Thursday, February 8, 2024

An exhibition I'd love to see


I'm not by any means a knife and sword aficionado.  I know a moderate amount about them through research for my books, and I've seen rather too much for comfort of how primitive knives and makeshift swords are used by thugs and wannabe terrorists in the Third World.  (Hint:  Don't bother trying to reason with a machete-wielding uneducated gangbanger teenager stoned out of his mind on alcohol and marijuana, to say nothing of other substances.  It won't work.  Stronger methods are required.)

Despite that limitation, I can still appreciate the craftsmanship that went into medieval and Renaissance weapons and armor.  Working only by hand, with charcoal forges and not a mechanical tool in sight, the weaponsmiths of those days produced some weapons that were spectacular works of art as well as very efficient killing machines.  You'll find a lot of them on display in European museums.

Japan was no exception.  Some of the swordsmiths in that country have become legendary historical figures, and the few examples of their work that have survived have been designated as National Treasures.  An exhibition has just opened at the museum of the Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara, highlighting some of their creations.

The winter exhibition at the shrine’s museum showcases 30 blades forged between the Heian Period (794-1185) and the Edo Period (1603-1867). Some of them are designated as national treasures.

The two-part “Pride of the Aristocracy, Soul of the Samurai” event runs through March 31.

Some of the highlights include ornamental swords produced between the mid- and late Heian Period, four of which are designated as national treasures. They were worn by aristocrats to display dignity when they were dressed in formal attire.

. . .

Swords dedicated to Kasuga Taisha are deemed to be extremely valuable because many of them were never used in real fights or were newly forged, retaining their original state.

There's more at the link.  You can see more of the National Treasure swords of Japan at Wikipedia.

The Heian Period ran from 794-1185 A.D.  That means some of those swords are more than a thousand years old, and are still in just as good a condition as the day they were dedicated to the shrine.  What's more, they were made as combat weapons, not just as display pieces - they were merely decorated and embellished to a higher level than the identical blades carried in battle by those who presented them.  Very few Western museums can boast genuine martial exhibits that old, and that well preserved.

An acquaintance of mine has one of those historic Japanese swords.  His grandfather brought it back from the Pacific after the Second World War.  He took it off the body of a Japanese officer, thinking it was no more than a standard-issue Japanese Army sword.  However, some decades later he showed it to an expert in the field, who frothed at the mouth with excitement.  He identified it as a centuries-old sword, its blade possibly dating from as early as the Kamakura Period.  He said it was probably a family heirloom that had been fitted with a less decorative tsuka or handle, placed in a utilitarian military saya or scabbard, and sent to war with one of the family's scions (a rare practice, but not unknown, apparently, as a symbol and continuation of a cherished family martial tradition).  The bearer died wielding it in a charge on American positions on one of the islands of the Pacific.  Apparently such swords can be identified by markings underneath the tsuka.

Naturally, having been carried and used in wartime, and brought back over thousands of miles aboard a troopship in a GI-issue kitbag, the sword was not in pristine condition.  Having learned of its antique status, the family approached a local specialist to clean and preserve it.  He, in turn, informed his contacts in Japan of its existence.  Next thing you know, the family was approached by a Japanese firm that was anxious to "restore the sword to its original glory" at what seemed like a very reasonable price, if they would send it back to that country for expert attention.  Fortunately, the local specialist warned them that if they sent it to Japan, they might never get it back, because if it were to be classified as a National Treasure, it would not be permitted to leave the country again.  I'm told this has happened more than once to people who didn't understand Japan's obsession with its historical treasures.  At any rate, the family declined the offer, and retain the sword to this day.



Aesop said...

We understand your interest, and largely share it, on grounds of interest in historical weapons and metallurgy.

However, we mention the likelihood that some surviving kin of American and Allied relatives, who were lately beheaded by minions of Tojo with those implements, may have a rather less enthusiastic outlook.

Most people on either side are "over it", but imagine if you will trying to gin up Japanese interest in a B-29.

Francis Turner said...

I need to see if that exhibition is going to go somewhere else closer to me. Nara is inconveniently far.

Paul M said...

Extraordinary craftmanship.

Reminded me of Steven Hunter's Bob Lee Swagger novel, The 47th Samurai...he went into a lot of fascinating and interesting detail within the story line.

Tree Mike said...

Very interesting. I'm not that knowledgeable, but I am very interested in edged weapons. I have a couple boxes of edged things I've accumulated over the years. Through some horse trading with a friendly pawn shop owner(whom WAS into Japanese swords) I was able to acquire a "traditionally" made, two handed, Katana. It, with it's scabbard, is a very fine bit of kit.

Will said...

Had a friend, 30 some years ago, find an original Katana dressed down in the standard Japanese military fittings.

Officers were allowed to carry a Family blade as long as it was carried in a standard issue scabbard with issue grips and suba.

He found it in a batch of army issue swords at a gunshow vendor's booth. He was specifically looking for such a blade, and had bought research books to help him be able to recognize them.

There was a Japanese sword expert on the opposite side of the show. After buying the blade for the price of a ww2 army issue bringback, he immediately ran it over to the sword expert, who verified it was an authentic Samurai age sword. It was estimated as 400~600 years old. I forget the details, but the makers mark was there, but no Family name was found. It looked really good after the proper Japanese polishing system was used on the blade.

A Family marked blade, especially if a still existing family, could increase the value by x100, and a Big Family name could push that into 7 figures.(data is 30 years old) Those blades would fall into the "can't leave the country" category. Odd thing is they are still considered proscribed weapons, and must be held in a museum, not at your home.

Tregonsee said...

At least in the United States there was an excellent collection of Japanese arms and armor (including many swords, tsuba and a couple sets of Japanese Armor) which was held at the Higgins Armory in Worcester MA. Unfortunately, that museum closed for lack of funds as of 2014. Currently, a small portion of these are displayed in the Worcester Art Museum which inherited the Collection ( They are in the process of refurbishing and extending a wing of the museum to display a larger portion of the collection (about 4000 Sq ft total) to be completed in early 2025. The collection is the second largest in the US second only to the Metropolitan in NYC. It also includes many sets of European armor and rams and includes an actual gladiator's helm (only one known outside Italy). Well worth a visit should you find yourself near Worcester Ma. Oh and for a little dink city the art museum isn't bad with a fair number o items including a large selection of Gaugin pieces and othe impressionists.