Sword of Friendship

Objects in museums can be powerful symbols of friendship. The 'Shirase Sword' in the Australian Museum's collection is one example.

Lieutenant Nobu Shirase

Australian Museum Archives © Australian Museum

In 1911, three expeditions set out to reach the South Pole. Amundsen and Scott succeeded and are internationally famous. The third group, a Japanese expedition led by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase, did not succeed, but Shirase and his men are celebrated heroes in their homeland.

Shirase's expedition reached Antarctica in the autumn of 1911. It was too late to make their attempt before the onset of winter, so the expedition sailed to Sydney to wait for spring. In Sydney the expedition set up camp in what is now Parsley Bay Reserve in Woollahra, where they lived for several months.

The Sydney press ran stories that suggested the Japanese party were on a spying mission, as it was camped near the South Head military establishment. These accusations created difficulties for Shirase's party, who needed to repair their ship and re-supply the expedition.

Tannatt Edgeworth David, professor of Geology at the University of Sydney and a Trustee of the Australian Museum, defended the Japanese party and assisted them in their negotiations with the local authorities and businesses. Edgeworth David had done fieldwork in Antarctica with Douglas Mawson and freely shared his knowledge and experiences with Shirase. The two men developed a close friendship. In November 1911, as the Japanese prepared to depart again for Antarctica, Shirase expressed his gratitude by presenting his own 17th century Japanese sword to Edgeworth David.

Shirase's second attempt to reach the South Pole was also unsuccessful, though his expedition explored a large area of new territory. The expedition received a heroes' welcome on their return to Japan, and the western end of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica today bears the name Shirase Coast in honour of the attempt.

In 1979, Mary Edgeworth David, the professor's daughter, presented the sword to the Australian Museum after it had been restored in Japan. The sword is an excellent example of the work of Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu, a master swordsmith who worked in the period 1600-1650.

The sword's powerful symbolism of friendship and goodwill has led hundreds of Japanese people to visit the Australian Museum specifically to see the sword. The sword has also travelled to Japan where thousands of people came to see it on display in the Shirase Antarctic Expedition Memorial Museum in Konoura, Shirase's birthplace, and at the Nagoya Maritime Museum.

A memorial plaque installed in 2002 at Parsley Bay Reserve commemorates Lieutenant Shirase's expedition.

Translation of the letter written to Professor Edgeworth David by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase, leader of the Japanese Antarctic expedition of 1911

Japanese Antarctic Exploration Ship, KAINAN MARU
Sydney, November 18th 1911

Professor T. W. Edgeworth David
University of Sydney

Dear Sir,

As you are aware, we are leaving Sydney tomorrow on our journey to Antarctica; but we cannot go without expressing our heart-felt thanks to you for your many kindnesses and courtesies to us during our enforced stay in this port.

When we first arrived in Sydney we were in a state of considerable disappointment, in consequence of the partial and temporary failure of our endeavour. To add to this we found ourselves, in some quarters, subjected to a degree of suspicion as to our bona fides, which was as unexpected as it was unworthy.

At this juncture you, dear sir, came forward, and, after satisfying yourself by independent inquiry and investigation of the true nature of our enterprise -- which no one in the world at the present day is better able to do -- you were good enough to set the seal of your magnificent reputation upon our bona fides, and to treat us as brothers in the realm of science.

That we did not accept all of your kind offers to bring us into public notice was not from any lack of appreciation of the honour you desired to do us. But we felt there was a danger that your generosity and magnanimity might unwittingly place us in a position to which we could only regard ourselves as entitled when our efforts should have been crowned with success.

Whatever may be the fate of our enterprise, we shall never forget you.

We are, Dear Sir,
Yours most sincerely,

Nobu Shirase, Commander
Naokichi Nomura, Captain of Kainan Maru
Terutaro Takeda, Scientist
Masakichi Ikeda, Scientist
Seizo Miisho, Physician


Colin MacGregor
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