The soul of the samurai on show

by Yoko Haruhara

Referred to as the soul of the samurai, the Japanese sword is a wonderful blend of elegance and power, artistry and craft.

A careful examination of swords and their accouterments reveals exquisitely designed works of craftsmanship. The exhibit “Celebrated Swords of the Seikado Collection: Embracing the Spirit of the Samurai,” at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, is an excellent opportunity to take such a look at 30 Japanese swords from the Heian (794-1185) to the Edo (1603-1868) periods. Exhibitions of historic swords in Tokyo are a rarity, and this show — held once every two years — is a “must see” for lovers of memorabilia of the samurai age.

Highly prized since ancient times, swords were believed to be imbued with sacred properties. The earliest histories of Japan provide accounts of the three holy treasures of the ancient Japanese Imperial regalia: a sword, a jewel and a mirror that were handed down directly from the sun goddess, Amaterasu, to Japan’s first legitimate ruler. The link between sword smithing and religious worship has been maintained throughout Japanese history.

In the late Heian Period, Buddhist temples and shrines gained power and organized guilds that had the exclusive rights to produce swords. sword smiths, part of the spiritual community, were expected to participate in religious ceremonies and pass their skills down from generation to generation. Great care and countless steps (forging, folding, tempering, and polishing) go into the creation of a blade, with the sword smith’s and polisher’s skills critical to the finished product.

Eichi Yoshikawa, the curator of this exhibit, is a skilled sword polisher, carrying on a time-honored tradition that is essential for the maintenance of swords. When he speaks, his great passion for this subject is evident.

“The Seikado Museum started to amass its collection of swords following the Haitorei Edict of 1876 that banned sword carrying,” says Yoshikawa. “The collection, 120 swords strong, is a treasure trove of unique pieces, each with their own special characteristics.”

A precious 10th century sword by Yasutsuna, the earliest sword smith of record, is one of the most remarkable pieces at the Seikado exhibition. The 18th-century play “The Tale of Oeyama” (performed by both kabuki and noh troupes) is based on a Heian Period legend concerning one of Yasutsuna’s creations. In the story, a young woman is kidnapped by a demon and taken against her will to Mount Oeyama in Kyoto. After having his Yasutsuna sword blessed, the warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021) valiantly comes to her aid, beheading the demon in his sleep.

One of the most exquisitely crafted weapons in the exhibit is from the hands of the 14th-century master Kanemitsu. The black lacquered wooden scabbard used to sheathe the sword elegantly depicts wild geese in flight over water. Characteristic of Kanemitsu’s work, the blade has a deep, straight groove running down both sides, giving the appearance of boldness and masculinity. Grooves serve to make swords lighter and also more resistant to bending, and created a characteristic slashing sound when swung through the air. The great lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) awarded this blade to his vassal Naoe Kanetsugu (1560-1620) as a token of appreciation for Kanetsugu’s faithful service.

When the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th century and the country entered into a prolonged period of peace, samurai ceased to be warriors and functioning swords were no longer needed. The sword soon became an expensive decorative accessory for members of the samurai class.

The Edo Period swords showcased here have beautiful engravings (horimono) that were popular since the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and that served as talismans to protect and ensure divine support. Among these are one created by the 17th-century sword smith Kunihiro that was purely decorative and not intended for actual use. Unlike the other swords that have ridges (shinogi) on both the back and the front of the blade, the Kunihiro sword only has a ridge on the back. The front side is a flat surface that allowed the sword smith to embellish it with the engravings as if it were a canvas.

Kunihiro has adorned the blade with elaborate details, including a thunderbolt-and-sword motif and a sinuously curving dragon. The thunderbolt-and-sword symbol (sanko-ken) engraved into the hilt section of the blade represents the Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo, who is always depicted holding a sword with a thunderbolt grip, at the ready to enlighten mortals by cutting off their worldly desires.

“Celebrated Swords of the Seikado Collection” provides an enticing window into the world of the samurai of old. Given the incredible assortment of finely crafted swords in this exhibition, visitors will easily be able to conjure up images of battle scenes of the past, when courageous samurai wielded mighty swords to slay their enemies.

“Celebrated Swords of the Seikado Collection: Embracing the Spirit of the Samurai” is at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum till July 27; admission ¥500. For more information call (03) 3700-0007 or visit www.seikado.or.jp