Judging an Iaido Tournament

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.

Judging an Iaido Tournament is extraordinarily difficult and requires intense concentration.
Judging an iaido tournament is extraordinarily difficult and requires intense concentration.

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.

A different perspective. What the judges see and what the spectators see is often different.
A different perspective. What the judges see and what the spectators see is often different.

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.

A competitor at the All Japan Iaido Championships
A competitor at the All Japan Iaido Championships

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.


  1. Thank you for this informative article. I have watched a few iaido tournaments and often could never tell the difference between the winner and loser. Given that the decisions often come down to a gut feeling in the referee, how much ryuha chauvinism is there in some of the judgements? Or, is this a taboo topic?

  2. Thanks, Ben. I don’t think it is a taboo topic, but it is a hard one to answer. First of all, I would like to hope that all judges try their very best to be impartial at all times.
    I think the prime factor, though, would be familiarity with various iai ryuha. For example, Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu are rather similar and, in most federations, MSR practitioners have experience training with MJER practitioners and vice versa. Judges, especially, would have a lot of familiarity with the way kata from the “other” school are meant to look.
    A certain amount of unfairness may arise when a rare koryu presents itself at a tournament. On one hand, judges may think “That cut or movement looks strange”, unaware that the cut or movement is meant to look that way. But on the other hand, the very exoticism of the rare style may work in the practitioner’s favour, with judges unable to accurately see where the mistakes are occurring.
    When a judge really doesn’t know what a style is meant to look like, then they would fall back on basic principles like metsuke, seme, balance, posture, smoothness of execution, etc. Having said that, different ryuha DO differ quite a lot between some of their very basic principles!
    I haven’t really answered your question, Ben, but I think it is a very good one! What do the judges out there think about this topic?

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