The tameshigiri (the correct spelling being “tameshi giri” literally “test cut”, sometimes also called “kiridameshi”) consist in testing the quality of a sword. This practice was very common during the Edo period (1600-1868). Tests were carried out mostly on katanas and wakizashis, often by samurais chosen by their daimyo. The blade being tested was either the samurai’s future sword, or the katanas destined the lord’s troops. These tests were often carried out on humans. Even though the tameshigiri could be carried out on war prisoners or even on passersby (a practice called tsugi Giri, literally “slicing at a crossroads”), the more common practice was to try the blade on criminals or prisoners sentenced to death, which had been beheaded beforehand (although it was not always the case). Yamano Kaemon, Yamano Kanjuro and Yamada Asaemon were very competent blade testers who had been hired by the government. The executioners were able to try their weapon on different cutting angles.
Terms used from the Edo period.
Often, on the tang of the blade (nakago) was inscribed, using a file, the number of bodies cut, or even the full date of the test, the name of the tester and the results of the test, in three respective columns. That was called tameshi-mei. “Futatsu do otosu” (has cut two torsos) meant that the tester had successfully cut two torsos placed on top of one another. Katana testers were usually able to cut down two to three bodies. The blade also sank a few centimeters (those were also measured) in the sand mount on top of which the bodies were placed.
Tameshi-mei by Yamano Naga
inlaid with gold, as it was often the case during the Edo period.
To carry out the test cut, dead bodies were placed on a 30 centimeters-high sand mount called dodan. The bodies were maintained in place with the help of four bamboos, called hasamitake. A special handle; the kirizuka, was used for these tests. Its length, that could be modified according to the weapon, added some weight that allowed the wielder to even test tantō blades. It was said that the most difficult cut to realize was from one shoulder to the other.
Sometimes the smith would attend the tests, wearing a ceremonial white kimono, so he could commit seppuku in case the blade failed the test. Of course, only the proudest and the most confident in their forging technique would risk it, so such an event seldom happened. These tests greatly influenced the final price of the swords. Even though the Edo period was a peaceful one, one would take pride in carrying a wazamono, a very sharp blade. In this way, the book Kaiho Kenjaku, written in 1815 by Yamada Asaemon Yoshitoshi, ranks the 180 blades which had been tried out by the author, hired by the Tokugawa family. Of course, this book only refers to a small numbers of the blades actually tested. It does not contain any reference to the kotō swords either (very ancient blades from the precedent historical period). The top ranking swords were called saijo o-wazamono, only fourteen smiths were able to forge such weapons. Here is one signed by smith Hishu ju Tadayoshi
Saijo o-wazamono by Hishu ju Tadayoshi
Then, come the o-wazamono (excellent quality), forged by twenty one smiths. ryo-wazamono (very good quality) were forged by fifty blacksmiths and wazamono (good quality) were forged by eighty blacksmiths. All these blades are still considered today as the greatest swords ever forged in Japanese history.
Today, test cuts are carried out on bales of rice straw (or occasionally on bales of reeds) to imitate the consistency of the skin and flesh. A bamboo stem can be added at the center, to represent the human neck or bone. The most common practice is a plain bale of rice straw, without any bamboo stem, for the bamboo can only be cut efficiently at a 45° angle. Today, it is not the quality of the blade that is put to the test anymore, but rather the moves and technique of the wielder. Because of this, those tests are sometimes called shito or shizan, rather than tameshigiri, for a better understanding. The cuts are realized in the eighth usual direction (happo giri), here is are some examples of what can be done during tameshigiri.
For a quick and efficient blow, one must have the arms and shoulders relaxed, as well as a stable position. It is also recommended to execute a twisting move with the hands (shibori), like when wringing a cloth, as the contraction of the muscles will give strength to the blow and stabilize the blade so it remains straight at the moment of impact. Same as giving inertia in boxing, it is important to know how to use the rotation move of the body and the hips. This technique is otherwise studied in iai (iaigoshi). The shifting of the body is also important, according to the techniques used. Pressure must also be applied right after the blow (kime).
One must not confuse tameshigiri with battōdō. The battōdō is, just like the iaidō, one of the teachings in the mastery of the japanese sword, which was taught in the koryu (ancient schools) It is a martial art composed of kata (movements), often practiced along the iaidō, the kendo, or the kenjutsu. It is also important to know that the tameshigiri is too often differentiated from other practices, whereas iaidō contains some tameshigiri moves and that some grand masters such as Nakatyama Hakudo have always insisted on the fact that the tameshigiri must be practiced only after attaining an excellent level in iaidō. In France, the term battōdō is widespread with an important difference in meaning, rightly, for one must not forget that initially and historically, the goal of tameshigiri was to try out the blade (until the 20th century at least), whereas the battōdō, as it was taught in schools, focused more on the practician and rather than on the blade.