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Iaido Terminology A-Z

Iaido terminology was supplied by
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

ashi: foot.

batto-ho: sword drawing techniques.

bokuto: wooden swords used in training.

bushi: warrior.

chiburi: moving the sword blade in such as way as to remove blood and tissue. A standard part of iaido kata.

choji: oil applied to a sword blade to lubricate it and prevent rust.

chudan: middle.

chudan no kamae: stance wherein the sword is held center and the iaidoka faces the opponent directly (also seigan no kamae).

daisho: "large-small," referring to long sword (katana) and short sword (wakizashi) swords that were worn by the samurai as a symbol of membership in the warrior class.

dan: ("black belt") rankings in iaido and other budo disciplines.

datto: (v. "dasu" (take out, go out) n. "to" (sword)). Removing the katana (long sword) from the obi (belt or sash).

do: (also pronounced "michi") lit. "way," "path" or "road." A term used as a suffix as in iaido, judo, kendo, aikido and karate-do as a concept of the way or road toward self-development and denotes a spiritual path followed by students of budo disciplines.

dojo: training hall.

gedan no kamae: stance in which the sword is pointed low, with the tip pointing towards an area between an opponent's knees and ankles.

giri: duty or obligation of one person towards another.

gyakukesa/gyakugesa: "reverse diagonal" cut from opponent's hip to opposite shoulder.

ha: cutting edge of a sword.

habaki: a collar, usually made of copper or brass, fitted to the end of the sword blade just before the tsuba (guard) to ensure a tight fit between blade and tsuba.

hakama: traditional Japanese pleated trousers.

happogiri: eight direction sword cuts. A training exercise.

Hasegawa Eishin Ryu: The middle set of ten kata in Muso Shinden ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu iaido, nine originating with the practitioner sitting in tatehiza, a position with one knee raised, and the tenth in seiza (kneeling position). The imaginary opponents in these forms are in much closer proximity to the student than in the first set of iaido kata, requiring close-in stabbing and cutting movements. The footwork is more intricate, featuring weight shifts, sliding back and forth along the floor on the knees, and stepping towards and away from the imaginary opponent.

hasso no kamae: a ready position in which the sword is held to the side, with the tsuba (sword guard) even with the practitioner's chin or level with his cheek, depending on the style.

Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu: (1546?-1621) Considered to be the founder of iaido for not only codifying a system of batto jutsu (sword-drawing techniques), which he called Shimmei Muso Ryu, but also for promulgating the idea that practicing sword forms with meditative intent could make one a better person, and benefit society thereby.

heiho: old term for fencing.

hi: groove(s) along the back edge of a sword. Its function is to lighten the blade without losing strength.

header: (n) left.

ii: lit. being harmonious in the moment used to describe the art of sword-drawing (bat-ho) since the 1930's. "Iai" now generally refers to sword drawing.

iaidoka: a student of iaido.

iai goshi: sinking the waist used in assuming postures for iaido practice.

iaijutsu: refers to older styles of sword-drawing art, for example, Tamiya ryu iaijutsu.

iaito: unsharpened practice swords, usually made of copper alloy, used in iaido practice.

in-yo: (or yin-yang) The unity or complementary of opposites. Individual iaido kata contain many instances of in-yo. The most obvious may be that in all iaido kata, the sword is drawn, then returned to the sheath. More philosophically, in-yo can be seen in that, as a deadly art form, iaido is a contemplation of life and death.

jodan: stance in which the sword is held overhead and the iaidoka directly faces the opponent.

jutsu: Lit. art, method or technique. In martial arts, a term used by contemporary scholars to classify by category those Japanese pre-1600 fighting disciplines, such as kenjutsu (the art or technique of the sword), or sub-category or specialization as iaijutsu (art or technique of sword drawing) whose principal focus was the development and perfection of effective combat techniques used to kill other professional warriors, as opposed to the philosophical and moral orientation of the "do" forms. Often misspelled and pronounced "jitsu" in the West.

jo-ha-kyu: a formalistic organizing principle, which has been variously interpreted as "slow, medium, fast" and "beginning, middle, end." In iaido it is characterized by a sense of rising action; for example, from an initial draw and small cut (or parry), to the larger, "killing cut." Individual actions which make up a given kata also have this sense of rising action.

kamae: stance or combative posture.

kamiza: the "deity (kami) seat." A position of honor or respect which is often the front wall of a dojo where there are scrolls, a Shinto altar and/or photos of a teacher or founder.

kamidama: Shinto or spirit altar found in practice halls (dojos) and in traditional Japanese homes.

kami no ashi: upper foot nearest the kamiza.

kamon: family crest.

kashira: pommel at the end of the tsuka (hilt). Also called tsukagashira.

kata: Form, pattern or model used as a teaching method for traditional Japanese arts. Kata in iaido are fixed sequences of offensive and defensive techniques arranged in specific movement patterns. See: Omori Ryu, Hasegawa Eishin Ryu, Okuiai, Zenkenrenmei and Seiteigata.

katana: long sword, often worn with a short sword (wakizashi), the set known as daisho which symbolized membership in the samurai class.

keikogi: refers to the top of the training uniform. The full iaido training uniform consists of keikogi, hakama and obi.

kendo: the Japanese sport of fencing.

kensei: "sword saint." Most popularly used in reference to Musashi Miyamoto, a famous swordsman of the early Tokugawa era.

kesagiri: diagonal sword cut in which the target is from an opponent's shoulder to his opposite hip.

quire tusk: cutting.

kimono: the traditional Japanese dress worn by both men and women.

kirioroshi/kiriotoshi: refers to a straight overhead cut, the target being from the opponent's head to the waist.

kissaki: tip of a sword.

kizu: flaws. In a sword that might include rust, scratches, metal cuts, cracks or pits.

kodogu: sword hardware.

kokyu: breathing.

koryu: lit. "old style" generally used to describe Japanese martial art forms established before 1600, though scholars do not totally agree on what designates a koryu.

kumidachi: partner forms practiced in iaido.

kurigata: a knob on the saya (scabbard) through which passes the sageo (cord).

kyoshi: teacher. Depending on how kanji are written, either means "teacher" in the generic sense, or if kanji for "shi" is synonymous with "samurai," used on ranking certificates in certain martial arts styles as an indication of teaching rank.

kyu: levels of achievement awarded in iaido and other budo disciplines to practitioners before achieving a black belt or dan. Some styles equate kyu with different colored obi (white, green, or brown).

ma: roughly defined as the way something (or someone) moves through space over time.

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. As in other traditional martial art forms, the ma-ai of iaido embodies the concept of the sphere of protection, but in this case the circle is extended by the use of the sword.

mekugi: peg(s), usually made of bamboo, used to fasten the tsuka (handle) to the sword. Should be checked for tightness and wear before every practice.

mekugi-ana: peg hole.

men: head

menuki: ornaments on a sword handle.

migi: (n): right.

mono-uchi: area of sword actually used for cutting, approx."one-quarter" of the blade length from the tip.

Mori ryu: an iaido style.

morote tsuki: two handed sword thrust.

Mu Gai Ryu: A style of iaijutsu.

mune: back edge surface of the blade.

mushin: "no mind": a mind state absent of conscious thought or emotion.

Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu: one of the most practiced styles of iaido, along with Muso Shinden Ryu, presumed to be branches of the original style of batto jutsu founded by Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu.

Muso Shinden Ryu: one of the most practiced styles of iaido, along with Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, presumed to be branches of the original style of batto jutsu founded by Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu.

noto: returning the blade to the scabbard.

nukikata: drawing of the sword.

nuki tsuki: the draw with simultaneous cut of the sword in certain kata.

obi: belt or sash

Okuiai: The high-level iaido kata set for Muso Shinden ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu that consists of both standing and tatehiza (sitting with one leg raised) forms. Kata at this level looks surprisingly simple--like natural movement, but the simplicity is deceptive; a student may study for 10 years or longer before beginning to comprehend and technically be able to handle these forms. Throughout iaido training, emphasis is placed on mindfulness, a sense of calm concentration, and the building of character.

Omori Ryu: The Muso Shinden ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu iaido beginner's kata set consisting of twelve kata, eleven beginning from the kneeling position called seiza, and one starting from a standing position. These forms acquaint students with the basics of properly drawing, cutting, and sheathing the sword.

rei: formal bow.

ryu: A term literally meaning "current," as in a river or stream. Within the martial arts the term refers to a school, style, system or method.

ryuha: branch of a ryu.

sageo: cord on a scabbard (saya).

sage to: carrying sword posture.

samurai: Lit. "one who serves.: A term for members of the warrior ruling class.

sanpogiri: three way cut.

saya: sword scabbard.

sayabiki: Pulling the scabbard with the left hand to bring it around your behind left hip, a movement used to facilitate the rapid drawing and cutting movement with the sword common to some iaido styles.

seigan no kamae: see "chudan no kamae."

Seiteigata: Iaido kata (forms) used by the All Japan Kendo Federation that were developed from various styles of iaido (also called Zenkenrenmei).

seiza: a kneeling position.

sensei: Literally "one who has gone before," an honorific term used as a respectful form of address by students when speaking to or referring to their teacher. One never refers to oneself as "sensei."

seppa: metal washers used to tighten the fit of the tsuba between the habaki and the tsuka.

shinogi: ridge line to the back side of the sword, opposite the cutting edge (ha).

Shimmei Muso Ryu: sword-drawing techniques (batto jutsu) codified into a system by Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (1546?-1621), considered to be the founder of iaido.

shinken: real swords sometimes used in iaido practice, with the permission of their teachers, or for demonstrations. Shinken can be modern, steel blades or antiques, depending on the resources of the practitioner. The blades and fittings must be sound enough to withstand the rigors of practice.

shinzen: spiritual center, also sometimes called kamiza, a position of honor or respect which is often the front wall of a dojo, often with an alcove, where there are scrolls, a Shinto altar and/or photos of a teacher or founder.

Shogun: Title of military dictator. Organized a system of government with the samurai established as the ruling class. Existed in Japan during the Kamakura era (1192-1336) and more recently in the Tokugawa era (1603-1868).

Shu-ha-ri: A concept that is often used to describe a student's progression through training. "Shu" means "conservative" and is often translated as "tradition." The beginning student learns the fundamentals of the art form, and all the techniques and kata, essentially as her teacher has shown her. "Ha" means "break" and has been variously interpreted in Western martial art circles as "breaking the tradition" or even "breaking with your teacher." However, it could also mean breaking as in "breakthrough in understanding", i.e., going beyond the mechanics of the techniques to discover their underlying meaning. "Ri," therefore, which has been interpreted in the West as "founding your own style," or even "preserving the style but adding to it," means "freedom" and could instead be interpreted as "owning the kata," establishing one's own identity within the traditionally arranged and performed techniques. Iaido at this point becomes very like free-flowing movement. Few practitioners attain this level, though it remains a goal of training, however elusive.

sonkyo: position of squatting with weight evenly distributed. Used as part of the etiquette of showing respect to an opponent before kendo matches or partner practice and before some partner practices in koryu forms.

sori: curvature. Refers to curvature of the sword blade.

tachi: a long curved Japanese sword used primarily before the slightly shorter katana became popular.

tanden: center: the center of power in the lower abdomen.

tanto: dagger

tatehiza: sitting in a position with one knee raised.

te: hand.

tomoe: a comma (,) used in various configurations to designate different families as part of their kamon (family crest).

torei: formal bow to the sword.

tsuba: sword guard.

tsuka: sword handle.

tsuka ate: striking with the sword handle.

tsuki: thrust with a sword.

uchiko: fine stone powder used for cleaning of shinken (real swords).

ushiro: behind.

wakizashi: short sword, often worn with a long sword (katana), the set known as daisho which symbolized membership in the samurai class.

waza: technique.

yoko: side.

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 (partner forms), students learn zanshin in patterns of attack, defense and counterattack.

Zenkenrenmei iaido kata: forms used by the All Japan Kendo Federation developed from various styles of iaido (also called Seiteigata).

Author's caveat: I have tried to the extent that I can, to include meanings of terms from the original Japanese as they apply specifically to traditional martial arts practice (and to iaido in particular). Any errors are my own. Please note that some Western adaptations of these terms have resulted in different meanings, and that individual dojo have sometimes adapted terminology different from what I show here. The following reflects my individual experience, and is, I hope, somewhat conservative.

Kanji caveat: Japanese terms are written using adapted Chinese characters rather than the western alphabet. Therefore, words that "sound the same" may have radically different meanings and are written differently in kanji (for example, the term "do" meaning "way" or "path" and "do" meaning "ground" are actually different words). Where a similar-sounding term is written in different kanji, it is listed here as a separate term. We hope to add the kanji for the terms listed below in the near future.

Brief and incomplete guide to the complexities of pronunciation:


"a" as in "ha"
"e" as in "hey"
"i" like the "ee" in "fee"
"o" as in "ho"
"u" as in "you"

Vowels in Japanese are never silent (e.g. "mune" is pronounced "moonei"), except when surrounded by unvoiced consonants; e.g. "tsuki" is pronounced "tski."

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

iaido, iaido terminology

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

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