The Sword Polisher from Eiji Yoshikawa's Epic Novel Musashi

Hakata Polisher

This is an excerpt from the epic novel Musashi written by Eiji Yoshikawa in 1929. The novel depicts the life and times of the famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, during the early Edo period. It includes some of the interaction between Musashi and the sword polisher Kosuke regarding the care and condition of Japanese swords. It is interesting because it was written in 1929 well before the second world war and it reflects the concern for the care of Japanese swords in Japan both at that time and during the Edo period. It reminds me of the way many swords have been poorly cared for in the US over the past half century and proves this is not a uniquely American short coming.
    "That's interesting. I happen to have made the acquaintance of your master and his excellent mother, Myoshu." Musashi went on to tell how he had met them in the field near the Rendaiji and later spent a few days at their house.

    Kosuke, astonished, scrutinized him closely for a moment. "Are you by any chance the man who caused a great stir in Kyoto some years ago by defeating the Yoshioka School at Ichijoji? Miyamoto Musashi was the name, I believe."

    "That is my name." Musashi's face reddened slightly.

    Kosuke moved back a bit and bowed deferentially, saying, "Forgive me. I shouldn't have been lecturing you. I had no idea I was talking to the famous Miyamoto Musashi."

    "Don't give it a second thought. Your words were very instructive. Koetsu's character comes through in the lessons he teaches his disciples."

    "As I'm sure you know, the Hon'ami family served the Ashikaga shoguns. From time to time they've also been called upon to polish the Emperor's swords. Koetsu was always saying that Japanese swords were created not to kill or injure people but to maintain the imperial rule and protect the nation, to subdue devils and drive out evil. The sword is the samurai's soul; he carries it for no other purpose than to maintain his own integrity. It is an ever-present admonition to the man who rules over other men and seeks in doing so to follow the Way of Life."

The Polisher Kosuke goes on to describe the sad state of disregard of many swords even during the height of the samurai era and provides some interesting insight into the preservation of swords...

    "At Suwa Shrine in Shinano Province there are more than three hundred swords. They could be classed as heirlooms, but I found only five that weren't rusted. Omishima Shrine in lyo is famous for its collection, three thousand swords dating back many centuries. But after spending a whole month there, I found only ten that were in good condition. It's disgusting!" Kosuke caught his breath and continued. "The problem seems to be that the older and more famous the sword is, the more the owner is inclined to make sure it's stored in a safe place. But then nobody can get at it to take care of it, and the blade gets rustier and rustier."

    "The owners are like parents who protect their children so jealously that the children grow up to be fools. In the case of children, more are being born all the time, doesn't make any difference if a few are stupid. But swords . . ." Pausing to suck in the spit, he raised his thin shoulders even higher and with a gleam in his eyes declared, "We already have all the good swords there'll ever be. During the civil wars, the swordsmiths got careless, no, downright sloppy! They forgot their techniques, and swords have been deteriorating ever since."

    "The craftsmen today may try to imitate the older swords, but they'll never turn out anything as good. The only thing to do is to take better care of the swords from the earlier periods."

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