Legends of Great Samurai Swordsmiths


Weaponry has advanced a great deal since the era of the samurai, but in Japan the ancient art of swordmaking is still regarded with awe and reverence. Not surprisingly, the names and accomplishments of some of Japan's most famed armorers live on in myth and legend.

It is said that a master armorer from the Orient once created a blade composed of 4,193,304 layers of steel, so exquisitely finished that even the finest polishing pastes from Europe only served to scratch it. While this particular legend may or may not be true, it speaks a very real truth indeed; the master armorers of Japan weren't just passionate about their craft-- they were fanatical about it.

When the Japanese armorer forged a sword, he did it as if it were a sacred thing, and indeed it was in his eyes. He forged the metal with specialized tools, and tempered the steel with secret processes he guarded with his very life. As a result, some of the finest weapons took years, and sometimes even decades, to produce.

One master armorer from the 14th century was Masamune, who was famed for his gentleness and is arguably the most famous swordsmith in Japanese history (in fact, an award called the Masamune Prize is given to the winner of Japan's national sword making competition). To test the sharpness of his blade, Masamune would drop a hair of the hard-shelled adzuki bean across the edge of his sword, and it would be split in two, or, like other famous armorers, he would lower his sword into a stream and let the current carry along a scrap of paper, which would be cut in half as it drifted into the blade.

A Muramasa kitana on display at the Tokyo National museum

 Of a completely different temperament was the 15th century master swordsmith Muramasa, who forged his blades to the cry of "Tenka taira!" (War to men!). According to legend, Muramasa tempered his steel by quenching the hot metal in a pool of human blood. This supposedly endowed the sword with an "endless thirst" for victims and it was said that, if left too long in its scabbard without being drawn, it possessed the owner with a maniacal desire to kill himself. Another legend states that Muramasa's swords were so lethal that the shoguns of Tokugawa forbade their use.
Although Masamune and Muramasa lived in different centuries, the striking contrast in their temperaments gave rise to numerous myths, legends and parables. In these legends, Masamune is often regarded as the gentle master, while Muramasa is portrayed as his hot-headed pupil.

One legend tells of how Muramasa challenged Masamune to determine who was the better swordsmith. After working for months to create their best swords, the two masters suspended their blades in a small river with the cutting edge facing upstream. Muramasa's sword was so sharp that it sliced everything that drifted into it-- leaves, flower petals, sticks and even fish were instantly and indiscriminately cleaved in two. Then Masamune placed his sword into the river, and the pupil laughed at his master when he saw that Masamune's blade only cut leaves. Fish swam up to the blade, but avoided its deadly edge. While the arrogant Muramasa continued to congratulate himself, his master quietly dried off his sword and put it back into its sheath. At that moment a wise Buddhist monk who had been observing the competition approached the gentle Masamune, bowed, and declared him the winner. When the hot-headed Muramasa demanded an explanation, the monk explained:

"The first was a fine sword, but it is a bloodthirsty and evil blade, and it does not discriminate as to who or what it will cut. It may just as well be cutting down butterflies as severing heads. The second sword, however, was by far the finer of the two, as it does not needlessly cut that which is innocent and undeserving."