Should you visit a history museum in Japan, and, like I do, make an immediate beeline for the collections of samurai armor and weaponry, you might be surprised to notice that Japanese swords are customarily displayed with the stitching removed from the hilt. Visually, it sort of dampens the impact, since the remaining skinny slab of metal is a lot less evocative of it actually being gripped and wielded by one of Japan’s warriors of ages past.
The reason this is done, though, is because many Japanese swordsmiths would “sign” their works by etching their names into the metal of the hilt. Some craftsmen achieved almost legendary status, becoming folk heroes whose names are widely known even today.
The most respected of all, though, was Masamune, whose reluctance to sign his blades has made identifying them difficult. But difficult and impossible are two different things, and for the first time in over a century, a sword has been confirmed by historians as being the creation of the master himself.
Masamune was active during the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the part of Japan that today is part of Kanagawa Prefecture. He lived his life during the Kamakura Period, when the samurai class saw the most dramatic rise in its power over Japan.
Producing the highest-quality blades during a time of military power made Masamune’s swords extremely prized. Today, the only swordsmith who can approach his exalted historical status is Muramasa, who was born hundreds of years later. Justified or not, Muramasa is said to have been psychologically imbalanced and prone to violence. Superstition holds that these traits were passed on to the swords he forged, and as such Masamune’s are often held to be the superior weapons.
However, it can be hard to keep track of weapons in a country that’s gone through as many civil wars, revolutions, and occupations as Japan has, no matter how impressive their pedigree. Last year, a man brought a sword, which had found its way into his personal property, to the Kyoto National Museum to be appraised. Historian and sword scholar Taeko Watanabe spent the months between then and now studying the blade, and has recently announce her conclusion that it is a Masamune. “Judging from its unique characteristics such as the pattern that can be seen in the side of the blade…it was unmistakably forged by Masamune.”
The particular sword, which Watanabe says is called the Shimazu Masamune, had been given in 1862 by Ieshige, the 14th Tokugawa shogun, to the Imperial Family to mark his marriage to Princess Kazunomiya, also known as Princess Kazu.
“By presenting such a masterwork to the Imperial Family, Ieshige showed the deepest appreciation and highest respect,” Watanabe commented.
Following this, the sword’s whereabouts were unknown until its anonymous owner brought it to the museum in Kyoto. It is the first blade to be confirmed as a Masamune in roughly 150 years.
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