Katana wa Bushi no tamashii.
(The Sword is the Soul of the Samurai.)
GREAT as has been the estimation in which the sword has always been held throughout the world, and numerous as are the legends con- cerning famous blades, nowhere has the symbol of knighthood and the lore of the sword attained so high an eminence as in Japan.
Since the mythical days when Amaterasu, the divine ancestress, gave to her descendant Jimmu Tenno, first earthly representative of the Imperial House of Japan, the mirror, the stone and ” Cloud- Cluster,” — the sword her brother Sosanoo rent from the dragon’s tail, — these three heavenly gifts have been preserved as the imperial regalia of Japan.
“Cloud-Cluster” is a straight, two-edged sword similar in form to those found in early Japanese dolmens. As time went on this style of weapon was superseded by one having a curved blade with but a single cutting edge. This later form is considered to have reached its culmination of excellence at the hands of the Bizen smiths of the later Kamakura ( 1186- 1394) and early Ashikaga (1394-1587) periods.
In Japan, as in other countries’, the sword shows a progressive tendency to increase in weight com- mensurate with a like increase in the weight of armor, and after the experiences of Hideyoshi’s army during the invasion of Corea in the latter part of the sixteenth century arose the ” new school,” in which the blade of the sword became heavier, wider, and, with the more general adop- tion of the thrust, straighter, — changes which caused it to lose the beautiful lines and aristocratic delicacy of the ” old school.”
The sword ennobled to a greater or less degree all who had to do with it, from the smith himself, who enjoyed the full privileges of a samurai, to the artisans who fashioned the magnificent mountings and lacquered scabbards with which the samurai paid devotion to his weapon as another might to his mistress. Every sword was supposed to have its moral as well as its physical characteristics, for at the critical moment of hardening, when the smith plunged the glowing blade into the water, a part of his spirit was believed to enter the steel, and as was his frame of mind at that instant so was the after conduct of the sword. For this reason the hardening of the sword, and indeed the whole process of its making, was attended with religious ceremonies and purifications extending in scope from simple rites performed by the smith himself to elaborate rituals participated in by a number of priests high in the Shinto hierarchy.
Among the most renowned smiths of the Kam- akura epoch were Muramasa and Masamune. Long after the death of the former it chanced that both the great grandfather and the grandfather of Tokugawa Iyeyasu were attacked and wounded by men carrying swords of his fashioning. In con- sequence of this, when Iyeyasu attained the Shog- unate he forbade the wearing of Muramasa blades, with the result that a vast amount of fable soon became current concerning the evil ways of Muramasa and his swords. The character of the Kamakura smith could not be painted in too dark colors, and it was even affirmed that he was wont to harden his weapons in human blood, and that his swords, once drawn from their scabbards, however innocently, would ever refuse to return until they had again tasted of the warm draught. Among the many stories connected with the name of Muramasa is one which well illustrates the dif- ference in moral quality between his swords and those of his high-minded rival Masamune.
The two smiths once set a day on which to test the relative merits of their handiwork. At the appointed time each sword proved its ability to cut through copper basins, iron bars, silk handker- chiefs and floating feathers. No decision seemed possible as to the superiority of either weapon. Then Masamune bade Muramasa follow him to a neighboring stream and both planted their swords upright in its bed. The floating twigs and leaves which bore down towards Muramasa*s sword were cut in two by its blade, but those which came to that of his rival swerved to either side and passed on uninjured. ” Herein/* quoth Masa- mune, “you behold the superiority of my sword in that it does no wanton damage.**
The Japanese sword, like all other objects worthy of respect, is the result of long-continued and painstaking labor. Fragments of carefully selected iron are welded together, beaten out flat, creased in the middle, folded and again beaten out flat. After several repetitions of this treatment the mass of iron is plunged into cold water. The resulting plate of brittle laminated steel is then shivered by the blow of a hammer, and such pieces as do not meet with the approval of the smith are cast aside. The pieces remaining from this and a number of similarly treated plates are again put through the same process followed by a second elimination. According to the degree of excellence desired for the intended sword, this treatment is continued until from an amount of metal perhaps twenty or thirty times as great as that destined to appear in the completed weapon only sufficient material remains for its forging. The result of this repeated selection is a number of pieces of laminated steel of an exceedingly tough and complex texture. These are welded together for the last time and beaten out into the shape desired for the sword. The cutting edge is ground, grooves or decorative designs intended to lessen the ultimate weight of the blade are cut in its surface, and the whole is then ready for hardening.
The first step in this most critical period in the genesis of the sword is the covering of its entire surface, with the exception of the cutting edge and point, by a thin coating of very fine clay. Ac- cording to the fashion of the period, or the fancy of the smith, the uncovered strip along the edge may be narrow or wide, and bounded by a straight, waving, cloudlike or other irregular line, the contour of which is shown on the finished sword by a difference of color and surface. Often the clay is applied with the most delicate brushes in carefully adjusted degrees of thickness, produc- ing on the finished sword those subtle variations of color so dear to the eye of the connoisseur.
After the clay has dried and the proper cere- monies have been carried out, the sword is placed in the fire and the entire forge darkened so that the smith may judge by the evenly distributed rose color of the iron the proper moment to plunge it into the hardening trough.
The exact temperature of the water, the addi- tion to it of various ingredients, the composition of the clay used to cover the blade and many other important details are secrets carefully guarded by the various families of smiths. After hardening, the Japanese sword shows, united in one structural whole, a very tough, fibrous backbone and an extremely hard, brittle cutting edge.
With a final sharpening and polishing, the per- fected weapon is ready to prove its moral and physical qualities on whoso chances to encounter its razor-like edge.
Author, Unknown. “The Japanese Sword.” “The Japanese Sword. Katana Wa Bushi No Tamashii (The Sword Is the Soul of the Samurai)”. Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, 01 Aug. 1906. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.