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Sunday, March 11, 2001

Swords and chrysanthemums

The heart of the samurai and the soul of the swordsmith

Modern warfare is increasingly being depersonalized by long-range missiles, so-called smart bombs, and the virtual battlefield of electronic information. The current exhibition at the Nezu Museum takes us back to an era when our dirty work wasn't done for us by computers but was up-close and personal, the greatly romanticized era of the samurai and their trusty swords.

With a roomful of beautiful killing implements, this is the kind of exhibition that is bound to attract its share of otaku, hypnotized by the gleaming blades and their deadly history. But, naturally, this is not the angle the museum is playing up. Rather the emphasis is on the swords' more homely virtues as family heirlooms, objects of beauty and expressions of individuality.

The oldest swords here, like the one signed "Bungo-no- kuni Yukihira-saku (made by Bungo Province's Yukihira)", date back to the late Heian Period (794-1185), long before the Edo Period (1603-1867), when swords lost much of their functional role and assumed an increasingly symbolic one.

So, it is more than likely that many of the razor-sharp edges on display tasted human blood, either that of slain enemies or perhaps their owners in an act of ritual suicide.

Compared with European weapons of identical age, these swords are all in excellent condition. There are no nicks or dents and very few visible scratches.

One reason for this is the strength and quality of the blades, forged in a complex process involving repeatedly folding and hammering the steel to build up as many as 10,000 layers, alternating higher and lower carbon content. In later years different types of steel were fused together: a softer steel for strength and flexibility, and a harder steel for sharpness.

Another is that the blades have been so rigorously polished that any marks on the surface have been rubbed or ground away -- often leaving the older blades, like the one made by the late Heian or early Kamakura Period swordsmith Yoshiie -- looking a lot thinner.

This is not to say that these blades are featureless. The polishing brings out the grain of the metal, showing different patterns, each one a unique signature. A short sword signed by Rai Kunimitsu, from the Kamakura Period, shows a beautiful notare hamon, an undulating temper line.

As the civil wars of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) started to result in greater unity, the shogunate government sought to pacify the country by disarming the masses.

Many confiscated swords were melted down to make statues of the Buddha. Only the samurai class were to keep possession of their lethal blades.

In the more peaceful atmosphere of the Edo Period, however, these weapons remained in their sheaths and gradually became symbols of social status, differentiating their wearers from the common herd.

Although always beautiful and stylish implements, their decoration now became increasingly ornate. The sheath of the blade signed by Senjuin Yasuhige, a weapon of Kamakura vintage, is decorated with an exquisite chozame (sturgeon) design in blacklacquer, while the handle is decorated with rough white sharkskin and corded silk.

Other sword sheaths and accouterments are pure gold with the precious metal on the handle made to mimic the texture of the more usual sharkskin.

Sword hilts are another area where great license was granted artists to delight with images of herons, geese, butterflies and flowers.

A knife sheath is even decorated with a cute little bunny, giving the impression that such weapons were more often shown to ladies or geisha than rattled in anger at military foes.

In the same way that the Japanese art of tattooing developed to hide criminal branding, sword accouterments with all their attendant arts evolved to sheath and beautify the merciless glint of the well-tempered steel, veiling the soul of both the samurai and the swordsmith.

"Beauty of Swords and Sword Accouterments" runs until March 20 at the Nezu Museum, (03) 3400-2536, near exit A5 of Omotesando Station on the Ginza, Chiyoda and Hanzomon subway lines. Open 9:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission is 1,000 yen for adults and 700 yen for students.

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