Thoughts on Tameshigiri from Famous Swordsmen

Tameshigiri is a very popular element of swordsmanship today. This is perhaps thanks in part to the spread of Toyama-ryu, a system originally created in the 1920s to teach fundamental sword technique to officers in the Imperial Japanese Military. Tameshigiri forms a central part of training in Toyama-ryu and its derivatives, but traditionally, this form of target cutting was not a major element of most systems of swordsmanship.

The question of the pros and cons of tameshigiri for those of us studying swordsmanship today has been covered in a previous article by SangWooKim. In this article, I would instead like to look at the opinions on tameshigiri held by two of the most highly-regarded swordsmen of the modern period.

Takano Sasaburō (1862-1950) and Nakayama Hakudō (1872-1958) were two of the most important figures in the development of modern kendo (see this article for more information). Practitioners of both classical swordsmanship and the more modern forms of shinai keiko, their ways of thinking shaped the sword arts that we practise today. As such their opinions on kendo and swordsmanship in general are quite pertinent to those studying both modern and koryu arts. The following is a translation of their respective thoughts on tameshigiri.

Takano Sasaburo – Helmet Cutting

Takano Sasaburō

Cutting rolled up straw mats (巻藁, makiwara) is just like a silly game for children. It is of no importance. Tameshigiri in the past was done on iron helmets.

The men who demonstrated helmet cutting in front of the Meiji Emperor were Ueda Yoshitada (Umanosuke), Kajikawa Yoshimasa, Itsumi Sōsuke and Sakakibara Kenkichi. [Note: this event took place in 1886 and featured the use of sword, spear and bow against iron helmets. Kajikawa did not in fact take part.]

Sakakibara was quite meticulous, and had his student check the sword before he cut. Of all the participants, Sakakibara was the one who cut the deepest.

Suemonogiri (据物切, the cutting of placed objects) is rather difficult, so the helmet was stuffed with warm cooked rice, which also made the helmet warm. If there had been nothing inside the helmet, the sword would simply have broken. Steamed lees of bean curd can also be used for this purpose.

It is important to know the height of the object you are cutting. It is for this reason that now and then you hear of laymen being able to cut something when kendo teachers cannot. In times past, the height of the stand was set at three shaku (91cm). In any case, if the helmet is empty, upon cutting it will resound with a clang and the sword will snap.

It should also be noted that silk is very difficult to cut. If the silk is soaked in warm water, it becomes even more difficult to cut.

Nakayama Hakudo – Tameshigiri for Maturing One’s Iai

Nakayama Hakudō

Tameshigiri is something that should be done after many long years of iai training, once one has reached a certain level of licensed proficiency [允許 – traditionally, this is the level of license typically required for a student to open their own dojo.] Tameshigiri allows one to adapt the iai kata to real cutting practice. In other words, iai should be the core, and the application of the kata in tameshigiri should be secondary. However, today many people totally ignore the preservation of correct sword methodology and technique and merely cut things. As a result, tameshigiri has unfortunately come to be thought of as an independent practice. Thus, the most important points of sword technique, such as the three separate classifications of hasuji, are being forgotten. To put it another way, every kind of battō uses the sword blade in a different way. There is no absolutely fixed way of doing things. Even in a single kata, at first you may cut with the first two or three sun (寸, approx. 3.03cm) of the blade, then the second cut may be with the central portion of the blade. Understanding this distinction is essential.

Of course, the way the blade is used changes depending on the target and your distance from it. There are times when you must cut with the base of the blade, times when you must use the centre and times when you must use the tip. If sufficient consideration is not given to these points, the sword methodology will be incorrect. However iai today has mixed these points up and become very confused. Moreover, there is a lack of enthusiasm for serious study. Together these issues have caused tameshigiri to become merely the act of cutting, without altering one’s posture at all. Needless to say, simply cutting without preserving the procedure of adopting correct distance, the method of zanshin and the various cutting techniques of each kata is something completely removed from the traditional approach to tameshigiri.

I want you to be aware that tameshigiri in iaido is something that occurs at the very highest levels. Therefore in combination with normal iai kata training, I have incorporated mizugiri (水切り) – the practice of cutting standing water without raising a splash – into my standing iai kata. The last three or four sun of the blade are used to cut. The cut is made straight downwards, and not a single drop of water should be splashed up. The next kind of tameshigiri is yukizumi (雪積み), which trains horizontal cutting. For this, snow is packed tightly into a mound less than one shaku (30.3cm) in height, and then used as a target for nukiuchi practice with the central portion of the blade.

Nakayama Hakudo after performing waragiri
The next type is waragiri (藁切り), which uses stacked rolls of straw mats. Each mat should be between 5 and 7 sun (15.2-21.2cm) in thickness and at each level another mat should be added, up to a maximum of six mats. This type of tameshigiri can be included in standing kata, using the part of the blade between the centre and the tip. Depending on the ryuha and kata, the straw can be replaced with other objects such as bamboo, wooden planks, standing trees and living things [Note: here Nakayama uses the word 生物. It is unclear whether he is referring to plants or animals]. This form of cutting can therefore be adapted for use with many different kata.

After exploring this kind of cutting sufficiently, you can begin to practise the highest level of tameshigiri: usumonogiri (薄物切り, lit. the cutting of very thin material). For this, a single sheet of paper is placed on a wooden board. The aim of this technique is to cut the paper without leaving a scratch on the wood. This is the ultimate level of technique – a method of studying hand control and the ability to stop a cut. To perfect the ability to do this with a nukiuchi technique requires an almost unreachable level of skill. It is something close to the ideal way of cutting. I dare say that it is highly unlikely that anyone since Hayashizaki Jinsuke sensei has been able to perfect this technique. The documents of Hayashizaki-ryū make this clear.

In essence, all kata ultimately contain an element of cutting, and the practise of cutting in this way is called tameshigiri or tameshigatana (試し刀). This has a very different meaning to the tameshigiri practised today. Tameshigiri is meant to be done as an accompaniment to kata, not independently.

Taking waragiri as an example, even if you cut dozens of times in a row without pause, you should maintain perfect spacing for every cut, and preserve a layer of straw beneath each cut. You should cut through one or two rolls of straw without touching the roll beneath. When cutting horizontally you should be able to cut through a roll and back again without a single piece falling. Every cut you leave in the straw should be perpendicular and smooth. As another example, you should cut planks of wood perfectly horizontally or vertically regardless of how the grain runs.

Nakayama Hakudo demonstrating waragiri followed by tameshigiri as part of kata. Note: this video has been slowed down from the original film in an attempt to restore the true speed. The adjustment is approximate and not precise, but the result gives a much more realistic impression of how fast Nakayama sensei was actually moving.

In addition, there are many kinds of techniques that involve cutting bamboo hung from the ceiling by paper or thread without breaking the thread or tearing the paper, or cutting bamboo thrown in the air into three pieces. However these are a kind of trick; they are just cutting techniques, and cannot be called tameshigiri. In my opinion these do not serve any purpose. If you compare these tricks to real tameshigiri, there are so many levels of disconnect between them that there is no overlap in their purpose at all.

I have heard of some people who cannot perform these kinds of tricks, cannot do tameshigiri as part of kata, and cannot even perform iai correctly, but act as though they are masters with forty or fifty years of hard training under their belts, and filled with pride, perform public exhibitions of so-called tameshigiri. What truly pathetic people, as ignorant as frogs in a well [Note: “a frog in a well knows nothing of the wide ocean” is a well-known proverb in Japan.] It is true that I myself have done displays entitled ‘tameshigiri’ in front of the Emperor and at large taikai, but that was only because I was the most senior person there in terms of age. Inside, I felt quite embarrassed. Sometimes I could not stand the embarrassment and performed the display under the title of suemonogiri instead.

I have tried many different kinds of object cutting: kirikuzushi (切り崩し), kaeshigiri (返し切り), kirifuse (切り伏せ), kiriotoshi (切り落とし), kiritsume (切り詰め), gyakukaeshigiri (逆返し切り), ōjigiri (応じ切り), deawasegiri (出会わせ切り) and so on. However I have never succeeded in making a single satisfactory cut. Today when I practise dōshonibangiri (同所二番切り, lit. a second cut in the same place) – where a single cut is made halfway through the target, and a second cut is made in precisely the same place to cleanly complete the cut – it is only a poor imitation of the real thing. Thirteen of my direct students are hanshi, and thirty-six are kyōshi, but I have not once given them permission to do public displays of tameshigiri. Perhaps in the future there will be someone to whom I will grant permission, but currently [1956] there is no-one whom I can foresee earning it. The future of the practice looks quite bleak, almost hopeless in fact. I would like to earnestly request that my students partake of a deep and serious study of tameshigiri. I would also like those who are not my direct students to understand the practice, and make effort to progress in this area.

『高野佐三郎 剣道遺稿集』 堂本昭彦(編) スキージャーナル刊 2007年
『中山博道剣 道口述集』 中山善道・稲村栄一(著)堂本昭彦(編) スキージャーナル刊 2007年

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Richard Stonell

Richard practises kendo, iaido, and koryu in Osaka and Kobe, Japan.

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tameshigiri from Famous Swordsmen”

  1. Why does stuffing something warm inside the helmet preventing it from snapping the sword?

    And in usumonogiri, how is the paper placed on the stand? Do you lay it down flat or prop it up somehow? Are you trying to cut down vertically without cutting into the stand?

  2. It would seem that much of Nakayama Hakudo’s insight into tameshigiri was relevant to his day and age. However, the underlying ideals that transcend his time and arrive at our present should be dually noted.

    His reflection of tameshigiri be…ing a solo art practiced without correct methodology and technique is often seen today, but mainly in groups outside the dojo. The lessons that Hakudo would have wished to instill on young deshi are evident these days through our teachings inside the dojo. Proper gripping, distancing, angles, hasuji and zanshin are all taught and practiced. The resulting is an array of cutting techniques and styles. This being enforced by the different ryuha that exist, each adopting tameshigiri into their curriculum where once it may have been non-existent.

    Today we have a range of targets used in tameshigiri, with futomaki (multiple mats rolled up), yokanarabi (multiple mats standing side by side), used tatami and fresh tatami omote, dodan setups (multiple mats stacked on top of each other), bamboo cutting and some times the mixture of bamboo with tatami. Hakudo would have probably delighted in just how much more widespread a target choice we can afford ourselves these days. Not to mention how much more feedback a rolled tatami mat today can provide versus the makiwara of the past.

    As for Takano Sasaburo’s notes regarding tameshigiri being, “a silly game for children,” and also his recordings on helmet cutting. Again very relevant to the days of old. Coming out of a time when sword was used for combat, a time where sword was used to kill your enemies, one can only imagine just how childish swinging a blade at rolled stalks of vegetation could seem. Like a youth today running through a corn field playing out the role of their favorite anime character slicing up stalks with little objective other than fun.

    Helmet splitting would be in another category all its own. Considering most of us today have no need to wear samurai kabuto into war, nor do we have the need to test our skill out on such. The idea of swinging one of our prized swords into something so hard is enough to make you cringe. Although, from time to time we do still hear of this test being performed, one would not rule it out of today’s tameshigiri world all together.

    From reading both Hakudo’s and Takano Sasaburo’s reviews on the subject it could be derived that tameshigiri was still very much in it’s infancy of a maturing addition to the sword arts. With the relevance placed on tameshigiri today in the dojo and at the tai kai, it goes without saying that we should always keep in mind those that set the path before us and for what reasons they did so.

    Jason Lee A. Hatcher

  3. Very interesting article. I hadn’t heard of stuffing the helmet before, but even comparatively minor changes can effect cutting, both in terms of the blade behavior and the psychological effects. I have heard a couple of stories where comparatively minor details affected the cutting either positively or negatively (both involved helmet cutting). Heat (and humidity) are considerations that come into many of the craft skills in Japan in ways that I would never have imagined before coming here – presumably the cutting here was taking place in the colder months of the year, when both the sword and the helmet were examples of ‘cold’ steel. I doubt very much if anyone would consider warming up a helmet in the middle of August.

    Actually, though, cutting helmets (and corpses) is quite a different thing from cutting wara etc. and not necessarily in a good way: characteristically the blade (which was often specially mounted for testing) was brought way behind the body in a way that would never have been used in combat, to deliver the strongest possible stroke. I think, in general, that cutting practice should be done under the direction of (or by) someone who understands its aims, and performed on targets which give the necessary feedback to allow the correction of those features that it is supposed to be developing… not all types of cutting have the same aims, but there are certainly limits to the ‘I wonder if I can cut through this’ school of thought. I have heard some severe criticism of suemonogiri for failing to give useful feedback to the cutter – the relative ease with which various proponents of Western martial arts perform it should give some food for thought as to its purpose and usefulness.

  4. Great article Richard, thanks for the translation!

    On a superficial note, I like that photo of Takano Sasaburo, his kamae is very impressive and his left wrist is huge!! He had obviously been through a lifetime of hard training and reflection before that photo.

  5. Mr. Hatcher should note that NAKAYAMA, Hakudo is shown in the Japanese order. I also think that, after observing the way tameshigiri is often practiced within legitimate dojo groups, both inside and outside the actual dojo, that the idea of what is correct methodology has degraded considerably from Nakayama sensei’s ideal.

  6. I also feel Hakudo sensei’s words have been misinterpreted.

    Hakudo Sensei’s Kendo Kojutsushu was written for his direct students in mind
    (ie. those who studied all of his arts: Shindo Munen Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu, Muso Shinden Ryu, Kendo, ect). Inkyo (允許) is a ranking equivalent to that of Menkyo Kaiden in the Shindo Munen Ryu tradition. Hakudo Sensei only issued fewer than fifteen to his students. Out of those fifteen only nine were considered (by him) to have been his direct disciples.

    This meant that they and only they were allowed use tameshigiri as a training aid (preferably in kata or using other practices he described ie. Mizugiri ect..). Reading his words within context allows one to see that he was rather outspoken. That the practice of tameshigiri towards the end of his life had become more important to people than the style itself. That men with little or no classical training (or certification) had been publicly demonstrating tameshigiri. And that those same men were misrepresented going as far to be called “experts”.

    In past and present we can see such men. Men who held held little or no real certification and demonstrated tameshigiri publicly. Despite this they formed their own schools displaying themselves on tv and other forms of media as “experts” or “masters”. Surely one can see such a pattern with certain men of Hakudo’s time (and on the discovery channel today).

  7. Great point Jeff, well made. As a follow up to your observations: a Toyama/Nakamura Ryu exponent recently lamented on another forum, “Why is it that more numptees try and rip off Nakamura Ryu than most other ryuha?” (or words to that effect). I can’t help thinking that it is because cutting is well-known to be a big part of the curriculum in that ryuha. That fact alone I think tends to attract people to the art for the wrong reasons, i.e. that the waza exist in order to be able to cut stuff up using the waza. For that they should try Haedong Kumdo! 😉 b

  8. Personally I think its pretty easy to buy a sword and chop stuff up. Anybody can do it, whether they are learning in a “legitimate” school or by themselves in their backyard (check out youtube). I bet some of those backyard-choppers get pretty skillfull at it too.

    Spending a few years learning a ryu-ha’s pedogogy and applying that to tameshigiri, however, probably takes a lot more time and effort, and perhaps the end goal is not necessarily just cutting things up (as perhaps Nakayama was suggesting?).

    At the end of the day tameshigiri – like iaido – is, I suggest, at least odd when looked at as an art in isolation from the view of classical training. If people choose to practise like this, however, its not for me nor anyone else to say they are wrong… as long as they enjoy themselves and are safe, who cares?

  9. Well, I think the objectives of practicing Kendo, Iaido or any serious kobudo hadn’t changed since Nakayama sensei’s time. Of curse there are people who just cut things or just practice kendo as a sport, but there are many who seek to improve their character. We should be careful when we interpretate his words, I’m saying as a Historian. Except for Richard, we are reading a translation and a deep analysis of the context of these writings should reveal some clues. In fact, we will never reach, completely, what Nakayama sensei was really saying.

  10. Mr. Nanini,

    It should be noted that Mr. Jeff Karinja is actually a member of the Yushinkan dojo in Tokyo under Ogawa Takeshi soke, trains in the dojo’s selected budo and personally knows some of the Nakayama family not to mention the amount of proprietary documentation he has been privy to.

    If anyone knows the histories of Nakayama Hakudo and his arts, it’s Mr. Karinja. He’s in the right place, with the right people and certainly with the right documentation to boot.

    Respectfully yours,

    S. Delaney

  11. What George said. Many of us have the original material available to us.

    While he is polite enough not to bash us over the head with the fact, Mr. Karinja is actually a member of the Yushinkan dojo that was headed by Nakayama Hakudo and has a direct relationship with the Nakayama family, so I dare say he is in a better position than nearly everyone else out there to give us insight to what Nakayama Hakudo’s intent was with his writings.

  12. Well, I said as a historian. As Roger Chartier (Cartier is a famous French historian from The Annales School) said, and he is not the only one ho said that: a text is never understood as the writer though it will be. For example, my words were ones of warning that we sometimes could be a little anachronic. Thinking with contemporary thought things that were written in the past. My writings, for example, were misunderstood, in part because I’m expressing myself in another language.

    It’s easy to misunderstood information. I did not wrote that post directly to Mr. Jeffrey Karinja, in fact his words were the most plausible. It’s just a warning to common people who read something and thinks its interpretation of that discourse is the very true.

    PS: Sorry about the bad English…

  13. As an addition to the above lists of cutting tests, Yamamoto Takuji sensei (MJER) used to lay a bundle down flat, then do four cuts, starting deep, then getting shallower as he worked along the mat. He would then reverse up the mat to cut the same depth in the same places he had cut previously. Again this is a test of skill in controlling the sword, and is worth a try to see how difficult it is to do….

  14. Think back to the waring states period and beyond. Imagine a very youg boy getting a wooden sword. He is going to go straight out with this friends and hit stuff. Next imagine him a bit older getting his first hand me down real sword, if I know anything about boys he will be straight outside choping down bamboo, or anything else handy that will impress the local girls.

    My point is that at this time there was probably no need for a formal tameshigiri element to any ryu. If you were from a bushi background then being able to cut stuff up would have been a given.

    It seems to me that in these modern times tameshigiri needs to be added because students don’t know how to cut before they start formal training.

  15. I think – tell me if I am wrong – that you are projecting modern practises and thoughts on past ages. We don’t know if boys in Japan pre-Perry would have gone chopping things to impress girls just because thats what we (or you!) may do (or may have done) when we are young in America, or Europe, or wherever.

  16. I think that today tameshigiri is an essential part of REAL IAI(more likely BATTOJUTSU)as no one gets the chance to cut anymore and the real feel of a blade under stress can only be replicated by cutting something.It should not be restricted by grade but by ability of the student and should only be conducted in a class setting under strict guidelines.
    Anyone can learn the simple mechanics of “cutting”-the blade and resulting cut will let you know if it is done correctly but the levels of expertise mentioned above can only be reached with expert tuition and intensive training in the “form” of the style practised.

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