(Note this is a guest post from Sang Woo Kim)
Tameshigiri has been quite the hot discussion on forums lately. It will always pop back up after a few weeks of dormancy and then someone will bring it back up again. In these discussions you always have the advocates of tameshigiri, the side that frowns upon it, and couple of guys who are just curious and would like to give it a try.
It is my opinion that tameshigiri practiced within the context of their own art can always help supplement their original training depending on what art you practice. So let’s break down the advantages first.
- Helps gauge tenouchi, maai and hasuji – this is the basic argument of all tameshigiri advocates. Many practitioners of iai have not reached the level to learn a form of kumitachi or does not practice kendo to help supplement the feeling of contact. How do you know the cut you’re doing in kata is effective if your cut has never made contact before?
- Teaches proper follow through – just because you have hasuji does not mean that it will result in a good cut. From my experience, it just means your angle is correct. The follow through in a cut should start from the beginning of the swing not the end of it. If the follow through starts too late this is usually shown when you get stuck in a target. Yes many people know this, but don’t do it.
- Helps teach “intent” into kata – I’ve seen many people performing kata where the cut would ineffective whether it be improper hasuji or just a swing with no umph in it. “Cut like you mean it” is a maxim I’ve heard universally in most Iai styles regardless if they practice tameshigiri or not. Although the practice of tameshigiri can help translate that to kata. One of my favorite sayings from my sensei is “If there’s no intent in kata, we’re just dancing”.
- How to cut from the hara, and show that it’s not power from the arms or shoulders – When I’ve seen some practitioners go up to cut, they could have beautiful iai or kendo. They cut from the hara during kata, but once they have a target in front of them, it’s all shoulders and arms which result in a botched cut or sore muscles. It’s a nice form of affirmation that “Hey, cutting from the hara does work!” Sure not everyone needs it, but it sure does feel good when you can cut naturally and effortlessly like it’s meant and taught to be.
- Helps gauge your swing – Just getting through the tatami is not enough. You can tell a lot about your swing through the piece that you cut. Is the piece that you cut smooth or scooped. Where did the piece land? Far away from the target, to the front, to the side? All these things can help you where you kissaki is at the point of contact with your sword and your target. Is your tip trailing, or is it the hasuji not good?
So these are the advantages. Notice that most of these reasons are there because they affirm that technique and theory of the cut was correct. Many times, what we are taught is the theory of the cut, there’s nothing wrong with putting the theory to the test. However, there are the disadvantages to tameshigiri.
- Cultural and Spiritual – Some styles distance themselves from tameshigiri because the people who practiced tameshigiri/suemonogiri in the old times were executioners. Some say it is for spiritual reasons that practicing tameshigiri can cultivate a certain sort of blood lust. That’s up to the style and individual.
- Too worried about getting through – You see this happen quite often. You see a practitioner get through a target, and see a smile of satisfaction across his face. But to make the cut happen, he throws form out the window. Dropping the point, over swing, off balance, too much force, the bad points go on and on. The result shouldn’t be as important as the steps to get there. I’ve seen many high level iai or kendo practitioners just revert back to the form of a beginner to get through a single mat. A great saying for this situation is, “You should cut like you’re doing kata, and do kata like you’re cutting”.
- Focusing too much on fancy cuts and showmanship – There are some techniques that you use for tameshigiri that are much more advanced than the usual single cuts. Techniques from the US/All Japan Battodo Federation such as Inazuma, Mizu Gaeshi for example are tried out by practitioners who should not be trying them. There is an application behind the techniques but I see many people trying them without even knowing that. More dangerous is the fact that the basics have not been solidified enough to even try them. Also is the fact that people do cutting spectacles that are not for training use, but more so for that of entertainment which is frowned upon by most JSA groups in general. This is usually the result of people with access to swords and targets but no instruction.
- No intent or zanshin – Many people who do practice cutting, practice just to cut and get through the mat. The cut is only half the practice, but proper etiquette, zanshin, setting up the cut should be practiced as well. For example are the numerous backyard cutters who cut within no context or particular focus. Cutting without purpose is as reckless as doing 1000 mindless swings, or just trying to hit ippon without proper seme.
- Just focuses on cutting and not much else – Many people just cut. Doesn’t take the time to learn kata, kihon or anything else. Just because you can cut doesn’t make you a good practitioner. Just means you can get through a target. All the things that lead up to that are just as important but some people just don’t like to listen.
Many of the disadvantages are an extreme of the advantages. Kind of a dark side of the force if you will. Cutting should be practiced to help supplement and reinforce the basics, not to take over them. Many styles teach tameshigiri within a kata format to help keep the proper focus.
Regardless what others say I believe practice of tameshigiri is a great form of affirmation for many things that we “already know” as long as it doesn’t take over the focus of practice. Once again, there will always be those on both sides who says it’s necessary, and those who believe it is over-rated. In the end, it’s up to a practitioner to find out for themselves.