Tameshigiri (Test Cutting)

By Guy Power


I received a letter the other day in which the writer described iaido as a "beautiful martial art." I could not agree more with the writer; however, I feel that today too many people overemphasize the "artistic" aspect of swordsmanship to the detriment of its practical, combative purpose. To be sure, the artistic elements are important and reflect today's societal norms; however, we must always keep in mind the original intent of swordsmanship. Elsewise, we become de facto dancers executing movements which have long since lost their meaning. A book about aikido is entitled "A Lot Like Dancing;" I would never wish that description ever to be applied to iaido. In my perfect world, iaido would be equally balanced between artistry and efficacy.

To illustrate my comment, I offer up the final movements of "Tsukekomi" from the Eishin Ryu iaido lineage: after the enemy has been cut down and we kneel on our right knee (at the antagonist's body), the post-1945 exponent will place his left hand palm up on his raised left knee, reverse the blade, and perform chiburi (a cleaning action) by pulling the blade away and upward, causing a wiping effect of the blade with left thumb and forefinger. According to Dr. Benjamin Hazard (Ph.D.; kendo kyoshi 7th dan), he was taught to first thrust forcefully downward to the aggressor's throat; then chiburi. When Hazard sensei saw the new adaptation many years later he asked his sensei, "why the change?" Hazard sensei was told that the old way was "too violent for today" (Hazard 1998).

Albeit designed strictly for military use, Toyama Ryu iaido has transcended its ends--a bujutsu used to kill, into a means--a budo used to quell egos and polish the soul. As such, Toyama Ryu iaido--as well as Nakamura Ryu battodo--is taught in the traditional manner using kata for the majority of its pedagogy. But here, the similarities with koryu ceases because our adherents practice tameshigiri (test-cutting). Many people mistakenly believe Toyama Ryu teaches only tameshigiri; unfortunately, this incorrect viewpoint has some merit because the Toyama Military Academy once emphasized daily tameshigiri training. (My father-in-law graduated from the Toyama Academy and cannot believe "Gunto Soho"-- military sword methods -- is a "budo.")

Adding to this misunderstanding is the fact that after the war, master swordsman Nakamura Taizaburo performed iai kata intermixed with tameshigiri as a means to propagate iaido. Alas, many people only remember the cutting portion of his demonstrations. Lamentably, others-probably wanting to distance kendo and iaido from the pre-war military-took a dislike to Nakamura sensei's methods. However, today more and more senior kendo teachers, such as Nakakura Kiyoshi (kendo and iaido Hanshi 9th dan) and the late Ishida Kazusoto are recognizing Nakamura sensei's approach to swordsmanship. On speaking about the misperception that people could cut well during the time preceding the Second World War, Nakamura sensei says, "Before the war it was strongly held that the sword was the soul of the bushi. However, in reality there were very few people who could cut objects. Of the ancient traditional martial arts masters, Kunii Zenya sensei was the exception: he could cut anything!" (Shirozawa, 1998:68).

Tameshigiri: A Definition

Ta•me•shi•gi•ri (tä-ma-she' ge-re') n. (J. test cutting < tameshi < tamesu, v.t., to test or examine; kiri < kiru, v.t., to cut). To test a sword's sharpness by cutting through specially prepared targets that provide a resistance equivalent to that of the human anatomy.


Misunderstandings abound as to the meaning of the word tameshigiri. Nelson's kanji dictionary defines the citation form as as kanji 4361, "tame(su) attempt, try, experiment, test, sample." The kanji compound is 4361.11 and is defined as, "tame(shi)gi(ri) trying out a new sword (on corpses or prisoners)" (Nelson,1985:830). One American advertisement for a martial arts contest spelled the word as "tamashigiri." I contacted the sponsor in an attempt to educate, so that in the future he would avoid embarrassing himself to those who speak Japanese. He politely informed me that his rendering was correct because he meant to imply "cutting the soul;" quite a poetic appellation. His mistake was confusing the noun "tamashii," (soul) with that of "tameshi" (< tamesu, to test). Although homophones (sound alike), these two words use different Chinese ideographs and have radically different meanings. Other incorrect interpretations were "testing one's obligation," and "obligating the soul." I am confident these mistakes were caused by well intentioned people looking up the wrong citation in a Japanese-English dictionary. The end result was incorrectly using the word "tamashii" (soul) instead of "tameshi," and "giri" (obligation) instead of "kiri." (Note: the "k" of kiri (cut) is softened to a "g" sound when assimilated to a word ending in a vowel, rendering the compound word easier to verbalize.)

Historic Tameshigiri


Perhaps one reason tameshigiri today is eschewed by some is its association with killing. Historically tameshigiri was conducted on convicted criminals as a form of execution, as well as a means of learning how to unflinchingly kill. Yamamoto Tsunetomo laments the scarcity of executing criminals in his book Hagakure,

A long time ago this practice was followed, especially in the upper classes, but today even the children of the lower classes perform no executions, and this is extreme negligence. To say that one can do without this sort of thing, or that there is no merit in killing a condemned man, or that it is a crime, or that it is defiling, is to make excuses.

If one investigates into the spirit of a man who finds these things disagreeable, one sees that this person gives himself over to cleverness and excuse making not to kill because he feels unnerved.

Last year I went to the Kase Execution Grounds to try my hand at beheading, and I found it to be an extremely good feeling. To think that it is unnerving is a symptom of cowardice. (Yamamoto, 1716:102)


Needless to say Yamamoto was opinionated, even in his day. I find it interesting, though, that the prevailing attitude in the early 18th century was against using humans as test objects for swordsmanship. Possibly the post-1700 bushi had become, as Yamamoto sighs, men whose "spirit had weakened and that they had become the same as women" (1716:24).


Perhaps Yamamoto is providing historians the rationale for "official" executioners when he writes, "(t)hat there are few men who are able to cut well in beheadings is further proof that men's courage has waned. And when one comes to speak of kaishaku, it has become an age of men who are prudent and clever at making excuses" (1716:24). Considering the dearth of skilled warriors willing to provide their services to execute criminals, it is no wonder that those excelling in the technique established themselves, assuring a "craft" for succeeding generations.


Execution by sword became such a specialty that certain families "enjoyed" the distinction of becoming hereditary executioner to daimyo and shogun. One such hereditary executioner was Yamada Asaemon, called "Kubikiri Asaemon;" that is, "Asaemon the Beheader." Like all "traditional crafts," books and scrolls illustrating the secrets of the trade were composed for the edification of disciples.


When perusing these illustrated "how to" books, one clearly sees that testing was conducted on both live prisoners and corpses. The extent placed in preparing the bodies for testing is remarkable, and at the same time frightening. Although decapitation is a quick death, one wonders at the poor wretch who must undergo the test. One illustration shows the criminal blindfolded and his arms stretched by rope pulled by two assistants, while the executioner stands to the convict's back and prepares to deliver "nukiuchi kesa," an upward diagonal cut from the draw. Morbidity at its height!


In reading the politics of ancient Japan, and understanding that anybody could become a potential test candidate, I can only wonder if Kubikiri Asaemon was the model for Gilbert and Sullivan's "Lord High Executioner" as he sings:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found!

I've got a little list-I've got a little list.

Of society offenders who might well be underground,

And who would never be missed-who would never be missed...


He's got 'em on the list-he's got 'em on the list;

And they'll none of 'em be missed-they'll none of 'em be missed!


(The Mikado)

(As an interesting aside, today in Japan when an employee is fired, he is "kubikiri"--more commonly shortened to "kubi" (neck)-beheaded; while Americans will draw an index finger along the throat to simulate slitting a throat, the Japanese will chop at the back of their neck with the ridge of the hand.)


A more recent and sinister reason that tameshigiri may be unwelcome by some "traditionalists" could be the wanton murder conducted from 1935-1945 by Japanese soldiers using swords. Recent books published about the 1937 "Rape of Nanking" and other Japanese atrocities are peppered with photographs of mass beheadings. Interviews with former Japanese war criminals tell harrowing stories of using Chinese prisoners as tameshigiri targets to teach freshly-minted officers how to use their sword (Cook and Cook, 1997). Nakamura sensei bluntly states "During the wars of the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras the External link opens in new tab or windowKatsujin-ken had been thrown away and the External link opens in new tab or windowSatsujin-ken taken up" (Nakamura, 1995:37). Satsujin ken (the murdering sword), is the polar opposite of Katsujin ken -- "the life-giving sword."

Modern Tameshigiri

The purpose of tameshigiri is to (1) test the cutting ability of a sword, (2) gain experience in striking solid targets which replicate human anatomical resistance, and (3) improve timing, distance, angle, and grip.


The targets used in tameshigiri consist of makiwara (dampened straw mats tightly rolled), bamboo, and bamboo covered with makiwara. Prior to the 1970s, makiwara targets were sheaves of rice straw bundled into varying thicknesses. Today, the top covering of tatami straw mats (calledtatami-omote and resemble a beach mat) is used because of it offers uniform weight and thickness, and is readily available in cosmopolitan Japan. Potatoes, pumpkins, and other salad ingredients should never be used as targets unless you wish to be derided as a "Gensu" chef. Likewise, rolls of newspaper, cardboard, and plastic bottles filled with water are not conducive for the stated learning objectives.


One Saturday Nakamura sensei came to the dojo in an agitated state of mind and provided us a strongly worded lecture on tameshigiri, responsibility, and common sense. The catalyst for that evening's eruption was an article in the local newspaper: a doctor who never trained in the sword arts obtained a sword and went into a local bamboo grove where he cut down as many stalks as he could. The first thing sensei emphasized was ANYONE can cut bamboo with a sword; but, simple cutting is not the objective. Tameshigiri must only be done as a means to perfect one's swordsmanship skill. Sensei also stated the doctor did not exhibit proper manners in that he cut the bamboo without permission, exceeding the tenets of budo seishin --the spirit of the martial way. The doctor's actions surpassed common sense because of the possibility of personal injury if the blade ricochets, bends, or breaks. Tameshigiri should never be done by someone lacking experience, or without a qualified instructor at hand.

A Different Type of Target Practice

The doctor's actions exacerbates the misunderstanding of--and gives a bad name to--tameshigiri, causing it to be misunderstood and at times, maligned as a carnival-type performance, or an act of self-gratification. What is not understood by the majority of observers (as well as some practitioners) is that tameshigiri is the "target shooting" of swordsmanship. As in archery or rifle marksmanship, swordsmanship also demands knowledge of how to hold the weapon, judge distance, maintain calm, judge the angle-of-attack, and target acquisition. After the target is hit (as in archery), you judge how you mastered--or failed to master--your weapon, timing, and terrain by studying your cut (swordsmanship's "grouping"), and adjusting the "minutes of degree" of the next cut. The real challenge of tameshigiri is that of grip and cutting angle. If these two factors are not understood through tameshigiri then, by analogy, we may as well draw empty bows, never fit shaft to string, and still be bold enough to claim ourselves archers.

Nakayama Hakudo and Tameshigiri


Still, some modern practitioners look upon tameshigiri with suspicion. I wonder i f they realize that kensei (sword-saint) External link opens in new tab or windowNakayama Hakudo routinely performed tameshigiri? Other than the story I heard of Nakayama sensei testing swords for the Imperial Guard on pig carcasses, I have video footage (from a 1930s vintage film) of his performing tameshigiri on makiwara in the presence of Emperor Showa.

A clearer insight of this famous master comes from the recollections of one of his most famous students, Nakakura Kiyoshi sensei: I have seen Nakayama sensei cut horizontal fixed targets many times. After iai practice he would fix two horizontal makiwara onto the cutting stand, and place one more standing vertically. He would cut these in about three strokes: "tan...tan...tan" (cutting sounds), just like that. On one occasion in Korea I participated with him at a martial arts enbu demonstration. Just as I expected, after iai Nakayama sensei did tameshigiri. After the enbu we checked the makiwara and someone commented that the bottom roll was not cut. Sensei said "It is undesirable to cut all the way to the stand, therefore, I hold back my technique." He was a meijin master of tameshigiri! When Nakayama sensei was about 60 years old, just as I anticipated, he did tameshigiri on two standing makiwara to his left and right. In one continuous movement he cut left, then right. Sensei did especially well. When he finished and his sword was in the overhead position, the cut pieces remained in place without falling off.

(Shirozawa, 1998:66)

A sword oshigata (tang rubbing) appears in the book Military Swords of Japan: 1868-1945, which records Nakayama Hakudo's test results. The engraved words state, "Hami saijo Nakayama Hiromichi tamesu kore wo" and "Showa 17 nen 11 gatsu kichi nichi" (The highest quality cutting ability. Tested by Nakayama Hiromichi on a lucky day, November 1942) (Fuller and Gregory, 1996:116-117). The authors hasten to add that the test was carried out on a straw bundle or green bamboo, simulating a body. I wish to point out that "Hiromichi" is an alternative reading of "Hakudo." Nakayama Hiromichi is the same person as Nakayama Hakudo.

"Remaining" Thoughts

I have a photograph of Nakamura Taizaburo sensei with the cut pieces of target remaining--just as in Nakayama sensei's case; and, I was present in Japan when my friend Ron Zediker (battodo 6th dan) was able to do likewise with a left kesagiri. But most memorable of all is video footage of Suzuki Kunio sensei (battodo kyoshi 8th dan) doing the 1998 Dojo Opening Ceremony in Yokohama. On this occasion after a left and right kesagiri, he made a suihei-giri (horizontal cut) and the cut portion did not fall off-a practically impossible feat. After the audible "ooohs" and "ahhhhs," someone went up to the target and pushed it off with his finger. After all, training must continue.



Although tameshigiri is important in swordsmanship, it is not the single-most important tool for training, and it is not the final objective of training. Test cutting indicates one's progress along the "Way;" a shugyo compass, if you will. In the final analysis, there is no difference between the artificial boundaries established within the spectrum of jutsu and do; that is, between art and technique--as long as a healthy balance of both attributes is maintained. Art becomes technique just as technique becomes art: both provide the required synergy which evolves into a "Way" of life. Self-polishing and cultivation of the soul through hard training is the goal for which we strive; in effect, to become a better person. Not only in budo, but in our daily life-for which martial artist amongst us does not apply tenets of training into our daily life, our work, and our studies?

Works Cited

Cook, Haruko and Theodore F. Cook. Japan at War: An Oral History. At http://centurychina.com/wiihist/history.htm. (This site is interesting; however, one major inaccuracy is the "cover" photograph on the home page. The caption states that a US pilot is being beheaded "AFTER" the Emperor surrender. Actually, the victim is Australian, and the atrocity happened prior to surrender.)

Dann, Jeffrey Lewis. 1978. Kendo in Japanese Martial Culture: Swordsmanship as Self-cultivation. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Washington.

Fuller, Richard and Ron Gregory. 1986. Military Swords of Japan: 1868-1945. Charlottesville (Virginia): Howell Press.

Hazard, Benjamin. 1998. Interviews at his residence on 24 January and 14 February.

Hellstén, Pasi. 1998. "About Toyama Ryu Iai." The Iaido Newsletter, vol 10/4 #91, Apr 1998 (Interpreted by Yuji Matsuoi; translated into English by Leena Mäkinen). At http://www.uoguelph.ca/~ktaylor/91tin98.htm.

Kiyomizu, Yutaka. 1994. "Battojutsu 'yo' kara 'tai' e: sono rekushi to zenbo" (Battojutsu From "Function" to "Form": Its History and Full Story). Hiden Koryu Bujutsu, vol. 7 (July).

Nakamura, Taizaburo. 1973. Iaikendo. Tokyo: Seitousha.

Nakamura, Taizaburo. 1980. Nihon To Tameshigiri no Shinzui (The Essence of Japanese Sword Test-Cutting). Tokyo: Kodansha.

Nakamura, Taizaburo. 1995. Katsujin-ken Battodo [The Life-Giving Sword of Battodo]. Tokyo: Seibunsha.

Nelson, Andrew N., Ph.D. 1985 [1962]. The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary (2nd Ed). Rutland (Vermont): Tuttle.

Shigeoka, Noboru. 1987. Zenkai Nippon Kendo Kata Zohoban [A Complete Explanation of the All Japan Kendo Forms (Revised)]. Tokyo: Suki Jiyaanaru [Ski Journal].

Shirozawa. 1998. "Intabiyu: Nakakura Kiyoshi" (An Interview With Nakakura Kiyoshi). Hiden, (August) pp 66-67.

Shirozawa. 1998. "Intabiyu: Nakamura Taizaburo, Battodo no Oyakata ga Gataru"([An Interview With Nakamura Taizaburo, The 'Godfather' of Battodo Speaks). Hiden, (August) pp 68-69.

Warner, Gordon and Donn F. Draeger. 1982. Japanese Swordsmanship. New York: Weatherhill.

Yamamoto, Tsunetomo. 1979 [1716]. Hagakure (Translated by William Scott Wilson, M.A.). Tokyo: Kodansha.



Nakayama Hakudo (1869-1958) is considered one of the 20th century's greatest sword masters. He was the 16th headmaster and last undisputed inheritor of the Shimomura Faction of Eishin Ryu. In 1932 he developed Muso Shinden Ryu iaido, which many people today erroneously consider a "koryu." Nakayama sensei assisted in reforming Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido during the 1912-1926 period (Warner and Draeger, 1982:92), and was a member of three councils which oversaw the development and transition of the Dai Nippon Butokuaki Kenjutsu Kata to the Dai Nippon Imperial Kendo Kata-forerunners of today's All Japan Kendo Kata: in Meiji 44 he was listed as twelfth of 23 participants; in Taisho 6 he was tenth of 12 participants; and in Showa 8 he was second of 12 participants (Shigeoka, 1987:9-10) [During the first two councils Nakayama sensei is listed as a Kyoshi; during the last council, headed by Takano Sasaburo, he is listed as Hanshi.].

Nakakura Kiyoshi is a former disciple of Nakayama Hakudo. He is a senior advisor to the All Japan Kendo Federation, senior advisor to the All Japan Battodo Federation, and wrote the introduction for Nakamura Taizaburo sensei's book Katsujin-Ken Battodo [The Life-Giving Sword of Battodo]. Nakakura sensei was once the former son-in-law and one-time soke designee to Aikido founder Ueshiba Morihei. After the Second World War, Nakakura sensei participated in the councils which saw the reformation of the Greater Japan Imperial Kendo Kata into the All Japan Kendo Kata (Shigeoka, 1987:10).

Ishida Kazusoto. A former Chairman of the All Japan Kendo Federation. After visiting Nakamura sensei's dojo to observe battodo he professed, "It is desirable to let those who have a 5th dan in kendo and above possess a Japanese sword. They could then learn your spirit and technique and transmit it back to kendo" (Nakamura, 1980:206-207).`

Kunii Zenya (1894-1966). Soke of Kashima-Shin Ryu and former fencing instructor at the Toyama Military Academy.

Kaishaku. A beheading coup de grâce delivered by sword. When performed as part of ritualistic suicide (seppuku / harakiri), it was often performed by a close friend or relative.

Katsujin-ken. The "Life-giving Sword." In Japanese swordsmanship there are two philosophies of using the sword. Katsujin-ken is literally the "Life-giving Sword" and embodies all that is righteous: protecting the weak, destroying evil, and cultivating one's own spirit. Conversely, Satsujin-ken is the "Murdering Sword" which takes the lives of the weak, propagates evil, and eventually destroys one's humanity (Dann 1978, Nakamura 1973, Warner and Draeger 1982).

Some purists insist that Satsujin Ken be read as its alternative pronunciation of "satsu-nin toh."

Gensu knives are sold on late-night television infomercials. They are cheaply made and are claimed to cut through anything. ("The Gensu knife not only slices thinly through this ripe tomato, it even saws through this aluminum can...now how much would you pay? BUT WAIT! You also get this impressive array of dinner knives;" ad nauseum.)

Shugyo. Spiritual training consisting of severities along the way.