(Note this is a guest post from Richard Stonell)
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
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
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.
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  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