In budo circles today, it is not uncommon for students of swordsmanship to get angry or upset when they see attempts to make a profit from their chosen arts or turn them into spectacles of showmanship, especially when the person doing so is considered less than “qualified.” There are some exceptions to this, such as practitioners of traditional kenbu, or fight choreographers (tateshi, 殺陣師) who often are extremely knowledgeable and skilled in the budo arts. However flashy displays of vegetable cutting, outrageous choreography, sword spinning tricks and so on are generally the source of much bile, especially on internet forums. This is particularly pronounced in the West, I feel, due perhaps to the normal Japanese attitude towards things like this, which is to consider them irrelevant and ignore them.
However such use of the martial arts (and in particular that most alluring of weapons, the katana) in showmanship and salesmanship is nothing new. It didn’t start with the advent of television, or even with the advent of film. This practice has been very much in evidence for centuries, including those eras when samurai still walked the streets of Japan. In the Edo period, iai in particular was turned into a street performance that was used to draw a crowd of customers. Bizarrely enough, this tactic was most notably used by dentists. Here is a brief introduction to the curious and little-known world of iai-nuki.
The term iai-nuki is still sometimes used by non-iai practising budoka, and by a certain proportion of the Japanese population in general, to refer to iaido. However the two are quite different. Iai-nuki has from its inception been about performance and showmanship, whereas iaido (i.e. iaijutsu) has been expressly about fighting technique and character development. The earliest reference I can find to iai-nuki suggests that the practice began around the Genroku era (1688-1711), although it has been speculated that something similar might have been done earlier by down-on-their-luck rōnin hoping to scrape together money for a meal.
Matsui Genzaemon was a seller of Chinese medicine from Toyama domain. In quite a famous incident, a daimyō visiting Edo fell suddenly ill, but was cured by the lord of Toyama, who was carrying some of the medicine produced in his domain. As word spread about the incident, demand for this medicine started to grow outside Toyama, and Matsui set off to sell his wares around the country. To draw crowds, he would set up banners, bang on a gong and start putting on displays of sword tricks. According to an account written much later – around the start of the 19th century – the shows would include quickly drawing the sword and sheathing it again, mock fights with assistants, sword-drawing while wearing elevated clogs (ashida, 足駄) or when standing on a small offering stand (sanpō, 三方). Some accounts even mention performances balanced on a stack of three sanpō. In addition, the sword he used was extremely long – over 3 shaku (90 centimetres, not including the tsuka).
It is unclear whether Genzaemon also practised dentistry, but another Matsui – Gensui – was a street dentist who became famous for his spinning top performances. Some sources I have read refer to these two Matsuis as being the same person, whereas others insist that these accounts are conflating two different individuals who operated in the same period.
Following this, in the An’ei and Tenmei eras (1772-1789), a man named Myōgaya Monjirō advertised his tooth-cleaning and tooth-pulling business with street performances, and became well-known for his iai-nuki. Probably the most famous of the iai-nuki performers, however, was Nagai Hyōsuke. He left a legacy that carried on until Japan’s modern era, with each successive inheritor adopting his name. Successive generations of Nagais traded in front of the Shōgunal rice store in Asakusa. Like Matsui Genzaemon, the dentist would set up banners and signs along with a display of swords, and perform sword tricks to draw crowds of customers. Kneeling beside him would be an assistant, who would drum up excitement in the crowd by loudly exclaiming phrases like “what skill!” and “he’s the greatest in all Japan!”
It is said that in the Bunsei era (1818-1830) a young member of the Tokugawa family attended an iai-nuki performance given by a Nagai. Fliers and advertisements for Nagai’s services still exist today, and clearly advertise both his dental business and his iai-nuki performances, carrying pictures of both false teeth and swords.
One of the Nagais is even immortalized in a haiku by the Meiji and Taishō period writer Natsume Sōseki:
Nuku wa Nagai Hyōsuke no tachi haru no kaze
Nagai Hyōsuke is drawing his sword; I feel the breeze of Spring
Today the sword used in the Nagai street performances is held at Okegawa Inari Shrine. It was donated in 1897 by Negishi Matsugorō, who had inherited the Nagai name and legacy. In 1899, the fifth-generation inheritor of the Nagai name set up a society for the study of modern dentistry. Initially it had many members, but within a few years it folded and the legacy of the Nagais, it seems, came to an end.
Iai-nuki survives today, in a way. It is still practised as a performance art by a few Japanese performers preserving traditional street theatre, and by one or two comedians. The super high-speed draws, vegetable cutting and twirling sword tricks perhaps also live on in spirit in the sorts of flashy demos that many budo students like to bemoan.
Despite some superficial similarities, iai-nuki seems to bear little resemblance to iai in its incarnation as a budo art. I think most would also agree that enbu and entertainment should be kept separate. However, although we could just dismiss iai-nuki as nothing but meaningless showmanship, it is perhaps worth remembering that the popular image of sword drawing in Japan is still in many ways influenced by its legacy.