By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
Principles & Concepts
Techniques & Training Methods
Etiquette & Customs
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 1930's, 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
Iaido Principles & Concepts
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 from 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
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,
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 dueling 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-ha-kyu,
shu-ha-ri, zanshin, in-yo (yin-yang) koshi, ma-ai, and the use of kata
as the principal means of training.
Zanshin is the sense of lingering awareness. Iaido kata foster the development
of awareness in solo kata by encouraging the student to visualize the
opponent. In kumidachi, students learn zanshin in patterns of attack,
defense 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
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 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
In-yo (or yin-yang) is the unity or complementary of opposites. Individual
iaido kata contain 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.
Iaido Techniques & Training Methods
Though only samurai men traditionally practiced 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 practiced 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, 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 practicing 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 Etiquette & Customs
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 is 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 postion of honor or respect which is often the front wall
of a dojo where there are scrolls, a Shinto alter 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 acknowledgment 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
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.
Iaido Practice Clothing/Uniforms
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 1970's, 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.
Iaido Training Facilities
Generally speaking, iaido is practiced 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 practiced 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,
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 practicing
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 practiced 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).
Alexanian, Michael 2000 "Tamiya ryu iaijutsu" www.shakunage.org,
Draeger, Donn F. and Smith, Robert W.1980 Comprehensive Asian Fighting
Arts. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Taylor, Kimberly and Ohmi, Goyo 1997 "The Omori ryu: a history and
explanation." Journal of Asian Martial Arts Vol. 6, No. 1. pp. 80-103.
Warner, Gordon and Draeger, Donn F. 1982 Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique
and Practice. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill.
About the author:
Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at
New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents,
kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She
received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance
Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon
Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the
Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance
theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial
Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman.