Judging an Iaido Tournament
By Jeff Broderick
Photos by Nancy James
Most iaidoka will participate in tournaments at some point in their careers. If you are a beginner in iaido, you might want to join a tournament but not know exactly what points will be scrutinized. If you are an intermediate-ranked iaidoka, you may be called upon by your local federation to act as a judge. So what are the criteria to consider in a tournament?
Basically, tournaments are judged according to the same criteria as gradings, with one important difference. In a grading, there is a minimum standard that all challengers must meet. Depending on their level, it is possible that all challengers could pass; by the same token, for higher grades, all challengers might fail.
In a tournament, on the other hand, someone must win. What standards do judges use to differentiate between two competitors?
There are a few considerations that should be considered “basic”. First, the uniform must be worn correctly. For example, the bottom hem of the hakama should be slightly lower in the front than in the back. Some iaidoka might be surprised that such a minor point would be taken into consideration, but in fact dressing correctly is considered to be a very basic point that could make the difference between winning and losing.
The next basic point is that the participants should follow the correct etiquette at all times. Doing etiquette correctly does not require any special physical aptitude, so the procedures must be strictly adhered to in order to show that the participant has learned them thoroughly. Any lapse in etiquette shows either a break in concentration or a flaw in understanding.
The final basic point is that the techniques should be correct in their overall shape and process. This includes points such as the position of the arms and legs, posture, and movement and position of the sword.
With beginners, judges keep a running tally of mistakes; the player with the fewest mistakes usually wins and advances to the next level. But what about higher level iaidoka who generally make few, or no obvious “mistakes”? At this point, other considerations must come into play.
One such consideration is that the performance of techniques must make logical sense as budo. Therefore, the next aspects that judges consider include the effectiveness of the cuts (is the player merely cutting air?), the correct selection of targets, metsuke (line of sight), good footwork and balance, correct grip on the sword, knowledge of timing and distance, and a general sense of ki-ken-tai-itchi (spirit, sword, body in unison). The competitors must show iai which has effectiveness as a martial art.
If the competitors are evenly matched on a technical level, the next stage is to examine “depth of practice”. This includes a number of more abstract and/or spiritual aspects of iai. Some of these points are:
kokoro-gamae: a calm spirit, self-confidence against the imaginary opponent
seme: pushing against the opponent with the spirit
hini: elegance of form
jo ha kyū: the balance between fast and slow movements
kihaku: dynamism and power of movement
control of the imaginary opponent with metsuke and sword movement
metsuke should incorporate both ken (vision) and kan (intuition)
cutting that is fierce, determined, and final, and preceded with sufficient seme or pressure; the sound of the sword should be short and sharp
zanshin: awareness should be directed at all opponents in the vicinity
tenouchi: force should be concentrated in the monouchi
Ultimately, however, sometimes winning or losing comes down to the feeling of individual judges, and whose iai they liked better. If you lose unexpectedly in a tournament, what should you do? The first thing to remember is: don’t become discouraged. In kendo, judo, or other competitive martial arts, losing a point or a match to an opponent is a regular occurrence. In iaido, however, it is not part of our usual practice, and it may make us doubt ourselves. Always remember that losses are to be treasured, as they spur us to push ourselves harder and refocus our efforts.
If the loss was a close decision (2 flags to 1) you can bet that the judges had a hard time deciding whose iai was better. Even if the decision was unanimous (3 flags to none) be careful about confronting a judge and asking them, “Why did I lose?” Go ahead and ask your friends or your coach, but it is not the judges’ responsibility to explain their decisions to you. Rather, it is your duty to reflect on your own performance objectively, and look for areas where you can improve. Extend this lesson to your life in general and you have the whole purpose of studying iaido.