Utagawa Kuniyoshi painted Honjō Shigenaga parrying an exploding shell.

Searching for the Honjo Masamune, Lost Samurai Sword of Power

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The Honjo Masamune is a sword that was forged by the renowned Japanese swordsmith, Goro Nyudo Masamune. This sword is one of the most famous swords in Japanese history, and at one point of time, even became one of the country’s national treasures. After the end of the Second World War, however, this renowned sword disappeared, and its whereabouts remains a mystery, even today.

The Tale of Masamune and Muramasa

Masamune is often regarded as one of Japan’s greatest swordsmiths. Whilst it is unknown as to when exactly the swordsmith lived and died, it is traditionally believed that he was making most of his swords during the late 13th century AD and the early part of the following century.

Masamune’s character may perhaps be best seen in a story of Masamune and Muramasa. This tale, which is quite unlikely to have actually taken place, is about a competition between the two swordsmiths to determine who the greater sword-maker was.

An old portrait of the swordsmith Masamune.

An old portrait of the swordsmith Masamune. ( Public Domain )

There are many versions of this tale, though all of them point to the more virtuous character of Masamune and his creations. In one account, the completed swords were suspended over the stream to test their quality. Muramasa’s sword sliced everything that came into contact with it. By contrast, Masamune’s sword only cut the leaves that were floating. Living creatures were repelled from it instead. When Muramasa observed this, he believed that Masamune’s sword was not sharp enough, and thought that he had won. As Muramasa was gloating, a travelling monk came forward to give his verdict.

This monk had been observing this competition between the two men for a while, and decided that the quality of Masamune’s sword was higher than that of Muramasa’s. According to the monk, Muramasa’s sword was an evil and blood-thirsty creation, as it cut things up indiscriminately. By comparison, Masamune’s sword did not kill unnecessarily. Due to the ‘benevolent’ nature of his sword, Masamune was declared as the superior swordsmith.

Masamune sword in the city of Steyr.

Masamune sword in the city of Steyr. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 AT )

Origins of the Sword

The Honjo Masamune is named after a general by the name of Honjo Shigenaga. This general lived during the 16th and 17th centuries AD and served the Uesugi clan in northern Japan. Shigenaga came to possess this sword after the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima in 1561. During the battle, the sword had belonged to an enemy general, who challenged Shigenaga to a duel. During the duel, Shigenaga’s enemy succeeded in cleaving the samurai’s helmet in half. In the end, however, Shigenaga emerged victorious, and claimed his enemy’s sword as a prize.

Shigenaga kept the sword for many years before selling it to the Toyotomi clan around the end of the 16th century AD, who were the rulers of Japan at that point of time. After the fall of the Toyotomi, the sword was acquired by Japan’s new shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. This sword became a family treasure, and the symbol of the Tokugawa Dynasty. Hence, the Honjo Masamune was passed down from one shogun to the next. Even after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, the sword remained within the family’s possession.

Various samurai swords. Photo taken at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Various samurai swords. Photo taken at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. ( Public Domain )

A Mysterious Disappearance

It is recorded that around the end of the Second World War, the Honjo Masamune was in the possession of Tokugawa Iemasa. Following Japan’s surrender, the Allies demanded that all of the Japanese noble families handed over their collection of swords, perhaps as souvenirs of war.

Whilst many of the nobles were understandably furious at this, Iemasa, who was the President of the House of Peers, decided to set a good example / act as the voice of reason, and handed over his family’s collection of swords. This included the Honjo Masamune. The man alleged to have received this sword was a sergeant by the name of ‘Coldy Bimore’, though there are no records that attest to his existence.

Photo of Iemasa Tokugawa.

Photo of Iemasa Tokugawa. ( Public Domain )

Thus, the fate of the Honjo Masamune has been a mystery ever since. Nevertheless, there is some hope that the Honjo Masamune might one day be found. It has been reported that in 2013, a sword was brought to Kyoto National Museum to be appraised. In the following year, it was established that this was one of Masamune’s swords, specifically one that is known as the Shimazu Masamune.

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