Identification of severed heads (首実検)

In feudal days of old, lower ranked samurai took the heads severed from the bodies of foes killed on the battlefield to their commanders for identification called "Kubi jikken"; this activity took place because a severed head was crucial piece of identification evidence leading to conferring of honors on lower ranking samurai. It was also the place of examination into whether or not the reported battlefield exploits of a particular warrior had actually taken place. During summertime displaying severed heads on pikes was halted in certain cases.


General and senior retainers required the individual claiming to have made the kill to provide the severed head and the details surrounding the kill and the deceased's name; in some situations, recognition of valor occurred following corroboration from a witness. The validation of a severed head was also sometimes made by a prisoner of war or an enemy combatant turncoat.

Prior to making the identification of the severed head, the samurai womenfolk would apply funereal cosmetics to the head. Samurai were prepared that their heads would be taken to the enemy anytime, therefore they always paid particular attention to grooming. Application of light makeup to the head and offered incense by the samurai in attendance was not viewed as a sign of weakness.

In Sadatake ISE's "Gunreisho" (Extracts of Military Honors) there is a following description. "A severed head must: be well washed with water, blood and grime washed off, have the hair combed, and arranged as before in a topknot; if you are applying face powder or lip rouge to the head at the same time, you must apply it as if to yourself (as per original text), if there are wounds on the face sprinkle rice flour on the damage to conceal the wound and write the full name of the head (i.e.. deceased) on a slip of paper and affix to the head."

The hair was drawn up into a topknot and arranged higher than usual and, to arrange the hair it was made wet from the outset; a comb was used from the right side and the hair made to stand up using the ridge of the comb; the arrangement of hair was completed when paper cord securing the topknot was tied in four places. Ordinarily, avoidance of touching the hair with the ridge of a comb stemmed from this practice. When the teeth of a severed head were stained, 'Ohaguro' (black painted teeth) was applied.

A lacquered wooden tray for soba noodles was used for the severed head: basically a lacquered wooden tray with four angles still remaining. A better grade cypress tray was used (rather than just an ordinary lacquered wooden tray as used for soba noodles). The tray was 25.5 cm in diameter and 2.7 cm thick and stood 3.6 cm tall. The stand had three legs and no carvings. The legs are nailed with iron spikes at three points like the crosspiece of a lid of a box. When the severed head was put in place, straight grain was in front and wood grain running vertically. It is from this practice that ordinarily, when seating people at low-lying serving tables, 'Ebisu table placement' (where the wood grain faces the person) is avoided. The commander would view inside the chumon gate (inner gate); whereas it was etiquette for people showing the head to stay outside the chumon gate.

The commander's dress would consist of: wearing lacquered or painted headgear, dressing in armor on top of ceremonial court robes, wearing yugake (a tool to draw a bow), sayamaki (short sword) and tachi (long sword), his outer sash was tied with a headband, in the folds of which an white arrow of eagle tail-feather with black point in the middle collected from the battlefield was inserted, on his back he carried a quiver of arrows; amongst which a whip stick was placed (which was threaded), wearing tsuranuki (footwear), clasping a lacquered "Shigeto" bow in the left hand and holding a folding fan in the right hand; a rug was placed on a folding stool, whereupon the commander sat on the white section of the fur.

At the time the actual viewing took place, the stool was removed, and the bow was placed upright. The hilt of long sword held in the right hand was grasped and the long sword slightly drawn, the enemy was faced and then a turn made to the right, glanced through the left eye, the drawn sword replaced, the bow taken in the right hand and placed upright, the fan held in the left hand opened, and if during the daytime, the sun was faced, if at night keep the moon kept to the back and the fan opened using the left hand. The severed head was to be viewed with one eye; not both eyes. It was not to be looked at directly but from the corner of the eye. If the long sword was then held by a retainer, the retainer was made to stand while his left hand was placed on the hilt of the long sword and slightly drew the sword.

No matter who the other people were, lacquered and painted headgear was worn and armor worn over court robes and a long sword carried. Persons asking to view the severed head wore the same. Wearing half length trousers or footwear was inappropriate and used arrows from the battlefield were carried. Etiquette was maintained as if on the battlefield; decapitated heads of commanders were highly likely to have been recovered from the enemy side.

The etiquette of checking a head was to firstly grasp the hair in the right hand, and lifting it up place the receptacle tray below using the right hand, and to sit down cross legged. Once the tray had been placed below the head, the thumb of the left hand was placed in the ear of the severed head while the remaining fingers held and supported the jaw, and the right hand held the cheek and the jaw to lift the head up; the head was then shown in profile by turning to the left while drawing back. When returned, the head was placed on the tray and taken away. When the viewing was taking place, located to the left of the commander between the commander and those individuals looking at him was a sosha (a person in charge of informing a shogun or daimyo of the name of visitors to the residence before a meeting) who announced the name of the person who severed the head. Continuing on, the surname of the head was announced. In situations when there was no tray for the head, tissue paper of a folding fan was provided upon which to rest the head.

When the viewing was over, the person who held the head raised voices after he placed the head, which was turned to face the enemy, on a tray outside the chumon gate or on a lid of a bucket for served head and he stepped back the distance of about five bows. As matters progressed, two earthenware plates were placed on top of each other on an rimless tray; on the far side a laver of dried konbu (kelp) was placed, which was then placed toward the head's mouth; sake (rice wine) was poured twice into the upper earthenware plate which is then placed face down near the head as if to give a drink; in addition, sake was again poured twice into the lower earthenware plate and placed as if to give a drink after the kelp was again placed toward the mouth. The holder of the sake container was constantly changing, proceeding with the left hand the top of the coiffure was held, a crease of the spear held with the right hand, and then sake was poured into the plate with the left hand which is twisted toward the back of the hand. It is from this practice that one laver of kelp, leaving two plates, having two drinks, pouring drinks using the left hand in the opposite way, leaving cups face down etc are avoided. Once this had finished the head was disposed of in a Northerly direction.
This is because the character for 'North' (北) can also be read as 'nigeru' or 'escape.'

Simplified identification processes consisted of a person removing their armor to identify the head. The head was shown by viewing from the left by taking the topknot in the right hand holding the face of the head outwards then raising the face upwards a little. At these times, the head was revolved upright towards the left by shifting between the left and right knees. Heads of those who entered priesthood were held at the point of severance by the left hand and, the thumb used to hold the ear when being viewed. When wearing formal samurai kimono, a long sword was worn when viewing a head. Also, when making a viewing in a private home, this was done in armor and court robes.

After making a viewing, the head was sometimes disposed, affixed to a prison gate or sent in a bucket back to the enemy.

Buckets for heads were made to stand 54.54 cm tall with an opening 24.24 cm in diameter with a lid on top. The lid was marked with the "卍" symbol. It was tied up crosswise with a ceremonial cord of leather or sash. Noble's heads were wrapped in silk, and placed in a bucket facing the seam. When the head was packed using bird feathers, the ends of any excess string during packing were folded over and tied off pointing towards the right. Food containers were only used for heads of emperor's enemies or heads of kin. Also, when heads were handed-over to the enemy this act was called "arrow of farewell"; a single used arrow from the battlefield was carried in the right hand and the cord securing the bucket with the head in it was carried in the left hand. Firstly, the arrow was passed over then, the bucket holding the head was handed over with the seam facing the recipient. For this reason, handing over items to others with a seam facing the recipient is taboo.

Kubi-fuda tag (paper tags identifying the head) were originally made of wood. Length 54.54 cm by 24.24 cm wide. About 60 mm of the tag was placed on top, cut there and tied down with cord. Be they wooden or paper tags, the words 'Be it known that a certain individual has killed this individual' were inscribed. When the identity of the head was known, 'Certain individual killed' and 'Certain individual's head' were written as separate lines. The place to affix a tag for a commander was the left side of the topknot, for priests and others a hole was pierced in the ear. Whether the tag was pierced in the right or left ear depended on the rank of individual.

The size of kubi ita (board used to place a head) was 30.3 cm and 18.18 cm in case of one head with three vertical legs attached. Height 121.2 cm, two legs in front, one at back. For this reason, when items have three legs, it is taboo to have two legs in front. A long nail pierced the board from front to back which was pushed into the head at the point the head was severed from the body.

Also, offerings were arranged for formalities of individuals who died on the battlefield; for commanders, offerings of kelp and sake were prepared. If the head belonged to an individual with the status of a commander, viewings were called "Kubi taimen"; if it was a head of a senior vassal, it was called "Kenchi." The head identification process rarely occurred at prisons; there are few occasions when the process of identification occurred for individuals who were executed.

Current day colloquialisms
Currently in general, when the police endeavor to identify if a suspect is actually a criminal, eye-witnesses act to verify the identity of suspects; the colloquial term "Kubi jikken" is widely used when referring to a "line up."

[Original Japanese]