The word ‘iaido’ is unfamiliar to many people. Just like judo, karate and aikido, iaido is a Japanese martial – budo – art. It differs, however, from the aforementioned arts in some essential aspects. This is an art where a weapon is used: a katana i.e. a samurai sword. It is practiced alone, without a practice opponent. To put it simply: one is taught how to draw a katana from its sheath.
The traditions and roots of the art originate in Japanese history. A Samurai called Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu is thought to be the founding father of most of the now surviving iaido styles. Hayashizaki was born in 1546 and died in the Genna era (1615–1624).
Originally, iaijutsu was a part of kenjutsu. With time, some masters concentrated exclusively on drawing the sword from the sheath and its applications in fighting. Finally, in the peaceful Tokugawa era many masters saw in this art an excellent way to develop oneself spiritually, intellectually and physically. Iaido was born.
There are two separate Ways – Dos – in the Japanese art of the sword. It has been said that iaido exists just as long as the sword remains in its sheath. After it is drawn, the rest is Kendo. Iaido can be considered as a defensive art, whereas kendo concentrates on attacking.
Iaido practice consists of learning sword forms called kata. These are tactical sword maneuvers composed of four parts: nukitsuke (drawing of the sword), kiritsuke/kirioroshi (cutting action), chiburi (shaking of blood off the blade) and noto (the sword is returned into its sheath).
In iai, one practices alone, without an opponent. The techniques are varied: there are techniques starting from a sitting, crouched or standing position, or they can be initiated while walking. There are counters for attacks from every direction: left, right, front or rear. The action may take place in daylight or in darkness. There may be obstacles in the environment preventing normal nukitsuke (drawing of the sword), or an overhang above the fighter makes it difficult to use a sword. There are techniques for use against opponents versed in other iai styles. One is taught what to do if an opponent tries to prevent drawing by grasping the hilt or the sheath of the sword, either from the front or from the rear.
Iai cannot be regarded as a form of sports. It could be compared to another budo art, kyudo i.e. Japanese archery. In both of them, the student tries to cut or hit, not the opponent, but something in him/herself. There is a preordained kata form, which is studied endlessly. The form is polished until a beautiful and harmonious whole is achieved. A real iaido master is in harmony with his/her sword – the sword is a part of its wielder. In iaido practice a Japanese sword (katana), a practice sword (iaito/mogito) or a wooden sword (bokken) is used. A sword is handled respectfully, observing traditions. Learning etiquette is an essential part of the study of iaido.
In iaido the practitioner does not try get the better of an opponent – conquering oneself is the goal aimed at. The only – and the most difficult – opponent is one’s self. Winning means achieving a forgiving heart and avoidance of fighting. Iaido means practicing in order to achieve human perfection. There is no place for a murderous desire to kill another person. With endless practicing, one learns to understand one’s place in the universe.