During the warring period of ancient Japan, the classic nihontos were not made for decorative purposes but for maiming and killing an opponent. All of these blades needed to be tested to ensure that these were sharp, durable, efficient, and could perform excellently. Though the swords could be tested on wood or bamboo, the sharpness and quality of the blades were preferred to be tested on a human body.
Although the idea may sound gruesome, it was exactly how these nihontos were certified as excellent weapons. Convicted felons – whether they were dead or alive – would be used by certain individuals to try out the might and efficiency of these newly forged blades; the results of these tested blades were also often inscribed on the weapon’s tang. So for those who are able to see the tang of a nihonto and can actually understand & read Japanese, the weapon may just have a couple of interesting or even gruesome secrets to reveal.
Origins of Tameshigiri
During the Edo era, the newly crafted swords could only be tested by the finest swordsmen around; this was necessary so their skills would not be considered as a variable that determines how well the blade can cut. When it comes to the materials utilized to test these weapons, these elements varied greatly: some of these were bamboo, thin sheets of steel, gozas (the top-most layer of tatami mats), and even wara (rice straws).
There were also a plethora of cuts utilized on cadavers and occasionally, on convicted criminals; these usually ranged from the tabi gata or ankle cuts, to the o-kesa or diagonal slash from the shoulder down to the opposite hip area. The names of these types of slashes on the cadavers exhibit where on the body the slash was made; older blades that can still be found today feature inscriptions on their nakago and detailed information such as this: “Five bodies with the Ryu-Guruma (or hip cut)”. Such inscriptions, specifically referred to as the tameshi mei or the saidan mei, would greatly increase the weapon’s value; it would also compensate the owner for the large amount of money that is commonly charged for testing the weapon.
Skeletons from the Edo Period
Based on the skeletal remains from the Edo period that have been excavated, the power of the ancient nihontos was evident due to the sharp force-wounds that were present. From the said burial sites, researchers found two people contained, a young, adult man was almost entirely bones, and another young male was somehow restricted to a portion of trunk bones. Some rib bones and even the vertebrae of both individuals were completely sliced off in a horizontal direction. For the young adult, this happened around seven times while for the other, about five times.
It is assumed that the wounds were caused by tameshigiri which was the performance test of a classic nihonto; it was also a part of a legal criminal justice method. The remains featuring uniquely sharp, force wounds is kept as No. 16 at the National Museum of Nature & Science; it is of the Yushima 4-chome burial that was excavated on February 1988 in Tokyo.