Masamune Portrait

Masamune (正宗?), also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗?, Priest Gorō Masamune, c.1264–1343 AD),[1] is widely recognized as Japan's greatest swordsmith. As no exact dates are known for Masamune's life, he has reached an almost legendary status. It is generally agreed that he made most of his swords in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, 1288–1328. He created swords, known as tachi in Japanese and daggers called tantō, in the Soshu tradition. Some stories list his family name as Okazaki, but some experts believe this is a fabrication to enhance the standing of the Tokugawa family.[2]

An award for swordsmiths exists called the Masamune prize which is awarded at the Japanese Sword Making Competition. Although not awarded every year it is presented to a swordsmith who has created an exceptional work.[3]

Masamune is believed to have worked in Sagami Province during the last part of the Kamakura Period (1288–1328), and it is thought that he was trained by swordsmiths from Bizen and Yamashiro provinces, such as Saburo Kunimune, Awataguchi Kunitsuna and Shintōgo Kunimitsu.



The swords of Masamune have a reputation for superior beauty and quality, remarkable in a period where the steel necessary for swords was often impure. He is considered to have brought to perfection the art of "nie" - 錵 - (martensitic crystals embedded in pearlite matrix, thought to resemble stars in the night sky).

Masamune studied under Shintōgo Kunimitsu and made blades in suguha (straight temper line) but he made magnificent notare hamon, where the leading edge of blade slowly undulates where it was quenched. There are also some blades with ko-midare (small irregularities), a style which appears to have been copied from the Old Bizen and Hoki Province styles. His works are well-characterized by rich chikei (clear grey lines on the leading edge), kinsuji (lines like lightning streaking across the blade) and beautiful nie (a grey shadow on the front of the blade caused by quenching).

Swords created by Masamune often are referred to with the smith's name (as with other pieces of artwork), often with a name for the individual sword as well. The "Honjo Masamune", a symbol of the Tokugawa shogunate and passed down from one shogun to another, is perhaps the best known Masamune sword.

Signed works of Masamune are rare. The examples "Fudo Masamune", "Kyogoku Masamune", and "Daikoku Masamune" are accepted as his genuine works. Judging from his style, he was active from the late Kamakura period to the Nanboku-chō period.

His swords are the most frequently cited among those listed in the Kyôho Meibutsu Cho,[4] a catalogue of excellent swords in the collections of daimyos edited during the Kyoho era by the Hon'ami family of sword appraisers and polishers. The catalogue was created on the orders of the Tokugawa Yoshimune of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1714 and consists of three books. The first book known as the Nihon Sansaku is a list of the three greatest sword smiths in the eyes of Toyotomi Hideyoshi including Etchu Matsukura Go Umanosuke Yoshihiro, Awataguchi Toshiro Yoshimitsu, and lists 41 blades by Goro Nyudo Masamune. The three books together list 61 blades by Masamune. There are far more blades listed for Masamune than the next two sword smiths combined. It is known that Hideyoshi had a passion for Soshu sword smiths which may explain this. A third of all swords listed are Soshu blades by many of the greatest Soshu masters including Masamune's students.

Comparison with Muramasa

The swords of Masamune are often contrasted with those of Muramasa, another Japanese swordsmith. Muramasa has alternatively been described (incorrectly) as a full contemporary of Masamune, or as Masamune's student. Since Muramasa dated his work, it is known he worked right around 1500 AD, and as such he lived too late to have met Masamune. In legend and fantasy, Muramasa's blades are described as bloodthirsty or evil while Masamune's are considered the mark of an internally peaceful and calm warrior.

Legends of Masamune and Muramasa

A legend tells of a test where Muramasa challenged his master, Masamune, to see who could make a finer sword. They both worked tirelessly and eventually, when both swords were finished, they decided to test the results. The contest was for each to suspend the blades in a small creek with the cutting edge facing the current. Muramasa's sword, the Juuchi Yosamu (10,000 Cold Nights / 十千夜寒) cut everything that passed its way; fish, leaves floating down the river, the very air which blew on it. Highly impressed with his pupil's work, Masamune lowered his sword, the Yawarakai-Te (Tender Hands / 柔らかい手), into the current and waited patiently. Not a leaf was cut, the fish swam right up to it, and the air hissed as it gently blew by the blade. After a while, Muramasa began to scoff at his master for his apparent lack of skill in the making of his sword. Smiling to himself, Masamune pulled up his sword, dried it, and sheathed it. All the while, Muramasa was heckling him for his sword's inability to cut anything. A monk, who had been watching the whole ordeal, walked over and bowed low to the two sword masters. He then began to explain what he had seen.

"The first of the swords was by all accounts a fine sword, however it is a blood thirsty, evil blade, as 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 was by far the finer of the two, as it does not needlessly cut that which is innocent and undeserving."

In another account of the story, both blades cut the leaves that went down on the river's current equally well, but the leaves would stick to the blade of Muramasa whereas they would slip on past Masamune's after being sliced. Or alternatively both leaves were cut, but those cut by Masamune's blade would reform as it traveled down the stream. Yet another version has leaves being sliced by Muramasa's blade while the leaves were repelled by Masamune's, and another again has leaves being sliced by Muramasa's blade and healed by Masamune's.

In yet another story Muramasa and Masamune were summoned to make swords for the Shogun or Emperor and the finished swords were held in a waterfall. The result is the same as the other stories, and Masamune's swords are deemed holy swords. In one version of the story Muramasa is killed for creating evil swords.

While all known legends of the two ever having met are historically impossible, both smiths are widely regarded as symbols for their respective eras.


Masamune is believed to have trained a great number of sword smiths, 15 are known, 10 of which are considered to be the Juttetsu or 'Ten Famous Students' or "10 Great Disciples of Masamune".

Great Juttetsu


(備州長船住長義作—Bishu Osafune Ju Nagayoshi Saku) (備州國長船住長義—Bizen Kuni Osafune Ju Nagayoshi)
Although probably not a direct student of Masamune[5] due to the dates when he was forging, his works are greatly influenced by Masamune's work and the Soshu tradition as well as the work of the Soden Bizen swordsmiths. Though the kanji characters are pronounced in Japanese as 'Nagayoshi', by convention the Chinese pronunciation of 'Chogi' is used for this smith, and a handful of others (less commonly for his student Kanenaga, pronounced in Chinese as 'Kencho').


(備前國長船住兼光—Bizen Kuni Osafune Ju Kanemitsu) (備前長船住兼光—Bishu Ssafune ju Kanemitsu) (備前國長船住左衛門尉藤原兼光—Bizen no Kuni Osafune ju Saemonjo Fujiwara Kanemitsu)
Considered to have created some of the sharpest swords ever known as he is one of a handful of smiths rated at Sai-jo O-wazamono (grandmaster of great sharpness) [1] and has famous swords named Kabutowari (Helmet Cutter), Ishikiri (Stone Cutter), and Teppokiri (Gun Cutter) as relayed in Fujishiro's writings. Kanemitsu produced swords that were used by great men and generals. He most likely wasn't taught by Masamune directly but was influenced by the Soshu and was a leader in the Soden Bizen revolution.

Shizu Saburo Kaneuji

Lived in Yamato province before going to Mino to study under Masamune where his style radically changed. His swords are most like those of Masamune and quite often confused with his. The Mishina school can trace its history back to Kaneuji and through him back to Masamune.[6]


Kinju, like Chogi, by convention is pronounced in Chinese. He is also known as Kaneshige using the Japanese pronunciation of his name. He, along with Kaneuji are founders of the Mino style. He was a monk at the Seisen-ji in Tsuruga, he led to the creation of Echizen sword making like Kuniyuki, moving to Mino around the time of Ryakuo (1338–1342) creating the Seki tradition.[7]


(長谷部国重—Hasebe Kunishige)
Created the Hasebe school producing swords in the style of the second period of Soshu and Yamashiro. His swords are considered by some to be equal to Akihiro and Hiromitsu. He created the Heshikiri Hasebe (The Forceful Cutter) listed in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and then Oda Nobunaga. It bears a gold appraisal inlay of Honami Kotoku called a Kinzogan (金象嵌). Today the sword is a family heirloom of the Kuroda Daimyo Ke. The sword takes its name from the story of Oda Nobunaga drawing it to cut through a table to kill Kannai, a tea master who betrayed him.


(来源国次—Rai Minamoto Kunitsugu)
Also goes by the name Kamakura Rai as he is the grandson of Rai Kuniyuki. The influence of the Soshu and Yamashiro traditions can be observed in his works.


(左—Sa) (筑州左—Chikushu Sa) (筑前國住左—Chikuzen no Kuni ju Sa)
Believed to go by the name Yasuyoshi but signed his work using the first two letters of his given name. Considered by some to be one of the greatest of Masamune's students. As well as being a Soshu swordsmith he also created the Chikuzen tradition.

Saeki Norishige

(則重—Norishige, 佐伯—Saeki)
Historically considered one of the best of Masamune's students, he is numbered among the Juttetsu. However, current research indicates that he was a senior student to Masamune, junior to Yukimitsu, under the great teacher Shintōgo Kunimitsu. He, like Go, hails from Etchu province and is well known as the only smith to have mastered the style of matsukawa-hada (pine tree bark pattern steel), making his work unique.

Go Yoshihiro

(郷(江)—Go, 義弘—Yoshihiro)
Very few works exist by this swordsmith due to his death at the young age of 27, No known signed works exist. He is believed to have gone by the names of Go Yoshihiro or simply Go, the name of the town from which he came. As well as being a Soshu sword smith he is a member of the Etchu tradition. He is considered to have the highest skill in forging swords among the Masamune Juttetsu [2].


(石州出羽直綱作—Sekishu Izuwa Naotsuna Saku) (直綱作—Naotsuna Saku)
Many theories exist that he may in fact have been a student of Saemonzaburo among others. His work is considered by many to have been influenced by Soshu(相州) even if not taught by Masamune directly, he is also influenced by the Soden Bizen(備前) and Iwami province (石州) style.

Other Students

  • Hiromitsu (相模國住人廣光—Sagami Kuni Junin Hiromitsu): Along with Akihiro brought about the second period of the Soshu style.
  • Sadamune: A student and possibly son or adopted son of Masamune. Like his father he left no signed work, but is considered peerless in the Soshu tradition after Masamune.
  • Akihiro (相州住秋廣—Soshu Ju Akihiro) (相模國住人秋廣—Sagami Kuni Junin Akihiro): A direct student of Masamune, along with Hiromitsu was responsible for refining the Soshu style to create the Soshu second period.


Honjo Masamune

The Honjo Masamune[4] represented the Shogunate during most of the Edo period and had been passed down from one Shogun to another. It is one of the best known of the swords created by Masamune and is believed to be one of the finest Japanese swords ever made. It was made a Japanese National Treasure (Kokuhô) in 1939. The name Honjo possibly came about due to this sword's connection to the general Honjo "Echizen no kami" Shigenaga (本庄越前守重長) who gained the sword in battle.

Honjo Shigenaga, general of Uesugi Kenshin[4] in the 16th century, was attacked by Umanosuke who already possessed a number of trophy heads. Shigenaga was attacked with the Honjo Masamune which split his helmet, but he survived and took the sword as a prize. The blade had a number of chips from the great battle but was still usable. It was kept by Shigenaga until he was sent to Fushimi Castle, Bunroku around 1592–1595. Shigenaga ran out of funds and was forced to sell the sword to Toyotomi Hidetsugu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi's nephew and retainer. It was bought for 13 Mai, 13 ōban, which was 13 large gold coins. The blade was later valued in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho at 1,000 Mai.

It then went to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), Shimazu Hyogo Yoshihiro (島津義弘), again to Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), Tokugawa Yorinobu (徳川頼宣), and finally Tokugawa Ietsuna (徳川家綱). It remained in the Kii (紀伊) branch of the Tokugawa family, the last known owner being Tokugawa Iemasa (徳川家正) at the end of World War II.

Apparently Tokugawa Iemasa gave the Honjo Masamune and 14 other swords to a police station at Mejiro in December 1945. Shortly thereafter in January 1946, the Mejiro police gave these swords to Sgt. Coldy Bimore (U.S. 7th Cavalry). The Honjo Masamune is with out a doubt the most important of the missing Nihonto, still today the current location of the sword is unknown.[8]

Fudo Masamune

As previously mentioned this is one of the few blades signed by Masamune that is not in question. It was bought by Toyotomi Hidetsugu[4] in 1601 for 500 Kan and was passed to Shogun Ieyasu and from him to Maeda Toshiie. Maeda Toshitsune presented it again to the Shogun, possibly on his retirement. Later, the sword was handed down among the Owari Tokugawa. This blade is a tantō approximately 25 cm (8 sun 6.5 bun) with a carving of roots on the Omote (Front, outer edge) side. It also has chopstick like grooves (Gomabashi 護摩箸) on the back and a Dragon at the ura part of blade (Kurikara 倶利伽羅). The blade features an engraving of Fudo Myo-o, the buddhist deity which gives this blade its name[citation needed].

Hōchō Masamune

The "Hōchō" Masamune refers to any one of three particular and unusual tantō[9] attributed to Masamune. These tantō have a wide body, unlike his normal slim and elegant work, making them appear quite similar to a Japanese cooking knife. One of the three blades has a Gomabashi in cutout (Sukashi). It was restored around 1919 and sold for approximately 10 Hiki, which was worth around 14¢ US at the time. Even taking inflation into account the price is still amazingly low. It is presently on display in the Tokugawa Art Museum.[10]

Kotegiri Masamune

The Kotegiri (or Kote giri) is a kendo strike to the wrist, the reason for the choice of name comes from this tachi being used by Asakura Ujikage [4] to cut the steel mail off an opposing samurai's arm in the battle of Toji in Kyôto. Oda Nobunaga gained possession of this sword and had it shortened to its present length. In 1615 it eventually passed down to the Maeda clan who in 1882 presented it as a gift to Emperor Meiji, a known sword collector.

Masamune in Harry S. Truman Library

See also


  1. ^ Fujishiro, Yoshio; Fujishiro Matsuo (1935). Nihon Toko Jiten. pp. 386. 
  2. ^ Fujishiro, Yoshio; Fujishiro Matsuo (1935). Nihon Toko Jiten. pp. 387. 
  3. ^ Japanese Sword Making Competition THE MIYAIRI SCHOOL
  4. ^ a b c d e History of Masamune by Jim Kurrasch
  5. ^ The Japanese Sword Society of the United States
  6. ^ Mishina School
  7. ^ Ura Nihon no Toko By Yoshikawa Kentaro
  8. ^ Jim Kurrach, Honjo Masamune, Japanese Sword Society of Southern California newsletter
  9. ^ Site containing pictures of his blades and a portrait of Masamune[dead link]
  10. ^ Tanto:"Hocho Masamune". TOKUGAWA ART MUSEUM - Exhibition Room 1. Accessed 19 August 2009.
  11. ^ Suzanne P Cole (2011-04-17). "Rare samurai sword was a gift to Harry S. Truman". Kansas City Star. 

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