An Origin of the Japanese Sword
Originally written for the Kitakami Times
The great warrior Benkei sought to obtain 1000 swords; each from a warrior he defeated. He had gathered 999 when one fateful day he encountered a man by the name of Yoshitsune on Gojo Bridge in Kyoto…
Swords were an integral part in shaping the history of Japan. In the Ichinoseki region, one of the oldest groups of swordsmiths, the legendary Mokusakaji made Mokusa Swords, which are said to be an indispensable part of the Japanese sword’s origins. Mokusa Swords, which were also popular among the aristocrats of Kyoto, are thought to have helped sustain the military power of the Oshu Fujwara Clan (1087-1189) who ruled the Tohoku Region and were one of the four great clans during the Heian period (794 to 1185).
People often refer to Nihonto or Japanese swords as the swords forged after the Heian period with a curved, single edge blade. The traditional material that Japanese swords are crafted from is called Tamahagane, rare steel comprised of iron-sand with unevenly distributed and high carbon content that needs to be purified by a number of processes by the swordsmith. Japanese swords reached their prime during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) with swordsmithing techniques so profound that some swords of those times cannot be reproduced with modern technology: this is referred to as ‘lost technology’.
Chokuto and Warabiteto The predecessor to the Japanese sword was the chokuto (a long, straight sword) used mainly to stab. Another style of sword was the shorter warabiteto that had a curved hilt as the blade faces upward making it better suited for cutting. The warabiteto is said to be the earliest sword discovered with curvature and had been used since the 8th century in Tohoku. Although found across Japan, only a few have been discovered in western Japan. They were most common in the Tohoku region with a large amount excavated in Iwate Prefecture; the reasons being that there was a prominent and strong group of Emishi (an ethnic group who lived in Northern Japan) in the area who preferred to use warabiteto, as well as the abundance of materials such as high quality iron-ore and iron sand – essential for crafting swords.
The link between Mokusa Swords and Japanese swords (nihonto)
The Japanese sword’s curve originated from the warabiteto. The Mokusakaji inherited the work of the warabiteto swordsmiths and were active swordsmiths during the developmental phase of Japanese swords, bringing forth the connection between Mokusa swords and the origins of the Japanese sword.
Mokusa swords are the swords that were made in the Mokusa district of Ichinoseki. The Mokusa Shrine (718AD) is thought to have been a workplace of the Mokusakaji. An excavation survey discovered traces of steel and tools such as tuyeres and sickles around the shrine. A wealth of source material such as iron and trees to make charcoal to heat steel existed in the area.
The elusive history of the Mokusa sword
With the fall of the Oshu Fujiwara came the decline of the Mokusa swordsmiths with only a few Mokusa Swords existing today. Much of the history of the Mokusa sword is shrouded in mystery. Although Mokusa’s great reputation is evident in historical literature, no Mokusa Sword with a reliable inscription from the Heian Period has been handed down over the generations. Although one would expect to find Mokusa Swords in the Hiraizumi area, after excavation efforts, Mokusa swords have yet to be found there. This one on display is from the Kamakura period.
The Ichinoseki City Museum
The Ichinoseki Museum has exhibits introducing the swords, how they are crafted and related artifacts in chronological order. The swords are as beautiful as new thanks to the work of Togishi who grind and polish the swords to restore their original sheen.
Ichinoseki City Museum
Hours / Regular Holidays: 9: 00 ~ 17: 00
Closed: Mondays (next day if a national holiday), New Year holidays
Phone number 0191-29-3180
Free for junior high school students and younger, high school and university students 200 yen (160 yen), general 300 yen (240 yen)
Access: Ichinoseki Station - Genbikei Bus Stop (Genbi line) 20mins + 10 min walk.