The beauty and mysticism of budo, the Japanese
martial arts, are famous the world over. Requiring strict discipline
of mind and body, martial arts traditionally combined the skills
necessary for fighting and killing with the harmony and dignity
of Confucianism and Buddhism. Of the eighteen traditional martial
arts, the most popular today are kendo and judo, due to their high
international profile. However, other arts, such as the graceful
techniques of iaido, are still practised today.
Iaido is the art of swordsmanship, and in this sense is closely
related to kendo. But whereas kendo focuses on the use of the sword
outside of its sheath, iaido teaches the art of drawing the sword
from the scabbard, delivering one fatal blow to the opponent, flicking
the blood off the sword and returning it to the scabbard. The martial
art dates back approximately five hundred years, to a time when
the country was ravaged by war, and competent use of the sword -
the primary weapon at the time - was essential to a samurai's survival.
Today, many schools of iaido exist, the two biggest being Eishin
Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu, both of which have clubs throughout Japan.
The martial art has a strong presence in Fukushima, with the prefectural
team emerging victorious at last years Tohoku Iaido Championships.
Members of the winning team came from various clubs, one of which
was the Shimizu Club, which is affiliated to Muso Shinden Ryu, and
trains at Shimizu Elementary School in Fukushima City. Headed by
chief instructor Yukio Noguchi, the club has forty three members,
fifteen of whom are ranked fifth dan or over, with three senseis
who hold a ranking of seventh dan. Classes are held twice weekly
on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings, and clad in traditional
training uniforms consisting of a flowing hakama (pleated skirt)
and a gi top, the club members are a picture of elegance as Mr Noguchi
and his fellow instructors put them through their paces.
Although the ancient samurai wore two swords, the long katana and
the shorter wakizashi, most iaido today concentrates on the use
of the former of the two. Slightly curved and measuring approximately
sixty centimetres, the blade of the katana has two sections, as
fourth dan student Takahiro Inoue explains. Consisting of thousands
of layers of tightly compressed steel, the construction of the blade
is controlled in such a way that the body of the sword has a soft
core, while the edge is hard. This balance is important, for if
the sword were to be made completely of hard steel, it would snap
with use, whereas a blade made entirely of soft
would be unable to cut.
The katana is razor sharp, with even a slight blow capable of causing
death. With techniques practiced involving thrusts to vital organs
and major arteries and slashes to the limbs, it is easy to see why
the samurai regarded it as such a deadly weapon in the right hands.
In fact, the blade of the katana is said to be so fine that students
have be known to cut themselves while sheathing and resheathing
the sword and be unaware of their injury. It is for this reason
that students cannot train with a real sword until they have several
years of experience, says Mr Noguchi. An imitation sword made of
duralumin, weighing and measuring the same length as the real thing,
must be used until the basic techniques have been mastered. Use
of the real sword is compulsory in grading tests for fifth dan and
over, although in some competitions those ranked at fourth dan or
over are required to use a katana.
Keen to share their love of iaido with others, the Shimizu Iaido
Club warmly welcomes anyone with an interest in the martial art,
including foreigners, several of whom have been members in recent
years. The club is also looking forward to another busy year, with
members scheduled to participate in tournaments around the country,
and hopes to repeat the success enjoyed by iaido in Fukushima last
year again in 1999.