TAMESHI-GIRI PRACTICE IN JSA WITH ANTIQUE NIHON-TO: "TO CUT WITH OR NOT TO CUT WITH."*
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
October 26, 2003
Those who are in JSA (i.e., Japanese Sword (martial) Arts) often wonder whether they should or should not use an antique Nihon-to for tameshi-giri practice with maki-wara, goza, tatami-omote, etc. To answer such a question is not an easy task as it largely depends on many factors such as the historic, cultural and artistic values of the sword to be used, physical conditions of the blade and of koshirae (especially the tsuka), as well as the skill of the practitioners. Perhaps, those advanced JSA practitioners who have actual experiences in tameshi-giri with antique Nihon-to can provide valuable information on the technical side of the issue specifically related to the skill of the swordsman/woman. Here, I am going to discuss some very basic issue on both the technical side and philosophical side of the issue from the perspective of novice Nihon-to collector/Iai practitioner.
II. The Technical Side of the Issue Concerning Safety.
On the technical side, the practitioner must first consider the important issue of safety both to him/herself and others, no matter what sword (be it antique, gendai-to, shinsaku-to or production swords) is used. Fundamentally any antique Nihon-to that were made, polished and cared for well will still make an excellent cutter. However, because of the long years of abuse and neglect commonly associated with those antique Nihon-to in the "low" to "medium" price range in the market, one must be sure that the said antique Nihon-to is still in the physical condition to be used for the purpose that it was originally meant to be used for - that is to cut.
Below is what I as a novice Iai practitioner can think of as important technical issues with the use of antique Nihon-to for tameshi-giri:
Among all the known physical flaws in the blade, "ha-gire" (i.e., small crack in ha side of the blade) would probably be the most serious and potentially dangerous one to be concerned about before using an antique blade for tameshi-giri... If the blade happens to have a "ha-gire" (even a tiniest one) it can possibly brake at the point given sufficient force during cuts....
Another thing to concern about is the condition of the tsuka and, of course, the mekugi (if the koshirae is also an antique). If the blade comes in a modern made koshirae by a professional koshirae-shi, it should hold up to normal tameshi-giri exercises. However, if the koshirae is also an antique, the wood core may have been deteriorated and/or the tsuka-ito may be too loose, both of which could result in the breakage of the tsuka during tameshi-giri...
Finally, the effects on the polish also need to be considered. As everyone in the Japanese sword community knows already, the blade will inevitably be scuffed (and possibly stained) from tameshi-giri; thus it will basically "kill" the aesthetic appearance of the blade if it already has a "full art polish"...
On the other hand, if the polish is old and the edge is not sharp, the blade may not cut well in the first place unless the edge is properly "dressed/touched up." If one is to use an antique wakizashi rather than katana, and it happens to be one of those relatively rare "oo-suriage" koto wakizashi, the blade steel may also be on a relatively "softer" side compared to shito era swords or gendai-to. A relatively soft koto era blade with "dull" edge will be more prone to bending in cuts that other blades with sharper edge may survive...
Despite all these potential problems, quite a few experienced practitioners in Japan actually use antique Nihon-to for tameshi-giri practice without experiencing any problems. Thus, there should nothing inherently dangerous or wrong with the use of antique blades, given that the blade is decently sharp, has no fatal flaw like "ha-gire" and that both the tsuka and mekugi are still in good working condition...
Of course, if the said antique Nihon-to is a rare "papered" antique blade, it is a different story, at least from a collector's point of view.
III. Philosophical Side of the Issue Concerning Preservation of Historic/Cultural Artifact.
As a novice Nihon-to collector myself, I believe that the issue of antique blades for tameshi-giri should not be a simplistic dichotomy of "to cut with or not to cut with": Rather it should at least partially depend on the type of antique blades in terms of its historic, cultural and artistic values.
From a pure functionalist perspective, by default most antique blades do still make excellent cutters given decent polish (or edge "dressing") and functional koshirae. In the hands of highly experienced JSA practitioners, those antique blades will probably well exemplify the craftsmanship of the old sword smiths (who actually intended the swords to be used) without suffering little or no damage. Since the manifest function of Nihon-to as a type of bladed weapon is "to cut with," using antique blades of any value for tameshi-giri meets this original purpose, given that the practitioner has the skills and it is conducted in a proper manner.
On the other hand, from the perspective of preservation of important historic/cultural artifacts, certain high level antique blades of significant historic and artistic values should rather be preserved for their new purpose as the material representations of lost or endangered cultural crafts (i.e., smithing and polishing). It is true that those "juyo" and National Treasure level Nihon-to are no doubt still excellent cutters capable of performing their manifest (i.e., primary) function as bladed weapon. Then again, such cultural artifacts can better serve vastly more people in their latent (i.e., secondary) function as the existing examples of lost or endangered skills in traditional crafts, if kept forever in a public museum and be displayed regularly. When being observed, examined and studied by those who are struggling to continue the traditional crafts or by those who are willing to be part of the collective efforts to preserve such crafts, those antique Nihon-to of significant value can actually be reborn with new and perhaps more important purposes...
The traditional crafts of Japanese sword smithing and polishing are already endangered cultural practices in Japan. Moreover, the traditional skills to produce some of the artistic effects in steel in such simple yet effective weapon have already been lost for centuries amongst those very few remaining Japanese sword smiths... As the professions that have had one thousand years of history, further loss of traditional skills and potential successors are two most serious concerns for their collective survival.
If one keeps using any antique blades, they will eventually need repolishing no matter how rarely and lightly they are used to cut. Repeated polishing will gradually remove more metal from the hard surface skin of the blade and eventually kill those blades as weapon and as cultural artifacts... Then, why kill those antique blades when excellent gendai-to, handmade Japanese style swords, and even production swords are readily available today for that very purpose of "cutting with"? Why kill those highly valued antique blades when they can better serve new and even more important purposes for many more people?
Just because some of those really old but exceptionally skilled martial arts grand masters can still fight, it does not mean they should keep fighting until they are crippled or eventually killed, especially when there are many young practitioners willing to fight in competitions and tournaments. At some point, those exceptionally skilled martial arts masters should honorably retire from their "actual duty" and start teaching his students, so that some of those students will eventually become as skilled or even more skilled than those old masters... At older age, becoming existing examples of masterful skills for the next generation and participating in the continuous effort to preserve such skills can be as important or even more important than to keep serving their manifest functions in their original role.
When the samurai class was finally abolished in Japan, the primary duty of those antique Nihon-to had also ended officially... In other words, those highly valued antique blades were also honorably retired from their active duties as weapons of samurai... Perhaps they should be given a new set of duties that are more suitable for their current status - as the existing examples of lost or endangered skills in traditional cultural crafts...
Preservation of highly valued antique Nihon-to (with significant historic, cultural and artistic quality) is not merely preservation of the cultural artifacts (i.e., material culture). Because they also represent the lost or endangered cultural practices of past, it is also the preservation of non-material culture of the past that is worth passing on to the future generations...
* Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on Bugei Sword Forums.
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.