There are several icons related to Japan stand out. One of them being the katana. Both historically and culturally, there was a strong viewpoint regarding the importance of swords, way back when the warrior class still existed. In fact, there is the famous saying that “the sword is the soul of the warrior”¹. Although it was not the strongest weapon used during wars, it was nonetheless held at a high value, as a sword also represented status.
There are many stories about amazing swords coming from Japan, especially in fiction. Usually these stories are based on real versions crafted generations ago, which, in themselves, come with their own rumors and tales about being extra ordinary. Interestingly, there is one group of swords that are considered the best of their kind, known as “Tenga Goken” (天下五剣)², which can be read as “5 Great Swords of Japan” in English.
What could be so special about these swords that grant them such a title? What’s their origin? Who were the owners of each these five swords? Which ones were deemed supernatural? All of this will be covered in a multi-part series. Today’s article will be part 1 of this series, which will cover the origins of this claim. This will include the individuals who were experts in evaluating swords, along with recordings in the form of official documents that determine the quality level of these unique swords.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Before we proceed, let’s cover some notes that will give a broader view on this topic. While there are fairly aged books that have information regarding the Tenga Goken, it should be understood that a definitive name, along with cohesive details, were not nicely written in one go. On the contrary, it’s taken many generations, along with slightly varying descriptions, before we have an actual picture of said 5 great swords. However, is this picture real and accurate?
For starters, it is said that the following 5 swords make up the Tenga Goken:
- Mikazuki Munechika (日月宗近)
- Onimaru Kunitsuna (鬼丸国綱)
- Dojigiri Yasutsuna (童子切安綱)
- Juzumaru Tsunetsugu (数珠丸恒次)
- Odenta Mitsuyo (大典太光世)
These are judged as 5 exemplary swords, and were supposedly chosen sometime during the Muromachi period³. However, the individual(s) who made this assessment is unknown. On top of this, the label used to group these swords, Tenga Goken, was not originally as a headline for some listing. Instead, this was derived from descriptions regarding the 5 swords from said older documents. If anything, the name and the determination of the five swords grouped as Tenga Goken was something that came into play later in the Edo period. So, while this claim of 5 great swords may have been something finalized at a much later date, what we do know is that they do exist, and some documentation about them did take place. For what it’s worth, all 5 swords are said to still exist present day, and are in safe keeping as antiques. More about this in the upcoming articles.
ORIGINS WITH THE HONAMI CLAN
We get the 1st documentation that speaks on the Tenga Goken, which is called “Meikenden” (名劔伝)⁴. Part of the collection of the Tokyo National Museum, the Meikenden was compiled in 1769 in a document entitled, “Honnami-ke no Meibutsu Hikae-cho” (本阿彌家の名物扣帳). This is a listing of established blacksmiths around Japan, and swords that are their prized works. In listings like this, each sword is judged by certain traits, which will then put each into varying categories such as their grade of quality, being a visually fine piece of work, to having a unique story in its creation.
So, who were the Honami clan and what was so special about them? They had a long history of being recognized as sword polishers, and later as experts in evaluating sword. In surviving records, the 1st head of this clan, Honami Myōhon, established his clan’s rise during the early Nanbokucho period (1337-1392) by being employed under Ashikaga Takauji, a war commander who would later establish the 1st shogunate under the Ashikaga rule and start the Muromachi bakufu around 1338. With Myōhon establishing this connection, the Honami clan became a dōboūshū (同朋衆) to the Ashikaga clan, which means they were personal artisans of whom were considered the most powerful at the time. Although being known to have such a prestigious relationship, the Honami clan didn’t just stay idle; they also took up the occupation as merchants and traveled abit throughout Japan over the centuries. Another point to take note is that, as their clan expanded, they also branched into other arts, such as calligraphy (書道, shodō), lacquer decorations using metal powder (蒔絵, makie), pottery (陶芸, tōgei) and tea ceremony (茶道, chadō).
OFFICIAL SWORD EVALUATIONS
It wasn’t until Honami Kōtoku, 9th successor, was recognized as an expert in sword evaluation, from where his clan was permitted in establishing methods for sword polishing, as well as determining the quality and style of swords being crafted. In due time, Honami Kōshitsu (本阿弥光室), the 10th successor, created a log in the form of an orihon (折本) that list detailed analysis on different swords of the time sometime between the late 1500s to early 1600s. While the Honami clan were famous due to their start by serving the Ashikaga shogunate, over the generations they also provided service to those who seeked their expertise. This includes Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1500s. Lastly, in 1719, when Tokugawa Yoshimune, 8th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, had the 13th successor Honami Kōchū commissioned to document the know-how about his clan’s lifework as sword polishers, Kōchū created a catalog called “Kyōhō Meibutsucho” (享保名物帳). It’s highly probable that this was used as one of the bases for in the aforementioned book, “Meikenden”.
DESCRIPTIONS OF 5 GREAT SWORDS
The next book of interest is “Shoka Meikenshu” (諸家名剣集), which was compiled in 1828. What’s interesting here is that this is a copy of the older book Kyōhō Meibutsucho, which is coupled with descriptions about each of the 5 swords. This is where we get many references that lead to the label “Tenga Goken”. Below are the pages from this book where each of these 5 swords are mentioned. The name of the sword and the particular phrase are indicated by a red line. (this is placed to the right of the text in the image) This will also be accompanied by the typed Japanese text, followed by my English transliteration.
“One of the 5 swords to the right“
Note that this sword and its descriptions are mentioned on a previous page (left), while the phrase above continues onto the following page (right)
“This is said to be #1 out of the 5 swords to the right”
Note that descriptions for this sword spans around 8 pages, and the phrase mentioned above appears on the 7th page (right)
“One of the 5 renown swords, This sword to the right is famous as being “truly unrivaled” in excellence“
“One of the 5 swords to the right because it is a famous sword unrivaled in excellence“
“This is also among the 5 swords to the right because it is a famous sword unrivaled in excellence“
Key words to take away here are “5 swords” (五振)⁵ and “unrivaled” (天下). Although the word “unrivaled” appears for 3 out of the 5 swords, it’s probably assumed that the other 2 swords should be of the same caliber if grouped in the same category.
This concludes our look at the origins to the categorizing of the Tenga Goken. In the following articles more details will cover each sword, from the swordsmiths who made each one, to how they made their marks in history.
1) In Japanese, it is “katana wa bushi no tamashii” (刀は武士の魂).
2) Can also be pronounced “Tenka Goken”.
3) Note that the term for these swords used is “tachi” (太刀). In the past, This was determined by having a bigger curve in the blade, being around the length of a battlefield sword, and used while riding horseback. This is different from swords that were made for fighting on foot, such as the katana. On another note, the Tenga Goken were also praised as being works of art based on the craftsmanship that made them look magically appealing.
4) Note that there is 1 extra sword mentioned on the same page as the Tenga Goken in the book Meikenden, which is “Kanze Masamune” (観世正宗). This sword was made by the renown blacksmith group Masamune. While swords by Masamune are considered works of art in their own rights, they are not categorized along with the previous 5 swords, as the Tenga Goken were held in a class of their own years before this book was written.
5) This is read as go-furi (5 swords) in Japanese, whereas furi is a counter for swords. Even though the word “sword” is not present, the counter itself lets the reader know what is being referenced here.