This article is adapted from introductory materials originally written for the Ittokai dojo website. The original text is largely targeted at people with no knowledge of Iai and some explanations are simplified to avoid clouding the central message.
Iaido (居合道) is a martial art that involves the use of the Japanese long sword, the katana. The term ‘Iaido’ acts as a designation for a number of related sword arts focused on drawing techniques performed with a smooth and efficient motion. There are other Japanese sword arts that have little to no emphasis on sword drawing which are generally referred to collectively as Kenjutsu. Unlike arts such as Judo or Kendo where there is one unified curriculum, Iaido is a generic term applied to many semi-related or unrelated traditional streams of instruction known as koryū. Within the last century, Japanese sword organizations have formulated representative sets adapted from some koryū. One of the more widely practiced sets of representative kata is Zen Ken Ren Iai promulgated by the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR), the main body promoting Kendo in Japan.
The name ‘Iaido’ is somewhat odd in that it doesn't clearly describe the main activity of the art. It is believed that the two characters forming the term ‘iai’ (居合) are taken from the phrase tsune ni ite, kyū ni awasu (常に居て、急に合わす). A rough translation is “being constantly [prepared], match/meet [the opposition] immediately”. It conveys the idea that one must always be prepared for any eventuality and handle problems with swift resolve. This is expressed in the practice of Iaido through the development of a refined awareness of one's surroundings and the study of techniques for handling different combative scenarios.
Iaido focuses on drawing a sword directly into a cutting technique. However, this is not the sole component of the art and most kata incorporate additional actions with the sword after it is drawn, covering a wide variety of scenarios. The mindset, though, is that one is practicing methods of using a sword from the outset of a hostile encounter with a potential enemy. To draw your sword ahead of time would be a display of aggression only serving to escalate the encounter. Practitioners of Iaido develop the use an imposing presence and mental pressure to dissuade an opponent until the use of the sword is the only option. From the moment the sword is released from its scabbard the practitioner maintains a mental acuity and uses deliberate motion to dispatch all opponents in an effortless, efficient manner.
On the surface this can all seem like a very gruesome business. Certainly no attempt is made to tone down the severity of the acts being practiced in this art but engaging in violence or reenacting fantasies thereof is not the objective. It is of course useless to learn applied use of the sword in a society where it is not needed or relevant. Iaido is practiced with a feeling of calm serenity punctuated by decisive acts. In this art there is no frenetic, or aimless flailing about without care or diligence. This sort of behavior is antithetical to the goals of Iaido. Through the practice of Iaido one can learn to be calm in challenging situations, maintain mental focus, and promote peaceful relations with others. This attitude is expressed during the performance of kata and one's behavior in the dojo. In the absence of any real enemy, the Iaido practitioner must learn to overcome the obstacles presented by one's self.
The Japanese martial arts collectively went through a “bottle neck” during the latter half of the 19th century through to the start of the 20th century. Japan was becoming industrialized and importing Western culture for mass consumption. The ways of the samurai and their place in society were considered antiquated and outmoded. Consequently, many schools of budo died out due to lack of interest. Iaido and the other koryū arts that exist today are with us because of a relatively few individuals who saw value in these skills as something other than a tool for practical martial training. They saw that the rigor and philosophy of training for warriors could be applicable to ordinary life circumstances as well. That handful of individuals took these arts through the bottle neck and kept them alive for us to partake in today.
The word ‘Iaido’ was first coined in 1932 by Nakayama Hakudō, the founder of Musō Shinden-ryū. Before then, the sword drawing koryū were known as Iai-jutsu. On a purely semantic level ‘dō’ is way or path while ‘jutsu’ is art or technique. As a reaction to the modernized attitudes among the Japanese citizenry there was an effort to create a separation from the sometimes oppressive ways of the samurai. This resulted in a shift in naming martial arts from ‘jutsu’ to ‘dō’ Starting with Kodōkan Jūdō in 1882. While a complicated subject, the use of martial arts to build nationalistic fervor in the lead up to WWII has left some Japanese with a desire to define a strict separation from the excesses of the past that can, in their mind, be associated with ‘jutsu’. In the case of the koryū Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū (MJER), different lineages choose to apply the term Iaidō or Iai-jutsu to describe the art. Some may see this is an important distinction and that the ‘dō’ appellation is somehow lesser than the traditional ‘jutsu’. Understand, however, that this largely due to Japanese cultural attitudes and has no bearing on the curriculum of MJER or any other Iaido school. In practice there is no real difference regardless of name. The core techniques and mindset are entirely the same.
One of the stated goals of Kendo is “to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana”. To further this goal, the practice with the bamboo shinai was supplemented in 1912 with a set of 10 paired kata known as the Nihon Kendo no Kata. These kata are performed using wooden swords or unsharpened swords for special demonstrations. After WWII, Kendo and all other weapon arts were banned in Japan by the occupation government. During the nearly seven year span from 1945 to 1952 Kendo was largely practiced in secret and Iaido completely so. As a result of this gap the Iaido koryū became at risk of dying out.
After the end of the occupation Kendo was reorganized under the umbrella of the ZNKR. It was determined that a new supplement of Iai kata would be added to the Kendo curriculum to further the understanding of the sword among Kendo practitioners. This resulted in the creation of the first seven Zen Ken Ren Iai kata commonly referred to as seitei Iai in ZNKR circles. In addition to assisting Kendo practitioners, these kata are intended to serve as a conduit for study of the Iai koyū. The committee that formulated the initial set of seitei kata was composed of representatives with backgrounds in five different koryū: Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū, Musō Shinden-ryū, Hasegawa Eishin-ryū, Hōki-ryū, and Tamiya-ryū. Today, other koryū are affiliated with the ZNKR as well. Most of the seitei kata were adapted from koryū forms. Changes were made to harmonize with existing principles of movement used in Kendo. Most notably, the hips are usually kept squared to the opponent and the feet stay parallel, usually facing forward. These differences become apparent when studying the related koryū kata that were adapted for the seitei set.
One notable aspect of the set of Zen Ken Ren Iai kata is that it has a very precise standard specification. Very little deviation in technique is allowed from this standard. The strictures allow this set of kata to be used as a level playing field so that people from different koryū can be tested together on the same techniques. One area where variation is permitted and, in fact, expected is in the manner used for sheathing the sword known as nōtō. Every koryū has its own signature method for performing nōtō. These are maintained in the seitei to show which ryū one is a member of and to reduce the number of sheathing techniques one has to learn as this is a safety critical area. This also signals an important message that the seitei doesn’t exist unto itself and must be backed by the study of a koryū.
To the untrained eye Iaido can look strange and not what one would expect sword fighting to be like. The swordsman is alone, moving slowly in a series of starts and stops that don't seem to make any sense. There is a lot of repetitive getting up and down to do what can look like the same thing over and over again. In our art there is no sound apart from the occasional swish of the sword when cutting. ”This isn’t like the movies”, one thinks. ”How is this supposed to work?”
First of all, Iaido isn't about sword fighting in the sense that the purpose of training is to become better at using the sword for its original purpose. That is not to say that a skilled Iaido practitioner cannot competently wield a sword but facility in using the sword isn’t the ultimate objective since there is no practical use for the sword in modern society. To fill this void there needs to be some other reason for practicing this art. The sword and the skills to employ it effectively are instead used as a vehicle for physical conditioning and personal development. How does using the sword effect these goals?
The first case of physical conditioning may seem laughable to some with a naive understanding. ”Iaido looks pretty easy. There doesn't seem to be much to it.” The reality is it may look easy when done well but that is only the end result of a lot of sweat and hard training to reach that level of proficiency. Much of the work in Iaido involves controlling the sword and your body so that all movements maintain constant preparedness with the ability to protect oneself and dispatch any enemies at all times. Letting the body or sword point even a few degrees in the wrong direction can leave one vulnerable. The Iaido practitioner must adhere to precise rules of movement so that the combative "logic" of the art is never violated. This alone can be physically taxing. Being able to do this consistently and dependably requires much repetition and labor.
The techniques are practiced slowly on purpose. Part of this is because the application of timing in one's interplay with the enemy is crucial. Moving too swiftly can slur important elements together and defeat the stated goals of training. It is also much harder to execute these skills slowly. This may seem counter-intuitive. In a real world scenario only fractions of a second may separate life and death. Speed may be the decisive factor in success. It’s very easy, however, to brandish the sword in powerful flourishes but if that is one's goal then self-protection and effectiveness will be lost. These need to be achieved through an efficient, economy of motion and a calm spirit. Speed has its place in Iaido but only when it is correct to use it. If the techniques can be performed competently at a slow pace then the practitioner will be skilled enough to accelerate where necessary. If speed is the goal at the outset then much of the substance of Iaido will remain out of reach. This core “substance” consists of a host of intangible elements that the untrained observer will most likely be oblivious to. This is where the aspect of personal development begins to come into play.
Iaido kata are not meant to be treated as nothing more than dance moves to be remembered. If this was the case one could (poorly) memorize the entire curriculum in a matter of months and be left with nothing else to do. Following a rote pattern is not as important, however, as demonstrating a complete understanding of what it is trying to accomplish. The kata themselves are not supposed to be viewed as complete methods for handling a real scenario. If they were one would need to know thousands of kata. Rather, they are a framework used to develop fundamental skills and familiarity with handling a sword. In pursuit of this goal, one finds that there are deeper insights to be gained after some time has been spent working with the kata.
After an initial phase of one’s training in Iaido, where the focus is on learning physical actions, greater insight into the less tangible components can start to be developed. Iaido can be somewhat simplistically described as a moving meditation. One is not, however, disengaged from the surrounding world. Much of the training revolves around technical analysis and mental focus to recreate the feeling of a real encounter. Sometimes the technical aspects, while important, can cloud the mind by becoming too much of a distraction during the execution of a kata. There is a place for careful attention to details of movement but an Iaido practitioner must also be attentive to the mental side of the coin. The kata need to be more than a dance. One must recreate the intensity of a hostile encounter by recreating the sense of danger and the focus that that instills. This must be done while maintaining a calm spirit that is unperturbed by outside distractions or one's own failings. These mental skills can be taken out of the dojo and used in one’s daily life. The higher philosophical precepts can be summed up by the Iaido maxim saya no uchi no kachi - Achieve victory with the sword inside the saya (scabbard). One's goal in the end is to use peace as a means of bettering yourself and the people you interact with.
In discussing the core aspects of Iaido it may all seem like philosophical puffery. The actual practice is very tangible and down to earth. The higher aspects of the art are developed through rigorous training and attention to detail. A typical class will start with a formal opening etiquette and then proceed to practicing fundamental skills, performing kata under the scrutiny of others, and finishing with a formal closing etiquette. The skills that need to be developed include etiquette, footwork, maintaining correct posture, using a proper grip on the sword, basic cutting techniques, drawing at various angles, and sheathing the sword safely.
There are many ways for practicing the kata. They can be broken down into their constituent parts. They can be performed very slowly or very quickly. They can be practiced on one's own or in unison with a group. While Iaido can be thought of as a solo art it is impossible to learn everything on one's own. A common teaching pattern is to have one group perform a kata while another group observes, making mental notes of good points and flaws. The observers will often be asked to relate their observations as an aid to those performing the kata. For those performing kata in this type of practice it is important to maintain an open mind and acceptance of corrections that will come from members of all ranks. The observers too are learning about Iaido, how to recognize subtleties in technique and provide an evaluation. This is called mi tori geiko - Practice by watching and taking what is seen.
It goes without saying that swords can be dangerous. That is their original purpose. Being safe while practicing Iaido is of utmost importance. Diligence in this matter is developed from the very start of one's training in Iaido. Beginners will progress from using a wooden sword to an unsharpened practice sword. While these tools do not cut they can still inflict injury if used improperly or not taken care of. They are always treated as if they were a real sword. Procedures are followed to minimize the risk of cutting oneself. Care is taken to ensure that other people are not placed in harm's way during an exercise. A sharpened sword cannot be used until after the skills are developed to safely handle one at all times.