Sword as Art

Jewels of the Japanese Sword Museum

16 NOVEMBER 2015,
Top: Hardwood sacred beast motif in gold color, Edo period; bottom: multi-painted wooden sheath for a small sword © Japanese Sword Museum
Top: Hardwood sacred beast motif in gold color, Edo period; bottom: multi-painted wooden sheath for a small sword © Japanese Sword Museum

The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.”
- From the 1966 film, Sword of Doom

In the 1966 Japanese classic film Sword of Doom (Daibousatsu to Age), Kihachi Okamoto‘s adaptation of Kaizan Nakazato‘s serialized novel, the merciless samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue was a rage-filled swordsman who used his blood-drenched sword to slash one character after the other, void of utter emotion or compromise. The stiff coldness and frenzy torment that accompanied his unbeatable sword fighting skill had inevitably given the sword a parallelism to war, evil and revenge. Countless “samurai” movies: Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran, Rashomon, Kagemusha, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, and more, have by their own distinct styles, portrayed the sword as a vengeful weapon.

Yet, notwithstanding the manifestation of anger or fiery often associated with the sword, the deeply etched lines, precise curvature and refined decoration on the Japanese blade make this weaponry equipped with one of the highest level of classic craftsmanship in Japanese traditional aesthetics. Swordsmithing in Japan had existed as early as 1000 B.C. The forging of the Japanese blade was itself considered sacred art—an intricate process of heating, folding, and assembling, highlighted by very fine file markings and design on the blades and sword guard. Decorations on the wrought fittings of the sword depict mythological figures, heroes, elements of nature and other Japanese iconic symbols. As the blade was considered the warrior’s most endearing possession, it is essentially the “soul of the samurai.” Loving the sword for the samurai was equal to protecting it for its beauty. The elaborateness, therefore, of the chiseled designs on the sword must exude the explicit expression that the warrior needed to feel during or outside a duel.

In 1968, the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nihon Bijutsu Touken Hozon Kyokai) established the Japanese Sword Museum as an effort to preserve and protect the National Treasure swords by Nobuyoshi (Ryumon School), Kuniyuki (Rai School), and Kuniyuki (Taima School). There are approximately 190 Japanese swords, mountings, armors and other sword weaponry objects, both stored and displayed. An annex also houses an extensive library of around 1,500 documents and publications related to the history of Japanese swords.

Yasuko Kubo is the Japanese Sword Museum’s curator. Previously, she had been curator of the Sano Art Museum in Mishima city, Shizuoka, and joined the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords, Japanese Sword Museum in 2009. She offers her insights about the background of the Japanese Sword Museum and the symbolic significances of the sword in the Japanese way of life.

What is the essential concept and philosophy behind the Japanese Sword Museum?

Yasuko Kubo: After World War II, the importance of the Japanese sword experienced a crisis as the US military general headquarters ordered the confiscation of such weapons. At that time, the sword was, of course, regarded as a weapon, but it is also an art. We want to give value to it as an object of faith and symbol. This ideology was most expressed by two central figures in the preservation of the Japanese sword: one was Kunzan Honma, who worked at the research section of the National Treasures, Ministry of Education and the historical investigation section of temples and shrines at the Agency for Cultural Affairs between 1928 and 1945. He was also Administrator of the Agency for Cultural Affairs after WWII, and continued to conduct research on Japanese swords. The other important figure was Kanzan Sato, a prolific author and researcher of Japanese swords who has published numerous books about this subject. Like Honma, he also worked at the National Treasures, Ministry of Education, and Tokyo National Museum. He was Executive Director of the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords and Vice-Director of the Sword Museum.

Finally, in 1948 the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords was established. At that time, the society conducted their research in a room of the Tokyo National Museum, then after twenty years, with the huge force of volunteers, the Japanese Sword Museum was opened in its current location. I would say, therefore, that the original concept of the museum is the preservation and inheritance of the Japanese sword.

The form and design of the Japanese sword have gone through a tremendous evolution since ancient times. How would you classify the Japanese sword?

The history of the Japanese sword began from the end of the Heian period. Nowadays, the swords that belong up to the Muromachi period are considered as “old swords,” while the swords found after the Edo period are recognized as “new swords.” The swords traced after 1954 are grouped as ”modern swords.”

What aspects of the Japanese sword have influenced Japanese culture, or vice versa?

Since the ancient times, Japanese swords had been produced by raw materials, such as sand iron, coal and other natural extracts from the ground. In those days, there existed a custom of dedicating those newly made swords to the shrines. One example of this is the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. Later, Buddhist temples also paid homage to the sword, which became the samurai’s most precious possession of deep faith. The sword has always been a part of Japanese traditional culture. By the turn of the Edo period, the Japanese sword began to play a role in the political life of Japan.

How would you distinguish the sword as a weapon and as art?

The Japanese have always regarded the Japanese sword as a medium of functional beauty. It is said to be the iron of art. It stands not only as an outstanding weapon, but is also beautiful. And, this beauty has always been pursued by the Japanese.

The museum has a plan to relocate to another location, in Ryogoku, Tokyo. What changes in the museum should we expect?

In terms of the architectural plan, a cafeteria will be built on the first floor. The museum will also face a beautiful Japanese garden. We expect a much wider exhibition room as well. The museum will be just next to the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium, so the people can feel a taste of Japanese culture. The museum will be designed by one of Japan’s most respected architects, Fumihiko Maki.

As curator of the Japanese Sword Museum, how do you wish to convey the knowledge, importance and beauty of the Japanese sword to the people?

My foremost mission as curator of this museum is to preserve the Japanese sword. This means to maintain the same care for the swords on display, just as our ancestors did for the swords during ancient times. This, in turn, preserves the long history of Japan. Visually, the Japanese sword may not be so directly stimulating, unlike a piece of painting perhaps. But, each sword is completely different from the other. Once you decipher that difference, you will discover a sparkling presence in every sword, and something may change deep in one’s heart and mind.

The Japanese Sword Museum
4-25-10 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku Tokyo, Japan 151-0053
http://www.touken.or.jp/english/

With gratitude to Hiroaki Nishikiori and the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords, Japanese Sword Museum.