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Swords, Cutting and Military History

A look at a dark past: forensic analysis of tameshigiri remains

A look at a dark past:  forensic analysis of tameshigiri remains

photo by Christian Bucad

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The history of tameshigiri in Japan wavers between the exhibition of skill in cutting straw or bamboo targets, to the proofing of blades by cutting through the corpses of dead criminals.  We get a look into the more grisly past through a paper by Kazuhiro Sakaue of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science (A case report of human skeletal remains performed “Tameshi-giri” (test cutting with a Japanese sword) Bull. Natl. Mus. Nat. Sci., Ser. D, 36 pp. 27–36, December 22, 2010), in which he conducts a forensic analysis on what is thought to be the only proven victim  (well, technically “victims”… read on)  of tameshigiri.

Highly technical from a anthropological viewpoint, and organized to present facts to scholars rather than interested laypersons, we’ll take a look at his material in a somewhat different order than he presents it.

His research looks at the two sets of remains found at Kouan-ji Temple, Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo.  Other remains (46) from the same burial site have all been dated to the Edo period.  His interest was piqued as “… the position and direction of these traumas reported here were very unusual, and different from any of those described in the previous studies.”

As mentioned by Dr. S. Alexander Takeuchi in his analysis of the history and culture of tameshigiri (which we reviewed), tameshigiri was used as a judicial punishment, bringing extra shame to the convicted in having their remains used at the subject of test-cutting. Dr. Kazuhiro gives us more detail on just how the judicial system approached execution and the sentence of  execution and tameshigiri:

The Tokugawa Shogunate executed criminals in various ways; Decapitation with Japanese sword (this category could be divided into “Geshunin”, “Shizai”, and “Gokumon” in response to a committed crime), Crucifixion, Buring, and Sawing for death penalty (Okubo,2008).

He goes on to explain how swords would be tested by cutting the bodies of a criminal (or criminals, at there are records of up to seven bodies being piled one-on-another for “proving” a blade), and how the result would be used:

Among these punishments, “tameshi-giri” was performed as a part of “Shizai” execution which was imposed basically on male felons not belonging to Samurai or clergy class. “Tameshi-giri” as a part of extra criminal execution survived till the beginning of Meiji period. The warrants for sharpness of a Japanese sword were carved as “saidanmei” on the tang of the blade. “Saidanmei” consists of the name of the tester, the cutting position of corpus, and the number of corpuses that could be cut off simultaneously.” (see figure below)

Marking on tang indicating sword was used in tameshigiri on criminals
The paper then reviews the types and angle of wounds which edged weapons can inflict.   Simple put they fall into two sets of classes:


Sharp Force Wounds

  1. Cut Marks:  shallow lines on the surface of bones
  2. Peeling or Shaving:  where bone fragments are peeled from a bone, indicating a strike at an angle
  3. Point Insertion:  a penetrating injury through the bone, often elongated or triangular
  4. Slot Fracture: a wide groove below which the bone is fractured;  a cut into but not through the bone.
  5. Chop Mark:  the complete cut of a bone.


Direction of Force

  1. Horizontal:  across the length of the bone
  2. Oblique: at a sharp angle to the axis of the bone
  3. Vertical:  at right angles to the bone

(Note:  The original paper,  linked to in the first paragraph, also contains photos of the remains showing sharp force marks and other damage.)


The two set of remains which excited Dr. Kazuhiro’s interest were tagged as “16-1” and “16-2”.  16-1 was estimated to be aged 25 at death, with multiple wounds:  two head wounds made with a narrow, double-edged weapon. Two blows to the neck indicating a failed decapitation, as well as a cut to right shoulder blade.  Three cuts into the left shoulder, cutting through clavicle and scapula (front-to-back cut).  Evidence of seven  horizontal slashes (across the ribs).

The pattern of cuts, as seen in the comparison image below, matches the textbook “Kaihou Kenjyaku”, a manual for appraising the cutting ability of a kanata, by Yamada Asauemon Yoshimutu, a member of the Yamada lineage and authority on the performing of
tameshi-giri.   The correspondence strongly suggested that 16-1 has been utilized for tameshigiri after his decapitation.


Comparison of bone damage to ancient tameshigiri cut chart


Remains 16-2 were only partial (head and torso);  the reasons for these remains to be mixed with 16-1’s were initially unclear.  16-2  was between 15 and 18 years of age at time of death.  There were no signs of defensive wounds on the arms.  He had two neck cuts, suggesting decapitation, and horizontal cuts across the ribs matching 16-1.  This lead to the determination the two bodies had likely been piled on each other for a double (or two body)  tameshigiri.

This leaves the two notched wounds on the frontal bone on 16-1’s skull to be explained.  He resorts again to the Yamada manual on tameshigiri:

According to Yamada (1830), the test of the ability of a Japanese spear was performed by using the head of the “Tameshi-giri” victim. Two notched defects on the frontal bone of “No. 16-1” might be made under this procedure.

Why then were the remains partially mixed?  It was highly irregular for parts of two corpses to be buried in temple grounds.   The answer is perhaps even more dark than the use of judicial tameshigiri.

Dr. Kazuhiro’s research found that the Yamada family monopolized the tameshigiri “industry” from the early 18th century on.  They were also famous for making a medicine called “Jintan”, made from the kidneys tameshigiri victims… a medicine much in demand.  Certainly it was established that the families of tameshigiri victims often secretly went to the Yamada estate to recover the remains of their loved ones;  remains which the Yamada family had carted from the execution ground.He surmised that as part of a multiple-body test cut, the body parts of victims 16-1 and 16-2 would have become intermixed an indistinguishable.  Thus the family of 16-1 hade the mixed remains buried, unaware in their grief of the error.

Indeed, a dark view into a dark past.

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