Tameshigiri is the art of test cutting where in modern times warriors hone their swordsmanship by making precise and predetermined cuts in tatami or bamboo mats.
The practice of Tameshigiri originated in the Edo period in Japan and initially was used to test the quality of a sword. Swordsmen of known renown were thus used to do the cutting to maintain a sense of consistency while testing. Originally it was also convicts or cadavers that were used to measure a sword’s worth, which is why the older form of the word for test cutting translates literally to “test murdering.”
Swords were tested by making different types of cuts on cadavers, such as the tabi-gata (ankle cut) or the O-kesa (diagonal cut from shoulder to opposite hip). How well swords made these particular cuts determined their worth and desirability, and their performance was oftentimes inscribed on their tang with phrases such as, “Seven bodies with O-Kesa.” Maudlin, perhaps, but if authentic can firmly establish the provenance of an antique and greatly prized weapon. The difficulty of cuts executed would also establish the value of a sword, with the downward diagonal stroke being the easiest and the horizontal cut the hardest.
Modern warriors test their swordsmanship skills by cutting a goza or tatami mat. Prowess is determined by the number of cuts that can be made consecutively on one target or while the swordsman is moving. As with traditional tests, there are also specific cuts used to determine levels of skill for the swordsman. For instance, the Mizu-Gaeshi calls for the sword to cut diagonally up and to the right before cutting horizontally along the same piece before it has fallen to the ground. Thickness of the tatami is also a consideration, as the thicker mats are more difficult to cut.
The more stringent of modern practitioners also demand a high standard for cutting which deems it necessary for the swordsman to control their stance, posture, and control. Much like participation in an Olympic sport, cutters are meticulously judged on every aspect of their performance, even on the way severed pieces drop to the floor. This practice of the “Tobi Kata” states that severed pieces must leave the exit portion of the cut at a perfect ninety-degree angle or will be considered inferior. Observing the highest levels of honor and dedication, these traditional practitioners understand the nature of Bushido for a modern warrior and work diligently to master their craft.
Safety and Perspective
It is not advised to undergo any cutting with your sword unless supervised by a trained sensei in a dojo or other controlled environment. There are a number of variables that can make tameshigiri highly dangerous for the beginning fighter, not the least of which is the quality of the sword used for cutting. It is not uncommon for blades to snap or recoil during tameshigiri, and an untrained swordsman can easily be severely wounded.
For this reason it is advised that beginning practitioners of tameshigiri be taught basic and simple cutting patterns to get used to the feeling of cutting into materials with a blade. Different types of targets will produce various sensations for the swordsman and it’s important to get used to these variations before moving on to more complicated cuts.
It should also be noted that many schools of tameshigiri stress the art or practice of cutting as part of a student’s overall study rather than their focus. At times tameshigiri can be used in a flashy manner in an attempt to show off, whereas the gentleman-swordsman understands that cutting is largely a way to sharpen their skills as a whole.
The katana, or daito, is a Japanese sword commonly associated with the samurai warrior class of historic Japan. Traditionally crafted by condensing multiple layers of iron in a folding technique, the katana is a curved two-handed sword that is used for offensive and defensive techniques. Since most katanas are sharpened, beginning sword students in the traditional Japanese sword arts of iaido and kenjutsu often begin training with a bokken, or wooden sword.
According to Toyama Ryu Batto Do Konjau Kioi Dojo, the gedon attack is a downward vertical cut commonly practiced in katana exercises. Designed to cut an opponent’s body in a single vertical slash, the gedon exercise offers a repetitive workout for the arms, shoulders and core muscles. Grip your katana so your right hand is an inch down from the tsuba, or hand protector. Place your left hand at the bottom of the handle and fully extend your arms so the sword is poised at a diagonal in front of your body. Raise the sword over your head and cut down in a single, controlled motion, keeping the blade from wavering. Repeat 50 to 100 times for two to three sets as desired.
This exercise requires a little more room and can be safely performed in an empty garage or outdoor space. Begin by adopting the gedon grip and positioning your legs so your right foot is 2 to 3 feet in front of your left, with your weight evenly distributed. Imagine an opponent of your height in front of you and raise your katana over your head. Guide your blade down at a diagonal so your sword enters the base of your imaginary opponent’s right neck, proceeding through the body and exiting through the left armpit. Tighten your abs as you finish the cut to maintain an erect spine and support proper posture. Raise the sword over your head once again and repeat the cut on the opposite side, imagining your sword entering the base of the left neck and exiting the right armpit. Continue for 50 to 100 repetitions as needed
Iaido is a traditional Japanese sword exercise that involves drawing the sword from the scabbard and cutting an opponent simultaneously. Practice a basic iaido cut by sheathing the katana in its saya, or scabbard, and placing it through a belt, sash or belt loop on the left side of your hip. Position the sheathed sword so the blade will cut upward as you pull it from the scabbard. Grip the scabbard with your left hand so your thumb gently touches the tsuba, or hand guard. Reach your right hand around your body and grip the handle so your four knuckles are pointing directly upward. Slowly pull the sword forward and out from the scabbard, twisting your hip back slightly to fully release the sword. Place your left hand on the bottom of the sword handle in the Gedon grip position and perform a diagonal cut at your imaginary opponent.