Buying a Katana or any Japanese sword requires testing its sharpness, although some who would like to display these “bladed works of art” don’t mind if they get a “less-than-razor-sharp” edge.
Although we have modern and objective measurements of sword sharpness underscoring its cutting abilities, the Japanese have a more “primitive,” albeit very efficient way of ascertaining a katana’s strength. They call it Tameshigiri.
Although we already offered a glimpse of what Tameshigiri is and its purpose, don’t you think you’d want to know more about this Japanese target test-cutting technique? Please continue reading if you do.
Anyone can swing a sword, strike a target, and slice a piece of it. But only masters of the Tameshigiri technique can do so with precision and grace. After all, almost everything in Japan has a martial art finesse to them.
Although the classic Tameshigiri definition stems from the Kanji equivalent of “test cut” or “cutting test,” there’s more to this technique than as a sword quality assessment measure.
As mentioned, anyone can swing a sword (or katana) to determine its sharpness, balance, and resistance. However, the Japanese revere everything they do and create. Cutting and slashing a target object in random is very “un-Japanese.” Hence, swordsmen and sword owners must perform the technique with the grace of a ballerina and the focus of a Samurai.
Unsurprisingly, Tameshigiri can also be a sport where Iaidoka (Iaido practitioners) compete to showcase their Tatami-cutting skills and swordsmanship. The best Iaidoka can cleanly cut a Tatami in two in one swift and fluid motion, with the Tatami barely moving from the sword movement.
Isao Machii, an Iaidoka and holder of 5 Guinness World Records attempting to set a new world Tameshigiri record. Photo on Guinness World Records Youtube Channel.
Only a grandmaster or master of Japanese martial art can perform the “draw cut” Iaido technique. This style requires the swordsman to draw the katana, swing it, and strike the Tatami to cut the target, all in a single fluid motion.
So, Tameshigiri is not only a method for testing the qualities of a katana or any Japanese sword type. It’s also a martial art. And like all martial arts, it can be a competitive endeavor.
What’s the Story Behind Tameshigiri?
Tameshigiri's history is unclear. However, Edo Period swordsmen (from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century) would test their swords before using them in actual combat.
Assessing a sword’s qualities often involves inanimate objects, including rice straw (Wara), bamboo, woven rush mats (Goza), thin metal sheets, and Tatami. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always this way.
Samurai would also test their swords on cadavers. Sometimes, they would evaluate the katana’s sharpness and precision by executing a convicted criminal as capital punishment.
It’s worth noting that whoever carried out the Tameshigiri must be a skilled swordsman to eliminate doubts about the sword’s cutting performance.
Using cadavers as Tameshigiri targets requires examination of the corpse. The Samurai of yore would not taint a newly-forged katana with the blood of someone with a “questionable” background, an incurable disease, or low-caste rank. Priests and other religious leaders are also a no-no for target test-cutting.
The same rules apply when delivering capital punishment.
So, why did the Samurai choose a cadaver over inanimate objects? Simple! No item (at least at the time) cannot replicate the unique density and mass of the human body. Samurai warriors can only evaluate the katana’s battle readiness if they test it on a human corpse.
Interestingly, many older katana swords have Nakago (tang) inscribed with the number and style of Tameshigiri cut performed on cadavers. These inscriptions (Saidan-mei or Tameshi-mei) increase the katana’s value, allowing its creator to fetch a handsome price.
For instance, the Saidan-mei might show “8 bodies with O-kesa,” with O-kesa describing the shoulder-to-opposite-hip cut.
Like everything else Samurai-related, test-cutting on cadavers became illegal during the Meiji Restoration. Hence, modern Tameshigiri only uses inanimate objects.
What’s the Philosophy behind Tameshigiri?
Tameshigiri isn’t all about testing a sword’s balance, precision, resistance, and sharpness. More importantly, it focuses on the sword wielder’s discipline, calmness, situational awareness, and attacking efficiency to cut a target cleanly.
After all, it’s a martial art. And rituals are never far behind when we talk about Japanese martial art.
You don’t approach the target, unsheathe the sword, and strike it with abandon. If you’ve watched master Iaidoka perform this technique, you’ll notice them taking time before slashing the Tatami in one swift motion.
It’s as if they’re praying for the heavens to “accept” the “target” they’re about to deliver.
As a philosophy, Tameshigiri has cuts that martial artists must observe. They must also adhere to pre-test-cutting protocols, and safety measures are always at the top of their minds.
The objective is for Iaidoka to learn and master the art of attacking with a sword as efficiently as the legendary Samurai. Unsurprisingly, students require months of practice developing and improving their sword handling and fighting proficiency.
Novice Iaidoka often start with a Bokken wooden sword before graduating to an unsharpened steel Iaito sword. Only when the Iaidoka has mastered the art of sword drawing, handling, and fighting can he use a razor-sharp katana to perform Tameshigiri.
A master Iaidoka demonstrating Tameshigiri to other Iaidoka. Photo on Warakiri Battosai Youtube Channel.
How Do You Perform Tameshigiri?
Performing Tameshigiri is an art requiring focus and exceptional attention to detail. We divided the technique into three essential steps. Although these steps seem simple, note that test-cutting takes years to master.
Choose the Target
Just because you have a katana doesn’t mean you must test it on any target that suits your fancy. Iaidoka always examines the target object’s structure, thickness, density, hardness, and flexibility to match it with the katana edge (Ha) sharpness.
A Niku-sharp blade should be sufficient for cutting bamboo. This katana sharpness level has a thicker, more robust spine Mune) supporting the sword’s cutting edge. However, if you have a Niku Ultra-sharp katana, you’re better off targeting a Tatami because the cut is cleaner and more precise.
Here’s the rule. If your target has moderate to high density (i.e., bamboo, branches, wooden sticks, and bones), pick a Niku blade. A Niku Ultra is more suitable for lightly dense objects (i.e., Tatami, water bottles, and boxes).
Check the Tsuka
Nobody wants a Nagasa flying off its mounting when striking the target object. Hence, Iaidoka always checks the katana’s Mekugi before performing Tameshigiri.
Mekugi are screw- or peg-like bamboo fasteners securing the Tsuka (handle or hilt) to the Nakago (tang). These wooden pegs fix the blade to the hilt, allowing Iaidoka to wield the katana without fear of sending it flying across the room when swinging it.
These wooden fasteners must be present and not wiggle in their positions. Otherwise, you must pick another katana.
Clean the Katana
We skipped the actual target test-cutting step because it requires performing one of the different Tameshigiri cuts (we’ll discuss this next).
Cleaning the katana after Tameshigiri is essential to retaining its pristine condition, including sharpness and precision.
A lint-free cloth is always handy. And if you have Choji oil, applying some and wiping it with Nuguigami can go a long way to preserving the katana’s sharp edge.
What Tameshigiri Patterns Should I Know?
Tameshigiri requires cutting a target object as cleanly and precisely as possible. As a martial art, Iaidoka can only execute one of several well-established “target configurations.” We’ll present examples for each test-cutting pattern classification.
- Sayuw Kesa Giri – Alternating downward right-to-left cut (Hidari Kesa) and downward left-to-right cut (Migi Kesa), with the Iaidoka switching the forward foot with each cut.
- Sayuw Kesa/Gyaku Kesa Giri – Downward right-to-left cut (Hidari Kesa), upward left-to-right cut (Gyaku Kesa) before switching the feet to execute a left-to-right downward cut (Migi Kesa) and right-to-left upward cut (Gyaku Kesa).
- Futo Giri – This Tameshigiri pattern might only involve a single diagonal cut (Kesa Giri), but requires exceptional focus and strength to cut a single multi-roll target. The target is large and dense.
- Yoko Narabi – This pattern is almost identical to Futo Giri requiring a single Kesa Giri. The only difference is the Iaidoka must cut two to six targets standing in a row.
- Daruma Otoshi – Only master Iaidoka can perform this Tameshigiri pattern. The first step is a left-to-right downward cut (Batto Migi Kesa). It looks simple enough, but the first cut must be executed as the katana leaves the Saya. Four alternating right-to-left and left-to-right horizontal cuts (Suihei) follow in lightning-quick succession.
- Mizu Gaeshi – Like the Daruma Otoshi, Mizu Gaeshi looks easy to accomplish, but isn’t. The Iaidoka performs a low left-to-right upward cut (Gyaku Kesa) before executing a high horizontal right-to-left Suihei. He must be quick with the Suihei to sever the target before it falls off.
- Zengo-no-teki – The art of defeating multiple enemies from different directions is at the core of this Tameshigiri pattern. The Iaidoka stands between two targets, one to his right and another at the back.
He cuts the right target with a left-to-right upward cut (Batto Gyaku Kesa) while unsheathing the katana. The Iaidoka then executes a right-to-left downward cut (Hidari Kesa).
He turns to the second target and completes a Mizu Gaeshi before pivoting to finish the first target with a Suihei on the katana’s return stroke.
A tameshigiri competition. Photo on Warakiri Battosai Youtube Channel.
The Bottom Line
For non-Japanese, Tameshigiri might look like an over-glorified technique of cutting a “hapless” object. However, seasoned Iaidoka and students of Japanese culture recognize the value of such a martial art. After all, no one can deny the dedication one must commit to understand the philosophy and appreciate the rituals inherent in this swordsmanship form.