Today on JLPTips we'll meet a JLPT N1 expression that is mostly used in formal or written Japanese. You won't see it all that often in ordinary contexts, but once in a while it will pop up to confuse you—since it's one of those idiomatic turns of phrase that don't make any sense unless you have learned them beforehand.
Would you have guessed that the noun 皮切り, literally "skin-cutting", functions as a grammatical expression that indicates the beginning of a series of events? Probably not, unless it was a series of shaving cuts. So how on earth did it come to have this meaning?
The original use of 皮切り was actually as a medical term. Traditional Japanese medicine makes extensive use of the Chinese practice of moxibustion (灸, きゅう), burning dried mugwort (moxa) on the skin in order to warm key regions and stimulate blood circulation. 皮切り referred to the beginning of a moxibustion treatment session—the very first burning point on the skin of a patient, which was then followed by other points. In this context, 切り doesn't literally mean "cutting" but "beginning, starting".
This same 皮切り then developed into a general-usage expression. The way it functions in sentences is a bit tricky: it appears as part of the construction "Xを皮切りに" or "Xを皮切りとして", which both mean "with X as the beginning of the sequence". When you see an "Xを~に" expression, you may be confused by the apparent lack of a verb that goes with を. Remember to interpret this as if the (omitted) verb して follows に, as you can see in the second variation with として.
Now let's see how 皮切り is used in context. Here's an example passage from a text by Kishida Kunio (岸田國士):
Ōba Tsuneko was scheduled to give solo vocal recitals this season in the country's six largest cities. Following the advice of her manager to begin the tour in the Kansai region, she was scheduled to perform in Kyoto first, then wrap up the recitals in Osaka and Kobe, and give the final performance in Tokyo.
This is a very typical usage of 皮切り. We have a series of six cities and a singer who moves between them. Kyoto opens the tour as the first stop, and then the singer goes one by one until the sequence is concluded in Tokyo. (Note that given the term 六大都市, two more cities, Nagoya and Yokohama, are implicitly understood in the context of moving from Kansai toward the capital.)
You can use this expression freely in writing, as long as you apply it in the rather specialized context of beginning a series of similar events. Other types of beginnings have their own expressions, so always follow concrete usage examples instead of relying on isolated definitions.
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