Depictions of swashbuckling fights on Japanese battlefields have often graced the silver screen, bringing international fame to the samurai and his indispensable sword. Admired for their craftsmanship, swords hold a special place in Japan not only as weapons, but as an art form as well.
The current exhibition at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, “Japanese Sword Masterpieces from the Seikado Collection: A Thousand Years of Tradition,” explores the world of the master swordsmith with a display of blades and metal accessories mostly dating from the Kamakura (1192-1333) and Edo (1603-1867) periods.
Traditional Japanese swordmaking is more than just a craft; it provides a profound spiritual experience for the swordsmith who brings the weapon into existence. Master smiths went beyond the mechanics of swordmaking to create implements of war that were exceedingly sharp and strong, beautiful to look at and finely crafted — and which possessed the spirit of the samurai. Supported by his atelier, the master poured his soul into the process, passing down his secrets to his disciples and succeeding generations of his school.
Sword worship in Japan dates back to the earliest historical records of the seventh century, which tell of them being treated as objects of devotion. Considered masterpieces, since their first appearance in the Heian Period (794-1185), each has been inscribed on the tang — the projection by which a handle is attached — with the swordsmith’s name. Warriors developed affinities for their favorite swords, which were constantly at their sides, except when they attended a formal audience with a lord.
The art reached new heights of innovation in the late 13th century, during Kublai Khan’s 1274 and 1281 attempts to invade. As Japan ramped up for war, its government ordered provinces to strengthen their military capabilities. The tradition’s greatest period of productivity dates to this golden age of swordmaking.
A highlight of the exhibition is the tachi sword created during that period by master swordsmith Tegai Kanenaga. The term tachi — “great sword” — was used to indicate a blade of approximately 75-79 cm in length that was worn with the cutting edge facing down. In the exhibit, a magnificent silk folding screen by Matsumoto Fuko (1840-1923) of a battle scene from the Mongol invasion of 1281 illustrates the warriors’ fashions from that time and shows generals in their colorful armored outfits with tachi swords suspended from their belts. The long swords were required so that warriors could swing them from horseback, cutting down enemies with one graceful motion.
Unaltered tachi in as excellent a condition as this one are rare. Designated a national treasure, Kanenaga’s tachi has a straight, tempered pattern, called suguha in Japanese, that runs the entire length of the blade. A perfect example of the beauty and simplicity of swords of this period, the tachi has a single edge and an elegant surface texture. Its wooden scabbard is elaborately decorated, a practice that was only allowed for high-ranking samurai. Covered in gold lacquer, it has an embedded high-relief pattern in silver of chrysanthemums and paulonia.
As fighting styles evolved in the 16th and 17th centuries, the tachi was shortened and its shape changed. Warriors wore both a long and a short sword together, tucked into their sash with the cutting edges facing upward. The advent of the long, curved sword that we know today as the samurai sword can be traced back to this time.
In the early 17th century the country was finally unified under the leadership of the Tokugawa Shogunate, leading to an extended period of peace. Swords were no longer actively used in warfare and became more of a symbol of prestige and a fashion accessory for the samurai. As the emphasis on style increased, elaborate metal fittings were developed for swords.
The famous 17th-century Edo (present-day Tokyo) swordsmith Nagasone Kotetsu created superlative swords, one of which is in the exhibition. Kotetsu was known for making the sharpest blades in existence, and classified this one as the highest of the four traditional categories, saijo-o-wazamono.
Starting his career as an armorer, Kotetsu transferred the metalworking techniques he had learned constructing battle gear to swordmaking, resulting in innovations in manufacture and design. In particular, he made adjustments in metal choices and forging and tempering processes to create exceedingly strong and sharp swords. They were known for the bead-like rosary pattern he devised for the decorative raised border (hamon) near the edge of the blade. All swords in the exhibit have been placed on display with their edges facing upward so that the viewer can appreciate the subtle variations in texture and design of each.
With the advent of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615) and Edo culture, and a focus on innovations in design, swords and their accessories were sought after for their beauty. As the creation of accessories flourished, new schools of craftsmen emerged who specialized in making metal fittings for swords. Their elaborate work provided the stylish elan required by fashion-conscious samurai of the day. The exhibit showcases more than 20 sword guards (tsuba), which are the disc-shaped metal fittings into which swords are placed.
One accessory on exhibit, a sword guard dating from the Momoyama Period, is a truly remarkable work. The guard is designed to look like a woven bamboo basket of seashells lying in the water. The artist has depicted, with chisel marks in the metal, waves bursting out of the four sides of the basket. The body of the sword guard is created of blue-black copper, and the shells and starfish are displayed in high relief in gold. Since aesthetics called for the samurai to reveal an appreciation for the seasons in his garments and accessories, it is likely that this particular item was created especially to be worn in summer.
Not until the move to modernization following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the dismantling of the feudal class system did the sword become obsolete. In 1876 a ban was placed on carrying swords in public, marking the beginning of the decline of the art form. Many swords and accessories were sold to foreign collectors, as the sword came to be seen as a symbol of the country’s feudal past.
Today, some of the best examples of sword craftsmanship reside in collections in Europe and North America. Few collections exist in Japan, and the collection of swords and accessories in the current exhibition are seldom on display. Thus the Seikado museum is offering a unique opportunity to view part of a tradition that is no longer seen here very often.