Friday, December 16, 2005

Trying my new sword

"Try a new sword on a chance wayfarer"? What's that supposed to mean? It has two meanings for me. The first comes from when I began studying Japanese. As a way to motivate us to learn to use our Japanese-English dictionaries with facility, our teacher used to have us look up the oddest words he could find. One of those words was "辻斬り" "tsujigiri (o suru)". Tsujigiri was a practice in Japan, not all that common as far as I know, of a samurai getting a new sword and hanging around a crossroads ("tsuji") until a random peasant came along, at which point the samurai would cut ("giri") the unfortunate fellow in half to see if the new sword was any good. So, literally, "tsujigiri" means "crossroads cut."

The translation my brand-new dictionary provided for "tsujigiri o suru," however, was not "crossroads cut." Nor was it "to kill a random peasant to see if your sword's a good one," nor even "practicing for battle by butchering a social inferior." It was "to try a new sword on a chance wayfarer." I've always been taken with those words. I have no idea if it was deliberate or simply a serendipitous turn of phrase by a usually-awkward non-native speaker, but the phrase seems so perfectly to capture the archaic flavor of a word like "tsujigiri." "To try a new sword on a chance wayfarer." Not to "test" a new sword, but to "try" it. Not "a random passerby," but "a chance wayfarer." We no longer talk that way, but how better to convey a sense that this is the lost custom of an ancient time, a time both more savage and more genteel than today? So this phrase is a reminder to me, one that hints to me, as a translator and writer, of the beauty of words and the "Ah!" moment that can be brought by the perfect word in the right place.

The second meaning? That should be obvious. This blog is a crossroads, my words my sword, and you, Gentle Reader, a chance wayfarer. Yet, though I want to use my words on you, you are my equal not my inferior, and I hope to interest you rather than to cut you in pieces. Unlike the samurai who saw wayfaring peasants as single-use, disposable tools to be taken without asking, I ask you please to come back again and again so that I may try my words on you. In return, I can at least promise you that the experience will be better than a slash through the torso with a sharp sword.


  1. Wow!! You do have an edgyness don't you? But it is a very fascinating edgyness. I like it.


  2. Watch out. Some of us chance wayfarers are armed with similarly sharp swords. :-)

    But you already knew that, didn't you?

  3. Tsujigiri on live humans was a short-lived practice. Some of the bushidojo used cadavers, however, for centuries.

    Bushido demanded that a drawn katana also draw blood. This rule was so strict that the bushi would actually cut his own fingers while sheathing the blade if there wasn't someone else's blood to draw.

    I recommend we spar with shinai or bokken so as to save money on Bandaids.

    Yours will be a great blog.


  4. I really look forward to regularly reading your blog.

  5. I can only imagine what the dendo bucho's wife said when you tried it on her......:-)


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