In the paragraphs below we will give you a brief overview of the Japanese sword art of Iaido. The style we train in is Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu but this page was written from a general viewpoint and pertains to the various styles of Iaido practiced in Japan today. To find out more about our style in particular and how we train, please read on or contact the dojo by phone at (250) 470-3726.
What is Iaido?
Simply stated, Iaido is the art of drawing the Japanese sword from the scabbard and in the same motion replying to the opponents attack or dispatching the opponent, then returning the sword to the scabbard gracefully and with dignity.
There are other Japanese arts besides Iaido which also make use of the Japanese sword, and many swordsmen train in more than one art. In addition, those who train in swordsmanship often train in other armed and unarmed traditional arts.
The information presented here will deal specifically with the art of Iaido.
What does "Iaido" mean?
The Japanese word Iaido is made up of three characters. The first, which is read as "I" (pronounced like the letter "e"), means "to exist". The second, "ai" (pronounced "eye"), means "to meet" or "to be together". The third, "do" (pronounced like "dough"), means a "way" or "path". In effect, this can be literally translated as "the way of existing together". This is a literal translation, however, and the meaning of the term actually has much deeper meaning.
Where did Iaido come from?
There are a number of books on the market which do a very respectable job of recounting the history of the events which led to the development of Iaido as we practice it today. Here we will try to sum it up in just a few lines.
Ever since the sword became a prominent weapon in Japan there have been schools of strategy involving the use of the sword. Down through the ages these schools have tested their strategy in actual combat and then adjusted the techniques as necessary to make them more effective for their intended purpose, to kill the enemy. As the art of wordsmanship was refined it gradually evolved into a classical art which had the goal not only of defeating an opponent but also of transforming the character of the trainee through the discipline of training.
Although this evolution of Iaido began as many as 500 years ago, it was during the Tokugawa era that it became the most refined. The warring age was over and Japan had entered into a period of isolationism known as "sakoku" which was to last two and a half centuries. The uses of swordsmanship on the battlefield gave way to an art that had as its main goal discipline and the perfection of character. This was accomplished without discarding the proven combat techniques upon which the art was based. Indeed, the control and concentration necessary to train with a live blade in techniques developed to kill other human beings was central in developing the art as a means to focus the mind, sharpen the senses and polish the spirit.
With the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868, the Samurai as a social caste were abolished along with all of the special privileges they had enjoyed over the centuries, including the public wearing of the "daisho", the long and short swords which had unmistakenly proclaimed their social status.
Preserving the art of Iaido and other sword arts is one of the ways in which the Japanese have carried on the warrior spirit in the modern age.
Is Iaido a "real martial art"?
Yes, Iaido is definatly a real martial art.
But let's take a minute and examine the term "real martial art".
Those with limited or no exposure to the classical arts of Japan might define "martial art" as a sport in which the objective is to practice tournament-style sparring in order to attend contests and win trophies. Or they may define it based on what they have seen in the latest action movie. Iaido belongs in neither of these categories.
Iaido is one of many Japanese "Budo", which literally means "way of war". What this means is that those who train in Iaido and the other arts, which make up the entire range of Japanese Budo, practice these combat techniques as a way to strengthen and develop character. Iaido is not an art which conducts competitive one-against-one training. One of the reasons is obvious when one considers that the primary training weapon is the sword, either a live blade or a specially made training sword (which also has a metal blade). Direct competitive training with these weapons would quickly result in serious injury or possibly death. The main character of Iaido training is, therefore, a number of prearranged waza (sometimes called kata or forms). It is through repetition of these waza that one eventually comes to understand the true nature of the art.
The wooden sword (bokken) is also often used, especially when the understanding of a technique is being reinforced by engaging in two-man drills, known as "tachi uchi no kurai", (always controlled and never competitive in nature) and when engaging in repetitive practice of basics.
Though Iaido is not a competitive art, those who practice it consider it one of the last true combat arts in the sense that there is no sport application of the techniques. When one executes the various waza, he does so with the full spirit of cutting down his enemy, and in the mind of the trainee, his solitary training against the imaginary opponent is a very real struggle where victory means life and defeat means death.
Are there different types of Iaido?
Over the years, Iaido has evolved into different distinct "Ryu" of styles. Some are very similar to one another and others are quite different. Some of the styles currently being practiced in Japan include Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Muso Shinden Ryu, Omori Ryu, Hoki Ryu, Mugai Ryu and others. There are dozens of smaller Ryu which are quite old and have maintained a small but close group of students over the years. Currently, the most widely practiced style in Japan is Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu.
Why practice Iaido?
Reasons for training in Iaido are numerous. If you ask a dozen different trainees you may get a dozen different answers.
Iaido is practiced in Japan by a large number of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers who are drawn to Iaido for several reasons. Among these reasons is the fact that Iaido is a graceful and dignified art which does not include grappling, kicking or punching opponents. Because of this, persons who must appear frequently in public do not have to worry about having bruises, black eyes and other such distracting physical features as a result of their martial arts training.
Another reason many people train is due to Iaido's ability to sharpen concentration and improve one's capacity to focus the mind. This effect comes partly from the strict formality of the art as well as the realization that one is training to use a two and a half foot razor blade and a lapse of concentration can mean serious injury.
Most train, among all other reasons, for the purpose of helping to preserve an art which is an ancient cultural treasure. If Iaido or any of the other Budo were allowed to disappear, they would be gone forever.
Who can practice Iaido?
Virtually any adult can engage in Iaido training. Although some occidentals may have trouble sitting in the formal sitting position known as "seiza", the ability to do this is important to Iaido training. Unless you have chronic knee problems you should be able to become accustomed to it after a bit of practice. Other than that, If you are in good health you should have no difficulty with Iaido training.
Iaido is an art which can be practiced almost regardless of age since it is somewhat kinder to your body (especially the joints) than Karate, Judo, Jiu-jitsu and some of the other Japanese martial arts.
How is Iaido Practiced?
As we mentioned before, the main aspect of Iaido training comes in the form of "waza" or forms. These waza are fairly short compared to the kata of karate and some other martial arts. However, within the various waza are techniques which could be used to counter attacks from almost any conceivable angle.
The main body of each individual waza varies from one to the other but they all contain four major parts. First there is the draw (nukitsuke), where the sword is swiftly removed from the scabbard and instantly employed in an attack or defense. There are very few forms where the blade is drawn and then held in a ready position.
Second is the main body of the waza (kiritsuke), which consists of anywhere from one to several blocks, thrusts and cuts.
Third is a move where the imaginary enemy's blood is removed from the sword with a sweep or a flip of the blade (chiburi).
Lastly, the sword is returned to the scabbard with dignity, awareness and spiritual presence (noto).
In addition to practicing these forms, a lot of time is spent on basic techniques and drills. Iaido is an art where absolute perfection of every aspect of the technique is the goal. Striving toward this unattainable perfection provides both the challenge and the reward for those who have devoted themselves to the training.
What equipment is needed for Iaido?
Several Items are required. The most obvious is the sword. Most students use a sword called an "Iaito" or "mogito". This is a training sword with a metal blade, usually a zinc-aluminum alloy. The blade does not have a sharp edge and cannot be sharpened due to the nature of the allow metal. However, good ones are very well made and simulate the balance and feel of a real sword very closely. These Iaito are made for intense iaido training and are not to be confused with the cheap decorative wall-hanging type or even worse, the gaudy and poor quality stainless steel replicas which have flooded the market lately.
These Iaito are not cheap. You can expect to pay several hundred dollars for one, but it is the only thing that is a suitable substitute for a hand forged steel sword (which cannot be obtained in Japan for less than five to six thousand dollars). Some beginners train with a wooden sword for a while until they decide if they are going to stick with the art, thus saving the price of an Iaito until they are sure they want to continue training. Although the Iaito are somewhat expensive, they will provide years of dependable and safe service in training.
Except for the sword, all of the other items needed are reasonable in price and can be easily obtained. You will need a hakama (a pleated, divided skirt-like garment), an uwagi (a jacket similar to a jiu-jitsu, judo or karate-gi jacket), an obi (belt for holding the sword), and a set of knee pads. With these items, you will be ready to begin Iaido training. Your instructor can help you obtain them.
Are there belt ranks in Iaido?
Most styles of Iaido utilize a "dan" system similar to that of many other Japanese martial arts but there is no colored belt worn to symbolize rank. In the dan system, a first dan is a first degree black belt, a second dan is a second degree and so on. Usually there are no ranks below black belt so the beginner takes no advancement exams until he is ready for the first dan rank. Most Iaido practitioners train for the love of the art and not for the purpose of attaining rank. Rank eventually becomes important, however, since ranks awarded from respected Japanese organizations are often the only way to tell if an instructor is legitimate, especially if one is a beginner and has limited knowledge of the art.
Where can I find an Instructor?
Finding a qualified instructor is the hard part about training in Iaido. It is difficult to obtain a legitimate instructor-level rank without spending considerable years training in Japan. There are instructors out there but there are only a handful in Canada who hold senior ranks issued through one of the major Iaido federations or from the headquarters of one of the major styles in Japan. The Canadian Iaido Association is one of the only organizations that has these type of recognized instructors.
Be careful. North America is the land of opportunity for frauds and con-men. An instructor who is certified by either the All Japan Iaido Federation or by the Soke (Head Master) of any of the major Iaido styles is a pretty safe bet, especially for someone who is new to Iaido and doesn't know what to look for. However, there are instructors who are not directly Japan-trained who are skillful and very knowledgeable about their art. These instructors usually have a "live" connection with Japan if not personally, then through their own instructor in their country. The Canadian Iaido Association, www.iaido.ca is one of the only organizations that has this type of recognition.
Instructors (legitimate or otherwise) abound, but it is sometimes difficult to verify their qualifications without doing a little homework. If a prospective instructor shows you a certificate from "Joe's Iaido and Ninja Academy" (signed by Joe) or some other suspicious document, you might want to investigate further before beginning Iaido training with that person. Don't be shy about respectfully asking an instructor such questions as how long he trained in Japan (if he is Japan trained), under whom did he study, and where, how and from whom did he obtain his rank. Any legitimate instructor will provide you with this information. If the instructor does not want to tell you these things or becomes defensive and gives mysterious answers, you might want to look elsewhere for your training.
Certificates from any of the main Japanese organizations will be issued by the organization itself and will be stamped with the organization's seal or the seal of the Soke of the style.