IAIDO: Self improvement through swords

READY TO REACT — Andrej Diamantstein (above), the head of the Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, demonstrates iaido, the art of drawing a sword to defend against a surprise attack. photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser/Nichi Bei Weekly

“How useful is a Japanese sword in 2012? If anyone says it’s of practical use, then they really need to get themselves checked,” says Andrej Diamantstein. Instead of personal defense, Diamantstein, the head of the Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, describes iaido, the art of drawing a sword to defend against a surprise attack, as a “personality development tool.”

While iaido is taught throughout the world, compared to other martial arts, its practitioners are fewer in number. Iaido is generally performed solo through the display of pre-set forms called kata. The minutely choreographed moves feature the swift sound of wind being cut by the blade, and the austere calm preceding and following each strike.

Diamantstein, whose Berkeley, Calif. dojo has presented at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival for close to a decade, began his journey with iaido in 1984. As a travelling actor from Germany, he made his way to France before entering the tutelage of Seigen Esaka, one of the greatest swordsmen still practicing iaido today.

After a year of studying in Japan with Esaka, he left for California and, with Esaka’s permission, started the dojo in 1996.

Diamantstein also rents an aikido dojo in San Francisco, where he holds classes.

Diamantstein holds the rank of renshi seventh dan under the Zen Nihon Iaido Renmei (All Japanese Iaido Federation). He practices eishin ryu, which has a 450-year history. He describes it as being one of the “main lineages” of iaido. The art, however, is not studied for its practical use.

Through repetitive study of forms, iaido sharpens observation skills and creates congruence between action and thought.

The art embodies the three virtues of a samurai warrior: reishiki, kokoro and waza, says Diamantstein.

Reishiki is etiquette and self-restraint. Diamantstein described reishiki as a form of “pre-emptive conflict resolution” to preserve the lives of samurai from unnecessary bloodshed. Also important is kokoro, or the heart. “When drawing the sword, you are likely going to die,” said Diamantstein. “Iaido teaches you to mobilize everything you have within a split second and keep it mobilized for as long as necessary.”

The final element, waza, is the technique. As Diamantstein describes them, the techniques in iaido are like the hammer to a carpenter.

Through a mix of all three, Diamantstein hopes to leave behind a healthy dojo where future generations may continue to study both Japanese culture and self-improvement.

The dojo is accepting new students. Diamantstein said he would offer a two-hour introduction to each prospective student, as well as offer classes at a reduced rate for the first month.

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