Any enthusiast of Japanese katanas has come across the term tameshigiri at least once in their life. But what does this term exactly mean? What dark and bloody reality does it entail? Is it a word still used in modern times? And is it still practiced? We will explore all these aspects so that tameshigiri and its meaning become as familiar to you as they are to a native of Japan.
Definition of Tameshigiri
Tameshigiri, written as 試切 in Japanese kanji, means "test cutting". As the name suggests, it's a method used to test the quality of a blade by performing a cutting test. This allows one to verify if the sword's sharpness meets expectations. Sometimes, this test of Japanese sword quality is also referred to as kiridameshi.
This practice dates back to the time of the brave Japanese samurais during the Edo period, from 1600 to 1868. Although it is still practiced today, it has evolved significantly. Currently, tameshigiri focuses more on testing the practitioner's skill, movements, and technique rather than just the katana itself.
Tameshigiri is often mistaken for battōdō, which is the art of cutting. However, the latter is meant to assess the quality of the katana handler's technique, while tameshigiri tests the blade's quality. One focuses on the material, while the other on the practice as an art.
Ancestral Method of Tameshi Giri
The practice of tameshigiri flourished during the Edo period, from 1600 to 1868. These blade tests were mainly conducted on katanas and wakizashis, which together are known as daishōs. Samurai warriors would perform these tests for their own use to ensure the sharpness of their future weapon. They could also carry out tameshigiri tests on behalf of their daimyō, testing katanas intended for their warlord's armies.
During that era, the targets for these cutting tests were human. They were often corpses stacked together, including condemned criminals or previously decapitated criminals. At times, innocent bystanders could also become targets. When passersby fell victim to these acts, it was referred to as tsugi giri, meaning "crossroad cutting".
Different types of cuts were tested on various swords, each trajectory having its own name. For example, a vertical cut from the top of the body was called kami tatewari, while a vertical cut from the bottom was referred to as shimo tatewari. After each test, the number of bodies cut was inscribed on the tang of the blade, the nakago or 茎. This number was either marked with a file or inscribed as a column, along with the date, the name of the tester, and the cutting results.
For tests performed on corpses, they were placed on a sand mound, about 30 cm high, known as dodan. To keep the bodies in place, four pieces of bamboo were fixed to hold the targets, referred to as hasamitake. The performance of the blade was then measured in terms of the number of bodies cut and the depth of the cut in centimeters. Renowned and proud swordsmiths would attend these events to witness their creations being tested. They would dress in ceremonial white kimonos for the occasion. If a blade failed the test, it brought such dishonor that the only way to cleanse their honor was through seppuku, ritual suicide.
Tameshigiri in Modern Times
Today, ethical considerations do not allow the desecration of corpses. As a result, the practice of tameshigiri has evolved significantly. There is no longer any question of practicing on human targets, even if they are deceased. Cutting tests are now performed on straw, reed, or rice mats. Occasionally, a bamboo rod is inserted into the mat to simulate the texture of human flesh or bone. However, bamboo has limitations; it can only be effectively cut at a 45° angle, and other cuts may not yield satisfactory results.
No other plant materials are used for these tests because the sap from some plants can damage the blade's quality. Contrary to what might be seen online, purists do not test their katanas on watermelons or other fruits or vegetables. The targets used are solely straw rolls or beach mats, soaked in water and drained. These mats are virgin and free from any prior use or metal attachments. Staples, wires, or sand grains should not damage the sharpness of the katana.
Safety is a paramount concern during any cutting test. Practitioners consider the tameshigiri area to be similar to a shooting range, so standard safety rules should be followed. Spectators should keep a safe distance, as a sword can inadvertently slip from the handler and travel several meters. Given the sharpness of a Japanese sword, the potential consequences are alarming.
As a result, it is advised that no one stands in front of the target line, including the sides. Even the audience standing behind should not be too close to those handling the sword, for obvious reasons. The targets and waste from the cuts should be disposed of separately, while the swords and cleaning materials should be placed on a table or at least on a tarpaulin. This prevents potential accidents and damage to the sword.
Weapon safety is also a priority. Precautions include ensuring the blade's good condition, as the targets are moist. Therefore, the sword should not be returned to its scabbard (saya) immediately. Additionally, thorough cleaning must be performed after the test. The working area should be visibly marked, and each target should have an assistant responsible for fixing the mat to the support and removing the waste from the cuts.
To conclude, tameshigiri is practiced under the supervision of an exercise director, who is at least a shoden level instructor. Their role is to coordinate the work, ensure safety rules are followed, and monitor the position of everyone involved. If a hazardous situation arises, the exercise director will intervene, and all participants will stop immediately at their command "halt" or "yame", until safety conditions are restored. The handling of the sword, particularly tameshigiri, requires proficiency in katana manipulation. Some schools consider this exercise should only be practiced by a yudansha, while others require at least two years of practice before attempting the cutting test.
In Japan, anything related to samurais is revered, especially the katana, which is subject to numerous traditions. As a result, the practice of tameshigiri is well-regulated, supervised, and elevated to the level of art. Japanese culture is fascinating as it blends modernity with ancient rituals that it absorbs. This is why the practice of katana, originating from the era of samurai warriors, has evolved and adapted throughout the ages. Tameshigiri, or the art of cutting, has thus survived and thrived into the modern era, much to our delight.