Are Saidan-mei swords hype?
Tameshigiri and Saidan-mei swords.
Visitors to my site often ask me about the origin and the story behind SAIDAN-MEI(裁断銘) and TAMESHIGIRI(試し斬り).
The Japanese sword played a significant role in Japan from ancient times, not only as a weapon, but it was also considered as a symbol of authority and used as a diplomatic gift. And Saidan-mei was very useful to show the value of a sword, but some of the Saidan-Mei results are hard to believe. The most unbelievable one I have ever heard is 7 bodies. Is it just a hype or is it possible that a swing of a sword really cut 7 bodies?
How the cutting test began.
The origin of Tameshigiri has still remained uncertain but one theory says that one of Oda Nobunaga’s(織田信長) subordinates, Tani Daizen(谷大善), started the test.The time the subordinate lived was the warning age of SENGOKU PERIOD(戦国時代), when there were countless civil wars throughout the country. Having a dull sword meant death in the battle, Samurai needed a highly-qualified sword to save their lord and province. Tani Daizen started using the corpses on the battlefields to see the cutting ability of his sword.
Why are most of Saidan-mei swords from the Edo period?
Once the Edo Shougunate successfully ended endless all civil wars, the number of battles decreased sharply and there were few occasions to use swords. Under such a peaceful time, many people, especially non-Samurai, questioned the necessity of the test and only government-hired swordsmen could perform the test.
The ban prompted the Japanese sword to take on added symbolistic meanings and then Samurai found value in the background of a sword more rather than a sword as a weapon. Samurai preferred a sword with a Saidan-mei and then a demand for Tameshigiri gradually increased.
The testers mainly worked for the Daimyo families and the notable swordsmen. But other than them, some swordsmiths also were customers of the testers. Those smiths found the test an effective means of advertising. And exaggeration is an essential element in advertising.
Frauds over test results.
Most of the test results are 2 or 3 bodies, the number seems reasonable but some results of Saidan-mei swords are debatable. As I said, exaggeration is an essential element in advertising. So with an astonishing result, a sword can be a perfect diplomatic gift. That being said, there’s no way of confirming the truth now. After all, we cannot confirm the cutting ability of a sword unless we test it in practice.
The test is said to cost a lot, so only some wealthy people could afford to have their swords tested, this is the reason why the testers’ main customers were Daimyo families and notable swordsmen. The same is true of the smiths, only rich smiths could ask the tester for the cutting test.
Had they been already famous? so that they were affordable to have a sword tested? or did the result of the cutting test make them famous? Both are possible, but either way, a smith should be highly skilled. Because even though a bribe was effective to get a good result, a sword must be of good quality otherwise it would seem very doubtful and nobody would be conceived. So most of the swords tested should be in higher quality.
My conclusion is that all the Saidan-Mei swords are not entirely hype, as many of those swords must be made by good smiths. Even if the cutting test result seems unrealistic, unrealistic results still have historical value.