The story of the lost Masamune sword weaves a rich tapestry through Japanese culture. It was used by samurai warriors in battle and was passed down through generations of Shogunate. However, today its whereabouts are unknown, leading to one of the greatest mysteries in Japanese history.
The story of the legendary thirteenth century weapon goes cold at Tokyo’s Mejiro police station in 1945. So what happened to the lost Masamune sword? Let’s get right to the point.
Who Made the Honjō Masamune?
Gorō Nyūdō Masamune was born in the mid-1260s and died in the 1340s. He is considered Japan’s greatest ever swordsmith. He devised techniques to make his swords that have not yet been bettered or improved upon.
One famous legend that tells of Masamune’s skill was a challenge by his protege, Muramasa, to see who could make the best sword. It’s a stretch to believe it’s anything more than folklore, given Muramasa was probably born in the late fifteenth century, but the story has made its way into Japanese culture.
Both swords were taken to the river. Muramasa’s sword, named Juuchi Yosamu, or ‘10,000 Cold Nights’ was lowered and cut everything that touched it. Masamune’s sword, the Yawarakai-Te, or ‘Tender Hands’, only cut leaves, sparing the fish. Muramasa embarrassed his master, saying his sword was inferior.
A watching monk proclaimed the Masamune sword to be the finer, describing Muramasa’s as a bloodthirsty, evil blade. The man himself was later described as having a violent, ill-balanced mind that was supposed to have passed into his blades.
Such stories state that Masamune on the other hand was a quiet, calm and studious man, absolutely devoted to his craft.
The Long Journey of the Masamune Sword
One of the most frequently asked questions about the famed masamune samurai sword is ‘what is the Masamune made of’.
It was fashioned entirely from steel. The Masamune technique involved a blend of hard and soft steel forged at extremely high temperature and layered. It’s said that the final layer was so fine and sharp, it was mere atoms thick.
The Honjō Masamune sword itself received its name after it was won in battle in 1561 by General Honjō Shigenaga. He was attacked by a rival and the sword split his helmet. Shigenaga fought back, killed his attacker and claimed the sword as the spoils of war.
Short of money, General Honjō Shigenaga was forced to sell the masamune samurai sword for 13 ōban, a large oval gold coin. It was bought by an unsavoury character called Toyotomi Hidetsugu, the nephew of the ruler of Japan, who valued it at 1,000 ōban. It then passed through many hands until it arrived in the possession of Tokugawa Ietsuna, a seventeenth century shogun.
It stayed in the Tokugawa family for at least 260 years. The final recorded owner was politician Tokugawa Iemasa at the end of World War II.
The Americans in Japan
The US occupied Japan at the end of World War II and decreed that all Japanese families must surrender their weapons, including family heirlooms and antique samurai swords. One such sword was the Honjō Masamune that became known for a short while as the Tokugawa lost sword.
Most weapons were destroyed, some were given to American soldiers and others were simply dumped into Tokyo Bay. The Tokugawa family, deciding to set a good example, delivered fourteen swords, including the masamune samurai sword, to the Mejiro police station in Tokyo in December 1945.
It has never been seen again.
Where is the Masamune Sword Now?
The simple answer is that no-one knows. A month after the fourteen swords were taken to the police station, they were all surrendered to a US representative of the Foreign Liquidations Commission of the Army Forces, Western Pacific, or AFWESPAC. His name was recorded as Sgt. Coldy Bimore.
The thing is, there was no Sgt. Coldy Bimore working for AFWESPAC then, or ever.
In 2013, a lost Masamune sword was brought to the Kyoto National Museum and for a while there were murmurings of excitement. While it was authenticated by experts as a genuine Masamune, it was in fact the Shimazu Masamune, a gift presented by the Tokugawa family to celebrate the marriage of Princess Kazunomiya to the 14th shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
There remains hope that the Honjō Masamune may reappear in the future but at time of writing there is no concrete evidence of its fate. The longer the mystery of the Masamune sword remains unsolved, the greater the legend becomes.