Tameshigiri (試し斬り), the Art of Cutting

Saturday, I attended a demonstration of Tameshigiri, the Japanese Art of test cutting, at Bellevue Community College’s annual Aki Matsuri (Japanese festival). The demonstration was put on by Ishi Yama Ryu, a Seattle area martial arts school specializing in the art of cutting.

I didn’t have my camera, but I did pick up the end of one of the grass mats that they cut, around 3.5″ or so in diameter, and perhaps 3 feet long before being cut into pieces:

For this martial art, “live blades” are used, that is, the swords used are quite sharp. Traditional samurai katana swords, they are around 30 inches long and, in person, are far more deadly looking than any picture can convey. I can’t imagine keeping one in my house where anyone could grab it. The demonstration had my hair standing on end and palms sweaty. A Photograph cannot do one of these swords justice, but here’s the inadequate image that wikipedia has:

Ishi Yama Ryu is fortunate to have a world record holder Russell McCartney as their sensei or teacher, and a world record holder Aaron McCloud (video) as the leading student. The demonstration was awesome.

My favorite part of the demonstrations was the careful movements by the participants. The sword is always sheathed with the same smooth and elegant action; a technique I can appreciate given the possibility of cutting oneself while doing this. The Isis Yama Ryu website has a Collection of videos that illustrate this well.

Cutting, and, well, Getting Cut

The purpose of this sort of sword is to cut. A cut requires a sliding motion. One could stick a sword over one’s sholder to scratch one’s back, but one would be careful to use a back and forth motion rather than up and down (don’t do this at home). This observation is part of the art of cutting, one cannot hack away at the target and expect the sword to go through it. And for the first demonstration, Isis Yama Ryu allowed one of their non-world-record holding students to demonstrate “almost cutting” as a way of showing the difficulty involved.

I talked briefly with them after the demonstration. One of the things that I noticed was the obvious good relationship between Russell McCartney and his students. The presence of a live blade must center the attention of students well. In the human species, youth needs the exposure to danger, and age needs to keep them from getting hurt. Surely practicing with swords is safer than playing with gunpowder, and a lot of other things, and a good use of youthful exuberance.

I have great respect for those who practice the art of wielding these live military weapons. One thing I did not ask was whether or not anyone gets cut. I didn’t have to. A sword is for cutting and it is inevitable that it will cut. My experience in glass art undoubtedly applies. People will be cut by things that are very sharp, but generally minor cuts, (probably most often while polishing or sharpening). But the attraction of the art easily overcomes the fear. [edit] Russell McCartney tells me that none of his students have been injured while under his supervision, which is a pretty good reason for going to good classes and paying careful attention.[/edit]

One typically cuts glass by cracking and since the glass cracks are incredibly sharp and somewhat unpredictable, the practioners of that art consider blood on the floor an inevitable and natural consequence of the practice. They avoid light colored carpets, or at least avoid looking carefully at them. When I was at Pilchuck Glass School one of the students told me that a common problem with glass artists who decide on psychological counseling is convincing the authorities that they are not a suicide risk (despite the scars on their hands and arms).

Law and History

Law on knives in the US differs from state to state and city to city, but generally allows the ownership of swords; there are plenty of katana for sale on eBay. On the other hand, pocket knives with blades longer than various lengths are illegal to carry in some localities as they are considered concealed weapons, and there is a federal law about switch blade knives. Since there is no way to conceal a full length sword, they are typically legal, but carrying them around in public is likely to get you the attention of the police.

Japan has a very long experience with the katana as a weapon of war. Exposed to guns in 1543, gunpowder won most of their wars, but during the 200 year period of seclusion guns were rarely used. This modern period with ancient weapons resulted in the pushing of an obsolete technology to its modern limit, the samurai sword or katana.

The period of seclusion in Japan ended around 1854 with the Convention of Kanagawa which was forced on Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States. He arrived with a formidable modern fleet of cannon armed sailing ships. So Japan began copying foreign military practice. And this led to the production of swords similar to those used by other nations, but by WW2, Japan had returned to a more traditional style.

It’s a little difficult for us to imagine, in this peaceful day and time, but it was once considered normal for military officers to carry swords around even during peacetime. Dueling was a common cause of death, involving notables like the US Vice President and the former Secretary of the Treasury. I read somewhere that the US Navy suffered more deaths due to duels, than enemy action, during the first 50 years of its existence. Commodore Stephen Decatur, the hero so many small US towns are named for, was killed in a duel by Commodore James Barron, more or less ending the careers of both. The weapon of choice for the duels of the Samurai was the sword and they were undoubtedly none the less deadly for the lack of gunpowder. See my book review of The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi for details on the book by the most famous Japanese sword-slinger.


The attribute of an obsolete wepaon being far more deadly in person than in pictures reminds me of my visit to the 200 year-old wooden warship USS Constitution. In pictures it looks a little quaint, an ungainly collection of wood and rope, but in person it is a 220 foot tall creature of war, with clean lines designed to out fight anything that it cannot easily outrun. It was still active at the time of Commodore Perry’s trip to Japan but at that time it was hunting slavers off of West Africa.

In case you’re wondering, unlike swords, private ownership of warships is no longer allowed in the US, of any length, even obsolete ones, though private warships like the Prince de Neufchatel were a great impact during our early wars, (possibly the greatest contribution to the nation’s survival in the War of 1812) a fact that the US Merchant Marine remembers on their website.

P.S. I should add, that as a youth, I lived a few doors down from another family inclined to do odd things in their garage. If my memory of 30 or 40 years runs true, Henry McHarney (SCA alias Heinrich der Jager) and more especially John McHarney (aka Johan Blau)made swords there, including beautiful Damascus steel works of art. An internet search reveals that he is more famous for his armor. If I recall, a neighbor complained about the air pollution caused by the high sulfur coal he used in his forge in Albuquerque. In addition to his neighbor, I would guess that the stop sign with 2″ deep nicks in its edge that once stood at the corner of Morningside and Hannett was also glad to see him leave for the mountains of northern New Mexico.

4 Comments

Filed under History

4 responses to “Tameshigiri (試し斬り), the Art of Cutting

  1. Oh, so THAT’S what the McHarneys were doing.

    Great post!

  2. carlbrannen

    They had a lot of stuff going on. Another thing I recall was when Henry brought me 300 master combination locks to pick. It seems that the highschool football team collected them after practice by roaming through the school to see if any lockers were left unlocked. By the time I was done opening all of them I was down to 30 seconds average.

    You can get a lot more done in life if you don’t mow your front lawn.

  3. My brother.

    You are awesome.

    Will you in in ABQ Thanksgiving? Miss you.

  4. carlbrannen

    The plan is to be in ABQ, God willing.

    For picking locks, one uses both hands. The right hand spins the dial back and forth, while the index finger of the left hand jerks on the shackle. Suddenly the lock flies open.

    The technique appears to be random, but it is the result of a mathematical analysis of the mechanism. By the time you’ve opened 300 locks the hand motion and the tables have become muscle memory. The lock opens and you write down the combination. I will follow Feynman and not explain in detail how it’s done, for the same reasons, I suppose.

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