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A History and Style Guide of Iaido

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Thinking about the practice of the Japanese martial arts style of iaido in this day and age might leave one imagining a scenario from the movie Highlander. In other words, iaido history and practice could certainly point a 21st century person's mind in the direction of a warrior unsheathing a sword in a public garage and beheading someone. Of course, practitioners of the major styles of iaido would almost certainly chuckle at such a notion.

Regardless, to know iaido is to know how to draw a sword from its scabbard and cut an opponent with it, before removing blood from the weapon and putting it away again. When you think about it all with matter of fact step-by-step precision like that, things suddenly feel a little chilly, do they not?

Iaido History

Between the years 1546 to 1621, a man by the name of Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto Shigenobu lived in what is now considered the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan. Shigenobu is the man credited with formulating and establishing the exclusive art of sword fighting that is known today as iaido. That said, it's important to note that the art of iaijutsu, a precursor to iaido, was developed by Lizasa Lenao, the founder of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-Ryu, almost 100 years earlier. Though Lenao's art was not exclusive to sword fighting, his style no doubt impacted the growth of iaido as an exclusive art. Furthering this notion, before taking on its modern day name, iaijutsu was the popular term for the iaido. As was customary with many martial arts names, the 17th century saw that the term "jutsu" was replaced with "do".

Characteristics of Iaido

Generally, the martial arts style of iaido is practiced through individual kata or forms, though some schools and styles do teach two person forms. Some students may initially learn with a bokken or wooden sword and/or an unsharpened sword (iaito). Higher ranked students often use a sharpened metal sword or shinken in practice.

Iaido teaches practitioners to stay focused on the present, which spurs on a presence of mind that allows them to react within a moment's notice. Along with this, practitioners tend to learn to draw their sword from various positions and attack both quickly and effectively with it.

The Name Iaido

The term iaido can be broken down in the following manner:

  • I= being
  • Al= harmony
  • Do= way

So iaido can be translated to mean "The way of harmonising oneself in action." Most credit Nakayama Hakudo (1873–1958), as being the first to use the term iaido to describe the art formerly known as iaijutsu and/or battojutsu.

Iaido Styles

The two main classical styles of iaido are Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu, both of which emanated from the same style of martial arts originally. In the 18th century, a break occurred that left practitioners with the branches of Shimomura-ha and Tanimura-ha. These branches continued until Oe Masamichi Shikei brought together Tanimura-ha, Hasegawa Eishin-ryû and the Ômori-ryû to form what is today's Musô Jikiden Eishin-ryû. One of the main differences between the two schools is obvious in how they sheath the katana back in the saya (called noto). In Muso Shinden, this is done on the horizontal plane with the sword's blade parallel to the floor/ground. In Jikiden, the sword blade is more vertically oriented.

There are also several other classical styles or koryu in existence.

Beyond the classical styles, there is also the Seitei Iaido style, which is the style of the All Japan Kendo Federation. Their 12 forms are now standardized in exams and teaching. Further, there is the Toho Iaido style, which comprises the five forms of the All Japan Iaido Federation. These forms emanated from five major iaido schools.

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