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.