Japanese swords have long been noted for their sharpness (wazamono) and cutting ability. In olden times this was judged by testing the cutting ability of the sword on bodies of condemned criminals. The practice of test cutting is called tameshigiri. The bodies were mounted on a cutting stand and specific cuts were made. The sword was judged on how many bodies were severed with each type of cut. In 1815 an article in the Kaiho Kenjaku, ranked the cutting ability of approximately 200 swords by various Koto and Shinto smiths. The swords were ranked as:
Among the blades ranked saijo o-wazamono were swords by: Kanemoto I, Kanemoto II, Osafune Motoshige, Nagasone Kotetsu, Mutsu Tadayoshi, Sukehiro, Kunikane and Okimasa.
Among the blades ranked o-wazamono were swords by: Yasumitsu, Mino Kanesada, Osafune Sukesada, Higo Kuniyasu, Nobuyoshi, Kanewaka I, Omi Daijo Tadahiro and Kaga Kanemori.
Among the blades ranked ryo-wazamono were swords by: Norimitsu, Kanesada III, Kanabo Masazane, Tsunahiro, Tadamitsu, Katsumitsu, Masatoshi, Ujifusa, Tanba Yoshimichi, Sukenao, Yasutsugu, Korekazu, Yoshihiro, Hisamichi, Kunimune and Naomichi.
Among blades ranked wazamono were swords by: Kiyomitsu, Sukehiro, Tadakuni, Sadahiro, Masatsugu, Kuniyoshi, Kinmichi, Masahiro, Yoshimasa, Kunikiyo, Morikuni, Aizu Kunisada and Tadayoshi.
None of the great Koto masters were tested. Among blades not tested were swords by Soshu Masamune, Soshu Sadamune, Bizen Nagamitsu and Ise Muramasa. Their swords were considered too valuable as historical art objects to risk damage by testing. Their swords have traditionally been considered among the finest blades ever made.
The Yamada family were also sword testers (executioners). They made a living cutting people with swords and kept detailed records of their performance. As a result of these extensive tests there were 8 shinto smiths whose blades consistently performed and which were designated Saijo Owazamono. They are Kotetsu, Nagasone Okimasa,Tatara Nagayuki, Shodai Tadayoshi, Mutsu no Kami Tadayoshi, Shodai Sukehiro, Shodai Kunikane, Mutsu Daijo Nagamichi.
Occassionally a sword will be found with a cutting attestation carved in the nakago (tang). It may state how many bodies were cut with what strokes. These are most commonly found on late Shinto and Shinshinto era blades. Many are later "additions" to the blade and should be viewed with some skepticism.
Today Japanese swords are tested by cutting tied bundles of straw or by cutting bamboo. Do not attempt to use an antique sword for cutting practice. Poor technique will result in bending the sword blade or worse.
Nihonto Newsletter by Albert Yamanaka, published by JSS/US.
The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords by Kokan Nagayama, published by Kodansha International.
Information on the Yamada family of sword testers courtesy of Mark Robinson.
Gendai | Jumei Tosho | Origami | Flaws | Polearms | Tsuba | Logos | Real? | Clubs | Books | Events | Listservs | Kanji | Sageo
Nakirishi Mei | Measure | NBTHK | FAQ | Sinclaire | Articles | Sword Sites | Japan Sites | Martial Arts | World Swords
Yoshichika | Kanefusa | Kanezane | Teruhide | Koa Isshin | Nagamitsu | Emura | Tanto | Yoshimichi | Yasunori | Shigetsugu