The most famous piece of cutlery in the world is lost. But unlike what you might think, this grand exhibit of skill and cherished national treasure wasn't lost in some bygone era, it was lost less than 80 years ago at the end of the World War II. Somewhere out there someone has in their possession, knowing or not, the greatest real sword ever made from the greatest sword maker of all time. It is a fascinating story and one that I think all gear geeks should know. This is the story of the Honjo Masamune.
Our little world of gear has many different territories. One of the more insular and fascinating territories is that devoted to the study, collection, and use of Japanese edged weapons. The Nihonto (literally translated to "Japanese sword") community is a mix of historians, weaponsmithes, collectors, and martial artists. The degree of complexity in their study is mind boggling. You need a Japanese to English dictionary at hand to wade through even the most basic articles. The various swordmakers and eras are tracking with almost forensic detail. Of all the subcultures in the knife community, Nihonto is probably the most esoteric and sophisticated.
And for good reason--the object of their study is an incredible achievement. Unlike the majority of high end knives, which are all but shunned by art and artifact museums, Japanese swords are on display in many major collections around the world. The Museum of Fine Arts, just down the road from me, has an extensive collection of Japanese swords. And the price at auction for even the most beleaguered of swords is very high. I regularly check the sites of major auction houses, usually Skinner, for cutlery items (not to buy, they are all stupendously expensive, just to look at) and authetic nihonto goes for nothing less than a grand, almost regardless of condition. It is not uncommon for very fine examples of the art to go for more than $100,000 and some of the best preserved and oldest examples go for much higher.
Having handled a few very new (its all relative, these were from the 1870s) authentic swords, I can see the allure. On the example I most recently handled at a Northeast Cutlery Collector's Association show, the sword was finely balanced, with a ghostly, almost oil sheen hamon, and the scabbard was beautifully lacquered. It was cheap, in Nihonto terms, $1,200, and the steel itself had some age and pitting, but it was enough to capture my imagination and start me on the process of writing this article.
Feudal Japan is a interesting place, a time of honor, intrigue, war, and most importantly to us, incredible cutlery. The Honjo Masamune became famous as the country of Japan was engulfed in more than century of near-complete civil war. This time period is known as the Sengoku Period and it started in 1467 with the beginning of the Onin War and ended in 1615 with the ascent of the Tokugawa shogunate. In this period of war, the Honjo Masamune played a pivotal role.
The wars themselves are fascinating. During this time all of Japan swore an oath of loyalty to the Emperor, but in reality he was just a figurehead, leading the country as a symbol and a religious leader. The true seat of power lied with the Shogun, a head general. Below him were a number of different lords called daimyos. The daimyos had sliced up the country of Japan into a patchwork of territories. The further those territories were from the set of the Shogun's power, the more independent they were. Eventually, the far-flung daimyos, upset by a variety of things including taxes (yes, it is always taxes), started fighting. However, they never unified into a force against the Shogun and fought amongst themselves.
One strategically important location, Kawanakajima, was the site of five battles over the centuries during the Sengoku Period. These battles have become mythologized in Japanese cultury, much like the Old West in the US. In the final battle at Kawanakajima, one of the generals for the Tokugawa clan was locked in a duel with a rival. The rival, wielding the Honjo Masamune, brought the sword down on the Tokugawa chief. It split his helmet, but did not kill him. The Tokugawa chief won the battle and took the Honjo Masamune as his prize.
Eventually, the leader of Tokugawa clan became Shogun and ruled most of Japan bringing peace after nearly 200 years of war. The Tokugawa clan, and related families, possessed the Honjo Masamune. It was the sword that anointed a leader and the sword that brought peace.
But the Honjo Masamune is older than the Sengoku period. It was made by Goro Nyudo Masamune. Masamune is traditionally listed as having lived from 1264 to 1343, though these dates are conjecture. Masamune was one of two great swordsmiths at the time, the other being Muramasa. Think of them as the Stradivarius and Guanari of swordmaking.
Masamune's fame stemmed from the craftsmanship and beauty of his blades. Through processes we can only guess at, he achieved a remarkably clean and pure steel, something that few others achieved at the time because of the rough and dirty nature of steel making in ancient Japan (see here for an attempt to recreate the process using period methods).
Masamune also resisted fame. It was tradition for swordmakers to sign their blades on the tang, underneath the handle wrap (this is why most museums display katanas without their handles, so visitors can see the signature). Masamune, for reasons we do not know, usually left is work unsigned. The result is that authenticating a true Masamune is exceedingly difficult--the historian's forensic work is made more challenging by an artist's quirk.
Though the most famous, the Honjo Masamune is not the only famous Masamune. There are a few other "named" Masamune swords known to history. And a handful of those have made it to the current age and have been authenticated as works of the master.
The sword itself, if it is like its Masamune brethren, is a katana with all of the classical trappings--the hamon, the curved blade, the single edge. The legend of the Honjo Masamune began with a story well before the Sengoku period. Masamune and Muramasa wanted to figure out whose sword was better and so they devised a contest. They threw their best swords into a river and as the current carried things past the cutting edges, the swords would split the thing into two pieces.
As this test was happening, according to legend, a monk walked by. He noticed the two swords and saw them cutting things to pieces. He paused and watched and then, after some time, he declared the Honjo Masamune the winner. Muramasa was incensed. He pointed out that his sword cut everything--leaves, branches, even fish, carried into its blade by the current. The monk retorted that the Honjo Masamune won because it distinguished between inanimate things and living, but innocent things. It was a sword of wisdom, the monk concluded, and thus superior to an object that merely cut things.
Obviously this story is not historically true, and it probably helped that the keepers of history, the Tokugawa clan, gained the sword in a battle where it failed to kill one of their family members. That failure could be made into something like predestination with this story. But the general consensus over the years in the nihonto community (folks that study Japanese swords) is that this is a fitting, if mythical, recounting of the difference between the swords of the two great masters. Masamune's work was clean and balanced, perfection embodied. Muramasa's work, on the other hand, was aggressive, imbued with superb cutting abilities, and aimed solely at destruction.
Over the many centuries from the battle in Kawanakajima until the end of the World War II, the Honjo Masamune was in the possession of the Tokugawa clan. It passed from generation to generation. It was given as a gift to seal the deal on marriages. It was beloved by a country and eventually became an official national treasure. Imagine if George Washington had shot a British general during a battle that turned the tide of the American Revolution. That pistol, if it existed, would be the parallel in American history to the Honjo Masamune.
As World War II came to a close Japan embarked on a path of non-violence, renouncing its imperial ambitions and its standing military. The Tokugawa clan was still intact at this time and over the years they had accumulated a massive collection of nihonto, with the crown jewel (almost literally) of their collection being the Honjo Masamune. Tokugawa Iemasa, head of the clan at the end of the war, decided to make a powerful gesture of non-violence, hoping his example would help heal his country. Iemasa gathered his clan's collection of ancient weapons and turned them into the local police in Mejiro. In this collection of swords, was, of course, the Honjo Masamune.
This was in December of 1945. In January 1946, a Sgt. Coldy Bimore, an American stationed in Japan, bought or was given the sword by Japanese authorities. After that, the trail of the Honjo Masamune goes cold.
This story of how the sword left Japanese custody is incredibly silly. The name, the way it was picked up as if it were a garage sale item, and the fact that after some extensive investigation, there was no actual paperwork for the sale or gifting of the sword, and there is no record anywhere of a serviceman named "Coldly Bimore" all indicate this story is probably apocryphal. The last name itself seems to be a joke "Bimore" as in "Buy More." But this is all we have....maybe.
There are three Masamune blades that point us in the right direction, or at least would help identify the Honjo Masamune if it is every rediscovered. The first is the Fudo Masamune. The second is the Truman Masamune. And the third is the recently rediscovered and verified Masamune--the Shimazu Masamune.
The Fudo Masamune is one of the very few Masamune blades to have survived and be accompanied by a relatively unquestioned provenance.
It is not a sword, but a dagger, a tanto. It has relatively little in the way damage or (of course) defects. The scabbard is pristine. If the Honjo Masamune is found, it is likely that experts will focus on its similarities to this piece.
Another interesting piece is actually here in the US, at the Truman Presidential Library. At the end of World War II a US general, Walter Krueger was given the Masamune sword by members of a "samurai family" according to sources. It is likely that the family in question is the Tokugawa family, but I couldn't figure this out for sure. Like the Fudo Masamune, this piece is in exceptional shape with a very certain provenance. It also happens to in battle-ready shape if the Truman Museum photos are accurate. This means, unlike the majority of Masaume's in the world, this still has its handle wrap intact. I'd love to link to an image, but they are hard to come by. This link takes you to a story about the sword and it is accompanied by an amazing image.
Finally, and perhaps most inspiring, is the rediscovery of the Shimazu Masamune, which made international news in 2014. In total, the number of confirmed Masamune's in existence is between 10 and 20, with various nihonto experts disagreeing on the precise number (again, that not signing his work thing...). Furthermore, until the Shimazu Masamune re-emerged, there had not been a confirmed Masamune rediscovery since the mid 19th century. But one day, in 2013, an anonymous person walked in to the Kyoto National Museum and presented them with a sword that came into his personal collection. After months of study Taeko Watanabe declared the sword a Masamune and the nihonto world went bonkers. Even more interesting, Watanabe was able to trace the sword and confirmed it was the Shimazu Masamune. While not famous as the Honjo, the Shimazu has a decorated provenance--it was given by the 14th Tokugawa shogunate to the Imperial House, as celebration of the marriage between the two houses in 1862.
The Shimazu Masamune shows that rediscovery is a real possibility. Any day now, someone could stride into a museum carrying the most famous edged tool in the world. And if it happens it will be another chapter in an already fascinating story.
Sources and Further Reading
Japan Today story on the Shimazu Masamune