Shirase Sword Katana E76356

Osaka - Antarctica - Sydney

Shirase Sword E76356

Shirase Sword E76356
Photographer: Carl Bento © Australian Museum

The Samurai sword katana is not an ordinary weapon. It has an important place in Japan’s military past and cultural history, where its appreciation is carefully measured. The swordsmiths are included in lists with special rankings. In one such list, compiled by Tomita Kiyama in 1933, the grading system is borrowed from ranking Sumo wrestlers.

In this classification several senior, established swordsmiths are given special honorary rankings, while the remaining craftsmen are ranked within two parallel groups – one more prestigious than the other. An Osaka swordsmith - Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu - is placed in a special honorary position with a handful others who stand out in their accomplishment above the hundreds of their peer swordsmiths.

We don’t know much about Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu. He was from the provincial town Yamato in Kanagawa Prefecture - central Japan, west of Yokohama - and an apprentice of the highly respected and influential Tegai School of sword-making. In about 1644 he came to Osaka– then an prominent cultural and economic centre.

This was an important period (Sho-ho era) in katana-sword history. Katana was then fully developed, distinctly different from the longer and older type of samurai sword tachi and, importantly it was no longer a less costly, shorter sword of lower ranking warriors, but a superior weapon much valued by the cream of samurai warriors. It was possible to draw the katana and strike in one rapid movement and it is likely that this functional advantage made it the weapon of choice.

Along with the demand, the swordsmiths set to work, refining its quality and functional properties in various sword-making schools of this period.

This sword is an excellent example of the craftsmanship of Mutsu no Kaneyasu, a master swordsmith who worked in the period 1600-1650. He produced this sword in Osaka (Settsu no Kuni) in 1644-48. We know this because the swordsmiths of that time often signed their work, inscribing their name on the tang – a base where the handle is attached. Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu had a peculiar habit of engraving his swords with a mirror image signature where the characters were inscribed backwards.

This sword was presented to Lieutenant Nobu Shirase by his sponsor Tasaburo Fukuda in 1910, just before Shirase embarked on his voyage of exploration to Antarctica. Shirase later gave the sword to Professor Tannatt Edgeworth David as a gift in gratitude for his assistance to the Japanese Antarctic Expedition in Sydney in 1911.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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