Honolulu Star-Bulletin (c.1980)

The Way of the Wood

by Susan Yim

Sadao Yoshioka knelt Japanese style on the floor, legs folded under him, and gazed down the edge of a sleek dark wood sword the way a hunter gazes down the barrel of a shotgun as he takes aim.

But the wooden sword or bokken is not meant to be a weapon. For Yoshioka, who makes bokken and gives them away as gifts, there is something mystical about the sword.

It is a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment.

The wooden replica of what in samurai days was a deadly weapon is today a tool used to teach students of martial arts self discipline.

"This ridge must be straight and true, without any flaw," said Yoshioka, encouraging his visitors to run their fingers down the edge of a sword. "Old Japanese say the sword is the way of the warrior. This ridge is the warrior's road."

"Beginner's swords are wide at the end of the blade. Because the road is wide, the beginner wanders around. Gradually the road (like the edge of the sword) becomes very narrow, he can't wander too much. The warrior begins to appreciate the spiritual side of the road. After he has attained spiritual oneness he doesn't need the road anymore. That's when he discards the sword and becomes one with nature."

"Today many youngsters want to understand being one with nature without traveling the road. In other words, to get to the top of the mountain they want to take a helicopter. In the days of the warrior, there was no such thing as a helicopter. To have spiritual harmony, you had to travel the road."

"The road has many trails. Aikido is one, judo, kendo, karate. Once you choose one you don't get confused." More than 30 years ago, Yoshioka chose aikido.

He is a short, sturdily built man, a retired mailman who looks like he might prefer a couple of beers with the boys over the discipline of martial arts. But in a gi, the white, kimono-style uniform worn by followers of martial arts, Yoshioka looks like the spiritual guru he is to his students of aikido. He has taught aikido for about 20 years, at the same time continuing his own studies.

He studied in Japan with Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of aikido, and treats the bokken given to him by Uyeshiba's son like a gift from an emperor. It is a sword of loquat wood -- a hard, white wood with an edge that is narrow, flawless and straight.

It is a treasure because it was given to him by a master, by one more skilled than he is. For the same reason, Yoshioka's students treasure the bokken he makes and presents to them.

"Today, society doesn't allow us to use a (steel) sword, so the next best thing is a wooden sword to follow the cultural etiquette, develop a sense of self-discipline and humility."

In 1871, Japan abolished feudalism and the samurai were forbidden to carry swords -- this had the same effect on that country as gun control would have in the United States. Bokken were used as substitutes by the various martial arts schools that sprouted up after the days of the samurai.

There is something as appealing about the wooden blades as the handsome steel swords. When four of Yoshioka's bokken were brought into the Star-Bulletin newsroom, four reporters -- all men -- got up to examine the wooden swords. Each one slashed the bokken around Toshiro Mifune-style and talked about the sword being sensual, handsome, more than just a wooden sword.

The bokken can be bought at stores that cater to Japanese customers or ordered through martial arts catalogues. But Yoshioka says the swords in the stores or by catalogue are generally mass-produced and aren't always in the best condition or of the best material. That's why he decided to make them.

He has been carving tanto, which are wooden daggers used in aikido, for about 13 years, and the bokken are an extension, "another step forward." Yoshioka purchases wood from lumberyards, selecting 2 by 4 foot pieces of various hard woods. From wood those dimensions he can produce two swords. It takes him five hours to take a piece of wood and sand, shape and polish it to his satisfaction. Then he oils it and carves into the handle the characters "ai ki do," which mean harmony, spirit and road.

This doesn't mean he follows a 9-to-5 work schedule. In Japan, the crafstmen who make swords out of folds of steel are considered national living treasures. "Like the swordsmith when making the real sword, to make a bokken one has to purify one's soul. You have to throw cold water on the body to get rid of evil thinking and soil from the body."

"When making a sword, you don't want others to interfere with the concentration of mind and body. Energy, Japanese call it ki, the Chinese call it chi, flows into the wood. In olden days the sword was considered an extension of the samurai's arm. It listens to your mind. You become the master of your bokken when it listens.

"The swordmaker's spirit is in the wood. If the maker's spirit is not in the wood it is of no value. When making it, one must have positive thinking to get rid of all the evil in the spirit and the mind for the bokken to become a good one. If the spirit is bad, the bokken probably will be used to harm people."

"That is the danger. You must be very careful that only good spirit goes into the bokken."

For every ten pieces of wood, perhaps one bokken will satisfy Yoshioka as being superior. But he is as particular about who receives these as he is about making them. "You must discipline yourself. In learning how to handle the sword, you are learning how to respect others. You don't kick the bokken around, and in that way you learn how you must treat others. Through the bokken I feel the spirit can learn a lot."

He takes out a bokken that he used for several years, and which he has retired. The wooden edge had nicks where it had protected him from blows from students' bokken. "All these nicks show battle, that it protected me. It has more value. It is a treasure."