By Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD.
Iaido is the contemporary Japanese art of drawing the long sword. Iaido contrasts with kenjutsu (combative swordsmanship), techniques done with swords already drawn, and kendo, the Japanese sport of fencing. Basic iaido kata combines drawing the sword with either a defensive block or cut, usually followed by another cut, then chiburi (moving the blade in such as way as to remove blood and tissue) and noto (returning the blade to the scabbard). While kenjutsu and sword-drawing techniques (batto-ho) were originally taught together, they are now usually, but not always, taught as separate art forms. Iaido, as the sword-drawing forms became known in the 1930s, is now used not only to teach sword techniques but as a form of mental and physical discipline, emphasizing correct technique and form, meditation and character development.
Iaido training consists of solo kata (forms) and partner forms, called kumidachi. All forms emphasize etiquette in the respectful handling of the sword. The solo forms consist of properly drawing, cutting and returning the sword to the scabbard. Kumidachi forms are performed using bokuto (wooden swords).
While both batto-ho and kenjutsu were taught before 1600, sword techniques became more popular after this date, reflecting the change in the role of samurai as a soldier during Japan's civil conflicts to members of the ruling class. Samurai wore daisho (lit. "large-small"), a katana (long sword) and a wakizashi (short sword), thrust through the obi (belt or sash) as a symbol of membership in this class (firearms were relegated to infantry). Drawing the sword became more important at this time since duels were common to keep the peace and settle personal grudges or other disputes.
Iaido has been characterized as a defensive art form, owing to the fact that practitioners begin and end kata with the sword in its sheath. Beginning and middle-level kata do emphasize reacting to, rather than provoking, an attack, but higher-ranking forms are often more aggressive, drawing the sword and pushing through a crowd to cut down an unaware opponent, for example.
The Meiji (post-feudal period from 1863-1912) government dismantled the shogunal class system (feudal class system) and banned the wearing of swords after 1868. Former members of the samurai class continued to practice sword techniques but the emphasis shifted from duelling to self-discipline and character-building. Iaido techniques were organized into beginning, middle level and advanced sets, and became affiliated with concepts common to other Japanese traditional arts, including elegance, simplicity, jo-hakyu, shu-ha-ri, zanshin, in-yo (yin-yang) koshi, ma-ai, and the use of kata as the principal means of training.
Zanshin is a sense of lingering awareness. Iaido kata fosters the development of awareness in solo kata by encouraging the student to visualize the opponent. In kumidachi, students learn zanshin in patterns of attack, defence and counterattack. While mushin ("no mind") has been considered an esoteric outcome of iaido practice, zanshin is more practical and more realistically attainable.
Ma-ai refers to the critical distance between opponents, a point at which forces are essentially neutral, but where anything can happen. Fundamental to ma-ai is ma, roughly defined as the way something (or someone) moves through space over time. Many teachers have stated that ma "cannot be taught," either one has this sense of timing, or one does not. However, ma can be enhanced and developed through training. An iaidoka (a student of iaido) who has a good, well-developed sense of ma has an uncanny sense of time and distance. Combined with a sense of zanshin, it is the difference between a merely competent practitioner and a great one.
As in other traditional martial art forms, the ma-ai of iaido embodies the concept of the sphere of protection, but in this case, the circle is extended by the use of the sword. The sphere is realized by sword cuts in eight directions: straight down, horizontally (from both the left and the right), diagonally down and up on the left and right sides, and the thrust. Many kenjutsu and some iaido dojo practice the different cuts in arranged sequences, called happogiri (simply, "eight direction cuts").
Iaido also shares with other traditional art forms the sense of jo-ha-kyu. This is a formalistic organizing principle, which has been variously interpreted as "slow, medium, fast" and "beginning, middle, end." It is characterized by a sense of rising action; for example, from an initial draw and small cut (or parry) to the larger, "killing cut." Individual actions which make up a given kata also have this sense of rising action.
In-yo (or yin-yang) is the unity or complementary of opposites. Individual iaido kata contains many instances of in-yo. The most obvious may be that in all iaido kata, the sword is drawn, then returned to the sheath. More philosophically, in-yo can be seen in that, as a deadly art form, iaido is a contemplation of life and death.
Shu-ha-ri is often used to describe a student's progression through training. "Shu" means "conservative" and is often translated as "tradition." The beginning student learns the fundamentals of the art form, and all the techniques and kata, essentially as her teacher has shown her. "Ha" means "break" and has been variously interpreted in Western martial art circles as "breaking the tradition" or even "breaking with your teacher." However, it could also mean breaking as in "breakthrough in understanding", i.e., going beyond the mechanics of the techniques to discover their underlying meaning. "Ri," therefore, which has been interpreted in the West as "founding your own style," or even "preserving the style but adding to it," means "freedom" and could instead be interpreted as "owning the kata," establishing one's own identity within the traditionally arranged and performed techniques. Iaido at this point becomes very like free-flowing movement. Few practitioners attain this level, though it remains a goal of training, however elusive.
Though only samurai men traditionally practised long sword, men and women from all walks of life around the world now study iaido. There is no difference in the standard of training for men and women.
Currently, the most practised styles of iaido are the Muso Shinden Ryu and the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, presumed to be branches of the original style of batto jutsu founded by Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (Taylor and Ohmi 1997: 83). Both styles contain three sets of kata: a beginner's set, a middle-level set and oku (secret) forms for high-level students. The names of the sets are the same for both styles, though the names of the individual forms have been changed.
The beginner's set, the Omori Ryu, consists of twelve kata, eleven beginning from the kneeling position called seiza, and one starting from a standing position. These forms acquaint students with the basics of properly drawing, cutting, and sheathing the sword. The kneeling position provides the student with a stable base, building strength and control in the lower body.
The middle set, Hasegawa Eishin Ryu, consists of ten kata, nine originating with the practitioner sitting in tatehiza, a position with one knee raised, and the tenth in seiza. The imaginary opponents in these forms are in much closer proximity to the student than in the first set, requiring close-in stabbing and cutting movements. The footwork is more intricate, featuring weight shifts, sliding back and forth along the floor on the knees, and stepping towards and away from the imaginary opponent. The high-level set, called Okuiai (secret iai) consists of both standing and tatehiza forms. Kata at this level looks surprisingly simple--like natural movement, but the simplicity is deceptive; a student may study for 10 years or longer before beginning to comprehend and technically be able to handle these forms. Throughout iaido training, the emphasis is placed on mindfulness, a sense of calm concentration, and the building of character.
In addition, the All Japan Kendo Federation has developed kata drawn from various styles, called the Zenkenrenmei or Seiteigata forms. Affiliated kendo federations around the world practice these forms and hold standard ranking examinations for them. The popularity of practising these forms varies among kendo players. For example, in Eastern Canada and the US, there is a great deal of interest in Zenkenrenmei; whereas in parts of Japan, it seems less important.
Various kendo organizations have sponsored forms competition in iaido, and competition for ranking in Zenkenrenmei is intense in some US kendo dojos. In these cases, there may sometimes be a distinction between men's and women's competition, as there is in modern kendo. However, iaido remains mostly a noncompetitive martial art, with a relatively small number of practitioners, in which mindfulness through proper technique remains the goal of practice.
Iaido practice is framed by respect and politeness. There is a great deal of etiquette with regard to Japanese swords in general, and, though it is simplified in the iaido dojo, the rationale is essentially the same: to prevent damage to the sword, to prevent injury to the iaidoka using the sword, and to prevent injury to others in the room, whether fellow practitioners or bystanders.
Practitioners, therefore, are expected to be properly dressed in well-fitting hakama (traditional Japanese pleated trousers), obi (belt or sash) and keikogi (training uniform), with a minimum of skin showing at the neck. They are expected to exercise self-control in language and action. Losing one's temper in an iaido dojo usually amounts to immediate expulsion, owing to the potentially deadly nature of the art form.
As in most traditional dojo, the organization is hierarchical, with the highest levels of respect paid to seniors and teachers. Seniors, in turn, have an obligation to instruct junior students in all aspects of iaido, including dress and deportment as well as technique.
The etiquette and hierarchical structure of an iaido dojo are perhaps best illustrated in the sequence of bows performed before and after training. At the beginning of class, the first bow is directed towards a specifically designated area, variously the kamidama (Shinto or spirit altar), kamiza (upper seat: a position of honor or respect which is often the front wall of a dojo where there are scrolls, a Shinto altar and/or photos of a teacher or founder), and shinzen (Spiritual center; another name for kamiza). A mixture of Shinto, Buddhism and ancestor worship has traditionally guided many Japanese martial practices. Iaido, as a more conservative art form, still retains a vestige of these practices even outside Japan, though the extent of the religious connotation of bowing to the shinzen varies. At the very least, the opening bow connotes the specialness of practice, respect for the practice space, and an acknowledgement of teachers who have gone before (practitioners also bow at the entrance of the training room upon entering or leaving for the same reasons). Next, students and teacher bow to each other as a sign of respect, and lastly, the practitioners' swords are presented and bowed to before practice begins. At the end of practice, the bowing ritual takes place in reverse: sword, teacher/student and shinzen.
Students also bow to each other before and after kumidachi practice. Outside of showing mutual respect, the bow signifies that students are prepared and ready for partner practice, and are not being taken unawares.
All participants wear the same style of practice clothing and follow the same curriculum. The uniform consists of keikogi (a loose-fitting top), hakama (wide-legged, pleated trousers), and an obi (belt). Depending on the style, the uniform may be white, dark blue or black. Higher-ranking practitioners may wear formal kimono (traditional Japanese dress worn by both men and women), obi and hakama for public demonstrations. Except for optional knee pads, no protective gear is worn or considered necessary. Iaito, unsharpened practice swords, are mostly used, though some practitioners use shinken (real swords) with the permission of their teachers. Shinken can be modern, steel blades or antiques, depending on the resources of the practitioner. In any case, the blades and fittings must be sound enough to withstand the rigors of practice.
Like other modern "do" (meaning "way," or "path," a term denoting a spiritual path followed by students of a discipline) forms, rankings exist, though progress through the ranks is slower than in some other martial arts. In the US, there are informal kyu levels (non-ranked), followed by dan (black belt) rankings. For muso Shinden ryu, in general, it takes three years of consistent practice to reach first dan, simply meaning the student understands the Omori Ryu set of forms. There is no distinction made between men and women testing for rank. Teaching on a formal level ideally does not take place until fifth dan or higher, meaning perhaps twenty years or more of study, and deeply understanding all three sets of forms. Since women did not study iaido in significant numbers until the 1970s, most of the senior teachers are men. As in many other Japanese art forms, however, women are becoming increasingly visible as students and teachers. In the US, iaido has only become more popular in the past 10 years, so most women are still beginner and intermediate students.
Generally speaking, iaido is practised indoors. Special requirements for iaido are similar to those for kendo: a wooden floor, ideally a sprung floor to protect the practitioners' joints, a high ceiling, and enough space to permit practitioners to train freely with swords without interfering with one another. Space may be borrowed, rented or owned, depending on availability and the finances of the dojo.
Currently, the most practised styles of iaido are the Muso Shinden Ryu and the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, presumed to be branches of the original style of batto jutsu founded by Hayashizaki (Taylor and Ohmi 1997: 83). Currently in Japan, however, there are over 400 schools (Ryu) of iaijutsu and iaido, though the majority of these are quite small. (Alexanian, 2000, n.p.)
Iaido originated in the katana (long sword) techniques of the samurai of Japan, which were codified beginning around 1390. When the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) unified the country after a long period of civil conflict, edicts were issued to transform the samurai from warriors to refined individuals, able to serve in the government. Skills included martial arts, reading, writing, administration, and finer arts, like calligraphy and painting (Warner and Draeger 1982: 14, 38).
Peace changed the reasons for martial study. Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (1546?-1621) is considered the legendary founder of iaido for not only codifying a system of batto jutsu (sword-drawing techniques), which he called Shimmei Muso Ryu, but also for promulgating the idea that practising sword forms with meditative intent could make one a better person, and benefit society thereby. (The well-known connection between Zen and the martial arts had previously been established as far back as the 14th century.) (Warner and Draeger 1982: 79-81).
Following the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration (1868-1911) saw "sportification" of combative sword forms (kenjutsu) into kendo, still widely practised today by both men and women in Japan and throughout the world (Draeger and Smith 1980: 101-102). Meanwhile, the batto jutsu forms evolved from Hayashizaki through successive headmasters, who introduced more philosophical refinements. The term "iaido," meaning, essentially, "way of presence in the moment," was first used to describe the sword-drawing art in 1932 (Draeger and Warner 1982: 79, 96).
This article was reproduced with the permission of the Author.
About The Author:
Deborah Klens-Bigman earned her PhD in Performance Studies at New York University, doing field research on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). In addition to her "day job" she has written on dance, martial arts and Japanese traditional culture for various print and online publications. She has studied iaido for almost 25 years. She earned a 5th degree in Muso Shinden Ryu iaido from Otani Yoshiteru and has a 4th degree in Ryushin Jigen Ryu iaido. She continues to study Ryushin Jigen Ryu under Headmaster Yahagi Kunikazu and Retired Headmaster Kawabata Terutaka in Tokyo, Japan. She is the Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, based in Queens, New York. She also continues to study Japanese classical dance with Shihan Fujima Nishiki-no (Helen Moss).
She lives in Queens with her husband, artist Vernon Bigman, and four cats who think they own the place.