Long a staple of fantasy stories, the idea of magical or cursed swords is actually a pervasive one among the history and myths of many cultures throughout the world. One place where such tales have long been entwined with lore and historical accounts is the country of Japan. With its long history of feudal warfare and samurai warriors, the sword, usually referred to as the katana in Japanese, was long more than just a weapon, but rather a sacred, revered object and a way of life. For the samurai who wielded them, their katana were an extension of themselves, and were the result of the painstaking efforts of master swordsmiths who elevated their craft to the point that the Japanese katana became world renowned for superior quality, beauty, and lethality.
Considering this long tradition of supreme quality, reverence, and how intertwined with Japanese culture, history, and legend the katana became, it is perhaps no surprise that Japan also has its tales of mysterious swords said to be cursed, magical, or both. Here among the history of heated sword duels between battling samurai, and swordsmiths toiling away to forge their deadly blades, are accounts of katana that have become just as known for their mysterious alleged powers as they are for their craftsmanship.
Among the greatest and most legendary of Japan’s famed swordsmiths was the one called Muramasa Sengo, who lived and pursued his craft during the Muromachi period (14th-15th century AD). Both Muramasa and his school of sword making were renowned for the extraordinary quality and sharpness of their blades, which made the weapons highly prized and sought after by warriors and generals. Indeed, Muramasa became well regarded as being one of the finest swordsmiths who had ever lived, but he also became notorious for his rather volatile nature and a dark curse that was increasingly believed to imbue his swords.
Many of such rumors began with the abrasive, venomous personality of Muramasa himself. In addition to being obviously a brilliant swordsmith, he was also purported to be rather insane and prone to flying into sudden fits of violent rage, during which he would lash out at anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. This unbalanced mind, which teetered on the brink of total madness, combined with his relentless perfectionism and unbridled passion for crafting lethal swords to congeal into an unstable mix of genius, bloodlust, intense focus, and insanity, and these qualities were said to be passed on to the katana he forged. Adding to this was Muramasa’s alleged habit of feverishly praying to whoever would listen that his swords become “great destroyers,” and his swords gained a rather ominous reputation despite their popularity and high demand.
Numerous dark and sinister qualities were attributed to the supposed curse of Muramasa’s swords. Perhaps the most persistent was that the swords had a tendency to possess their wielders in a sense, sending them into a berserker battle rage and in some versions granting them superior swordsmanship, and bestowing them with temporary superhuman strength and resistance to pain and damage. The cursed Muramasa swords were also said to have a thirst for blood, and that if they weren’t sated by that spilled by the enemy then they would turn on their owners, forcing them to commit suicide to appease them. Indeed, it was often said that as soon as a Muramasa blade was drawn it ruthlessly demanded blood before it could be replaced back into its scabbard, meaning almost certain doom for the wielder if there was no one else around to vent the sword’s bloodlust upon. Even when not drawn the swords were said to sometimes hungrily call out to be released, or to try and compel their owners to go out hunting for some poor soul to murder.
Although undeniably potent weapons formidable in battle, this dark curse allegedly made the swords and their wielders dangerous for everyone around them. Many tales sprung up of Muramasa swords turning on their owners, lashing out to strike down and drink in the blood of anyone within reach, including not only enemies, but allies and even family members, which the wielder could do nothing to stop while held in thrall to the sword’s evil frenzy. Tales describing samurai armed with Muramasa swords lashing out at dear friends, allies, and family as they watched helplessly as their own bodies cut them down were numerous. At their most bloodthirsty and rage-fueled the swords were said to hardly discriminate between friend and foe, and used their owners merely as instruments with which to help them kill. It was not uncommon to hear of the owners of Muramasa swords slowly going insane as they were warped and twisted to their weapons’ demonic will, sometimes killing themselves to escape the dark, madness inspiring prison.
This sinister reputation eventually ended up being further fueled when the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was the last feudal government in Japan, was established in 1603 by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who firmly believed that Muramasa blades were cursed, and blamed them for the deaths of many of his friends, allies, and relatives. Indeed, apparently the shogun’s father, Matsudaira Hirotada, and his grandfather, Matsudaira Kiyoyasu, were both cut down when their retainers were overcome by a murderous trance while wielding such swords. Tokugawa even claimed that he had been badly cut by a Muramasa katana that was being carried by one of his samurai guards as he inspected his ranks. In later days his own wife and adopted son were allegedly excecuted using a Muramasa blade. All of this stoked rumors that Muramasa swords had it in for the Tokugawa family, and that they had a special affinity for killing members of his clan.
This notion became so prevalent that Ieyasu Tokugawa eventually banned Muramasa katana in his domain. Many of them were subsequently melted down or otherwise destroyed, but since they were so revered for their sheer quality others were hidden or had any distinguishing features altered or removed, even in the face of severe punishment for owning one, typically the forcing of the guilty party to commit ritual suicide, or seppuku. Despite this, Muramasa katana continued their trajectory to legendary status. Considering these katana were thought to be able to seek out and kill the shogun and his family, there was also a renewed demand for the swords among Tokugawa’s enemies, which resulted in some enterprising lesser swordsmiths forging clever fake replicas for profit. In fact, because of the number of such forgeries crafted during this era it is to this day difficult to reliably tell if a purported Muramasa katana is authentic or not.
Often directly contrasted with the cursed, chaotic evil of Muramasa swords were those of another renowned swordsmith and priest who lived several hundred years earlier by the name of Gorō Masamune (1264–1343 AD), who is considered to be perhaps the greatest who has ever lived. Masamune’s reputation couldn’t be any more the polar opposite of Muramasa. Whereas Muramasa was seen as an impulsive, violent, and psychotic madman, Masamune was mostly described as patient, wise, clear-headed, and even-tempered. His creations were famous for not only their supreme sharpness, durability, and quality in an era when steel imperfections were common and the technology primitive, but also their elegant beauty; as much works of art as they were weapons of war.
Perhaps it was the more benevolent, honorable qualities of Masamune that led to stories that this was channeled into his katana, much as it was rumored that Muramasa’s chaotic bloodlust had been passed on into his own. It was often said that rather than cutting, killing, and maiming indiscriminately, a Masamune katana would only cut what the owner wished it to. If one were to strike out at something and decide they didn’t want to do it any harm, a Masamune sword was said to fail to cut it, despite its legendary sharpness. The swords would also allegedly not cut into anything that was undeserving of it, and would not kill the innocent. In essence, Masumune’s katana were more like blessed swords as opposed to Muramasa’s cursed ones.
One old mythical tale illustrates this perception. In it, the two swordsmiths are together one day, impossible considering that they lived centuries apart but it is just a tale, and they began to debate who could make the finer katana. They agreed to a competition of sorts, in which each of them would place their swords into a fast moving stream to see which one cut the best. Muramasa’s katana cut everything that came into contact with it, including twigs, branches, leaves, and fish, indiscriminately cleaving everything with perfect precision. Masumune’s blade, on the other hand, cut twigs and leaves but spared the fish, which bounced harmlessly off its edge. Masamune gleefully declared himself the winner, as his blade was clearly better at cutting things up, but a monk who had passed through and begun curiously watching the whole thing pointed out that it was in fact Masamune’s sword that was better, as it did not cut anything that was undeserving of it, in this case living things, whereas Muramasa’s displayed a cold and blind desire to kill. This particular story is all mere legend, but it displays the difference between the two swordsmiths and the juxtaposition of the powers commonly associated with their creations at the time.
Of all of the swords that Masamune forged, by far the most famous is the one called Honjo Masamune, which was owned by a well respected general of the Uesugi clan named Honjo Shigenaga (1540-1614 AD). During the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561, an enemy allegedly attacked Honjo with the sword, managing to cleave his sturdy helmet cleanly in half, yet remarkably leaving Honjo’s head totally intact, without even so much as a scratch. Both combatants were doubtlessly surprised by this unexpected outcome, but it was Honjo who would use it to his advantage to vanquish his aggressor and thus claim the sword that had spared him for his own. When he retired from war, Honjo fell on hard times and sold the katana that bore his name to the powerful Toyotomi clan, who then passed it on to the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa when they fell under his rule, the very same one who would interestingly enough ban Muramasa’s swords.
The Tokugawa Shogunate held onto the legendary Honjo Masamune for generations, passing it down to each new shogun until the shogunate fell, when it was transferred into the private collections of the ousted Tokugawa family. When World War II came rumbling over the horizon, and the Allied forces emerged victorious, all family-owned katana were ordered to be handed over, which were still treated as revered and almost sacred heirlooms by the Japanese, especially those descended from the once great samurai families. Most of these weapons were destroyed or unceremoniously passed out to American soldiers as trophies, and the legendary national treasure, the Honjo Masamune, so steeped in history and lore, was one of these.
The Tokugawa descendant Iemasu Tokugawa handed over his family’s entire, priceless sword collection, dropping them off at a police station in Mejiro in December of 1945, after which they were collected by a mysterious sergeant of the US 7th Cavalry known only as “Coldy Bimore,” before seeming to vanish off the face of the earth. The sword has not been seen since. Considering the importance of this particular cultural artifact, it was probably recognized as valuable and spared from being melted down, but no one really knows. Although many other Masamune swords have survived into the present day, all we know is that this revered, possibly magical sword and national sacred treasure of Japan known as Honjo Masamune has faded into history, possibly in some private collection somewhere, its great legacy buried under a coating of dust. Avid sword enthusiasts have spent a lot of time and effort trying to track the Honjo Masamune down, but it has never been found and its ultimate fate remains a mystery.
One sword with origins more decidedly cloaked in pure legend is the one known as the Kusanagi, also known as the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, or “The Grass Cutting Sword,” or its even more impressive original name of Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, meaning “Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven.” According to the lore, a god of storms by the name of Susanoo engaged in combat an evil, eight-headed serpent called the Yamata-no-Orochi, which he eventually defeated and then began cutting off each of its heads and tails. Within one of the fearsome beast’s tails was found a fabulous sword which he called the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi and gifted to the sun goddess Amaterasu. In later centuries this sword came into the possession of a warrior named Yamato Takeru, which he carried into battle and discovered to have rather amazing powers.
In one incident, Yamato is said to have been ambushed while on a hunting trip by a group of warriors who killed his horse and set the field of long grass on fire with flaming arrows. Thinking that he was doomed to a fiery death and frantically cutting at the burning grass to staunch the incoming spread of the fire, Yamato was surprised to discover that his sword, the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, had the power to control the wind to aim powerful gusts in any direction he lashed out at. This enabled him to push the fire in the direction of his enemies and allow him to escape his ordeal, after which he rechristened his magical katana the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.
This tale is very prevalent in Japanese folklore, and appears in the ancient 8th century text the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Matters,” which is a tome of historical myths, as well as the Nihon Shoki, also called the “Chronicles of Japan,” which is an 8th century text of more factual historical records. Although the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, with its bizarre origin story and purported wind powers, seems like it must be a purely mythical construct, it has long been considered to be an actual real sword. According to the Nihon Shoki, which is a largely reliable record, this sword did exist and was moved from the Imperial Palace to the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, in 688 because it was thought to be somewhat cursed by that time and was blamed for Emperor Tenmu’s deteriorating health. Despite this newfound sinister reputation as a bearer of illness, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi nevertheless was considered a precious national treasure, one of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, and was sequestered within the shrine for safekeeping.
After the sword arrived at Atsuta Shrine, it was hidden away from public view, allegedly wrapped up within a wooden box with a stone embedded in it. It is supposedly only brought out for very special occasions, such as Imperial coronation ceremonies, and even then it remains ensconced within layers of wrapping and secured within its box. The sword is kept so secretive that very few have even ever seen it, and indeed it is unclear whether it even truly exists at the shrine or not. The Shinto priests of the shrine refuse to display it and even most of them have never laid eyes on the actual sword itself, only its box.
Those who have gazed upon the sword are said to have met with great misfortune, as is the case with the Shinto priest Matsuoka Masanao and some companions, who claimed to have stolen a glance at it while replacing the sword’s box during the Edo period. Although they were able to describe that the wooden box held within it another stone box lined with gold, as well as what the sword itself looked like, with a blade shape like a calamus leaf and of a metallic white in color, everyone who looked upon it purportedly fell violently ill and died, and the only survivor would be Matsuoka. This is the last known time that the sword was seen outside of its box, and even within the box it is rarely glimpsed. The last time this box was seen by anyone is apparently during the ceremony in which Emperor Akihito took the Imperial throne in 1989.
Although Atsuta shrine is the most commonly accepted current resting place for the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, its existence is still in question and there are other tales that speak of different fates for the legendary sword. Some accounts, such as one from a collection of historical stories called the The Tale of the Heike, the sword was lost at sea when the Emperor committed suicide by jumping into the sea while holding it after a defeat in a naval battle in 1185, during the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Yet another tale tells of a treacherous visiting monk who stole the sword and then proceeded to have his ship sink at sea during his escape. In this version of events, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi would later wash up on a beach at Ise, where it was taken into possession by priests there and passed into the unknown. For its part, the Japanese government has never confirmed or denied any of these various stories, nor even whether the mysterious sword actually exists or not.
Although for the most part it is known that these legendary swords exist, with Masamune and Muramasa katana still on display in museums or private collections and historical records suggesting that the great Honjo Masamune and Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi at least did exist in some form, it is hard to say if any of these swords ever had any of the purported powers or curses that were attributed to them. Many of these tales have potential truth to them that has become so married to legend and myth that it is hard to untangle the two, and even fairly reliable historical accounts from the era are not always clear on how much they have been perhaps colored by folklore. Nevertheless, these tales and accounts provide a fascinating look into the world of alleged magical swords and the history of these objects within the lore of Japan. Whether their powers were real or not, our fascination with such stories and the intriguing, mysterious nature of them certainly are.