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The Study Of Iaido

by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a continuing series of articles on the Japanese art of iaido the modern discipline or way of drawing the sword that was popularized in the 1930's. It was derived from iaijutsu, a sub-specialization of kenjutsu (sword arts) that was practiced by professional (samurai) warriors and involved methods of drawing the sword and cutting as a single motion. Future articles will focus on concepts that relate to practice and then on specific analyses of kata and basic techniques.

Otani Yoshiteru,
founder of New York Budokai

Iaidoka - those who study the art of drawing the Japanese traditional long sword - are used to people asking why they study. Next to kyudo (long bow archery), iaido is probably the most esoteric martial art form. Iaido is very formalized, involves almost no competition and takes a long time - perhaps a lifetime - to learn. As an art form, it is closer to calligraphy than karate or judo, for example.

While practitioners have described what iaido practice entails (including my essay elsewhere on this website) not many people can really answer the question of why we do it. I have noticed recently that even iaidoka themselves are not of a uniform opinion. Rather than lay out practitioners' pro's and con's and support or refute each point in turn, I offer here my own personal take on what it means to study this alternately satisfying and frustrating art form.

Deborah Klens-Bigman performing at an iaido demonstration

For some context, I suppose I should mention that I started iaido sixteen years ago. I had some background in Western fencing, but no Asian martial arts experience at all. I liked samurai movies, and thought it would be cool to learn the techniques, once I found out they existed beyond combat choreography.

The dojo I chose and have stayed with, New York Budokai, like most iai groups, is small. While some martial artists boast trophies or medals earned in the heat of sparring competitions, with very few exceptions, iaidoka have virtually nothing to show for ourselves.

While there are some kata competitions, there is, understandably, no sparring in iaido, no cash prizes, no film contracts (okay, except for Peter Weller, but that was some time ago). At NYB, we not only don't enter competitions as a general rule. We don't even wear patches on our gi (I suggested a Jolly Roger once, but no one else liked the idea). We wear only black, blue or white practice clothes. We have dan rankings, but the basic belt colors are white and black.

Klens-Bigman, Otani Sensei and Stanley Chin - two generations of practice

As I said, iaidoka themselves are hardly in agreement over their reasons for study. Some, perhaps embarrassed to admit they like Japanese slice 'n dice movies, repeat the mantra that iaido practice is for "self improvement." Others deplore such "cultural baggage" and insist iaido training simply teaches proper use and handling of a traditional weapon. Others cite interest in history or traditional Japanese culture as a motivation. "Self-defense" does not usually enter into the discussion, since most of us do not keep our swords ready for use at all times.

"Anyone can learn to kill someone.
Living is a lot more difficult."

For my part, the reasons for doing iaido include all of the above, and more besides. That iaido, properly taught, teaches proper use and handling of the Japanese sword should be a given, but swordsmanship is only the outermost layer of practice. As my teacher Mr. Otani has said, anyone can learn to kill someone. Living is a lot more difficult.

Ideally, there are prerequisites for studying iaido (or at least there should be). Probably the most important of these is sincerity of heart. I can't altogether say this is easy to do in the 21st century U.S.A., but we try our best.

Once, I saw a Japanese classical dance teacher yell at one student after another. She paced the floor, chain-smoking cigarettes, almost in tears, shouting "Dame' dame' dame'! Dekinai" ("Bad! Bad! Terrible! You can't do it"). I was floored by this performance. I next expected her to order the student out of the studio forever. She didn't.

"A Japanese teacher who kicks a student's butt around the room is paying tribute to her sincere desire to learn and potential to improve."

It took awhile, but I have learned that a Japanese teacher who kicks a student's butt around the room is paying tribute to her sincere desire to learn and potential to improve. A Japanese teacher who tells a student something is "fine," and moves on, has decided the student's interest or potential is somehow less than genuine, and won't bother with him.

Otani Sensei with Philip Ortiz, Chief Instructor of New York Budokai

While American teachers are more concerned with an individual's varied learning capabilities than a traditional Japanese teacher, even American teachers who are able to make a choice would pick the student eager to learn over one who has something to prove. I have spoken to more than one Western martial arts teacher who admitted ignoring a student he didn't care for in the hope that he would take the hint and go elsewhere. Perhaps Western and Japanese teachers aren't so different after all.

Likewise, an uncontrollable temper in a sword class is not an option. Sword techniques, once learned, can be blazingly fast, and a lot more deadly than a punch thrown in anger. Formality is not only for safety in learning iaido techniques, it is a defense against thugly elements that are all too common everywhere today. Students who cannot follow simple rules of etiquette or take criticism gracefully have no place in iaido, and enforcement of etiquette is one way of sorting them out.

"Martial art study will reveal someone's personality in more detail than any of us want to see, or know about."

Unfortunately, not all dojo consider manners a priority. At least one teacher I know maintains a fairly open policy, hoping that someone who begins practice a little rough around the edges will someday shine. While this can happen, I have not really seen it. More likely, martial art study will reveal someone's personality in more detail than any of us want to see, or know about.

In its very basic sense, iaido is the formalized teaching of sword techniques. It is formal, because that is the safest way to learn it. Real katana (swords) are razor sharp. An incorrect draw can slice through the wooden saya (sheath) and into a hand before the iaidoka is even aware of what has happened. Nowadays most students begin practice with a bokuto or practice sword. A practice sword, being less sharp, is unlikely to cut through, but it is certainly possible to carelessly stab yourself or someone else. Hence, formal slowness has been found to be the best way to learn.

Seiza builds skill and teaches respect.

In our style, Muso Shinden ryu, 11 of the 12 kata of the first set begin with the person sitting in a kneeling position of seiza. Why seiza? It provides stability, literally slowing down the student's movement, thereby providing a safe framework for learning the basics. Seiza also strengthens the quads and the back muscles that will aid in learning techniques.

But there are other reasons for seiza. Seiza is also the most formal of postures in Japanese traditional culture. Westerners generally do not grasp the significance of this posture; simply finding it uncomfortable, they assume it must be only for the practical reasons noted above.

Seiza teaches other important things, for example (often equally incomprehensible to most Americans, at least) - manners. Sitting in seiza demonstrates respect - to fellow iaidoka, teachers and the tradition of iaido itself.

Seiza is a physical link to the Japanese traditional past, which created and refined the art form over 400 years. Seiza is more than a beginning iaido posture for basic kata. It is part of what Japanese scholars refer to as "seiza bunka" - seiza culture, which includes other classical art forms, like calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, even noh and kabuki theatres.

Seiza teaches respect, and also (well known to those who've tried it) humility. It sounds like a cliche, but barring some actual physical impediment, I can gauge the depth of a student's interest in learning iaido by their willingness to adapt and maintain this posture in class.

As those who have struggled with seiza, let alone iaido kata, know, patience is another lesson of practice. While one could say this about nearly every endeavor, the iaidoka becomes, and stays, well-acquainted with her limitations throughout the time of practice, whether for months or years or a lifetime.

After 16 years, I am still learning kata. The okuiai set, consisting, in our practice, of 18 forms (kata), is constructed in such a way as to make any weaknesses in my previous practice readily apparent. As a beginning student, I used to admire my teachers gliding though these forms, thinking they didn't look so hard. I was anxious to get through the basics and learn the cool stuff. Well, without the basics, I can't even approach the cool stuff. One lesson learned.

Another, more powerful lesson is that iaido takes so long to learn, by the time you get to the okuiai forms, you are starting to feel the toll of life on muscles and joints. Maybe my fingers ache a little, maybe my arms, due to carpal tunnel syndrome unrelated to iai practice, begin to hurt after a few hours. Damn, just when I thought I was getting somewhere.

The payoff for patience comes in subtle ways, however. I can see small differences in technique, which helps me improve. I can detect bad habits in myself and others, so we can keep making corrections. I take criticism better (at least I try). I move more efficiently, so I don't conk out in repetitive exercises like some of the younger guys do. I'm certain I don't ache as much the next day after a workout.

When I meet a new student who in spite of physical limitations (we all have them) has a sincere desire to learn, I look for the potential in his first, awkward movements and see improvements every week.

Iaido can also help develop generosity of spirit. This is particularly important in a small dojo. All of our students who stay around long enough know they will have to teach, even if it is only occasionally and on an informal basis at first.

Service is a way of giving back to the teachers, and more importantly, the tradition from which we have learned so much. Students who have practiced enough to achieve dan rank but haven't developed this quality are rare, though there can always be one who maintains what I call a "small heart." Such a person eventually finds himself isolated from the inner life of the dojo. He comes to practice and the teaching and other responsibilities swirl around him. Usually, though, he won't even notice the difference.

Iaido also teaches courage, whether you want it or not. Try teaching a 250-pound beginner a partner kata in which he has to attack you when he has yet to learn about timing, distance or anything else. Needless to say, courage goes along with patience.

In spite of all the romantic notions about teachers never getting hit by their students, all the teachers I know have been bopped pretty good on occasion. One guy who beaned me on the head because I blocked improperly (his wooden sword strike), braced himself for what he was certain would be a retaliatory strike. "Forget it, it was my fault," I said, as the stars cleared out of my head and flew back to the heavens where they belonged. (This is not the same as someone deliberately trying to hurt someone else. While something like that might earn a cuffing at a karate dojo, it should result in expulsion from an iai dojo.)

Iaido is worth studying because it is really about life. Life that goes on outside the dojo. Life that includes patience, such as when one's spouse is in a bad mood about one's frequent trips to the dojo. Generosity, as in showing someone the right way to wear hakama (traditonal pleated pants) even though it's funnier to let them figure it out by themselves. Courage, as in right action towards other people. This last one is difficult (even unfashionable), but very important.

"You can tell when someone has devoted his life to the ethical pursuit of martial arts. It shows in his every action..."

A teacher-friend of mine has said you can tell when someone has devoted his life to the ethical pursuit of martial arts. It shows in his every action, and not because he looks like someone who can kick butt. Rather, he looks like someone who doesn't need to kick butt at all.

That's not to say other martial arts practices don't or can't teach the same things I've outlined above, or that potential students may not exhibit noble characteristics from the start. To paraphrase Musashi Miyamoto, "each one practices as he feels inclined," but, as my teacher says, in particular, "Iaido is philosophy." Philosophy is generally about how to live in the world. That's a pretty good reason to study nearly anything. Iaido should ultimately go beyond "self-realization" or "self-improvement" - it should go beyond the self altogether.

Copyright 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman
Photos courtesy of New York Budokai

Related Articles Of Interest:

The Spiritual Sword of Tamiya ryu: Interview with Michael Alexanian Sensei


Principles & Concepts
Techniques & Training Methods
Etiquette & Customs
Practice Clothing/Uniforms
Training Facilities

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About The Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

iaido, iaidoka, martial arts, kobudo, okuiai, katana, Japanese sword, seiza

Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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