The Honjo Masamune: A Lost Japanese Treasure

The katana, or samurai sword, is famed throughout the world for being the perfection of sword design. It has become the symbol of the samurai class, and Japan as a whole, to the outside world. To the Japanese the katana is also a symbol of their culture and national pride. During the Meiji restoration at the end of the 19th century (that sought to bring Japan into the modern world) many samurai rose in rebellion when the government sought to deprive them of the right to wear the katana as the symbol of their class. Even after the loss of the right to wear their swords in public the disbanded samurai families kept and revered their ancestral swords. However, at the end of the Second World War the American occupiers demanded that all Japanese households gave up all forms of weaponry, including the ancestral swords. Although this policy was later reversed to exempt the family katanas much of the damage had already been done and thousands of the weapons had been melted down or given out as trophies to American officers. Among these lost swords was the Honjo Masamune, known as the exemplar of Japanese sword-making perfection.

The name of the sword derives from the man who made it: Gorō Masamune (1264–1343 AD). Masamune is recognized as the greatest ever swordsmith in Japanese history. His swords are known for their unparalleled beauty and quality. Their quality is remarkable as the swords were made at a time when steel still contained many imperfections. So famous was his craftsmanship that all of the swords he made bear his name, such as the Honjo Masamume.

One legend about Masamune relates to a competition he had with his rival, Sengo Muramasa. Both men crafted swords and suspended them over a stream to test their quality. Muramasa’s blade cut everything that touched it, notably fish and leaves; by contrast Masamune’s sword cut only the leaves and repelled the fish. Muramasa took this as a sign that his sword was better and began to gloat. However, a wandering monk had been watching them and explained that Masamune’s sword was superior as it did not cut unnecessarily (i.e. living things). In cutting everything that touched it Muramasa’s sword showed its blood-thirsty and evil nature. As such this led to a tradition that a Muramasa blade must taste blood before being sheathed, even to the point of its owner having to harm himself to do so, in order to slake its evil thirst.

The other element of Honjo Masamune’s name comes from one of the men who owned it. Honjo Shigenaga (1540-1614 AD) was a general for the Uesugi clan in northern Japan. Honjo came to possess the Honjo Masamune at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima (1561), one of the greatest battles of the era. Honjo was attacked by an enemy officer who wielded the Honjo Masamune. During this duel the sword cleaved Honjo’s helmet in half, yet the great samurai survived to win the duel and claimed the sword which now bears his name. However, Honjo was not as good with money and he was with swordsmanship and by 1595 he was bankrupt. In order to raise more funds Honjo sold the sword to the Toyotomi family which, at that time, ruled Japan. 5 years later and the the Toyotomi family had fallen to a new Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Ieyasu made the sword a symbol of his dynasty, passing down from Shogun to Shogun for the next  two and a half centuries. Even after the fall of the Shogunate in 1868 the sword remained in the private collection of the Tokugawa family. By the end of World War II the sword was in the possession of Tokugawa Iemasu who was, at the time, President of the House of Peers (Japan’s pre-war House of Lords). When the Allied Occupation Authority demanded that all the family swords be handed over many families reacted with fury at the request. Iemasu decided to act as the voice of reason and was one of the first to hand over the Tokugawa family’s entire sword collection, among them were the Honjo Masamune. These he delivered to the Mejiro police station in December 1945. The swords were picked up by a Sergeant of the US 7th Cavalry who is recorded as being called “Coldy Bimore”. Records of the US 7th cavalry do not show any man by that name serving in the regiment and it is likely that the name was a garbled phonetic spelling of the man’s name. However, this is the last record of the Honjo Masamune. It is possible that it was melted down like many others, however, I believe it is more likely that it was given as a trophy to an American officer as the quality of the Tokugawa sword collection was legendary and would have been obvious to the Occupation officials. Nevertheless the loss of this perfect sword is a tragedy, not just for Japan, but for any who respect the samurai tradition and the sacred nature of the katana.

In a side note: Masamune’s 24th generation descendent, Tsunahiro Yamamura, has a company that still makes katanas (as well as knives and scissors) in Kamakura.

Advertisements

30 comments

  1. Coldy Bimore = Cole D.B. Moore

    1. i suppose that could be a possibility but it would be unilikely

    2. Owing to the number of soldiers who fought in WW2 there is bound to be several people with similar name. Narrow it down. Looking for a guy in the US 7th Cavalry

  2. this article is forgetting one of the most interesting facts about the Honjo Masamune sword. That fact that the sword was so well balanced that it is able to cut through light, rendering the user invisible.

    1. unlikely. light travels too fast for the “cut” to keep. case in point, the tens of millions of stars in the sky which are light years (the closest as according to an earthsky.org article is about 24million million miles away) add to that the time needed to traverse space, 93million miles courtesy of newton.dep.anl.gov. it took eight hours to a year to get to the moon which is approximately 380 thousand km(universetoday.com) and all of 4.22 light years away is the nearest planetary system (space.com). got a bit carried away with research there but you do the math.

      in regards to hiding the user some have said perhaps it was made in a way that reflected light such that the resulting “image” was a result of refraction occurring. the first is what you see in the mirror, an exact image of “input” that was simply flipped. the latter can be observed when immersing objects in water or behind angled glass. the light and observable space around the object or person is bent and therefore can be perceived to be in different position than they actually are. so what has actually been created is a projection, a mirage or an illusion where the opponent simply mistakes where the wielder is.

      however, as can be seen at http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu, these angles are bound by a rule and surely, the men then couldn’t possibly always instinctively choose their or their sword’s position..moreover refraction occurs more prominently in transparent materials. a glass-like sword can’t be too much in use..not to mention heavy and possibly dangerous for the owner in times of higher heat..

      Cannot seem to find much on its make but Masamune’s (the maker) renowned work was in “nie”, the japanese’s name for martensitic crystals in pearlite. Assuming he did the same with this infamous sword, the earlier is a compound of iron and carbon which has as according to http://refractiveindex.info/, an index of 2.9 and 2.4 respectively. (carbon at the level of diamond is recorded at 2.2 at filmetrics.com) Pearlite is made of pretty much(?) the same with properties that make it the lesser in terms of strength and brittleness. (http://nayhan.wordpress.com).

      on that line, another theory is the “total internal reflection” of light as seen better at physicsclassroom.com. this too is bound by rules and though again, the preciseness of actions taken to “achieve invisibility” each time is questionable, the act of “being invisible” itself becomes entirely doable.

    1. the video is just a clip of a katana blade.

  3. Another thing is the legend above, the two masters mentioned being acquainted as student and teacher to each other–even wikipedia knows their times are too far apart for their meeting even having been a possibility. the japanese (or asians in general) are known for their poetry so possibly the contrasting nature of thw two roped them into a legend together where of course “the good-er” side wins in an efficiently poetic manner.

    personally though i think the “better man” was simply better in terms of retaining his mind and any man making weapons of destruction to anyone needing ’em..can’t be all too benevolent and uh, “worldly”.

    1. I agree and I do not refer to story as if it were history but (as a half-japanese) using the story as a means demonstrating Masamune’s status in Japanese legend. Personally, I quite like the story.

  4. Anonymous · · Reply

    What’s the reward for information leading to it’s discovery?

  5. Anonymous · · Reply

    No Reward, well I would like to see the sword displayed to the public, After researching the subject extensively I concluded that H. Keith Melton would be the best possible lead.
    http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mhj45lhge/h-keith-meltons-mansion-boca-raton-fl-23/

    It may even be in that very room.

  6. Anonymous · · Reply
  7. Anonymous · · Reply
  8. Anonymous · · Reply
  9. Give The Japanese their sword back

  10. Anonymous · · Reply

    This may not be the Honjo Masamune but is definitely a Masamune.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Kelly

  11. englishfellow · · Reply

    cody gilmore sounds more plausable to me

    1. englishfellow · · Reply

      claude gilmore? just found a record online for a ww2 veteran called claude gilmore

  12. englishfellow · · Reply

    there’s also a claude v moore. he was a sergeant in ww2
    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19919817

  13. Coldy Bimore sounds like the sergeant was just asking “could I buy more”?

    1. Brandy Kates · · Reply

      I believe that you are on to something with this notion. It seems plausible to me. A likely scenario, in my opinion. I would think that this idea would have been thought of straight away. Further, I’d think that this version would be considered the accepted sequence of events, at least by popular consensus. The last name, “Bimore” suggests it, almost without consideration at all. It’s blatent. And it’s not a stretch, considering the language barrier, to arrive at the first name from the two words, “could I.” So for me, this is the solution, which only lends to the mystery. Hopefully, one day it resurfaces for all to see.

  14. Probably in some guy’s attic. If you do find it, take pictures of every detail and send to Japan instead of sending the whole sword.

  15. harvey moody · · Reply

    if you have it return it to japan.

  16. Yes ive heard people say the sword was melted down. OMFG can you even imagine?. The sword is priceless, how much could you possible have gained melting it down?. couple of thousands dollars?. That thing is worth millions.

  17. The Honjo Masamune is on display at the Harry S. Truman museum. It’s not lost at all.

    1. There is indeed a Masamune sword in the Harry S. Truman Museum, however, it is not the Honjo. It is another of many that he made

  18. ericdean83 · · Reply

    My Small Part in the Search for the Honjo Masamune – http://ericwrites.com/?p=500

  19. Swords had been part of the Japanese culture and history. Even today that we are now on the high tech generation, still many of them are fond of collecting them

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: