Common Misunderstandings about Tameshigiri (test cutting) in HEMA


The Japanese sport of test cutting with a sword, also known as Tameshigiri, has become popular among certain Historical European martial artists. This is primarily due to the influence of New York Historical Fencing Association founder Michael Edelson and the publication of his book Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application. In this book Edelson describes how to adapt contemporary Japanese sword practices for use with European swords. Edelson is familiar with these practices as he possesses extensive background in the US Battodo Federation, which uses a curriculum developed by Zen Nihon Toyamaryu Iaido Renmei, which is a contemporary branch of Toyama-ryū centered around test cutting.

However as his book is based on Edelson’s experiences with a very modern and heavily sportified interpretation of tameshigiri, this has led to the spread of several misconceptions about this practice within the HEMA community, as well as mistaken ideas about its relevance for long sword traditions of historical Europe. Additionally Edelson’s influence has led to many HEMA tournaments incorporating test cutting as a competitive event, even though this has no historical basis in European — or even Japanese — ancient swordsmanship styles.

As mentioned in our review of his book, there is no doubt that Edelson’s book is a very good instructional on how to cut tatami mats with a medieval sword, which is a very popular practice within the HEMA community. There is little else that can be done with sharp swords in this day and age, so it is only natural that people desire to become skilled at the one thing they can do recreationally with a sword in the current era. Yet the book’s value for exploring historical usage of long swords is, in our opinion, much less than many have assumed. To draw the types of conclusions many in the HEMA community make from test cutting tatami mats often do would be like someone drawing conclusions about modern battlefield warfare based on the sport of competitive firearm shooting (for those unaware, different shooting styles exist within competitive firearm shooting compared to the tactical shooting practiced by soldiers who use firearms for war, to the point that different types of grips are used in competitive shooting that simply do not work as well in real battle conditions even though they give an edge when shooting targets competitively).

While we greatly respect Edelson’s contributions to HEMA and his skill, his opinions on how important and relevant adopting contemporary Japanese sport test cutting is for reconstruction of historical based systems of sword combat are not supported by the surviving documentation of sword fighting in both Europe and Japan. His book has promoted several ideas that lead people to greatly misunderstand the difference between contemporary sport Tameshigiri practiced post Meiji Restoration and the pre-Meiji Restoration historical Tameshigiri practices, as well as their differing intended functions within the martial traditions of Japan. Our article aims to clear up these confusions by explaining the very different roles and purposes for which these two similarly named yet different practices developed.

(For those too impatient to read this entire article, the short summary is that contemporary cutting of tatami mats was never intended to simulate human bodies nor to replace historical tameshigiri, so drawing conclusions about what is required to cut human bodies with a sword based on the modern, ahistorical tameshigiri practice is based on flawed reasoning. Simply put, post-19th century tameshigiri is not the same practice as pre-19th century tameshigiri, and yet many people are unaware of this when practicing tameshigiri today. )

A sword is a symbol that is deeply admired, but entirely unpractical as a modern weapon. Nearly every first world country has banned the carrying of them, and those countries where bladed melee weapons are still commonly used as weapons aren’t likely to be a place you’ll ever visit if you are reading this article right now. The practice of Historical European swordsmanship is therefore entirely a hobby, practiced for recreational reasons and consequently is a sport.

But swords are cool, and so we have them. And for want of something to do with our sharp bladed swords many people engage in test cutting. We get it and we understand. But as HEMA becomes more sportified there is caution that should be taken to ensure popular practices stay aligned with the goal of reconstructing the lost historical arts as closely as they can be done safely. So we should be careful that we do not make mistakes that encourage ahistorical practices and lead us to incorrect beliefs about the swordsmanship we seek to reconstruct.

Test cutting in HEMA is based on contemporary Japanese Tameshigiri, which has entirely replaced the historical definition of the term ‘tameshigiri’ that was used for centuries before. This has led many HEMA practitioners with little understanding of the precise history behind Japanese sword arts to form misconceptions about the contemporary practice of test cutting and draw the wrong conclusions from it into their Historical European sword practices.

To be clear, there are many skilled swordsmen in contemporary Japanese sword arts and Edelson is certainly among them. However being skilled does not necessarily translate into knowledge about the history behind the sword arts. The vast majority of students of Asian martial arts generally do not know the real history behind their martial art traditions, often believing they are older than they actually are. Yet the transitions and alterations of these traditions is well documented. While it may not always be the fault of the students for believing incorrect misconceptions as they are repeating what they were taught, nevertheless a very contemporary practice has been frog DNAed into HEMA without fully understanding why or how this practice started, and conclusions drawn from it which are in our opinion injecting ahistorical behavior into some Historical European fencers training methods.

There’s nothing wrong with test cutting in and of itself. There is nothing to do with a sharp sword today except to hang it on a wall or cut things with it, so we’re not suggesting no one should ever practice cutting with a sword. The problem arises when people form conclusions about historical European swordsmanship based on their experiences with a contemporary Japanese sport that was invented in the 19th – 20th century and has been frog DNAed into HEMA as another sporting event, as if there was anything particular useful to test or measure from cutting tatami mats in a competitive environment in terms of assessing how historical your swordsmanship is.

Given that tatami mat cutting outside of Japan is fairly expensive because the resource used to make the mats isn’t grown anywhere else in the world (so they have to be imported to every other country, increasing the expense to do tatami cutting outside of Japan), it’s worth questioning whether this practice is particularly relevant for so many people outside of Japan to be so heavily focused on, especially when they are not practicing contemporary Japanese sword sports and are supposed to be practicing HEMA.

Fortunately for us there is exceptional research published into the English language about historical Tameshigiri practices. One of these sources is the book Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Testing by Markus Sesko (2014). Anyone can purchase this book and read it for themselves to verify the information and its documentation which we are citing in this article.

The contemporary martial art practices of Japan (Gendai budō, or ‘modern martial way’) that people are familiar with today (Karate, Kendo, Judo, Iado, etc.) are martial art practices that sportified older more historical fighting traditions, with this sportification beginning during the Meiji period and finalizing post World War II during the demilitarization of Japan. You can read about this subject in greater detail in our article, Western Vs. Eastern Martial Arts. During this process older terms often got repurposed for watered down forms to remove military value from them in compliance with the demilitarization efforts and treaty Japan entered into with the USA. The contemporary sporting practice of tameshigiri is an example of this; modern sport tameshigiri is expressly NOT intended to teach how to cut a real person in a real fight.

In fact, tameshigiri for competition is something that became popularized post World War II, much like ritualized sword drawing from seated positions used in many forms of Iado today is a post World War II practice based on earlier drawing techniques. This fact is noted even on the International Shinkendo Federation website article about the history of Toyama-Ryū.

Let’s begin tackling the common misconceptions some people in HEMA community have about tameshigiri practices.

Misconception #1: You Must Be Highly Skilled with a Sword to Kill Someone with One

This is not specifically something Edelson claims, but it is something many within HEMA do claim, often while referencing parts of Edelson’s book, and then claim you must practice test cutting to learn to be highly skilled with a sword for combat purposes.

In truth you do NOT need to be highly skilled with a sword to seriously maim or kill someone with one.

For proof, here is a drunk man who cleaves the nose off his friend with a cheap wallhanger sword, using poor body mechanics and not a great deal of force.

Anyone wishing to see a photo of the gruesome damage this sword cut did to the man can view that photo by clicking here. Due to its graphic nature it is not being directly embedded into this article.

We stress again; you do NOT need to be highly skilled to seriously harm or kill another person with a sword. This is because humans are very easy to cut with swords. Even the worst edge aligned cuts with a sword of decent sharpness are going to cut people deeply enough to be lethal. This is because unlike a tatami mat, a human being is made of significantly softer material and so when the edge of a sword connects to your skin, the edge will dig into the skin easier. This is also why you can simply hold a sword against someone’s skin and pull back as a pull-cut, and this pull-cut can slice the person very deeply, yet this same pull-cut will not be effective against a tatami mat which has a much harder density than human flesh.

Pull-cuts, also sometimes called a retreating cut, are an aspect of historical longsword fencing. They are described in the German schools, such as Lew’s passages describing a pull cut to the left arm of the opponent. They are also shown in several of Fiore’s plays as well. These kinds of blows do little damage to tatami mats, but can be lethal to a human being. This is one of the main points of criticism we have about using tatami mats as the sole means by which to assess the effectiveness of a sword strike against a human target; some strikes which will be very effective against a human simply will not get the results that sport tameshigiri defines a “good cut” as. This is because the definition of a “good cut” in sport tameshigiri has nothing to do with cutting against humans.

One of our chief criticisms of Edelson’s advice in his book is that he recommends abandoning what he calls ‘touch sparring’ cuts on the belief they will not work, with his belief they are ineffective based entirely on whether such cuts will produce his desired results against tatami mats. This is problematic because, as we just showed above, a cut does not need to make a lot of contact or have a lot of force to seriously maim a human being. The cut performed by the drunk man we have shown in the video above would not cut a tatami mat very well, but it is sufficient to maim or kill a human being.

There are some parts of Edelson’s book where he attempts to find historical sources to justify his beliefs and uses this information out of context. For example, at one point of his book Edelson recites a a quote from Bonifatio Vannozzi that says an attack from an inexperienced fighter will not cut, and Edelson believes Vannozzi is a credible source simply because he lived during the early 17th century. Yet there is no evidence to suggest Vannozzi was an experienced swordsman himself, had engaged in any kind of warfare or actually observed any blows from inexperienced swordsmen doing no damage to an opponent. Edelson claims Vannozzi to be a reliable source simply because Vannozzi lived hundreds of years ago when swords were common weapons, but you can find many people today who say things that are factually incorrect about firearms even though they are popularly used today. Merely having lived during a certain part of history does not in and of itself make someone a credible source for information, especially when the information contradicts what can readily be observed and tested in the present day — such as the above video where an unskilled drunk man gravely injured his friend with relative ease. So in strong disagreement with Edelson, we believe Vannozzi statements are not sufficient reasoning to dismiss what we can observe in the video above, where an unskilled drunk man very easily and with little power maimed his friend. We can confidently say that if that same blow had went to the man’s throat his friend would be dead, and that this same blow would have done identical damage to any other human.

Just because someone a few hundred years ago once claimed something does not mean it is true; what matters more is what can be demonstrated to be true today. Historical accounts can be mistaken.

You do not need skill with a sword to kill someone with a sword. Rather you need skill with a sword to kill someone with a sword without getting killed yourself in the effort. The vast majority of fencing is defensive, learning how to strike others without yourself becoming struck in return.

So, to re-iterate: In the example we have shown with the drunk man, despite that his blow would never cut through a roll of tatami mat it is still sufficient to kill a man. This is why Edelson’s ideas do not hold up to scrutiny. Swords, much like firearms, are weapons designed to make it easy for someone to kill another. That is what weapons are. A sword is one of the most lethal weapons ever created. A well balanced and sharpened sword can in one strike kill a person, wounding them in such a way that nothing will save the person. This is because they are expressly designed to deeply penetrate organs with a thrust, or to sever major arteries in the neck — which cannot be repaired by any means once so severed. Swords are dangerous even in untrained hands, and Edelson’s ideas about ‘shallow cuts’ are demonstrably proven wrong by all of the medical knowledge we know about the human body. People die from sharp weapons not by amputation but by exsanguination — the draining of blood. If you cut a major artery such as that in the neck, a person will bleed out and die in just a few minutes.

There are some people who erroneously believe that nicks to arteries won’t be effective because it can take a long time for a person to lose blood to impair their performance, so they imagine that someone who has a nicked artery can continue fighting. While it is true that nicking the carotid artery or the jugular vein it can take several minutes for a person to die from blood loss this way, what is often overlooked by those with no medical experience with such injuries is that a person will enter the state of shock in about 10 seconds of having an artery nicked, effectively becoming immobile. This is because blood to and from the brain becomes interrupted, which is what causes a person to both pass out and die rapidly. It is therefore impossible to continue fighting when you have even minor damage to arteries; your body simply cannot do it. The human body is a machine and when that machine breaks you cannot ignore the damage to keep fighting any more than your car engine can keep running when its fuel line has a leak in it, preventing fuel from getting to the motor.

The above photograph is an example of inaccurate human anatomy in Edelson’s book. On this page Edelson demonstrates a cut that he labels as “shallow” because he does not believe it will have sufficient force to cut given the part of the blade that connects to the target will not best transfer force as much as the ‘deep cut’ will. Yet in reality, any injury to the trapezius muscle of the neck, even a mild one, will prevent lifting of the arm above shoulder length, even if not holding an object in the hand. So the ability to do something like wield a sword with that arm will be rendered useless if this muscle is injured in any way, such as from the blow Edelson labels as ‘shallow’. It may be shallow by Edelson’s standards of sport tameshigiri perhaps, but his standard is higher than what is required to be an effective attack. The trapezius muscle does not even need to be very severed to render the arm useless; it only needs to be injured in a way that results in bleeding. The human body’s natural reaction to hemorrhaging will limit the opponent’s mobility of the rest of the arm.

There are parts of the body that if damaged will severely impact larger parts. Anyone who has stubbed their toe against something and found they can barely walk for several minutes knows this is true. The idea you can somehow shake off a powerful cut to your shoulder from a sword because the person used the weak of the blade to deliver the cut, is simply not realistic. What Edelson suggests can actually result in HEMA practitioners fighting at closer ranges than are necessary and this can make the intended defensiveness of the historical plays less effective, as the closer distance to deliver a cut places a fighter into ranges where they can be more easily countered from.

Something additional to consider with Edelson’s example is that there is the brachial artery that runs from the arm to the shoulders to the neck. It is so close to the surface of your skin that you can actually touch and feel it with your fingers. A cut to this artery will not kill you as fast as cutting an artery to the neck can, but it will quickly render the injured arm immobile even if cut on the lower arm, while also putting you into shock. Someone who has had a brachial artery cut will not be able to fight back with any degree of proficiency, as they will go into shock rather quickly. Going into shock means you would be unable to provide any resistance to further strikes with a sword that may aim for the head or neck as a follow up to ensure fatal wounds.

So it is important to understand the context of things in realistic settings. Even an untrained person striking another person with a sword has a good chance of killing them. Swords are lethal weapons in anybody’s hands.

Misconception #2: Modern Sport Tameshigiri Was Developed to Teach How to Cut With a Sword for Warfare

This is completely inaccurate. The modern sport of tameshigiri has no direct relationship to practices of cutting humans and it does not use the full range of cutting techniques practiced even by Japanese swordsmen for combat. For example, with a sword you can do what are called “pull cuts” against a person wearing clothing or even light armor, such as made from wool or cotton, or hemp (which the Japanese called asa, and was the most commonly used fiber for clothing pre-18th century). As mentioned previously in this article, these type of pull cuts with a sword won’t work against tatami, which is why tatami is a bad target for measuring the combat effectiveness of a cut. And this is the chief reason why importing contemporary Tameshigiri into HEMA and then developing competitive tournaments for it leads to historically inaccurate swordsmanship practices, often with fighters over-committing their strikes under the faulty belief they must over-commit to cut a “real person” during “real combat”.

People in the US martial arts community are often confused about what tatami mats are intended to replicate, with a popular myth being that they are intended to replicate “flesh” or “a person in armor”. Even on page 124 of his book, Edelson makes the erroneous claim that the modern practice of cutting tatami mats was developed by swordsmen who had actual experience cutting real people using ancient tameshigiri methods. Yet this belief is completely incorrect; by the time test cutting against rolled up tatami mats had started development into its current sport system, test cuts against even dead human bodies had been banned in Japan for almost a century. The only people who had a lot of experience cutting people with swords at this time were government sanctioned executioners, which was a very small number of people from hereditary lines of executioners — which after the Meiji Restoration no longer had those roles. The system of graded tameshigiri cutting ended by the 19th century leaving a gap of about a century until modern sport tameshigiri developed.

Tatami mats as a sword cutting target originates from an entirely different test cutting practice than test cutting against a person; that of testing a sword against a bundle of bamboo sticks to see how well its edge is retained or if the blade will break This practice which contemporary tameshigiri originates from was called katamono-tameshi, which is a cut delivered against target called a makiwara, which as mentioned previously was a bundle of sticks and straw tied together. The precise reason for the name change of the practice from “katamono-tameshi” to “tameshigiri” is not well documented, but could possibly be the result of several things, such as the ban on human test cutting and the emergent popularity of Okinawan based martial arts during this same transitional time period, which has a similar practice of making unarmed strikes against a post that is also called a makiwara. What can be certain is that, just as with any language, the meaning of words and phrases can dilute and change over time, and this is what happened to ‘tameshigiri’ in modern Japanese usage.

On top of this, the transition to using tatami mats as a makiwara began in the 20th century, shortly before World War I; long after a sword had ceased to be a battlefield useful weapon. No one who participated in the development of tatami mats as a cutting target for competitive grading had much (if any) experience with using a sword to fight another person in a life or death battle, and if they did have experience cutting a person it would have been limited to executions of prisoners of war during World War II.

The information about the origins of modern Japanese martial arts is well documented yet still frequently misunderstood by contemporary martial artists of Japanese sword arts, who are often led to believe what they are learning today in Japanese martial arts is much older than it actually is. The truth is that even among the so-called Koryū (“traditional”) sword styles it is very rare for anyone to actually practice in a way that was common before the Meiji period, with nearly every one of these Koryū schools using modern forged katana which are also characteristically different than historically produced ones (we’ll talk about these differences later) in order for modern katana to be easier to cut tatami with.

The fact is that modern sport Japanese swordsmen are not engaging in a historically accurate fighting tradition when they study these arts, and are instead practicing a heavily ritualized and sportified modern system of swordsmanship. While these modern systems certainly have some relevance to historical sword fighting, the fact remains they are not historical practices of swordsmanship. Contemporary test cutting of tatami mats is not something practiced by the historical warriors of Japan — those who depended on swords as a battlefield weapon. This is important to understand before you introduce modern Japanese martial arts practice into ‘historical’ study of a sword from a completely different culture; yet this is frequently not discussed within HEMA as much as it should be.

So as with many things about demilitarized post-WWII Japanese martial arts, the label of “tameshigiri” applied by contemporary Japanese sword arts is used very differently than the historical label of ‘tameshigiri’ was. Historical tameshigiri were indeed cuts delivered against real human targets but the changed definition of the phrase ‘tameshigiri’ in contemporary usage has led to confusion among people who do not understand the transition between historical tameshigiri and contemporary tameshigiri.

Now having cleared up the first main misconceptions about tameshigiri in HEMA, let’s talk more about the historical aspects of tameshigiri.

This article will explain these differences in great detail based on surviving historical documentation about the practice of tameshigiri and in so doing clear up misconceptions people have about assessing the value of tameshigiri in HEMA.

(To be clear we’re not saying don’t ever engage in test cutting practices in HEMA; we’re saying you should actually understand what the origins of the practice is and what it is actually supposed to do, so you do not draw erroneous conclusions based on your test cutting practices.)

Misconception #3: Tameshigiri on Tatami Mats is an Ancient Practice

Tatami mat cutting is a relatively recent practice in Japanese swordsmanship and there is almost nothing about it that is historical in nature.

Tameshigiri has been sportified in Japan the same way that historical kenjetsu has been sportified in contemporary times as Kendo, but contemporary Tameshigiri can be considered more sportified as it produces results entirely different than what its historical counterpart would have. Furthermore sport tameshigirii was intentionally designed to NOT teach practical swordsmanship in order to comply with the post-World War II de-militarization cultural reforms. We discuss this topic of the reforms more detail in our article comparing Kendo to HEMA.

Up to the mid 1600s the practice of tameshigiri was unregulated but this changed during the Edo period (pg. 75 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko). Laws were enacted by the Shogunate that restricted the practice of tameshigiri, such as banning the collection of bodies from streets to use for test cutting or to perform test cuts on bodies except at specific testing facilities at execution sites (pg. 76 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko) and only families employed by the government for these executions were permitted to engage in tameshigiri.

For many centuries the only target used in historical tameshigiri was human bodies; preferably live but sometimes dead; sometimes wearing armour but often without. The goal was to deliver a cut in the most realistic as possible cutting conditions on the target the sword would need to be used on in a battle. This was, after all, a weapon (in theory) the bushi who purchased it would have to depend their life upon. Realistically however the Edo period was largely two centuries of peace, and the value of swords became tied strongly to their grading in these tests that only a small number of samurai were legally allowed to perform. Swords during this period of Japanese history became less of a battlefield weapon and more importance placed onto their monetary value as luxury items.

Now there did historically exist the practice of katamono-tameshi as mentioned earlier, and from which contemporary tameshigiri actually derives from. This is the practice of cutting hard and solid objects, primarily armor but toward the end of the Edo period the test was predominantly done to determine the durability of the blade and not necessarily for “realistic conditions”. Cuts would be delivered against steel plates, parts from armor or a full helmet . Cuts were expected to defeat these items and a sword able to split a helmet was considered high prized. The helmet tests were specifically called kabuto-wari and accounts of these tests date back to the Nanbokucho period. (pg.202 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko).

Katamono-tameshi also applied to a substitute for tameshigiri practices; when humans were not available for test cutting, bamboo sticks would be wrapped in straw, with the wood representing bone and the straw representing flesh. This test target was called a makiwara (rolled straw). It would be, similar to modern day tatami mats, soaked in water over a night or two, and the target was considered suitable for testing an ichi no do cut (first torso cut), which is a cut delivered just below the ribcage (pg.196 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko) but it was not suitable for any other kinds of cuts. This is crucial to know, because it is this practice that tatami mat cutting originates from.

These cuts on makiwara were regarded as a target not suitable for anything but a first torso cut; a low level difficulty cut to make. Basically, it was considered only good for testing a cut to the space between the stomach and the rib cage. This is not a very difficult cut to perform compared to the other kinds of cuts in the historical tameshigiri grading system.

However these makiwara did not resemble modern rolled tatami mats whatsoever. They looked more like a bundle of sticks, because that is what they were. They were also mostly used by smiths to test their work before passing it off to a bushi for a real tameshigiri, for actual grading. So this kind of target was never used to authentically grade a sword. Additionally a makiwara was often placed on top of what was called a keiko-dotan, which was two hollow pine boxes filled with sand, dirt and water with openings sealed with clay. This resembles nothing like a tatami mat as used today in sport tameshigiri (pg. 245 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko). However by the 20th century the practice of using a keiko-dotan had been dropped, with now the makiwara becoming the main test cutting object.

Famous 20th century swordsman Nakayama Hakudo and swordsmith Kojima Kanemichi standing before a makiwari for test cutting.

Cutting makiwara and various other objects as kabuto-wari test cutting became more prominent during the Meiji period, as Emperor Meiji was delighted by the spectacular of it all. It is noted that in 1887 a performance was created for him featuring three of the best swordsmen of the era; Henmi Sosuke, Ueda Umanosuke Yoshitada, and Sakakibara Kenkichi, to cut a 12-plate Myochin helmet. Kenkichi is recorded as having cut 10.5 cm into the helmet with his blade (pg.205 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko).

Furthermore, as the Meiji era came to a close, wild and ambitious destruction tests on swords became a popular event for entertainment, with swords beaten against all manner of objects including anvils to see how much damage they could take before becoming destroyed (pg. 218 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko).

The form of competitive tatami mat cutting practiced today is something that is a consequence of post World War II reforms imposed on Japanese martial art practices as part of the treaty to demilitarize the Japanese people. It is not historical tameshigiri but rather it is a descendant of these endurance tests made popular during the Meiji era. The way that cuts are judged and scored in contemporary tameshigiri is entirely a modern system developed post World War II and has no historical basis.

Misconception #4: Tameshigiri Was a Common Practice All Samurai Engaged in.

In reality the vast majority of samurai never did tameshigiri. This is because the formalized system of tameshigiri developed originally as part of the criminal system of the Edo period of rule, as a means of executing criminals systematically.

During the Edo period tameshigiri was only practiced by select lineages of bushi chosen by the government and granted hereditary roles as these executioners, who trained specifically for the role. Training would begin in their teens and they would cut several bodies a day. Masters such as Ka’emon Nagahisa (1598-1667) are recorded as having killed over 6,000 people throughout the span of his life while engaging in tameshigiri, although that number may actually be more closer to 10,000. if his statements of killing up to 27 people per day every day throughout his life since age sixteen are to be believed (pg. 50. Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko).

The samurai families which engaged in tameshigiri possessed secret manuals describing techniques of test cutting, including instructions for how to train for the role. This was not material widely available to all bushi, only taught to a select number of heirs and students. As it was illegal for anyone except the hereditary executioners to conduct these executions, there was no reason for all samurai to learn how to participate in tameshigiri.

Misconception #5: Tatami Mats Simulate a Human Body.

As stated before this is a misconception, and the contemporary practice of cutting reeds derives from a katamono-tameshi test a smith would do with a newly forged sword to check their work before it went for a tameshigiri grading.

If the swordsmiths and swordsmen of ancient Japan believed they could test and grade their swords without having to kill a person and instead could just perform the grading with reed mats and sticks the system of testing on prisoners probably wouldn’t have been created.

Tameshigiri was done on humans because the goal was to test swords against their intended targets — people. This also meant sometimes swords were tested against people wearing armor, too. They had grading systems to account for these types of tests.

As for animals used for test cutting, some accounts do exist of pigs being used to deliver test cuts, but this is primarily in the very late Edo period and post Meiji Restoration era. Pigs were never used to grade a sword however. The surviving records overwhelmingly indicates that for two centuries in Japan human prisoners were the favored target for tameshigiri grading. It was a truly brutal practice and to suggest you can gain the similar results from rolled tatami mats is something ancient samurai disagreed with.

Misconception #6: Tameshigiri Cuts Were Intended to Cut Through a Target like Modern Tatami is Cut

Cutting completely through a person was often not possible to do, and sometimes not even desired when performing historical tameshigiri. As an example, for decapitations the bushi’s goal was to leave a strap of skin attached at the base of the neck so that the head would not completely go flying and spurt blood everywhere; instead the goal was to severe the head in a controlled way so that it fell against the chest and the body dumped its blood into a basket as it toppled over.

Something which has led to confusion on this topic is that swords were often marked on their tangs as cutting “completely” through a body but this was not what transpired in actuality. We know this because of surviving records from how these cuts were performed. A cut to the belly stopped before reaching the spine, a difficult target to cut through after already severing through the organs of the stomach. A cut to the chest had to cut through the ribcage, one of the most well defended parts of the human body, and did not need to slice all the way through the body, either.

So let’s consider this with modern day beliefs about test cutting and how people often claim that you needed to “cut through” a target in historical sword fighting scenarios. The historical evidence suggests this was not the case when it came to Japanese test cutting against humans. Cuts delivered at a downward diagonal angle would result in damage to the blade — regardless of how well forged it was — if delivered to the most difficult parts of the body due to the twisting of the blade as it maneuvered past organs and bones that applied pressure on it. This is an aspect of cutting a person that a tatami mat cannot replicate.

Furthermore the vast majority of historical tameshigiri cuts were not diagonal downward cuts as done in contemporary Tameshigiri, but instead delivered from a high guard and intended to chop a body with a downward vertical strike, not a horizontal downward strike. This is likely because firstly, a downward diagonal cut from over the shoulder is one of the easiest type of strikes to defend against and so would not be something one normally associated with successfully cutting an opponent in actual combat conditions, and secondly because the kind of targets that historical tameshigiri cutting were expected to penetrate (lacquered wooden armor and iron plates) required maximum force generation which is best obtained from an overhead downward cut.

Downward vertical strikes were the predominant cuts used to perform historical tameshigiri.

There are generally two ways the prisoner was prepared to be cut; either with the prisoner tied belly up on top of a dirt mound or standing while two men held the prisoner’s arms from both sides. There are some other positions the prisoner’s body was sometimes positioned into but they were atypical.

We know what kinds of cuts were done and how the prisoner was prepared because there existed an elaborate system of classification and the swords themselves were stamped on their tangs with what kind of cuts had been done and what the results were, along with which bushi had performed the cut. This practice is exceptionally well recorded and tied into the monetary value of swords as a luxury good.

This information is one of the chief reasons contemporary tameshigiri is not anything like historical tameshigiri that was used for measuring a sword’s performance under realistic combat conditions. A tatami mat in no way replicates anything we just described.

Misconception #7: Tameshigiri Cuts Tested the Skill of the Swordsman.

Tameshigiri cuts for grading a sword were specifically to test the durability of the blades against live human targets, not the skill of the swordsman which seems to have been less of a requirement. During the Edo period a bushi who was permitted to be a test cutter would spend his life testing swords from the time he was a teenager. His first day of training involved delivering these cuts to human prisoners. That is, he would develop his test cutting skill by performing Tameshigiri tests on prisoners to gain the skill necessary to test better forged swords against more difficult to cut areas of the body. So even a swordsman of limited strength and training was able to perform the easiest to perform cuts per the grading system used by the ancient Japanese. The easiest of cuts were not considered to be special nor hard to deliver, something even a novice swordsman could do.

Now having said this, there were other events that did test the skill of the swordsman and for these events, when the skill of the swordsman was to be tested, several dead bodies would be stacked together with the objective of the swordsman to make one or several cuts against both targets at once (pg. 200 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko). This is comparable to contemporary test cutting, where this kind of setup against multiple targets that must be cut through together as a single unit is more common in Japanese sword arts, but rarer to see in HEMA competitions where competitors are often stumped by just trying to cut one tatami mat.

Misconception #8: Katana and European Long Swords are Comparable so Tests Designed for One Will Work Well for the Other

It should be plainly evident that blade characteristics between European long swords and katana are different. But this can even be said for katana forged today versus in the past, when the samurai existed as a social class. People who believe European blades are identical to historical Japanese blades are really comparing apples to oranges.

Firstly, modern day reproduction katana produced for contemporary tameshigiri are constructed slightly differently than historical katana meant for historical test cutting. The main point of difference is the amount of niku (meat) the blade has, which is a raised section of the cross section on the side surface. Traditionally this bulged out more prominently than contemporary katana reproductions do, especially in regards to those forged for contemporary tameshigiri sport usage. The size of the niku is proportionate to how durable it is, which means katana which can be used for kabuto-wari need to have a more prominent bulge or they won’t survive the practice (pg.210 of Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Test by Markus Sesko).

This feature of historical Japanese katanas is somewhat comparable to certain European long sword types that possess a fuller that allows for a heavier bulge before the edge. However these are not the kind of long swords most HEMA practitioners engaged in competitive cutting utilize, as instead they practice in imitation of the diluted contemporary version of tameshigiri against tatami mats using a method described by Edelson adapted from contemporary Japanese sword styles.

Still, even today in contemporary tameshigiri practices, specialty sword blades with more width are used for the more difficult cuts as this gif below demonstrates. Observe the width of the blade used by the final master and notice how it is not the usual kind of blade. It is more of a machete than what we normally associate with a katana.

Furthermore, different types of sword blades have different qualities to another, which means specific ways of cutting with them are slightly different. Matt Easton talks about this subject in more detail in the following video.

Lastly, there has been research conducted by actual real forensic scientists who analyzed sword cuts delivered against pig carcasses who found that the cut marks left by a weapon has more to do with the blades’ characteristics itself than the wielder of the weapon. The researchers found that weapons such as a machete resulting in fracturing of bone whereas cuts made by a katana style blade resulted in tiny amounts of curving by the bone away from the entry point of the cut. You can read the study here.

What this means in plain language is that the type of blade you use greatly impacts the performance of a cut more than the person who is wielding it, which is something many people in HEMA are at least subconsciously aware of; this is why very wide European blade types are preferred for test cutting over more narrow straight blades, even though narrower straighter blades are more historically accurate for the time period the long sword traditions we study (especially anything Liechtenauer / KdF based) were popular.

Basically, if you use a sword similar to the blade typology appearing in any of the treatises we study in HEMA, you’re going to have different results than with a katana. They are not identical analogs to one another and this impacts the so-called “tatami forensics” analysis more than people realize, making it inaccurate by the scientific definition of the term.

Misconception #9: There are Records of Historical Test Cutting in Europe and So Japanese Test Cutting Must be an Identical Practice

This is a very common misconception.

Take this reddit post for example from the r/wma subreddit,

What the post author is not seeming to understand is that Frois statement has to be considered within the context of what tameshigiri was intended for, and what we know from other contemporary accounts. When those facts are considered the intention of tameshigiri was never to test the swordsman but to test the properties of the weapon itself.

Also, by “lumber” Frois most likely meant something like a pell. And the usage of test cutting on animals was performed for the same reasons that Japanese smiths sometimes did so, to check their work. It was not to test the skill of the swordsman.

Now while it is true that in the 19th century cutting demonstrations were done by some European swordsman as part of “sword feat” exhibitions, (with cuts delivered against lead bars and such) these demonstrations were done with special purpose built swords and were intended to provide entertainment, not necessarily something normally part of martial swordsmanship training. They were a kind of spectacle, much like trick shooting is. For a comparable analogy, the kind of shooting Calamity Jane was known for doing and which made her famous was notable because it was unusual and not because trick shooting was commonplace. This is the same situation for “sword feats” exhibits — it received attention because it was not common. The records we have of swordsmen cutting lead bars and whole sheep carcasses with specialty swords was a similar kind of spectacle notable because it was not commonly done.

Cutting a gutted sheep carcass is a spectacle.

It’s worth pointing out the bulk of records about test cutting in Europe come from the 19th century. These records involve cutting things like sticks and clay, and whatnot. Yet, nobody used tatami mats in European swordsmanship, and nobody had competitions where the “quality of a cut” was pseudo-scientifically measured (we’ll address the psuedo-science of measuring tatami mat cuts later in this article).

Edelson notes on pg. 12 of his book Cutting with the Medieval Sword that there are no records of test cutting in medieval historical swordsmanship that he is aware of, but he does mention there are records of executioners making test blows against objects and animals. Edelson cites The Faithful Executioner by  Joel F. Harrington as a source. Yet what Edelson omits is that during this period of history executioners primarily used axes, not swords, when they used weapons to kill criminals — and it often took several hacking blows to severe the spinal cord, not a single blow as is the goal for contemporary sport tameshigiri. We know this based on numerous surviving accounts of such executions, and the main reason the guillotine was invented was due to the difficulty executioners had with cleaving heads with a single blow. On top of this hanging was the most common method of execution, not beheading. Furthermore an executioner did not always kill their opponents, often only torturing them to execute the sentences; killing a criminal was a rarer task they performed. Additionally, when a sword was used for beheadings it was not a regular sword, but a specially made one far heavier in the blade than one would normally use in the style of fencing we study. In conclusion, what medieval executioners did are not historical parallels to the kind of cutting Edelson endorses in his book.

It is, in our view, very problematic that people are desperately grasping at straws to find evidence to support the practice of sport tameshigiri in HEMA. The motivation to find evidence in history seems to be driven less out of a desire to be historically accurate and more out of a desire to defend the legitimacy of performing test cutting as a competitive event in HEMA. This is the opposite of the scientific method, as they are grasping at straws to prove their hypothesis and dismissing all other evidence that contradicts the outcome they desire. And this warped method of investigating history is introducing ahistorical artifacts into cutting technique interpretations for the sake of sportification alone. In our opinion this does not lead to historically accurate interpretations — which is the primary goal of the HEMA movement.

Misconception #10: Tatami Mats Produce a Consistent Target to Measure Against.

Tatami mats sold for test cutting are made from leftover reeds unsuitable for other commercial purposes (they are low quality) or from old worn out tatami mats that have actually been used as flooring. Any claim that tatami mats provide a “consistent target” are therefore very erroneous. They have not been produced to be a consistent target; they have been produced to be flooring and then get recycled as targets.

Now while it is true that many tatami mats are manufactured by machines in a factory, the material is still organic. The machines produce the mats by weaving the material, and any deficiency in the material will still be present in the finished product. Since the material is not mass produced in a factory but grown out of the dirt, each individual reed has different thicknesses, and sometimes knots, making their way into the finished products due to variable quality assurance testing. The bamboo shoots have this issue as well.

Then there is the matter of water retention changing the consistency of the reeds, with different targets holding different amounts of water based on the unique characteristics of the reeds themselves. Water retention matters because tatami mats are to be soaked before used for cutting. All of these factors harms the repeatability of the test cutting experiments, making the “analysis” of cuts that Edelson prescribes in his ‘Tatami Forensics’ section of the book more of a psuedo-science than anything else. This of course is not his original creation; he is simply translating what he has learned from contemporary Japanese sword art practices into something to be used for HEMA. He’s promoting something that is common from his martial background, the same way other martial arts teach ‘no touch knockouts’ and ‘pressure point strikes’ and ‘quigong meditations to cultivate chi’ and other kinds of things that are very common in mainstream Asian martial arts, but are in fact completely without any scientific merit.

(Note that Edelson is not making as absurd of claims as these other practices — we’re just using these as examples of things commonly believed in Asian martial arts by people who never question what they are taught.)

Edelson does make acknowledgement of this problem on pg 123 of his book, pointing out examples of different manufactured patterns of tatami weave as well as defects. But he claims that you can simply inspect tatami mats to find these defects, which is a mistaken belief based on bias. Realistically, you are not going to be able to see microscopic changes in the material with your naked eye to identify all such things which can dramatically impact your cutting performance.

Trying to measure “cut effectiveness” based on deep analysis of the cuts performed on tatami mats is very questionable as they are not uniform reeds being used to start with. No two tatami mats will be perfectly identical the way that something like ballistic gelatin targets can be. If your goal is to measure performance in a scientific way, then the targets must be consistent and tatami mats fail to be consistent. The competitive art of tatami mat cutting practiced by Japanese sword martial artists is very popular, but in terms of how reproducible and measurable it is, the targets simply are not uniform.

The entire “tatami forensics” section in Edelson’s book is deeply flawed to begin with, trying to compare FBI bullet penetration analysis against ballistic gel to sword cuts on tatami mats. Contrary to what Edelson claims, the Japanese sword masters who developed contemporary tatami mat cutting were NOT trying to simulate a real human being with tatami mats, they were just making an alteration to pre-existing practices of cutting inanimate objects.

The important takeaway is that regardless of whether your sword cut is “scooped” or “slanted” or “halfway”, it’s still going to kill your opponent if you strike them in the neck or head with it; these two areas of the opponent being the predominant targets in historical long sword plays.

If you were to even strike someone in the head hard enough with the flat of your blade it’ll probably kill them, too. People can be killed with just one well placed and powerful enough punch to the side of the head; a sword just makes this process easier. Many people have died from taking one punch that can knock them down to the ground. So you do not need absolute perfect edge alignment to kill someone with a sword, it just makes it more likely to be a lethal strike.

Finally — and this is what is most important — the kinds of cuts Edelson claims are necessary to penetrate and kill a person based on his tatami mat cutting, are not always possible to perform after parrying an opponent’s sword. Against a real resisting opponent who has his own sword to parry your sword with and deliver counter strikes against you, you often cannot perfectly control the timing and distance and angle of your blade every time you strike at the opponent. Many of the plays studied by long sword fencers often require striking the opponent from a long guard position after entering a bind or having been parried, almost never delivering the final cut from an overhead or over the shoulder position. While it is still possible to cut tatami from the long guard position, it’s generally not going to result in the kind of cuts that Edelson’s “tatami forensics” section describes as being a good looking cut.

Basically, the positions that the connecting cuts illustrated in many plays (from both Italian and German long sword traditions) are delivered from don’t allow for the body mechanics he encourages in his book.

During real sword fighting there is going to be something that prevents the perfect cuts Edelson wants people to do against tatami mats to “calibrate”, so this “calibration” is simply not realistic for actual combat conditions. As a functional martial art, you don’t need to practice cutting in a scenario where the opponent just stands there and lets you hit him in the head; you need to practice for conditions where the other guy is trying to kill you, too. This is not something contemporary tameshigiri tournaments account for and it was never intended to consider such a scenario. Modern Japanese test cutting practices are intentionally not meant to have military value. They instead use sword cutting as a means to teaching discipline and moral values.

As mentioned before, we don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with test cutting with European swords. The practice is only problematic for historical fencing interpretations if you prescribe to Edelson’s views that if your cut would not make a perfect slice against tatami mats then it is not the correct way to deliver those cuts. The problems only arise if you are using tatami mat cutting to determine whether your cuts would work in combat or not. As tatami mat cutting was never intended to simulate live human targets nor account for real sword fighting battle conditions, it really should not be the measurement by which such a thing is judged.

Misconception #11: European Long Swords and Japanese Katana Were Used Very Similarly to One Another So What is Good for Measuring the Skill of a Historical Japanese Swordsman is Also Good for Testing a Historical European Swordsman.

While it is true that historical Japanese swordsmanship has many techniques and guards which have similarities to those appearing in historical European swordsmanship, they are not perfect analogs. The specific kinds of light and heavy armor which the Japanese katana needed to be used against are different than that of Medieval and Renaissance Europeans. The differences between the cultures and the goals of swordsmanship practices also impacted the direction of swordsmanship in these regions. For example Europeans never had a a system of grading the value of swords based on a systemized method of executing criminals with swords as the Japanese did, so the direction of swordsmanship and sword forging techniques in Europe did not optimize itself for the task of beheadings or even bifurcation of the human body like it did in Japan.

As we’ve already discussed at length at this point, historical Japanese bushi did not use tameshigiri to measure the skill of a swordsman. It was specifically about testing the quality of the swords themselves as a functional tool that could endure and hold a sharp enough edge to perform cuts against difficult areas to cut on the human body. As the value of swords became tied to their performance in this system of execution, Japanese swordsmanship and sword forging went in a different direction than it did in Europe.

As we’ve also discussed, when the ancient Japanese swordsmen did do these blade endurance tests they performed them primarily with straight overhead downward strikes but sometimes also strikes delivered to outstretched arms and whatnot. Much rarer was to hang a target from a tree, but they generally did not deliver strikes to targets sitting on a raised platform as done in contemporary test cutting with tatami mats. The historical Japanese swordsmen also did not do strikes as a series of descending strikes either, which is what contemporary test cutting does as the rolled mats become sliced. This is probably because delivering a series of descending cuts is not a thing encountered in real sword fighting against a resisting opponent because your opponent does not shrink in size mid-fight. So even contemporary tameshigiri is a very different method of test cutting than even was performed by historical sword testers, and has different goals.

We must always keep in mind that historical tameshigiri was a brutal means of executing criminals and the commercialization (sword grading) grew out of that initial purpose. And that modern tameshigiri is not identical to this historical practice, even if it now shares a name with it. We must remember the roots of the practice when discussing the value of it in HEMA. It is important to accurately understand a period of history so we don’t draw erroneous conclusions. The historical Japanese samurai never used rolled grass mats to test how effective their cuts would be against a real person, and the only similar practice is that which was done by a smith against a bundles of sticks and straw to check the endurance and edge retention of their sword, before handing it off for a real test cut against an actual human body. That ancient Japanese swordsmen did not have a system of cutting tatami mats and judging the skill of a swordsmen in this way speaks volumes about how unsuitable reed mats are for measuring the performance of a cut in combat conditions.

If the people who depended on swords as battlefield weapons didn’t think it was a useful system of measure, why should we?

Why Be So Against Test Cutting in HEMA?

We’re not against test cutting in HEMA. We’re only against making erroneous conclusions about the effectiveness of a cut in combat based on test cutting.

The purpose of the Historical European martial arts movement is to reconstruct the lost traditions of fighting arts as closely as we can reproduce them today based on surviving documentation and analysis of their arms and armour.

With that in mind, one of our key criticisms of HEMA using contemporary tameshigiri as a sporting practice is that there are basically no analogs in historical European swordsmanship for the kind of target that is used in these practices. As previously mentioned there are those who want to cite demonstrations of sword cutting performed in the 18th and 19th century against lead bars, pre-gutted and skinned animal carcasses and such… but these were not common aspects of sword training and instead were intended to be feats of strength as a kind of spectator entertainment. These feats also used specialized swords designed for cutting objects like lead bars which were called “lead cutters”, not the normal kind of saber one would use for cavalry and certainly not a long sword. The lead cutter was instead a cutlass type sword.

Additionally we are critical of other’s beliefs about test cutting being the main way to teach edge alignment. If you wanted to test someone’s ability to deliver a strike to test good edge alignment control then you should not be using a vertically held rolled up mat to do so. That shape of target appears nowhere on the human body during the kind of combat conditions a fencer must face against a resisting opponent, and anyone practicing HEMA should know this because you typically strike at the wrists, the head and the front of the body at angles that in no way resemble the type of angles you must cut at in order to cut these tatami mats the way they are set up in test cutting competitions.

If this Frog DNAed practice from modern Japanese cutting arts were to be a serious attempt to practice edge alignment for relevance in historical European sword fighting, then you would at a minimum need to position your target at very different angles designed to replicate the lower arms of an opponent holding a sword in long guard, or perhaps attacking the legs or the head with a downward strike. This is not done as far as we have seen in HEMA. People only use modern sport tameshigiri and just perform it with European long swords without thinking about its origins, assuming it is an ancient practice used by samurai when it really was not.

To be clear, our criticism of the practice is specifically when people champion tatami cutting and make the claim that a cut is only “good” if it works for how contemporary Japanese sword martial artists measure sport tameshigiri test cutting. We disagree with this perspective because we know, based on the historical record, that contemporary tameshigiri was never intended to replicate historical combat conditions of trying to cut a person with a sword, so we take issue with those insisting it does replicate those conditions as the basis for their claims of relevancy to HEMA.

It’s just not proper to say that a narrow tube of grass sitting at a perfect vertical on a pole at waist height is the end all, be all measurement of a swordsman’s skill on edge alignment with a blade. The best test of edge alignment during combat is going to be performing parries during sparring.

How Did Historical Swordsmen Learn Edge Alignment if Not from Test Cutting?

This area is not well documented in surviving Japanese historical sources, just as it is not well documented in surviving European ones. Having said that, proper edge alignment was likely learned by historical Japanese fencers the same way that European swordsmen learned it; by striking pells and engaging in drills using blunted weapons against resisting opponents.

There are some people who claim you cannot learn proper edge alignment with blunted weapons, but this is untrue. There are many plays that require one to attack from the bind to deliver a strike, and while the smooth surface of a blunted blade (such as a feder) doesn’t grip as tightly as a real edge, it still has grip. But this grip doesn’t exist if you enter the bind with the flat part of your blade. You will lose those contests if you try to use the flat of your blade to win in a bind, and so the physics of sword fighting in and of itself teaches and reinforces proper edge alignment naturally through drilling. If you don’t have good edge alignment you cannot gain a mechanical advantage over your opponent’s blade, making parries far less effective and leading to becoming overpowered by a more skilled fencer.

This is of course, because of the way that swords work; you generally cannot deliver strong parries and deflections using the flat of your sword. While in some instances it is possible to do so, it’s not usually the ideal situation due to the physics involved. You just cannot obtain the maximum amount of leverage using your blade’s flat, and because the flat doesn’t have an edge it won’t stick to your opponent’s blade so you can enter a bind with them. Furthermore a strong parry requires the edge of the sword to meet the opponent’s sword because this is the strongest section of the sword, and this applies even with a feder.

The difference between using the edge vs the flat with swords to perform parries is well illustrated in this video at around 9 minutes into it.

Let us consider what the feder is designed to do; it’s designed to flex on the flat side and it cannot flex on the edge side. So you can bend it over your knee on the flat side, but not from the edge side. So although a feder lacks an edge you still learn edge alignment using a feder because failing to parry correctly causes you to deliver a weaker parry that is easily overcome by an opponent. This also happens with real swords, too.

Trying to win a bind crossing with the flat of your feder blade is also more challenging than doing it with the edge, and a swordsman learns this naturally by engaging in drills and sparring against a resisting opponent. So simply by drilling and sparring against a resisting opponent does a fencer learn correct edge alignment, because whenever you don’t have proper edge alignment you often will lose the crossings because you cannot gain a mechanical advantage. This teaches you proper edge alignment in a far more meaningful way than not making a perfectly smooth cut on a tubular mat that used to be somebody’s flooring. A good swordsman will then organically learn good edge alignment with a blade, and only use the flat specifically when they are trying to perform one of those specialty displacements.

So the idea that you need to do test cutting to learn proper edge alignment is quite erroneous and its promotion in HEMA as something that everyone must do is widely exaggerated in our view. You should do test cutting if you enjoy cutting things with a sword, not because you believe it will teach you better edge alignment. It can’t teach you edge alignment with cuts after you parry, which is how most connecting cuts are performed in free play sparring.

Closing Thoughts on Tameshigiri in HEMA

As a final conclusion to this article, we will leave you with the following statements.

  • Can contemporary tameshigiri be useful to learn edge alignment? Sure.
  • But is it necessary? No.
  • Is tameshigiri a historical practice for learning edge alignment, even in Japan? No.
  • Is delivering cuts against an object that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the kind of target the sword was intended to be used against in battle a genuine test of the swordsman’s skill in battle? Absolutely not — it is only a test of how well you can cut that object.

So, do we believe test cutting should be a competitive sport in HEMA? Probably not in our opinion, if we want to stay true to the original founding principles of the Historical European martial arts movement. Having seen how many people have already become incredibly defensive about protecting this extremely ahistorical practice we really don’t think it’s a good idea for it to become a widespread competitive practice, as it leads to a slippery slope of other very ahistorical practices becoming competitive aspects of HEMA and dictating the direction it goes in the future.

We have found that most people who defend competitive cutting justify it by convincing themselves of things that are not even rooted in the history of the styles of other countries they frog DNA from, such as that sport tameshigiri is something samurai widely practiced or that tatami mats can replicate the properties of a person’s body. This is why we wrote this article explaining why these are misconceptions based on bad sources of information. Our information comes directly from historical records of the people who did tameshigiri during the Edo and Meiji periods, as detailed in Markus Sesko’s book Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Testing.

We realize the information in this article will be something the fans of sport tameshigiri in HEMA may readily dismiss, but we believe the information we have provided can at least address the spread of much of the misinformation that these people share while promoting tameshigiri as a competitive event and training tool in HEMA that everyone “must” do.


If you’d like to learn more information about historical fencing practices please check out our Learn HEMA page for a guide to learning about the historical weapon that interests you. You can also find more guides we’ve written about other topics at our Helpful Guides page. You can also join the conversation at our forums or our Facebook Group community.

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