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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Philosophy, purpose and meaning in test cutting

Philosophy, purpose and meaning in test cutting

photo by Matthew

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Why do tameshigiri / test cutting?  I’ve heard many reasons given:

  • “For fun”
  • “It’s a challenge”
  • “To get more in touch with fighters of old”
  • “To learn how to really use a sword”
  • “To improve my technique in an associated art”

Depending on the practitioner and their teacher, presuming proper safety etiquette is followed, any and all of these reasons are quite legitimate.  As any test-cutting participant can tell you, cutting can be quite a lot of fun.  Certainly it’s challenging, as a student progress from making single cuts to executing complicated cutting patterns.  There is a sense of history invoked any time a person picks up and uses an antique weapon.  Without doubt, swords were designed to cut, so being able to cut well is a part of being able to use a blade;  moving from practicing solo kata to actual cutting teaches a student ranging (ma’ai), applied footwork, and the body mechanics of cutting.  Finally, many practitioners take the lessons they learn in test cutting and use them to alter and adapt the way the practice their sword techniques in sparring or in kata practice.

While individually all these reasons for test cutting are legitimate, both Eastern and Western martial arts experts tend to agree that tameshigiri is, at heart, best used as a training extension of a combat art.   From their points of view, simply focusing on cutting through a target, using immense wind-ups and wild follow-throughs which — in a real combat situation — would leave the participant wide open to counter-attack, is counter-productive.  To use North American metaphors, one can practice hitting a baseball in a batting cage, or practice golf swings at a golf range, but these are not the games of baseball or golf.

This is not a new realization:  Nakayama Hakudō (1872-1958), one of the founders of modern Kendo , said:

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.1

The same thought, applied to sparring and other activities in the Western Martial Arts, is implied in this short piece from the Schola Gladiatoria:

 

 

Indeed, there are some schools  in the Eastern martial arts, which — being “Do” or “Ways” of philosophy and living rather than simply combat forms (Jutsu) — believe that the practice of tameshigiri can be harmful to a student.  As commented on by Yukiyoshi Takamura, founder of Takamura-ha Shindō Yōshin Kai:

Tameshigiri is the simulation of killing another human being. As such it has great potential for spiritual harm…  …Proper tameshigiri is kata. The mental discipline, focus and awareness should be identical. If these elements are absent from tameshigiri you are not performing proper budo but are instead allowing yourself to be seduced by the improper desires of ego gratificaion and self aggrandizement. As such, tameshigiri has been transformed from a practice of necessary education into a corrupted form of symbolic butchery.2

Indeed, some masters thought tameshigiri — as it was coming to be practiced in the early 20th century — was useless.  Cutting a static target which could not defend itself had no relation to an effective combat skill.  Takano Sasaburō (1862-1950):

Cutting rolled up straw mats (巻藁, makiwara) is just like a silly game for children.1

However, most modern teachers agree that test-cutting, when approached as an aid  rather than being a goal in itself, can be highly beneficial in learning proper and realistic technique.  A practitioner, with the aid of  their teacher, must focus on the positive aspects and lessons to be learned frpm tameshigiri, and studiously avoid the pitfalls, such as poor form, avoiding showmanship, not maintaining focus, and more.  Western practitioners echo the same message:

 

 

Most Western fencing students learn very early on to keep their sword “in line” (short for “point-in-line”:  to keep the point extended towards the opponent, maintaining a threat while also being prepared to counter.  To be out-of-line is to present no threat to your opponent and often to leave yourself exposed to immediate attack).  Similarly, in the Japanese sword arts there are precisely described opening stances (kamae).  When cuts or thrusts are made, the student must also apply appropriate tomè (stopping), so their weapon stays effectively in-line with their opponent, capable of both attack and defense,  instead of making wild swings which would leave them open to counter-attack. To be truly effective, a student must keep realistic fighting situations (bunkai) in mind while cutting.

Thus, done properly, test-cutting creates a positive feedback loop.  A student learns basic kata / techniques in class.  If they take part in test-cutting while keeping in mind and following the basic lessons of their art, they learn somewhat of how their predecessors-in-spirit would have actually made cuts, how the body moves while cutting, etc.  Afterwards, taking the lessons learned from tameshigiri and using it to refine the cuts and thrusts they make in practice or class, they increase their skill and effectiveness in their style as a whole.  Then they take their improved technique back to test-cutting and refine it even more… and the cycle continues.

 

Sources

  1. Thoughts on Tameshigiri from Famous Swordsmen |  Kenshi247.net
  2. Tameshigiri Reigi | Yukiyoshi Takamura | Aikido Journal
  3. The Benefits and Disadvantages of Tameshigiri Practice | Kenshi247.net

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