that they entrust his/her safety in your hands. This can be seen when two individuals bow before engaging in kata geiko, as well as the bow afterwards. It is here where reihō can help us to stay human, and put aside our ego. Without it, training could resemble that of a fight club, where participants engage just to be only strong and unbeatable, while disregarding the safety of those who they train with.

Another aspect of reihō is it contains some tactical applications both for physical purposes, as well as psychological. It varies between martial schools, and is applied accordingly based on the school’s philosophy. For example, reihō can teach the concept to gesture respect to others, which in turn you can gain trust, friendship, and possibly gain access to much needed information. On the other hand, reihō can encourage to develop awareness about people around you, especially in unfamiliar places, and read people’s temperament.


Sahō is a practice that, much like reihō, has deep roots in Japanese culture. Dictionary terms tend to be the same as reihō (manners and etiquette), but actually goes beyond stated definitions. Sahō deals with preparation and customary actions, which can be as grand as ceremonial event to something as small as one’s everyday routine. The sahō of Chadō⁴ (tea ceremony), for example, is a great representation of the effort & attention to detail that is incorporated into presenting an elegant and engaging experience for those who appreciate tea.

Historically, sahō plays an important role in the nation of Japan rich with an intricate tradition. Its influence can be found in how rooms were prepared with specific decor for special events, how particular outfits were worn daily to work, and so on. As one would expect, sahō not only helps keep order and consistency in certain engagements & routines, but makes record keeping of what is required easy.


The sahō for many traditions have been recorded during peaceful times in Japan. For example, this dated manual called “Tokokazari Un’ō no Maki” (床飾蘊奥の巻) depicts detailed instructions for servants/employees on how to set up a room for specific celebrations and events.

In Japanese martial arts, there are different aspects of sahō. On the lowest level, sahō is simply wearing one’s keikogi for training. On a more visually profound level, we see sahō during the start of certain training exercises, as well as while working on specific kata. This can vary numerous ways, from the specific way one walks to initiate a training exercise, 2 practitioners bow to each other, to even how a particular weapon is prepped for use.

Here is an example of sahō that is used in my martial arts group, Chikushin Martial & Cultural Training Group. During kenjutsu training we utilize what is called “Issoku Ittō no Maai⁵”. This entails 2 people standing a few feet away from each other while holding their bokutō (wooden sword) on their right side as if a real sheathed sword. Passing it to their left hand, both draw their bokutō out (as like a katana from its sheath), stand in a posture called Seigan, and walk forward. They meet the tips of their bokutō together before stepping back and assuming the designated posture. While it can appear ceremonial at times, one of the purposes of Issoku Ittō no Maai is to help learn proper cutting range with a katana.


This pic shows a small part of a unique sahō used for a bo versus katana sequence where both practitioners place their weapons on the ground in a specific formation, followed by a za rei (kneeling bow). Such is done for public demonstrations and events.

Possibly the most common place to see a martial school’s sahō is during public demonstrations. For these demonstrations, generally called an enbu⁶, sahō that is presented may seem very ritualistic. For example, a practitioner is preparing for a solo kata which includes a sheathed katana, he/she may appear mentally focused and serious as the katana is gestured during bowing or the like, as if in a zen-like state, before inserted into the obi. Or when 2 practitioners that have finished a sequence in a paired kata may do movements that appear slow and exaggerated, with pauses that make their presentation seem not-so-combative. There are reasons behind all this.

For the most part, sahō during a public demonstration is all for the sake of presentation, to convey to spectators the type of spirit one must develop. Studying traditional martial arts isn’t only about developing a strong, physical body; refining one’s spirit and fortifying one’s mental endurance are just as important, and sahō helps to support this. Another reason can be to indicate where certain techniques are strong and are an actual strike. Take note that while having spectators being able to understand and follow demonstrations is important, this does not mean that sahō should reveal specific details about a particular martial style and its techniques, for certain information, such as strategic timing, are held back and made accessible for those training in that style.


In essence, there are many positive aspects of doing both reihō and sahō. Other than preserving this Japanese tradition, there are lessons that can be useful both in and out of one’s dojo. Those that pursue studying traditional martial arts generally get a chance to learn about these practices at schools that choose to follow this custom. Both reihō and sahō are also preserved in my martial arts group, and incorporated in each training sessions.

1) 礼法

2) 作法

3) Surprisingly, reihō is not a big part within many families’ household in Japan’s current society compared to a few hundred years ago. Although the idea of respect and manners are expressed in many service-related, business-related, and educational-related mediums, one would be surprised how it doesn’t rub off on every individual as a whole. Spending time living amongst the locales, as well as reading current topics on news sites and blogs, gives one the chance to see and understand these changes.

4) 茶道

5) 一足一刀の間合

6) 演舞

Discerning Measurements for Training Weapons

Great care is necessary when studying weapons in martial arts. In the beginning, there are specific forms or drills one must go through in order to understand the characteristics of the weapon that is connected to the ryuha¹, or style of martial system, one is training in. One of the challenging points to ensure correct study is obtaining a training weapon proportional to your body type. For this post, we will look at how the characteristics of weapons (i.e. measurements, material, etc.) are preserved by traditional schools and the hurdles that come with this, the ups & downs of dealing with manufactures that follow the “one size fits all” model, and how one should go about to training with weapons that match us properly.


A good martial arts school will ensure that new students obtain a training weapon suitable for them, whether they are buying it or not. For Japanese traditional martial systems this is commonplace. For example, there are numerous types of systems for kenjutsu² (sword techniques), each with their own unique philosophies. Some may specialize a slightly shorter blade length that requires ashisabaki³ (evasive movements with the feet), or a much longer blade where maai⁴ (distance) and chōshi⁵ (timing) are key components. Others may utilize a nitōryū⁶ (2-sword style) system, where two swords that are wielded in each hand are a different size from each other. At any rate, when wielding a sword that does not fit your school’s criteria, unforeseen adjustments will be made, which will prevent a new student from grasping the principles of the particular kenjutsu being studied.

Example of training kusari fundo I’ve made over the years. Each can have a variation in length, weight, size of the weighted ends, etc.

During my years as an assistant instructor at my previous dojo, I was adamant regarding using training weapons that were proportional with those who attended my class. In one case, the monthly theme was a weighted chain called kusari fundo⁷. We used rope versions for safe training. Since I was already making these rope versions for my own training, I did so for those who attended my class to ensure they learned correctly. I had to measure each student’s arm length so to have their rope kusari fundo tailor-made to them.

There is an interesting story⁸ that deals with the weighted chain. A man by the name of Charles Gruzanski, a military officer stationed in Japan during the 1950s, was accepted as a student in Masaki ryu Manrikigusari jutsu⁹ under the 10th successor at the time, Nawa Fumio. One of the challenges that his teacher had to deal with was finding an appropriate chain size for Charles, as he was a tall man with large hands. The weighted chains that Fumio had just were too short, which would’ve made studying the techniques difficult to comprehend. Through some searching, he finally tracked down a chain from a different style that was large enough for Charles to use. This story is an important reminder that appropriateness in weapon size is necessary in the beginning of one’s training.


There can be a fascination regarding information in ancient documentations, such as scrolls and manuals. Those that have descriptions of weapon dimensions, for example, are important details critical to the identity of a martial system. However, one must take caution in following these details too literally. When a training weapon is being prepared based on specific dimensions, it still needs to be adjusted based on the student’s body proportion.

3 pics that illustrate different lengths in staves used in Japanese martial arts. When first studying bōjutsu that requires the rokushaku bō, choosing the right length is critical. Click on each pic for descriptions.

Let’s look at a very common weapon used in Japanese martial arts, which is the rokushaku bo¹⁰, or 6-shaku staff in English. A shaku¹¹ is an old measurement unit used in Japan. This “6-shaku” is a length that serves as a standard, a rough measurement for a staff that should be around or slightly taller than your height. In the past, this length would be appropriate for most Japanese martial artists that were above 5 feet, but it was not unusual for the staff to be made shorter for accommodation purposes. Likewise, those who are much taller than 6 feet (especially in western countries) would need a staff slightly longer. In cases like these, access to having weapons custom made according to a practitioner’s needs is a must.


Shopping for one’s training weapons can be at times difficult. Going to a common martial arts store in your neighborhood that sells everything at only one size is limiting unless you are at that perfect height where everything fits your body type (around 5″6 & up). When shopping around, especially online, what you should look for from retailers is those that A) provide multiple sizes, B) provide customization services, or C) custom make their weapons.

Stores that offer multiple sizes of a particular training weapon is very convenient. Not only does it make finding one that fits you quickly, but this is also convenient for practitioners of all ages. For example, some stores may offer a wooden daito¹² (a standard sized sword) in 3 sizes: large, medium, and small. This ensures that no matter which size you select, it is proportionally designed, from the blade down to the handle. Those needing a smaller size daitō will not need to substitute with a wooden kodachi, which is naturally designed as a one-handed short sword¹³.

Some retailers may offer a customization service, whether they do it on-site or can have it done by another party. This is good when small adjustments are needed, but don’t necessary need to be redesigned from the ground up. Looking at the rokushaku bō as an example, it may be possible to have one adjusted in length in the case where a shorter one is needed.

Here is a comparison of 2 bokken, or wooden swords. The bottom one is a custom made version of the sword that is used in one of the ryuha I study, Togakure ryu. I was given the dimensions as it is said to be written in that system’s scroll, but had to make slight adjustments when getting it designed in order to match my body type.

Possibly the best option is to shop from a retailer who has training weapons custom made. Not only is it possible to have the dimensions tailored to your liking from the smallest detail, but can go as far as craft it and make it unique just for you. While this can be a great option, it can also be more pricier, as time, cost of materials, and labor goes into custom making training weapons. Quality control for custom made weapons tends to be very high, so if money and time is not an issue, then this is a great route to go.


As a rule, it is important to train with weapons that proportionally match. Finding what matches the practitioner is a task that can be handled by the teacher, as it will ensure little to no errors when purchases are made. However, when this has to be in the hands of a student, the best choice are from retailers that give many options that can fit one’s needs.

1) 流派

2) 剣術. An older name related to fighting techniques with a sword. The modernized system of kendo (剣道) derives from this.

3) 足捌き

4) 間合

5) 調子

6) 二刀流

7) 鎖分銅

8) You can read the full story, and more about Charles Gruzanski’s life story in Japanese martial arts at “Tru-Flyte Martial Arts Memorial Website“, which is maintained by Robert C. Gruzanski.

9) 正木流万力鎖術. Manrikigusari is another name for a weighted chain.

10) 六尺棒. Usually translated as 6-foot staff in English, thus most are sold as so. However, in reality 6 shaku does not equal to 6 feet.

11) 1 shaku = 11.93 inches.

12) 大刀

11) 小太刀. A big difference between a daitō and a kodachi is that the handle of a daitō is long enough for 2 hands to grip, while a kodachi’s handle is long enough for only one hand. Size difference in handle makes it difficult, if not impossible, to practice kenjutsu that requires a normal sword, such as a daitō.