Few are aware of the true roots of Tameshigiri, often perceived as a mere performance. Yet, this technique conceals numerous mysteries that we will unveil here.
Let's dive together into the intricacies of this ancestral art of the Japanese sword. We will explore its somewhat macabre past, favored targets, fundamental and advanced methods, and provide you with references for mastering it perfectly.
From Human Flesh to Tatami Rolls
Initially, the targets of Tameshigiri were, as the title suggests, human corpses. In particular, executed criminals were dismembered as illustrated in the image above.
For the finest blades, several corpses were often assembled. According to a popular story, an ancient Katana once sliced through up to 7 aligned corpses. A thought quite sinister.
The corpses were rigorously examined before cutting to ensure they had no diseases. The belief was that any disease could taint the purity of the sword. Therefore, blades were never tested on low-caste individuals or priests, fearing it might alter the spirit of the sword.
After each cut, the blade and the target were meticulously inspected to check the quality of the edge and the cleanliness of the cut. To ensure the objectivity of the tests, only the best swordsmen were chosen to minimize variations among practitioners.
At the turn of the Meiji era, with the modernization of Japan, trials on criminals were forbidden. They were replaced by wara (moistened rice straw consolidated with bamboo), which proved to be a similar alternative in terms of density and texture.
Martial arts master Toshishiro Obata noted that rice straw was not always accessible. Thus, he turned to tatami Omote, commonly used today for Tameshigiri. The tatami is rolled to offer a resistance similar to that of human targets.
The Tatami Omote Test
Today, Tatami Omote is the preferred material for Tameshigiri in many dojos. Rolled around a bamboo core, it replicates the texture of a human limb or neck, which is frightening when you realize the ease with which some blades cut through it.
Preparing the tatamis is simple: just roll them, leaving a space for a wooden peg, tie them, and soak for 16 to 24 hours. They are then dried for about 20 minutes before use.
Methods of Tameshigiri
Today, Tameshigiri is a means to assess the skill of swordsmen and is commonly integrated into Japanese martial arts training. Tameshigiri not only assesses the speed, trajectory, and power of the practitioner, but according to Obata Soke, without it, it is impossible to appreciate the technical and mental skills of the swordsman. The importance of this art cannot be underestimated.
The act of Tameshigiri requires a well-crafted katana. While forging is essential, the polishing of the Katana is just as crucial to ensure the quality of the blade.