The katana is as synonymous with the samurai as a lack of pants is with internet comedy writers. But in reality, prior to the 16th century, samurai were primarily known as archers rather than swordsmen. Their choice of weapon changed due to many factors like improved military tactics, etc., but that's not why you're here. You want to know -- most likely while hugging your own furry little friend after reading that title -- if the samurai really did kill dogs for sport. The good news is that they didn't. The bad news is that they instead, well, tortured them, basically.
For centuries, mounted archery has been the cornerstone of the Japanese war machine, and obviously, the samurai had to practice shooting arrows while on horseback. But the problem with shooting at stationary targets is that they are just so ... stationary. Most enemies, inconsiderate jerks that they are, don't usually spread out nicely on the field of battle and stay perfectly still with bullseyes painted on themselves as you try to give them fatal remote acupuncture. It'd be so much better if samurai could shoot at moving targets. And that's how we got inuoumono.
Originally a military exercise invented sometime prior to the 12th century, inuoumono (roughly "dog chasing") involved corralling a bunch of stray dogs into an enclosed area and having mounted samurai try and hit them with their arrows. Over time, the whole thing became ritualized and grew into this huge sporting event held during coming of age ceremonies or shrine festivals, described as "the largest and most elaborate of the mounted archery contests." During the Super Bowl versions of inuoumono, up to 150 pups were hunted by 36 horsemen divided into teams of 12 as the judges timed them and awarded them points based on where they hit the animals.
As we said before, the dogs weren't killed during inuoumono because the samurai used special dog-hunting arrows that were either blunted or padded. But we doubt that the dogs enjoyed it very much, and if you think that it couldn't have been so bad, go ask a professional archer to shoot blunted arrows at you. Oh, and ask them to aim for your balls because you shouldn't breed. To make it even worse, some of the inuoumono arrows were also equipped with whistle tips, which must have felt just great on the super-hearing animals' ears. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if dogs have their own version of hell, it probably resembles an inuoumono area.
Inuoumono waned and gained in popularity over the years but was finally banned outright in the mid-19th century. Weirdly, one of the last exhibitions of the sport, was held for US President Ulysses Grant during his visit to Japan in 1879. He apparently didn't like it. Admittedly, Grant was kind of a squeamish guy who was even made uncomfortable by bloody steak. So he definitely would have hated an earlier form of Japanese archery practice called ushioumono, where samurai hunted cows instead of dogs. Something to think about the next time you watch Samurai Jack.
Follow Cezary on Twitter.
Top image: Tokyo National Museum