Swords for Iaido
Swords for Iaido range from Iaito to Shinken. There are many types of Japanese sword, including Tachi, Wakizashi, Tanto, Tsurugi [Ken] and Katana. For Iaido, a Katana is used. A Wakizashi may be used for some Kumitachi [Mugai Ryu has a set of 5 Wakizashi kumitachi] but in normal Iaido kata practice, only a Katana is used. In the dojo no new member will be using a shinken for Iaido kata. Even experienced people often prefer to use an iaito rather than a shinken for kata and even experienced people will cut themselves too often using a shinken. For prospective members of the dojo, we would prefer it if you trained for a while first before buying a sword. This way you save yourself time, money and embarrassment in buying rubbish swords that you can’t use. Some swords are even dangerous to swing around and could cause injury to other members or even yourself.
Iaido and kendo are both staunchly conservative arts. Conformity is important, as it is important in Japanese culture. As such styles of katana range within quite tight restrictions. There are a huge number of ways you can customise the look of your sword, but in the end it still must look like a traditional katana.
Iaito [Mogito] are purpose built Katana for practising Iaido, they are the same as a Shinken in every way except the blade, which is commonly made of Duralumin, a Zinc/Aluminium alloy. Iaito are designed so that they have no killing ability and hence are legal to own in Japan without a license. Iaito blades are strong enough to stand up to years of continuous Iaido practice though. The koshirae on good Iaito is often as good as most Iai-Shinken. Proper Iaito start at about $450 and made in Japan is generally far superior to anything else. A good iaito will feel similar to a good shinken to use, nice balance and strong blade. Also the tsuka-maki will be nice and tight and the koshirae nicely made as well.
Mino Token iaito
Shinken just means real sword, as such it is made of steel and is sharp. Nowadays this simple set of conditions has come to include a huge range of rubbish swords as well, but when we talk of Shinken, we mean a sword that could be used regularly for tameshigiri without falling apart and has similar colour schemes and designs as traditional Katana. Usually when Iaido people use the word shinken it refers to a Japanese made katana though.
Shinken for Iaido could include, real Katana from Samurai-Era Japan costing $6000 upwards, or Iai-yo Shinken, katana made in Japan for Iaido, these are real Japanese Katana which you can get for about ￥250,000 and upwards second hand. Some of the big competitions such as the Osaka Taikai have stalls where you can buy second hand swords, otherwise you will need to know people or be in Japan for a reasonable amount of time while the chance to buy a sword second hand comes up. There are a few companies such as Mino Token or Noshudo where you can buy a new Shinken though. An alternative is a Chinese made Katana which you could get for $200~$300 and upwards depending on where you get it from and the quality of it. These swords range in quality a lot and only the better ones would be recognised as shinken, and even then a lot of people wouldn’t. Some of the more well-made swords can offer very similar qualities as an Iai-yo shinken for a much lower price. For a lot of people however the only real sword is one made by a licensed Japanese tosho [smith]. In Japan this is certainly the case, you are only allowed proper duralimin Iaito or a licensed shinken. To be able to get a license for your katana in Japan means that a registered smith’s mei [signature] must be present on the nakago of the sword, or when examined it can be proven to be an authentic nihonto as some tosho didn’t sign all their swords. A katana should be more than the sum of its materials, so an old authentic katana which feels like it has a soul in itself is a very impressive thing to have and to use.
Gunto are the WWII Japanese armed forces swords. These are illegal to own in Japan, but many were bought back home by the allied forces as souvenirs and it is still possible to find them for sale, though they seem to be fetching higher prices all the time. In general these swords are of about the same quality as a good Chinese made sword, the later ones are maybe even worse. But some officers had their own family heirloom blades mounted in the Gunto koshirae, so there were also some very nice blades as well. The early Gunto were often made quite well in the traditional way, but using Manchurian railway iron and such rather than Tamahagane. The later swords were rushed through and were often just shaped and quenched bar stock. Gunto are nice just for their historical value, but are often a little too short to use for Iaido. You would need to have a new saya or modify the original though, as the gunto used a tachi type arrangement...
Kazarito is the name for everything else. The meaning of Kazarito is “display sword”. These are swords which may or may not look good, but are certainly not meant to be used. Some of the sharp steel Chinese made swords would also come into this category, if you use them for anything other than display, on the better kazarito you will find that the tsukamaki [handle wrap] will shift about and come undone, gata will develop and things will start to break. The worse ones are even worse. Roughly 3/4 of the swords on Trade Me are Kazarito. Even if they say ‘battle ready’, don’t bet your life [or the lives of other dojo members] on it.
Unfortunately there are a lot of swords cheaply available on Trade Me, etc which are not only embarrassing to own and dangerous to use, but also will not be permissible to bring into the dojo. To be able to use a sword for Iaido, it has to conform to both safety and aesthetic standards. To most people it is quite hard to tell the difference between kazarito and iaito or even shinken sometimes. Usually kazarito are more garish and shiny with dragon patterns or cobra heads, etc. The tsukamaki [handle wrap] is often very thin and the diamonds showing are not even and often long and narrow. When you look at the blade it will invariable be shiny chrome plated with a very even wavy hamon etched onto it.
Have a look at this if you’re thinking of actually swinging a kazarito around.
You can buy kazarito outside most of the larger temples and in some gift shops in Japan. Even though the sword is bought in Japan, it is still a kazarito, and hence only for display.
A typical type of kazarito
Chinese made Katana
Not so long ago the mere mention of Chinese made katana would send most serious people running. But these days there are a lot of good Chinese made swords available.The only thing is that you really need to know what you are looking for to be able to pick the good ones from the rubbish. It is really hard to say which brand is good or not, there are swords from the same seller which are great and which are terrible.
- Don't buy anything from the mall shops stocking swords, these are generally rubbish and not fit for iaido
- Don't buy movie prop swords (Last samurai, Kill Bill, etc)
- Expect to have to take the edge off any sharp sword to use it in the dojo
- Remember that subdued, subtle colours and patterns are the norm for Iaito
- Engraving with an engraving tool is never authentic
So, what sword to choose?
If in doubt, wait. The dojo has spare Iaito for beginners to use until they get their own sword and it is a better way to ensure that you get the right sword for you.
If you would like advice on buying a sword, member of the dojo or not, I am happy to help and will help you to choose the sword that best fits your needs. Beginners don’t use a sharp sword, and no one really needs a sharp sword except for doing tameshigiri. That said, using a shinken for iaido adds a more realistic and serious dimension to your practice, so once you have the basics under your belt, and have proved that you are mature enough, then after a few years there is usually no reason why you can’t use a shinken for normal practice. Different people also have quite different ideas on what is cool in terms of swords, and have different ideas on what Kenjutsu is. Part of doing Iaido is about developing your ideas and polishing your sense of traditional Japanese Kenjutsu and Bushido. The longer you do iaido, the more accurate your sense of what is correct or what is cool will become. For this reason as well it is better to wait for a while before buying an expensive sword. Buy an Iaito for a start and wait until you understand a little more about kenjutsu culture before committing to anything.