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Our Global Neighbours: Who owned the Shirase Sword?

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 10 Apr 2015

Sydney University historian investigates.

Mr Howitt with Japanese Sword E76356 BB

Mr Howitt with Japanese Sword E76356 BB
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Last week I met Rohan Howitt, an impressive young historian and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. Rohan examines documents and artefacts related to the Japanese Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1912 as part of the broader topic he investigates in his research.

When we looked at the celebrated Shirase sword, I learned from Rohan intriguing facts that placed the Japanese Antarctic Expedition in a meaningful cultural, political and social context. This heightened my appetite for a more comprehensive explanation of the ‘race’ to the South Pole and its cultural fallouts.

But in a meantime we pondered the ambiguous history of Shirase sword (at least in the Western sources) before it was presented to Nobu Shirase in 1910. A sword of this quality made by highly regarded sword-maker Mutsu No Kami Kaneyasu in 1644-48, we reasoned, would not likely linger in a scabbard of a minor samurai in perfect anonymity for some 260 years. Yet we know nothing about its whereabouts for this long period of time.

Previously I found a passage in a bibliographical compilation (Chet Ross, 2010) stating that the sword was presented to Lieutenant Nobu Shirase by one of the expedition sponsors, Tasaburo Fukuda, in 1910. I could not confirm it or find any details (in Western sources) about Mr Fukuda. Not knowing Japanese, I was ignorant of the fact that inscription on the scabbard says that the sword was presented 'by Tasaburo Fukuda in admiration of the expedition's courage.' This is a pretty reliable and original source – thanks to Rohan and his investigative skills.

It would be interesting to research the context of how and why the samurai sword was given to Shirase. And this is, in part, where Rohan’s broader research and my narrower questions of the sword’s history prior to 1910 meet.

I trust that with Rohan applying his historical skills and critical faculties we should be able to unravel the mystery of the sword’s ownership in the near future. And I look forward to meeting Rohan again to learn more from this thoughtful and knowledgeable historian.

Reference:

Chet Ross. 2010. Lieutenant Nobu Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1912: A Bibliography. Published Adelie Books, Santa Monica