Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

The Imperial Regalia

1. Introduction

The previous section was a discussion of the magic powers of the sword – that is, the use of the tsurugi in divination. This section will analyse a very important aspect in the concepts of the tōken, and it is a topic that modern kendō practitioners should be aware of as it illustrates the cultural breadth and depth of kendō’s background. It concerns the “imperial regalia” (sanshu no jingi).

The imperial regalia are often mentioned kendō books. Kendō written by Takano Sasaburō is a good example. The “sanshu no jingi” consist of a mirror (Yata-no-Kagami), a sword (Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi), and a strand of comma-shaped jewels (Yasakani-no-Magatama) that symbolises the emperor’s eminence. As mentioned in texts about kenjutsu, the imperial regalia primarily relate to matters of political power and legitimacy and social systems. It is also mentioned as such in modern works relating to kendō.

As we have seen, in kendō or kenjutsu, the tōken was revered as a sacred object. This image is based on the inclusion of a sword in the three imperial regalia. Originally the regalia were symbols of political and power and society, a fact which enables one to sense the cultural depth of kendō.

2. About the Imperial Regalia

Initially the imperial regalia were used by the ancient emperors as instruments legitimising his rule, and were implements used in rituals referred to as saiki. In ancient times, government and religion were inseparable, and emperor would engage divination to rule the land by using these magical items. In other words, the emperor was a shamanistic ruler, and his reign and these ritualistic implements – the mirror, sword, and magatama beads—went hand in hand.  

When his reign ended and a new emperor ascended the throne of power, the next in line would inherit these ritualistic tools to signify his legitimacy as ruler. This process became institutionalised each time a new emperor took over from the last, and the imperial regalia were symbolic and integral to the ceremony.

Just as in ancient times, the regalia still hold an important symbolic role as ceremonial implements. Representative of this, the Kusanagi no tsurugi sword is housed and worshipped in the Atsuta Shrine as being symbolic of the kami. The imperial regalia take on the double role as implements used in worship and religious ceremony, and also as a symbol of the kami, and of the emperor’s eminence. How does faith, religion, governance, and social systems fit together with martial culture?

3. The Relationship between the Imperial Regalia and the Military

Somewhat surprisingly, a thorough investigation shows that from the Heian period, the social role of the imperial regalia was not overly significant. Even in the Shoku Nihongi (the second volume of the Rikkokushi – six classical Japanese history texts) compiled by the Nara and Heian courts, there are only a few mentions of the imperial regalia. The regalia were afforded little importance. However, circumstances changed significantly with the onset of the Kamakura era. This was a period that saw a major historical turning event with the rise of militant rule from the nobles in the imperial court. The famous war tale Heike monogatari (“Tale of the Heike”), a chronicle of the rise and fall of powerful warrior clan is based on these evtnts.

In the Gempei War, the considerably worsening situation of the Heike (Taira) clan caused them to flee the capital with the young emperor Antoku with the imperial regalia in hand. A fierce battle broke out over possession of the regalia demonstrating how important they had become to both the warrior leagues of the Genji (Minamoto) and Heike. This importance is also evident from the abundant references to the regalia in the war tales.

What had happened that caused such a contrast in the importance afforded to the regalia compared to previous eras? Basically, the imperial regalia had become an important part of the ascendance ceremony for generations of emperors by this stage, and had thus established a symbolic function in the imperial social system of governance. These sacred items verified the emperor’s status, and to back the emperor in possession of the regalia served to prove one’s own legitimacy, or legitimacy of one’s political cause.  

Both clans were using military force to impose their will, but their cause could only be justified if they were on the side of the emperor who held the regalia. Whether or one was an enemy of the state was determined this way. The Heike were in a strong ‘legitimate’ position because they were controlled the emperor who held the regalia, and the Genji were determined to obtain them to legitimise their cause. Herein lays the connection between the regalia, religion, government, and military matters.   

In the end, seeing the defeat of the Heike clan becoming eminent, the second in charge of the Heike clan (Kiyomori’s wife) took hold of the sacred sword, the jewels, and the young emperor and threw herself into the waves at Dannoura (rather than live to see their clan’s ultimate defeat at the hands of the Minamoto). The jewels floated back to the surface, but the sword sunk to the bottom of the ocean. As it happened, the loss of the sacred sword from the three regalia resulted in even more significance being placed on it in the future when it was ‘recovered’.

4. Establishing the Image of the Kusanagi Sword

With the ensuing Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Muromachi period, the significance of the regalia and the sword continued to gain momentum. At the beginning of the Muromachi period, the Taiheiki (war tale) contains a very suggestive passage when it mentions “the offering of the treasured sword in Ise.” These words refer to the retrieval of the Kusanagi sword that was lost in the ocean with the young emperor Antoku in the Battle of Dannoura.

The monk Enjō was said to have retrieved a sword that was ‘floating’ in the water, which was proclaimed as being the long-lost Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sword. Enjō went to the capital and had the chief councillor of state, Sukeakira, verify if it was actually the sacred sword. A revelation in a dream confirmed that it was indeed the Kusanagi sword – and the matter should have been concluded. However, the story was to take another turn.

Sukeakira’s rival, Bōjō Dainagon Tsuneaki, was also at the court at the time. Hearing of the return of the sacred sword, Tsuneaki approached the retired emperor and made accusations that Sukeakira was in fact a traitor. He suggested that a revelation in a dream could not be relied on, resulting in an overturn of Sukeakira’s assertions.

An interesting story, leads one to wonder what this sacred kusanagi sword actually was. In the preceding era, according to the Heike monogatari, owning the real imperial regalia was of the utmost importance. However, at this point it did not seem to matter whether the sword was a genuine artefact or not, just because tow court rivals did not get on with each other.   

The Kusanagi sword was already established as a sacred item of faith. Thus, it may be that the item at hand was only considered as symbolic, and so the value placed on whether it was authentic or otherwise was less than in the previous era. I term this as “non-existent symbolism”, and this helps to explain that the sacredness of the Kusanagi sword was established more on its idea or image than its physical existence.

5. Summary

It is undeniable that the imperial regalia were a driving force in the rise of the warrior class for the first time in history. From here on, warrior hegemony continued for many centuries. With their rise, the imperial regalia acted to justify the use militaristic force, but eventually their significance reached a stage where the image or idea of these items would suffice.

As far as kenjutsu is concerned, this line of thinking explains the devotion to tōken in that it harnesses the image or idea of the regalia. Consequently, this may also relate to the power of kenjutsu in its justification of using the sword, a point that reveals the depth ofkendō and kenjutsu’s cultural background.