Iaito vs. Katana: Practice and Combat Blade Differences
The iaito and katana are two of the most popular Japanese swords used today. One was beloved by the powerful samurai and is preferred today for extensive cutting practice tests. The other is renowned and appreciated by kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship) sword martial artists worldwide.
In this article, we will separate the iaito from the katana and briefly explain what they stand for and their terminology. We will conclude by explaining why one is preferred for beginners.
Differences Between Iaito and Katana
A katana translates to sword in Japanese and it refers to the most popular blade used by the samurai which developed gradually and replaced the Tachi during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). It was used in battlefields, wars, and in actual combat situations. The iaito, on the other hand, wasn’t usable for actual combat due to the unsharpened edge and it translates to “imitation sword”, “practice sword”, and in some cases “fake sword”.
The katana and iaito have similar designs, which may confuse beginners. Some major differences are their characteristics, such as the blade, hilt, size, and materials from which they are created. Their intended purpose, as well as their history, also differs.
The Iaito is a training blade that is completely based on the katana sword in both design and proportions. While that is the case and it’s supposed to be a safe version of a live razor-edge sharp weapon, there are some differences between them that will make them unique.
Edge sharpness is the main difference between a katana and an iaito blade. The katana has a blade ranging in sharpness. Katana blades may not feature grooves and have different zukuri (blade shape) so that the blade can cut various targets.
The bladed edge of the iaito is unsharpened and blunted and usually features a shinogi–zukuri blade profile. Its kissaki (blade tip) might be slightly sharper due to the blade’s design. Iaito blades often feature a bohi (groove) so the practitioner can hear the tachikaze, the sound of a perfect swing.
The katana can feature an authentic hamon (blade temper line) due to clay tempering the blade for differential hardening. Iaito swords, however, usually have a temper hamon line stenciled for aesthetic purposes.
Katana swords are known for their beautiful, authentic hilts, a true art. Their koshirae (fittings) can come in different materials, such as iron, brass, horn, copper, and stainless steel. These parts are usually richly ornamented with unique motifs on their habaki (blade collar), fuchi (metal sleeve), menuki (metal ornaments under the wrap), and kashira (pommel).
Iaito swords have similar hilts and feature a tight tsuka–maki (handle wrapping) with high-quality tsuka–ito (wrapping material), such as silk, cotton, or leather. These training swords have simple hilts with little decoration and usually only feature the tsuba made from iron to better balance the sword’s weight.
Weight and Size
The length of a katana and an iaito can differ depending on the practitioner’s height. These measurement marks are different for every person and dojo. They usually follow the traditional length of a katana, around 31 to 39 inches (80 to 100 cm). Sometimes, the iaito can have a slightly shorter blade to better serve its practitioner.
The weight of the iaito and katana usually ranges from 1.98 to 2.64 lbs (900 to 1200 grams). Sometimes, the iaito can weigh as little as 1.65 lbs (750 grams), making it easier to handle. The balance point of the iaito is often near the hilt for easier handling, while some katanas have their balance near the tip for powerful slashing attacks.
One of the largest differences between a katana samurai sword and an iaito training blade is the material used to craft them.
The traditional katana sword is made out of steel with a steel blade. An authentic Japanese nihonto katana is made out of tamahagane steel, made from iron dust called satetsu, and collected inside the Japanese archipelago. This high carbon steel can hold a very sharp edge and is called a shinken (live blade/real sword). Katanas outside Japan can be made from different carbon steels, too.
The traditional unsharpened training iaito katana sword is made of non-ferrous metals such as zinc or aluminum alloy. These alloy blades cannot be sharpened and are recognized as real training blades in Japan. They cannot be detected by a magnet and usually have a chromium coating, which better protects them from rust and corrosion.
Iaito swords outside Japan can be made from steel, ranging from traditional carbon steel, authentic folded steel, to decorative stainless steel, ideal for longevity and less maintenance. However, these would not be recognized as real iaito blades in Japan.
Function and Martial Art
The most significant difference between an iaito and a katana sword is their functions and usage for traditional Japanese sword kenjutsu martial arts.
The katana is used for cutting practice tests and assessing the might and technique of its practitioner, such as the modern art of tameshigiri (test cutting), which involves studying proper kamae kata stances and cutting a tatami mat or other targets. Another is battojutsu, the art of a quick draw and cutting.
The iaito sword is primarily used in Iaido, which is a formal Japanese budo and a martial road or way that encourages a philosophy of discipline, self-control, and respect. It involves the art of iai𑁋 undrawing the blade, kamae (stances) when holding the blade, kata forms with slashing of the blade, jigeiko (sparring practice), and kenbu (traditional Japanese sword dancing).
The katana was a bladed-edged weapon of war used by legendary Japanese samurai. The katana blades emerged around the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573) and evolved in blade design during the peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) to forms that are familiar today. The katana was one of the earliest blades used in the first traditional Japanese kenjutsu martial arts that involved cutting and training.
There were wooden versions called bokken for the safe practice of this popular samurai blade. They emerged during the same era as different fighting styles were formed based on their local province and different ryu, schools of sword martial arts.
Iaito swords are a modern creation, dating back to the 1960s. The origin behind the iaito was largely due to the regulations of bladed weaponry enacted during World War II. There were highly restrictive laws for carrying and making steel swords. This culminated with the “Act for Controlling the Possession of Firearms or Swords and Other Such Weapons” in 1958, which forbids carrying sharpened blades.
Because of this, zinc and aluminum alloy steels that are difficult to sharpen, emerged with the iaito sword. Today, the katana remains an emblematic symbol of Japanese heritage renowned for its authenticity, craftsmanship, and historical significance. At the same time, the iaito became the primary training tool of Japanese sword arts, bridging the gap between tradition and innovation.
Best for Beginners – Iaito or Katana?
The better option for newcomers to Japanese sword martial arts would be a blunted and unsharpened iaito sword. This imitation blade has many variations in the form of a katana, wakizashi, and even a tanto. It can introduce various forms of iaijutsu blade striking, sheathing, unsheathing, stances, movement, and breathing safely with almost the same weight, length, and balance as a real katana.
Iaito swords are generally much cheaper and more readily available than a proper authentic or replica katana blade. They can be crafted to your desired length and weight to make the introduction to the Japanese sword journey easier. Wielding a sharpened katana as a novice could lead to injury and demands a higher level of discipline and responsibility.
Self-training is also viable with an iaito but with great caution. With time and proper cutting, the techniques of a real sharpened katana sword can be mastered, and the wielder can confidently move on to a katana. The trepidation of handling a sharp sword will lessen, allowing for a more balanced approach to cutting practices such as tameshigiri.