A Guide to Buying an Iaito Sword
What’s in this article?
The iaito swords, crafted specifically for use in iaido, have blades made of aluminum alloy and cannot be sharpened. They replicate the balance, weight, and size of real Japanese swords and often come with beautiful fittings. Martial arts practitioners only use them for practicing solo forms and saya or scabbard practice.
We’ve compiled a guide on choosing the best iaito for training and its uses in Japanese martial arts.
How to Choose Iaito Sword
Martial arts practitioners never use their metal blades in contact drills, but it matters to opt for an iaito properly constructed for the regular wear and tear of practice.
Here are the factors to consider when choosing an iaito:
Type of Metal
Japanese-made iaito swords have an aluminum alloy blade or are composed of relatively soft metals such as beryllium or zinc alloy. These blades are smooth and can easily bend if they strike another surface. Usually made using sand-casting, they are not designed for cutting purposes and cannot be sharpened.
Japanese-made iaito are the best practice swords you can get in the market based on their material, construction, finish, and geometry. Many iaito reproductions outside Japan feature a blunt carbon steel blade and may or may not reflect the attention to detail given to Japanese-made iaito.
An iaito sword features an alloy blade without a cutting edge with a chromium coating. Some blades have hi or grooves cut into the surface to lighten them, and the most common is the bo-hi or bar groove.
The iaito sword is not clay tempered like Japanese swords, but it may still feature an etched or stenciled hamon or temperline pattern on the blade surface, purely for aesthetic purposes. Apart from high-quality construction, good iaito swords also have full tang blades.
Size and Weight
The size and weight of the iaito replicate the Japanese sword. In Japanese units of measurement, 1 shaku is equivalent to 30.3 centimeters. A katana is a long sword with a blade length of more than 2 shaku or over 60 centimeters, while the wakizashi is a short sword shorter than 2 shaku yet longer than a tanto dagger. However, the iaito length may also depend on the style or dojo a practitioner is practicing in.
Sometimes, the iaito may depend on the height of the practitioner. To determine the appropriately sized iaito, you may grip the hilt with your right hand just under the sword guard and let the blade hang towards the ground. The tip or kissaki should be approximately 5 to 7 centimeters from the ground to allow easy drawing of the sword.
Young students of kenjutsu and iaijutsu often use a shoto iaito—a short sword like a wakizashi—because the daito iaito is too long to unsheathe from its scabbard. In feudal Japan, the son of a samurai used the wakizashi until he was of age to wield the longer sword, the katana.
The metal fittings of an iaito are often indistinguishable from those of real Japanese swords. In competitions, iaito swords only have traditional koshirae mounting with a functional hilt (tsuka), sword guard (tsuba), lacquered scabbard (saya), and other metal ornaments. However, the iaito is not designed to be disassembled and remounted in different mountings like the real samurai swords.
Hilt or Tsuka
The iaito sword has a wooden handle wrapped with cotton, silk, or leather. Generally, a cotton tsuka-ito is durable and less slippery than silk, making it ideal for training. A leather tsuka-ito can be suede or typical leather, though the latter can be slippery for saya practice.
When standing, a practitioner usually holds the sword with both hands. Many prefer the ray skin on the wooden hilt rather than a solid plastic handle that could easily snap during use. If the hilt has a plastic wrapping instead of ray skin, the core should at least be made of wood.
Sword Guard or Tsuba
The tsuba may vary in shape and design, from rounded to four-lobed and decorative. However, the sword guard of an iaito must be comfortable for the hand resting against it. Most of the time, the shape and finish of the tsuba affect the sword’s functionality and comfort level, so high relief carvings are not ideal for training.
Scabbard or Saya
In iaido, the sword drawing forms are designed to draw the katana quickly into play while inflicting injury to the enemy. So, the practice sword must also have a properly constructed scabbard, and the blade won’t rub against the wooden surface. The iaito sword should leave the scabbard smoothly and quietly as a real katana sword would.
Martial arts practitioners have a wide array of choices in ornaments, fittings, and colors of their training swords though many prefer simple designs such as simple black and white color schemes. The scabbard lacquer may vary from matte to gloss, though beginners often go for a matte variety which is easier to grip.
Metal ornaments are a matter of aesthetics and depend on personal preference. Some iaito features a menuki placed under the hilt wrapping, and others have matching fuchi and kashira, or metal ornaments near the tsuba and the pommel respectively. It also comes with a sageo cord which allows it to be worn on the obi belt.
Iaito vs. Shinken vs. Katana
The term “iaito” often implies a practice sword with an unsharpened aluminum alloy blade, though reproductions outside Japan sometimes feature blunt carbon steel blades. On the other hand, the term shinken refers to a live blade, whether a sharp Japanese katana or a wakizashi. Generally, beginners are not permitted to use a shinken as it could endanger themselves while training.
Martial arts practitioners who study Japanese swordsmanship need an iaito because it comes with a scabbard, from which to draw the samurai sword. However, they do not use an iaito in partnered practice. The kumitachi requires strikes and thrusts between practitioners’ blades, and an iaito would never stand up to the use.
So, practitioners utilize the bokken or wooden swords for contact drills. Practitioners who study double sword techniques or nito-waza also use a shoto iaito. Before trying to use a sharp katana sword, a practitioner must be able to execute drawing techniques without needing to look at the sword or scabbard. Live blades are often reserved for tameshigiri or test cutting practice.
Uses of Iaito Swords in Martial Arts
The iai is the art of drawing the sword, and the term iaito literally means iai sword. The iaijutsu is known for the defensive sword drawing, while kenjutsu is an aggressive style of swordsmanship. The modern iaido and kendo developed from iaijutsu and kenjutsu, using sword practice for personal development rather than combat.
In Iaijutsu and Kenjutsu
Practitioners of iaijutsu and kenjutsu use an iaito, a bokken, and a suburito—a heavy wooden sword. Generally, an iaito allows the scabbard or saya practice, while a bokken is used for solo and partnered practice during bogyo-waza. On the other hand, the suburito helps the practitioner to develop strength.
In Fukasa-Ryu iaijutsu and kenjutsu, practitioners who reach the master levels are taught double-sword techniques or nito-waza, which utilizes the shoto iaito. However, only a few students attain this level, so the shoto iaito and wakizashi are less popular than the daito iaito and katana.
In iaido, the way of sword drawing, practitioners use iaito practice swords, together with bokken or a wooden sword. However, kendo evolved into a sport that uses a bamboo sword or shinai, safer for training and competitions.
In the dojo, practitioners wear traditional Japanese martial art uniforms, including a light jacket, an obi belt, and hakama or wide trousers. Training swords, whether wooden or steel, are worn in the warrior method or bukezukuri.
Generally, the long sword is worn between the second and third layers of the obi belt, with the cutting edge facing up. If the shorter sword is also worn, it is placed between the first and second layers, edge-up. However, the forms in sword drawing vary from system to system.
Unlike real Japanese swords, the iaito has an unsharpened metal blade and cannot be used for cutting. Martial arts practitioners use it for saya practice, but never in contact drills. A good training sword has high-quality construction, durability, and balance and can withstand the wear and tear in iaido, kenjutsu, and iaijutsu training.