It takes more than just swinging your sword and seeing your sensei about each week to study iaido. The case is more so for foreign students who lack certain cultural underpinnings. Options abound to fill these gaps but one of the easiest, and most lucrative, is to fill your shelves with books and your browser with bookmarks.
An short list of “To read” works includes:
Momotaro and Kintaro (Peach Boy and Golden Boy)—two children’s tales that highlights important virtues expected of young men. Largely centered around qualities of filial piety (respecting your elders) and indomitable spirit in the face of danger, the characteristics these children espouse translate easily to the expected behaviors of samurai.
Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari)—a central work of Japanese history, literature, and culture, it is the Japanese national epic that recounts the epic struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans as they vie for control of office of shogun and with it control of Japan. Readers should take note of the use of the colors red and white to represent the Taira and Minamoto clans (respectively) are still used to denote competitors in iaido tai kai and kendo shiai. The work also includes mention of the use of the sword in something like iaido, though these events predate Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu by nearly 400 years. It is a daunting task to understand Japanese culture—martial or otherwise—without having at least a cursory knowledge of this work.
Laws of the Military Houses (Buke Shohatto)—this collection of laws put forth by Tokugawa Ieyasu exemplifies what the Tokugawa Shogun expected of his retainers. Reading through it, Tokugawa’s concern of control and stability become clear, as a number of items prevent the consolidation and spread of power. What is most important for the study of iaido is how this document outlines the roles and relationships that samurai had to follow (this, itself, was reinforced by the Tokugawa’s implementation of New-Confucianism during their rule). A reasonable edition can be found here: https://edoflourishing.blogspot.com/2016/04/buke-shohatto-laws.html
Book of Five Rings (Go Rin no Sho)—Musashi Miyamoto’s seminal work takes a pragmatic approach to both the philosophy and art of swordsmanship. In the work, Musashi discusses a number of general principals of combat that apply across schools and disciplines with a very matter-of-fact tone. Little of this book is unapproachable or overly esoteric in nature. This work is important not only because of the history of Ni Ten Ichi Ryu (Musashi’s style of swordsmanship) but also because it was written by an author who experienced both the battlefields of the Age of the Country at War (Sengoku Jidai) and numerous duels of the relative peace of the Tokugawa Shogunate (Tokugawa Bakufu).
The Cat’s Amazing Technique (Neko no Myojutsu)—this short story recounts the efforts of a swordsman to rid his house of a rat by employing several cats as an allegory for several types of swordsmen—be they of different lineages or of different phases in their training. It can be a challenge, at times, to muddle through this work because of the author’s/translator’s use of highly-philosophical terminology, but the lessons are worth the effort. A PDF edition can be found here: https://terebess.hu/zen/Neko-no-Myojutsu.pdf
The 47 Loyal Retainers (alternatively, the 47 Ronin)—a crucial work for understanding both Japanese culture and philosophical interpretations of Bushido. This historical event turned legend recounts the revenge the retainers of Lord Asano carried out on his enemy following Lord Asano’s forced seppuku. This piece highlights courtly behavior expected of daimyo as wella s raises questions about what it means to be a loyal retainer. Several versions of this work exist, in both printed novel and graphic novel.
Hagakure—this short treatise, recorded from the words of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, describes in no particular order the expected behavior of samurai of Nabeshima. This work is a relatively geographically localized work that didn’t see widespread publication or reading until the Imperial Era and has gained since a reputation as a work associated with militarism. While an often-cited work, this larger historical context is important to bear in mind.
Bushido—the first true book on Bushido, wasn’t written until 1900 and first appeared in English—it wasn’t printed in Japanese until a later print run. This piece served as a means to help explain Japanese cultural and history to non-Japanese readers as Japan was finding itself in the twentieth-century’s international scene. Because of Nitobe Inazo’s well-versed knowledge in both Japanese and Western culture, he is able to create a number of meaningful illustrations to help readers understand the development of Japanese thoughts and practices. It is important to note, however, this work also carries Imperial overtones similar to Hagakure.
This list is merely an introduction—there is much more out there. With these critical pieces to the puzzle, readers can gain an edge in understanding and appreciating Japanese culture. Even better—all of these works are easily available in English!
Remember, however, iaido isn’t merely a mental exercise. You may know the names for the techniques, you may be able to explain them in eloquent words, but if you can’t do them, you aren’t doing iaido. Go practice!