At our NY Token Kai meeting at the Met last month, I was were briefly talking about cutting tests (tameshigiri) with some of the attendees as one of the blades on display, a wakizashi by the third Edo Yasutsugu (康継) generation, has one inlaid in gold. The question came up about cutting test extremes, e.g. the maximum number of bodies that were ever cut through (seven on a katana by Kanefusa, 兼房). On this occasion, I brought up that I even remembered seeing a short ko-wakizashi cutting through a body but couldn’t recall the maker on the spot. Doing some digging, I eventually found the blade that I was thinking of. It is a ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of mere 38.5 cm (15.1”) by the first generation Nobukuni (see picture below).
Picture 1: jūyō, ko-wakizashi, mei: Nobukuni (信国), kinzōgan-mei Kuroda Chikuzen no Kami-dono go-shoji – Dō-otoshi kirite Nakahawa Saheita + kaō (黒田筑前守殿御所持・胴落切手中川左平太「花押」), nagasa 38.5 cm, sori 0.6 cm, motohaba 3.35 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
The type of cut used is not mentioned but this was common at the time of expert sword tester Nakagawa Saheita (中川左平太, ?-1653) as tameshigiri were yet not standardized. However, there were already specific terms for cutting through/off limbs etc. so it can be said that the blade did cut somewhere through a torso (dō, 胴). Now the blade is obviously not a tantō and does have some substance, but still very impressive, isn’t it?
Well, shorter blades were often tested with a special test hilt (kiri-tsuka, 切り柄) which are said to have been in use since the Momoyama period (1573-1600). In a document named Yamano-ryū Ryōdan no Maki (山野流両段之巻) from the second year of Kan’ei (寛永, 1624), we find recommendations on the length of kiri-tsuka depending on the length of the blade that was going to be tested. The entry that qualifies for the blade introduced here states that for a blade with a nagasa between 1 shaku 5 sun and 9 sun (45~27 cm, 17.7~10.6”), the kiri-tsuka should measure 1 shaku 4 sun or 1 shaku 5 sun (42 or 45 cm, 16.5 or 17.7” respectively) long. That is, such short blades were tested with hilts about as long as the blade itself.
Some of these early kiri-tsuka were just tightly wrapped whereas others were reinforced by metal bands. Later on, the famous Yamada (山田) family of sword testers came up with sophisticated, more ergonomical kiri-tsuka reinforced by metal rings and hold in place by a mekugi and a wedge instead of a habaki (see pictures below).
Picture 2: Various forms of kiri-tsuka.
As stated in the kinzōgan-mei, the blade was once owned by Kuroda Chikuzen no Kami, which may refer to Kuroda Yoshitaka (黒田孝高, 1546-1604) or to his son Nagamasa Kuroda Nagamasa (黒田長政, 1568-1623), although in most cases, it refers to the latter. I wrote about a similar reference to a Kuroda ownership here. Also lead tsuba, so-called tameshi-tsuba (試し鐔), were sometimes used to add weight to a blade that was going to be tested in order improve the result. The Nezu-ryū (根津流, 17th century) of tameshigiri recommends that for tantō measuring less than 9 sun 5 bu (~ 28.8 cm, 11.3”), a tameshi-tsuba weighing somewhere between 250 and 300 monme (940~1.125 g) should be used. For ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of about 1 shaku and 5 or 6 sun (45~48 cm, 17.7~18.9”), the tameshi-tsuba should weigh 150 to 200 monme (560~750 g). So our Nobukuni ko-wakizashi would be somewhere in between.
As for kiri-tsuka and cutting tests in general, much more detailed info can be found in my Tameshigiri book. And that should do it for today.
Picture 3: Kuroda Nagamasa.