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Old 07-29-2012, 06:06 PM   #1
Marie Noelle Fequiere
 
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Traditional beheading in old Japan.

In the movie "The Last Samurai", Katsumoto helps his unfortunate friend General Hasegawa commit seppuku by chopping his head off. The head is shown - from a respectable distance, thank God - rolling away from the body.
A friend of mine who has spent some time training in Japan - in another martial art - insists that this scene is inaccurate. He says that the tradition was that the neck was cut only half way so that the body could later be buried in one piece.
Now, I know that nowadays, a film director will do careful and extensive research before presenting a movie about a foreign culture.
So what is the definitive answer to this question?
I would also like to clarify something else. When presenting a katana or a bokken to someone - Sensei, sempai, kohai, whoever - with both hands, it just seems to me that the right way is to make sure that the sharp edge of the blade is facing me, and away from the recipient. I asked Sensei, and he is not sure about that. So is this detail important, and if yes, what is the correct way to present a sword?
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Old 07-29-2012, 07:02 PM   #2
Michael Hackett
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Marie,

From my reading, supposedly the head was not supposed to be completely detached from the body during seppuku, but rather to remain joined with the slightest of tissue. I've read that in several different sources and truly don't know the validity.

As for presenting the sword, that depends on the school. Generally one presents it so it cannot harm the recipient, thus the blade towards the presenter. Sword ettiquette is important and the devil is in the details. Perhaps Keith Larman can weigh in here.

Michael
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Old 07-30-2012, 06:53 AM   #3
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Marie Noelle Fequiere wrote: View Post
In the movie "The Last Samurai", Katsumoto helps his unfortunate friend General Hasegawa commit seppuku by chopping his head off. The head is shown - from a respectable distance, thank God - rolling away from the body.
A friend of mine who has spent some time training in Japan - in another martial art - insists that this scene is inaccurate. He says that the tradition was that the neck was cut only half way so that the body could later be buried in one piece.
Now, I know that nowadays, a film director will do careful and extensive research before presenting a movie about a foreign culture.
So what is the definitive answer to this question?
I would also like to clarify something else. When presenting a katana or a bokken to someone - Sensei, sempai, kohai, whoever - with both hands, it just seems to me that the right way is to make sure that the sharp edge of the blade is facing me, and away from the recipient. I asked Sensei, and he is not sure about that. So is this detail important, and if yes, what is the correct way to present a sword?
Dear Marie,
Blade cutting edge placed in a manner which faces you not the other party.Usually sword is in sheath but rule still applies.
I would imagine that it would be considered disrespectful if during a Seppuku ritual , the attendant would severe the main contenders head completely.The role of the assistant was considered to be an important one.Even if the ritual is by our standards a grim one, it had to be carried out with formality/dignity etc. Cheers, Joe.
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Old 07-30-2012, 07:07 AM   #4
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

This seems to greatly depend on the ages. I know for a fact that in earlier Japan, around the age of Miyamoto Musashi (so about 1584 – 1645), heads were indeed cut off in full. In fact, they were cut off in full, and placed on stakes. Some of the biggest battle around that time is said to have had thousands of stakes with heads planted in huge areas.

But The Last Samurai takes place considerably later, so I wouldn't know if practice had changed by then.

That said, I would never take anything from that movie seriously, it is grossly inaccurate in too many points to mention.
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Old 07-30-2012, 08:00 AM   #5
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

You mean that Tom Cruise running around fighting ninjas isn't historically accurate?!?

Besides, if I'm going to hack someone's neck with a katana, that head's coming off!
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Old 07-30-2012, 08:39 AM   #6
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

In many styles of swordsmanship there are kata for the "second" in a suicide. In some of those styles the kata is explicitly taught to assist in the suicide by cutting the neck without severing the head completely. The cut is taken if the person committing suicide shows proper form and honor by plunging the blade in to their own belly "correctly". This allows them to avoid the suffering of pulling the blade across their own organs. According to tradition by not severing the head the second allows the person to retain their honor by not having their head completely removed since they showed proper intent to do the act correctly.

Like all things I've heard different and subtle variations from people from different styles. However, also keep in mind that this particular kata is considered particularly "private" by many and is sometimes really not discussed much outside the group since it is a sensitive and particularly private matter traditionally. So sometimes I wonder if the story being told to an outsider will be the same as the story known by the "head" of the style.

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Old 07-30-2012, 08:43 AM   #7
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Oh, and presenting a sword. Again, there is some variation from style to style. But general rule is don't point the sharp part at the person you're handing it to... For obvious reasons. But it also depends if you're handing a sword over in the saya or outside the saya (and varies a bit from style to style again). Handing it over with two hands on the blade, on under the tsuka, the other under the saya, edge up, is conventional for a sword in koshirae or shirasaya. Handing a sword to someone outside the saya is often point up, edge towards person originally holding it, right hand at bottom of tsuka (although some styles vary this and hold it near the tsuba).

In other words... Context matters. If it is a martial arts context, ask sensei. If it is a collecting/art appreciation context, ask them. Just be safe...

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Old 07-30-2012, 02:17 PM   #8
Marie Noelle Fequiere
 
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Arigato, Larman Sensei, and also everyone else, including Roger .
I'm trying to imagine having to execute the blow hard enough to sever the bones, but not too much, so that enough skin remains to hold - more or less - the head in place. Those samurai really were some people.
Well, it seems that we may try to learn all we want, the masters of the past are still stubbornly holding on to their secrets.
Maybe if we were to discover everything, it would become boring....
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Old 07-30-2012, 02:56 PM   #9
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Marie Noelle Fequiere wrote: View Post
Arigato, Larman Sensei, and also everyone else, including Roger .
I'm trying to imagine having to execute the blow hard enough to sever the bones, but not too much, so that enough skin remains to hold - more or less - the head in place. Those samurai really were some people.
Well, it seems that we may try to learn all we want, the masters of the past are still stubbornly holding on to their secrets.
Maybe if we were to discover everything, it would become boring....
Also, you have to take into account the skill and precision required to cut the neck with a lethal blow, without decapitating the person. If you overestimate, the head comes off. If you under estimate, blood squirts from their neck and just adds to their misery without killing them. Or you miss entirely, like a golfer failing to strike a golfball. Not to mention the person could move while you swing the sword. There's a lot of ways to screw that up is what I'm saying.

I know the samurai were adept swordsmen, but even Kevin Durant throws up an airball from time to time.
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Old 07-30-2012, 06:01 PM   #10
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Cutting through live bone, according to old accounts, wasn't that terribly difficult. Remember that live bone is, well, alive, and softer. And a well made sword used correctly cut remarkably well. In the kata it is more about perfect form and being able to stop the blade very precisely, a skill worked on by most.

Yukio Mishima committed seppuku at the end of his takeover in 1970. One of his assistants attempted to perform kaishaku (the name of the act) and by all accounts was so nervous he failed miserably only hacking away at the back of Mishima. Another person there picked up the sword and finished it correctly only to also finish off the kaishakunin who himself committed seppuku right after. Apparently this fella did everything "correctly" on both men.

Gruesome topic, really.

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Old 07-30-2012, 07:45 PM   #11
Walter Martindale
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Roger Flatley wrote: View Post
Also, you have to take into account the skill and precision required to cut the neck with a lethal blow, without decapitating the person. If you overestimate, the head comes off. If you under estimate, blood squirts from their neck and just adds to their misery without killing them. Or you miss entirely, like a golfer failing to strike a golfball. Not to mention the person could move while you swing the sword. There's a lot of ways to screw that up is what I'm saying.

I know the samurai were adept swordsmen, but even Kevin Durant throws up an airball from time to time.
Um... You'd be underestimating quite a lot, or flinching and pulling the cut - if you get deep enough to get major arteries spurting blood, the spinal cord has been cut at the very least even if not the vertebral bodies - the vertebral arteries go up the neck through the transverse processes of the vertebra, and would be chopped at about the same time as the spinal cord.
Can't really comment on the ritual - anatomy, yes.

The "school" of handing a sword to someone that I was "schooled" in held that if you trust the person enough to give them your sword, you give it to them with the handle to their right, and with the edge towards you - and you hold it with both hands underneath, by the blade (or by the scabbard). If the recipient is worthy of your trust, he or she will take the sword also by the blade or scabbard, two handed, and with a bow. If he/she isn't worthy of the trust, then (a) you shouldn't give them the sword, and (b) the handle is there, and your head might not be...
Old school?

Cheers,
W
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Old 07-30-2012, 09:53 PM   #12
Marie Noelle Fequiere
 
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Thank you for these clarifications, Walter. Especially for the sword handing. It does make sense.
I will be taking a lot of informations to the dojo.
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Old 07-30-2012, 10:00 PM   #13
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

And Larman Sensei is right, the topic is rather gruesome , but captivating nonetheless.
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Old 07-31-2012, 12:02 AM   #14
Michael Hackett
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Again, this would be a good point for Keith Larman to speak to, but I think there were major differences between the seppuku strike and an execution strike. From my reading it was perfectly fine to behead someone being executed, but certain skills as described above were expected with seppuku. Ugly to contemplate, but a part of history.

Michael
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Old 07-31-2012, 01:33 AM   #15
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Michael Hackett wrote: View Post
Again, this would be a good point for Keith Larman to speak to, but I think there were major differences between the seppuku strike and an execution strike. From my reading it was perfectly fine to behead someone being executed, but certain skills as described above were expected with seppuku. Ugly to contemplate, but a part of history.
I was about to chime in with the same point.

Execution of criminals ranged from crucification, to impaling to just plane old decapitation. Executing captured soldiers was not exactly unheard and the niceties were dispensed with if the numbers were inconvenient.

As you said Seppuka was a ritual was all that entails and did not necessarily have to be preceded by the belly cut. Death by fan as proxy.

Peter Rehse Shodokan Aikido
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Old 07-31-2012, 07:58 AM   #16
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Peter Rehse wrote: View Post
I was about to chime in with the same point.

Execution of criminals ranged from crucification, to impaling to just plane old decapitation. Executing captured soldiers was not exactly unheard and the niceties were dispensed with if the numbers were inconvenient.

As you said Seppuka was a ritual was all that entails and did not necessarily have to be preceded by the belly cut. Death by fan as proxy.
Yes, Peter and Michael are of course correct. There were very significant differences between an executioner and kaishakunin.

Also, like Peter said, In things like seppuku the kaishakunin (the person who performs kaishaku) would sometimes perform the cut before the person plunged the tanto in to their abdomen if they felt the person showed the sincere intent to carry it out. This was a highly ritualized thing and many styles of swordsmanship have kata that deal with seppuku as the kaishaku. This is an extremely somber and serious matter for obvious reasons. It really isn't often talked about much as it is simply not a topic for polite conversation. But it is still taken quite seriously.

That said execution and test cutting on already dead bodies were also performed in days of old. There were literally professional test cutters who "validated" the quality of blades by testing them on either corpses or live prisoners condemned to death. Often blades that were used for such things were then engraved with something called a tameshimei detailing the cut. So you'd see inscriptions that would read something like "this blade cut X bodies in one cut" or "1st trunk cut (they had specified locations) through to the sand (meaning went through the body in to the sand underneath)". But this was completely different from the role of a kaishaku with a completely different set of "protocols" and attitudes. Some of these blades are quite valuable because of the mei, others aren't taken so seriously as the tameshimei is sometimes suspect. But some sword testers were themselves quite famous hence their tameshimei is desirable but I don't know a great deal about them. There are also some where the inscribed tameshimei is also inlaid in gold attesting to the importance of the tameshimei.

All that said executions weren't exactly rare in days of old and usually had nothing to do with testing the blade. Being given the option to commit seppuku was considered an honor and not something for the average fella executed.

Last edited by Keith Larman : 07-31-2012 at 08:02 AM. Reason: keep feeling the need to clarify...

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Old 07-31-2012, 02:27 PM   #17
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Walter Martindale wrote: View Post
Um... You'd be underestimating quite a lot, or flinching and pulling the cut - if you get deep enough to get major arteries spurting blood, the spinal cord has been cut at the very least even if not the vertebral bodies - the vertebral arteries go up the neck through the transverse processes of the vertebra, and would be chopped at about the same time as the spinal cord.
Can't really comment on the ritual - anatomy, yes.
Yea, I guess if you actually made contact, the likelihood of them surviving a cut to the neck with a katana is still very low. If you hit the spine, it's over for sure.

I was unaware that the ritual dictated leaving the head attached, so this is a new insight into a barbaric samurai custom. Just this idea of stabbing oneself in the stomach, then having your head partially decapitated by a cohort in order to spare yourself the agony of dragging a knife through your bowels is very hard to imagine. That this would be somehow be more honorable or less painful, even harder to comprehend.

Last edited by genin : 07-31-2012 at 02:40 PM.
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Old 07-31-2012, 11:01 PM   #18
Rennis Buchner
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

One needs to keep in mind that there was never one specific method or "ritual" developed for the beheading procedure. Among the surviving documents of our ryu there are a number dealing specifically with how to deal with the kaishaku role (these documents are among the oldest surviving and are thought to date from the first half of the 1600's). They all clearly state right off the bat that the procedure varies from domain to domain but what follows are some general tips on how to deal with if you should ever be called upon to perform the duty.

I won't go into specific details, but what you do can vary greatly depending on the situation, often depending on whether you are performing the beheading due to a criminal punishment having been handed down or it being performed for other reasons. In some cases you will use your tachi/katana, in others you will use the wakizaki. You may or may not use kiai depending on the situation. Things like where you stand will vary depending on the time of day (hence where your shadow falls), etc. There is advice on how to deal with people who lose their nerve, or even suddenly turn and try to attack.

The idea of leaving a small piece of skin to prevent the head from rolling around unseemingly is fairly prevalent in Japan today (most likely from Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu practitioners using this method in their kaishaku kata), but in all cases, the remaining flap of skin would then be severed and the head presented for inspection to the lord or what ever official was presiding over the event. Again, different domains (and ryu) have different methods of preparing and presenting the head.

For what it's worth...
Rennis
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Old 08-01-2012, 12:31 AM   #19
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Yeah, I think this is one of those topics where there are more exceptions than rules... It is difficult to talk about in any sort of authoritative way because there are so many variations and subtle things that it is hard to find any sort of solid ground. Lord, we are talking about a 1000 year history of the sword and how it was used in a most difficult of situations. And where context could and would vary so considerably. Even within the history of a single ryuha there might be multiple answers to the questions depending on the larger context.

For me it reminds me of the sword itself. I can't count how many times I've had people ask me questions that seem so simple, so straightforward, but the answer is really "it just depends". And then it is often likely that the better answer is often "you simply don't know enough to understand the answer, and besides, you're asking all the wrong questions..."

On that note... Gotta get ready for the big sword show in a few days. Must finish the polish, must finish the polish, must finish the polish...

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Old 08-01-2012, 12:54 AM   #20
PeterR
 
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Damm I love this stuff. Never could get into the sword swinging (did some cutting, learned some kata, even hammered out my own little knife) but I love hearing about the effects. Tell me I am normal please.

Peter Rehse Shodokan Aikido
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Old 08-03-2012, 08:00 PM   #21
Marie Noelle Fequiere
 
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Peter Rehse wrote: View Post
Damm I love this stuff. Never could get into the sword swinging (did some cutting, learned some kata, even hammered out my own little knife) but I love hearing about the effects. Tell me I am normal please.
Oops.... no answer so far?
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Old 08-03-2012, 08:51 PM   #22
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Quote:
Marie Noelle Fequiere wrote: View Post
Oops.... no answer so far?
I noticed that - there is a certain cruelity in the "Art of Peace"

Peter Rehse Shodokan Aikido
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Old 08-04-2012, 12:12 AM   #23
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Hey, I'm on my way up to the San Francisco Token Kai so I can look at a whole bunch of really nice, old swords. Seems perfectly normal to me to get all giddy about this stuff... Perfectly normal.

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Old 08-07-2012, 08:25 AM   #24
Keith Larman
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Just got back from a sword show. Took a photo of the nakago (tang) of a sword with a tameshimei (body cutting inscription). The tameshimei is the one inlaid in gold.

Maybe someone here who's better at reading kanji can translate. If not, I'll get out my books and give it a go later...
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Old 08-07-2012, 03:05 PM   #25
Michael Douglas
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Re: Traditional beheading in old Japan.

Keith with two holes for the peg does this mean it has been re-hilted requiring a new peg position?
How hard/soft is the tang typically : for drilling without heat?
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