Masamune Swords —Why are they so splendid?—


Masamune Swords
—Why are they so splendid?—


Tsunahiro Yamamura
(Masamune XXIV)

Since my younger days, whenever the subject of fine swords has cropped up, I have immediately thought of Masamune. In other words, Masamune swords are so famous, even children know about them. Masamune is the name of the master swordsmith who made them. In recent years my work has increasingly brought me into contact with Japanese culture, and recently I had the opportunity to meet Tsunahiro Yamamura (Masamune XXIV), a master swordsmith in Kamakura who is carrying on a 700-year-old sword-making tradition. All of a sudden, a very simple question occurred to me: Why indeed are Masamune swords so splendid? After reading various materials and talking with Mr. Yamamura, I realized that the world of Japanese swords is extremely abstruse, and a layman like me could not possibly answer this puzzle. So please read the following not as a correct answer to the question but just as one theory of mine, taking account of the fact that I am quite ignorant about sword making and also the difficulty of speculating about the enigmatic lives of the swordsmiths, whose dates of birth and death are often unknown.

Soshu School

Broadly speaking, the history of Japanese swords can be divided into four eras. It was in the late Heian period (794–1185) that Japanese swords began to be made; until then, the making of straight swords, without any curvature, had been transmitted over the sea to Japan from China and Korea. The Japanese swords made from the end of the Heian period through the Sengoku period (1467–1590) are known as koto (old swords), and those made from then until 1876, when the Meiji government issued a decree banning the wearing of swords, as shinto (new swords). Japanese swords made since then are called gendaito (modern swords).
In the old-sword era, sword making was limited to certain districts. The main production areas were Yamato (present-day Nara area), Yamashiro (Kyoto), Bizen (Okayama), Soshu (Kamakura), and Mino (Gifu). Each of these five districts had distinctive styles known as the Yamato School, Yamashiro School, Bizen School, Soshu School, and Mino School. Together they are called the “five traditional schools of sword making” (gokaden).
It is said that in order to improve the sword-making skills of local blacksmiths, Hojo Tokiyori (1227–63), the fifth shogunal regent of the Kamakura shogunate, invited well-known swordsmiths to Kamakura, including the likes of Awataguchi Kunitsuna from Yamashiro and Bizensaburo Kunimune from Bizen. Shintogo Kunimitsu, who is known as the father of the Soshu School, studied under these famous swordsmiths. Kunimitsu’s aim was probably to learn and develop the sword-making techniques of the Yamashiro and Bizen schools and thereby establish a style (the Soshu School) unique to Kamakura, the home of the shogunate at that time. One of his pupils, Tosaburo Yukimitsu, carried on Kunimitsu’s will, and eventually, it is thought, the Soshu technique was perfected by Yukimitsu’s son, Goro Nyudo (Masamune). The characteristics of the Soshu School were the fine texture of the sword and its large hamon (blade pattern), achieved by mixing hard and soft metal and firing at a high temperature. When compared with swords made until then, Soshu swords did indeed look much more splendid and beautiful.

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