Iaido emerged from the classic sword art of the samurai (iai-jutsu) and consists of simulated fights using a Japanese sword (katana). With its characteristic curved blade, the katana eventually became the samurai's premier weapon, and it still represents the soul of ancient Japan. As opposed to kendo, a derived combat sport where two armoured opponents fight each other using specially designed bamboo sticks in a match, the older iaido comprises the authentic and tried sword techniques of the individual warrior.
They have been formalised in so-called kata (prearranged forms), each with its specific scenario, and always beginning with a sheathed sword. This typical training method stems from the oldest martial traditions of Japan, which emerged about five hundred years ago. It is also the only feasible training method, for the techniques are performed with a live blade and are all lethal. In budo disciplines featuring two sparring opponents, the emphasis is on kata is usually considerably less, although they positively exist.
Even though iaido kata actually consist of a single flowing motion, four stages can be distinguished:
Drawing the sword and delivering the first cut (nukitsuke)
Delivering the final cut (kiritsuke)
Cleaning the sword (chiburi)
Returning the sword to its scabbard (noto).
The scenarios have the following leitmotiv: in reaction to an attack by one or more imaginary adversaries the sword is drawn and the plot is converted into a lightning fast counterattack.
The kata may be situated in or among buildings, in open country, or even amidst a crowd, the performer either sitting, standing or walking. When the danger is over, the sword is resheathed in a prescribed fashion, and the iaidoka returns to his position of departure in total concentration and vigilance. This flexibility of mind and body under different circumstances and in harmony with the environment is expressed in the Japanese concept of iai.
Iaido, however, is more than just a Japanese martial art. Performing the kata comes down to perfect body control for the techniques to be effective, total concentration to be able to visualize the opponent as vividly as possible, and most of all, training experience. Other aspects of Japanese culture can be found in iaido, too: the social discipline marking Confucianism, the philosophical background of Taoism, but also the mental and physical challenge of Zen Buddhism, the emphasis on rituals and presentation and the important part of Japanese tradition and harmony with nature as seen in Shintoism.
One could say that forging a Japanese sword still takes place in a typical Shintoist context, with full attention to the gods (kami), while wearing the sword in the era of the samurai was pervaded with Neo-Confucianist norms and values, such as wisdom (chi), benevolence (jin) and courage (yuu). As soon as the sword is drawn, however, pure Zen takes over: the swordsman strives after a state of mind of no thoughts (munen), where life and death are one and no longer prevail. That way, the sword can be seen as an instrument which not only conquers evil and takes life (satsu jin ken), but actually gives life (katsu jin ken), that is, by eliminating the ego.
In true victory, the sword never even leaves the scabbard (saya no uchi no kachi). This indicates how the combat effectiveness of classical iai-jutsu, embedded in the turbulent feudal context of Japanese history, slowly gave way to the more spiritual and educating components of modern iaido in daily life. Vigilance, dedication and flexibility were among the virtues of the samurai. Therefore, iaidoka will never finish practising, and following the endless road (-do) to perfection is hard indeed, but always fascinating and rewarding.
Today there are twelve designed kata trained by all iaidoka, which form the common ground for examinations and matches. This is Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei or Z.N.K.R. iai (formerly known as seitei iai), which emerged in 1966 and 1980, when headmasters associated with the Z.N.K.R. were seeking a way to confront kendoka with the roots of their sport. Traditional kendo kata, performed with a wooden sword (bokken), gave insufficient opportunity for this, even though either judo or kendo were obligatory parts of the curriculum at Japanese schools at the time.
ZNKR kata comprises of four sitting and eight standing kata, featuring the most representative and effective sword techniques from various traditions: horizontal, vertical, diagonal and successive cuts, as well as thrusts and stabs. The series is preceded and concluded by a short saluting ritual, which figures largely in iaido. Depending on the situation, it is an expression of respect to the past (the gods or early headmasters), the present (the teacher and the sword) and the future (the students) of the discipline.
Z.N.K.R. iai definitively marks the transition of iai-jutsu to iai-do. In this present form, iaido is practised world-wide.
With the advent of Z.N.K.R. iaido, the many traditions (ryuha) were provided with a standard with which to compare their expertise among themselves. Apart from the appraisal within the various schools, a system well-known from other budo disciplines was introduced, featuring seven kyu- and ten dan grades, with which one could judge the level of experience of candidates.
The Z.N.K.R. system also opens the road to matches, where two candidates of about the same level of experience - sometimes with one grade disparity - simultaneously show a number of free or prescribed kata to a jury. Of course, they will be judged by the technical perfection of their performance, measured by the depth of their training background, but also by the atmosphere they are able to evoke with their kata.
Most likely, there is no weapon that has played such a dominant and symbolic part in the cultural history of a people as the sword has in Japan. The Japanese people consider themselves as chosen and as mythology has it, their emperor descends directly from the sun-godess Amaterasu Omikami.
One of the three regalia of the emperor, besides a mirror and crown jewels, is the sword the god Susanoo gave to Amaterasu after he defeated a dragon with eight heads. The typical Japanese sword as we know it today, can be traced back to the eighth century, when mounted soldiers already used a relatively long variety (tachi). A curved blade proved to be much stronger and more effective than its straight counterpart. In time, the length diminished and the weapon became suitable for man-to-man fights on firm ground.
It was only in the sixteenth century that this type of long sword (daito, katana), together with a shorter one (shoto, wakizashi), was worn in the samurais belt with the sharp edge upwards (daisho), thus opening the way to true iai. At the end of the turbulent Muromachi and Momoyama periods and during the more or less quiet Edo era in Japanese history, until well into the nineteenth century, the samurai reigned supreme and developed the versatile etiquette of the feudal class (bushido), in which other art forms, apart from the martial arts, played an important role as well.
After the Meiji-restauration, which began in 1867 and which opened Japanese society to influences from the West, wearing the daisho was prohibited. This meant a shrewd blow for almost all martial arts traditions, to be compared with the ban on weapons during the American occupation following the Second World War. However, a new iaido and kendo movement was primed in the first decades of the twentieth century, which finally gave birth to modern iaido. Actual applications on the battlefield have now given way to the individual education of its practitioners.
Appraising Japanese swords is an art in itself. They consist of different parts. The blade continues under the hilt, which is fixed into place by a bamboo peg. On this 'invisible' part of the tang the smith has often inscribed his name. Not only are all swords built throughout the centuries accompanied by official documents; even some contemporary smiths are recognized as living monuments of Japanese cultural heritage by the authority of the state!
During the process of forging the blade has been given a relatively soft core and a hard surface. This renders the sword extraordinary sharp but still flexible, and thus hardly breakable. The edge is additionally hardened, reducing the possibility of damage to an absolute minimum. This section can be identified by a certain pattern on the surface of the blade (hamon), which emerges when the smith heats it to a higher temperature and cools it quicker than the rest of the blade.
Traditionally, the hilt is made out of ray- or sharkskin, wrapped with cotton, silk or leather string. Ornaments in relief provide the swordsman with a better grip. The handguard is forged and is seen as a work of art in its own right by collectors. A wooden scabbard (saya) protects the blade; it is attached to the belt around the waist with a special braid (sageo).