Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)


1. Introduction

Discussion to this point has been focused on the imperial regalia. Artefacts that acted as a spiritual pillar supporting the use of military force by bushi, it was the kusanagi sword in particular that was caught in the swirl of history and gained much in sacred significance. Further, it is this ideal that exerted an influence on both kenjutsu and modern kendō. Therefore, from here I will take a closer look at the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.

Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, and Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi (which will be discussed later) both make up the two main sacred swords (reiken) of Japan. As such, there are many examples of these swords as being sacrosanct within the traditional ideals of the tōken. It is this hallowed image of the Kusanagi and Futsu-no-Mitama swords, as depicted in ancient mythology that holds a special place in Japanese hearts.

2. The Slaying of the Serpent

The first appearance of the Kusanagi sword in Japanese mythology is in the story of the deity Susanō-no-Mikoto and the slaying of the serpent. Accurately speaking, this sword is referred to as the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi in this myth. (The Japanese myth appears very similar to the Chinese myth recorded in Shih-chi (an ancient Chinese historical chronicle) about the founder of the dynasty cutting down a snake, and consequently, both myths are often compared with each another. However, as there is limited room in this article for a detailed analysis of the content, I will simply say that while the makeup of each story is comparable, the theme of each legend is quite different.

In the Japanese myth, Susanō-no-Mikoto travels to the river Hi in the province of Izumo, where he comes across a tearful elderly couple at the head-waters of the river. Inquiring as to the reason of their sorrow, he was told that each year Yamata-no-Orochi, an eight-headed serpent, comes to devour one of their daughters, and is returning to take away another of their daughters soon. Susanō arranges to help save the daughter, and requests that a very strong brew of sake is prepared for the serpent to drink. As the serpent drinks the brew and falls drowsy, Susanō uses his Totsuka-no-Tsurugi (ten-fist long sword) to slice the serpent up into little pieces. (This sword is written as totsuka no tsurugi 十拳剣, but can also be written as tozuka no tsurugi 十握剣. It had a blade that was ten fists long.) As the tail of the serpent was cut open, Susanō came across a magnificent sword. This sword was Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the very sword that was to become one of the imperial regalia. Wherever the serpent went was always cloudy, so the sword at that time was called the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (The Sword of the Gathering Clouds).

Susanō declared it as “an unusually divine sword” and presented the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi to Amaterasu Ōmikami in the heavenly plain.  

The interesting thing about this particular myth is that over and above the sword that was used to cut up the serpent, it is the sword that came out of its tail would become more important and famous. There are many interpretations of myths. In this one, the Yamato-no-Orochi serpent could be considered as being the spirit of water that was so important to ancient agricultural society. Therefore, it may be that this was a customary offering to the spirit. In other words, this myth can be thought of as a representation of religious beliefs in ancient communities.

In this story the serpent was slain, and from the inside of its body appeared a new reiken (sacred sword) was found and presented to the kami, later becoming an object of worship in shrines and a symbol of faith. What can this mean?

In the early stages of the Yayoi period, advanced metal culture from China was introduced to the culturally undeveloped Japanese archipelago. At first, metal swords (tsurugi) were became established not as practical weapons but as religious implements. Therefore, in this myth we can see an example of culture shock upon the arrival of the iron-age resulting in a transformation in people’s beliefs. The myth also hints at the deep significance the tsurugi held within this belief system. It is plausible that Susanō’s slaying of the serpent represents how the people shed their traditional beliefs, and the discovery of a new sword is symbolic of the place of the tsurugi in the formation of new beliefs.  

One further point to note from this myth is the idea that Susanō presented the sacred sword to Amaterasu Ōmikami (the Sun Goddess) in Takamagahara (the celestial world). In Japanese mythology, tales generally develop with a focus on the vertical space and interactions between heaven and the terrestrial world. (Below the earth is Yomi-no-Kuni—the world of the dead.) Takamagahara refers to the heavens and the terrestrial plain to the province of Izumo—thus the sword went from down on earth up to the heavens. I would like to continue to focus on this particular point from here.

3. The Descent to Earth of the Grandson of the Sun Goddess

The next myth this sacred sword features in concerns the descent to earth of the grandson of the Sun Goddess. This myth explains Amaterasu Ōmikami, the ruler of Takamagahara, sending her own descendent to the terrestrial world in order to rule. The one sent was Ninigi no Mikoto, the Grandson of Amaterasu, and is also said to be the ancestor of the imperial family in Japan. This episode is known as “Tenson Kōrin” (Descent to Earth of the Grandson of the Sun Goddess).

At this time, Amaterasu Ōmikami gives Ninigi no Mikoto a mirror, sword, and jewels, which forms the mythological origins of the three imperial regalia. The sword, as mentioned previously, was the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, which later became known as Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.

As a side note, this myth also contains a political nuance. The myths recorded in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were originally handed down by word of mouth and compiled by the imperial court. Thus, it is inevitable that political biases in the myths actor in the content. A particularly strong undertone of imperial intent can be sensed in the myth of Tenson Kōrin.

Although these shades of political motive make for interesting discussion, it is not what I want to cover here. I would like to concentrate my analysis on Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi). In particular, when Susanō slayed the serpent and presented Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi to the kami, and then the sword’s return to the terrestrial world as relayed in the myth of Tenson Kōrin.

In the early stages of mythology regarding the birth of kami and the creation of land, the deities were incessantly moving back and forwards between the heavens and the earth. Whether it was a case of these boundaries being unclear, it was certainly the case that these worlds being in close proximity. However, stories of the historical era gradually solidified the boundaries between the various plains, and distances became greater resulting in the borders between humans and the kami becoming distinctly defined. Yet, in this myth the sword was able to traverse the two worlds. This is what made the sacred sword so hallowed, and where the image or sense of the sword’s sanctity derives.

4. The Eastern Journey of Yamato Takeru

When discussing this reiken (sacred sword) it is essential to also consider the “Eastern Journey of Yamato Takeru”. Before examining this story, it is necessary to elaborate a little more about the sacred sword. After Ninigi no Mikoto descended to earth, the sacred Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi of the imperial regalia would become a symbolic item for establishing the emperor’s status, and thus representative of the imperial family. A replica of the sword was made due to concerns about having the emperor reside in the same place as the regalia. The replica stays with the emperor, and the genuine article is said to be enshrined in the Ise Shrine and was worshipped by Yamatohime, founder of the shrine.

The tale of Yamato Takeru’s eastern journey states that as Yamato sets out to defeat his enemies to the east, he visits Yamatohime at the Ise Shrine and was entrusted Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi by her. At the height of his journey, Yamato Takeru is led into a trap where he is fired on with flaming arrows as he stands in a field. With his back to the wall, one story suggests that the sacred sword drew itself and began to mow down the grass, protecting Yamato Takeru from the flames. As the characters for “kusanagi” mean “to mow/cut down grass” (草薙), this is how the sword was bestowed its new name. When referring to the sacred sword prior to Yamato Takeru’s eastern journey, I believe it is more accurate to refer to it as Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi from the time it was used by Susanō to slay the serpent.

For some reason Yamato Takeru left the sacred sword behind with Miyazuhime, as he went to kill the kami of Mount Ibuki where he is unsuccessful and dies. Miyazuhime took the sword and enshrined it in, what is known today as Atsuta Shrine, where it remains as an object of worship as a symbol of the kami.

5. Summary

Hopefully the reader has been able to acquire a sense or image of the mythological significance of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi and how it is still an important symbol for Japanese linking them with their ancestors and mythological past. If anything, the sacred nature of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi was forged in ancient mythology, and links the heavens and the earth. For this reason, to those who inhabit the terrestrial realm the sword serves as a powerful symbol of the kami.