No one can question the Samurai’s courage, bravery, loyalty, and dedication to duty. Their mastery of the Samurai sword is beyond comparison. However, training, sword-wielding skills, and commitment mean nothing without an equally trustworthy weapon.
Defeat in battles is easy with subpar Samurai swords. Hence, a Samurai is only as effective as his Katana, putting the responsibility of creating reliable slashers squarely on the shoulders of a Samurai swordsmith. But who does the world consider the most famous Samurai swordsmith? Please continue reading to find out.
Goro Nyudo Masamune
Masamune, Japan’s most famous Samurai swordsmith. Photo by USADojo.
Of Japan’s many famous Katana smiths, one name resounds through the centuries with a mighty roar. Revered as Japan’s greatest and most famous Samurai swordsmith, Goro Nyudo Masamune dedicated his life to the perfection of the Samurai sword-making craft.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Sword Making Competition awards the Masamune Prize to any modern swordsmith with exceptional work – proof of Masamune’s enshrinement in the industry.
Born sometime in 1264, Masamune created some of Japan’s most fabled Samurai swords from 1288 to 1328, learning from other great swordsmiths of the time, including Shintogo Kunimitsu, Awataguchi Kunitsuna, and Saburo Kunimune.
Masamune specialized in Tachi swords and Tanto daggers. Many consider the Tachi the Katana’s direct predecessor. It was longer, heavier, and had a more pronounced curve than the Katana. It was the perfect weapon for horse-mounted Samurai but proved ineffective in close-quarters combat.
Hence, many of Masamune’s later works involved the Katana by cutting the Tachi’s Nakago (tang).
Contributions to Katana Development
A Masamune sword. Photo by AllThatsInteresting.
Pre-Masamune Samurai swords often featured “impure” steel, undermining the weapon’s quality and aesthetics. Masamune recognized the value of using only the finest quality and purest iron sand (Satetsu) to forge Samurai swords of unmatched quality and beauty. He contributed the following features to advance the Katana, making it a formidable Samurai weapon and an enduring work of art.
Although the first swords forged by Masamune featured a straight temper line (Suguha), this legendary Japanese Samurai swordsmith developed the Notare Hamon.
It might not be the most beautiful temper line, but it was at the time. The Nagasa’s (blade) leading edge features a slowly undulating Hamon signifying the area of quenching during the meticulous blade forging process.
The secrets of Tamahagane steel reveal a light charcoal-like blade, demarcated by a lighter-colored section next to the Nagasa’s Ha (the sharp edge). Masamune improved on Nagasa's appearance by perfecting the art of Nie.
Masamune collected uber-hard martensitic steel crystals and embedded them into an equally stunning layer of cementite and ferrite to create a pearlite matrix. The result? A Katana blade with star-like glitters, making the Katana a sight to behold.
As a famous Samurai swordsmith, Masamune introduced stunning Chikei and Kinsuji patterns into Katanas and other Samurai swords. The Chikei features grain-conforming dark lines above the Hamon, while the Kinsuji creates striking lightning patterns of martensite crystals.
Famous Samurai Swords by Masamune
Masamune’s swords are popular during the Kamakura Period between 1185 and 1333, known for the establishment of a feudal society and the rise of the Samurai as a distinctly preeminent caste. Not only are Masamune’s swords tough for battle. They are also striking in their beauty. The following swords are some of Masamune’s most significant creations.
The Honjo Masamune is as legendary as its creator, with nothing less than the Japanese government elevating its stature as a Kokuho (Japanese National Treasure) in 1939. This Samurai sword was emblematic of the Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo Period, passing from one Tokugawa shogun to the next. Unfortunately, the Honjo Masamune vanished without a trace during the US occupation of Japan after the Second World War.
The Honjo Masamune, Japan’s most legendary Samurai sword. Photo by Swords of Northshire.
Unlike the Honjo Masamune Katana, the Fudo Masamune is a 25-centimeter-long (about 9.8 inches) Tanto with Masamune’s signature. Like the Honjo Masamune, the Fudo Masamune became an heirloom of the Tokugawa clan. It features the Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-o engraved into the blade, Gomabashi (chopstick-like grooves) at the back, and an Ura engraved with a dragon.
This sword by Japan’s most famous Samurai swordsmith is a Tachi. It spans 74 centimeters or 29 inches and features many of Masamune’s signature elements. The Nihon Nijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords) acquired the Musashi Masamune in 2000, allowing the public the chance to marvel at one of Masamune’s prized creations.
Masamune’s most peculiar creation is the Hocho Masamune. It looks like a Tanto but with a broader blade, making it look more like a kitchen knife. People can see these blades at the Tokugawa Art Museum.
Although not as popular as other Masamune swords, the Kotegiri Masamune holds a special place in Japanese culture and history. This weapon is a Yugote (archer’s arm guard) cutter and was a gift to one of the nation’s most loved rulers, Emperor Meiji (Japan’s first monarch).
Another famous Samurai swordsmith is Sengo Muramasa, who established the Muramasa school in the Muromachi Period between the 14th and 16th centuries. Many Samurais in feudal Japan, including the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, preferred Muramasa swords to Masamune creations, fueling many to speculate stiff competition between the two schools.
However, 18th-century pop culture and folklore considered Muramasa swords as Yoto or “wicked.” This observation stems from the legendary competition between Masamune and Muramasa.
The story describes Muramasa challenging Masamune to a competition to see who makes the finest swords. Both swordsmiths must plant their swords in the riverbed, allowing the water flow to draw floating objects to the blade.
Muramasa went first. His sword cut leaves, twigs, fish, and other objects flowing with the river current. When it was Masamune’s turn, the sword only cut inanimate objects (i.e., leaves, twigs, and blades of grass). Surprisingly, Masamune’s blade didn’t cut the fish.
Muramasa claimed his sword was better than Masamune’s. The latter only smiled (being a monk). Another monk watching the competition explained that Muramasa’s sword, while effective, is bloodthirsty.
It doesn’t discriminate against living and non-living things. The opposite is true of Masamune’s swords. The monk explained that Masamune’s creations don’t strike innocent beings and living organisms that don’t deserve to die.
Although there are questions about the legend’s veracity, Muramasa’s “bloodthirsty” swords turned a full circle when these weapons symbolized the anti-Tokugawa movement.
Muramasa Katana: the “devil’s” sword. Photo by The Collector.
Contributions to Katana Development
Despite Muramasa’s “bloodthirsty” swords, no one can deny this master Samurai swordsmith’s contributions to the development of the Samurai sword.
Muramasa swords feature a Gunome-midare Hamon – a unique wavy temper line with very shallow and long valleys punctuated by Gunome clusters. What makes Muramasa’s creations extraordinary is the Hamon’s symmetry. Only a master swordsmith can impart an extremely intricate temper line pattern.
Although Masamune popularized the shortening of the Tachi Nakago (tang) to make it more suitable for Katana, Muramasa’s swords feature a Tanagobara Nakago design resembling a fish belly.
Most Popular Samurai Sword by Muramasa
Although Muramasa created many swords during his lifetime as a master swordsmith, only the Myoho Muramasa gained recognition as Japanese artwork. The Katana spanned 66.4 centimeters or 26 inches and featured a 2.5-centimeter-wide (less than an inch) Kashira (pommel).
The Nagasa’s front has the Myoho Renge Kyo mantra, while the back features the year of creation. The Myoho Muramasa’s blade also featured intricate engravings, including the Kurikara.
Bizen Kuni Osafune Ju Kanemitsu
One of Goro Nyudo Masamune’s Ten Juttetsu (Great Disciples of Masamune), Bizen Kanemitsu is revered for creating some of Japan’s sharpest Samurai swords. Kanemitsu also holds the distinction of one of the nation’s few “grandmasters of great sharpness” (Sai-jo O-wazamono).
Contributions to Katana Development
Kanemitsu hails from a long line of famous bladesmiths and Bizen Osafune school grand masters. His great-great-grandfather, Mitsutada, created 17 Bunkazai and 3 Kokuho swords, in addition to the 25 already owned by famous Daimyo Oda Nobunaga.
Kanemitsu master forging techniques allowed him to create some of feudal Japan’s sharpest and deadliest Samurai swords. Unsurprisingly, many bladesmithing schools strive to achieve the same blade sharpness perfection as Kanemitsu’s.
Most Popular Samurai Sword by Kanemitsu
Although Kanemitsu was never under the direct tutelage of Masamune, he remained steadfast in his commitment to create the sharpest Samurai blades.
Cutting a metal helmet (Kabuto) is no ordinary feat, considering the Kabutowari is only 35 centimeters long (about 13.8 inches). Yet, Kanemitsu proved his Kabutowari can penetrate even the toughest headgear to inflict a fatal wound on the enemy.
Kanemitsu’s Ishikiri is like a battle axe in a nifty package. Although small, this Samurai sword can split rocks, leaving no mercy to the opponent hiding behind them.
Some scholars believe Kanemitsu’s Teppokiri swords are more folklore than reality. Legends say this sword can cut a gun in two. Unsurprisingly, some Hollywood films love depicting such a bladed weapon in their fight scenes.
The Bottom Line
The most famous Samurai swordsmith elevated the Katana and Tanto’s preeminence in feudal Japan. These swords are not only strong, reliable, and of exceptional quality. Their beauty is also beyond comparison. Other Japanese bladesmiths deserve recognition, but Masamune’s Katana-making skills remain the benchmark for other Samurai swordsmiths.