Iaido emerged from the classic sword art of the samurai (iaijutsu) 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 iai comprises the authentic and tried techniques of defence and counterattack of the individual warrior, including drawing the sword.
They have been formalized in so-called kata (prearranged forms), each with its specific scenario, and always beginning and ending 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.
Although the iaido kata seem to be one fluent motion, they can be divided into four different phases: The drawing of the sword and delivering the first strike (nukitsuke), deliver one or more deadly strikes (kiritsuke), cleaning the sword (chiburi) and returning the sword to the scabbard (noto). Each scene has got the following pattern: As a reaction to an attack by one or more fictional opponents one draws his sword and the action is converted into a fast counterattack.
The kata can be located in or around buildings, in the open or in the middle of a crowd. The iaidoka can be sitting, standing or walking. As soon as the danger passes, the sword will be returned to the scabbard in the predicated manner and the iaidoka will return, concentrated and alert, to his starting position. The Japanese concept of iai expresses this flexibility of body and mind under different circumstances and in harmony with the surroundings.
The outfit for practising Iaido is a traditional Japanese male costume: a long wide pair of trousers (hakama) and a thin jacket (gi). The specific folds in the hakama represent six Confucian values: trust, love, harmony, love for your parents, reliability (front) and honesty (back). The most accepted colours are black and white. A white undercoat (juban or shitagi) is usually worn under the gi and at official affairs the montsuki is worn. This Montsuki is an uwagi with very wide sleeves and heraldic symbols on chest, back and sleeves. During normal training the blue hakama and keikogi, used in jodo and kendo practice, can also be worn. Around his waist the iaidoka wears a belt (obi). The scabbard is inserted in the obi. Kneepads are used to protect the joints during exercises on the floor. This basic equipment costs approximately € 160,- . The only thing now missing is of course the sword. A beginner can use a wooden practise sword (boken). But for the 1st kyu exam a metal practise sword (iaito) is obligatory. A new iaito costs around € 700,- and feels exactly like a real sword. Cheaper second hand iaito can be found. For the 6th dan exam, after theoretically speaking fifteen years of training, a real sword (shinken) is obligatory.
Iaido is more than just a Japanese martial art. To execute the kata one needs perfect coordination for effective techniques, supreme concentration to imagine your opponent as vivid as possible and, most of all, training experience. Other aspects of Japanese culture can be found in Iaido: the social discipline characteristic to Confucianism, the philosophical background of Taoism, but also the mental and physical challenges of Zen Buddhism, the attention to rituals and presentation and the important role of tradition and connection to nature of Shintoism. You could say that the forging of a Japanese sword is still surrounded by a typical Shintoistic customs with reverence to the gods (kami), while wearing a sword in its scabbard was, in the ages of the samurai, saturated with Neo-Confucian values like wisdom (chi), moral justice (jin) and courage (vuu). But if the sword is drawn it all becomes pure Zen: The swordfighter attempts to reach a mental state of no thoughts (munen) where life and death are one and do not dominate as separate obsessions. In this light the sword can be seen as an instrument that does not only conquers evil and takes life (setsuninto) but also gives life (katsuninken) by eliminating the ego. True victory is accomplished with the sword in its scabbard (saya no uchi no kachi). This indicates how classic iaijutsu values, imbedded in the roaring feudal context of Japanese history, makes way for the more spiritual and forming components of modern iaido in daily life. Alertness, dedication and flexibility were the values of the samurai. An iaidoka will therefore never finish learning and the never ending road (-do) to perfection may be hard, but also very interesting and satisfying.