The following article has been reedited from previous sources by Toby Threadgill.
Tameshigiri is the practice of test cutting with a Nihon-to. It is frequently performed on rolled and water soaked tatami omote or recently harvested takenoko. It is an important endeavor for anyone undergoing proper kenjustu or batto training but extreme care must be taken in its execution.
There are always serious risks associated with tameshigiri. The most obvious are of a physical nature but others exist as well. For this reason tameshigiri should always be overseen by someone thoroughly familiar with its execution. In the Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin ryu this duty is reserved for okuden level instructors initiated in the proper reigi and technique of tameshigiri.
Tatami omote should be rolled tightly, secured with twine and immersed in water for at least 24 hours prior to cutting. Draining of a properly soaked tatami maki will usually be sufficient in two to four hours hours. Failure to properly soak a tatami maki can make the target much too tough for proper test cutting and result in sword failure and or potential injury. Properly prepared tatami maki simulates the texture and resistance of a human limb. By wrapping tatami omote around takenoko the resistance of both flesh and bone can be simulated. The stand for supporting a tatami maki should have a stable base and at least a four-inch square vertical post with a sharpened wooden peg protruding approximately six inches upward. The soaked tatami maki should be dropped firmly on the peg so as to be tightly resting on the four-inch square support post.
Before performing tameshigiri a sword should be properly evaluated for suitability. If using an older sword whose history is unknown, the sword should be inspected by an expert for metal fatigue or previous damage that could be disguised by clever repolishing. If evidence exists of previous bending or other damage, magnafluxing should be performed by a metallurgical expert to expose any stresses that could compromise the sword’s structural integrity. In the past, unscrupulous collectors have fraudulently welded a nakago inscribed with a prestigious signature onto a mumei or unsigned blade to increase its value. Such a weld is a weak point and can fail under even minimal stress. Beyond the fraudulent misrepresentation of selling such a sword it is extremely hazardous to use in tameshigiri as the weakness is located exactly where the tsuka joins the body of the sword. Never attempt to perform tameshigiri with a sword that has not been properly inspected and evaluated by a qualified expert before use.
A sword should also be inspected for proper sharpness prior to cutting. You can perform this test yourself by attempting to cleanly cut a strip of average notebook paper. If the sword cannot cleanly cut a strip of paper it must be sharpened before tameshigiri is attempted.
Mekugi should always be inspected for cracks and a proper fit before cutting. If the mekugi easily loosens or shows any signs of wear it must be replaced before performing tameshigiri. After every cut the mekugi should be reinspected for proper fit and integrity.
It is preferred that tameshigiri be performed out-of-doors in an open area in bright sunlight. If this is not possible, tameshigiri can be performed inside the dojo but strict attention to dojo reigi must be adhered to in an effort to keep the dojo purified. If any aspect of the training session is marked by an accident or incident of unusual spiritual activity the session must be stopped immediately and the complete Harai Gishiki performed.
Tameshigiri is the simulation of killing another human being. As such it has great potential for spiritual harm. Every tameshigiri session should begin with the recitation of the dojo kigan with all the swords present and incense burned at four corners outside of an area purified with salt. The area is further purified by waving a harai gushi liberally around the training area to ward off any malevolent influences that could interfere with the proper mental intent of the training. At this time anyone participating in tameshigiri must be reminded of its seriousness. Extreme care and precautions must be maintained to purify the mind and intent of the practitioner. Before each attempt at cutting the practitioner must bow to the target, clear his heart and focus strictly on the technique of cutting the target. After completing a cut, a moment of stillness or zanshin should be observed exactly as if performing kata. 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.
Actual cutting technique should be performed as kata with increased attention to form over power. A properly executed cut will be successful with minimum force required. Utilizing excessive power will frequently result in improper hasuji and a failed attempt. Excessive power with improper hasuji puts extreme stresses on a sword that can result in bending or even catastrophic failure. Power should never be utilized as a substitute for proper cutting technique.
At the conclusion of a tameshigiri session the training area should again be purified with salt, and a harai gushi. In the dojo, the swords should be placed on the mat in front of the kamidana and properly cleaned and then purified. If in the dojo, the salt should be properly removed from the training area and discarded.
Students must be reminded of the seriousness and risk associated with tameshigiri. Nihon-to harbor the influences of those who have previously owned and used them. They are spiritual magnets, drawing to them forces and influences from the world beyond our present consciousness. If old or ancient, swords can harbor unfathomable spiritual forces wielding incredible power. Occasionally, these forces and desires are so powerful as to influence the mind and intentions of the current owner. These forces can be put to rest by invoking the incantations and prayers contained in the gokui. These efforts are not permanent however. Tameshigiri frequently reawakens these spiritual forces especially if the intent and spirit of the practitioner is impure. For this reason, it is important that all swords used for tameshigiri be purified and rested between tameshigiri sessions.
Tameshigiri should be performed infrequently as its only purpose is to reinforce the proper execution of cutting technique. Over-emphasis on tameshigiri is rife with spiritual risk as it encourages the practitioner to view such training as a sort of game. Such a mindset distorts the solemn nature of the practice and must be avoided.
Likewise, tameshigiri must never be treated as a public spectacle because it ceases to be proper budo in such an environment. Such demonstrations encourage the awakening of malevolent forces in the presence of individuals unprotected by the benevolent kami invoked for our protection. It is possible that such malevolent forces could influence or possess innocent witnesses to such an event. Because of this, only formal members of the kai or those known to be under the protection of their own traditions kami are allowed to witness or participate in Shindo Yoshin Kai tameshigiri practice.
Temporal existence is only a fraction of the greater truth confronting mankind. Proper budo reigi is a nexus the mature budoka devotes himself to during his struggle between birth and death. As such it stresses the seriousness, responsibility and power of budo to future generations and therefore should never be marginalized. To deny budo reigi is to deny the responsibility of proper living and the reality of a transcendent spirit.
Yukio Takamura, 1978
It should be noted that this essay was written in 1978 by Takamura Sensei, long before the marketing of modern Japanese style swords constructed outside Japan was so common. What bearing this phenomenon would have had on his opinions concerning the more esoteric aspects of tameshigiri remains somewhat speculative. Before his passing in 2000 this topic did once arise. His comments seemed to hint that he would treat these “new” swords similarly to authentic Nihon-to as he admonished me to remember that the original owner of a sword will spiritually imprint it, setting that sword on a path difficult to alter once set.
Toby Threadgill / Kaicho
Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Kai