The Seikado Bunko Art Museum is holding a special exhibition aimed at introducing Japanese swords to beginners by utilizing 30 wonderful blades from their collection of 120 swords that originally belonged to Baron Yanosuke Iwasaki and his son Koyata (the founder of the museum). Yanosuke was the younger brother of the Tosa samurai and founder of the Mitsubishi group, Yataro Iwasaki. The director of the museum, Motoaki Kono, in his introduction to the exhibition describes the Japanese sword as “the epitome of grace, beauty and simplicity. That is the very reason it is a symbol of Japanese culture.” The museum also provides much detailed information on swords in the form of handouts, including leaflets in English with descriptions of some of the blades on display.
The exhibition is broken into several easy to understand sections. The first case illustrates the difference between a tachi: a long sword worn suspended from the hip with the cutting edge facing downwards, and a katana: a long sword word thrust through the sash with the cutting edge uppermost. The next section is a display of the museum’s most prestigious swords, a National Treasure and several other blades that have been designated as Important Cultural Properties. The following showcase displays five blades that illustrate the five main traditions of sword manufacture (known as the Goka-den) of the pre-Edo period. This showcase continues with examples of blades made by famous smiths of the Edo period (1603-1868). The final main case in the gallery has swords that were owned by famous warriors. There are other smaller cases in the gallery displaying koshirae (mountings) and matching sets of decorative fittings.
There are also some wonderful displays of samurai-related art. In the entrance to the gallery is a colorful folding screen (displayed flat) by Matsumoto Fuko (1840-1923) with scenes of samurai warriors looking out to sea from Hakata Bay, watching the invading Mongol fleet being destroyed by a typhoon that was labeled the “divine wind” (kamikaze). In the main gallery is the Shinzei (Fujiwara no Michinori) chapter of a 13th century picture scroll (Important Cultural Property) of the Heiji Rebellion of 1159-60, when the forces of Minamoto no Yoshitomo fought against the Taira clan led by Taira no Kiyomori over Imperial succession.
National Treasure Sword by Kanenaga
The centerpiece of the exhibition, pictured at the top, is a 13th century tachi by the master smith Kanenaga of Yamato province (Nara prefecture). With the establishment of the Yamato court in about 400 BCE, the ancient capital of Japan was first situated in Asuka, moving to Nara in 710, before moving to Kyoto in 794 where it remained until the Meiji restoration in 1868.
Many of Japan’s earliest swordsmith schools arose close to the seat of government during these periods. Additionally, the rise in power of the many land-owning temples in Nara during the Kamakura period led to many smiths being employed to provide arms for warrior monks to defend the temples and their wealth. There are five main groups of swordsmiths in the Yamato region that rose to prominence during this era. These were the Senjuin, Taima, Tegai, Shikkake and Hosho groups.
The maker of the National Treasure tachi on display in the exhibition was made by the first generation Kanenaga who was the founder of the Yamato Tegai school. It is thought that he was active during the mid and late Kamakura period and is said to have lived and worked in front of the Tengai gate of Todaiji in Nara.
This tachi is shinogi-zukuri (ridgeline) in construction, with an iori-mune (peaked spine) and a chu-kissaki (medium sized point section). Although it is suriage (shortened), the blade retains a deep curvature. The hada (grain pattern in the steel) is a flowing itame (wood-grain type pattern), with profuse martensitic crystals visible in the body of the blade. The hamon (pattern of the hardened edge) is a shallow notare-gunome (gently undulating, mixed with semi-circular shapes), with crystalline activities such as uchi-no-ke (crescent shapes), ko-ashi (short legs), yo (leaves), and kinsuji (golden lines). The boshi (hamon in the point section) is notare undulating with some hakikake (feathering, like brush strokes), and has a small circular shape at the furthest point before ending with a short turn back. The suriage-nakago has taka-no-ha (bird feather type pattern) yasurime (filemarks), four mekugi-ana (peg holes), and is finished in kurijiri (chestnut shaped). The mei (maker’s signature) is inscribed close to the nakago-jiri with the two-character signature of Kanenaga.
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Seikado Bunko Art Museum
2-23-1 Okamoto, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 157-0076.
Tel: 03-5777-8600 (Hello Dial)
Exhibition: Perfect Guide to Japanese Sword
Jan 21 (Sat), 2017 through to March 20 (Mon, National Holiday), 2017.
Museum opens 10:00 am to 4:30 pm (last entry 4 pm). Closed Mondays (except for March 20).
Entry fee 1000 JPY
Students and groups of over 20 people 700 JPY per person. (Repeater discounts also available).
Middle school students and below: Free.
There are also scheduled events and talks (the purchase of a museum ticket is required to attend and guests will be seated on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to space restrictions, the museum can only accept 120 attendees per event):
Feb 19 (Sun): Talks by Yoshikawa Eiichi and Exhibition curator Yamada Masaki (in Japanese).
Talk 1: From 10:30 am
Talk 2: From 1:15 pm
March 4 (Sat), 10 am to 4 pm: Demonstrations by sword craftsmen:
- Scabbard Maker (saya-shi):
- Swordsmith: (clay application demonstration)
Paul Martin is a former British Museum curator, and a secretary 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)