An important twelfth-century Japanese sword, discovered hidden in the ceiling during a 1939 refurbishment of the treasure house at Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara, will now be put on display.
The sword appears to be in very good condition, showing little evidence of use and remains close to its original state. After repolishing and appraisal, it has been attributed to the Ko-Hoki School. The accompanying Kuro-urushi- yamagane (black lacquered mountain iron) tachi mountings are thought to date from the fourteenth century. The sword is believed to have been dedicated to the shrine sometime during the Nanboku-cho (1336-1392) and early Muromachi (1336-1573) periods.
The blade is unsigned, but as it bears a close resemblance to the famous Doji-giri sword in the Tokyo National Museum by the Ko-Hoki mastersmith Yasutsuna, and it is thought that it could be his work as well. The Doji-giri is known historically as one of the Five Greatest Swords Under Heaven. Motoki Sakai of the Tokyo National Museum said that the sword discovered at Kasuga Taisha “is a very important example of work of the period in excellent condition.”
Kasuga Taisha Shinto priest, Hirotada Kasan-no-in, said that discovering the sword was “amazing, like finding a time capsule.” He went on to say that he thought that the sword was “probably donated to the shrine by someone wishing for divine protection by the residing deity.” The sword and mountings were designated as an Important Art Object by the Agency of Cultural Affairs.
The sword was sent for restoration to polisher Koshu Hon’ami, who is a Living National Treasure. Hon’ami has re-polished the sword back to its original splendor. The Hon’ami family is said to have been sword polishers and appraisers since as far back as the Kamakura Period, and were later employed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo Period. They also issued appraisal certificates and valuations for important swords, as well as compiling various sword compendiums.
The Ko-Hoki School derives its name from Hoki province, which is the archaic name for modern Tottori Prefecture in western Japan. The Ko-Hoki School is thought to be one of the earliest curved-sword schools in Japan. From the third to sixth centuries, straight swords were mainly imported from the Asian mainland. Beginning during that period of importation, straight swords of continental Asian design were also produced in Japan. Later, around the mid tenth century, Japanese swordsmiths began making uniquely Japanese curved swords.
Swords are often dedicated to shrines across Japan as offerings to the shrine’s patron deity or as vessels, in which the patron deity may reside. The sword itself can then be worshipped as an incarnation of that deity. The practice of donating swords to shrines was very common in the Nanboku-cho and Muromachi periods, when many eleventh- and twelfth-century swords housed in Hyogo-gusari Koshirae (robust metal-covered mountings with chain suspension fittings, popular among warriors during the Kamakura period) were dedicated to various shrines.
The Kasuga Taisha sword is at its original intended length, unsigned, with a cutting edge length of 82.4 cm, a curvature of 3 cm and a blade width at the base of 3.3 cm.
It will be on display from January 30 to March 26, 2018, at the Legendary Sword Masterpieces exhibit at the Kasuga Taisha Treasure House in Nara, as part of the 1,250th anniversary of the construction of the shrine.
Photos by Yukia Watanabe, the Sankei Shimbun Photographer
Paul Martin is a former British Museum curator, Japanese Sword Specialist and a Trustee of the Nihonto Bunka Shinko Kyokai (NBSK). He is also an appointed Bunka Meister (Master of Culture: Japanese Swords) by the Japonisme Shinko Kai (Honganji).
(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)