The two kanji that make up the word as meaning “reason,” or “ri-“ (principle, truth) with “coming together, meeting, or harmonizing (“-ai”). In other words, in budo, riai is the underlying principles behind a technique.

In the mid-1990s Sensei Coyle was asked to give a lecture demonstration at Glasgow University during The Samurai & Japanese Culture week. The audience was made up of students interested in Japanese culture, a great number of whom were martial artists from the numerous clubs in the University.

The lecture began with Sensei Coyle holding up an iaito (practice sword) and then a katana (real sword). The iaito had gold silk braid on the hilt and the black lacquered scabbard bore gold Tokugawa crests. When the blade was unsheathed the high polish glittered in the light. The katana was in a shiraisaiya; a scabbard made of simple polished wood with no decoration. The hilt of the katana was the same. When the blade was unsheathed there was a dull silky sheen to it.

There was no comparison – the iaito looked as though it belonged at the hip of a samurai warrior while the katana looked plain by comparison. “Which are you,” asked Sensei Coyle, “an iaito or a katana?” - no-one chose to answer.


“Let me explain. For all intents and purposes the iaito looks the same, perhaps even better, than the katana. However the iaito has no edge – should I choose to slice my arm with it, it would have no effect. Should I attempt to slice my arm with the katana this lecture would be over before it has begun. I think that among today’s martial artists there are more ‘iaitos’ than ‘katanas’. The katana is far superior in every way than the iaito because it has undergone the process which makes it so effective while the iaito has only the appearance of a real sword.”

“The definition of perfection, if such a thing may be said to exist, is something from which cannot take anything without it weakening, and something that to add anything to it would be superfluous. The katana does not have the decoration of the iaito nor the ‘martial’ appearance and yet it is perhaps the deadliest bladed weapon ever produced.”

Let us assume that we wish to purchase a katana; not a ceremonial sword, but a weapon that shall serve us on the battlefield. At the same time let us draw parallels with the student wishing to become a budoka.


First we must find a master. The student should visit as many clubs as possible. Do not assess someone by what they say, rather by what they produce. Study the students, their attitude to the teacher, training and to each other. Just as the samurai would wish to see examples of the swordsmith’s work so should the potential student wish to see a training session.


When the master swordsmith sets out to produce a sword he shall attempt to gather the best material. When a teacher decides to accept a student he shall be looking for sincerity of purpose, commitment and spirit. Contrary to what is often said, martial arts are not for everyone. One must have a deep desire to study and be prepared to endure difficult training.


The first thing that must be done to the material when making a sword is to beat out the impurities in the metals. This is done by placing them in a fire and bringing it to the correct temperature. In the same way a good teacher shall know how much pressure to place upon the student. Too hot too soon may damage the blade/student, while not hot enough shall produce nothing at all. Impurities in a student may be false expectations, expecting almost immediate results, lack of spirit, uncertainty or lack of commitment. All of these shall be beaten out’ by the instructor. Often the student shall feel out of his element. The strict discipline and intense concentration demanded in training may intimidate him. This is where the Sempai (senior student) comes in. He shall provide most of the instruction as the teacher teaches heart to heart by example rather than explanation.

The potency of the katana comes from the marriage of the two metals, steel and iron, in the proper ratio. These hard and soft elements make it possible to have a razor edge and resilience in the same blade.

So too with the martial artist, the elements of hard and soft must be balanced. The hard element is turned upon the martial artist himself. He must continually challenge himself to greater effort, ruthlessly seeking out his own weaknesses and overcoming them. A good teacher, like a good sword maker, shall instantly see the weaknesses in a student and concentrate on eliminating them.

The process cannot begin until this is done. Weaknesses may include being too strong, overconfident and too opinionated. What is demanded is a casting aside of expectations. Do not be in a hurry to progress; you may be moving in the wrong direction. I came up with a good formula – TURN UP AND SHUT UP. I had been training for around eight years and had my dan grade from one master when another took residence in Britain. My concept of aikido along with myself was turned on its head. I was not given instruction, simply shown a technique and told to practise it over and over again.

This develops the hard edge. Continual rigorous training in simple, effective and pragmatic techniques. The soft backbone of the art is in studying the underlying principles gaining the ability to be flexible in body and mind, capable of acting instinctively to changing circumstances.

When the swordsmith has married the two metals together and beaten out the impurities the sword begins to take shape. So too with the martial artist. Having mastered his own weaknesses, learned solid techniques and gained a knowledge of the principles of his chosen art – he can now begin serious study.

This usually begins at shodan, the first level of black belt. Many students think that achieving black belt is the be all and end all of martial arts. It is in fact only the beginning. Perhaps by now our sword is ready, but now it must be polished.