Cutting and Splitting


Practicing with the bokken trains coordination. This is also useful for some everyday activities. Videos are circulating on the net that give the impression that swordsmanship would be the high art from which the lower activities can be derived. The following examples show relationships.

Chopping wood

The scene from "The Hidden Blade" shows the low rank samurai Munezo, who just had an unpleasant conversation with a high rank samurai, an administrative officer. He comes home and sees his maid Kie making small logs. He explains to Kie how it could be done better.
"Mother didn't teach you how to chop wood, did she."
"I'm just not strong enough."
"Spread your knees and hold the wood straight in front of you. Don't lift the wood into the air. Lift the billhook, take aim and bring it down. Hold handle loosely, then put your weight behind it.

The tool used is a sort of knife, Japanese nata (鉈). A similar tool is in German officially called Hippe, in English billhook and in Italian roncola. There are numerous regional name variants in all these three countries. The tool is not only used to split wood but also to cut off small branches (see vine knife).
1. Is Kie's method really that bad?
This method is just right for fine chips, as it minimizes the risk of injury. The billhook is not suitable for large pieces of wood, in which case a hatchet or an ax must be used. In the film you can see whole wood blocks on the left. For the demonstration, the Samuari takes a long piece, but it has a small diameter and is already halved.
2. Does the squat position make sense?
When the block is so low, there is no other way. Then the squat is a stable position. A wood block about 70-80 cm high would be better, so that you can do the work while standing.
3. Is the samurai's method easier?
No, because it requires more body coordination, especially when working with one hand. But you can learn it. In the long run, the method requires less force and is therefore more effective. The safety risk is greater because you can hit past or the wood can jump away.
4. Do you have to be proficient in sword fencing to be able to chop wood properly?
No. Traditional craftsmen such as carpenters, roofers, bricklayers, joiners, blacksmiths etc. have optimized their striking movements without having experience in sword fencing - just relaxed and extending Ki.
Anyone who practices Aikido in a reasonable manner pays attention to physiologically correct movements that do not require unnecessary effort and are effective. This experience is helpful when you have to chop wood without having learned it beforehand.


From left: (A) nata knife - (B) a selection of billhooks in an agricultural shop in Piedmont - (C) hatchet, one-handed tool - (D) ax, two-handed. Depending on the wedge shape, the tools are more suitable for cutting or more for splitting.

Felling trees

Part 1: A tree is felled with a chain saw.
From the film "Kitsutsuki to ame" 2011.
Part 2: A young Swabian begins to cut a tree with an ax. As a left-handed person, he holds the ax in his right hand and lets the handle slide through his left hand.
Chopping wood and felling trees is like sword-fencing against a single opponent who doesn't even fight back. The movements are similar. The hatchet is used one-handed like a shoto, the ax is used with both hands, similar to a katana. With the katana, the hands do not slide on the handle, as it is much shorter. Instead, the blade slides on the target.

Sword Masters and Robots

A sword master (Machii Isao 町井勲, *1973) competes against a Yaskawa industrial robot MOTOMAN-MH24 equipped with a katana blade. Performance and precision of the cuts is compared for a diagonal cut (袈裟斬り kesagiri), an upward cut (斬り上げ kiriage) and a horizontal cut (水平斬り suiheikiri).
For the finale there is an endurance test with a thousand cuts (千本斬り senbonkiri).
It is a promotional video from 2015 for the industrial robot. Master Machii practices Iaijutsu, i.e. he cuts as quickly and precisely as possible with the katana. In 2005 he founded his own school (修心流 居合術 兵法 SHŪSHINRYŪ IAIJUTSU HYŌHŌ). He currently holds six Guinness world records with the katakana. The MOTOMAN-MH24 has 6 axes and is excellently designed and programmed.

The sword in Aikido

In times of the corona virus, in which we work a lot with Bokken and Jo in Aikido, the question increasingly arises as to what sense the sword exercises in Aikido have. This will be examined in a later post.
An important principle in aikido training is not to act like a machine.
As far as chopping wood is concerned, I could imagine a fate similar to that of swordsmanship. In reality, the sword is no longer used, except, unfortunately, by some crazy people who appear in newspaper reports from time to time. Most recently in August 2019 when a person was stabbed with a katana in Stuttgart. If heating with wood will be banned soon due to climate change, wood chopping would also be superfluous. Instead, one could create an art of chopping wood in which this old tradition will be maintained! What would be the difference to Iaijutsu?

The Hidden Blade

Scenes from "Kakushi Ken - Oni no Tsume" 隠し剣鬼の爪 2004.
The film is the second in a trilogy by Yōji Yamada. The story takes place around 1861, in the last years of the shogunate. Munezo Katagiri is a low rank samurai in the countryside. He has lost his wife and lives alone with his young daughter. There are machinations in the clan that hide behind the facade of the samurai's code of honor and that force him into a deadly conflict with a former comrade. Hence, he proceeds to an ultimate act. After that, he gives up his status and changes his life radically.
The film is a vivid description of the situation in the 1860s with lots of interesting details.