Iaido Techniques and Training Methods

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Iaido is the art of drawing and cutting with the Japanese sword in a simultaneous motion. It has often been compared to the “quick draw” gunfighting of the American Wild West. However, in Iaido the emphasis is defensive, although the techniques could easily be used for assassination purposes as well.

Unlike Kenjutsu, which concentrates on using the sword when it is out of the scabbard, Iaido kata begin and end in the scabbard and place particular emphasis on the drawing and resheathing of the sword.

Iaido evolved out of the earlier, more combative art of Iaijutsu and may have appeared in its modern form as early as the Muromachi era (1338-1573), when paintings depict the sword thrust through the obi (sash) rather than hung from a suspending cord. When Zen started to have a greater influence on the more combative aspects of the art, Iai’s emphasis then shifted from the combative, to a more spiritual approach that some have called “moving meditation”.

All Iaido schools follow four basic principles:

  • Nukitsuke – the drawing of the blade
  • Kiritsuke – the killing cut
  • Chiburi – the symbolic shaking of the blood from the blade
  • Noto – The resheathing of the sword

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.

Araki Mujinsai Ryu Iaido

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.