Iaido Etiquette

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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).

Katana Iaido Swords

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.

Iaido Practice Clothing andUniforms: 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.

Iaido Ranking: 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.

Iaido Styles: 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, n.p.)