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In the latter part of the Kamakura era (1192-1333) there were two great sword smiths named Masamune and Muramasa. Goro Masamune, whose works are today considered to be the finest in the country, never forged a sword without first offering up prayers and undergoing the customary purification rites. He surrounded his workshop with holy ropes and in ceremonial dress, he asked for protection from the good spirits.
Whilst forging the blade itself, Masamune maintained a religious intensity and concentration, the blade became the product of this mental physical and spiritual power.
Murasuma , on the other had, was a master smith who liked war. He was just as skilled as Masamune but withdrawn and subdued in character. His swords which were robust when put to any test, were much sort after: it was said that they could cut through iron helmets like melons. Yet owners of these swords wanted to get rid of them as they had the reputation of being evil, bloodthirsty swords. Some of their owners, it said went mad killing people before committing suicide themselves.
Legend says that, to tell the difference between one of Masamune’s blades and one of Muramasa’s all you had to do was place the two swords in the running water of a stream. In effect, the dead leaves floating down the stream avoided Masamune’s blade whilst they were attracted to Muramasa’s and were cut in half. This story dealing with the maleficent and beneficent effects of swords is just one of many in Japan.
It is obvious that such a determinant relationship between man and his sword creates a considerable psychological strength in terms of identity. Oriental custom in some cases involved ‘charging the objects of life’ or in other words adding a sort of supporting magic to them: sword, statue, object, etc., is the effect of a tradition so old and so subtle that it would be absurd to evaluate it from the point of view of our rational and sceptical culture. The sword revealed the samurai’s personality to such an extent that Toyotomi Hideoshi by examining a blade could tell to which of his generals it belonged.
The Japanese sword has always been an object of profound veneration, ever since it was made by a known and highly regarded master. The life of the sword was sometimes preserved, whatever the outcome of battle, as it stood for personal wealth (often all that an old samurai, turned ronin had left) family heritage (ceremoniously handed down from father to son) and national heritage.
In Japan there are about 900,000 katana of all kinds catalogued in museums, sanctuaries, temples and private collections, throughout the country. Many of these weapons are classified as ‘ National treasures’ or ‘important objects of culture’ and worth fortunes.
The manufacture of the Japanese sword has in fact throughout the centuries attained an exceptional degree of perfection. It is founded on the traditional elements: iron, fire, clay, water and wood as well as man. The sword rises from the combination and the quality of these six elements. That is why every sword is unique and why by this very fact, the armorer is himself incapable of producing two the same.
Even today, there are some great masters in Japan who forge 12 or 13 swords a year on average. Although the actual manufacture of the sword only takes about two weeks as a rule, several months even a year elapse between the order and the delivery. The master armorer in fact requires a long period of reflection to decide on the method he is to forge. For a master, sword making is above all the expression of an inward harmony; the time, the hour, the positions of the planets, all play their part. Before setting to work the master armorer carries out ablutions using pure cold water to ward off evil influences. He covers his head in black and wears spotless white clothes as a symbol of purity. These rites together lend a sort of sacredness to the making of the sword. It becomes an object with a personality of it’s own, having a soul; and is therefore handled with the greatest of respect.
We must remember that the three sacred treasures of Japan and - the sword, the jewel (or tama) and the mirror. The sword plays a prominent part in Japanese mythology, folklore and history.
Susa no wo no mikito, son of Izangi and nephew of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, slew the eight- headed dragon and in its tail found the sword which became one of the three sacred treasures.
This sword named Ama no Murakumo no Tsurigi was kept in the Ise temple. When a revolt occurred in the Suruga province it was entrusted to the son of the emporer Keiko in 70, 130 AD to quell the rebellion. According to legend, the emporer’s son surrounded by fire in a burning meadow was saved by his sword which sprung out of the scabbard and cut down all the grass around him, provided an exit. This blade was then rebaptized the ‘grasscutter’.