Way of the Sword: Iaido

I am a beginning student of the art of Japanese swordsmanship, or iaido. I attend the Boston Iaido dojo, studying Eishin-ryu Iaido under the instruction of Nguyen-sensei.

Nguyen-sensei has distributed this English translation of Esaka-sensei's article describing the fundamentals of our organization's iaido forms. I am posting this article with his permission for the sake of our dojo members.

This is not intended for self-training; if you are not currently receiving training from a qualified instructor, please seek out the nearest dojo. It is risky to train with a sword on your own, and you will likely misinterpret something and develop dangerous and improper habits. Only a knowledgeable teacher can provide a safe interactive learning experience.


by Seigan Esaka Sensei, Hanshi 10th Dan

(Translated by Raju Thakrar)

The Basics of Iaido

  1. Reishiki

    Rei (bowing/respect) is the most important part of budo--forms of budo that take rei lightly are not budo. People practising iaido should at all times endeavour to be respectful with a sincere kokoro (heart/spirit).

    1. Shinzen no rei / Ritsurei
      (Bowing to shinzen / Standing bow)

      When bowing to shinzen, go to the back left corner of the dojo (sueza), transfer the sword from your left hand to your right hand (the "ha"--cutting edge--points backward and the sword is at a 45-degree angle), and bow respectfully.

      Transfer the sword back to your left hand, advance to a point to the left and just before the centre line of the dojo, and sit down.

    2. Shi ni taisuru rei / Sogo no rei
      (Bowing to your Shi or Sensei / Bowing to each other)

      Pull the sword out from the left side of your body to the centre of your body, and transfer it to your right hand. The right hand's index finger is extended so that the end of it touches the side of the tsuba. With your left hand on your obi, pull the sword completely out, then place your left hand on the top of your left thigh, and place the sword about 15 cm from your right leg so that it is parallel to your body, with the tsuba in line with your knee and the ha facing you. Bow respectfully by placing your left hand then your right hand in front of the centre of your body, forming a triangle with your index fingers and thumbs. Your koshi (hips) should not rise up when you bow.

    3. Katana ni taisuru rei
      (Bowing to your Sword)

      Pull the sword out from your obi at a 45-degree angle (to your body), and place the kojiri (end of the saya) to the right. Gently lay down the sword parallel to your knees, without moving the kojiri at all (look at the sword throughout this movement), so that it is about 30 cm away from your knees and the centre of the sword is at the centre of your body (the ha is facing you). Next, bow respectfully by placing your hands in front of you (making a triangle with your index fingers and thumbs), while making sure that your koshi does not rise up.


      1. When performing a zarei (seated rei), your elbows should not stick out or touch the floor, but should lightly brush the outer edge of your knees.
      2. Your head should be about 25 cm from the floor at the lowest position in zarei.

    (Note from translator: Esaka Sensei said that reishiki are a fixed set of movements that are used to express a respect towards other human beings/one's sword/shinzen. Therefore, these movements must be done correctly, otherwise one's respectful kokoro will not be apparent.)

  2. Taito
    (Putting the sword in your obi)

    After performing zarei, place the end of your right index finger lightly on the tsuba and take hold of the sword. Gently place the kojiri about 10 cm from your knees in front of the centre of your body, with the ha facing you. Place your left hand about one third from the bottom of the saya, slide it down to the kojiri and bring this to your obi. (Place the sword in your obi leaving one layer between it and your body, and pass it just above the lower hakama cords.) Before performing each movement--placing the sword in front of you, standing the sword up, etc.--be sure to return your metsuke (gaze) to the front before proceeding onto the next movement.

Seiza Ippon: Mae

The following instructions refer to the first seiza waza, Mae, but they are also applicable to all other waza.

  1. Nukitsuke / Kiritsuke
    (Drawing the Sword / Cutting)

    Nukitsuke is the life force of iaido, and is the most important part of swordwork.

    1. Carefully observe your opponent, and when you are sufficiently full of "spiritual vigour," gently bring your left hand to the koiguchi (opening of saya), and while gripping the saya release the sword from your saya with the end of your thumb. At the same time, gently lift your right hand to the tsuka from below (gently lift up your koshi at the same time as unsheathing, and bring your toes up immediately) and start to gradually unsheath the sword at an outward angle so that the monouchi is at a 45-degree angle: in this position, pull your sayate (hand that holds the saya: left hand) back so that it is completely horizontal (which is the direction in which the ha moves) while simultaneously moving your right leg forward, thereby making a horizontal cut.


      1. When you place your right hand on the tsuka, gently squeeze your knees inwards. It is extremely important that your "spiritual vigour," the timeing of your right hand, and the beginning of the movement of your koshi are all in synchrony at the beginning of the movement and at the instant of the cut.
      2. It is extremely important to perform the cut by pulling back the saya with the left hand and simultaneously gripping the tsuka with the little finger, ring finger, and "thumb base (thumb and fleshy part just below it)" of the right hand the moment the kissaki leaves the saya. Both hands move at the same time.
      3. When you unsheathe the sword, the fingers of your right hand should softly cover the tsuka. Strongly gripping the tsuka makes cutting difficult. The right hand should grip the tsuka the moment the kissaki leaves the saya.

    2. When performing this cut, it is very important that neither the left nor the right shoulder rises up, and that you pull the saya backward with your left shoulder down and your chest out. Neither elbow should rise out.
    3. After the cut has been performed, the kissaki should be in a direct straight line forward from your right hand.


      • If the kissaki is outside of this line, the power of the cut will be inadequate.

    4. Your sword should be level with your shoulders, which should be in a natural position.
    5. Bring your right hand forward so that it is approximately in line with your right knee (which you have moved forward).


      • The right hand should be moved forward with the intent of placing the sword in your opponent's body.

    6. As a rule, the sword should be horizontal, and the kissaki should point fractionally down (due to one's gripping of the tsuka).


      • Nukitsuke is incorrect if the kissaki points too far down. The kissaki should point down by only a few cm.

    7. Place a sufficient amount of "spiritual vigour" into your koshi and tanden (area just below the navel) and make sure your upper body is vertical. The right leg that you have placed forward should be bent at a 90-degree angle, and the lower leg should be vertical.
    8. Your back leg and upper body should be in a straight vertical line, and your koshi should not lean forward or backward.
    9. When your have unsheathed your sword, your body should squarely face yow opponent; thus, your left shoulder should not be pulled backward. In addition, you should strongly grip the tsuka with your right hand by pulling with your little and ring finger and pushing with your "thumb base," while gripping the saya with your left hand and pulling it gently backward with your elbow.


      1. It is important on nukitsuke that your "absolute forward intent" is not lost; thus, your koshi should not be in a backward position relative to your upper body.
      2. From the beginning to the completion of the nukitsuke, it is important that the intent to overwhelm your opponent and keep him in check with your tsukagashira is not lost. For this reason, it is important that you point your tsukagashira towards your opponent's solar plexus (suigetsu or mizuochi) from the moment you start unsheathing the sword. Until the kissaki leaves the saya, it is very important that you do not point your tsukagashira in any other direction other than at your opponent's suigetsu.

    10. It is very important that when you place your hand on the tsuka and unsheathe the sword, it is not noticed by your opponent. In addition, it is very important that the unsheathing of the sword and the placement of energy in your tanden should take place at a jo-ha-kyu speed (slow at the beginning, gradually gets faster, then "blasts" on the cut), and should be smooth, soft, and natural, without any jerking or other movements. Furthermore, it is very important that you unsheathe the sword with a brave inner spirit.
    11. As a way of achieving "kikentai no icchi (oneness of spirit, sword, and body)" on cutting, a beginner is encouraged to make a sound when placing his/her foot forward; however, after sufficient practice, it is important to try to achieve "kikentai no icchi" without making a sound with one's foot.
    12. The true intention of iai is to be victorious with one cut at the instant the sword leaves the saya. Any swordwork after unsheathing the sword that involves using two hands should, in fact, be called kendo.
    13. Making a stomping noise with the feet when unsheathing/moving the sword, or moving the body is not correct budo. Keep in mind that making a stomping noise with the feet is only a skill-developing exercise for beginners.

  2. Jodan ni Furikaburu / Kaburu
    (Moving the Hands into the Jodan Position)

    1. After you have made a horizontal ("yoko ichi monji") cut, bend your right wrist inwards and bend your elbow so that the sword is level--at the height ofthe horizontal cut--and move the kissaki to the left keeping it close to the body and below the level of the chin. At the same time, the right hand should be moved diagonally straight to the top of the head (i.e., the shortest possible distance to the top of the head). The moment the kissaki goes past the left shoulder, bring your left hand up from the centre of your body and grip the tsuka to take up the jodan position.
    2. In the jodan position, the tsuba should be low enough for it to be somewhat concealed behind the head. In this position, the kissaki is about 45 to 50 cm away from the back, and the hands should grip the tsuka softly.

  3. Uchioroshi / Kirioroshi
    (Cutting Down)

    1. After the first cut (Nukitsuke), one cuts down to finish off the opponent. This is an important part of swordwork. When cutting down, it is very important that you put a sufficient amount of "spiritual vigour" into your koshi, so that your upper body does not sway backward or forward.
    2. Cut your opponent from his head down to his mizouchi by sufficiently extending both hands, and putting an equal amount of force into each hand. Squeeze both hands inwards. Cut down so that the kissaki is about 25 cm from the floor (i.e., the sword is at an angle where water on it would gradually flow from the tsuba to the kissaki). On the beginning of the uchioroshi cut, make sure that you use (extend) your wrists.
    3. Cut down by creating a large circle with the kissaki. The sword's force should be greatest when it passes through the opponent's head to his chest, and should become softer as the sword stops.
    4. At the end of the cut, the tsuba should be approximately even with the right knee, and your right hand should be at knee height. The top of your left wrist should be at navel height, and the tsukagashira should be approximately 10 cm (one fist) away from your body.
    5. Your metsuke should be approximately 3 to 4 m in front of you from the start of the waza to when you put your hands up in the jodan position; and it should be approximately 2 m in front of you just beyond your opponent's body) after you cut down to when you sheathe your sword.

  4. Chiburi
    (Flicking Blood off the Sword)

    This is the method by which blood which has adhered to the sword is flicked away. In reality, almost no blood adheres to the sword; however, this action was devised in order to place importance on "yoshin (cultivating the spirit)" and "zanshin (awareness and not letting up; literally means 'leaving one's spirit')".

    1. After cutting down, gently remove your left hand from the tsuka and place it on your left hip above your obi. At the same time, with the intention of overwhelming your opponent, move the kissaki out slightly with your right hand, and gently open your fingers so that you create a semi-circle with your right hand by rotating it to a 45-degree angle and bringing it up to your right temple (while moving the kissaki backward). You should rotate your right hand as if drawing a semi-circle. In this position, your right elbow should be naturally at ease. Stand up by bringing your left foot even with your right foot so that you are in an upright position with your knees slightly bent (this position is known as "chugoshi" or "iaigoshi"). Flick the blood off your sword by bringing the kissaki down diagonally to the right.
    2. The kissaki should be approximately 60 cm in front of you, 30 cm to your right from the tip of your right foot, and 20-30 cm from the floor. Your right hand should be slightly bent inwards, and even with your knees and at the height of your obi. When standing, your toes should be apart at about a 60-degree angle, and the space between your knees should be about 10 cm or one fist.
    3. Throughout chiburi, be careful to not let the kissaki go above the height of your right hand. In other words, rotate the kissaki at the height it is at after uchioroshi.
    4. The ring and middle fingers of your right hand should touch your right temple. In this position, the kissaki should be pointing backward at approximately a 45-degree angle, and should be approximately 30 cm below your right hand.

  5. Noto
    (Sheathing the Sword)

    As with chiburi, one should not forget zanshin when doing noto. During noto, one should use the right hand as if one is goin to unsheathe the sword. In other words, it is very important that the right hand is in a state where, even while sheathing the sword, one can instantaneously unsheathe the sword at any point. It is important that at all times and in all situations, there is not even the slightest "suki" or opening (inattentiveness) in one's stance from the top of the head to the tip of the toes.

    1. After you have completed chiburi, pull your right leg back to a width of two regular footsteps ("nihohaba"), while keeping your koshi at the same chugoshi height. Place your left hand on the koiguchi (without pulling out the saya) so that your little finger lightly touches your obi, anĂ³ move the kissaki along the straight line between it and the koiguchi so that the part of the sword approximately 12 to 15 cm from the tsuba touches the left hand at the base formed by the thumb and index finger. The ha should be facing upwards and outwards at a 45-degree angle to the body. You should naturally and gradually sheathe the sword, while bringing your right knee down so that it touches the floor just as noto is finished.
    2. When doing noto, it is essential to be in a mental state in which you can instantaneously unsheathe your sword. In other words, a state where you show a sufficient amount of zanshin. In order to be in this state, it is important to make sure that your tsuka is never below your kojiri.
    3. With practise, one can unsheathe the sword as fast as one likes; however, there is no need to do noto fast. In fact, noto should be done very naturally.
    4. Too fast a transition from cutting down to noto results in a lack of zanshin; therefore, is very important to work out the correct timing or "ma".
    5. When you pull your right leg back, keep your koshi firm and stable. The toes of both your feet should point forward, and your back heel should be 5 cm from the floor (gently stretch the Achilles tendon on your right leg). If the back heel is too high, your stance will be weak. It is important that you stand with your left knee pushed fomard a little.
    6. Make sure that the middle finger of your left hand touches the koiguchi, and create a small groove with your index finger and thumb; if this groove is too big the kissaki will touch the koiguchi and you will not be able to do noto properly.
    7. When you bring the sword to the koiguchi for noto, do so by moving the kissaki in a curve to the leg; do not move the kissaki or your right hand to the right at the beginning of the movement in order to create momentum. Place the part of the sword's "mune" (back of the blade) that is about 12 to 15 cm from the tsuba on the base created by your left thumb and index finger at the koiguchi. Draw the right hand out parallel to the ground at an approximate 45-degree angle to the shomen.
    8. Sheathe approximately 10 cm of your sword quickly, but sheathe the rest of the sword slowly while keeping it in the same orientation. This movement must be done in such a way that you can respond at any time to an attack by your opponent. After you have sheathed approximately 10 cm of your sword, start to gradually bring your koshi down, and place your right knee gently on the floor (so that one cannot tell when the knee has touched the floor), and at the same time end noto. The tsukagashira and kojiri are approximately at the same level in this final position.
    9. The tsuba should be approximately 20 cm from the centre of your body at the end of noto.
    10. Next, carefully observe your opponent's body for a few seconds, then place your right hand on the tsukagashira, and while bringing your metsuke to eye level, stand up and bring the tsukagashira to the centre of your body and your right leg even with your left leg. Step back one step with your left foot so that you are back to where you were at the beginning of the waza. Sit down, and start your next waza.


      1. Noto should be performed by first moving the kissaki in a curve to the left, rather than moving your right hand to the leW. Make sure the kissaki moves from below, not above, and gradually goes up while you bring the sword to the koiguchi.
      2. During noto, you should use the right hand as if you were going to unsheathe the sword. In other words, it is very important that the right hand is in a position such that even while sheathing the sword you can instantaneously unsheathe the sword at any time. The same principal applies to your arm and kokoro. It is important that at all times and in all situations, there is not even the slightest suki in one's stance from the top of the head to the tip of the toes.
      3. When cutting, your right hand and then your right elbow moves forward. When doing noto, your elbow, then yow hand moves to the left. In both cases, be certain so that your elbows do not stick out.

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