Thu, Mar 19, 2020
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
Japanese swords are fascinating in the attention paid to both their form and functionality. They were the tools by which much of the country’s history was carved, but at the same time were also works of art with unique designs. Even when firearms became a staple of Japanese military provisions in the 19th century, many samurai continued to wear their swords with pride, including Shinsengumi vice-commander Hijikata Toshizo, wielder of the blade Izuminokami Kanesada.
Izuminokami Kanesada, which shares the name of the smith who forged it, is a type of Japanese sword called an uchigatana. Swords of this type were versatile medium-length blades designed for combat on foot and in close quarters. At 70.3-centimeters long, Izuminokami Kanesada was around the average size for uchigatana of the late Edo period. The blade shows signs of use in real battles in the form of various nicks and scratches.
The metal of the sword’s surface is patterned due to the way it was folded and hammered out during the forging process; the length displays both ko-itame (fine wood grain-like) and masame (straight line) patterns. In addition to patterns in the metal, Japanese swords also typically have a visible line called a hamon between the cutting edge and spine of the blade. The hamon is a distinguishing aesthetic feature of Japanese swords, and comes in many varieties. Izuminokami Kanesada has what is called a sanbonsugi-style hamon, meaning the border between its spine and edge has sharply pointed jagged waves.
The hilt is wrapped with a thin black cord in the diamond weave typical of Japanese swords. Like the sword itself, Izuminokami Kanesada’s sheathe is artfully designed with black and silver phoenix and peony motifs against a red-brown lacquer. The name “Izuminokami Kanesada” is carved into the blade’s face, while the reverse side bears an inscription with the date of its forging.
Izuminokami Kanesada was forged in Kyoto in 1867 by a swordsmith from the Aizu domain. It was given to Hijikata Toshizo by the lord of Aizu, Matsudaira Katamori, who happened to be in charge of Kyoto’s defense at the time. As vice commander of the Shinsengumi, Kyoto’s samurai police force, Hijikata used the blade during his patrols. He also continued to use Izuminokami Kanesada during the Boshin Civil War of 1868-69.
Izuminokami Kanesada is said to have returned to Hijikata’s family in Hino, Tokyo after his death in battle on May 11, 1869. Today, the sword is housed at the Hijikata Toshizo Museum in Hino, a museum operated by a descendant of the Hijikata family in Toshizo’s childhood home. Typically, only the sword’s accessories are kept on display, while the blade itself is kept in storage to maintain its condition. However, the museum puts Izuminokami Kanesada on display seasonally for certain occasions, such as the anniversary of Hijikata Toshizo’s passing.
Izuminokami Kanesada was designated by Hino city as cultural property on June 9, 1965, just under a century after the death of its owner. Izuminokami Kanesada’s distinctive appearance remains a popular symbol of Hijikata Toshizo in his hometown, and is used as a motif around the city. For example, a replica of Izuminokami Kanesada was made for use in the 2019 Hino Shinsengumi Festival to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Hijikata Toshizo’s death. The replica was carried by a Hijikata reenactor during a parade through the city before being symbolically laid to rest at Hijikata’s childhood home.
Izuminokami Kanesada is also featured in various modern media such as anime and video games, inspiring younger generations to learn about its history as the blade of one of Japan’s last samurai.
Details about when Izuminokami Kanesada is on display are posted in Japanese on the Hijikata Toshizo Museum’s official website.
(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)
Linnea is a Southern Californian currently living in Tokyo, where she works as Hino city’s Coordinator for International Relations. In Hino, she has been writing about local history and events since 2017. She has been studying Japanese for over 10 years with a focus on translation, and also enjoys translating literature as a hobby.
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