Nihontō: The Samurai Sword

“How sharp is a samurai sword?” This is the question that Mike Yamasaki and Darin Furukawa, guest curators of the upcoming exhibition Nihontō: The Samurai Sword, hear (and dread) the most whenever they display the swords without the protection of museum glass cases. The result is often bloodshed as curious fingers find out that the blades are razor sharp!

The Japanese sword is a prime example of the unity of form and function. It can be exquisitely beautiful, but it can also be highly deadly since its primary function is to cut through the human body. The term Nihontō, translated simply as “Japanese sword,” refers to katana, worn at the waist with the cutting edge up, the less familiar tachi, worn suspended with the cutting edge down, the wakizashi, a companion sword shorter than the katana, and the tantō, or short, dagger-like form. Only members of the samurai class were allowed to wear two swords, katana and wakizashi.

To the samurai class, who ruled Japan for over 700 years beginning in the middle 1100s, there was no art form more important than sword making. A sword that could not hold a sharp edge, or that broke during use, could lead to fatal consequences—so durability was a primary concern. Yet function alone was insufficient for Japanese aesthetics; beauty of form was a sine qua non. Add to that the spiritual values embodied in the sword—the blade was considered to be the “soul” of its owner—and as such, in principle, it should be kept polished and in reserve, never drawn other than for personal appreciation, maintenance of it as a work of art, or to cut down an opponent. The exhibition features some blades that belonged to samurai lords with inscriptions recorded in gold on the tang that detail how the blades performed in test cuts using both cadavers and live bodies.

 Because the sword was so deadly, millions of swords were confiscated and destroyed during the U.S. Occupation of Japan following the end of World War II. Mountains of blades were melted down in furnaces, and when the furnaces could not keep up, tens of thousands of blades were loaded onto ships that were then sunk in Tokyo Bay.

Many of the swords that were destroyed were 20th-century, mass-produced blades for military officers made by using machinery or other non-traditional methods, but countless heirloom blades that dated back some several hundred years were also destroyed. Thankfully, through the efforts of scholars like Dr. Junji Honma (1904–1991) and Kan’ichi Sato (1907–1978), the Occupation Authorities were led to appreciate the difference between the mass-produced swords and the hand-made swords forged by artisans and craftsmen of the highest quality. These two men were responsible for the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nihon Bijutsu Tōken Hozon Kyōkai, or NBTHK).

This exhibition brings to Indianapolis excellent examples of some of the finest Nihontō ever made, including blades certified in Japan as “Important” (juyō) or “Especially Important” (tokubetsu juyō) swords, the two highest-ranking certifications by the NBTHK. Through this exhibition, visitors will learn about the art of sword making, which is one of Japan’s oldest traditional crafts, dating back to the 8th century. The depth of the tradition of sword-making, combined with respectful preservation and dedicated care, can be witnessed in 800-year-old blades that are still in pristine condition.

Appreciation of the samurai sword as an object of art is highly rewarding. It is fascinating to explore the intricate details and functional roles of all the varied parts and materials used in the full mounting of a sword. The art of the Japanese sword involves much more than the blade alone. All aspects from the forming and decoration of the scabbard to the fine metalwork of the sword guards and decorative fittings are the work of specialized master craftsmen. Although he is better known as the most famous samurai warrior in all of Japan’s history who won over 60 life-and-death battles, Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584–1645) was also an accomplished artist; the exhibition contains one of only 26 known sword guards made by this master swordsman.

To provide a greater context around the skill, creativity, and design sensibility of the arts and crafts related to the samurai sword, examples of samurai armor, accoutrements, and other weapons like guns and a huge halberd are also included in the installation. The Nihontō is truly a work of beauty in its elegance of form and the gleaming quality of its forged steel. This is augmented by the spiritual values embodied in the sword—both in terms of the spirit and mentality of the maker as well as that of its wielder. Thus, it can be said that appreciation of both the tangible form and the symbolism of the sword are critical to the understanding of Japanese culture.

Nihontō: The Samurai Sword will open in the spring of 2019, on May 9. Many of the objects in the exhibition have never before been on public display. The Museum is known for having one of the finest collections of Japanese paintings outside of Japan, and it has held exhibitions of ancient, modern, and contemporary woodblock prints and ceramics. Now, in Nihontō: The Samurai Sword, through these objects of the highest quality, our guests will have the rare opportunity to gain insight from a very different angle into the art and culture of Japan. 

Support for Nihontō: The Samurai Sword is provided by the Cristel DeHaan Family Foundation