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Traditional Japanese Budo

What is Iaido ? 

Iaido is one of the Traditional Japanese Budo, concerned with the drawing of a  sword and cutting in the same motion. ( Kata ).  You make no impact with a person or object.  Your opponent or opponents are imaginary

It is practiced solo, without protective coverings and when a certain high standard is achieved, a Shin-ken ( real/live blade) can be used.

Practitioners, over time improve technique, precision as well as balance, control and grace in body and mind.

History

It is thought that Iaido began in the mid 1500’s with Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu ( 1542 – 1621 ) being the founder member.  However, there were literally several thousand schools in Japan with only a few remaining today.  The most common ‘old’ styles of Kata seen in the UK today are Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu.

Equipment

Iaido is practised wearing Hakama and Keiko Gi.  An iai obi is worn under the Hakama cords to hold the sword in place.  The Hakama is usually black or dark blue, and the Keigi in matching colour or White.  A white hakama can be worn, but considered to be a summer dress. There is no indication of grade by means in the costume, unlike most other well known Japanese Martial arts such as Jiu-Jitsu, Judo & Karate

The ‘swords’ used, range from the Bokken for beginners ( Wooden sword ), to iaito

( blunt plated alloy sword ) for the more experienced.  The Dojo usually has a plain wooden floor without mats and sufficient headroom to perform a cutting motion. As noted previously, higher Dan grades will progress up to a shin-ken, which will in turn require Sword care.  Sword cleaning kits containing special powder, oil and paper are obtained and used in order to keep the Hand made Shin-ken rust free etc.  Although, students with Iaito may be encouraged to use cleaning kits to gain knowledge of the correct sword cleaning etiquette.

Old sketch of a sword being used – A samurai is cut from behind and his accomplice is restrained with a ju-jitsu hold.

Kata

Once learning basics of how to hold a sword and cut, the beginner is gradually introduced to the ten Kata of the All Japan Kendo Federation.  The kata’s were developed in the 1960’s and 70’s and were taken from the most popular old styles.

 No matter what style is practised, the kata always comprises of four separate parts

Nukituke – The drawing of the blade to meet a sudden encounter

Kirioroshi – The cut or cuts used to despatch the enemy

Chiburi – The shaking of the blood from the blade

Noto – The re-sheathing of the sword back in the saya ( scabbard )

There is a strong enfaces in all aspects of iaido to correctly using the eyes, pressing, pushing, distance and timing.  To learn these ’basics’, will take about five years.  From the third or fourth year, students through many hours of repeating the various kata will combine body, mind and movement to gain inner strength.  During these years, posture is improved and movements become more effective because timing is better controlled and less predictable.  Once confidence increases, the next stage of a students training is developed.  This is called ‘Renshu’.  This is to polish the spirit and character through the requirements of detail and interpretation.  To demonstrate a compassionate nature that can pass on knowledge without egotistical pride and arrogance.  In my short time as an Iai student, I can say that all the senior Dan grades from either Europe or Japan that I came in to contact with, clearly demonstrated this spirit.  This leads to the award of ‘Renshi’, meaning a person whose performance and character is polished by training.  This grade is not awarded below 6th Dan and is only available from the All Japan Kendo Federation ( ZNKR ).

A duel with swords – Two swordsmen about to settle a dispute with swords.

Many of the Dojo’s in the UK will have sensei’s who teach Kendo, Jodo as well as iaido.  In general, the majority of courses will combine training and grading in Jodo and iaido ,with separate courses for Kendo.  It’s certainly a strange feeling when first training with a sword and saya when compared to using a Bokken.  You feel apprehensive when wielding a blade in cutting motions knowing you are being taught kata’s used for hundreds of years.  I remember my first few attempts at trying to place the blade back into the saya.  Believe you me it’s harder than it looks and when you finally succeed in what you think is with accuracy and grace, you are quickly reminded when seeing a master, that you are still many years from perfecting this ‘simple’ technique.

I was privileged some years ago to attend one of the yearly week long British Kendo Association ( BKA ) seminar’s where Haruna sensei 8th Dan, Iwamoto sensei 8th Dan and Oshita Sensei 7th Dan were teaching.  We were all amazed at their skill and presence in the Dojo.  It was Iwamoto sensei’s first visit outside Japan , and we were therefore pleasantly surprised when he wanted to spend the full week with the students who had not yet gained Sho Dan.

Grading

Grading up to and including 2nd Kyu can be taken at the local Dojo.  However, 1st Kyu and upwards, gradings must be taken on official seminars. The grading at seminars will be in front of a panel of senior iai sensei’s and is watched by all at the seminar.  A nerve racking experience…but nerves not to be shown.  Compared to most other martial arts, the gradings may take only a few minutes where the skill and precision of the practioner is assessed.  For Sho Dan and upwards a written examination is also included.  The results of all the gradings are placed on a notice board for all to see and this is how you find out whether you have passed or not.

Toshiro Mifune in a scene from the film sanjuro

 Personal thoughts

I found the training in iaido demanding but extremely rewarding and this ignited my interest in the history of the Japanese sword.  As recently as WW2, a Japanese officer would wear a sword as part of their uniform to symbolise their authority, and also the heritage of Bushido.

Swords are highly prized in Japan and throughout the world as an art object of the highest quality.   Swords today are still being made in the same traditional way they have been for over 1000 years. This in turn has led me down the path of learning more about the Japanese sword and its effect on Japanese history and culture.

Chris Henry

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