Japanese Sword History  The First 1000 Years
     An Outline

   by Robert E. Haynes (1998-99)

The thousand years of the history of the Japanese sword to be outlined is from 300 B.C.E. to 699-700, and not, as you might expect, the thousand years from 900 to 1899-1900. This first thousand years has been greatly neglected, primarily because so little reliable information was available. During the last 50 years a vast amount of archaeological information has been unearthed that gives us a far clearer picture of these centuries. This has enabled us to see that the sword in Japan, very much in its present form, was the key object that formed the history of these thousand years.

The story of the Japanese sword does not begin in Japan, but in China and Korea, and with the Tungus tribes of the Amur region of Russia. When the use of iron in China (500 B.C.E.) was introduced into Korea (400 B.C.E.), it took only another hundred years (300 B.C.E.) for it to be introduced into Japan. With the introduction of iron came a new culture, probably from Korea and the Tungus tribes, that is known as the Yayoi culture (300 B.C.E. to C.E. 200). The Yayoi people brought not only iron, but the knowledge of how to forge it, and how to form it into both tools and weapons. They first introduced this knowledge to the northeastern areas of Kyushu (the later provinces of Hizen and Chikuzen) and the islands of Iki and Tsushima off its northern coast. The majority of these iron objects were either made in Korea and brought to Japan, or were made in Japan by Korean craftsman with iron ingots they brought for that purpose. It was a matter of less than a hundred years before the technology of the Yoyoi people supplanted the Jomon culture, that had lasted for more than ten thousand years, but without iron. As has always been the case when new forces are introduced into Japan, they very quickly are absorbed, and are usually improved upon. Iron technology was one of these forces that would shape the history of Japan to the present day. The iron sword was one of the three most venerated objects in Japan, along with the mirror and the jewel.

The bronze period in Japan came slightly after the beginning of the iron age, and the majority of the pieces in the early period were continental imports. Most were not weapons, and even those were more ceremonial than practical. The only sword that was perhaps used in war was the katana. For illustrated examples of these and iron swords see: Special Exhibition THE JAPANESE SWORD Iron Craftsmanship and the Warrior Spirit, October 14, to November 24, 1997, Tokyo National Museum catalog. For bronze swords see plates 1 and 2, and plate 3 for a spear head. (In later references to this catalog it will be referred to as T.N.M.) Naturally the most important object of the Bronze age was the mirror, which were at first imported from China during the later Han dynasty, and shortly after were made in Japan, by the thousands. These mirrors became the symbol of the triad, representing the sacred sword, mirror and jewel.

During the century 200 B.C.E., enough iron had been imported into Japan for the production of swords to grow immensely, and for them to be made as far east as the Yamato area. Some of these swords were purely ritual in nature, and were buried near fields, and came to represent the birth of a good harvest. The phallic symbolism of the blade had been carried over from the Jomon to the early Yayoi period, as represented by the stone phalli found in homes and at the edge of cultivated areas. The very strong phallic symbolism of the Japanese sword would raise its ugly head in later centuries.

The fighting weapon of this period was in use along with the bow and arrow, and some forms of protective armor, in many "wars" of the period, some in Japan and others in Korea. By this time the sword had found its place in Japanese history that it was to hold for the next two thousand two hundred years. For two swords of this period see T.N.M. numbers 4 and 5. They are still based on the continental model and since we have no fittings for them we can only surmise that they were mounted in the late Han style. What is most surprising about these swords during this period, is that they were buried, both as grave goods (fukusashin), and as offerings. This means that there was sufficient iron available to allow for burial rather than the continued use of a weapon generation after generation. The explanation seems to be that there was a good supply of iron imported, and some sand iron had been found, so that the sacred nature of the blade took precedence over the scarcity of the raw iron.

Well that is as far as I have gotten. I think the whole paper will be at least 25 pages, and maybe more with the "NEW" Piggott material. I will have to insert much into these three pages and then go much more deeply into the next 1000 years, as in 3 pages I have not gotten much out of 300 B.C.E.!!! Your thoughts and ideas, and where we need clearer information, would be a great help.


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