“Swords of Kyoto: Master Craftsmanship from an Elegant Culture” is the largest sword exhibition in the Kyoto National Museum’s 120-year history. Assembled are around 180 blades, 19 of which are National Treasures and 61 are Important Cultural Properties. Their chronology spans blades made in the late Heian Period (794-1185), when the curved, single-edged, hexagonal cross-sectioned form known today was defined, and those made by Masamine Sumitani (1921-98), who was a National Living Treasure and the last smith working in the Yamashiro (Kyoto) sword tradition.

Internal conflicts over imperial succession in the later Heian Period led in part to the rise of the warrior class who reorganized the aristocratic system. The Yamashiro tradition originated during this time with Sanjo Munechika and the smiths of the Sanjo and Gojo schools. The most celebrated creations were given names, such as Munechika’s “Long Sword (Tachi)” (12th century), which was called “Mikazuki (Crescent Moon)” — a reference to a crescent moon-shaped patterning that can be seen on the blade in the right light.

Smiths were craftspeople, though in the early Kamakura Period (1185-1333) their status elevated to specialized craftsmen with elite connections.

Emperor Go-Toba (1180-1239) succeeded to the throne as a child before his elder brother, only a toddler himself, was forced to relinquish it and thus blemished his imperial ascension because he forwent the ritual passing of the Imperial regalia. Enlisting smiths on the Imperial roster to create his own sacred swords, Go-Toba was believed to have quenched some of the blades himself, as the final step in both the practice of sword fabrication and legitimating Go-Toba’s authority.

The Awataguchi school, two smiths of which ostensibly served Emperor Go-Toba, became the preeminent producers of Kyoto swords in the 13th century. But it was the city’s Rai school that established branch schools in Kumamoto, Shiga and Osaka that turned the capital’s sword culture into a burgeoning national one.

Sword making then fell into decline from the early 1300s to the early 1500s owing to the collapse of government, a divided imperial court and widespread destruction in Kyoto resulting from the Onin War (1467-77). The subsequent lavish reconstruction of the city by daimyo, epitomized by Oda Nobunaga’s Nijo palace, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai palace and Fushimi Castle, brought craftsmen flocking back to the capital.

Thereafter, the Horikawa, Mishina and Umetada schools flourished. Umetada Myoju, in particular, is said to have perfected the Japanese sword by introducing mizuheshi-ho (mizuheshi method), a process of tempering low carbon steels from high carbon ones to use in different areas of the blade. The period also marked the distinction between “old swords,” those forged before the 16th century, and “new swords,” the latter term coined by sword aficionado and author, Kamata Natae (1727-97). By the Edo Period (1603-1868), a Yamashiro sword became the quintessential gift in the culture of exchange between feudal lords.

In addition to the abundant blades, including one once owned by Japan’s modern hero, the samurai Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-67), the exhibition also touches upon modern miscellany, like how the Meiji Era (1868-1912) Prince Arisugawa forged his own sword with the aid of traditional smiths, and how sword making used to be taught in Kyoto University and Ritsumeikan University. Bolstering the blades are historical records, paintings and calligraphy works and objects and swords used in Kyoto’s famous Gion Festival.

“Swords of Kyoto: Master Craftsmanship from an Elegant Culture” at the Kyoto National Museum runs until Nov. 25; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng.

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