What is Iaido?

iaidoJapanese Martial Art — Iaido

By Jeff Broderick.

Iaido is the Japanese art of drawing, cutting, and resheathing the katana. It places a great emphasis on correctness of form, precision and efficiency of movement, and mental focus. Practitioners of the art – iaidoka – use real swords (or else replica blades which are still quite dangerous) so it is primarily a solo art. Practice is conducted performing kata or set forms that teach how to respond to attacks made by opponents in various positions and situations. Many techniques take place from a formal kneeling position (seiza), while others begin from a half-kneeling position, or from standing. The ideal is to be able to deal with an attack at any time, no matter what you are doing. The character 居 i means to be (especially to sit) in a particular place, while 合 ai means to match or to respond. Taken together, the name can be interpreted to mean “the way of responding appropriately to any situation you are in.”


On the battlefields of medieval Japan, samurai were armed with various weapons such as bows, spears, halberds, and eventually firearms. But when these weapons failed, or when fighting came down to close-quarter combat, the ability to swiftly draw one’s sword and attack was essential. The exquisite sharpness of the Japanese sword meant that fights could end an instant after they began, so quick actions with no wasted motions meant the difference between life and death. Battō (“sword drawing”) was taught as one of the many martial arts required for samurai. Schools of swordsmanship developed that placed a great emphasis on the initial draw-and-cut. The name iaido came later.

In the 16th century, Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu founded Shin Musō Hayashizaki-ryū, a school of iaido that spread across Japan and branched off into numerous other traditions or ryūha. Today, the most popular are Musō Shinden-ryū, Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū, Tamiya-ryū, and Mugai-ryū, but dozens, if not hundreds, of other styles exist. Each has its own stylistic differences and approach to training.

Iaido was outlawed by the occupation forces after World War II, but after the art was reinstated, iaidoka created groups to standardize practice. The largest group is the Iaido section of the All-Japan Kendo Federation. Iai and kendo have a special relationship, and are sometimes said to be “Two wheels of the same cart,” with many people practicing both arts. Kendo teaches distance and timing with a live opponent, while iaido teaches correct use of a real sword.

What Happens in Training?

Beginners will start by learning correct posture, footwork, and etiquette, and how to properly hold and cut with the sword. Learners may start with a bokutō (wooden sword) or a mogitō – a practice sword designed for iaido that has the balance and weight of a katana but with an unsharpened blade made from a sturdy zinc alloy. Real Japanese swords are both dangerous and expensive, so it is usually only after practicing for a number of years (typically upon reaching 4th– or 5th-dan) that iaidoka switch to using a real blade.

After stretching and warming up, practice begins with a bow to shōmen, the “high point” of the room, a bow to Sensei, and a bow of respect to one’s sword. The katana is then thrust into the belt. Sessions will often start with a review and practice of basic cutting, and then move to forms practice. This may be done in unison with the group, or individually and at your own pace. In either case, Sensei will offer points of correction to help you move closer to the ideal technique.

kendo worldForms Practice

Martial arts in medieval Japan were traditionally practiced using kata or forms. By repeatedly practicing set forms, users would internalize the logical application of the techniques to various situations, and perfect their basic movements. Then, when real combat arose, the swordsman could respond instinctively without needing to think.

Iaido forms generally have 4 parts: the draw and initial cut, called nukitsuke; the finishing downward stroke, kiriotoshi; a symbolic cleaning of blood from the blade, chiburi or chiburui; and notō, resheathing the blade. Each kata deals with a specific situation. For example, the beginning kata in many schools has one opponent sitting facing you. Later kata may become more complex, adding multiple attackers approaching from various directions. Or, they may deal with difficult situations, such as moving around obstacles, or being in a darkened room. In each case, the objective is to dispatch opponents who are intent on killing you, and always without giving the enemy any openings or weak points to take advantage of.

For this reason, it is vitally important to be aware of your posture and positioning, and to move efficiently with maximum power. Different schools may place different emphasis on speed, or on “beautiful” technique. It is generally recognized, however, that graceful movements are efficient ones, and efficient movements can be performed the most quickly.

Gradings and Competitions

Iaido ranks typically begin with 1st kyū. The next rank, obtained after a year of practice, is shodan or 1st-dan, followed by 2nd-dan, 3rd-dan, and so on, up to the top rank of 8th-dan (in the All-Japan Kendo Federation system; other federations may have different ranking schemes). When testing for a new grade, practitioners must perform a set number of techniques for a panel of judges, who decide whether the challenger has met the required level of proficiency.

While it is a solo art, iaido also has competitions. These take the form of an elimination tournament where pairs perform techniques for three judges, who rule on which competitor had the best display of skill. One player is eliminated while the winner moves on to the next round. Competitions are divided by rank, but both sexes compete together. Because iai requires finesse and not raw strength, women can compete on an equal footing with men, and many people continue to enjoy iaido into their 70s or older.

iaidoWhy do Iaido?

There are many reasons why people do iai, but here are some of the most common:

  • to develop their powers of mental concentration. Wielding a sword requires great focus, and practitioners are encouraged to maintain a state of awareness for the duration of the practice time. Doing so regularly increases one’s ability to focus intently on the task at hand.
  • to train their bodies at their own pace. Iaido practice can be as intense or as relaxed as one likes, and is suitable for people of many different ages and varying fitness levels.
  • to help maintain a cultural tradition dating back hundreds of years. Japanese swordsmanship was a key element of the martial education of the samurai, and hundreds of ryūha existed to train them. Over the centuries, many of these traditions were lost, but by practicing these arts we help to keep them alive.
  • as a form of “moving meditation”. When doing iaido, you may experience “flow,” a phenomenon where you lose track of time and your sense of self. Practitioners report that iaido helps them stay calm and centered long after leaving the dojo.