The Sword as Japanese Traditional Culture.


Non-Japanese people probably think of the katana only in relation to the samurai. However, we Japanese know the sword as a symbol of Japanese traditional culture. As mentioned earlier, the three facets of the Japanese sword are functionality, spirituality and beauty. Of these, function applies only to the samurai whilst the spirituality and the beauty also apply to the average Japanese person. This spirituality and beauty together is probably best referred to as sanctity.

In the sixth year of Bunsei (1822), a book entitled Token Seiryoku was published. It was the same year that Dr Seibold of Holland came to Japan. At that time there were many sword appreciation groups. The participants were not only members of the samurai class, but were townsfolk, peasants and all levels of people. This was because there is no connection between class and the sword.  Author Okazaki Nobuzane wrote, gBefore the sword there are no two things.h Nowadays this is more commonly said as, gBefore the katana everyone is equal.h  The social system of samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants were all seen as equal before the sword, as the origins of the sword and the origins of the Japanese are the same.

Why would people of all different backgrounds feel that the sword is the origin of the Japanese people? In the imperial court of the Heian period before the samurai emerged, there was a ceremony called Ohomu Mafuri. It took place close to the winter solstice for the emperor and empress. At this ceremony, a wand with ten strands called hire, (a wand with ten fluttering strands of silk like the robes of goddess Ohomu Mafuri) is waved to raise their spirit, as it was thought that at the winter solstice the power of the sun was at its weakest. The objects of the imperial regalia are the jewel, the mirror and the sword. Ancient Japanese thought that by having the hire waved over them they could absorb the power of the spirits. They also believed that it could cure illness, and it is said that at times it had brought people back from the dead.

Incidentally, swords of the Kofun, Nara and early Heian periods were straight blades. Swords referred to as nihonto (swords with curvature) appeared in the late Heian, Kamakura period and onwards. These are all generally referred to as token. However, nihonto generally refers to the curved blade variety. Furthermore, samurai of the Gempei battles would wear their swords suspended from the hip. Blades worn in this fashion are called tachi. The swords of the Sengoku period worn with the blades thrust through the sash with the cutting edge uppermost are referred to as Katana.

There are no indigenous Japanese characters for the word tachi, the characters from the original Chinese are used. There were no original Japanese characters that were applicable at the time, so all blades from tachi to katana are referred to as nihonto.

Even now during funeral ceremonies, an omamori-gatana (spiritually protective sword) is placed upon the casket of the deceased to protect them on their way to the next world. This custom dates back to the Kofun period. Since these early times the sword was a symbol of spirituality. Swords have been found placed at the side of the deceased in excavated tombs. It was believed that the power of the sword would guide them to rebirth. Later, the belief became that the sword that would protect the deceased in the afterlife. Nowadays a symbolic representation of a sword is used.  Todayfs young samurai should, for their family and loved ones, keep a real sacred tanto for such occasions.


Sugiyama Hideo                 Edited by Elliott Long

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