DISCLAIMER: I’m learning, so my knowledge of this stuff is still shaky at best. I’ve tried to be thorough on the history and roots here without getting boring but feel free to shout at me if I get anything/all of it wrong.
Another thing I give up on with alarming regularity: trying to learn Japanese. Part of why I keep coming back to it, though, is the oddly compulsive element of picking up kanji, the logographic characters that make up the majority of their written word. It’s like collecting Pokémon, only you’re learning concepts you can build vocabulary from. Another great thing: this language has some really weird words. Some obsolete, some still used, but expressive of things that are either very hard to translate directly into another language, or are just bizarre that they even need words for it. Today we’re focusing on a couple of the more obsolete ones.
killing a passerby in order to test a new sword
Yep. Let’s break this down. Assuming you know even less Japanese than I do, those first two characters are kanji (ignore the third, that’s hiragana for the ‘ri’ syllable and is there to modify/provide additional pronunciation for the kanji). The first is 辻 (the ‘tsu-ji’ for this word), which is used to express words to do with crossings, street corners, etc. The second is 斬 (the ‘gi’ for this word) and is a now an obscure term for murder, especially decapitation. So, taken literally, we have, ‘crossroads killing’. You can take the crossroads pretty liberally, too – you crossed the wrong road at the wrong time and that, as the old proverb goes, is that.
So, yeah, basically, this was an actual thing, back in the late Sengoku (‘warring states’) period, when ‘samurai’ was gradually ceasing to mean a warrior that was part of, or fought for, the nobility and starting to more befit ‘any dude with a sword trying to make a living’. Rogues would test new swords on random people at night, and that was okay because there were other things for the ‘proper’ samurai to be worrying about – the massive social unheavals, constant war, and so on.
Most of these rogues were called kabukimono, in itself another interesting word when you break up its old-form kanji (傾奇者). To put it very roughly, 傾 = ‘lean/tilt’, 奇 = ‘strange/odd’, 者 = ‘person’. So, someone who leans away from the normal and toward the strange. You could say these were dispossessed samurai: without master or having fallen out of favour, they revelled in their status as outcasts. They wore unusual clothing, like women’s kimonos; carried around odd weaponry (this here‘s a kenka kiseru , a large, double-ended metal smoking pipe you could keep in your kimono and bludgeon people with), and sometimes enjoyed killing the odd random passerby. Because hey, if you’ve waited two months for a katana to be made, you’re probably like little Timmy on his birthday who’s finally been given the Game Boy he’d begged his parents for for ages.
Only Timmy probably wasn’t dressed like this.
So, to finish, there’s two pretty interesting things that kind of have their roots in kabukimono. First, one of the definitions my Chrome dictionary plugin gives for its modern spelling (歌舞伎者) is ‘the early-17th-century equivalent of the present day yakuza‘. Whether or not the actual yakuza evolved from this fashion isn’t quite that simple, but it’s sort of interesting to see a group analogous to them in this era. The second is kabuki theater – Izumo no Okuni, its originator, was purportedly influenced by kabukimono. The modern characters that make up kabuki (歌舞伎 – roughly meaning ‘sing’, ‘dance’, and ‘technique/skill’, respectively) aren’t the same as the ones that were used for kabukimono, but the word itself still comes from the same archaic verb for tilted/strange. It’s the magic of etymology, kids!