After a Myocardial Infarction and suffering from severe arthritis I took up another Japanese Budo to augment the Shōtōkan-Ryu that I have practiced since childhood. As I have now been involved with Karate-Do for some 54 years, and the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido that I have studied for the past 13 years I can see the ‘points’ where both cross and augment each other. In some ways I could say I have learned a lot about my Karate from my Iaido.

Below is an essay that I wrote some years ago that was eventually published in issue 3 of The British Kendo Associations Kihaku Magazine. It is an essay on Iaido but equally it is an essay on Kata!

I am reproducing the essay here, as the inferences and comparisons to our Karate Kata are undeniable.

Hopefully it may open a door for some, and assist in better understanding their journey in Karate-do allowing a deeper study of the value of Kata.

The enemy within (the need for visualisation in Kata)

Whether one is an inexperienced or experienced Iaidoka a question that may often cross the mind is that of reality: is Iaido a realistic martial art? How can Iaido be made more representational as a Budo

Most Japanese styles of Karate-Do have Kihon (basic waza), Kata and Kumite (engagement match). In Kendo, the effective practice of Kihon and Kata is tested in Jigeiko (free play). By comparison, Iaido appears to many as being largely Kihon– and Kata-centric: some students may think there is no feeling of reality because there cannot safely be a ‘steel-on-steel’ contest, that is Shinken Shobu (serious match – usually to the death!). 

The majority of other Japanese Budo will see the lack of a real Teki (opponent) as a hindrance to learning correct ma (timing) and ma-ai(combative distancing). They have physical practice including ‘paired set movements’ (“yakusoku kumite” or “sohtai dosa”) and “free play” – such as jiyu kumite and, of course, jigeiko

Tachiuchi-no KuraiSumiai-no Kurai and other paired kata are performed with bokken/bokuto, under great control; something which may appease purists, but which – to the first-time observer – might mean that Iaido risks losing out in a comparison with the more “glamorous” and directly-combative martial arts. 

Some of these observers may draw the conclusion that the typical Iaido kata is just a “dance with a sword”, featuring repetitive and apparently stylised movements, the Iaito or Katana merely slicing through thin air: their mistaken belief being that there seems no obvious Tamashi (spirit or soul) displayed within the art. 

As a result, there are some who find it difficult to think of Iaido as a true martial art: the first-time observer might choose a different martial discipline to follow, and beginners may find that their interest is waning. 

To understand Iaido Kata we must understand Kasso Teki – the imaginary opponent and his/her purpose within Iaido – a difficult concept; but if we think of him/her as “the enemy within”, then it comes within our grasp.

The obvious answer: each and every performance of kata must be “real”. 

The father of modern Japanese karate Funakoshi Gichin stated in his Niju Kun (20 precepts) “Hitotsu, tekki ni yotte tenka seyo” – “Make adjustments according to your opponent”. Similar sentiments are quoted within Iaido even though that opponent is imaginary– the “bottom line” is that kasso teki’s intent and movements must be clearly visualised by the Iaidoka whose response must be accurate (the cut made where the opponent is supposed to be) with focused intent. 

Are we just playing the game? 

In his book “Martial Arts America (A Western approach to Eastern Arts)” [North American Press, 1998], the author Bob Orlando states: 

“Studying martial arts as art forms sounds a little like practising basketball just for the sake of ‘the game’. Doesn’t a person practise basketball to ‘play the game?’ True, we cannot go about beating people (playing our game), but we can participate in a variety of exercises that bring us closer to that reality.” 

Since we are unable to practice Iaido within the mentality of Shinken Shobu [serious fight/duel], we too – as Orlando states – participate in a variety of exercises, called kata

How can we try harder to make kata real? 

In his article from the 2009 compilation “Iaido Shinsa-in no Me” (“[Through] The Eyes of the Iaido Grading Panelist”), Ishido Shizufumi Hanshi states: 

“If somebody were to ask me if I can visualise my imaginary opponents, I would reply No; but whether it be sitting or standing forms, my Maai is correct, so that I cut with my Monouchi. If possible, I would like you and the members of your Dojo to work in pairs using Bokuto to determine Maai.” 

Whilst Ishido sensei clearly offers a practical method for teaching Ma and Ma-ai, many dojo do not follow this advice; instead retaining solely the practice of kihon– and kata-centric activity. 

Our instructors will have given us a workable scenario and bunkai in order to understand the kata; however, always it is down to our own imagination – our conscious visualisation – to supply an ‘enemy’ for us to focus upon. Our actions then become proper responses to that opponent! 

This opponent must become solidified as part of our mind-set! 

The main issue, of course, is that in our scenarios we will always be the victor. Hence there is the danger that – because we know that we will win – the kata lacks necessary depth or tamashi

Consider the following questions for a moment, reflect, and then give yourself an honest answer: 

  • How do we put the feeling into any Iaido kata
  • How do we make a kata real? 
  • How do we make it come alive? 
  • How can we make it so that the ri-ai [the “logic”,“reasoning”] are readily available to any person watching the kata? 

Now consider what is written below. Therein, I believe, we can find the answers to bringing reality into our kata

Visualisation as taught by Chihiro Kishimoto Hanshi 

Kishimoto Chihiro Hanshi expresses progression in effective visualisation during Iaido kata in three distinct levels: – 

• Level 1
A Weak Opponent Easily Defeated 

• Level 2
A Well-Matched Opponent of Equal Skill 

• Level 3
A Stronger Opponent with Superior Technique 

At level 1 we will always win, even if we execute a poorly-timed or angled cut, or a badly executed block. We can “walk through the kata” utilising a simple scenario in which we win, regardless.
This allows the beginner to gain confidence; and as our skills increase, we can begin to explore the scenarios offered by the kata

At Level 2 there is a lot more reality, because the opponent is equal to the task. Our imagination must create an opponent who continues to be more difficult to conquer. She/he matches our own abilities, and so grows with us. Our technique must continue to become sharper, natural, and more instantaneous.

At Level 3 we must create an opponent who instills a sense of trepidation! This opponent must become one that is more and more difficult to fight and conquer. She/he will have better abilities than we do. From the outset, when our mind clears ready to perform the kata, we must realise that any presentation of kyo [“an unguarded moment”], loss of zanshin [“awareness”] or wandering of the mind will result in us receiving a possibly fatal blow. 

This is a real fight – a momentous battle. This is our toughest opponent yet! 

When we look at high level of embu displayed by Hanshi, Kyoshi, Renshi and other senseis, we don’t need to ask – “How do they do that?” We know that the answer lies within their “mind-set”, their visualisation of the enemy. 

Samurai Spirit personified. 

To increase riai (reasoning, story) and give real substance to our technique we need to take on board Kishimoto sensei’s theory of visualisation. 

If you have seen the episode in the series “Samurai Spirit” [documentary series, NHK World 2008-9] in which Kishimoto sensei faces host Nicholas Pettas with Fukuro Shinai in hand, we have seen a moment when Iaido is challenged to become more than just kata, and returns to its root as a true jutsu

You can find it (with added Spanish subtitles!) at 2.12 here: dqf3qH9so?t=2m15s 

We see two men in seizaFukaro Shinai held at their hip. 

Kishimoto sensei (an Iaidoka) becomes very quickly calm and relaxed; Pettas (an experienced Kyokushin Kai fighter) appears deep in thought perhaps forming a strategy. At this point I believe that Kishimoto sensei is demonstrating the Ni-KuSan-Ke that Ishido sensei was describing in his article: the ability to calm the mind and body (ochitsu-ku) at the earliest stage of potential combat (haya-ku). 

An almost imperceptible twitch or movement – ??? intent from Pettas, and Kishimoto sensei explodes into action. His metsuke – “observation” – had clearly been very acute; and the nukitsuke – the “draw-and-cut” – was undeniable! 

Nicholas Pettas Sensei and Kishimoto Chihiro Hanshi – Samurai Spirit NHK 2008-2009

A final thought from Shizufumi Ishido Hanshi 

In his article Ishido sensei also states:- 

“Take for example the phrase “Kisen wo seishite (to get a jump ahead of)” . What condition does this refer to? How would you like to deal with your opponent? What will you do when you become aware of your opponent’s ill- intent? Will you draw before your opponent starts to move? What does it mean to draw with Jo- Ha-Kyu? This refers to the draw starting slowly, gradually increasing in speed, then finally reaching its fastest speed the moment the swords leaves the scabbard. It is not good to blindly draw quickly, but rather to draw in accordance with your imaginary opponent’s movement. I am sure that everybody knows this, but it is still important to repeatedly read the manual and confirm this point.” 

To repeat: it is not good to blindly draw quickly, but rather to draw in accordance with your imaginary opponent’s movement. Therefore our “imagination” provides us with a tangible opponent. 

“…One should be clearly able to demonstrate the riai, (story logic) and actions accurately while performing katas, showing a correct response to the various enemy’s location, distance, timing and intentions. “

Is your opponent real? 

To my mind, the following quotation sums up the solitary practice of kata very well. 

From the Yaegaki Kai website [http:// nukitsuke-reflects-your-training-years], with the translation corrected: – 

“Is your Kasso Teki as strong as you are?” 

“One should be clearly able to demonstrate the riai, (story logic) and actions accurately while performing katas, showing a correct response to the various enemy’s location, distance, timing and intentions. Through this one will be able to visualise the enemy’s presence. It is important to remember that even if the enemy is “virtual”, we should try by our attitude and determination to show the reality of the fight and the effectiveness of our technique as a Budo.” 

Iaido and Karate-Do kata will always contain at least one analysis or breakdown (bunkai) of the scenario, i.e. the causation and reaction that the kata portrays. The scenario may only be a “play” unfolding; but the content and feel must be real – otherwise we revert to that “dance with swords”: without life, without soul, and without purpose! 


We must use our minds to create a formidable opponent, and then defeat him/her. 

The old adage goes something like this:
“If you are a good iaidoka then you can see your opponent while doing kata; but if you are a great iaidoka you can make others see him too.” 

There is no doubt that we can “see” the opponents of the great masters we so wish to emulate! 

Hence visualisation is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal if we know how to use it. A weak or negative visualisation in our kata still creates a kasso teki, but at the same time always allows that opponent to defeat us! Therefore, positive visualisation is vital: it must become ingrained as part of the kata performance, at which point our Iaido will take on life! 

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