At the sharp end

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 22

At the sharp end

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 22

The samurai warriors were the ultimate killing machines. They cut a swathe through Japan, says John Man, with the help of some of the finest weapons the world has ever seen, one of which is offered at Bonhams New York

Many weapons have made history – the English long-bow, the Zulu assegai, the Colt .45, the Kalashnikov – but there's nothing to touch the samurai sword. It's been around for more than 700 years, and it is with us still, made in much the same way, and granted equal reverence.

No one man could invent such a weapon. It evolved over centuries, starting with ordinary straight iron swords imported from China in the eighth century. But these swords tended to chip when they struck armor. Much harder blades were needed, and a variety of them.

Japanese smiths, many honored as great artists (such as the 16th-century master, Kanabo Masatsugu), created several major types of sword, each with several subgroups. Blade-lengths varied. Some were not much more than half a meter for quick use on horseback; the best-known foot-soldier's weapon, the katana, was a meter or so, as is the long-handled, double-handed nagamaki offered in Bonhams' Arts of the Samurai Sale in New York. Others, used by infantry against cavalry, were up to two meters long. The naginata, a blade on a pole, was possibly used by women to defend the home in the absence of their men.

Swords, armor, traditions: all evolved together, as did their owners, the samurai. At first, from about 700, the samurai (originally saburai, meaning 'one who serves') were mounted archers. That changed around 1200, when all of Japan was supposedly united by allegiance to the remote and pampered emperor and his military commander, the shogun.

In fact, the country became a patchwork of 60 provinces and 600 estates, all scrapping with their neighbors. Warlord battled warlord, temples raised their own militias, armed bands plagued the countryside. No lord or commander could survive without an investment in armor, horses, bows, swords, daggers and fighting men. The warriors – bushi – became an élite force fighting for their masters, to whom they were bound by mutual need, the lord providing land, booty and protection in exchange for the fighting skills of the samurai.

But there was an inherent instability in this relationship. If a samurai prospered, he would win enough status, power and wealth to claim his freedom. Why then would he devote himself to a lord? How could a master ensure his loyalty?

The answer was to invest loyalty to one's lord with ever greater significance, turning it into an ideal more loved than life itself, a key to glory in both life and death. A samurai equated his very being with extreme acts of bravery and death-defying, even death-seeking self-sacrifice for his lord. The original Way of the Warrior – bushido – was that of the street fighter, the enforcer, the hired gun, with no moral code but to gain glory on the field of battle. Self-image was vital. Every man had to strut and preen like a cockerel, or else he would be regarded as a loser. Only in this way could 'honor' be asserted, protected or restored.

The samurai's supreme weapon, indeed his very essence, was his sword. It was his greatest treasure, one that occupied – and still occupies today – a multi-dimensional world of magic, spirituality, chemistry, artistry and skill. Smiths created several major schools or traditions, each with sub-groups, all of which developed their own variations of the basic sword styles.

Steel comes in a variety of strengths, from relatively soft and malleable to hard and brittle, depending on the number of times it has been heated, folded, hammered and quenched. This variability allowed smiths to solve the fundamental contradiction of sword making: if it is sharp, it is brittle; if it is resilient and flexible, it can't be sharp.

The answer was to combine in each blade two different types of steel, hard for the cutting edge, softer, more resilient and more pliable for the body. A good blade, folded and hammered and tempered many times, may have tens or hundreds of thousands of laminations. The cutting edge gets special treatment by protecting the body with a mixture of clay and ashes, leaving the edge exposed. This creates a transition zone marked by a hamon or temper-line, which smiths modify into wavy patterns by varying the application of the clay and ash. The different ways in which the blade and body are treated also create the curve that is so much a part of the sword's appeal.

The result, whatever the size of blade, was an object of both technical wizardry and glittering beauty. Experts obsess about points, ridges, temper-lines, notches, edges and grooves, using a fog of sword-speak. For instance, the hamon on the nagamaki in Bonhams' sale is notare-komidare, with some areas more actively gunome toward the top half of the blade. All the accouterments have their own jargon and schools and histories: mountings, belts, suspension braids, scabbards, scabbard knobs, hilts, handles, handle covers – ray skin gives a particularly good grip – sword collars, and guards.

For non-specialists, truth is better served by simile. Each blade's grain is like that of wood, the flow depending on whether the smith folds the metal vertically across the width of the blade, or horizontally along its length, or both, making a sea-surface pattern known as 'pear skin'. Large irregular bands of bright and dark steel are known as 'pine bark'. The colors of temper-lines are compared to smoke, or the Milky Way, or flowing sand, or distant cherry-blossoms in the morning sun.

The best blades – sharp as razors, heavy as hand-axes, fast as whips in the right hands – could sever iron helmets, let alone limbs. Specialists tested for cutting efficiency, the results being inscribed on the swords. Tests were made using condemned criminals, specifying ten different cuts across the body between hips and shoulders, and a particularly demanding diagonal cut, known as kesagiri, in which the sword entered at the left shoulder and exited at the right hip. Cuts of comparable length were performed on piled-up corpses. A warrior armed with a large-bladed nagamaki could have sliced off the leg of a galloping horse.

The violent, feuding world of the samurai came to a sudden end in 1600, when the new Tokugawa shogunate imposed not only unity, peace, and stability, but also almost complete isolation. From near-anarchy, the country turned to its opposite: extreme conformity. The most famous, and still puzzling, consequence of the peace was the rejection of firearms. Tokugawa Ieyasu (who is reputed to have owned this nagamaki) made the government the sole purchaser of guns. But with no enemies, government purchases declined to near zero. Firearms became equated with barbarism, samurai swords the symbols of civilisation.

But this was a nation at peace. The samurai became living fossils, bound to provincial lords, cut off from their lands, dependent on stipends of rice. What a comedown. How, as parasites, were they to live useful and fulfilling lives?

The answer was to reinvent themselves, and redefine bushido. They found in their old, violent ways a spurious chivalric glamor. Violence was sublimated in word, attitude, clothing and intellectual rigor. The samurai preserved their prestigious position by clinging to their newly minted rituals and beliefs, like drowning men to life belts. If they could not fight, they could at least go on carrying their swords, serving a lord, disdaining lower orders, and committing ritual suicide when things went wrong. Exotic armor and deadly weaponry became mere symbols.

Not that passion died. Quarrels, though rarer and more constrained by law, provided a chance to flaunt the old virtues. The samurai were forever vigilant, as alert to insult as a Puritan to sin. They claimed the moral high ground, not in deed, because they could no longer act as warriors, but in word. The ideal (though often ignored in practice) became that of the Confucian warrior-scholar, delighting in scholarship, pursuing respect and self-respect in high-minded service, austere, self-disciplined, yet ruthless in defense of superior status – all still symbolized by the sword.

And it worked. The samurai remained an essential part of society until Japan emerged as a modern nation in the late 19th century. If the worst samurai were mere thugs, scrapping and killing in back-streets, the best were sincere men who desperately wanted to live with dignity and pride. Most of them succeeded, until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 finally made them redundant.

But the traditions live on, in countless films, TV series, video games, manga, anime – and the swords, ancient and modern. Whoever acquires the blade on offer will inherit a sliver of history, an object of power and a symbol of the nation's soul.

John Man is the author of Samurai: The Last Warrior (2011).


Related auctions