Japanese Sword Arts

Japanese Sword Arts

Japanese culture is quite heavily imbued and connected to the sword. It’s a well known fact that one of the three major objects of possession required in order to be Emperor, is to possess a sword. This Imperial Regalia which has been handed down, from one generation to another generation, handed to the ruler of Japan; the mirror, the Jewel, and the Sword. This Imperial Regalia usually held in the Shinto shrine, at Ise, which is situated near to the traditional home of the Nara Imperial family. The ancient legends of Shinto, tells of the origin of the islands, and refers to a bladed weapon which when dipped into the sea, the drops of water off its tip became the many islands of Japan. A cynic once characterized Japan’s history as: “too many people fighting over so little land”. The symbology and use of the sword was ‘shaped’ by the history of the people and the land.


The gifted sword maker, Amakuni, according to Japanese legend developed the classical Japanese style sword. It is a long sword with a single edge, curved with the two handed grip. Legend thinks that Amakuni lived about 720 AD, prior to this period, swords were copied from Korean and Chinese designs. They were straight, double or single edged, and usually required two hands to grip.


Two major events happened with the introduction of the Japanese style sword. First, the blade was found to be a very effective cutting weapon, and even effective against armor. And secondly, its uses changed and this allowed for the increase of a very distinct style of Japanese Swordsmanship. At this time, the Imperial family then moved the government centre from Nara to Kyoto, where it remained for almost a thousand years.


In order to improve and cultivate the sword as a weapon, and also as an art form, there were two conditions that were needed.


1.           There had to be enough stability in order for swords-smiths to be able to practice their trade with very little disruption.

2.           Sufficient unrest in order for the sword development to take place.


The first 500 years of the period of Japanese sword, these two conditions existed. Almost all of the legendary battles in Japanese folklore occurred during this period.


The battles were at first fought between the Japanese and the indigenous people who were called Emishi or Ainu, these indigenous people were related to the Eskimos and Lapps, who were loathe to surrender their traditional lands to these newcomers called Japanese. The battles between the two parties were furious.  The leader of the Japanese Emperor’s army was named Taishogun, which was later shortened to just shogun, who was the ultimate military ruler of Japan. In the late 800’s the indigenous people had been pushed back from the three largest arable plains, this constituted the bulk of the Japanese wealth and food production.


At a later stage, the Gempei War between Taira and Miyamoto clans, were typical of the wars between the clans that were struggling for supremacy. The winner was the Miyamoto, and they laid claim to the title Shogun for their leader, the Emperor then declared that only Miyamoto descendents would be able to claim the title of Shogun.


The height of the Japanese sword is considered to be during the early 1300’s, when sword-smiths such as Masamune and Muramasa  were names that become well known. Many people consider Masamune’s work to be unsurpassed at time past or future.


The later years from 1300’s to the 1600’s were a dark time in Japanese history, civil unrest outstripped of the sword-smiths to keep up with demand. The quality of the swards deteriorated as more Utilitarian quantities of the blades were needed.  At this time the Imperial court was divided into two fractions, one of the fractions the Ashikaga Shogunate brought the country into disarray and resulted in the “Hundred Years War." They also moved military government centre from the traditional place of Kyoto to their own hometown in Kamakura.


During the end of the 16th century, 3 great generals each in succession arose, and between them eventually unified the country to be under a single leadership; they were Oda Nobunaga;   Hideyoshi Toyotomi,  and Ieyesu Tokugawa. Tokugawa who was the last general overthrew the last upstart rival; this happened in the battle of Sekigahara during September 1600, he was instrumental in unifying the country under a single government for the very first time in more than 800 years. And because Ieyesu was able to claim Miyamoto blood, he was also able to claim the title of Shogun, for his heirs and himself. His home was situated near Kamakura, therefore moved the center of the government to what was known as Edo, and today is called Tokyo.


The next 268 years, Tokugawa Shogunate ruled this land in peace. As a result of peace sword practicing declined, however, some small groups of die-hard traditionalists still refused to give up the old ways.


Writings of the reclusive kenshi are today still quoted as prime examples of the great swordsmen. Tsunemoto Yamamoto, Miyamoto Musashi and zzz are to this day still regarded as kensai (sword saints) in Japanese folklore. With this great peace, arose the unemployed warrior, or as known as ronin (literally meaning "wave man"). The Tokugawa then tried to convert existing warriors into bureaucrats, in order to run the government.


The Tokugawa may have been known to rule in peace, but they also held an iron fist in their ruler-ship. One of the ways of controlling the flow of Japanese society was the establishment of a caste system. Four classes of people were declared in descending order, the samurai (royalty), the farmers, the artisans, and the merchants. The traditional farmer warriors could no longer be allowed possess swords, and only the samurai were allowed to wear this official badge of office, the sword. The Tokugawa also closed off Japan to the existing outside world, and they executed all trespassers. Their one concession was to allow one single small island situated near Kagoshima in the south to be visited by Portuguese traders once a year.


The closing of the borders has helped and hindered the sword, because in 1543 the Japanese people had been introduced to matchlocks by the Portuguese. However once the borders had been closed, the sword was still a weapon of choice for honor and duty and for the Emperor; as well as the use of the bow and arrow. There is a famous saying, "kyu ba no michi" which is normally translated as "the way of the warrior", but translated literally means "the way of the bow and the horse." The sword and its practical use continued its decline at this time although the decline was gradual.


During 1854, a group of American ships arrived and entered Tokyo Bay; they demanded that Japan should open trading with the west. Technology and technological knowledge that the west had, when compared to the Japanese technology, was quite considerable and had America enforced this issue, it could have destroyed Japan. Japan realized this and turned itself technologically and culturally. The Tokugawa recognized and were afraid of America’s technological prowess. Fortunately for the Japanese the Americans had problems at home that needed to be address, and they soon forgot the Japanese.


The Tokugawa were receiving a lot of pressure from internal forces for them to overturn their rule, and the only solution the Tokugawa could find in order to preserve some measure of limited control was to return power to the Emperor. In 1868 the Tokugawa thus stepped down and returned power to the Emperor Meiji, thus began the Meiji Reformation. Japan had finally entered and joined industrial revolution.


The samurai were then officially disbanded by Emperor Meiji and later their official badge of office was stripped In 1877, they were no longer allowed to wear the two swords. The last great battle of the sword was fought called the Satsuma Rebellion which lasted from December 1877 right through to January 1878.


The Satsuma refused to obey this order and they fought the conscripted government army (with the use of modern weapons) who were based at Kagoshima in the south. The samurai lost and were killed to the last man; their martyrdom has become in Japanese folklore a poignant symbol of the great swordsman.


In modern times the sword has been characterized with a greater decline, the Samurai were thus forced to give exhibitions for survival and to earn money, as time went on more and more of the Samurai left the art behind and learned new skills and trades in order to live. Sword-smiths thus began to craft other metal implements such as scissors; sadly the old ways were fast fading away in to history, except for a small number of dedicated followers.

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