The Curse of the Muramasa

Urban myths of the late eighteenth century suggested that Tokugawa Ieyasu had been troubled by the constant recurrence of the name of one particular swordsmith among his enemies. Late in life, he developed a superstition that blades made by the sixteenth-century school of Muramasa had been specifically cursed to do damage to the Tokugawa family. The reasoning for this, at least as far as the rumours went, was that Ieyasu’s grandfather had been killed by one, his father had been stabbed by one, and Ieyasu injured himself with one when he was a child. His worries only increased when he discovered that in the case of two executions, that of his adulterous wife and supposedly treacherous adopted son, the executioner’s blade had been a Muramasa, too. Over time, Ieyasu came to believe that every one of the generals who had opposed him had wielded a Muramasa blade, including Sanada Yukimura, who had supposedly dealt him a troublesome wound at the Battle of Tennōji in 1615. The attentive reader may note that sources from the time report that, if Ieyasu was wounded at all by Sanada, he was wounded with a spear, but no matter – the fiction was already more alluring than the already shaky facts.

Muramasa blades were highly prized, so it should have come as no surprise that they were in the possession of wealthy members of the aristocracy. Nor should it have been a mystery why aristocrats facing death would insist on their executioner using the sharpest, highest-performance blade available. But the stories about the ‘Curse of the Muramasa’ seem to have served another purpose in eighteenth-century Japan: delivering a chilling frisson to audiences with the reminder that there was a time when someone stood against the Shōgun, and that their legacy lived on, hidden within clans, buried in storehouses, and traded among sword-dealers.

Muramasa blades, it was said, were cursed. Their creator was half-mad, and the weapons he made could impel their wielders into murderous rages. One story tells of a young samurai, Gentaro, up in Edo as part of his obligatory domain service, who sees a Muramasa hanging among the other swords on a dealer’s rack:

Trembling, he withdrew it from its scabbard, and he forgot to breathe. The sword had hidden depths, like morning mist welling up within the metal. Light danced off the blade in the colours of the rainbow . . . Just by holding it in his hand, he could tell it was a masterpiece . . . an artefact suitable for a lord’s treasure house, fated never to come into the hands of a common samurai.

The samurai is even happier when the dealer offers to sell him the blade for a fraction of its true value, although he will not say why. Cheerfully, Gentaro brings the sword back with him to his home domain, where he shows it off to his fellow officers at the monthly sword club. Despite everyone’s gasps of awe, the club chairman tells him the sword is worthless. Suspecting that the chairman merely wants to buy it from him cheaply, Gentaro seeks a second opinion, and is told the whole sorry story of the cursed blades. In a spate of demises that prefigure the calamities of a modern horror film, most people involved in the story are dead within a week, as is the family servant told to throw the sword in a river, who unwisely plans to keep it for himself.

The legend achieved a wider audience in 1797 when it gained a prominent mention in a popular kabuki play Oblique Reflections of Brothel Lives (Satokotoba Awasekagami). Revived in 1815 and again in 1860 with slight variations, the story became a recurring staple of the Japanese theatre. The main narrative concerned a missing girl in the pleasure quarter, and an impoverished son of a merchant desperate to raise the money to buy his lover out of indentured servitude in a brothel. Mixed in with these basic plots are shadows of the Muramasa legend – a cursed Muramasa blade is sold by a hapless sword-dealer, who is soon murdered; it falls into the hands of one of the leading characters, and drives him into a serial-killing spree. As so often happened with kabuki theatre, real-world reportage is hidden within the melodrama. It drew inspirations from the collapse of an Edo bridge in 1807, and the 1820 murder of a capricious geisha by the man who had bankrupted himself to buy her freedom. By the nineteenth century, Muramasa swords were associated with a whole series of half-remembered macabre tales of murder and betrayal, and had come to be linked in the popular mind with the decline of samurai honour into bloody, inconsequential vendettas, and fights over bar-girls or petty debts.

Despite the superior quality of Muramasa blades, they became impossible to sell, and there are cases of some swords on which the smith’s name was doctored, Muramasa becoming altered to Masamune – another smith but without a tainted reputation. In fact, the anti-Tokugawa reputation of the Muramasa blades gave them an unexpected value among those who despised the government. Those few that survived the Tokugawa era, hidden in family vaults, are now worth millions.

Extract from A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements.

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The Samurai Primer

Quite unexpectedly, the Japan Times has just included my Brief History of the Samurai in a recommended list of essential reading for Japan-lovers. “Clements has a knack for writing suspenseful sure-footed conflict scenes: His recounting of the Korean invasion led by samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi reads like a thriller. If you’re looking for a samurai primer, Clements’ guide will keep you on the hook.”

For Honor: Samurai vs Everyone

Over at Samuel Steele’s YouTube page, he interviews me about the technology and culture of the samurai. It’s “just a bit of fun” as the TV historians like to say, designed to think through some of the implications of the ideas behind the computer game For Honor, in which samurai, Vikings and knights duel for control of thinning resources. The interview is split into three parts, the first, largely on weapons and armour, the second, largely on “the warrior code” and the existence of the ninja, and the third on archery, women, and who would win in a stand-up fight.

“History writing at its best” — Fortean Times

Christ's Samurai coverIn 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult.

The sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms.

The cult was in open revolt, led, it was said, by a boy sorcerer. Farmers claiming to have the blessing of an alien god had bested trained samurai in combat and proclaimed that fires in the sky would soon bring about the end of the world. The Shogun called old soldiers out of retirement for one last battle before peace could be declared in Japan. For there to be an end to war, he said, the Christians would have to die.

The shocking true story behind Martin Scorsese’s film Silence.

“A concise and lucid account of a unique period in Japan’s history” — Japan Times

“History writing at its best” — Fortean Times

Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, is available now in the UK (and here in the US). Read extracts here and here.

Scurta istorie a samurailor

coperta1Out now in Romanian, translated by Iuliana Dumitru, my Brief History of the Samurai, with a spiffing new cover depicting the first encounter of Benkei and Yoshitsune. News like this is like getting a postcard from old friends — I delivered this book to my British publisher seven years ago, but every now and then it finds a new home in a foreign country. There have already been editions in Spanish and Italian.

The 47 Ronin

02Hello brave Googlers, searching for more information about the 47 Ronin after today’s episode of Ancient Black Ops. You’ll probably need this excerpt from A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and US.

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The year of Mitsukuni’s death saw one of the defining events of eighteenth-century Japan, the infamous vendetta of the ‘Forty-Seven Ronin’. As part of the endless rounds of ceremonial and courtesy calls of the Tokugawa period, Asano Naganori, the young feudal lord of the Ako domain was ordered to entertain envoys in Edo who had freshly arrived from Kyoto. As part of the preparations, he met Kira Yoshinaka, one of the Shogun’s high-ranking officials. The men do not appear to have hit it off, and, reading between the lines, Kira was expecting substantial bribes and honoraria from Asano, even though it was his job to instruct him. Whatever the nature of the tensions between them, Kira had mastered the art of the snide comment, and seems to have made one allusion too many about Asano’s country origins. On 21 April 1701, under a covered walkway at one of the Shogun’s mansions, Kira pushed too far, and an enraged Asano drew his short sword and knifed him in the face (or shoulder, depending on the source).samurai audible

The wound was minor and guards soon separated the brawling men, but the damage was done. Regardless of claims of the right of samurai to defend their honour, drawing a weapon within the Shogun’s palace was a capital offence. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, his lands were forfeit, and his followers were outcasts – ronin. When the news reached Asano’s castellan Oishi Yoshio, Oishi obediently shut down the castle, disbanded the soldiers, and handed the keys and manifests to the new lord appointed by the Shogunate. Where once there might have been war, the Tokugawa rule was supreme, and a lord could be unseated by simple decree.

However, while Oishi had done his duty to the Shogun by obeying orders, he was also determined to do his duty by the wronged lord Asano. In the company of several dozen fellow retainers (traditionally forty-seven, but possibly more), he plotted his revenge against Kira. Over the two years that followed, Oishi gave every appearance of being a discredited samurai. He was seen in Kyoto brothels, he was publicly drunk, and he was conspicuously on the Tokugawa-era scrapheap. In a move that has often been cited as an indicator of his true nobility, he even divorced his wife and disowned his children, to ensure that they would not have to bear any consequences for his coming vendetta.

Slowly, the Forty-Seven Ronin converged on Edo. One married the daughter of the man who had built Kira’s house, obtaining in the process the plans for the inside of the mansion. Others secretly smuggled weapons into Edo. The vengeful assassins struck on 14 December 1702, in a double-pronged assault on Kira’s snow-bound house.

The mansion erupted in a savage battle between Oishi’s men and Kira’s underlings, which saw sixteen of Kira’s men killed and another twenty-two wounded. Kira, however, had fled through a secret exit, leaving his bedclothes still warm. Oishi bested two other retainers in a dark, secluded courtyard, before dragging the man they were protecting into the light. Beneath the warm glow of the lantern, Oishi saw the scar left by his master’s knife. He had his man.

In one of the strange turnabouts of the samurai world, Oishi dropped to his knees and bowed before Kira, explaining who he was and humbly offering him the chance to atone for his misdeeds by committing suicide. It was only when the cowering Kira refused to respond that Oishi dragged him up by his hair, and hacked off his head. Their job done, the samurai carefully extinguished the lamps in the house in order to avoid accidental arson, and then ran for Asano’s grave with Kira’s head.

As the sun rose, word spread of their action, and they made their way to the temple grounds of Sengakuji amid something of a carnival atmosphere, congratulated and fêted by the townsfolk. They laid Kira’s head on Asano’s grave, and then turned themselves in to the authorities – all except one, who had been sent to Asano’s old domain to pass on the news.

The vendetta was an awful embarrassment for the Shogun’s government – the samurai had behaved impeccably according to samurai tradition, but had also defied a Shogunal prohibition. Edo locals did not help by petitioning the Shogun on behalf of Oishi and his men, pointing out how true they were to the nebulously defined samurai code of honour. Eventually, the Shogun ordered that instead of the death penalty as common murderers, the ronin would be offered the chance to commit seppuku as a gesture of respect. This they did in early 1703, with the exception of the messenger in Ako, who was spared. Their act cleared the name of their late lord, restored the reputation of their many fellow retainers, and eventually led to the restoration of the house of Asano, albeit with a greatly reduced size of fief.

The men were held up as heroes by many, although one noted commentator gruffly wondered how ‘true to tradition’ it would have been if their target had died of an illness during the prolonged execution of their two-year plan. Instead, one samurai theorist suggested that the true samurai way would have been to attack Kira on the day of the original insult. They would still have died, but the process would have been quicker and more conspicuous. Such a comment, made by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, encapsulates the contradictions of the samurai era. Taken at face value, there often seems little difference between a samurai dispute over honour and a fight in a pub between football hooligans over who has the nicest scarf.

A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements is available now in the UK and US.