The 2 Rules

Why hello there!

I was surprised to find how many Japanese martial art blogs there are when I first started searching, so I am glad you ended up at this one. If you have any question regarding the Japanese words used, please check the bottom of this post for a brief glossary.

Let’s see, what should I go on about today… How about the two basic rules of Iaido:
Don’t get cut, and cut.

During my first trip to the AUSKF Iaido Summer Camp in 2017, the sensei and senpai there provided plenty of feedback with an overarching theme: Your iai is like a robot pausing after each move, and your cuts are not cuts. In other words, your opponent has ample opportunity to cut you, and you will not cut them. Both rules of iaido BROKEN and I’m dead!
Anderson-sensei appreciated this feedback and moved to focus on these pain points. I like to think this meant we were technically proficient enough in our seitei iai to move on to these issues, but that’s just my ego talking 🙂

In any event, how do we improve upon these concerns?

Don’t get Cut
Anderson-sensei had us make our kiai audible and powerful. This was a deviation from our typical kiai as it is normally quiet, but this turned out to be a useful tool to improve our breathing. We begin our audible kiai when the kata begins, and strengthen it when we strike, trying to make a single breath last the entire kata. This forced us to move through the kata with little pausing for the simple fact that we run out of breath if we stop. Now we were much harder for the enemy to hit because we gave them fewer openings and less time to respond. **

The second issue was our inadequate cuts.

What sensei taught us next can best be summed up with this anecdote. We went down to Des Moines Iaido in Iowa for a seminar led by my sensei this past August. One of their students asked for advice on how to enter seiza. He found it easier and more relaxing to open his leg up to the side as he went down, but that was different from what he was being taught. In response, Anderson-sensei brought another student to sit in seiza in front of the standing inquisitive student. Sensei pointed at the seated student, looked at the standing student, and said

‘He is trying to kill you. Now sit in seiza.’

And wouldn’t you know it, his entry to seiza was much improved.

What does this mean? This means that when you begin a kata, the enemy must be right there with you.

Before we perform a kata, we take a moment to breathe and place an opponent(s) in the room with us who plans to kill us. As we move, we must also move the opponent as they strike or retreat. This visibly made our cuts more accurate and improved our cutting power. We were actually cutting through someone in our mind’s eye.

In conclusion
These are important principles that I find useful in all of my iai. I am far from mastering even these basic points, but now I know how I can improve: Don’t get cut, and cut.


**Note: This is not to say we rush through the kata. We still consider proper timing, our zanshin, and a jo-ha-ku approach. The latter two of these will likely be the subject of future blog posts.

Senpai = senior student
Kata = sequence of moves
Iai = synonymous with Iaido
Kiai = spirit. In this case, inaudible or audible breathing/shouting.
Seiza = traditional Japanese seated position. Sitting on the tops of your feet and knees with your legs together.

Paint Your Own Picture

“Paint your own picture” is something I’ve been challenging my students with lately. One of the hardest things about iaido is not only identifying that hidden opponent, but putting them in front of you and reacting to them as you move through your kata.

Seitei is pretty much a “by the book” style, so there’s not always that much room for creativity in some of the basic movements (kihon). It can become a routine of prescribed movements.

However, there is creativity in how you see your opponent and react to them. This emerges in timing (maai), distance (ma), pressure (seme), and continuing awareness (zanshin).

Much like an artist has to visualize the subject they are painting, the iaido practitioner has to visualize their opponent. Without seeing them, how can we effectively react? Without visualizing their movements, their spacing, and their timing, how can we avoid their cut and then counter?

Anybody can draw a stick figure and call it art, but that’s boring and uninspiring. It’s the composition, details, skill, and perspective that make it beautiful and unique. No two paintings are the same – ever.

If we apply those concepts to our iai every time we execute a kata, and start to “see” our opponents, we create something unique and beautiful.

I challenge you to “paint our own picture.”

Book Learning for Iaido?

I’ve seen several FB videos and posts of people doing iaido the last few weeks to varying degrees of maturity and accuracy. One fellow admits he’s only learned from videos, and has mixed things up a bit without having a sensei or a consistent style to base it upon, though he’s calling it “seitei.”

Another, a self-proclaimed Master steps through some kata to which he’s changed some of the basic techniques, and moves through them with no consciousness of the opponent(s) of whom he’s supposed to be reacting to, no timing or grace. There’s no depth of practice, though he boasts years of experience and some level of mastery.

Maybe I’m too critical, after all my own iaido could easily be criticized on various levels and faults found. I know I have a long list of things to work on and improve.

Kihon, breathing, posture, timing, “presence” all come from experience and time practicing with someone to correct you – putting in the time with a heart set to listen, apply, and learn.

I think that learning from books and videos as a supplement to receiving instruction from a sensei is absolutely possible and encouraged – as long as the materials are accurate and detailed. But without that initial “introduction” to something, say jo, it would be very hard to capture the essence of jo. Without getting swung at in tachi-uchi by the Uchidachi, it would be very hard to capture the reaction and timing in a video. Without having a sensei to say, “Show me,” and then getting points for improvement, is improvement to a higher level even possible?

I don’t know what inspired me to write this, or where it’s even going, except maybe to say, “Find a sensei, or at least go to a seminar or something on occasion to get the “real” thing. If you can, stick with them and attend regularly. Then study the writings and the videos to “tune a bit,” but make sure they’re the right videos and not just guys doing iaido. Stick with one style. Then get back with a sensei again. And most of all, have a heart that is humble and open to being corrected. Practice without distraction and with an attitude of not just “doing” the moves, but with thinking why and how you’re doing the moves. Execute, analyze, repeat. Get some feedback. Take to heart that feedback. Then execute, analyze, repeat again.

Then, maybe someday you’ll be able to execute one of the kata you’re practicing to your satisfaction.

Leave it at the Door

At the start of our practice after we’ve bowed to shommen and are sitting in seiza, the first thing we do is mokuso. This is a practice that I did in kendo, and thought it was appropriate to carry it through into iaido. We also finish our practice with it in much the same manner.
According to Wikipedia, Mokuso (黙想 mokusō) is a Japanese term for meditation, especially when practiced in the traditional Japanese martial arts. Mokuso (pronounced “moh-kso”) is performed before beginning a training session in order to “clear one’s mind”, very similar to the zen concept of mushin. This term is more formally known to mean, “Warming up the mind for training hard.”
How I describe it to my students is basically, “Leaving what’s outside the dojo, outside the dojo, and preparing ourselves and our minds for what we’re about to do inside the dojo.” In addition, I personally use it to replay in my head what areas of my own upcoming practice I’d like to specifically keep in the back of my mind. Things like, don’t drop the kissaki, take the power out of my arms and put it into my hara, move like a mountain moves, and so on.
I really do think that it helps me focus and begin the practice with the right frame of mind. So much so that if I get off track for some reason or distracted while I’m practicing, I may just sit down and perform mokuso again – especially when I’m practicing solo and get distracted by the phone or visitors.
Mushin, or “no mindedness / without mind” is a concept that applies to all martial arts, but is particularly noted in the sword arts. Essentially, it is a mental state in which the practitioner’s mind is not fixed on or cluttered with thought; but rather open, and without emotion – free to act or react  to their opponent.
Perhaps through countless hours (years?) of practice, our bodies and muscles will eventually “memorize” the movements, freeing our mind from the conscious thoughts of correct movement, posture, etc., and we will finally be able to attain this state of Mushin.
At the end of practice we again perform mokuso, and during this time, I reflect on the things I did well, new “learnings,” and things to work on during the next practice. It’s a mental review of sorts.
Kendo practitioners perform mokuso while breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Perhaps this is to prepare for the breathing used during keiko, or perhaps it’s just a way to relax the body and help attain this state of meditation.
Apart from just being a part of the reishiki of kendo and iaido, I really do believe that performing this ritual helps put us in the right frame of mind to learn, and is a small, yet essential part of the art.

Seminar Reschedule

Some may have already heard, but our planned MWKF/Agassiz Dojo 2nd iaido seminar scheduled for end of July has been postponed until sometime later this fall.
During the spring / summer, there are a bunch of different iaido events that people can attend, and I think that because of the timing, we just weren’t going to have a very good turnout.
Instead, I’m hoping we can plan something for the weekend of November16-18 pending availability of the AUSKF sensei. If people are interested in attending at that time, I’d love to hear a quick reply back so I can have some idea of possible attendees.

April Newsletter

Okay, so it is almost the last day of April, but here’s the April newsletter anyway!

CoreCon Demo

In April we performed a demonstration at the Fargo CoreCon convention. I knew it was going to be fun when I saw two kids running around outside with their newly aquired magic wands repeatedly yelling, “Stupify” at each other. It didn’t stick around to see who beat who, but it looked like they wer having fun.
The demo was a good chance for some of the newer members of the dojo to perform their kata in front of people for the first time, and to expose more people to this unique art that we do. One of the coordinators of the event said that we had the biggest attendance for a Sunday event ever, so that shows that at least people were interested in seeing what we do. Thank you to Kelly, Joey, Erik, Tyler, and Sarah for coming out and participating. We did a variety of seitei and Musoshindenryu kata, and some partner work with bokuto to further explain the techniques found in the kata.
Next year it’s in May, and hopefully they’ll have Butterbeer again – that was yummy!

June rank testing

We’ll be having rank testing in June for dojo members. There should be a couple of people able to try for their first rank of 4kyu, as well as a couple more going for 3kyu. I’d like to have testing in Early June to keep in line with the AUSKF Iaido summer camp, also held in June. Members wishing to test for 1kyu or above must do so at such an event – I’m only allowed to test up to 2kyu in the dojo myself.
Testing for the next rank requires a “time-in-rank” before attempting the next level, and so I want to get in synch with the camp for future tests. 1kyu to Shodan is 6 months, Shodan to (2) Nidan is 1 year, Nidan to (3) Sandan is 2 years, and so on. Basically, whatever dan level you are is the number of years you must wait to test for the next rank.
Testing requires a performance of 5 selected kata from the seitei series for ranks up to 3 dan, and then 4 seitei plus one koryu kata for ranks 4 dan and above. This can vary by federation, but that’s generally the schedule.
Another requirement of testing is a written test. For national events, applicants must choose 2 of 3 questions to write answers / essays for. Questions consist of terminology or concepts consistent with studying kendo or iaido and it’s underlying philosophy. I incorporate these kinds of questions in my rank testing at the Moorhead Dojo as well.
Myself and Kelly will both be testing at the Summer Camp in June, and are getting very excited about that event! It will be my first time to test in the US for rank, and I’m anxious to see the similarities and differences to what I experienced in Japan. Luckily, one of the attending sensei from Japan was also my regional sensei back in Shizuoka, a Mr. Yamazaki sensei. I’m looking forward to catching up with him too!
Better start hitting the books and the dojo in preparation for that!
Speaking of the philosophy of budo, I’m always impressed with the site. The writers there often translate writings that are unique and some quite old by masters of the sword. One recent article that I really enjoyed was written by a high school student in Japan. I’m reprinting it here with the author’s permission. The complete article and subsequent comments, etc can be found here:
————– Start ————–
Even if Japanese is not our main language, in a kendo environment we often use the Japanese term “sensei” to mean teacher. What about the other 1/2 of the equation, the student? I can’t recall any Japanese terms being used in any of the 10+ countries I’ve had the fortune to do kendo in.
Traditionally, when someone joins a dojo there are a couple of terms used to express “student”: monkasei (門下生) and deshi (弟子). There are some other terms (e.g. 門弟 or 門人), but those two seem to be the main ones used. Unless you are part of a koryu dojo, or watch and read anime/manga, you will probably never come across the first term. The second term, however, is still used – though uncommonly I must admit – in the Japanese kendo community today.
As regular readers probably know, I run a high school kendo club here in Osaka. When I first started teaching my sensei turned to me and said:

Now you’ve got your own deshi.

This kind of stopped me on my tracks: “deshi… what should I do?” I thought.
Rather than attempt to explain the meaning of “deshi” myself, let me translate a piece from a 13 year old kendoka from Kyushu that I found in this months Kendo Jidai.
p.s. Please check out this old article after you read the one below.

The following essay was awarded the kantosho prize in the Junior High School section of the “32nd kendo youth research seminar.”
I am a deshi
Written by: Hasuda Tomoka
1st year Junior high school student (approx. 13yrs old)
Miyazaki prefecture, Miyazaki city, Shujakukan dojo
Suddenly, after keiko one day my sensei said “you are my deshi.” I was surprised at the suddenness of words, but I was also happy that he called me “deshi.” However, I somehow felt strange. Its because I didn’t actually understand the word “deshi” or what being one means or involves. I thought hard about the meaning of the word and searched out information about it in books and dictionaries. I discovered that “deshi” is part of a “teacher-student” relationship (師弟の関係). On one side of the coin we have the teacher – one with technical skill based on, and knowledge cultivated through experience – who imparts this through instruction; and on the other side we have the deshi, who learns from and studies under the teacher. In a dojo environment, the sensei are the teachers, and we are are the deshi.
So, what is a deshi’s job? What is a deshi supposed to do? A deshi has many various jobs to learn, including seeing off and meeting the sensei when they come to the dojo (shiai), getting any shopping thats needed (for the dojo and/or sensei), taking care of various things around the sensei (to do with the dojo) etc. In kendo, for example, tidying up/putting away the sensei’s bogu and making sure he is comfortable are both part of the deshi’s job.
I started taking tea to the sensei after keiko when I was a 6th grade primary school student (11/12yrs old). This started because my sensei said “bring me tea,” but now it just natural happens. During that short interval, sensei gives me praise, or brings my bad points to attention.
We also talk a lot about non-kendo things as well. What my future dreams are, whats going on at school, the taikai my sensei goes to, the change in seasons, etc all of these are valuable conversations for me. On the occasion that visitors came to keiko, I brought them tea as well. At that time I was told to sit in the corner and listen to the conversation (between the adults). I couldn’t really understand what was being talked about but my sensei said later “even if you can’t understand whats being said, even if you are not part of the conversation, listening to other peoples stories and conversation is important. There will come a time when you will understand.” When he said this to me I pondered that the chance to listen in on these conversations was something different when compared to my usual daily life, and approached these chats with a new feeling.
Another thing that I pay attention to is when my sensei leaves by car (after keiko). When I see him off, I wait until I can no longer see his car before turning away. I learned this after watching how the Riot Squad Police treated their sensei (its possible she is talking about the elite tokuren kenshi in her prefecture).
By continuing to be a deshi like this I have learned some good things, for example: how to use language properly (i.e. learning to by polite in Japanese) and how to be sensitive to nuances in peoples conversations, so now I am at ease with speaking to people who are my superior (i.e. by rank, age, profession, etc). There are other things as well, for example I am able to think and predict what sensei will say/want next, and am already in motion before anything is actually said.
At one time, my sensei told me that deshi have responsibilities. I didn’t really understand what these could be and I thought about it to myself. I think a deshi’s responsibility/job is to keep whats taught to them by their sensei and act within there limits, and to pass these teachings onto their kohai. I still don’t have the ability to do this, so in the meantime I will try my best at keiko, and aim to become a good sempai in the future.
At first I didn’t really know what it means to be a “deshi,” but thanks to everything that my sensei has taught me, I think I am getting closer to understanding the true meaning. Ever since becoming a deshi my sensei has shouted at me a lot; but since there few people around to scold me, I am thankful that he is there, as I know it for my own benefit.
From now on, through kendo and as a deshi/person, I want to keep learning about life.



——————————— End of article ————————
Now isn’t that just cool?

Moorhead Dojo / MWKF Summer Iaido Seminar

July 29 – 31

Our First Annual seminar is coming up! We’ve got Konno sensei (7dan kendo, 7dan iaido) coming and we’re still trying to get one more sensei for this great event! It’s open to kenshi who have any level of iaido experience, as well as people who want to start studying iaido. Complete details can be seen at For planning purposes, pre-registration is strongly encouraged, and there is a discount for early registration.
We’ll have three excellent vendors there selling iaito and gear too!
See you next month.

Iaido – How to take it to the next level?

At the end of last summer, I had a phone conversation with my sensei in Japan, Mr. Takeda. It had been a while since we had spoken, and it was really nice to catch up on news with him and my home dojo in Numazu. I knew that August was when they have their rank testing (shinsa) and asked him how it went for my dojo mates.
I guess that several of my former dojo-mates had tested for rank, and for 4 dan and above, about half had passed. I guess that’s pretty consistent with when I tested. For my 4dan rank test, 3 of the 5 people testing passed.

I was glad to hear that Sano sensei passed his 6 dan, and also Mr. Takato, whom I received a very nice iaito from when I left Japan, passed his 5 dan. However, my classmate, Mr. Hasegawa who started the same time as I did and always tested together, did not pass his 5th dan test. According to Takeda sensei, the higher rank testing requirements have stiffened up over the last few years, and the testing board is passing a lower percentage of applicants even at the 3 and 4dan levels.

So I got to thinking how I could try to improve and check my own technique for my own upcoming shinsa. There are no upper ranked sensei nearby to compare notes with, and short of sending a video of myself doing kata to someone, I was pretty much on my own.

Later, I read this interesting article in which 8dan Hanshi Ogura sensei talks about when he was preparing to make his third attempt for 8dan. After his regular practice session, he would go back in alone, turn off the lights, and practice in the dojo in the dark for an additional couple of hours.

So, I decided to try this. It was pretty hard to get the dojo to be completely dark – there was some light bleeding in through the outside window above the door, and also from the exit sign, but it was still pretty dark. After all, it was the middle of winter in MN, and the sun had long since gone down.

I went in, sat down, and proceeded to start through the first few seitei kata. It was an experience that was unlike any I had before. I found that the kata in seiza were okay – I had started in the middle of the floor, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting too close to any walls. Starting with the standing kata kesagiri was a bit different. I became much more conscious of how big my steps were, and I kept thinking how close I might be getting to the front of the dojo. It was really difficult!

The other thing I noticed was my nukitsuke and noto had reverted back to being extremely slow. I felt like it was the first time using my shinken again and feared for cutting myself on my nukitsuke and noto movements. Again, very difficult.

I only tried this for a short time, my regular practice was about to start, but it’s a different type of practice that I think is valuable and I’d really like to do again – maybe this time after a practice sometime.

Also in that article, Ogura sensei gives some of what he felt are grading requirements for rank. What he states for 5dan (my next attempt) are as follows:

  • Being able to perform all the kata nearly perfectly; having learned the basics of position(s) of the imaginary opponent(s) and suitable distance(s), based on learning from written references and teachings from one’s Master.
  • Being able to show an extension of your soul in the sword movements, facing the imaginary opponents; instilled calmness, metsuke, kihaku (unmistakable determination to vanquish); the harmonious unity of ki (energy) – ken (sword) – tai (body); smooth and controlled movements; mastering in both kokoro and waza (mind/heart/soul and techniques).
Wow. “Being able to show an extension of your soul in the sword movements.” Now I guess that I have something additional to think about when I’m practicing.
Iaido – it’s truly a lifetime of learning.

Esaka Seigen Sensei – article

Going through some old material here, and I came across this which I posted a few years ago on the kendo-world site.

There was a recent blurb in the Japan Times newspaper about Esaka Seigen Sensei. Here it is:

He holds the highest rank, 10th dan, is vice-president of the Zen Nihon Iaido Renmei and has been practicing the art form for 50 years. In his spare time he likes to compose haiku, do calligraphy and philosophize about life.

Life is a series of moments. Each and every one is precious. With this mind-set, you treat any encounter with a person or thing as if it is the first, even if it isn’t.

Leave some water in the ladle for others. I like this famous Zen saying, which advises that even if you are thirsty you should not drink all the water, but should share what is left with other people.

We live among acquaintances and strangers. It’s important to try to get along with others and not exclude people. You will be able to achieve peace if you focus on having a harmonious frame of mind.

You ultimately have to stand on your own two feet. The essence of martial arts — or anything — is to become independent without relying too much on others or being affected by time or place.

I don’t want to create a clone of myself. As a teacher, I’d like to train somebody so that they surpass me, otherwise there will be no progress in the art form.

There are no enemies out there. Suspicion, surprise, arrogance, laziness, etc., are all enemies that reside in your heart, which is where all our enemies exist. That is why you should not blame others when you experience these feelings.

Wherever you are, that is your dojo- (place of practice). Any place in daily life is an opportunity to work on yourself, anytime and anywhere.

Be focused but not focused. In order to see the big picture you must make sure that your perspective doesn’t become too narrow. That is why it is important to keep the mind relaxed and loose.

People can only see within the scope of their own ability. This can be likened to being on the first floor of a building. If you raise your ability, you will be able to see things from a higher dimension, the second floor. It’s important to think about how you can achieve this.

Wisdom is a natural ability that you receive from your parents. As you refine your wisdom, it will start to spout out like water.

Put up with things — endurance can be a good thing. It makes a person more big-hearted. However, it is important to make sure that stress doesn’t build up, by letting it out little by little, so that you don’t “go off the deep end.”

Practice the art of checking. In iaido, you check until the very end, to make sure that your opponent has been completely defeated. This same mind-set can be used at work to, for example, check until the very last moment to make sure that you have not made any mistakes on a certain project.

You could be a diamond in disguise. If you don’t work on yourself, or “polish” your abilities, you will never be able to tell if you are a diamond or not. Even if you have good natural ability, if you don’t work on it, you’ll just end up being a rock.

I learn about responsibility from flowers and bonsai trees. The effects of any maintenance on them are immediately apparent, so that any laziness on my part makes them wither. I like the fact that they respond so honestly.

Bad habits don’t always have to be overcome. So long as they are socially harmless, they help to make you who you are, and may ultimately serve a good purpose.

Visualize what you want. Clearly depict in your mind the ideal way you want things to be, and then devise a method that can make that a reality. The rest just involves repeating this process, ensuring that you make revisions along the way.

Put pressure on yourself. People have a tendency to take the easy way out. But if you want to achieve your goals you have to be hard on yourself to a certain degree.