The Blades of Masamune and Muramasa
Printed digital Photomanipulation on watercolor paper with Ink applied with rapidograph pen and inktense ink pencils
Masamune (正宗?), also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗?, Priest Gorō Masamune, c.1264–1343 AD), is widely recognized as Japan's greatest swordsmith. As no exact dates are known for Masamune's life, he has reached an almost legendary status. It is generally agreed that he made most of his swords in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, 1288–1328. He created swords, known as tachi in Japanese and daggers called tantō, in the Soshu tradition. Some stories list his family name as Okazaki, but some experts believe this is a fabrication to enhance the standing of the Tokugawa family.
An award for swordsmiths exists called the Masamune prize which is awarded at the Japanese Sword Making Competition. Although not awarded every year it is presented to a swordsmith who has created an exceptional work.
Masamune is believed to have worked in Sagami Province during the last part of the Kamakura Period (1288–1328), and it is thought that he was trained by swordsmiths from Bizen and Yamashiro provinces, such as Saburo Kunimune, Awataguchi Kunitsuna and Shintōgo Kunimitsu.
Legends of Masamune and Muramasa
A legend tells of a test where Muramasa challenged his master, Masamune, to see who could make a finer sword. They both worked tirelessly and eventually, when both swords were finished, they decided to test the results. The contest was for each to suspend the blades in a small creek with the cutting edge facing the current. Muramasa's sword, the Juuchi Yosamu (10,000 Cold Nights / 十千夜寒) cut everything that passed its way; fish, leaves floating down the river, the very air which blew on it. Highly impressed with his pupil's work, Masamune lowered his sword, the Yawarakai-Te (Tender Hands / 柔らかい手), into the current and waited patiently. Not a leaf was cut, the fish swam right up to it, and the air hissed as it gently blew by the blade. After a while, Muramasa began to scoff at his master for his apparent lack of skill in the making of his sword. Smiling to himself, Masamune pulled up his sword, dried it, and sheathed it. All the while, Muramasa was heckling him for his sword's inability to cut anything. A monk, who had been watching the whole ordeal, walked over and bowed low to the two sword masters. He then began to explain what he had seen.
"The first of the swords was by all accounts a fine sword, however it is a blood thirsty, evil blade, as it does not discriminate as to who or what it will cut. It may just as well be cutting down butterflies as severing heads. The second was by far the finer of the two, as it does not needlessly cut that which is innocent and undeserving."
In another account of the story, both blades cut the leaves that went down on the river's current equally well, but the leaves would stick to the blade of Muramasa whereas they would slip on past Masamune's after being sliced. Or alternatively both leaves were cut, but those cut by Masamune's blade would reform as it traveled down the stream. Yet another version has leaves being sliced by Muramasa's blade while the leaves were repelled by Masamune's, and another again has leaves being sliced by Muramasa's blade and healed by Masamune's.
In yet another story Muramasa and Masamune were summoned to make swords for the Shogun or Emperor and the finished swords were held in a waterfall. The result is the same as the other stories, and Masamune's swords are deemed holy swords. In one version of the story Muramasa is killed for creating evil swords.
While all known legends of the two ever having met are historically impossible, both smiths are widely regarded as symbols for their respective eras.