Simply put, iai is the art of quickly drawing the sword in self-defense and immediately slaying the attacker. The practice consists of tireless repetition of certain kata, or quick routines. Each kata is begun in a state of alert calm, usually kneeling. Then, in a seamless sequence of ceremonial gestures, the martial artist will rise, deliver a fatal downward stroke, quickly shake (figurative) blood from the sword and with great mindfulness return the weapon to its scabbard. There is a kata for responding to every conceivable form of ambush, and every micro-element— angle of blade, elbow, foot, eyes—is analyzed and rehearsed until proper form becomes automatic and the artist can focus instead on inward qualities such as moral correctness and dou chuu sei (serenity while in motion).
The edge-of-death discipline of iai arose of necessity during the Edo period in Japanese history, a time when conflicts were being resolved not in armored ranks on the open battlefield but in everyday dress on city streets and down alleyways. Conditions required an acute awareness of the present moment, a deep inner peace and lightning-quick responses more intuited than planned.
Such qualities are valuable in themselves, so as urban bloodletting became less acceptable and as the samurai class took on more sedentary administrative roles in Japanese society, iai took on new purposes: preservation of samurai culture, rigorous physical training, spiritual discipline above all. Thus, the sword—one of humanity’s finest killing tools—became a means of attaining inner peace. “My school, peace,” says Sensei. “Other schools, maybe not.”
He’s moving among his Maui students, who stand in repose. A session in dojo with him is mostly silent. When students do need to scurry through energetic motions, he says to them, “More quiet.” He clarifies: “The meaning of ‘quiet’ is not silence, but ‘more calm.’” He tells a story of a martial arts contest in which one side cheered and stomped like football fans and the other behaved in the appropriate manner, bowing, without ego attachment to the notion of “winning.” He uses household electricity as his metaphor to characterize different approaches to martial arts training.
Schools that clash and compete, he says, are like “DC,” direct current. Schools that emphasize the give-and-take between opponents he likens to “AC,” alternating current. Using his electronic dictionary, he punches up a word meaning “circuit” or “circular path.” With hand gestures he suggests that the energy in iai always cycles through the students—through their hands, hearts, minds—and through the Earth itself. He speaks of “heart-to-heart contact” and of peace.
The leader of the Maui group, Robert Montgomery, or “Sensei Bob,” has already told me, “For Sensei the inner qualities are more important than perfect accuracy of form. Inner calm, attentiveness, awareness of everything around you.”
The students come from a variety of backgrounds. One’s an artist. One’s a masseur. One owns a dive company. One’s a college-bound high school graduate. One woman teaches sixth grade. She brings her granddaughter. Sensei Bob is a retired businessman now in his late 70s. He studied for many years in Japan with Sekiguchi Sensei, and he manages the US branches of this martial art. Sekiguchi has students in more than fifty countries (Lithuania, Holland, Cuba …) in addition to the eight hundred students associated with his main Tokyo dojo, the Komei-juku.