one of the sword on Blades imbued with a sacred radiance, housing the soul

Blades imbued with a sacred radiance, housing the soul

Blades imbued with a sacred radiance, housing the soul – 神聖な輝きに魂宿す刀剣 

[Japan Style – from March 2024 issue]


The most famous sword in Japan is perhaps the “Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (grass-mowing sword).” It is still handed down in the emperor’s family as one of the “Three Sacred Treasures” that are inherited along with the imperial throne.


In the “Kojiki” and “Nihon Shoki,” it is described that a divine sword emerged from the tail after slaying the eight-headed serpent, Yamata no Orochi, becoming a sacred sword to protect the country since then. Currently enshrined as the main deity at Atsuta Shrine, a replica believed to house the spirit of the deity is kept at the Imperial Palace. Even the Emperor is said to be prohibited from viewing it.


A sword is a work of art of the highest quality that celebrates elegance and lean beauty. At the same time, it is a weapon of strength, a talisman to protect oneself, and a votive offering to the gods, and is also revered as a deity itself. Numerous legends also tell of spiritual and supernatural powers dwelling within these swords.


Kinnashi Blade - one of the sword on Japan style

SANJOU Munechika, one of the most renowned swordsmiths of the Heian period (8th to 12th century), is said to have crafted a sword together with a fox incarnate and presented it to the emperor. In Munechika’s masterpiece, the “National Treasure – Mikazuki Munekane (Crescent-moon Munechika)” housed in the Tokyo National Museum, the supple blade exudes a sensation of something beyond human strength.


Moreover, the equally fine blade “National Treasure – Doujikiri Yasutsuna” (Crafted by HOUKI Yasutsuna, housed in the Tokyo National Museum) is said to have vanquished the feared demon Shuten-douji, who terrorized the people of the capital. Beyond demons, there are numerous legends of slaying supernatural beings, and during such times, the sword is believed to take on a personality, playing a significant role in aiding and protecting humans.


Including these two swords, the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo, houses 19 out of the 122 designated national treasures of swords in Japan as of 2022. Notably, many of these swords were presented to the imperial family during the Edo period (17-19th century) to pre-World War II, boasting a collection of renowned swords of the nation.


For us in the modern era, the Japanese sword is a work of art. When displayed in museums and art galleries, its extraordinary beauty radiates a commanding presence, imbuing the atmosphere with an unmistakable air of exclusivity.


one of the sword on Blades imbued with a sacred radiance, housing the soul

The Japanese sword consists of the blade and the tousougu (external components). The blade is made of hard and sharp iron. It uses sand iron as the raw material and employs a unique Japanese steelmaking method called “tatara-buki” to create a special iron known as tamahagane. The tousougu, broadly categorized into hilt, guard, and scabbard, incorporates precious materials such as metal, wood, fabric, thread, leather, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, gemstones, and cloisonne. It’s a collection of the finest craftsmanship by artisans. Similar to the blade, the tousougu is also a splendid work of art.


“Tatara” might ring a bell for those who have seen Studio Ghibli’s animated film “Princess Mononoke.” In this context, “tatara” refers to foot-operated bellows, a tool used to blow air into a furnace. The story unfolds in this “tatara site,” where mountains are carved to extract sand iron, and trees from the forest are cut down to produce charcoal. “Princess Mononoke” narrates the conflict between humans who have polluted the forest and the gods of the forest.


Using the “tatara method,” the steel created is heated to a blazing red, around 1300 degrees, and then subjected to a process of repeated heating, hammering, stretching, folding, and hammering again. Through this meticulous process, high-purity steel is achieved, possessing a tenacity and strength that cannot be replicated even with the most advanced modern techniques. As purity increases, it’s said that iron approaches transparency and emits a bluish-white light. The enduring radiance and rust resistance, even after nearly 2000 years, are attributed to the thorough removal of impurities. Performing these painstaking tasks results in the unique characteristics of Japanese swords – they don’t break, they don’t bend, and they cut exceptionally well.


Tamahagane is using to make a sword

The long blade of the sword, with a gentle curvature, has its tip finely sharpened. The surface displays woodgrain-like patterns, and the motifs known as “hamon” between the blade and the iron base not only indicate its age but also reveal details about its place of origin, the school of the swordsmith, and specific artistic preferences. Crafted with ingenuity and infused with the smith’s soul, these swords are so exceptionally beautiful that one can’t help but think they harbor the spirits of gods and buddhas. They epitomize the ultimate form of balanced and functional beauty.


Swords are said to have developed uniquely in Japan from those introduced from the continent during the Kofun period (3rd to 7th century). Initially, they were straight swords without curvature, but during the Heian period, they underwent a change to a curved shape for easier downward swings from a horseback position. As the turbulent times unfolded, the demand for swords increased dramatically, leading to continuous evolution. Furthermore, during the Kamakura period (12-14 centuries), swordsmiths began receiving patronage from the imperial court, and swords reached the pinnacle of beauty. Even today, 80% of the swords preserved as national treasures were crafted during this era. Materials, structures, shapes, and sizes varied across different periods, and regional differences in artistic styles emerged. Swords, each with its own origin, history, legends, and anecdotes, become more intriguing as one delves deeper into their details.


TOYOTOMI Hideyoshi, who unified the disturbances of war, is considered the greatest sword collector in history. According to HON’AMI Mitsunori, who served as a sword appraisal official, Hideyoshi stored 453 swords in Osaka Castle. The swordsmiths particularly cherished by Hideyoshi were “Yoshimitsu,” “Masamune,” and “Yoshihiro.” These craftsmen boasted outstanding expertise in the art of sword smithing during the Kamakura era. The Hon’ami family, renowned for sword appraisal and polishing, has continued as a prestigious lineage to this day.


second blade on Japan Style

The Japanese swords, highly treasured by emperors and warriors, faced restrictions in the Meiji era (19th century) when carrying swords was prohibited. Furthermore, in 1945 after the end of World War II, all Japanese swords were deemed weapons by the GHQ (General Headquarters), putting them in a perilous situation. However, government officials dealing with national treasures and art pieces fervently protected these exceptional works of art deeply intertwined with Japan’s history and culture, allowing them to be preserved and owned.


The techniques and traditions of sword smithing, dating back nearly 2000 years, continue to be passed down to the present day, with new swords still being crafted in the modern era. Once a year, tamahagane, produced with the aim of preserving traditional techniques and training artisans, is provided to approximately 200 skilled swordsmiths who have completed over five years of training and practical examinations. The unchanged craftsmanship of Japanese swordsmiths, both in ancient and modern times, garners attention worldwide. Not only historical pieces but also newly crafted swords have gained popularity to the extent of being housed in renowned art museums around the world.


The sword boom, originating from games like “Sengoku BASARA” and “Touken Ranbu,” has led to crowdfunding initiatives for the restoration and recreation of famous swords. Additionally, the influence is immeasurable, with a significant increase in female fans known as “touken joshi” or “sword girls.”


In 2019, the beloved sword of AKECHI Mitsuhide, a 16th-century samurai, was discovered. In 2023, a sword exceeding two meters in length was unearthed from an ancient burial mound in Nara Prefecture. The discovery of long-lost or presumed-lost famous swords, after having been missing for an extended period, adds to the allure and romance surrounding these historical artifacts.



Writer: Yumi Iwasaki


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