Tameshigiri: Exploring the History of Yamada Asaemon

Published by Supein Nihonto on


Yamada Asaemon was the title held by the heads of the Japanese Yamada family, who served the shogunate as sword inspectors and executioners during the Edo period.

As early as the 16th century, individuals were renowned for their tameshigiri technique, such as General Tani Moriyoshi (谷 衛 好) and his son Moritomo (衛 友). As explained by the Jesuit Luís Fróis in a treatise on the differences between Japan and Europe in 1585, the testing of sword sharpness was not performed on animals but on people. Usually, a certification was engraved on the tang to attest to it.

The profession of tameshigiri did not begin until Yamano Eikyū. He also participated in executions and is said to have beheaded over 6000 convicts as an executioner in Edo (present-day Tokyo). His son Kanjuro continued his father’s profession to also become a katana tester. After Kanjūrō’s death, the position passed to his son. Eventually, due to an eye problem, he proposed that his younger brother be named as an adopted son and successor, but his request was rejected, leading the family to resign from government service.

As a result, Yamano’s students took over their work. One of them was the Ronin Yamada Aseomon Sadatake (1657-1716). In 1716, he requested permission to pass on his knowledge to his son as a potential successor. The request was granted, and henceforth only the Yamada family held this position in Edo. For a Ronin, this was an extraordinary professional leap. However, they did not receive any fief.

Tachi en shirasaya periodo Edo con prueba de corte

Tachi for sale on the website in the Katana section with Tameshigiri testing certification.
In the service of the government
The Yamada family trained a considerable number of students who would act in place of their master if necessary. Often, a suitable successor could not be found among the family’s own children, leading to the adoption of one of these students, many of whom came from high-ranking samurai families. Since the Yamada family did not have a fief and, therefore, no income from rice, they relied on other sources of livelihood. Direct compensation from the government and sovereigns, for whom they occasionally worked, remained modest. The primary source of income was the corpses of the executed, officially handed over to them. These corpses were used to test the sharpness of new swords. Sometimes, samurais who wanted to test their swords by hand had to purchase the corpse for this purpose. The extraction of the liver, brain, and bile, incorporated into pills, also proved profitable. These “Yamada pills” (山田 丸), “Asaemon pills” (浅 右衛門 丸), “human skin pills” (人 胆 丸), etc., were valued throughout the country.


After the fall of the Tokugawa in 1868, Yamada Asaemon (8th generation) and his brother joined the new Meiji government as executioners. However, by 1870, sword testing on corpses and organ extraction were prohibited. In 1880, hanging execution was introduced. Two years later, decapitation was abolished. In 1882, the last Yamada resigned from government service.


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