Learning a country’s culture can be challenging, especially with many terminologies baffling the human mind and making comprehension more difficult. Japan is no different, particularly its rich sword-making heritage.
Everyone knows the katana – the quintessential Samurai sword. Some might have heard of the Wakizashi, the short-bladed weapon accompanying the katana under a Samurai’s belt. But have you ever heard of the Iaito sword?
Well, this article addresses this mystery and other riddles you might have about these equally fascinating Japanese training swords.
What’s an Iaito Sword?
The simplest Iaito sword definition we can give is it’s a katana-like sword without the deadly, razor-sharp edge.
The Iaito looks and feels like the legendary katana. It has nearly identical dimensions, accessories, and other attributes.
Most people clueless about Japanese sword types might think the Iaito and katana are one and the same. And they might be correct if they disregard the Iaito’s unsharpened edge.
Hence, one cannot expect this sword as an effective tool for defeating enemy Samurai or Ninjas. Their blunt edges cannot cut or slash, let alone incapacitate an opponent. So, what is this sword good for? We will discover this in the following few sections.
How Different is Iaito to Iaido?
With one letter differentiating Iaito from Iaido, it’s not surprising that many use these terms interchangeably. However, there’s a glaring distinction.
An Iaito sword is a tool, a training hardware, to be precise. It’s a device for students learning the martial art Iaido. Hence, the Iaito is an object, while Iaido is a practice or martial art.
Let’s understand what Iaido is to appreciate Iaito’s role (we hope we didn’t confuse you with the terms).
Iaido is a Japanese martial art originating from the mid-16th century, teaching students and practitioners – or Iaidoka – increased situational awareness and agile sword-drawing and slashing abilities.
Iaidoka (or Iaidoka professionals or students) try to learn and master the art of being acutely aware of their surroundings so they’ll know when to draw their swords from the sheaths.
More importantly, Iaido teaches practitioners the correct way of unsheathing the katana in one fluid motion, striking an opponent with controlled movements, shaking off the blood from the Nagasa (blade), and re-sheathing the katana.
It might sound simple. But knowing how Japanese look at perfection in every aspect of their activities, the Iaido “technique” can take years to master.
Now, imagine using a real katana during Iaido sessions. Your training partner is at the mercy of your sword-handling skills.
An errant move can cut or slash another Iaidoka, ending your Samurai aspirations. Hence, a safer tool is necessary for Iaidoka to learn, master, and perfect these sword-handling techniques.
And this is how an Iaito sword helps. Its unsharpened edge makes it a safer tool for learning Iaido principles and techniques.
However, it’s worth pointing out that absolute Iaidoka beginners use Bokken, a wooden training sword. This tool allows novice Iaidoka to learn basic sword-handling and movement techniques before advancing to the next stage.
As the Iaidoka’s competence grows, a more “realistic” katana-like tool is necessary. Hence, the Iaito sword.
More experienced Iaidoka often use katana-like training swords known as Shinken. These tools have a sharp edge, although not as razor-sharp as a katana’s.
The whole point here is the Japanese will never use an authentic katana for training. They will utilize either an Iaito or a Shinken sword to learn and master the different martial art techniques necessary to make them excellent katana-wielding swordsmen.
An Iaidoka with an Iaito sword at practice. Photo by Kendo Victoria.
Characteristics of the Katana-like Iaito Sword
So, an Iaito sword is a training tool. But what Iaito sword characteristics should you know? Besides its unsharpened edge, how different is it from a battle-ready Samurai katana?
Unlike the katana that utilizes only ironsand (Satetsu)-derived Tamahagane steel, most Iaito manufacturers use aluminum-zinc alloy while some might opt for nickel alloy. These metals are cheaper to source, easier to work with, and more comfortable to handle. Sharpening the edge is impossible, ensuring the Iaito sword retains its blunt edge for many years.
However, because it’s not as “hard” as Tamahagane and other high-carbon steel, the Iaito is unsuitable for sword-on-sword contact. Training Iaido with an Iaito requires the Iaidoka to practice the techniques without hammering the sword against a hard object.
The good news is the Japanese government will not charge you for deadly weapon possession if you carry an Iaito in public.
As mentioned, the Iaito looks like an authentic Samurai katana (if you overlook its blunt edge). However, a training sword doesn’t have to be as elaborate as a katana. Although most Iaito swords feature an elegant temper line (Hamon), this attribute is acid-etched or stenciled, not clay-tempered.
Although uncommon, an Iaito might also feature Horimono (decorative carvings) to improve its aesthetics. The characteristic Sori or curvature is also present.
An Iaito approximates a katana’s dimensions, especially its length. Hence, you can expect an Iaito’s blade to span 60 to 80 centimeters or about 23.62 to 31.6 inches.
Its heft, while lighter (because of alloy materials), is not far off from the katana’s average weight of 1,200 grams. A typical Iaito weighs 820 grams, although swords with a 74-centimeter steel blade can weigh between 900 and 950 grams.
Iaito sword mounting is nearly similar to a katana, albeit less ornate. The decorative elements are often a product of user preferences.
- Tsuka – Most Iaito feature a wooden Tsuka (handle or hilt) wrapped in a silk braid interspersed with ray skin. The Kashira and Fuchi metal fittings are also present. However, the Iaito’s Tsuba (guard) has a simpler design, opting for a smooth finish than the katana’s ornate guard.
- Saya – The Iaito’s wooden sheath has a lacquered finish, with only a Sageo as its sole decorative element that doubles as a mechanism for securing the sword to the Iaidoka’ belt.
Origins of the Iaito Sword
Because Iaito swords are crucial training tools for Iaido, Most would think it’s a 16th-century creation. Japanese historians say Iaido flourished in the mid-16th century, having organized by Hayashizaki Kinsuke Shigenobu. Many Iaido teachings and principles stem from an earlier martial art – Iaijutsu – that started in 2nd-century BC.
Does this mean the Iaito sword predated the katana?
Not necessarily. Although the Iaito is closely associated with the practice of Iaido, its development was much more recent.
With scant resources, it’s not easy to pinpoint the Iaito’s precise origins. However, research shows the very first Iaito was created by a Fukuoka craftsman, who refused to let the traditional art of Iaido die a natural death because of certain restrictions imposed after the Second World War.
The first Iaito was not as elaborate as today’s swords. However, it allowed Iaidoka continue harnessing and perfecting their skills without getting punished by the government for carrying a bladed weapon.
Although Fukuoka saw the birth of the Iaito, the artisans of Gifu would perfect it. Today, many of Japan’s finest Iaito swords come from this region.
The Jutoho Law and Iaito Sword
We mentioned the “restrictions” imposed right after World War II, which somehow led to the development of the Iaito. This restriction is the Jutoho Law (the 1958 Act for Controlling the Possession of Firearms or Swords and Other Such Weapons), making it illegal to produce, import, and carry sharpened swords. It also included bladed weapons with “sharpehable” edges.
The Iaito circumvented this law because it doesn’t have a sharpened edge. Its material composition also makes it impossible to “sharpen.” Hence, you could parade around Tokyo or Osaka and never worry about getting arrested.
Of course, the Japanese could still own sharp-edged swords like the katana. However, they must register and secure a permit from the police department. The sword must also have a Torokusho (a certificate or registration license). Moreover, the katana must be a certified culturally important sword or work of art. Otherwise, it’s illegal.
Owning a katana is different from carrying it in public. While katana ownership is legal in Japan (provided the user and sword meet regulatory requirements), displaying it in public is a big NO-NO.
The Iaito solves this dilemma. As an unsharpened training sword, one can carry it virtually anywhere in Japan, with one exception. The Japanese government doesn’t recognize non-Japanese-manufactured Iaito swords as such. Hence, you might be subject to the same ownership and use restrictions as Japanese bladed weapons.
Are Iaito Swords Imitation Swords?
When someone sees an Iaito sword for sale sign, there’s a good chance they will grab the opportunity and use the sword as a display piece in the home. This behavior underscores the prevailing notion that Iaito swords and imitation swords are one and the same.
Unfortunately, it’s inaccurate. An Iaito is a training sword, requiring it to be as closely robust to the real katana as possible (although most Iaidoka use it for solo forms). On the other hand, an imitation sword is only for display purposes. Hence, it might have more intricate and ornate details than an Iaito.
An Iaito sword with stainless steel blade. Photo by Cool Katana.
The Bottom Line
At a time when Japan considers it illegal to use and carry a real katana and other sharp bladed weapons, an Iaito sword is heaven-sent. Iaido practitioners can continue developing their martial art techniques and competencies without fearing incarceration or other legal punishments. After all, an Iaito’s unsharpened and unsharpenable edge makes it a safe and legal training implement.