Victor Harris is the former Keeper of the Department of Japanese Antiquities at the British Museum in London, and is the author of such books as Shinto: The Sacred Art of Ancient Japan, and Cutting Edge: Japanese Swords in the British Museum. Harris is also the translator of A Book of Five Rings by Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–1645), the master swordsman and legendary strategist. Here, Harris speaks to Christie’s about Samurai life and culture, in advance of our online auction, Samurai Swords and Armour: A Refined Art (20 November – 4 December).
What is the spirit of Bushido, or way of the Samurai?
Victor Harris: ‘It has been said by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) in the early 17th century that the sword is the soul of the Samurai. The question is: what does that mean? The life of the Samurai was completely and wholly devoted to polishing his skills in the military arts.’
What was daily life like for Samurai?
‘From a young age, four or five years old, a boy would be given his first sword, and he wouldn’t give it up until he died. In Europe, traditional military families were really farmers, not soldiers. They only took up their swords in time of war against other nations. In the Kamakura period, between 1185 and 1333, it was expected of every man in the Samurai class to have a horse, a bow and arrow, armour, and a sword, to be ready to go to war at any time. The Samurai class was about seven percent of the population, whereas the European military elite was a fraction of a percentage.
‘Japan is an extraordinary country; although it was virtually controlled by Samurai from the 12th century up until the 19th century, there was almost non-stop civil war within Japan, whereas in Europe, wars were against other countries. Samurai were fighting against each other to gain land. For a number of reasons, the Samurai survived out of absolute necessity.’
How is the Samurai sword unique?
‘The sword itself is a rather terrible weapon, but has other facets to it, of course. It is regarded, in some cases, as the actual embodiment of a Shinto deity. Certainly it is also regarded in the Buddhist-inspired schools of kendo as an instrument of enlightenment. But the Samurai sword is unique among swords the world over for being a work of art in its own right.’
What was the life of a swordsmith like?
‘If he was a good sword maker, he would be sponsored. For example, of the swords in the collection, the greatest sword is by Tadahiro Hizen, made in 1632. When [Hizen] was orphaned, the Lord of Nagashima province took him into his care, and gave him a high income of rice, sufficient so he could keep his own retainers, and sent him to Kyoto so he could study sword making under the great master at the time, Umetada Myoju (1558-1631). When he came back, he set up his own school of fencing in the castle town, under the sponsorship of the Nagashima family, and that lasted from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. Many of the great swordsmiths were honoured by the imperial household with honorific titles. But his most important role, of course, is to work hand in hand with the gods of the forge.
[Click here to watch vintage 1930s film footage of a master Japanese swordsmith at work]
‘The Japanese sword itself is technically excellent as a weapon, but to achieve that technical excellence, you had to hammer the steel; hammer out the billet over and over again, adjusting the carbon content of it, until the sword received the final optimum hammer blow, beyond which the steel would weaken and below which the steel wouldn’t be strong enough. This is a fine technical point. The heat treatment, where the sword is heated and plunged into water, has to be very exacting. This is not something in which the swordsmith is in control of, so early swords from the 11th and 12th century have hamon, or tempered, patterns on the edge, which are not absolutely controlled. They owe more to natural metallurgy — or, as the Japanese would say, the gods of the kiln.’
How is a sword an object of beauty?
‘It derives from the Japanese Shinto religion itself, where the forces of nature are to be feared, admired and respected, and to be paid obeisance to. When you dig up iron ore, for example, to make a sword, Westerners would say, “Well, you would go to a mountain and obtain the iron ore.” But the Japanese will wash and purify themselves, pray to the gods, take a holy shovel and dig the iron ore, and spend enormous pains to prepare it to make refined steel.
‘Of course, the magic of steel itself was appreciated in Japan 1400 or 1500 years ago. The techniques were imported from China. But whereas the Chinese knew how to fold steel and quench it in water to make the sword strong, the Japanese took that technology and made straight swords in the Chinese style in the 4th or 5th century A.D., and then 500 years or so later, the swords suddenly became curved beautifully. The technology was Japan-ized, if you like.’
What was the purpose of tachi, kozuka, and korgai, and how are they decorated?
‘Tachi type swords were suspended from the belt, so they hung loosely, with the cutting edge downwards. The reason for that is that they were used in the days when the Samurai were mounted on horses and wore heavy armour. The longsword was shortened in the 15th and 16th century to the standard length, which remained until the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912). They were worn thrust through the belt with the edge upwards, which is called katana mounting. The basic mounting is in wood which is lacquered black, but not necessarily so, and the fittings on the hilt are made of iron but sometimes soft metals, coloured alloys, and can be very decorative. The kozuka is a utility knife, sometimes kept in the scabbard, which you would use as a paper knife, I suppose.
‘The other utility piece that was kept in the scabbard of the sword was called a korgai, a sort of bodkin, which had a bent protuberance at the end to clean your ears, and a pointy end that was used to dress your hair. Some say it was also used to insert into the fallen body of an enemy so you could come back for the kill later — which would be identified by your family insignia — but that’s a horrible thing to think of.’
How has the market for swords changed in the past few decades?
‘Thirty years ago, before the Japanese economy started to decline, it was very difficult to obtain a long sword in the West because the Japanese were buying them all. [Now] the price of good swords on the international market has risen, and is rising. I wonder sometimes whether the point has been made strongly enough, particularly in the museum world, that they are objects of extraordinary beauty, and compared with swords of any other culture, are vastly superior in this respect.’