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Iaito and Iaido

posted 9 Jul 2011, 14:15 by Josh MacDonald   [ updated 28 Dec 2011, 13:54 ]
In class you probably often hear me refer to our swords as iaito. I thought I might just clear something up as there may be some confusion around the terms iaido and iaito.

Iaido (居合道) or Iaijutsu (居合術) is the art we practice. Often I will simply say iai for short. An iaito (居合刀) is simply a sword used for iai.

In Japan, most often the term iaito refers to a dull aluminum alloy sword made specifically for iai training. However, some might refer to real sharp steel swords as iaito as well. Usually these swords, though, are referred to as shinken ( ) which means "real sword" or "live sword". I believe that the term iaito is usually used in reference to aluminum swords to differentiate it from a shinken.

Form my experience, aluminum alloy iaito are the norm, and for good reason. Swords are restricted in Japan and acquiring a real one requires a licence. The manufacture of nihonto (
日本刀) is also restricted. Only so many are allowed to be made by a smith in a year. As well, the methods by which they are created are also controlled. True nihonto must be made from traditional Japanese tamahagane in an ancient and very labour intensive method. Methods of forging and heat treatment are also controlled. Swords which do not meet these specifications are destroyed. Many WWII era swords - those which were machined and oil quenched - are deemed to have no artistic or historic value and are destroyed. Understandably, nihonto are often prohibitively expensive, usually starting around the $6000 dollar range.

Aluminum iaito on the other hand are usually much more affordable. Since these iaito are not considered real swords (they have no edge and are not made of steel), they do not fall under the strict controls mentioned above. The price of iaito in Japan start at around $350 on the low end to $1200 at the high end of standard iaito. Of course, some choose to really pimp out their swords with expensive custom fittings or even antique fittings which can add thousands of dollars to the price tag.

Now, outside of Japan things are a bit different. Cheap/affordable Japanese swords made in China and elsewhere are readily available. Unsharpened swords made from aluminum, stainless steel, or carbon steel are also referred to as iaito. Note that stainless steel swords would be illegal in Japan. It seems that the term shinken may be used for sharpened Japanese style swords made in and outside of Japan. However, it seems as though the term nihonto is reserved for true Japanese swords made in Japan in the traditional manner. I think this is a fair distinction.

iaito: In Japan, usually an unsharpened alluminum alloy sword, but not always. Outside of Japan, usually an unsharpened sword, but not always.
shinken: In Japan, a real, live sword. Sometimes a bit more basic and made for practical use (a basic polish, stock fittings). Outside of Japan, a sharpened steel sword made in Japan or not.
nihonto: In Japan it simply means "Japanese sword", i.e. not a european or chinese style, etc sword. Sometimes it is used in reverence. May carry the connotation of an art sword (one with a full art polish and custom fittings, etc). Outside of Japan, it is used to distinguish between non-Japanese made shinken and Japanese made shinken.

Comming up - an iaito buyer's guide...

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