In recent times, there have been many cases of war loot being repatriated to the original owners, their descendants, or country of origin. French President Emmanuel Macron wants to return looted treasures to France’s former African colonies, and the British Museum recently returned eight objects that were looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the turmoil following the Iraqi War. There is another huge movement to return Nazi war loot that mostly targeted art treasures during the second world war.
Many of today’s museums are carefully screening their collections to ensure that these do not have any of those pieces in their collections and, if they discover one, to take the appropriate steps to return them.
The root of this conundrum is a difficult concept for people to overcome. Victors feel entitled to take items as prizes from their enemies, referring to them as the spoils of war.
War-end Confiscation of Japanese Swords
Which brings us to Japanese swords.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japanese soldiers were required to surrender all arms, including their swords. Looking at the many photographs, it appears that special ceremonies were held specifically for the surrender of swords not only inside Japan, but in many of the conflict areas, Papua New Guinea, Borneo, Wake Island, etc.
Many of the soldiers who had taken their family blades to war were under the impression that their swords would be returned to them at a later date, so a large number of swords were handed over with a name tag (commonly known as surrender tags) attached, with personal details of the owner written on it. However, these swords were never returned.
Instead, many were distributed among, or taken by, soldiers of the allied forces and taken back to their home countries.
Disappearance and Destruction of Priceless Family History
Inside Japan an edict was issued by the allied forces for the confiscation of all weapons — including swords — from even the general public for their destruction. The edict was stopped after the historical, cultural, and artistic importance of Japanese swords was pointed out to GCHQ, but not until many swords had been shoveled into furnaces, scuttled on barges in Tokyo Bay, or buried (like 40 swords recently discovered at a Nishi-Tokyo School).
Around 5,000 swords were confiscated and kept at a United States military facility in Akabane, Tokyo. They are now known as Akabane-to (Akabane swords).
Many of these swords confiscated inside Japan made their way into the hands of allied personnel and out of country. The most famous of these swords that were never to return was the Honjo Masamune. The sword was an heirloom of the Tokugawa family. Even today, its whereabouts, or fate, remain unknown.
Like the Honjo Masamune, many of these swords, as opposed to their mass-produced counterparts for the war effort, are considered art objects and had been passed down in families for generations.
Weapons of War or Priceless Art Objects?
Of course, fundamentally swords are weapons. But, to the Japanese, the sword is not an offensive weapon made for merely killing. It can only be used in close quarters so is regarded as a weapon for self-defense.
There were many other much more effective weapons available for use at a distance. These include guns, which had been introduced to Japan in 1543.
It is unrefuted that there are recorded cases to the contrary and evidence that swords were also used for executions, as well as the subtly different beheading (kaishaku) in cases of ritual suicide (seppuku). However, the Japanese sword is foremost regarded as an object of spiritual protection and art.
Swords that were produced as purely weapons generate little interest in Japan. The mass-produced swords of the Warring States period have little to no collectable value. And, the mass-produced swords that were made during the second world war (for the most part) fall into the offensive weapons category under current Japanese law and are therefore unlicensable and illegal.
Spiritual Protection of the Family Treasure
There are two overlapping concepts in Japan concerning swords. One, as mentioned earlier, is spiritual protection.
Many of the Shinto shrines around Japan sell small silk purse amulets called omamori that contain prayers and invocations for spiritual protection. This same concept is applied to swords using the generic word for sword, katana. When the two words are used together they become omamori-gatana.
The second concept is kaho, or family treasure, which in many cases can be a sword. In these cases, a family treasure does not necessarily mean National Treasure, etc.
It is at this point the overlapping of the two concepts is at its most prominent. As with all countries and cultures, no one wants to see their children go off to war. So, when the sons of Japanese families were drafted, many were given the family treasure sword.
It is obvious to anyone that as a weapon in modern warfare against machine guns, tanks, and bombs, a sword is not of much use other than close quarter self protection. However, it is still true that by giving a son the family sword, the family hoped that it would protect him spiritually. Additionally, being entrusted with such a family treasure, the son had a responsibility to look after the sword and bring it (and himself) back home safely.
History of Swords and the Samurai Concept
The word samurai is rather fluid.
Samurai, in its literal sense, means “to serve.” Originally samurai were recruited from the lands of various warlords — land owners in times of war. At other times, the men might till the fields or perform other tasks.
It wasn’t until the Momoyama period that a coordinated sword hunt was performed to disarm the general public and the Edo period that the samurai class was formalized. Then, by the end of the Edo period, the majority of Japanese, including lower-level samurai, were tired of the samurai class and longed for modernity that resulted in the abolition of the samurai class.
However, with the introduction of Inazo Nitobe’s book Bushido and the formation of a military government some 60 years after the abolition of the samurai class, samurai ideals were being once again transferred onto the general populace of Japan. This time, it was as a form of propaganda, which eventually led to the mass production of Japanese swords in order to increase the notion of samurai warrior spirit among the Japanese military.
This propaganda had a negative effect on the Japanese sword. There was also a counter-propaganda campaign that highlighted the sword as a symbol of Japan’s aggression, despite the hundreds of other much, much more effective weapons used during the war.
Frankly speaking, the image of a man about to be beheaded by his captives seems to hold much more shock value than that of men executed by firing squad. Yet, the latter has a higher possibility of being a much more drawn out painful death, let alone shrapnel or bullet wounds in action.
This illustrates the power of the Japanese sword as much more than a mere weapon. It has the power to move nations.
Swords Taken From Japan After the War
The Japanese pushed back after the war by highlighting the swords’ artistic qualities. This was followed by a boom in collecting.
One side effect of the swords taken overseas by allied personnel was that it planted the seeds of collecting in the West. There had been a few collectors who had been in Japan during the Meiji era, but these tended to be affluent people.
Many swords that were taken during and after the war have been back to Japan in one way or another. Many have been sent for appraisal to one of several groups that supply authenticating certificates generally known as kantei-sho. Some of these swords have been awarded higher level papers, such as Juyo-Token (Important Sword) or Tokubetsu Juyo-Token (Especially Important Sword).
Some very important swords that were taken from Japan in the turmoil after the Second World War have been discovered. One former officer who served in Japan during the Allied occupation and became a well known collector of Japanese swords was Dr. Walter Compton. He discovered one of the missing National Treasures (Kunimune) and returned it to Japan in 1963. The other missing swords on the list have currently been removed from their former designations, as all remaining designated swords were re-designated in 1954.
Among the previous generation of non-Japanese collectors, many would say things like “Japan doesn’t want their swords back” or “They don’t want them because of the shame of losing the war.” It seems like very strong opinions for people, many of whom do not speak, read, or write Japanese, and have never lived in, or some cases never been to, Japan.
However, when speaking with many Japanese of different generations, the response is mixed.
First, many Japanese are cautious when responding to questions or outside requests from non-Japanese. Some elderly people tend to be confused by current laws and are worried about contravening gun and sword laws inside Japan. Furthermore, with complicated importation procedures and possible miscommunication with non-Japanese parties, sometimes it is easier to just decline.
Other elderly people, like the former prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto (1937-2006), say outright that they want their sword returned. They reminisce with stories about watching their father clean the family sword and how heartbroken they were when it was never returned.
Middle-aged and above women tend not to be interested in swords and are scared of them as weapons. Conversely, many young- to middle-aged women in Japan are currently very interested in swords, following a boom created by the online game Token-Ranbu, which turns famous swords into actual characters. Some of these women have even begun collecting or started careers in swords.
Middle-aged and older men are generally interested in swords and in many cases would like to see them returned. Younger men are mostly indifferent about swords, but say, “If someone took something belonging to my family, even if it was a wrist or pocket watch, I would want it back.”
In recent times, there are a number of non-Japanese people who are considering returning swords to Japan of their own volition. There are many stories of swords being repatriated to their former owners or descendants.
Recent Cases of Repatriation
One recent episode was the return of two important swords last year from President Putin of Russia to Prime Minister Abe of Japan.
Another one of these stories was recently made into the award-winning documentary, Forgive-Don’t Forget. It is the story of one man’s attempt to return a sword to the original owner or his family. The story illustrates the depth of meaning of the sword to its owner and family, ending with a very moving return of the sword. Despite the fact that the former owner survived the war, on receiving the sword his sister said, “His soul has finally returned.”
However, in many cases the sword’s previous owners are untraceable. If the sword is not a very famous blade with a famous owner like the Honjo Masamune, without any documentation (surrender tag, etc), it is impossible to find the former owner or his descendants, if any.
When informing people offering to return swords of this fact, some of them still would like to return the sword to its homeland. In such cases, there are many shrines and museums that will accept donations of swords on the condition that they will not incur any costs, other than the sword licensing fee required by law inside Japan.
Looted Art or Spoils of War?
The question of international institutions recognizing Japanese swords as art is probably made more complex by the fact that swords are fundamentally weapons. Additionally, the position of a sword within Japanese culture as not merely a weapon is a difficult concept for non-Japanese governing bodies to perceive.
Today in Japan, 122 blades are designated as National Treasures, with hundreds of other blades designated as Important Cultural Properties and Important Art Objects.
Swords are regarded inside and outside of Japan as art and owners all over the world actively pursue higher and higher level authenticating papers as evidence of the artistic (and monetary) worth of their blades.
Given this recognition, should the artistic and monetary worth of these — many antique — art objects that were taken from Japan after the war from soldiers and civilians alike be viewed as looted war art?
(To Read More About Japanese Swords, see The Japanese Sword Column at this link.)
Author: Paul Martin