J-WOTD: 居合 (いあい)

Rinko Kikuchi as a JyoshiKosei in the Movie “Babel”

いあい (iai)

* “J-WOTD” = “Japanese Word of the Day”

If you enjoyed the movie Babel / バベルの塔 (official English language site) as much as I did then I’m sure the first thing you did when you got home was to do a Google Search to find out who that unknown girl was playing the role of Chieko. While I’d heard of (and recognized) Yakusho Koji (役所広司), I hadn’t heard of Kikuchi Rinko (菊池凛子)before (official English language site).

Following the hype surrounding her Academy Award nomination, I had read a little about her in the press. It turns out that she is more than just a good actor, she is also a very fast learner. Apparently it only took her 9 months to learn sign-language in order to play the role of Chieko, a deaf Japanese high-school girl. (No comments on why a 26 year old is playing the role of a high-school girl please.) Low and behold, the hobby page she has one her official site mentions this but today I’m writing about another of her hobbies, Iai. While I’m sure that most Weeaboo’s probably are already on top of Iai, it was a new word for me, despite my many (unathletic) years in Japan. Thanks to my good friend, Blue, who enlightened me to the wonders of it. (As you might have noticed, it wasn’t even registered on the almighty alc online dictionary).

Context on her page (although I admit that it is not that helpful):


Iai (居合い), is one of the very many martial arts in Japan. Put in lay terms, it is like Kendo but with a sword. In fact, it seems to place a great emphasis on sword use and the art of removing it swiftly from your sheath (鞘、さや). As they say, a picture tells a thousand words so please take a quick look at the below video that I found on Youtube. It does the best job of illustrating the art.


The thing that struck me as the strangest about Iai is that it apparently claims to be an art that it claims to heighten your character (「修練の過程を通して、人格を高めることも目的とします」 [source]) . If any stippy.com readers out there can enlighten me as to how this could be possible while slicing people’s arms of with a Japanese sword (真剣) then please leave a comment below!

Oh, if you are more athletic than me and spent a few years practicing Iai while you were in high school then feel free to test out your knowledge at Iai University (Japanese language website).

11 thoughts on “J-WOTD: 居合 (いあい)”

  1. No, no, you’ve got it all wrong… it heightens your character not when you slice someone’s arms off, but their legs. Then you’re taller than they are, and can say with complete honesty that your opponents look up to you.

  2. I reckon shes getting a nomination just for flashing her growler on the big screen….its the only way her mum will ever forgive it! (theres a utube on that scene somewhere)

    Iai is like the quick draw cowboy gunfights….’fastest gun in the West’ n all that. If youre fast Your opponent doesnt even see it coming! and hes in cut half while the thought of attacking has just reached his hand to draw his. On a camera we can see it easier but if you are standing in front of that blade , forget it ,that crack in your bum is now a guide for 4 foot steel razor blade.

    Which is why its character building…its a life n death situation. so building up the balls to stand in front of master swordsman brings your whole self to a high state of awareness thru intense focus and sense training leading to a meditative state. Where the sword handling skill is matched, the winner will be the one that can slip in a hit in between the consciousness of the opponent. Which is where concepts of Zen come in. Hacking a limb or head off is the easy part, my grandma can do that if you give her a sword….the building of the self in training is what its about. great u-tube clip!

    by the way ,does japanese sign language have kanji??

  3. Actually Gman, it’s funny that you should mention that. Needless to say there is no kanji in Japanese sign language but it is quite an interesting topic. I spent some time learning Japanese sign language a few years ago when a deaf man joined my football team. I’d known that sign language differs around the world (even amongst English speaking countries) but I was amazed to learn that in Japan the language differs from city to city. This is not just a souped up version of Kansaiben vs. Hyoujungo, even cities as close as Yokohama and Tokyo apparently have different dialects. My teacher was from Yokohama and so (according to one of my fellow students who clearly knew more about signing than I did) had a bad Yokohama “accent”. I’d love to pick it up again one day.

  4. I only learned a bit of Japanese sign language from a friend, but from what I remember at least a few of the words are based on kanji. For example, she told me that for 田 (in names, at least) you cross your fingers in that shape.

  5. In the variant of JSL I’ve seen (that which my sister-in-law uses), the kanji for place names and personal names are typically written in the air and mouthed. Places or people referred to often may also have special signs or have their names abbreviated. She’s from the north of Japan, however, and I’m not sure what people do elsewhere. I know she had a lot of difficulty when she moved to Tokyo and encountered their dialect; enough so that she moved back home just a short while later.

  6. I should probably have said “approximations of kanji”, as it’s illustrated only enough to evoke which kanji she means. I can understand a few hundred signs, but I can’t read her “kanji” at all unless someone else interprets it for me, and then I can see the resemblance. When she was visiting us and got stuck alone with me one day, she overcame my impairment by typing to me on her teeny little VAIO subnotebook.

  7. Actually, that sounds quite similar to what I encountered with my Yokohama-ben JSL teacher. I remember that all pronouns were signed out according to their Kanji/meaning and not to do with their pronunciation. That meant that the sign for 茨木 and 茨城 were different, as were 一郎 and 伊知郎. Obviously, since my name was in Katakana, it was just phonetically spelt out but I was a bit envious of the other (Japanese) guys around me. The closest I got was when I was spelling out my address (as you use signs that represent the meaning of the kanji in the place names, too).

    Michael, your comment about VAIO is quite clever. Clearly communication is getting a lot easier with the technology we have. I was personally quite impressed by the fact that Chieko (the character that Kikuchi plays in the movie) was using FOMA video calling on her keitai to communicate with her friends. Naruhodo!

  8. Technology definitely helps. Naoko’s (my sister-in-law) keitai has programmable quick messages, so she keeps it set to useful phrases that she can show to salespeople, taxi drivers and so on. Recently she upgraded to her phone to a model with GPS mapping, so getting to unfamiliar places is much simpler than it used to be. And the internet makes shopping very convenient, aids her in finding information quickly and easily, and provides the opportunity to meet lots of people she’d find it difficult to talk with otherwise. Indeed, in a lot of ways her life isn’t much different than it is for many hearing people.

  9. I’ve been studying Iaijitsu/Battojitsu for a little over a year now. Suprisingly, it is pretty umcommon for the japanese to train in it any more unless you are born into it.

    To be honest, that video is a rather poor example, as he returns the sword (shinken) to the sheath (saya) faster than he removes it. It is much more difficult that it seems. The back of the blade must keep in contact with the saya all the way out, and at the proper angles, or you will cut or break your saya. Doing that quickly, and cutting while you do it, takes most people years of pratice. Masters of the art can do it in under a second, completely soundless, much different than in movie/tv shows which have some horrible ringing sound when the sword is drawn.

    This guy is fantastic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS2YcBbubs8 If you listen carefull, you’ll notice that the sword make NO sound as it comes out of the saya.

  10. Regarding iaido (居合道), or iaijutsu (居合術), or battojutsu (抜刀術): these are all names for essentially the same art. Within the art I prefer to just call “iai”, there are scores of separate styles. Some lineages or styles of iai try to set themselves apart from other styles, and insist on being called by a particular name, but this distinction is largely artificial.
    To suggest that the iai shown in the embedded video is somehow a “poor example” is not only incorrect but rather arrogant. Each style of iai has its own particular internal logic, and its own approach to training. To judge one style based on the criteria set by another style is a mistake akin to biting into an apple and saying, “That’s not a very good orange.”
    I definitely agree about the horrible metallic, scraping sound effects added to most movies and TV shows which feature swords being drawn. The fact is that the inside of the saya has NO metal parts (they would scratch the blade) and so it does not make sense to have that awful metal-on-metal noise when the sword is drawn. It is added purely for dramatic effect, much like the way guns are incredibly loud when they are cocked in movies.
    The guy in the final video can certainly cut well, and very fast to boot, but he almost knocks himself off balance every time he does so. At risk of being a hypocrite (by criticizing another style) I would suggest that this is a very, very basic no-no.
    As for the original question of character development: like every Japanese “do” or “way”, practitioners believe that wholeheartedly pursuing the way, and attempting to come as close to perfection as possible in the execution of your forms, will develop your character ipso facto. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing karate-do, ju-do, sa-do (tea ceremony), sho-do (calligraphy), or iai-do; character development will follow dedication to your way. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. I’ve been doing iai for 15 years now, so let’s hope it’s had some positive effect on me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *