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The Kusanagi: Unseen Legendary Japanese Sword

The Kusanagi: Unseen Legendary Japanese Sword

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The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (translated as Grass-cutting Sword or Herb-quelling Sword) is a legendary Japanese sword. This weapon, commonly referred to simply as The Kusanagi, is one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, and is said to represent the virtue of valor. The two other objects of the regalia, as a matter of interest, are the Yata-no-Kagami (a mirror said to represent wisdom) and the Yasakani-no-Magatama (a jewel said to represent benevolence). Due to its royal connection, the Kusanagi has sometimes been compared to Excalibur. Unlike its Arthurian counterpart, however, the location where the Kusanagi is alleged kept is well-known. Still, it seems that no one alive today has actually seen the sword, thus raising questions about its existence.

Yamata-no-Orochi, the Eight-Headed Serpent

The Kusanagi was originally known as the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (meaning ‘Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven’), and its origin is linked to a legendary eight-headed serpent. This serpent was known as Yamata-no-Orochi, who was terrorizing a wealthy family in the province of Izumo. Over the years, the serpent had eaten seven of the family’s eight daughters. As a result, the head of the family decided to ask for help from Susanoo, the Shinto god of sea and storms. The god attacked the Orochi immediately, though he failed to defeat it, and had to retreat.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Yoshitoshi.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Yoshitoshi. (Public Domain)

Susanoo then came up with a plan to defeat the serpent. In one version of the legend, the Susanoo was offered the last daughter as a bride if he succeeded in slaying the creature. In another, it was the god who asked for the girl’s hand in marriage, a request which her father assented. In any event, Susanoo’s plan was to get the each of Orochi’s eight heads drunk, after which he would attack it. Thus, the god prepared eight giant bowls of sake (a Japanese rice wine), and put them in a place where the monster was likely to pass by.

Orochi fell for the trap, and whilst it was intoxicated and asleep, Susanoo seized the opportunity to strike. The god decapitated each of the serpent’s heads, and then sliced off its tail. Within the monster’s tail, the god found a sword, the Kusanagi. Susanoo did not keep the sword for long. Although a god, Susanoo is said to have been exiled a long time ago. Japanese mythology also states that there was a rivalry between Susanoo and his sister, the goddess Amaterasu. Therefore, Susanoo decided to present the Kusanagi to her, so as to be on good terms with her and to end his exile.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Public Domain)

The Story of Yamato Takeru

The Kusanagi is believed to have been given by the goddess to Yamato Takeru, the son of the Emperor Keiko. It was during this time that the Kusanagi gained its present name. According to one story, the prince was on a hunting trip when a rival set fire to the dry grass around him. Using the sword given to him by Amaterasu, Yamato Takeru cut the burning grass down, and sent the flames in the direction of his rival. Hence, the name Kusanagi was given to the sword.

There are a number of stories surrounding the Kusanagi following its possession by Yamato Takeru. In the 14 th century The Tale of the Heike, for example, the Kusanagi is said to have been lost after a naval battle. This tale is questionable, though, as this epic is said to be a collection of oral stories written about 200 years after the actual events took place. Replicas have been made, stolen and lost when rival members of the royal family made their bids to claim the throne of Japan.

Yamato Takeru dressed as a maidservant, preparing to kill the Kumaso leaders. Woodblock print on paper. Yoshitoshi, 1886.

Yamato Takeru dressed as a maidservant, preparing to kill the Kumaso leaders. Woodblock print on paper. Yoshitoshi, 1886. (Public Domain)

Unseen Kusanagi

Today, the Kusanagi is believed to be housed in the Atsuta Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Nagoya. Yet, its presence there cannot be ascertained, as it seems that no one alive today has seen the sword. Even the current Emperor of Japan himself is believed to have not seen the Kusanagi. This sword is used in the coronation ceremony of the Japanese Emperor, and the last time that this took place was in 1989. The Emperor Akihito received the sword, though it was kept under wraps.

Artist's impressions of the (unseen) Imperial Regalia of Japan

Artist's impressions of the (unseen) Imperial Regalia of Japan (Public Domain)

There is perhaps good reason for the Kusanagi to be kept away from human sight. During the Edo period, a priest is said to have seen the sword, and wrote a description of it. His death is alleged to have been caused by a curse associated with the sword. In addition, the sword is said to have been originally kept in the Imperial Palace. During the 7 th century AD, the sword was blamed for an emperor’s ill-health, and subsequent death. Hence, the Kusanagi was sent to the Atsuta Shrine to be safeguarded.           

Top image: Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Toyohara Chikanobu. Public Domain

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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