Masamune Okazaki: The Greatest Swordsmith in Japan’s History

January 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

One of the greatest swordsmiths in Japan is Masamune Okazaki. Masamune is almost legendary in Japan. Most of his work was done during the 13th and 14th century. Most Japanese and historians may agree that Masamune has lived in the Sagami province. His most famous works are the tachi swords and tanto daggers. His works are recognized as the best creations that an award called Masamune prize is given as recognition to top swordsmiths for creating exceptional swords.

Masamune Okazaki had learned the art of swordsmithing from Shintogo Kunimitu. He often produced blades with a straight temper line. His swords can be distinguished by clear grey lines called “chikei” and lines that resemble when lightning strike called kinsuji.

Masamune is known to be the most famous Japanese sword maker of all times. The swords of Masamune have a solid reputation for superior quality and beauty. He is considered to be responsible to bring perfection to the art of “nie” where martensitic crystals are embedded in pearlite matrix believed to resemble stars in the night sky.

Masamune Swords
Just like in music there are such classics as Bach and Beethoven, Japanese sword-making exist some names that are associated with exquisite perfection and art. Masamune is definitely one of them. His swords are famous for quality and originality and are considered as an example of that fine art of sword-making. What is most amazing is that at 13th century there weren’t any sophisticated forging tools and steel used for sword-making was as a rule impure. Nevertheless, many sword-makers today can’t compete with Masamune swords when it comes to elegance, nie (martensitic crystals in pearlite) and what’s most important – quality.

Legends of Masamune
It is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction on legends of Masamune. The sword of Masamune was said to cut ten thousand Mongol necks, mails, and helmets without suffering any dent during the Mongol invasion of Japanese shoguns in the 13th century.

Legend also has it that his sword can easily cut a blade of grass blown by the wind but the leaf restores its original shape as it travels away. While other stories tell that when a samurai warrior sways a sword created by this well known Japanese sword maker at nightfall, the Masamune sword shines like a lone star in moonless night sky.

Famous Masamune Swords
Perhaps the most popular swords created by Masamune are the Honjo Masamune. It became the symbol of the Tokugawa shogunate and is highly regarded as one of the finest Japanese swords to be ever created. It was declared as a national treasure in 1939.

The name of the sword was coined after General Honjo Shigenage who won the sword in a battle. He took possession of the sword from Umanisuke and actually split Shigenaga’s helm with the blade. In the turn of events, Shinenaga survived and took the swords as prize after killing Umanosuke. He managed to keep the sword but had to sell it due to being low on money. Toyotomi Hidetsugu the nephew of Toyotomi Hideyoshi bought the sword and passed the blade on to his uncle who would later pass it down to future shoguns including Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Yorinobu, and Tokugawa Ietsuna. Ietsuna was the last of the Tokogawa shoguns. The blade then remained in his family. The sword was soon passed down through the line until World War II. It was when Tokugawa Iemasa surrendered the sword to a police station along with fourteen others. These swords were then passed on to members of the 7th cavalry in 1946. After these events, the swords were missing as the location of the Honjo Masamune remains unknown today.

The sword smith signed one of the few Masamune including the Fudo Masamune. In 1601, it was purchased by Toyotomi Hidetsugu in 1601 and passed down through the Owari Tokugawa. Its designs as a tanto sword shows grooves on one side and a dragon engraved on the part of the blade. It also features an engraving of the Buddha deity Fudo Myo-o, the source of the sword’s name.

Hocho Masmaune refers to the three different tanto blades. The three swords are quite unusual for having wide bodies. In fact, they closely resemble kitchen knives more than daggers. One of these blades is currently displayed at the Tokugawa Art Museum.

There are several but a few Masamune blades found outside of Japan. After World War II, the government of Japan offered a Masamune to President Harry Truman as a show of solidarity and peace between the two countries. This sword is on display at the Truman Presidential Library.

The History of The Katana
The art of sword making in Japan has seen a resurgence. An organization has been formed to preserve the art and sword making and promote the appreciation of the katana. The Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (The Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords, was founded in 1960 and is headquartered in Tokyo.

The group holds an annual competition where swordsmiths enter a blade. A panel of 15 judges review the workmanship. The judges come from a variety of trades: swordsmiths, polishers appraisers and others decide the outcome of the contest.


SAMURAI SWORD SWORDSMITH SCHOOLS

The craft of Samurai sword making has long been considered an art form. Various regions in Japan would have sword makers who would develop their own techniques to treat, shape and polish the steel. The swordmaker would create a “school”, where locals from the village could learn the art of sword making.

The techniques of the Japanese sword manufacturing have always been one of Japan’s very guarded secrets. Having the ability to create light weight swords that had the extraordinary strength to make it through battles, and hold an edge capable of cutting through armor would make the difference between life and death.

Each school would develop ways in which to marke their creations. Often times this was done by developing a heat temper pattern for the blade and signing the tang.

ANCIENT SWORD PERIOD (Until AD 900)
These swords were made primarily by the Chinese and Korean swordmakers. The quality of the steel was inferior. The swords would break during combat. The swords were primarily straight, instead of having the iconic curved look of the traditional Samurai sword. Some samples of these swords have been found in tombs. Many of them were not very thick, indicating the possibility that they were ceremonial swords instead of combat weapons.

OLD SWORD PERIOD (900 to 1530)
The following list of schools flourished during the old sword era:

•BIZEN SCHOOL

•YAMASHIRO SCHOOL

•YAMATO SCHOOL

•SOSHU SCHOOL

•MINO SCHOOL

The schools were located throughout Japan. The characteristics of each sword are partly dictated by the geographical region because of the source of the ore needed to produce the steel for the sword.

Most of the modern swordsmiths produce blades using the Bizen style.

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