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The arts of the sword as we know them today probably began with Iizasa Choisai the founder of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. This school included the use of many weapons from sword and stick to spear and throwing knives. One part of its curriculum was the fast draw and instant use of the sword, either in self-defence or as a pre-emptive strike. This section of their study is called Iai Jutsu. Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (1542-1621) like Iizasa Choisai is reputed to have received a divine inspiration which led to the development of his art called Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu Batto Jutsu. Here Batto means simply to draw a sword. The significant factor common to both of these schools as with many other sword schools which concerned themselves predominantly with the drawing of the sword, was that the art was practised purely as kata. How then can a martial art be fully effective when it it is practised only as solo kata against an imaginary opponent? This is a much more difficult question than it at first seems, the problem begins when trying to define ‘fully effective’, and consider what ‘effect’ is required. Of course, in kata there is no repeated opportunity to prove your technique in combat as there is in fencing kendo, and in the repeated patterns of kata there seems to be no opportunity to modify your movements in response to those of your opponent. As a fighting art of the modern world it is all too easy to see the sword arts superficially and criticise them as inappropriate, simply because we do not walk along the street carrying a sword.The way of the martial artist should be to avoid conflict. This was explained thousands of years ago by Sun Tsu in The Art of War and later by masters of strategy. The martial artist who trains fully and correctly, directed by a sensei, will develop an ability to recognise difficult situations and avoid them before they become a problem, or will engage the conflict before it has grown to become a significant matter, or will maintain a state of mind and body that will not offer opportunities for an aggressor. This is the meaning of Iaido.

The kanji (character) ‘I’ can also be read as ‘ite’ and ai’ as ‘awasu’ in the phrase ‘Tsune ni ite kyu ni awasu’ which means: wherever you are and whatever you are doing, always be prepared. Prepared means not only to have an aware state of mind, but also to have trained rigorously so that if necessary a decisive technique can be used to end a conflict. With a sword of course the cut is deadly, there are no hold-downs or restraining techniques, but this is not the whole point. In business you must be prepared and act decisively when required, do you have the confidence? When a friend lets you down can you deal appropriately, fully understanding the implications and effects of your actions? When crossing a road and a car appears ‘from nowhere’, or something falls on you as you walk along the street, is your body sufficiently balanced and your mind sufficiently clear to deal with these situations and be safe? All of these are examples of self-defence, and all as important as the superficial interpretation of self-defence equals fighting. Kata is a very difficult study.

Stages in training

1. Keiko. This means quite simply training or practice. This is the stage during which the essential movements are perfected by slow repetition, by breaking the kata down into its component parts, by understanding how the techniques work in a fighting situation. With this practice the swordsman begins to understand the principles of Metsuke (correct use of the eyes), Seme (pressing or pushing) in order to control the opponent, of Maai (combative distance) and Ma (timing). This study takes about five years of regular practice. Overlapping with it, from about the third or fourth year, the swordsman will begin the practice of Tanren.

2. Tanren means to forge in the same way that a sword blade is forged, with hard work, and sweat, and many hours of dedication, folding together the hard and soft elements in the body, mind, and movement just as the sword gains its strength out of hard and soft steel. The student increasingly practises without concern for the correctness of the movements (though they must remain correct and effective) and repeats the kata uninterrupted with a feeling of Shinken Shobu (a fight to the death with a real sword). During this phase posture improved, movements become more natural, techniques become more effective because timing is better controlled and less predictable. As confidence increases and Kigurai (bearing, demeanour) develops, training moves into the phase called Renshu.

3. Renshu. Ren means to polish, to perfect by continued practice of both keiko and tanren. It also means 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. This leads to the award of Renshi meaning a person whose performance and character is polished by training. This grade is not awarded below the rank of 6th Dan and is only available from the All Japan Kendo Federation (ZNKR). After this stage the actions become slower and softer, appearing to a bystander to be less effective-but the technique comes from refined efficiency, not using force-until the moment the sword is actually cutting, remaining relaxed in body but constantly aware and prepared in mind. Only after leaving all of these stages in the past and demonstrating the simplicity of the correct action and knowing all of these stages by direct experience can the student who has by now gained 7th Dan receive Kyoshi (teacher grade) from the ZNKR.

The Curriculum

After learning basics of how to hold a sword and cut with it the beginner is gradually introduced to the twelve kata of the All Japan Kendo Federation. These forms were developed in the 1960′s and 70′s as a national and later, international, standard for teaching, grading and competing. The moves are derived from the most popular of old styles (koryu), and, although they represent basic study in preparation for koryu practice, they continue to be the forms through which instructors and sensei demonstrate basic principles at all levels. Following these there are old style kata. Most common in the UK and Japan are Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, both of which are off-shoots from the Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu Batto Jutsu mentioned above.

These schools have five sets of kata, three of one-man sword drawing (Iaido) and two of two-man techniques (ken jutsu). As the student progresses through the sets, the range of interpretations widens, so that whereas the beginner had a very strict defined set of moves, the more advance student is able to imagine Kasso Teki (his imagined enemy) moving or acting differently, and adapt the kata accordingly. Similarly, with the two-man kata the student (Shidachi) must learn to cover his weak openings (Suki). If he does not the teacher (Uchidachi) will show him where he is weak by attacking other than as prescribed by the kata. This is the start of how we learn to become prepared for any eventuality in Iaido.

The Equipment

Iaido is normally practised wearing a hakama (baggy pleated trousers) and keiko gi (training jacket). An iai obi (sword belt) is worn under the hakama cords to hold the sword in place. The hakama is usually black or dark blue, and the keikogi matching colour or white. A white hakama can be worn, but this is usually considered to be summer dress. There is no indication of grade by any means in the costume. A zekken is worn on the left chest indicating your name and club, or country when attending international events. The swords used range from bokuto (wooden sword) for beginners, to iaito (plated alloy blunt practice swords) for the more experienced. Please don’t turn up to a dojo for your first lesson with a sharp sword and expect to be allowed to use it! The dojo needs to be an area of plain floor, preferably wood, without mats, and with sufficient head-room to swing the sword. For individual practice I find a squash court to be ideal.

The format of a practice After warming up and stretching the practice begins with opening etiquette consisting of kamiza ni rei (bow to high side), sensei ni rei (bow to the teacher) and to rei (bow to the sword). Then follows suburi (cutting action practice) and kihon including Chiburi (blood shaking action) and Noto (re-sheathing). Depending on the size and level of the class further techniques derived from the kata may be practised individually before the kata practice begins. The kata practice often begins with the teacher explaining points to be practised, either to the class as a whole or to groups at different grades as appropriate. Then follows either a formal practice in which everyone performs together, following the timing of the dojo leader, or a free practice when everyone performs the kata in their own time while the instructor wanders from student to student correcting points as necessary. At the end of the session everyone performs the finishing etiquette together.

The structure of the kata

Each kata follows the same basic design of four sections: Nukitsuke (draw and cut) Kirioroshi (main two-handed cut down) Chiburi (blood shake-off) Noto (re-sheathing) There are within this format considerable variations. The most common variations include: Strike forwards with the hilt before drawing, pull the scabbard back off the blade and thrust immediately to the rear. Cut at an angle other than horizontally, e.g. vertically downwards, vertically upwards. Turn to various directions to cut opponents, or re-position the sword and stab. Deflect an initial attack instead of the single handed cut, then follow immediately with a two-handed cut.

Iaido is a fast-growing art in the UK with nearly 300 people practising in the BKA this year. The BKA welcomes anyone who has no experience of sword arts, and those who practise other recognised Ryu.

Further reading:

Wikipedia’s Entry on Iaido