Japanese sword-making is as legendary as its swordsmanship. In the hands of an expert Samurai or any swordsman, a Katana, Wakizashi, Tanto, Tachi, Chokuto, Gunto, Odachi, and other Samurai swords can easily defeat any opponent. But have you ever wondered about the most famous Japanese swords?
Although the Katana is emblematic of Japan’s rich sword-making history, other Japanese swords are equally important, playing their respective roles in shaping Japan’s culture and history. Join us in discovering Japan’s most famous swords.
Tenka Goken Swords: The 5 Greatest Swords Under Heaven
Japan’s most famous swords might not be the sharpest and strongest by today’s standards, but they hold a special place in the nation’s history and culture. With links to Shinto legends, Japan’s Tenka Goken swords have deep roots in Japanese folklore, handed down across generations.
Nobody knows the exact origin of “Tenka Goken,” although some scholars point to the Muromachi Period in the 14th to 16th centuries. Regardless, Japan’s “five greatest swords under heaven” are a source of national pride. Three Tenka Goken swords are National Treasures, one is a Nichiren Buddhism holy relic, and the fifth is an Imperial property.
1. Dojikiri Yasutsuna
Dojikiri Yasutsuna sword on display. Photo by Oriental Souls.
The “mightiest” of the five Tenka Gokens, scholars consider the Dojikiri Yasutsuna as the Yokozuna (the pinnacle) of Japanese swords.
Forged by the expert hands and unparalleled bladesmithing genius of Hoki-no-Kuni Yasatsuna between the 10th and 12th centuries, Dojikiri is an elegant 80-centimeter-long (31.5 inches) Tachi. Its 2.7-centimeter (1.06 inches) Sori or blade curvature is greater than the Katana’s 1.5-centimeter Sori (0.6 inches).
Dojikiri had an impeccable curve, ensuring exceptional striking strength. Its Hamon (temper line) is mesmerizing, and its overall length is well-balanced. It is worth noting that the Yasatsuna name is equally famous in Japanese sword-making. After all, the “Father of Japanese swords is a Yasatsuna – Amakuni Yasatsuna, who created Japan’s first Katana sometime in 700 AD.
Although Dojikiri’s exceptional balance, sharpness, strength, and beauty are enough to make it a famous Japanese sword, there’s a legend that further boosts its position as the greatest.
Known as the “demon-cutter,” stories handed down across generations talk about how Minamoto no Yorimitsu wielded the Dojikiri to defeat the Shuten-doji (demon) preying on unsuspecting travelers along the Tokkaido transnational road.
Some scholars believe the Shuten-doji is nothing more than highway robbers exploiting unguarded travelers and traders. Still, most Japanese consider the legend a fact, elevating the Dojikiri into the annals of Japanese history as one of the land’s National Treasures.
2. Onimaru Kunitsuna
The property of the Imperial Household Agency, Onimaru Kunitsuna is another Tenka Goken with as much colorful history as the Dojikiri.
Awataguchi Sakon-no-Shogen Kunitsuna from the Osafune swordsmithing school created Onimaru sometime during the Heian Period. It’s one of three regalia swords of the Ashikaga Shogunate (the other two are Futatsu-mei and Odenta).
Like other famous Japanese swords, this 78.3-centimeter-long Tachi (30.8 inches) has many legends to its name. One story recalls the Onimaru moving by itself to kill an Oni (demon or ogre) that was cursing the Daimyo Hojo Tokimasa.
Other legends talk about how Minamoto no Yorimitsu’s retainer Watanabe no Tsuna wielded the Onimaru sword to kill the Oni attacking the sleeping Minamoto.
3. Mikazuki Munechika
Mikazuki Munechika sword. Photo by Japan Sauce.
Known for its beautiful “crescent moon-shaped” temper line, the Mikazuki Munechika is one of Japan’s five greatest swords under heaven.
Like the Dojikiri, the 80-centimeter (31.5-inch) Mikazuki is a Tachi and a National Treasure of Japan. Sanjo Kokai Munechika forged this Japanese sword sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries, roughly approximating Dojikiri’s creation. Its Saya (sheath) measures 85.3 centimeters (33.6 inches), and its Sori (curvature) is identical to the Dojikiri’s 2.7 centimeters (1.06 inches).
Unlike the Dojikiri and Onimaru demon-slaying swords, the Mikazuki has a more “divine” tale. Legend has it that Inari (the fox god or spirit of fertility, prosperity, industry, agriculture, sake, tea, and rice) assisted Munechika in creating the Mikazuki.
It is worth noting that traditional Japanese bladesmithing is a collective effort. Creating the Mikazuki singlehandedly is next to impossible. The legend says Inari morphed into a young boy to aid Munechika in forging one of Japan’s most legendary and beautiful swords.
4. Odenta Mitsuyo
Odenta Mitsuyo sword. Photo by The Way of Bushido.
A short Tachi (measuring only 66.1 centimeters or 26 inches), the Odenta Mitsuyo sword is one of Japan’s National Treasures and a regalia sword of the Ashikaga Shogunate (together with the Futatsu-mei and Onimaru).
Miike Denta Mitsuyo forged this famous Japanese sword for Maeda Toshiie of the Kaga Domain’s Maeda Samurai clan in the late 16th century. One legend talks about the Odenta’s healing powers after it healed one of Toshiie’s daughters. Another story depicts the Odenta as having the ability to scare off birds (birds don’t approach any building with the Odenta).
5. Juzumaru Tsunetsugu
Juzumaru Tsunetsugu sword. Photo by Japan Sauce.
The Agency for Cultural Affairs classifies the Juzumaru Tsunetsugu as a Tangible Cultural Property, making it one of the most significant Japanese swords symbolizing the nation’s culture, arts, and history.
Aoe Tsunetsugu forged the Juzumaru as the longest (81.08 centimeters or 31.9 inches) and most curved (3 centimeters or 1.2 inches) Tenka Goken. Unlike other Tenka Goken swords, the Juzumaru did not have any fantastic stories to tell. However, its legend remains equally significant.
People believe the sword derived its name from the rosary-like prayer beads (Juzu) that the 13th-century Buddhist philosopher and priest, Nichiren, used to adorn the Tsunetsugu creation to cleanse it of evil spirits. Today, the sword is under the stewardship and protection of the Honkoji Temple.
Totsuka no Tsurugi Swords: Japanese Mythical and Legendary Swords
Like Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, ancient Japan is also rich in Kami (i.e., gods, deities, and spirits) and other supernatural beings. These legendary characters wield the following famous Japanese swords to fight evil.
Ame no Ohabari sword in a video game. Photo by AQ3D.
Father Kami Izanagi (the Shinto equivalent of Zeus or Jupiter) wielded the Ame no Ohabari sword to kill Kagutsuchi, Izanagi’s newborn son. The Shinto god scattered Kagutsuchi’s remains across Japan to create the nation’s eight preeminent volcanoes. Moreover, Kagutsuchi’s blood on the Ame no Ohabari gave rise to other Shinto gods.
Wielded by the Shinto god (Kami) of storms, Susanoo, the Ame no Habakiri was the first sword to conquer an enemy – the fearsome and gigantic eight-headed serpent, Yamata no Orochi.
The tale describes an elderly couple who lost seven daughters to Yamata no Orochi. The couple has an eighth daughter, Kushinada-hime, whom the Great Serpent wants to devour next. The Shinto god agreed to kill Yamata no Orochi, provided Kushinada-hime agreed to marry Susanoo.
The Shinto god of swords, Takemikazuchi, wielded the Futsunomitama no Tsurugi to kill monsters wreaking havoc in Japanese lands, restoring peace. Takemikazuchi is one of the gods that sprang forth from Kagutsuchi’s blood. Legends say Takemikazuchi gifted the Futsunomitana to Japan’s first emperor, Emperor Jimmu (between 660 and 585 BC), with its spirit enshrined in the Isonokami Shrine.
A replica of Akame Go Kill’s Murasame sword. Photo by Kevin Cabuslay.
Despite unclear origins, the Murasame sword is as legendary as any Japanese sword on this list. A mainstay of many folk tales since 592 AD (during the Asuka Period), the Murasame endured the test of time. Today, this sword is popular in video games, Manga, Anime, and similar platforms.
Kyokutei Bakin’s Nansou Satomi Hakkenden novel provides a graphic idea of the Murasame’s prowess. It’s a cursed sword, capable of drenching an opponent in his own blood as if doused by a heavy downpour. The Akama Ga Kill! anime also depicts the Murasame’s bloodthirsty nature, covering enemies in blood with a single cut.
Other Famous Japanese Swords
Many famous Katanas, Tachis, and other Samurai swords exist throughout Japan’s history – proof of the Land of the Rising Sun’s dedication to perfecting the art of sword-making. These bladed weapons might not be Tenka Goken or Totsuka no Tsurugi swords, but they are legendary nonetheless.
Kusunai-no-Tsurugi sword depicted in Anime. Photo by Earth8000.
Susanoo (the Shinto god of storms) did not only use the Ame no Habakiri to defeat Yamata no Orochi. The mighty deity also discovered and pulled another sword – the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi – embedded into the Great Serpent’s fourth tail. It’s like King Arthur pulling a sword magically embedded by Merlin in a massive rock to prove Arthur’s royalty and birthright.
The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi has several legends. The most famous tale involves Susanoo offering the sword to Amaterasu, the Shinto goddess of the sun (equivalent to the Greek god Helios) and Susanoo’s sister, as a peace offering. The siblings got into a squabble, forcing the sun goddess to enter a cave and bring darkness to the land. Other gods soothed Amaterasu into coming out, allowing Susanoo to give the peace offering.
The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sword has strong links to Emperor Keiko’s (Japan’s 12th emperor) son, Prince Ousu or Yamato Takeru. Legends say the young prince used the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi to cut the flames from burning grass set by assassins. Unsurprisingly, the “feat” earned the Kusanagi the “grass-cutter” moniker.
The Kusanagi completes Japan’s Three Sacred Treasures, the other two being the Yasakani no Magatama (gem or jewel representing benevolence) and the Yata no Kagami (mirror representing wisdom). The Kusanagi represents valor.
Kogarasumaru on display. Photo by Katana Center.
No less than the Father of Japanese Swords created the Kogarasumaru sometime in the 8th century. Amakani Yasutsuna forged many single-edged Tachis with pronounced curvature, perfect for slashing opponents on horseback. The Kogarasumaru is Amakani’s most famous Tachi.
It is worth pointing out that the Kogarasumaru is the first Samurai sword in ancient Japan. There were other Japanese swords before the Kogarasumaru, but most were straight-edged blades without the characteristic Sori (curvature).
Hence, this famous Japanese sword is integral to the Japanese Imperial Collection, highlighting its cultural significance.
This list of the most famous Japanese swords won’t be complete without the creation of Japan’s greatest Samurai swordsmith. Gyodo Nyudo Masamune’s blades are not only excellent Katanas and Tantos. They are also remarkably beautiful and elegant, thanks to the Notare Hamon, Nie, Kinsuji, and Chikei elements.
The Honjo Masamune was Masamune’s most significant creation, the Katana of choice by the Tokugawa Shogunate. One Tokugawa shogun passed down the Honjo to the next generation until General Honjo Shigenaga claimed the legendary sword in 1561 after defeating Umanosuke.
Shigenaga sold the Honjo to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s retainer and nephew, Toyotomi Hidetsugu, in 1592. The legendary sword changed ownership several times until Tokugawa Ieyasu’s great-great-grandson, Tokugawa Ietsuna, in 1868. The last Tokugawa descendant to own the Honjo was Tokugawa Iemasa, who turned the sword over to the Mejiro police in December 1945.
The Mejiro police inadvertently gave the Honjo to a Foreign Liquidation Commission representative with a fictitious name. Unfortunately, it was too late for the authorities to recognize the error, forever losing the Honjo without any verifiable records of its whereabouts.
The missing Honjo Masamune only adds to the legendary sword’s mysticism. It might be gone, the Honjo remains one of Japan’s most prized National Treasures, an accolade the Japanese government bestowed on the sword in 1939.
Tsurumaru Kuninaga on display. Photo by Samurai-JPN.
The Tsurumaru Kuninaga might not be a Tenka Goken sword, but it remains one of Japan’s most popular Tachis. Moreover, it doesn’t enjoy any legendary tales or myths. Instead, the Tsurumaru’s popularity grows from the sword’s depiction in Anime and video games. This observation doesn’t mean the Tsurumaru has questionable origins as the Murasame.
This Tachi features a unique Tsuba or sword guard. Instead of the quintessential, smooth-surfaced disc, the Tsurumaru features a crane in the Tsuba. The Japanese revere the crane because it symbolizes longevity and good fortune, adding a hint of spirituality to the mighty Tachi.
Forged by master bladesmith Kuninaga, the Tsurumaru was a mainstay in the Uesugi clan during the Sengoku Period between 1467 and 1615. However, like other historical Japanese swords, the Tsurumaru has several owners across its lifespan.
Today, the Tokyo National Museum safeguards this beautiful Japanese sword after receiving the official government designation as an Important Cultural Property.
The Bottom Line
The most famous Japanese swords never fail to inspire and draw admiration for their beauty, precision, strength, balance, and exceptional quality. Some swords remain in the realm of myths and legends, where objective testing is impossible and where the weapon’s value lies strongly in the well-entrenched customs and beliefs of the Japanese people.
Still, other swords are in museums and other organizations, allowing the rest of the world a glimpse of Japan’s rich heritage through the works of its legendary swordsmiths.