Page Last Updated: Wednesday, 04 November 2015 13:35 EDT, 1979, 2007, 2008, 2010

The Japanese Sword - Symbol of a Culture

by Dean Hartley

from Profile of Ouachita, July/August 1979, Volume 2 No. 2

The Japanese - or Samurai - Sword is without a doubt the best cutting weapon ever devised by man. Each blade is the effort of one swordsmith, putting his total best into the creation of a sword which is as sharp as a razor, as hard on the cutting edge as some modern tool steels, as tough and resistant to breakage as any sword made, and as responsive to handling in its own style as any hand weapon devised. Ideally, it is kept sharp, clean, and bright - and is considered one of the real treasures of the family which owns it. It is a truly Oriental weapon because of its combination of utility and beauty.

To many Occidentals, the Orientals are a strange and inscrutable race. How can one really understand a person who is a product of such a "different" culture? This thought passes through the minds of most individuals on encountering this strangeness and, unfortunately, most of us tend to fear the things that are strange to us. For centuries the Chinese exemplified the Oriental until Commodore Perry brought the Japanese to the attention of the world in 1853. He found a society virtually untouched by Western ideas. The inhabitants dressed in flowing robes, appeared to live by an incomprehensible set of social rules, and certain individuals were observed to be wearing two swords (which they were perfectly willing and able to use to extremely good effect). This weapon, in a time when the folks "back home" were turning to Sam Colt's revolvers and other sophisticated firearms, created a very real confusion in the minds of Perry and his men.

They learned very quickly that those two swords were more than just very sharp weapons. It was observed that no Samurai - the name given to those who carried two swords - ever touched the swords of another unless invited to do so. When a sword was passed from one person to another, both the giver and the receiver bowed in salute to the sword. When the blade was taken from the scabbard, it was treated with great respect and formality. One did not touch the blade with his bare hand - in fact, one did not even breathe directly on the blade. Obviously, there was something more here than met the eye - and Occidentals, being inquisitive people, sought to find out what. Some very intelligent people set about to learn by the study of this odd and different nation. Among them were Lafcadio Hearn of the United States and Captain Frank Brinkley. Each spent many years of careful study. Hearn actually established a home in Japan for nearly twenty years.

These two and others like them made some interesting discoveries, although it took time to break through their own European/American sets of values. For example, they learned that the sword was indeed a central and representative symbol of the whole of the Japanese culture. The myth of the 2600-year lineage of the Imperial Family started with a story about a sword, which became one of the three items of the Imperial regalia, along with a jade jewel and a bronze mirror. The shape of the sword as we know it today can be directly related to swords made early in the eighth century. There are national treasure swords made and signed around 750 AD (our counting of time), which to this day are preserved in immaculate condition, ready for war. The history of these swords is traceable from owner to owner down all those centuries, together with the battles fought, the famous owners, and the political intrigues in which they played a part.

To bring this history up to date - there are several hundred collector/scholars in the United States and Europe who have made a serious study of these magnificent weapons and of the culture of which they are a part. Most of these collectors started with a souvenir sword from the battles of W.W. II. It is estimated that over a quarter million Samurai swords came to this country in this way. Of those, tens of thousands, relatively few, are truly important - but they include blades dating as far back as 1055 AD or earlier, still preserved in "ready-for-war' condition and authenticated by the foremost experts in the world in this field. The Japanese have a poem indicating their feeling of respect for the sword and what it embodies:

    Waga tachi ni
    Ware to hi o-utsu

    Kufu shite
    Tsmumori kurai no
            Kokoro yoku shire.

Which translated freely, means "One should consider the sword to shape his own personality and to stamp out evil through perfection of his own character." It is this concept of the sword as a bright, clean, sharp, strong, and graceful symbol which personified the best in the code of the Samurai - the knights of Japan through the ages. Even as King Arthur's knights of the Round Table held highest the virtues of loyalty, bravery, and courtesy, so too did the best of the Samurai. Perhaps there is a small lesson here if one cares to take the time to find it. It is that, for all the apparent strangeness and differences, in some way or another, and using whatever symbols best represent the individual cultures, men are more alike in their values and ideals than we have allowed ourselves to believe. At any rate, it is a hopeful thought.

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