Iaido: The Art of Drawing the Sword
What’s in this article?
Iaido is the art of drawing and cutting with a sword in the same motion. It teaches the skills of attacking from the scabbard and striking down an opponent. Today, the sword art is widely practiced as a martial art and a sport. However, it is more than just about defeating an opponent and showing off one’s skill.
Let’s explore the sword-drawing art of iaido, its basic concepts and techniques, the types of swords used in practice, and the history of the sword art.
What Is Iaido?
Iaido evolved from iaijutsu—a sword-drawing art focusing on practical combat applications to incapacitate or kill an enemy. Both involve drawing the blade from the scabbard, cutting, cleaning the blood from the blade, and returning it to the scabbard—all in one motion.
The sword-drawing art was developed likely to save crucial seconds in a surprise attack, so a trained swordsman could respond instantly. Both iaido and iaijutsu involve perfecting the control of the sword. However, iaido uses sword practice as a means of personal development rather than for combat. It is also practiced as a sport, with competitors performing a set of techniques and judges declaring a winner.
Basic Form and Techniques in Iaido
A form, called kata in Japanese, is a sequence of specific movements to develop the proper technique. The swordsman learns various patterns of movements while visualizing imaginary opponents and may attack alone or in groups from different angles.
The individual form in iaido generally consists of four parts: drawing the sword from the scabbard, cutting, removing the blood from the blade, and sheathing the sword. Also, a form is composed of various stances, footwork patterns, and evasive actions, which widely vary depending on the situation.
1. Drawing (Nuki Tsuke)
Drawing the sword is intended to bring it quickly into play and injure the enemy. Generally, the sword is drawn from the left side of the body, but it may be executed in various ways. In a vertical draw, the sword is drawn just as it is, with its cutting edge facing upward. In a horizontal draw, the sword is turned horizontally when drawn, with its cutting edge outside.
However, the specific movements for drawing the sword vary depending on the situation. For example, a horizontal draw may be used when the swordsman is sitting indoors, where the narrow space and social situations limit his movements. In some instances, a vertical draw can also be utilized while in a kneeling position.
2. Cutting (Kiritsuke)
While the initial draw is designed to injure the enemy, it is often not powerful enough to kill him. So, an additional cutting technique is executed to inflict as much harm on the enemy as possible. The sword can be raised overhead, cutting downward at the enemy, or cutting to the right or left side of the enemy’s head or upper body. Generally, the downward cut is delivered with both hands.
3. Blood-Cleaning (Chiburi)
Blood-cleaning is the action of removing the enemy’s blood from the blade. Generally, a swordsman clears the blood using forceful, swinging motions. While the right-hand grips the sword, the swordsman raises it to the right side of the body. Then, he swings it downwards sharply in front of the body.
4. Sheathing (Noto)
Sheathing refers to the act of returning the sword to the scabbard after defeating the enemy. Generally, a swordsman remains on guard, sheathing the sword without looking at it. Hand positioning is critical when sheathing, though the way it is done may vary from system to system.
With the left hand grasping the scabbard’s mouth, the back of the blade is placed at the scabbard’s mouth, usually near the hand guard. The sword is pulled to the right until the point slips into the scabbard’s mouth, and then the blade slides into the scabbard.
Types of Swords Used in Iaido
The iaido practice uses traditional weapons, from wooden swords to unsharpened metal swords and live blades (shinken). Regardless of the type, the sword used in training is worn on the left side of the body, thrust through the belt edge up.
Technically, the scabbard (saya) is placed between the second and third layers of the belt. If a short sword is also worn, its scabbard is placed between the first and second layers. Therefore, both scabbards point to the left, and the long sword’s hilt and short sword’s guard align with the navel.
Iaito is a practice sword without a sharp cutting edge for safety reasons. Its unsharpened blade, usually of nickel or zinc-aluminum alloy, replicates the weight and balance of an actual blade. Iaido practitioners use the iaito for practicing solo techniques but never in contact drills.
2. Bokken or Bokuto
A bokken or bokuto is a wooden sword constructed from solid, one-piece wood similar in weight and balance to a Japanese sword. Unlike the iaito, a bokken has no scabbard to sheath the blade.
Iaido training involves practicing kata with a partner using wooden swords. The partnered forms (kumitachi) require contact between the practitioners’ blades, and iaido practitioners treat their wooden swords like sharp swords.
A shinken is a real sword with a sharp, fully-functional blade. Instructors (sensei) and masters often use a live blade for their own practice, usually for tameshigiri test cutting against various targets. However, beginners are prohibited from using shinken or katana because of the danger involved.
History of Iaido
In the 16th century, Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu created the sword-drawing art that evolved today into various schools of iaido. His art focused primarily on the quick draw, though little is known about his actual techniques. Hayashizaki founded the Shimmei Muso-ryu (later Shimmei Muso Hayashizaki-ryu), and the teachings were passed from teacher to student.
By the 1600s, Hasegawa Eishin, the seventh headmaster of the system, further developed the techniques, resulting in changing the school’s name to Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu. Another famous school of sword drawing, the Muso Shinden-ryu, evolved from Hayashizaki’s original art form traditions. Eventually, sword art became popular among the elite samurai class.
The headmaster of Muso Shinden-ryu, Nakayama Hakudo, gave the sword art its modern name iaido and popularized it in post-WWII Japan. There are several different styles of iaido. The Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu are the most popular styles today.
Facts About Iaido
Iaido is the martial art of drawing the Japanese sword. In iaido training, practitioners learn the appropriate technique for various attacks, including the proper stance, balance, mental focus, and footwork.
The term iai refers to the art of drawing the sword.
Iai is the name given to a sword motion where it is drawn from the scabbard, a cut is made, the blood is removed, and the sword is returned to its scabbard. It is used in iaido and iaijutsu, in which do means “way”, while jutsu means “technique”.
The respective names imply that iaido focuses on personal development, while iaijutsu is oriented toward practical combat applications. Iaido is also associated with kendo, which evolved from kenjutsu, an aggressive style of Japanese swordsmanship.
Iaido is much more than a sword-drawing art.
The suffix –do is a term used as a concept of the way, the road to self-development, or a spiritual path followed by students of budo disciplines. The suffix is used in iaido, kendo, aikido, judo, and jodo. In some contexts, the term iaido can be translated as the way to meet with one’s own existence. Therefore, iaido is more focused on character development, de-emphasizing the practical applications of the Japanese sword.
Iaido is a more formal Japanese budo (martial way).
The iaido practice is done formally, from the kata (forms) positions to various bows performed throughout the practice. The training is also done in a designated place called a dojo. After bowing in, practitioners pause in a sitting position called seiza before beginning their other activities in the dojo.
Iaido practitioners are called iaidoka.
The term iaidoka means “iaido-person” or “iaido professional”, while a teacher or instructor is commonly called sensei. In the dojo, iaido practitioners wear traditional martial art uniforms, which generally consist of a light jacket (juban or keikogi) on the upper body, a wide belt (obi), and wide trousers (hakama).
Iaido is not the same as fencing.
Iaido involves aggressive fighting actions, and the techniques are immediate. On the other hand, fencing involves many parrying techniques, which opponents naturally give and take. The cut in iaido is more powerful, designed to inflict as much harm on the enemy as possible. On the other hand, the cut in fencing allows the fencer to rebound into follow-up techniques.
Kata, or pre-arranged forms and patterns, are used in iaido training.
Kata or set routines are based on hypothetical attack and defense situations, with every angle of attack studied in detail. Iaido practitioners practiced kata from various sitting, kneeling, and standing positions. However, in iaido, the kata is designed to be practiced for their own sake rather than combat effectiveness. There are also many systems of iaido, and forms vary from system to system.
Japanese federations have standardized the forms and formalities of iaido practice.
Iaido is also studied outside of a particular system. The two major governing bodies for iaido are the All-Japan Iaido Federation and the All-Japan Kendo Federation, which established their own forms (kata) specifically for their organization. Most practitioners belong to one or the other federation.
Still, some traditional systems have their own independent school and instruction. In the United States, iaido instruction is often found in schools teaching Japanese kendo or other schools where iaido is supplementary to martial arts usually taught.
Iaido also represents the spiritual traditions of Japan.
Today, several martial arts are practiced with Zen-based spirituality. Applying Zen to martial arts infuses spiritual, internal, and personal aspects to the training. Zen Buddhism heavily influences iaido. Generally, instructors of traditional Japanese martial arts are expected to teach not only technical but also philosophical and spiritual aspects of the system.
Japanese swordsmanship surges in popularity, and iaido teaches the skills of drawing and cutting with a sword. The sword art also appeals to those looking for something more than a set of fighting skills. Today, iaido is intended as a means of self-development and improving the body and spirit.