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Swords, Cutting and Military History

An academic look at the history of Tameshigiri

An academic look at the history of Tameshigiri

photo by Okinawa Soba

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Dr. S. Alexander Takeuchi of the University of South Carolina is a leading research scholar on the history and culture of the nihonto (Japanese sword, or katana).  In addition to being an accomplished scholar in a variety of fields, he is also a student of Iaido.  Dr. Takeuchi’s research in this area has lead him so far as to visit archives in Japan where he was given access to feudal period documents and manuscripts.

One of his many papers is of direct interest to students of classic Japanese tameshigiri, as it investigates the history, development and cultural implications of the practice of tameshigiri, from its misty origins to the modern day:

Tameshi-Giri (and Suemono-Giri) as a Sub-Cultural Custom and Social Structure in Feudal Era Japan: A Socio-Cultural Analysis of Transformation of Its Symbolic Meanings and Functions (S. Takeuchi, Journal of Asian Social Sciences, Vol 5 #11 Nov. 2009) – Adobe Acrobat,  free download

Non-academics shouldn’t be put off by the title.  In twelve pages, this paper traces the history and practice of tameshigiri from it’s earliest days, where the bodies of criminals were used to test blades, up to the very late Tokugawa period and through the early Meiji Restoration where the wearing of swords was outlawed, to its use in the martial arts today.

He also examines the cultural changes and implication, as the practice of tameshigiri changed over centuries;  he lists four distinct phases:

“Specifically, they are 1) the pre-Sekigahara era (before 1600), in which tameshi-giri was assumed to have been practiced on a regular basis amongst the samurai class of the Warring State era, 2) the prevalent era (from the early 1600s to early 1700s), in which tameshi-giri and o-tameshi were very popular amongst relatively high ranking samurai, 3) the declining era (from the mid 1700’ s to 1876), in which tameshi-giri was viewed as cruel and inhumane and high ranking samurai were no longer performing o-tameshi by themselves, and 4) the modern era, in which tameshi-giri is revived as a type of martial art training.”

Thus, he notes, the term tameshigiri is directly linked not only with test cutting, but directly with judicial punishment.  In fact, Dr. Takeuchi points out that in some cases tameshigiri was used as an additional, severe sentence;   magistrates could sentence a prisoner to execution, with the remains to be used for tameshigiri, which would be shameful to their family.  There was in fact a term which indicated the practice of judicial tameshigiri:  suemonogiri. This term specifically indicated the cutting of a corpse tied and positioned for tameshigiri.  A professional test-cutter of corpses was called “suemono-shi”;  such professionals become more common as the culture veered towards seeing the practice as barbaric:

“In fact, suemono-shi or professional tameshi-giri performers start appearing in historical documents increasing more often in the 1700s (e.g., Aizu-han Kaseijikki, 18c), when the cultural practice of tameshiand o-tameshi started clearly declining.”

The practice of judicial tameshigiri ended with the Tokugawa era.

From a cultural perspective, Dr. Takeuchi’s paper explores other cultural and socio-political aspects of the practice of tameshigiri:  how its use reinforced the power of the upper classes over the lower;  how it may have been seen as helping to restrain/prevent criminal behaviour;  also how, in the extended peaceful period of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it provided an outlet for samurai brought up in a martial culture but without any wars to fight or ways to demonstrate their skills.

The paper then explores — and in some cases explodes — five commonly held questions or misconceptions about historical tameshigiri:

  1. Criminal justice procedure versus martial arts practice
  2. Who were used as suemono (i.e., stationary targets for tameshi-giri)?
  3. Who actually performedtameshi-giri on felons after they were executed?
  4. Did hinin (peasant class) actually perform tameshi-giri on corpses?
  5. To what extent professional tameshi-geisha and suemono-shi were deprecated in Japan?

Finally, Dr. Takeuchi moves to a short exploration of tameshigiri as it is practiced today in Japan and the West.

All in all, an excellent short exploration of the history, background and culture of tameshigiri.  I highly recommend it to students of history and martial arts.

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