The Japanese sword is the figurative goal in the cultivation of the warrior
spirit. It is a unification of inconsistent elements to form a pure and
perpetual force. The sword is sacred and is one of the three emblems of the
Shinto faith. It is named "The Soul of the Samurai," and is the embodiment of
aristocracy. The blade symbolizes the narrow path of justice; the flat "nakago"
that slips within the ornamental hilt, is wrought into the semblance of a grave
tablet, in order that "he who dies while grasping it may be spared evil
reincarnations." To the Japanese his sword is no mere bit of cleverly tempered
metal, it is the work of gods; it is animated by spirit.
In olden days, during the months of May and September, selected for the finishing of swords, because of their stability of temperature, the forges became temples; before their doors swung the rope of hemp and the fluttering ribbons of the Gohei, announcing to the passer-by the presence of the Immortals. For the ceremony of "The Signing of the Sword" the smith donned the robes of a priest, officiating as such in what was considered no less than miraculous birth, the new blade receiving its soul through his prayers.
Hence arose the legend of Muramasa. The legend related of Muramasa is, that
his formula of prayer craved " that his blades be the great destroyers." Because
of the excellence of his work the gods granted the petition, sending a spirit of
such surpassing ferocity that, upon entering the swords, it demanded blood, and,
failing to receive its rightful sustenance within a limited time, drove the
owners to murder or suicide.
Yoshimitsu (Masamune), prayed in his forge-temple that his blades might be "the great defenders." The soul that dwells in Yoshimitsu's steel is, therefore, peaceful unless its master be threatened. There is a legend that two blades, one a Muramasa (Juuchi Yosamu, '10,000 Cold Nights'), the other a Yoshimitsu (Yawarakai-Te, 'Tender Hands'), were placed in a rapidly flowing brook, a yard apart, upright, edges to the current. "It was seen," the story goes, "that leaves, twigs and all floating things were attracted toward the Muramasa, and were cut in twain. Before the Yoshimitsu, on the contrary, they turned aside, and were carried unharmed down the stream."
A monk, who had been watching the whole ordeal, walked over and bowed low to the two sword masters. He then began to explain what he had seen. "The first of the swords was by all accounts a fine sword, however it is a blood thirsty, evil blade, as it does not discriminate as to who or what it will cut. It may just as well be cutting down butterflies as severing heads. The second was by far the finer of the two, as it does not needlessly cut that which is innocent and undeserving."
Study of the family records of the great sword makers will show what appears
to be surprising persistence of genius. Four, five, six hundred years, and, as
in the case of the house of Munechika, nine hundred years, of uninterrupted
excellence of workmanship.
The explanation is simple. If the sons did not show sufficient talent to warrant inheritance of the father's holy charge, the chief apprentice was legally adopted. In an unbroken line of genius the glory of the family name was so upheld from age to age. Thus the worthless scion of a great house could never wreck the edifice of his father's fortunes, and though, doubtless, justice leaned where love inclined, the result of the system was to call forth the best efforts of all concerned. The unknown apprentice might hope for the greatest prize, and all the inherited tendencies of the master's children were called into play by every claim of ambition and jealous fear.
In the middle ages sword-making was the only profession that gave claim to ennoblement. The Emperors themselves were smiths, and sought honor as assistants to the great makers. It is not uncommon to find the imperial signature upon the rough, file-marked iron of the nakago. In one legend, the wood gods gave willing service at the anvil, while visions of the lovely Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, were wont to float above the roaring fires.
Small wonder then, when the energies of gods and men were combined in the effort, that the sword of Japan has no superior.
The most authoritative treaties on sword judgment is " The Complete Manual of
the Old Sword," by an unknown author,' published in 1793, in Edo (Yeddo, Yedo,
former name of Tokyo)(Seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate). Its carefully
illustrated volumes give a clear and comprehensive resume of the subject that
has never been surpassed. In presenting this rendering it has been my endeavor
to correct and recast only what seemed absolutely necessary in order to make
clear many passages that would otherwise remain obscure. I have endeavored to
retain the individual quality of this product of Oriental science, its
quaintness and reverence, permitting many faults of construction and even of
grammar to remain in the text rather than interfere with an interesting and
unconsciously enlightening point of view. The names of eras herein given do not
tally with the commonly accepted list. If this is the fault of the translator's
difficulty in rendering Japanese sounds into English form, or whether it has a
deeper significance connected with the division of time as concerns the epochs
of sword-making, I do not know, but of the two hundred and eighty odd eras
preceding the publication of the book, less than "twenty bear any
Of the status of the Honnami in 1793 the book leaves no doubt, and to-day the words could only be rewritten and underlined: the family still exercises the art of sword judgment and the head of the house is alone allowed the privilege of certifying the sword which successfully passes his rigorous examination, by inlaying the maker's name in gold or lacquer upon the nakago. The elder Honnami holds the blue-book of weapons, the Gotha of blades. He lives unpretentiously in a suburb of Tokyo, surrounded by his collection of priceless weapons—the inherited quintessence of sword lore. He is the judge from whose decision there is no appeal.
According to the generally accepted order of precedence, the greatest of
ancient swordsmiths are: the first Yoshimitsu (13th century); Masamune (14th
century); Muramasa (14th century); Hisakune (13th century); Yoshihiro (14th
century); Kuniyoshi (13th century); and Sadamune (13th century). Arikune (12th
century) and the first Munechika (11th century) are in a special class. The
"modern" makers of note are Sada, Yasushiro, and Sukehiro. Of the work of these
early makers not one example of the twenty-eight grouped in the first order of
merit is public property in America. A few are in private collections.
Purchasers are often misled by a display of magnificent mounting. Seldom, indeed, does such a scabbard contain a "true" blade. The impoverished Samurai, as want compelled them to part with their heirlooms, sold piecemeal the swordfurnishings of gold and silver, wrought iron, and delicate inlay, always hoping for the intervention of some happy chance to save them "their soul." When at last the blade itself had to go—and many a case of harakiri attested the bitterness of the loss—it left its destitute owner in a plain case of wood, unadorned save for its name in red or black writing. As each sword must be individually fitted out, no two being exactly similar, it is readily seen that gorgeousness of mounting would indicate that the weapon had been sold complete, which was seldom the fate of one of the ancient masterpieces, that were loved, worshipped and treasured from generation to generation.