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Swords and Tradition

by Toshishiro Obata

Aikido Journal #107 (1996)

The history of tameshigiri

The history of tameshigiri (testing the cutting and piercing capabilities of spears and swords against armor and helmets) dates back to the 12th century. The ideal of swordsmiths was to forge blades so strong and sharp that they could cut through helmets and the like, while armor makers aimed at fashioning helmets strong enough to protect the wearer even should they be unlucky enough to receive such a cut. This ongoing competition undoubtedly stimulated improvement in the craftsmanship and techniques of both.

Many stories surrounding famous swords remain from the latter half of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Examples include a sword forged by Aoe that is said to have cut through a stone Jizo statue, and blades by Munechika of Iga Ueno and Shiro Monju of Nara Wakakusa that are said to have cut through large rocks. Then, of course, there is the famous tale of Watanabe no Tsuna, who cut off the arm of a devil (oni) at the Rashomon gate of Kyoto’s Kyujo district.

Well-known swordsmiths during the Kamakura period included Masamune, Muramasa, and Sadamune, while craftsmen from the Myochin, Haruta, and Saotome lines were famous for their helmet-making skills. During the turmoil of the Warring States period (Sengoku Jidai, 1467-1568), the ability to make strong, sharp swords was something that had the potential to influence the destinies of entire domains.

Numerous accounts survive of tameshigiri during the Edo period. In the city of Edo [present-day Tokyo], where stealing as little as ten ryo was punishable by decapitation, there were at least four official executioners. Among these was Asaemon Yamada, known about town by his nickname, Asaemon the Beheader. Swords were tested on the corpses of executed criminals and some records claim that up to seven bodies were cut through with a single stroke.

Kotetsu was a well-known swords-mith around the beginning of the Edo period who began his career as a helmet-maker and later, when he was over fifty years old, turned to making swords. Asaemon the Beheader, certainly one of those most qualified to judge the cutting ability of swords, had high praise for Kotetsu’s blades.

Kiyomaro was another swordsmith, famous for the beautiful and extremely sharp blades he forged near the end of the Edo period. Saneo, who had learned the craft from the same teacher as Kiyomaro, had his blades tested on hard materials such as scrap metal, deer antlers, copper-silver alloy tsuba (sword guards), forged iron, and helmets.

One of the most famous sword testing episodes from the early Meiji period involved Kenkichi Sakakibara of the Jikishinkage-ryu. Sakakibara became a pupil of Seiichiro Otani at age thirteen and later taught at the Kobusho [a training center for the martial arts, established in 1855 by the Tokugawa Shogunate]. He was also an instructor to the Shogun’s corps of bodyguards. Sokaku Takeda, restorer of the Daito-ryu tradition, became Sakakibara’s pupil at the age of thirteen and studied many different martial arts and weapons including sword (kenjutsu), staff (bojutsu), and spear (sojutsu) for a period of two years.

In 1886, a helmet-splitting contest was held at the mansion of Prince Fushimi. The first contender was Yoshitada Ueda, the best of the top four students of the Kyoshin Meichi-ryu Yanai school. Facing the target, a “peach-pit-style” helmet by Myochin, he brought his sword down with an explosive kiai. The sword rebounded sharply, however, and sent him reeling backwards. Second up was SousukeHenmi, expert in Tatsumi-ryu iaijutsu and instructor at the police headquarters. His sword, too, bounced off the target and he was thrown off his feet. Sakakibara stepped up third, raising his dotanuki sword back so far that the ridge of it almost touched his back, and brought it down again in one mighty swoop, burying his blade nearly eleven centimeters deep in the target [from Nihon Kenk-yaku Den (Tales of Japanese Swordsmen) by Yo Tsumoto].

Helmet-splitting has been practiced only rarely, even in Japan. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, in Japan most swords and helmets are valuable treasures, and it is impossible to repeat a test in the event that one has failed to make a clean cut. While a successful cut would certainly be praised and much talked about, a failed cut could result in serious dishonor. To chip or break such swords would spoil them irrevocably. The helmet would also be damaged in vain, and shame might be brought to the smith who had made the sword. Finally, damaging the blade of an already deceased swordsmith would amount to destroying a treasure of priceless historical value. For these and other reasons, most martial artists are rather reluctant to even consider performing helmet-splitting.

Prior to and during the Second World War, the famous kendo and iaido teacher Hakudo Nakayama selected swords for use by the Imperial Palace police by performing tameshigiri on the hip bones of pigs. I know of three swords bearing Nakayama’s sword-testing name, Mi-namoto no Yoshichika, that have shown up in the United States.

Tameshigiri today

In 1986, on the 100th anniversary of Kenkichi Sakakibara’s successful blow, a helmet-splitting event using a sword forged by Yoshindo Yoshiwara of Tokyo was held and even broadcast on television. Yoshiwara had been making swords for collectors and connoisseurs for twenty years. This time, however, he consulted other sword-related specialists such as testers, polishers, scabbard makers, and hilt wrappers, and for the first time in his career fashioned a sword designed specifically for helmet-splitting. Kendo and iaido 8th dan Terutaka Kawabata buried this sword twelve centimeters into a Momoyama period (1568-1600) helmet, known as an akaurushi him no kabuto.

On February 16th, 1994, in a cable television studio while making a Shink-endo video, I used a sword forged by Paul Champagne (an American who has been working for three years to become a swordsmith) to make a thirteen centimeter long cut into a helmet, called a kur-ourushi hine no kabuto, dating from around the same period.

Sword making in the United States

I acted as sword tester for the late swordsmith Yasuhiro Kobayashi (who died in 1987). Back then he had a sword shop called Kanuchi near Sen-gakuji Temple in Tokyo. His forge was in Nirazaki in Yamanashi prefecture, near the ruins of Shimpu Castle of Katsuyori Takeda, son of Shingen Takeda. I used to test his swords on the trees in the woods behind the forge and on pieces of firewood stacked in the garden.

I used to ask Yasuhiro about the carbon content and various other aspects of his swords’ constitution. I later related that information to Paul Champagne. I also gave him a set of whetstones and told him what I knew about sword balance from my experience. He took detailed measurements of my sword’s length, width, curvature, and layering and returned to New York. A while later he showed up in Los Angeles with four swords that he had made. Three of them had a carbon content similar to what I had told him. The fourth had a high carbon content of 0.9. I proceeded to test them on ax helves, thick-stemmed bamboo, wooden 2-by-2s and 2-by-4s, and so on. After we had finished, Paul said that he’d heard that swords with high carbon content would be likely to break, so we decided to do an experiment. We placed a steel helmet worn by Guy Power, a student of mine who is a captain in the army, on the end of a post and struck at it five times. It was very hard, of course, and the blade wouldn’t cut into it. All I could manage was a dent about two centimeters deep and fifteen centimeters long. On the sixth strike, however, the sword broke right in the middle and went sailing into the air, spinning around and making a sound as it went, and stuck itself in the roof of my house. Paul was rather surprised, of course, and I think he must also have realized what I meant when I had told him how dangerous a broken sword can be.

Among Japanese people, there may be those who laugh away the idea of a katana made by an American. Some people may not consider a sword made by an unlicensed smith to be a legitimate Japanese-style sword or reject swords that are not part of any specific sword making tradition. 1, however, think that an American who has learned to make swords that good in such a short period of time deserves to be applauded.

Getting off the track a bit, the United States seems to have quite a few knife-makers, and wherever you go there always seems to be a knife show going on. Phill Hartfield was fascinated by the world of knife-making from a very young age and he has spent his whole life devoted to the craft. The katana he makes are so sharp it is frightening. He has been observing tameshigiri for over fifty years and has seen my tameshigiri and demonstration videos many times. I felt quite honored when he told me that he considers me the best sword tester in the United States, and he even presented me with a sword he had made. I felt a meeting of hearts and a sense of respect—the kinds of things that Japanese seem to be forgetting these days in a world where you can buy anything with money. It was one of the best gifts I have received since I’ve been in the United States.

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