What is iaido? – A novice’s perspective

Iaido is the Japanese art of drawing the sword. At its most basic level it involves performing predetermined forms, or kata, to replicate a specific situation and the correct way to effect a defensive or attacking technique. At the beginning of each kata the sword is resting in the scabbard, or saya, and during the kata sword is drawn and utilised in a variety of cuts (nukitsuke and kirioroshi), strikes (ate), blocks and parries (ukenagashi) and stabbing motions (tsuki). The blood is then removed from the blade using a motion called chiburi. Finally the sword is returned into the saya through performing noto. These few actions with the sword, combined with movements of the body are all that makes up all the different sets of kata within iaido. During the 1960s, under the auspices of the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR – the Japanese Kendo Association) it was decided to formulate a new set of basic forms that all ZNKR members of iaido, regardless of which Ryu-ha (school) they attended, could learn and subsequently grade and compete against each other following a centralised syllabus and structure. In the UK clubs which are aligned with the British Kendo Association will practice this set of kata, now numbering 12 forms, which is known as Seitei Gata, to which there is more than enough to keep any one person busy for a lifetime.

So these few different sword positions, combined with kneeling (seiza), sitting (tatahiza, iaihiza or suwari), standing(tachi), turning and movement are translated into 12 seitei kata, 44 koryu (old style) kata, plus two-man kata (tachi uchi no kurai) and innumerable kae waza (variations on the koryu kata). This creates the possibility for almost infinite variety within these movements, with the aim of providing the elements of good technique to the aspiring swordsman.

So it’s all about the sword then?

Not really. The sword is important as it is the instrument you defend yourself with (or one of them), but it is no more than a simple tool, albeit a beautifully evolved and lethally efficient one. A real samurai sword is around three feet of razor sharp metal (which is why beginners start with a wooden sword or bokken) and if swung in the right way will do a lot of damage. But swinging it in the right way is actually a very difficult thing to do and takes many years of tuition and practise. If the sword cutting edge is not lined up with the angle of the cut, then the cut will not happen effectively. Likewise if the axes of rotation of the sword and the body when cutting are incorrect, it is very easy to miss a target. The sword is simply an extension of the body position the iaidoka (iaido practitioner) is in at any one time. If the body position is wrong then the cutting points will be wrong. The leverage effect of having a three foot sword in your hand can mean that a few degrees of inaccuracy in the placement of the heel can mean that either the sword position or the distance covered is wrong, effectively meaning that in a real situation you would have missed, rendering you extremely vulnerable.

This means that the foundation for our line of iaido lies in the strength of our body work as a strong foundation for our sword work. Fancy flashing steel is no use if it is ultimately ineffective.

Right, so it’s all about the body then.

Actually, this is not wholly accurate either. There is no easy way to put this: iaido is extremely difficult. At the most basic level it will take a few hours of training to get the basic shape of a kata, but in making it effective will require many hundreds or even thousands of hours of practice per form. Being able to isolate single muscles from groups never before used so as to add another 2 degrees to the angle of the blade in nukitsuke, or using specific internal abdominal muscles to make rising from seiza slightly more fluid requires a lot of concentration and patience. Iaido becomes a constant test of concentration, intelligence and character. The journey from unconscious incompetence to a loose form of conscious incompetence is in itself is a long, painful but hugely rewarding process. Moving beyond that into a realm of competence requires not only an understanding and awareness of what the sword is doing, but also later knowing how to use the body more effectively with the sword in unison. However that is still not the end of the journey. Knowing ‘what’ to do and ‘how’ to do it still only gives the practitioner a two-dimensional technique. The next step after ‘what’ and ‘how’ is understanding ‘when’ to do something or move. This is indeed the most difficult part of iaido and brings in many subtle aspects commonly found in the high arts of Japan.

In modern society the ability to use a samurai sword holds virtually no practical benefit, so the constant striving to improve one’s iai is only of benefit in and of itself. The study of iaido requires constant monitoring of the body’s own feedback mechanisms, which over time will improve balance and muscle control. The slow pace of progress in iaido will help develop patience and maybe even change the timescales that you think of progress on (your author often thinks in terms of what can be achieved in the next 5, 10,20 and 40 years of training). Reflection on the actions of the kata, on the killing of the opponent, the risk to yourself may sharpen your morals and fortitude. The awareness of what is happening around you in your practice may make it into your everyday life, helping to keep composure in difficult situations and defuse problems before they arise. It is my view that the key skills that can be learnt through iaido will eventually permeate the entirety of your life and make you a better person. Needless to say, the ‘DO’ character from iai-do, meaning michi, tells us that iaido is indeed a long road of ever-receding destinations, but with no final destination, no final lesson to be learned. It is a daunting thought at first, but for those of us who have been on the road long enough, it is a warming thought and a reassuring one. So what is iaido? I do not yet know precisely, but I am learning.

David Hickey
Nidan (still very much a beginner)
5 years practice