Iaido originated in the katana (long sword) techniques of the samurai of Japan, which were codified beginning around 1390. When the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) unified the country after a long period of civil conflict, edicts were issued to transform the samurai from warriors to refined individuals, able to serve in the government. Skills included martial arts, reading, writing, administration, and finer arts, like calligraphy and painting.
The term “iaido,” meaning, essentially, “way of presence in the moment,” was first used to describe the sword-drawing art in 1932. This Japanese art form combines drawing the sword with either a defensive block or cut, usually followed by another cut, then chiburi (moving the blade in such as way as to remove blood and tissue) and noto (returning the blade to the scabbard). Iaido, is now used not only to teach sword techniques, but as a form of mental and physical discipline, emphasizing correct technique and form, meditation and character development.
Training consists of solo kata (forms) and partner forms, called kumidachi. All forms emphasize etiquette in the respectful handling of the sword. The solo forms consist of properly drawing, cutting and returning the sword to the scabbard. Kumidachi forms are most often performed using bokuto (wooden swords).
Iaido has been characterized as a defensive art form, owing to the fact that practitioners begin and end kata with the sword in its sheath. Beginning and middle-level kata do emphasize reacting to, rather than provoking, an attack, but higher-ranking forms are often more aggressive, drawing the sword and pushing through a crowd to cut down an unaware opponent.
Zanshin is the sense of lingering awareness. Iaido kata foster the development of awareness in solo kata by encouraging the student to visualize the opponent. In kumidachi, students learn zanshin in patterns of attack, defense and counterattack. While mushin (“no mind”) has been considered an esoteric outcome of iaido practice, zanshin is more practical and more realistically attainable. Ma-ai refers to the critical distance between opponents, a point at which forces are essentially neutral, but where anything can happen. Fundamental to ma-ai is ma, roughly defined as the way something (or someone) moves through space over time. Many teachers have stated that ma “cannot be taught,” either one has this sense of timing, or one does not. However, ma can be enhanced and developed through training. An iaidoka (a student of iaido) who has a good, well-developed sense of ma has an uncanny sense of time and distance. Combined with a sense of zanshin, it is the difference between a merely competent practitioner and a great one.
Iaido practice is framed by respect and politeness. There is a great deal of etiquette with regard to Japanese swords in general, and, though it is simplified in the dojo, the rationale is essentially the same: to prevent damage to the sword, to prevent injury to the iaidoka using the sword, and to prevent injury to others in the room, whether fellow practitioners or bystanders. Practitioners therefore are expected to be properly dressed in well-fitting hakama (traditional Japanese pleated skirt), obi (belt or sash) and dogi (training uniform), with a minimum of skin showing at the neck. They are expected to exercise self-control in language and action. Losing one’s temper in the dojo usually amounts to immediate expulsion, owing to the potentially deadly nature of the art form.
(Used with permission by Neil Yamamoto)