It is undeniable that the art of swordsmanship appears enthralling in modern time. Even then, only a few are as venerated as the Samurai. Samurai is the target of many legends and mostly depicted in movies and books.
Before a Samurai embarks on becoming a legend, the journey starts with choosing a weapon – most commonly a Katana. Unfortunately, one cannot gauge the quality of a Katana without testing its cutting ability and endurance.
In ancient Japan, an excellent Katana has the ability to cut through a human body easily and cleanly. This Japanese art of target test cutting is Tameshigiri.
What are the origins of Tamegishiri?
During the Edo period, only the Samurai who are competent enough can join in examining the swords. In fact, only the skilled ones so that the ability of the swordsmith will not be questionable.
Though the idea sounds fascinating, the actual history behind the Tameshigiri is far from tame and is not for the faint-hearted. Might venerate at that time and people lived edging the line of death.
Where did the Japanese warriors use to their newly made swords?
The materials used to test a sword varied greatly. There were rice straws, Tatami mats, and thin sheets of steel. Most horrifyingly though, was the use of human bodies whether dead or alive.
Dr. Kazuhiro Sakaue of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science wrote a paper on Tameshigiri.
According to his paper, the Tokugawa Shogunate executed criminals in different ways. Sometimes the army hanged criminals, crucified, decapitated and many more. He continues on that Tameshigiri was a part of “Shizai” which was a category under decapitation.
Dr. Kazuhiro’s research explained how the proof of sharpness of the sword carved on the tang of the blade called “Saidanmei.” Saidnamei consists of the name of the tester, the cutting position, and the number of the body cut off at the same time.
There was a famous fictional story where a criminal who was about to be put to death by Tameshigiri. He joked that if he knew that it was going to happen, he would have stuffed his belly with large stones to damage the blade.
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What were the different cutting techniques of Tamegishiri?
His research paper further appraised the classes of which inflicted wounds. The first is called Sharp Force Wounds which consists of cut marks on the surface of the bones, peeling or shaving where the bone fragments are peeled from the bone, point insertion where an injury penetrated the one, slot fracture which is a cut but not through the bone, and chop mark which is a complete cut of a bone.
The second class, as per Dr. Kazuhiro, is the Direction of Force. It could be horizontal, oblique, or vertical – of which could be due to the possible cutting pattern of Tameshigiri.
Another researcher Dr. S. Alexander Takeuchi mentioned in his analysis of history and culture of Tameshigiri that it was actually used as a legal punishment. Furthermore, it was deliberately done to bring more shame to the convicted by having their remains used as a subject of test-cutting.
The bodies were carefully inspected before the ritual to check for disease because they, for the most part, believed that sickness would make a sword unclean. Surprisingly, Tameshigiri was only conducted on male criminals, not including the clergy class for they also believed that it would warp the blade’s soul.
It was during the transition of the Meiji period, along with the modernization of Japan, that test cutting on criminals became illegal. This replaced other materials such as soaked rice straw with a bamboo core to emulate the density of human flesh and bone.
In modern times, the Tameshigiri’s focus shifted on the swordsman’s skill rather than the sword.
Now, to separate the idea of the historical Tameshigiri to the modern practice, practitioners sometimes use the term Shito (sword testing) or Shizan (an alternate pronunciation of the characters of Tameshigiri).
What is the Inuoumono all about?
If you’re an advocate for the rights of the animals, the following part may not be for you. Another Japanese art of “testing” is called Inuoumono where an up-and-coming Samurai, who chose the bow as their weapon, test their skills against a moving target that reacts unpredictably. More specifically, a dog.
Inuoumono originally was a military exercise. They would release a dog into a circular enclosure about 15 meters across and mounted archers would fire upon them while riding around. The idea behind this was to hone their aim and if they hit a small moving target while mounted on a horse, it stood to reason that they would easily hit a person or a horse.
When did this practice start?
During the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1573), Inuomono became a popular sport among the nobilities. Naturally, there would be some people concerning the dogs, so this sport banned during the reign of Emperor Go-Daigo.
Unfortunately, Shogun Ashigaka Takauji overturned the decision due to the influence of his archery Sensei Ogasawara Sadamune. The Ogasawara clan were particularly fond of Inuomono and they consider it as necessary to train the military.
According to records, the Inuomono practice changed to be non-fatal to the dogs due to the suggestions of the Buddhist clergy. To prevent serious injuries, they either padded or blunted the arrows used. Sadly, this means that before this suggestion came up, the nobility of Japan used actual arrows to shoot the dogs with.
In the sixteenth century, the popularity of this nobility sport declined and became relatively extinct as a practice since then. Inuomono was finally banned outright during the reign of Tokugawa Iemochi. Like many other banned substance, they attempted intermittent revivals.
There was a record of Tokugawa Ieyoshi watching dog-shooting in 1842. It was also said that Inuomono was performed again to entertain Ulysses S. Grant during his official visit to Japan in 1879, in which Grant expressed his aversion for the practice. The last dog-shooting act recorded before the Meiji Emperor in 1881.
Is this weapon testing still alive today?
In today’s time, this kind of ancient sport would have been under animal cruelty. In some countries, you could even go to jail because of any act of cruelty against animals.
Whether it is Tameshigiri which was a sword-testing practice on humans bodies done by the most-skilled swordsmen, or Inuomono which was initially and supposedly testing and honing the archery skills on dogs, people should never practice it today. Both could potentially land you a hefty amount of fine and jail time.