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Seven-Branched Sword

The Seven-Branched Sword: The Mystical Ceremonial Sword of Japan


The Isonokami Shrine is a Shinto shrine believed to have been built in 4 AD. Located in in the foothills of Tenri in Nara prefecture, Japan, this shrine is culturally significant for it houses several national treasures. These treasures include a legendary sword that is one of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, mirrors, and jewels. Among these priceless treasures is a curious sword known as the Nanatsusaya no Tachi, or ‘Seven-Branched Sword’.

The Seven-Branched Sword is so called because of the three branch-like protrusions extending on each side of the sword’s main body. Together with the tip of the central blade, they make up seven ‘branches’. This sword measures at 74.9 cm (2.5 feet) in length, and is made of iron. As the ‘branches’ appear to be quite delicate, and their functionality in melee combat doubtful, it is unlikely that the Seven-Branched Sword was used as a military weapon. Instead, it probably had a ceremonial function. This may be supported by the inscription, which is inlaid with gold, on the central blade.

A translation of the inscription is as follows,

First Side: “On May 16th, the 4th year of Tae-hwa [or on April 16th, the 4th year of T’ai-ho], the day of Byeong-O at noon, this seven-branched sword was manufactured with hundred-times-wrought iron. As this sword has a magical power to rout the enemy, it is sent [bestowed] to the king of a vassal state. Manufactured by xxxx.” 

Second Side: “Never has there been such a sword. Thinking of longevity, the king of Baekje [or the Crown Prince of Baekje who owes his life to the august King] had this sword made for the king of Wa [or the king of vassal state]. Hope that it be transmitted and shown to posterity (傳示後世).”

The Seven-Branched Sword

The Seven-Branched Sword (Wikimedia Commons)

The inscription shows that the Seven-Branched Sword was given by the king / crown prince of Baekje (an ancient kingdom in the south western part of the Korean Peninsula) to the king of Wa (ruler of Japan). This inscription indicates that there was contact between Baekje and Japan in ancient times. This is nothing new, perhaps, given that there is a general agreement that Baekje envoys and scholars brought Buddhism, Confucianism and the Chinese writing system across the sea to Japan. More importantly, the inscription on the Seven-Branched Sword might shed some light on the nature of the relationship between Baekje and Japan.

Gold diadem with intricate detail from the Baekje kingdom. By forcoolife.2007.

Gold diadem with intricate detail from the Baekje kingdom. By forcoolife.2007. (Wikimedia Commons)

The golden seal said to have been granted to the "King of Wa" by Emperor Guangwu of Han. Photo by PHGCOM, 2006. Toi Museum replica.

The golden seal said to have been granted to the "King of Wa" by Emperor Guangwu of Han. Photo by PHGCOM, 2006. Toi Museum replica. (en.wikipedia.org)

Certain ambiguities of the inscription have caused much debate as to the nature of Baekje’s relationship with Japan. According to some (mainly Japanese) scholars, the Seven-Branched Sword was given by ruler of Baekje to the ruler of Japan as a tribute. According to this interpretation, Baekje was a vassal state of Japan.

For instance, the word “候王” is regarded as an honorific. Others (mainly Korean scholars), however, contend that this term should be translated as “king of a vassal state” or “enfeoffed lord”, hence reversing the relationship.  Another difference in the interpretation of the inscription can be found in the tone. For example, some have read the last sentence on the sword’s second side, “傳示後世”, as a command given by a master to his vassal. Others, however, do not detect such a tone in the inscription.

External sources have also been used to support each claim. For instance, proponents of the idea that Japan was the overlord of Baekje may cite the Nihon Shoki to further support their claim. According to the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, a seven-branched sword, along with other valuable treasures were presented by the Baekje to Japan during the 52th year of the reign of the Empress Jingu. After that, the Baekje sent an annual tribute to Japan. Those opposing this claim may point out that the construction of the great Byokgolje Reservoir during the 4th century AD as an example of Baekje’s might during that period. This was a massive public work, and the organisation and mobilisation of labour was evident of the power of Baekje. By contrast, there is no evidence of Japan being that advanced during the same period. In other words, the Baekje were said to be superior to Japan, and the latter was a vassal of the former.

The Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀, Nihon Shoki). Circa 1100 by unknown author.

The Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀, Nihon Shoki). Circa 1100 by unknown author. (Wikimedia Commons)

A third interpretation of the inscription on the Seven-Branched Sword suggests that there was an equal and respectful relationship between Baekje and Japan. Given the ambiguity of the inscription, this interpretation is also entirely plausible. It is likely that the debate will go on and remain inconclusive until further evidence is found. Until then, the inscription on the Seven-Branched Sword will continue to be interpreted by scholars from a modern point of view.

Featured image: This replica of the Chiljido is held at the War Memorial in Seoul, South Korea. The sword is important to both the history of Korea and Japan. Photo by: Tortfeasor 2006. (en.wikipedia.org)

By Ḏḥwty

References

baekjemuseum.seoul.go.kr, 2011. Seven-Pronged Sword. [Online]
Available at: http://baekjemuseum.seoul.go.kr/eng/contents.jsp?mpid=SEM0301130000

Bouchard, B., 2014. Behind the Myth: Baekje and Japan. [Online]
Available at: http://www.gwangjunewsgic.com/online/16609/

Farris, W. W., 1998. Sacred Texts and Burried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Hackshaw, P., 2011. Isonokami Shrine. [Online]
Available at: http://en.japantravel.com/view/isogami-shrine-tenri

Hong, W., 1994. Paekche of Korea and the Origin of Yamato Japan, Chapter 5: Background Materials, 4. The Seven-Branched Sword. [Online]
Available at: http://www.hongwontack.com/homepage4/data/450814.pdf

nihonshoki.wikidot.com, 2008. Nihon Shoki, Scroll 9 - Empress Jingu. [Online]
Available at: http://nihonshoki.wikidot.com/scroll-9-jingu

Seeley, C., 1991. A History of Writing in Japan. Leiden: E. J. Brill .

Yu, C.-S., 2010. Korean Thought and Culture: A New Introduction. Bloomington: Trafford Publishing.

Comments

I would not consider the *not* building of a reservoire in Japan when Baekje built one any particular indication of comparative level of civilization, Japan is not really known for its lack of rainfall or ground water.

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