Curved, single-edged and gleaming, the samurai sword is familiar to most of us a symbol of deadly elegance and martial skill. A small collection of blades, hiding in a chest of drawers beneath a stuffed zebra head at Leeds Discovery Centre, represent many chapters of the fascinating journey of the Japanese sword over the last millennium.
The characteristic curved sword first emerged in the Heian period (794-1185). From the 10th to 15th centuries, the predominant sword used by samurai was the tachi, a long blade worn suspended from the belt with its cutting edge facing downwards. Under the Kirisute-gomen act, samurai were allowed to cut down any member of the lower classes who threatened their physical safety or insulted their honour, sometimes by simply refusing to bow.
However, they could not simply mow down peasants at will: the samurai in question had to deliver the fatal blow in a single stroke, and was required to immediately notify the nearest government agency and spend twenty days in detention while the killing was investigated. If he and his family could not produce witnesses to confirm that the act was justified, he could be dismissed or even ordered to commit seppuku – ritual suicide – and his entire clan would be punished.
The sword most famously associated with the samurai, the katana, began to replace the tachi in the 1400s, when the provinces of Japan were plunged into 150 years of civil war. This was a slightly shorter blade, better suited to hand-to-hand infantry combat than mounted cavalry confrontations. It worn almost vertically from a waist sash with the edge uppermost, allowing the warrior to draw and strike in one fluid movement rather than two separate steps. Samurai often wore the katana in combination with a short blade, the wakizashi, in a pairing known as daishō (‘great-small’). While etiquette dictated that a warrior must leave his long sword at the entrance to his host’s house, the wakizashi stayed on his person at all times for emergency self-defence, lying by his bedside at night.
By 1588, most of Japan’s warring states had been brought under the control of one regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. To prevent future uprisings by peasants and warrior-monks, he issued a decree which forbade anyone outside the samurai class from carrying swords, bows, firearms other combat weapons, ordering the daimyō (feudal lords) to collect all armaments within their domain and send them to the capital. Rather than instruments of war, swords now became purely a mark of noble status, with most samurai continuing to wear the daishō even after adopting bureaucratic positions where their martial talents were irrelevant. As Japan entered a long period of peace and isolation from the outside world, the need for functional weapons declined, and many samurai adorned their blades with increasingly ostentatious fittings and scabbards featuring religious or historical scenes. The blades themselves also sometimes bore small inscriptions, such as the 16-petalled chrysanthemum carved into the tang (handle area) of the sword below. This flower was associated with the nobility, and is now an official seal of the imperial family. This design is the motif of a group of swordsmiths who set up shop in Yamashiro in 1640. The partial signature next to the flower proclaims this sword to be the work of Hisamichi of the Minamoto Clan, Lord of Omi.
For those samurai who still wanted to use their swords for combat and keep their battle skills alive, the peaceful Edo period of 1600-1853 provided few opportunities to practise. Some warriors resorted to challenging each other to duels over minor points of honour. As there was little opportunity to test them in real combat, new swords were evaluated through the practice of tameshigiri, in which skilled swordsmen would slice through straw mats, bamboo, thin steel sheets, and even the corpses of convicted criminals. The sword-testers recorded how well the sword cut through single or piled-up cadavers, often inscribing the result onto the blade. These inscriptions inform us that some swords could slice through three, five or even – terrifyingly – seven bodies in a single stroke.
The Lord of Omi was not the only swordsmith to sign his or her work. The tsuba or hand guard of this blade, which dates to around 1800, is carved into an unusual shape, possibly representing a family crest, and signed ‘Kuni-ie’.
Japan’s century and a half of self-imposed isolation was shattered by the boom of 73 American cannons as Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay in 1853. As western ideas flooded the islands, the samurai were replaced by a conscripted army, and the emperor curtailed their right to wear swords in public in 1876. Swords remained in use for military officers, but these were generally mass-produced and of inferior quality. Lacking samurai patronage, many Japanese craftsmen began producing swords and scabbards for the new western market, sometimes deviating from tradition to cater to skewed or exaggerated European and American imaginings of Japanese art.
Three examples of this beautiful but inauthentic craftsmanship are these swords from the Meiji period (1868-1912). The two uppermost sheaths are high-quality pieces carved from ivory, reflecting the high social status of their purchasers – the central sword belonged to the Gascoigne family of Lotherton, while the top one is inlaid with mother of pearl and studded with coloured decorations. Although both sheaths were made after the era of the samurai had ended, their carvings depict sword-wielding warriors in traditional armour, indicating that the crafters were playing to romantic western ideas of a bygone Japan.
Over a millennium after they were first produced, Japanese swords continue to exert a strong pull on the global imagination. Sword wielding is still central to several styles of Japanese martial arts, such as iaido and nitōjutsu, while a small number of swordsmiths continue to forge blades in traditional workshops. Thankfully, however, convicted cadavers no longer play a role in their testing.
By Natascha Allen-Smith, volunteer and work placement at Leeds Museums & Galleries.
To see these swords and other weapons from our world collection, come to our free store tours at Leeds Discovery Centre, running every Thursday at 11am and 2pm.
A new exhibition on Japanese culture will open at Lotherton in March 2020.