Iaido (居合道), approximately "the way of mental presence and immediate reaction", is a Japanese martial art associated with smooth, controlled movements of drawing the sword from its scabbard, striking or cutting an opponent, removing blood from the blade, and then replacing the sword in the scabbard. Modern day iaido exponents typically use a blunted metal practice sword (iaito) for practice, especially among beginners, while many advanced practitioners use a sharpened sword (shinken).


In the book Bugei Ryuha Daijiten by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi, Hayashizaki Jinsuke (Minamoto no) Shigenobu is credited with establishing the influence and popularity of iaido, early in the sixteenth century. However, around a century before his birth, the dynamic art of iaijutsu had been developed by Iizasa Ienao, the founder of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu.

Iaido should not be confused with kendo or kenjutsu:

  • Kendo teaching does not include drawing and re-sheathing of a sword. The main weapon used in kendo, a flexible bamboo sword (shinai), uses no scabbard. Kendo is practiced with a partner in full contact training or in forms (kata) practice.
  • Kenjutsu is generally practiced with a partner, in the form of predetermined routines, and often does include drawing or resheathing of the sword.

Delineation from battojutsu, literally meaning "technique of drawing the sword" is more difficult: battojutsu is the historical (ca. 15th century) term encompassing both the practice of drawing the sword and cutting (tameshigiri). The term iaijutsu (居合術) became prevalent later (ca. 17th century), and the current term iaido is due to the general trend (stemming from gendai budo) to replace the suffix -jutsu with -do in Japanese martial arts in order to emphasize a philosophical or spiritual component. In contemporary usage, battojutsu focuses on the techniques of cutting, with individual practice that starts with the sword in the sheath.

Iaido forms (kata) are performed individually against one or more imaginary opponents. Some traditional iaido schools, however, include kata performed in pairs. Some styles and schools also do not practice tameshigiri, cutting techniques.

The primary emphasis in iaido is on the psychological state of being present (居). The secondary emphasis is on drawing the sword and responding to the sudden attack as quickly as possible (合). Starting positions can be from combative postures or from everyday sitting or standing positions. The ability to react quickly from different starting positions was considered essential for a samurai (侍).

A very important part of iaido, is nukitsuke or the life of iai. This is a very quick draw accomplished by drawing the sword out of the saya by moving the saya back in saya biki. The blade may be brought out of the saya and used in a quick nukitsuke slashing motion.

History of Iai

The Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu (天真正伝香取神道流) included iaijutsu (居合術) in its curriculum in 15th century. The first schools dedicated exclusively to sword drawing appeared some time during the late 16th or early 17th century. Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu (林崎甚助重信) (1546–1621) is generally credited with as being the originator of the first dedicated school of sword drawing. Little is known of his life - leading some scholars to doubt his historical existence as a real person. The two largest schools of sword drawing that are practised today are the Muso Shinden-ryu (夢想神伝流) and Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu (無雙直傳英信流). Both schools trace their lineage to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu.

Before Nakayama Hakudo (1873?-1958) coined the word iaido, early in the 20th century, various other names such as batto, battojutsu, or saya no uchi were used. Iaido is the usual term to refer to the modern self improvement oriented form taught by the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF), while Iaijutsu is used for some amongst the older koryu, combative, techniques.

Seitei Iaido

Seitei Iaido (制定) is the iaido style of theAll Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF, Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei or ZNKR). The twelve Seitei iaido forms seitei-gata are now standardised for the tuition, promotion and propagation of iaido within the kendo federations. Although not all dojo teach seitei iaido, the AJKF uses them as a standard for their exams and shiai. As a result, seitei iaido has become the most widely recognised form of iaido in Japan and the rest of the world.

Classical period-Iai

Although there are a wide range of koryu or classical iaido styles, practiced in Japan, the two most popular classical styles of iaido practiced worldwide are Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu. They resemble each other quite strongly because they branched off from one style sometime in the 18th century, under Oguro Motouemon Kiyakatsu sensei. After Oguro, there came into being two branches that were formed on philosophical differences between two students of Oguro: The Shimomura-ha and Tanimura-ha (branches), the former being headed by Maysuyori Teisuke Hisanari and the latter by Matsuyoshi Teisuke (Shinsuke) Hisanari, who became the 12th sōke.

These two branches would co-exist for many years until Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu officially came into being in the early 20th century through the initiative of Oe Masamichi Shikei, the 17th headmaster of the Jikiden Eishin-ryu. Oe would bring together the Tanimura-ha, Hasegawa Eishin-ryu and the Ōmori-ryu to form what is today's Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu.

The Shimomura-ha held its own headmasters and philosophy for many years but would eventually fade away. The last Shimomura-ha (claimed) headmaster, Nakayama Hakudo who is considered the 16th, created a new iai-art called Muso Shinden Battojutsu that was heavily influenced by his Shimomura-ha training, but also took elements from other iai-arts. Nakayama Hakudo is not known to have taught the "pure" Shimomura-ha teachings in its complete form to any of his students and thus it can be argued that Shimomura-ha no longer exists as a separate entity, even though elements of it remain in what would later become the modern Muso Shinden-ryu.

One of the differences between the two schools can be seen in the noto (sheathing the katana back in the saya). In Muso Shinden, noto is done on the horizontal plane, the blade parallel to the floor. In Jikiden, the blade is perpendicular to the floor in a more or less vertical plane.

Another style of iaido is Mugai-ryu. Mugai-ryu was once one of the more famous styles in Japan in the Edo-jidai and was developed from a strong influence of Zen and is characterized by short, direct movements. Chiburi, for example, is performed with a much smaller movement than in other styles, and is not used at all in suwari waza [Goyo and Goka kata sets]. As it was developed in 1697 by Tsuji Gettan Sukemochi [or Sukeshige], a Zen practitioner, it has deep links with Zen buddhism. The original style created by Gettan was a kenjutsu school rather than iai. Today's Mugai-ryu Iaido was established by Takahashi Hachisuke Mitsusuke and his younger brother Hidezu in mid Edo-period. They studied a style called Jikyo-ryu under the fifth and last generation headmasters Yamamura Masashige. In advanced waza, called Naiden and attributed to Gettan himself, the focus is on techniques that neutralize the sakki [killing mood] of the opponent, rather than kill him. There are several distinct lineages of Mugai-ryu throughout Japan today. The last soke of the main line was Nakagawa Shiryo Shinichi who did not appoint a successor upon his death in 1984. There have been several popular movies made featuring Mugai ryu, including Kurosawa's last film project, "Ame Agaru."

There are several branches of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu (MJER) that are practised today. Different Iaido organisations generally recognise different people as their soke. One person who is considered to be a soke is Miura Takeyuki Hidefusa, who holds a 9th Dan in MJER. The All Japan Iaido Federation (Dai Nippon Iaido Renmei) recognises Ajisai Hirai (9th Dan Hanshi) as the 22nd soke of MJER.

There are several lines of transmission extant for Muso Shinden-ryu also. One of them claims Mitsuzuka Takeshi as the soke, second one (those who are affiliated with Nippon Iaido Kyokai) regard Takada Gakudo as their head teacher.

In the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) or Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei, there are two lines representing the Muso school. The current soke for Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu is Fukui Torao (21st master), and the last soke for Muso Shinden-ryu was Nakayama Hakudo with no official successor.

Modern Iai/batto

A newer style of iaijutsu is Toyama-ryu battojutsu. This is a style originating in the late 19th century, and taught primarily to officers in the Second World War. It is different from the older styles primarily in that all techniques are performed from a standing position. Toyama-ryu was in turn the basis of Nakamura-ryu, created by Nakamura Taizaburo; incorporating noto and kamae from older Koryu, notably Omori-ryu. It has been a long time since any differing schools have competed using shinken (sharp blades); hence it cannot be said that the traditional schools are superior to the modern schools, or vice versa, in the ultimate test.

Further reading

  • "Art of Japanese Swordsmanship : A Manual of Eishin-Ryu Iaido". Publisher: Weatherhill; 1 edition (Jun 1 1994).
  • "Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai", English Version Manual, 3rd edition, published October 2006, by All Japan Kendo Federation, Tokyo, Japan.
  • "Japanese Swordsmanship : Technique and practice". By Gordon Warner & Donn F. Draeger. Publisher: Weatherhill; 1982.

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