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Tameshigiri – Everything You Need To Know
The Tameshigiri is an art form that focuses on performing cutting tests with a Japanese sword against an object – usually tatami – in the cleanest and most elegant way possible.
It is a practice hundreds of years old, initially used by samurai to test the edge of their Katana sword.
However, with the passage of time and the rise of Japanese martial arts with swords like Kendo and Iaido, this practice has gained importance and created a culture around it.
In this article we will address everything you need to know about the Tameshigiri ; from its dark origins to the elegant practice it is today.
Are you ready? Let’s get started.
What is the Tameshigiri?
The word “Tameshigiri ” is a kanji that translates from Japanese literally as “cutting test”. However, the first thing to note is that the Tameshigiri is as much a cutting test to measure the quality of a sword as it is a martial art.
On the one hand, it is a recurrent practice used by sword collectors when they acquire a new piece. It is the best way to know how sharp, balanced, and resistant the sword is.
On the other hand, the Tameshigiri is also used as a sport. Thus, it is common to find hundreds of videos of Iaido practitioners performing these cutting tests, having up to dozens of tatamis for a demonstration.
These are eye-catching shows that give an idea of what these Samurai swords are capable of.
Those who perform Tameshigiri in public seek to demonstrate their skill with the sword. More precise and consecutive cuts in which the tatami barely moves when the sword cuts through it imply greater skill.
During this Japanese practice, the targets are usually placed vertically, so that it is possible to make repeated cuts even when the target is in the air.
Sometimes, however, it is also possible to see that the tatami is placed horizontally; usually on top of another tatami. This is done both as a challenge for the swordsman and to emulate the figure of a human torso.
The Tameshigiri has a wide variety of patterns that alternate diagonal, vertical and horizontal cuts in all possible ways.
The Tameshigiri also includes the very difficult technique of drawing and striking in a single movement, known as “draw cut”.
This is a technique reserved for Japanese martial arts experts only.
In it, the practitioner pushes the saya back slightly as he draws the Katana and uses it to strike.
This is a dangerous movement, because if it is done wrong, the Katana could go through the saya and cut the fingers of the person carrying it. Therefore, the degree of precision required makes it reserved for professionals only.
When it is done well, however, the result is shocking.
Look carefully at how fast he draws his katana in this video:
History of the Tameshigiri
Today the Tameshigiri is known to be a cutting practice performed on inanimate objects.
There was a time, however, when people, not objects, were used.
First of all, it is necessary to clarify that this practice was performed only on corpses. It was rarely performed on the body of a living person.
Even so, it is still quite difficult to imagine. It turns out that if a samurai wanted to know if his Katana was ready to cut down an enemy in battle, well, the best way to test it was to do it on a real body.
This practice, however, was reserved for criminals.
And even when it came to criminals, those who carried it out were particularly strict.
It was believed that one could stain the soul of the Katana if it was used on the bodies of undesirable people. Therefore, it was avoided at all costs to use it on low-caste individuals or priests.
Even when a “decent” body was available, it was carefully inspected to make sure that it did not have any kind of disease that could stain the purity of the katana.
The Tameshigiri was used mainly as a judicial punishment. It was a way of bringing shame on a criminal by using his body as an object of cutting test.
During the Shogunate, it was customary to behead those who had committed severe crimes.
Once the body was available, only highly trained samurai were allowed to carry out the Tameshigiri . In this way the variable of the samurai’s ability to cut was reduced and only the quality of the sword was left as a variable.
If the sword was good, it would cut well. If not, no.
There were a variety of cuts the samurai could make to test the quality of the sword. These consisted primarily of horizontal cuts on the chest, but there were also several that aimed to efficiently sever the joints between the extremities.
When it came to swords made by renowned blacksmiths, even bodies were stacked to see how many would be able to cut through these blades with a single blow.
Once the test was completed, the normal procedure was to record the results on the tang of the sword. There one could find the name of the swordsman, the position of the body, and the number of bodies that had been cut with a single blow.
Thus, there are records of a sword that even cut seven torsos with one blow.
Disturbing, yet fascinating, records that speak about what a good sword in good hands can do.
There is an anecdote in which a subject, upon being informed that after his execution his body was going to be used for Tameshigiri , laughs underneath and comments that if he had known he would have eaten stones to damage the sword.
Fortunately, cutting tests on human bodies were absolutely forbidden during the beginning of the Meiji period; the beginning of the modern Japanese age.
Today, all that remains of that dark past are records.
Philosophy of the Tameshigiri
As with all martial arts, the Tameshigiri today is highly ritualized.
It is a complete martial art, with names for each type of cut, protocols before the act, and safety measures to be taken into account.
While the idea that the Tameshigiri is based on making trial cuts may make it seem simple, at a closer look it is possible to see the difficulty that this practice hides.
The Tameshigiri seeks to teach the student how to attack efficiently, like a true samurai.
Students of this art spend months practicing with blunt swords, training themselves in the basics of Japanese sword fighting, before they begin to perform Tameshigiri.
This is done for the safety of the practitioners and to give them time to learn how to use effectively a katana. After all, the grace of the Tameshigiri is to perform clean and elegant cuts.
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How to perform Tameshigiri?
While the Tameshigiri is about cutting tests, there are a number of factors to consider before you begin.
Determine the Object Based on the Edge of the Katana
There are different types of Tameshigiri with different objects. The most common is to use tatami or bamboo.
However, you have to take into account that depending on the object you use it will be more appropriate to use a sword with one or the other type of edge. The structure, hardness, flexibility and thickness must be taken into account when making these cuts.
If you plan to make Tameshigiri with bamboo or makiwara, which are quite thick, it is best to use a sword with a Niku blade.
This type of blade has a more rounded body, which results in a greater mass capable of resisting all kinds of impacts much better. It is ideal for cutting thick objects; from wooden sticks, branches, and even bones.
The man in this video, for example, uses a Niku blade on his sword.
As we saw, the Niku sharpness is deadly effective when cutting thick objects.
However, when it comes to making sharp, precision cuts such as a sheet of paper or a rope that is not stretched, using a Niku sharp instead of an Ultra sharp would be the equivalent of trying to perform surgery using a butter knife instead of a scalpel.
What is the Main Difference between Niku and Ultra when it comes to Tameshigiri?
The Ultra Sharp blade is considerably thinner than the Niku. It has less mass both on the sharp edge and a little bit behind it. This makes it more precise and allows it to maintain a better edge, but conversely makes it less resistant to blunt force.
The Ultra edge is enormously accurate when it comes to cutting lightweight density objects such as tatami mats, boxes, water bottles, and more. The edge could be damaged if used for things worthy of a Niku sharp, such as bamboo or branches.
Check the handle of the katana before you use it
This is a protocol procedure that is always performed before doing Tameshigiri or practicing Iaido.
Just as with a pistol one should always check that it is not loaded before shooting practice, so with a katana one should always check that the mekugi pins are well positioned before doing Tameshigiri.
The mekugi are the small bamboo pegs found in the handle. They are the ones that hold the tang tightly inside the tsuka so that the blade does not slip.
In case the mekugi is damaged or missing, another one should be immediately placed in good condition to avoid any kind of accident.
Clean your Katana
After performing Tameshigiri, even if you have used objects that in theory do not make a mess, it is recommended that you clean the blade of your katana, even if it is only with a piece of cloth that you have at your disposal.
Ideally, you should also apply some kind of oil to keep it in better condition, whether it is choji or camellia.
Also, give small beats to the mouth of the saya to make any residue from the cut objects fall out.
It is always advisable to clean the blade of your katana well before putting it back in the saya, where it can be more difficult to remove any dirt.
About the Tatami in Tameshigiri
The tatami is one of the most common objects used for the practice of Tameshigiri. It is relatively easy to obtain and has a fairly strong consistency that makes it a reliable material for cutting tests.
It can be used dry, however, most commonly it is immersed in water for a day before use. This is to give it a heavier consistency; more similar to the flesh of the human body. Then they are left to dry for half an hour and voila: a tatami ready to cut.
To further simulate the consistency of the human body (flesh and bone), the tatami is also usually rolled around a bamboo pole, which would be the equivalent of cutting a human arm.
This is especially meaningful if one remembers the dark beginnings of the Tameshigiri as a samurai practice.
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Cutting patterns to practice Tameshigiri
Something that makes the discipline of the Tameshigiri special is that it has a variety of cutting patterns.
These are predefined movements with specific names based on their inspiration.
You can find both patterns for beginners and some for people experienced in the art of the Tameshigiri.
When a Tameshigiri exhibition is performed, masters and amateurs are usually aware of which pattern is being executed and how the practitioner does it.
One such pattern, for example, is called Tsubame Gaeshi (return swallow cut). This is a pattern that combines two consecutive vertical blows followed by two consecutive horizontal blows, accompanying these with the corresponding changes in posture.
The final result would look something like this:Another cut pattern could be the Yoko-Narabi. This consists of cutting 2 to 6 targets using horizontal and vertical cuts. The pattern would look like this: Using patterns in Tameshigiri is a good way to start practicing this discipline.
However, you don’t need to be an expert in it to perform cutting tests.
Any person with a katana who has access to wood or any other type of test object, as long as he makes sure that the edge of his sword is the right one, can perform cutting tests without any problem.
Patterns, however, are a good way of doing so while keeping the Japanese samurai spirit alive.
You can create your custom Katana for Tameshigiri practice in this link.