Iaido, a sword-based martial art: Be prepared!



By Simon Gilbert

When you think of a Japanese martial art, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Maybe karate, or judo? Before I came to Japan, those would have been my answers too. Indeed, before my predecessor mentioned she studied it, I’d never even heard of Iaido, but once I knew the opportunity was there I leapt at the chance to learn it, and I’m very glad I did, for Iaido is quintessentially Japanese and has given me a great opportunity to experience a part of Japanese culture steeped in history and tradition.

Meaning approximately “The way of mental presence and immediate reaction”, Iaido was developed early in the sixteenth century by a man called Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu, with the aim of gaining an advantage over opponents in combat before they could draw their sword. Back then assassination attempts were very common and could happen at any time, so being prepared to draw your sword at a moment’s notice from any position was essential, thus while there are some waza (techniques) from combat positions, there are also many from normal sitting and standing positions. Iaido was very popular with samurai, as being prepared to fight from any position was an essential skill for them.

Today, Iaido has branched into two main schools, the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu, the aim of both being to develop the mind, body and spirit, with the emphasis on remaining calm and in control of ourselves even when under pressure or facing difficult situations. It teaches us always to be prepared for anything, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. This does not just mean having an aware state of mind, but rigorously training so a technique can be used to resolve a situation if necessary. With a sword, of course, this is deadly, but that is not the whole point. Both in business and in our personal lives the ability to be decisive when the situation calls for it is vital. So, while we may no longer walk down the street carrying a sword, Iaido’s ability to train us to be prepared and decisive means it is still relevant today.

But what exactly is Iaido? It is a sword-based martial art focusing on self-defence, and is practised mainly by adults (it is seen as the martial art you turn to last after having practised others, hence you very rarely see children studying it). The various techniques studied are known as waza, and each waza has four distinct phases to it. First, smoothly and precisely drawing a sword and cutting the opponent(s) (Nukitsuke) before the main two-handed cut down (Kirioroshi). Blood is then removed from the sword (Chiburi) before the sword is once again smoothly and precisely sheathed (Noto).

There are three different types of swords used – a wooden sword for complete beginners, iaito (plated alloy blunt practice swords) for the more experienced, and some advanced members use real swords (katanas). Iaido is practised wearing a hakama (baggy pleated trousers), a keiki gi (a training jacket) and an iai obi (a sword belt worn under the hakama to keep the sword in place). Unlike other Japanese martial arts such as karate, there is nothing on the uniform to indicate what rank you are.

In Iaido the waza are generally practised alone against an imaginary enemy, as otherwise it is rather dangerous. However, there are some choreographed waza that two very skilled people can perform together.

Grades in Iaido range from shodan (first Dan) to judan (tenth Dan), first being the lowest and tenth the highest. As in practice, in exams practitioners are examined solely on forms with no sparring, and we are tested on how well we can cope with performing certain waza under pressure.

Iaido is like any other martial art: hard work, persistence and dedication are needed to get the most out of it and truly improve and enjoy it. But I have found it totally worth it, as it has given me the opportunity to meet many new people and experience a traditional piece of Japanese culture, as well as allowing me to improve how I react to difficult or unexpected situations. It has truly helped me to ‘be prepared’. Why not give it a try, if you can, and be ready to experience something just a little bit different!


Iaido article on Wikipedia

The British Kendo Association Iaido and Jodo website: