Almost everyone is familiar with samurai swords and the importance of swords in ancient Japanese culture. But what many people don’t realize is how important swords were to the Japanese people all the way up into the 20th century, and era when long-range combat was becoming the most common way to fight wars.
After the end of the samurai era in 1868, the Meiji Period brought more and more Western influences to Japanese military life, cemented by the creation of a conscription army in 1972. However, even as samurai armor and ideals fizzled out of popularity, their swords did not.
During World War II, all military officers were ordered to wear swords. The swords was a status symbol — it encouraged men to join the army with the promise that they would receive a sword and all the honor and high social status that came with it. The swords provided to most of these men were called guntō, meaning “military sword”. Many of these swords were Type 94, Type 95, or Type 98 — mass-produced for the officers and non-commissioned officers who did not have ancestral swords of their own to bring into battle, although some were kyū guntō or shin guntō, made for higher ranking officers and artfully decorated, though still mass-produced. Some swords, however, were real treasures, genuine katanas, ancient works of samurai-era artisanship handed down through families.
The most perfect of all Japanese swords ever created was a koto sword (made in the era from 900-1596) called the Honjo Masamune.
It was made by Gorō Masamune (1264-1343), the greatest Japanese swordsmith in history. His work was so renowned that every blade he produced was known by his name regardless of its owner. There is a legend about the Honjo Masamune that names it as a great sword not only because it was sharp and well-made, but because it had its own innate sense of justice. In this legend, Gorō Masamune had a contest with his greatest rival, Sengo Muramasa. Both produced magnificent swords; Muramasa’s blade cut through both leaves and a live fish, but Masamune’s blade only cut the leaves and would not touch the fish. Muramasa declared himself the winner, but a wise old man said that Masamune was the true winner because his blade, in refusing to cut the live fish, showed that it was just and would not take a life unnecessarily, while Muramasa’s was bloodthirsty. Thus Masamune was declared the greater swordsmith, and a legend arose that Muramasa’s bloodthirsty blades must shed blood every time they are unsheathed, even if its owner must shed his own blood so he can sheath it again.
The other part of this great sword’s name comes from its most famous owner, Honjo Shigenaga (1540-1614). Shigenaga captured the sword in the famous fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561, but he became bankrupt by 1595 and was forced to sell the blade to the Toyotomi family, Japan’s rulers. They fell to a shogun named Tokugawa Ieyasu only 5 years after acquiring the sword. Ieyasu claimed the sword and made it his family’s symbol, passing it down through generations of shoguns. Even when the shogunate collapsed in 1868, the Tokugawa family remained in possession of the Honjo Masamune.
When Japan surrendered in World War II, Tokugawa Iemasu was the head of the Tokugawa family. The Allies demanded that all weapons be handed over, including ancestral swords which served more as works of art and heirlooms than weapons. Iemasu, in an effort to set an example for the rest of the country, surrendered the entire Tokugawa family sword collection, including the Honjo Masamune, to the Mejiro police station in December of 1945. As prizes, U.S. military men serving in Japan at the time were allowed to take home one sword — many had no idea whether their prize was a mass-produced modern sword or a thousand-year-old treasure. The Honjo Masamune was collected by a sergeant of the U.S. 7th Cavalry listed by Japanese officials as “Coldy Bimore”, an English transliteration of a Japanese transliteration of an English name. It was never seen again.
That means that somewhere hidden in your grandpa’s attic, there could be a priceless 700-year-old treasure.