Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

The Tsurugiof Ancient Korea

1. The Propagation of the Ideas of the Sword

The previous section discussed the sacred Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi and Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi from ancient mythology, their role in linking the two realms and consequent adulation, and how their image formed the starting point of the Japanese concepts of the tōken. In a discussion regarding ancient times such as this, there may be a sense that we have drifted far from modern kendō. However, from these stories we can get a feel for the breadth and depth of the cultural nature of kendō, and where we can continue to go from here.

As the reader may know, there are many aspects of Japanese culture that originate in China. Familiar examples are the religious cultures of Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as the introduction of the metallurgy. As the sword is made from metal it is clear that they came from China, yet closer inspection reveals similar kinds of legends explaining the ideas of the sword (tōken) in ancient Korea also. In other words, concepts of tōken were established all over eastern Asia. In this section, discussion will turn towards the intermediary part between Japan and China played by ancient Korea.

2. The Legend of Kim Yusin

Here I will introduce a representative tale—the legend of Kim Yusin. Kim was a general during the era of the Three Kingdoms, and is considered a national hero for his part in the unification of these three empires. He was also a part of the Hwarang, an organisation consisting of young aristocratic warriors who were known to engage in the ‘magic arts’ or divination.  The following is an account of the legend of Kim Yusin according to the “Samguksagi” (Records of the Three Kingdoms).

There are stories about Kim Yusin from the time of his birth. His father is said to have had a dream in which Mars and Saturn descended towards him; and his mother a dream where a child wearing a suit of golden armour entered their house – she became pregnant, and twenty months later, she gave birth to Yusin.

When he was fifteen he became a Hwarang, and at the age of seventeen, he embarked on a journey through the mountains and learned divination. The following idea is particularly important, as it is said that when the neighbouring kingdom began to threaten the borders, Yusin became distressed and he prayed to the heavens from the mountains. A light from a star shined onto his sword, and in turn the sacred sword began to shake and move. It is said that Yusin used this sword to unite the three kingdoms.

His historical actions can be thought of sequentially with the sacred sword—the marvel of which, similar to the tale of Yusin’s birth, is in the idea of the light of a star descending from the heavens towards it. As discussed previously, the tale of Jimmu’s journey to the east is a very important episode in the Japanese concepts of the sword, and I believe that there are some clear similarities between Jimmu’s experience and the legend of Kim Yusin. In fact, it is clear that they are of the same extraction.

Interestingly, the only differences are that in the case of the Japanese myth, it is the actual sword that descends from the heaven, whereas in the Korean legend it is the light of a star from the heavens that descends onto the sword (already situated on earth).

3. Stars and Swords

In this legend of Yusin, the keyword is indeed “star”. The relationship of the sword to the stars is the foundation of the sword’s sacredness—and with the inclusion of Korea, China also esteemed the stars and constellations. Although this is a complicated discussion, this relationship can be explained through the astrological ideals.  

Characteristic of thinking in ancient China, it was believed that everything that happens on earth is decided by the will of the heavens. Good fortune or calamity, and even the outcome of battle, were all determined by heavenly will. This is referred to as tenmei (heavenly will), and even if one was an influential or powerful leader on earth, he would have to abide by these principles. As a matter of course, people attempted to learn what heavenly will was in advance.

As the appearance of the stars was an indication of the will of heavens, and this is why astrology in China developed so quickly. The heavens were revered unconditionally, as were the stars that showed the will of the heavens. In the aforementioned myth from ancient Korea, the light of the sacred stars from the heavens shone down onto the sword which identified its sacredness qualities. This idea was passed onto Japan, and the idea continued to progress with original spins put on it.