Why Buy A Shinken

Balancing Your Life on a Blade Edge

By Paul 'Batman' O'Brien
B.A., N.C.E.H.S., Dip. Acu., Adv. Dip. OBB, Cert Clin. Med. Pn1, PN-SSR, PN-NCA, M.AFPA, M.ETCMA, M.C.Th.A.

Why Buy A Shinken?

A shinken is a live blade (katana or samurai sword) that is capable of cutting. They are often sold by lower end sellers under title's like "full tang" or the infamous, "battle-ready". Why on earth does anyone need a live 3 foot razor blade capable to killing you or someone else? 

I've heard some terrifying answers in my time. From:

  • For Self Defence (are you nuts? That won't work - it's just a terrible idea!) 
  • 'Cause they're cool! (Yes, they are, but they are also very dangerous and 'casue they're cool a I saw it in Highlander/The Last Samurai/Turtles/Blade/Kill Bill....Anime etc is NOT  a reason to bring a dangerous weapon into your home, family and life).
  • I'll find a rare blade and get rich! (Do you know how to tell a genuine blade from a fake, poor quality or worthless sword? If you did you'd know that it's very unlikely to make you rich - though good antique blades can quickly make you poor! ;-D ) 
  • Cutting water bottles, fruit etc is awesome. (I get that it's fun, but it's dangerous and in some lights remarkably disrespectful. In fact many senior Sensei of Iai forbid the practice of test cutting with a shinken as they consider it spiritually contaminating). 

It's rare, very rare that you ever get a considered honest answer, that offers a legitimate reason outside of art collection. 

So....why buy a shinken? Here's my answer.....

Why Buy A Shinken? My 1st Answer - Correct Mind

As I've advanced in my studies of Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū it's become increasingly necessary for me to train with a Shinken, or a live blade, one capable of cutting. The reasons for this are many but the primary function is to focus the mind.

It is far too easy to become complacent in the performance of Iai in using a Iaito. The dull blade can still cause minor irritation if you nick yourself on the thumb during an inattentive noto (re-sheathing of the blade) due to the pointed kissaki. But there's little real danger there. Little to compel you to treat it as seriously as you would a live blade - and as result despite even the best of will's a certain amount of relaxation creeps in to one's technique. 

In Japan, most 3rd Dan's would start using a Shinken, with permission from their Sensei of course...and there is a dual purpose to this. Firstly it forces you to completely reassess your technique. I cannot emphasise enough how slowly all of your previously 'flashy', (read poorly done) movements become when you are using a 3 foot long razor blade. 

Why Buy A Shinken? My 2nd Answer - Correct Speed

Today, I often see students of Iai who have been training for a year or so....they are confident that of the sequence of movements they are expected to perform. They try to imbue a sense of realistic action into the movement. They are very earnest. And they are all, without exception too fast. When I look at these students I remember of my early teachers was also very fast - and chastised by his seniors in Japan, for being an "express train". I too was once too fast. And yet today I am not. I am very, very slow. And I think the reason for this is all too often in their rush, literally, to learn a technique the student forgets that the dull, 'safe' iaito in their hand represents a sword. A very sharp 3 foot razor blade, where the slightest mistake could mean a simple gash or life altering nerve damage and injury. 

As an acupuncturist, fitness coach and author I earn my living with my hands. If my hands are injured I can't work, I can't earn an income for my family. They are very important. They are the tool of my livelihood. And I use a shinken for my daily practice. A blade so sharp it slices a thin sheet of paper without sound or resistance - a blade so sharp that if I fail in my focus I would slice off my fingers, a thumb or worse, in some techniques cut through my calf, my biceps. If I nicked or sliced through the brachial artery, I could bleed out and die before I alert anyone to the injury. 

In fact, check it out - here's what happens when you screw up with a shinken and answer the question of Why Buy A Shinken? with one of the awful bullet point answers from earlier. 


This link will show what happens to a man's hand when he's messing with a samurai sword. It is not for the weak of stomach and please do not watch it if you cannot handle violent upsetting imagery and video. Last warning. Here is is - GRAPHIC VIDEO

Additionally, have a look at these 2 videos - LESS GRAPHIC. 

These girls are not bad-ass. They are dumb ass. They have NO CLUE how to use a sword, obviously, and they are attacking with utter disrespect and stupidity. They are messing around and a TINY knick of the sword results in the severing of the tendons of her ankle - Partial PARALYSIS -> SURGERY -> and 6 weeks in a cast and scared for life. She and her family laugh through the whole thing. It's one of the stupidist things I have seen but has a direct impact on the poor girls life. 

This is a cautionary tale - these people are idiots and the consequences of messing with a samurai sword - are life long injury or something even more serious. 


Many authors speak of the dojo as a safe place where we can confront the harsh realities of life, the most poignant of which is the question of life and death. 

Training with a shinken is literally, hyperbole aside, is confronting the question of life and death in a very real and intimate way. And each day I spend hours in the company of a tool, that with no emotion could end my life, or at the very least my way of life and the manner in which I earn my living, at any given moment. 

The instant I forget that the sword is live, the moment I do not respect the blade and keep uppermost in mind its reality is the moment it will remind me with the spilling of blood. 

I'm a fit guy. I have a sub 40 beat resting heart rate. I can bench press over twice my body weight. I recently completed and 'won' Hell and Back, a gruelling 12k run over a horrific 27 obstacles in what is considered Irelands' toughest mental and physical challenge. Within 60 seconds of the first form in Iai I am sweating, my heart is pounding in a way that NO form of exercise can match. It is from the sheer mental focus and discipline that the art requires...to correctly perform the technical aspects of the technique, to demonstrate total control over the external reality presented by the form, to convey the correct emotion and intensity of the form and to do all of this smoothly, crisply, and with complete calm and poise while, not terrified, but healthily aware that I could really hurt myself any second. 

All of that, makes my technique slower. And this is good. 

Iwata Sensei recounts that Oe Masamichi, an incredible swordsman, a man who saw real combat with a sword during the Clam Gate Incident  (often called the Clam Gate War) performed all of his techniques slowly. Iwata Sensei goes on to emphasise that Oe Sensei used very large movements and performed them slowly in this exceptional passage;

"...we can find a strange but similar logic in Gorin-no-Sho (Miyamoto Musashi) which states that, The stroke of cutting is exceedingly important. It must be done by stretching the elbows and swinging downward with as large a movement as possible. This is the correct way to cut methodically and technically. It is also written, If the sword user hurries his action, the cutting line will fall short. Even shorter than if one is using a Wakizashi. It seems to be very mysterious to find a similarity between Miyamoto Musashi and Master Oh-e". 

- Iwata Norikazu Hanshi, Kiso Iai Kosa. 

Why Buy A Shinken? Well by using a shinken forces this mindset and attitude upon the student. And even now in the dojo when using my iaito (our training area is small and cramped and I'm not risking anyone's safety for my benefit), I can capture the same slow, considered and effective feeling. 

This reduction of speed is also dramatically important for practicality in combat. 

Those that are familiar with me know of my combat experience and the incredibly high level of training I have been privileged to have received in hand to hand combat. I have had sadly, the misfortune to apply these skills in my life. I don't share "war stories", its poor taste and these is nothing to learn from these sad episodes other than this. Real, genuine physical violence is a slow affair. 

When I am training in real, physical combat, where devastating life altering injury is the minimum requirement of every movement I train painstaking slowly. If you don't someone WILL lose an eye, break a bone, or worse. This is the way I was trained by former Navy Seal Specialist Tim Larkin, this is how I was trained by those who had fought in real life confrontations, and this is how my experience of combat is born out. And it always comes back to a mantra, a SEAL drilled into me, "Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast". It is an underlying truth of genuine life and death combat. And one I am confident Oe Sensei was keenly aware of, as was Musashi before him. 

Using a shinken imparts a whole new level of focus to your technique and it changes the fundamental performance and understanding of your forms too. It becomes very real and creates a depth to your practice that I feel is unattainable without it. 

That said, I DO NOT encourage you to train with a shinken. Seek out proper instruction from a recognized school (pro tip, if the word 'Kan' appears anywhere in the title of the art it's likely not legit), give yourself 5 years of training with an iaito daily first and when your Sensei thinks you're ready and not before, consider training with a shinken. It may not be for you. 

So...Why Buy a Shinken? 

You shouldn't.

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