Who Would Have Thought Collecting Severed Heads Would Be So Difficult?

From Warriors of Medieval Japan by Stephen Turnbull

Head collecting is a tradition found throughout samurai history… When a battle was won, the taking, recording and presentation of these ghastly trophies was as systematic and as thorough as the battlefield situation allowed.  In an ideal situation of a clear-cut victory the heads would be viewed in a highly ritualized ceremony by the victorious daimyo, who was seated on a camp stool and surrounded by his closest retainers.  He would not wish to be presented with a bloody trophy, so the heads were carefully cleaned and dressed, the hair combed, and the resulting trophy made presentable by cosmetics.  They would then be mounted on a spiked wooden board with labels for identification.
This routine was a task traditionally done by women, and there exists a rare eyewitness account that was recorded by Oan, the daughter of a samurai.  She experienced the horror of sleeping beside a collection of severed heads in Ogaku castle at the time of the battle of Sekigahara in 1600.  The castle was under constant attack from the superior forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and her description of her work with the heads is a follows:

“My mother and I, as well, as the wives and daughters of the other retainers, were in the castle’s keep casting bullets.  Severed heads taken by our allies were also collected in this area of the castle.  We attached a tag to each head in order to identify them properly.  Then we repeatedly blackened their teeth.  Why did we do that?  A long time ago, blackened teeth were admired as the sign of a distinguished man.  So, we were asked to apply a generous coat of black dye to any heads with white teeth.  Even these severed heads no longer held any terror for me.  I used to sleep enveloped by the bloody odour of those old heads.”

The invasion of Korea presented the logistical problem of shipping heads home to their commander-in-chief Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Hideyoshi’s increased irrationality made him demand proof that his generals were carrying out his wishes, so a compromise was reached.  When Namwon, the first objective of the 1597 invasion, was captured, out of the 3726 heads counted that day only the head of the Korean general was kept intact.  The others were discarded after the noses had been removed, the beginnings of the process of nose collection in lieu of heads that was to become a horrible feature of the second invasion.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to receive a steady stream of shipments of noses pickled in salt and packed into wooden barrels, each one meticulously enumerated and recorded before leaving Korea.

It was also recommended that “samurai should grow moustaches so that their severed heads would not be mistaken for those of women.”

Advice for treating wounded samurai:

Cover the intestines with dried faeces, then close the wound with mulberry root sutures and spread cat-tail pollen over the area.  Activities to be avoided were anger, laughter, thought, sex, activity, work, sour foods and sake.

Tagged with: , , ,
One comment on “Who Would Have Thought Collecting Severed Heads Would Be So Difficult?
  1. AH says:

    An excellent foreign currency earner for Korea, pickled noises!

    Also, someone is in a real rut when they have to avoid things like ‘thought’ and ‘activity.’

Leave a Reply