Not Saussure

January 6, 2007

Trying out your new sword on a chance wayfarer

Filed under: history, Internet, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 2:28 pm

Listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4 this lunchtime, I heard Jo Brand explaining that her favourite word was a Japanese term meaning ‘to try out your new sword on a passer-by’, which she rather liked the sound of (assuming, one supposes, she felt herself at no risk of being the passer-by), but she couldn’t remember the Japanese term for this practice. This vaguely reminded me of an essay I’d read years ago — must have been late ’70s or early ’80s — when I came across a discussion of the practice in a philosophical essay of that title, which used it to attack moral and cultural relativism. Apparently, the Japanese samurai not only had to be able to kill their masters’ enemies in battle but they had to be able to dispatch them with a single blow; failure so to do was apparently an immense dishonour and the only possible way to atone for it was to commit ritual suicide.

Consequently, the provident samurai would, on taking delivery of a new sword, obviously want to road-test it to determine it was, in fact, ‘fit for purpose.’ There were complex rules about who could be used as guinea-pigs in these experiments and, apparently, chance wayfarers were the best choice. The author of the essay used this example to try to argue that, no matter how tolerant and liberal minded one was, and no matter how much one understood the cultural milieu of the samurai, there was no way a C20th Western liberal could begin to justify the practice.

My take on it, by the way, was that it probably — no matter what anyone said — didn’t go down too well with chance wayfarers in Japan at the time, so this was probably another example of a particular group in a society trying to pretend its cultural practices were the norm, and, in any case, if anyone tried to explain that his habit of running about slicing people up would have been considered perfectly normal behaviour in C16th Japan, that was all very interesting but not much of a guide to behaviour in Britain nowadays and that our legal system takes a dim view of such activities; I’ve always rather liked the quote attributed to General Napier when he was suppressing sati in British India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

(another example of powerful elites determining social morality, you see).

Anway, my curiosity piqued by Jo Brand’s recollection of the practice, I thought I’d try to look up the article, or at least the Japanese term for it. Mr Google quickly led me to To Try a New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer: This blog, a crossroads. My words, a sword. You, a chance wayfarer, where the latest entry is:

Hey English people!

Why are you visiting my blog? Don’t get me wrong; I love new visitors, especially from outside the USA. But I’ve been getting a bunch of visits from people in England searching for variations of “to try a new sword on a chance wayfarer.” It’s made me really curious. Are you all looking it up for a Japanese language class assignment or something?

So it rather seems that a lot of other people wondered about the term, too.

I was also delighted to discover from one of the comments that the Japanese term is Tsujigiri (辻斬)

Who says you never learn anything from fooling about on the internet?

(Now, let’s see what this does for my hits).

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  1. Thanks. I was feeling in need of reassurance tonight that there was some value to this blogging lark. I’ve come to the right place.

    Since we’re on the subject, would anyone happen to know what the technical term is for quoting just the first half of a well-known phrase or proverb, in the knowledge that the second half will be implicitly understood? I know it exists, but I’m blowed if I can remember it. Nothing ventured…

    Comment by Ian — January 7, 2007 @ 9:20 pm

  2. Oh, you learn lots from the Internet. Of course the most we learn, most of the time, is, um, how to waste time! :-)

    Comment by Andy — January 10, 2007 @ 9:13 am

  3. Nice write up.
    Read more about Sati at

    Comment by Vinayak — January 25, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Well, it got me to your blog. But then, mine is called “A wayfarer’s notes”. Perhaps it should now be “a wary wayfarer’s notes”.

    Comment by Vincent — July 9, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

  5. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

    Comment by sandrar — September 10, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

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