Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
Admittedly, the reason why my friends are into swordsmanship is because of the sword itself. They just want to handle swords, that's all. They don't care about winning competitions or fights; for them, the swords in their hand brings an inexplicable pleasure. There is a sort of romance surrounding these weapons that others don't have. Most, that is. I say this because I've heard that polearms also have their place in other cultures and that the dagger has become symbolic in modern militaries.
It's a matter of preferences, and the cultures that preferred the sword have a collection of stories and legends attached to the weapon. What the samurai, medieval knights, and other warrior societies have in common is their blade lore. The sword is an important piece in their arsenal even though there are more superior tools in their inventory (like polearms ad firearms).
And going back to the samurai, some of the legends surrounding their weapons persist up to this day. Their blade lore is kept alive by the constant stream of films and anime to the point where everything is exaggerated. And one sword in Japan seems to take the word exaggeration to new lengths. Kept in a shrine somewhere in Okayama is a monstrous Japanese sword that stirred the imaginations of first-time observers.
The Yahiko jinja Shinto shrine in Nishikanbara District, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, is dedicated to the deity Ame-no-Kaguyama-no-mikoto, the dawn goddess and also the goddess of meditation, mirth, and arts. But within its walls and mounted behind a glass display is a curious and imposing object. It’s a sword and a rather monstrous one.
Some Japanese swords required two hands to wield, but the sword of the Yahiko jinja shrine would require superhuman strength. The sword has a name, Norimitsu Odachi, named after its maker Norimitsu Osafune. The weapon dates back to the Muromachi period and was forged in August 1446 in the province of Bishū. And at a length of 3.77 meters, it will dwarf any sword in its class, even some western swords.
Not only that it is huge, but it is also heavy. Forged from a single piece of steel, the weapon weighs 14.5 kilos, far heavier than modern rifles, and obviously quite a lot for even trained warriors. The fact that it dwarfed average humans tickled the imaginations of people who admired its monumental scale.
Obviously, even highly trained samurai won’t carry such a monster on the battlefield. They would develop shoulder pain before they could even chop down their enemies. And any object weighing more than 10 kilos will tire the poor wielder. Because of this, people began to wonder why such a large odachi was forged and who would use such a contraption.
The only answer people could come up with was a supernatural one.
A large weapon requires great strength. And great strength correlates to great size. And only creatures with great size and strength could swing such a weapon. Hence the Norimitsu Odachi was intended for giants, at least as some people say.
The presence of a large weapon is evidence enough for some to believe in a race of gigantic beings. Japanese mythology often features gigantic creatures, like the local version of the western ogre Oni. Could it be that such legends were inspired by real life? Perhaps people of Japan back in the olden times really were aware of the existence of gigantic beings, and the giant sword was intended for their use.
But, there was a problem with this theory.
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Firstly, the notion that the Norimitsu Odachi once belonged to a giant was recent and not an ancient legend. We could say that the restless users of the internet gave birth to such an idea. And the truth behind the massive, bladed weapon is quite underwhelming.
The Norimitsu Odachi belongs to a class of Japanese swords known as the odachi (obviously). Most westerners often associate the samurai with the katana, but throughout history, the samurai wielded several sword variants. Preceding the katana is a type of sword known as a tachi, whereas a blade longer than the tachi—the odachi—was widely used back in the Nanboku-cho period.
In Japan, ō (大) means great, while dachi is another variation of the word tachi, meaning sword. Hence, we have the odachi, the great sword. Indeed, the sword could reach 70 inches, as in the case of Uesugi Kenshin's men, while the Rikishizei troops of the Asakura clan carried 60-inch odachi.
One might wonder what the idea behind the extra-long swords was. According to some historical texts, the odachi was the weapon of foot soldiers and was more of a battlefield weapon. The great length of the sword gave the soldiers the reach advantage of a polearm, so the sword could be used as an anti-cavalry weapon as well. The preferred technique was the downward cut.
The odachi was also used to show off an army's strength, both as a morale booster for the user and as a form of intimidation. But carrying such a large weapon presented unique challenges. Unlike the tachi or the katana, the odachi was either hand-carried or slung across the back. In most cases, a retainer was needed for the samurai to draw such a sword quickly.
Nevertheless, the tactics shifted to spear-wielding troops and firearms. Plus, a large, heavy sword proved disadvantageous in situations that favored speed or mountain battles. Eventually, the odachi fell out of favor, but an impressive blade makes for a good temple offering. Hence in the Edo period, the odachi took on a ceremonial role in the temple. And since the odachi was not an easy sword to make, the manufacture of such a weapon was a statement of the maker's skills.
The maker Norimitsu Osafune simply wanted to make a statement. He wanted to show off how good he was by crafting such an object. Forging a Japanese sword was no easy feat and took years to master. And forging an even bigger sword was harder.
For one thing, a normal-sized sword already required complex forging techniques, and an extra blade length meant added complications. Simply, more work and hammering for the blacksmith. The longer metal was also harder to heat into homogenous temperature.
Then, there was the quenching. In a normal-sized sword, one will dip the blazing blade into a pool of water. An odachi needed a larger quenching medium, and who knows what size Norimitsu Osafune used for his monster sword?
Lastly is the sharpening and polishing. Obviously, one can’t apply the normal polishing method (rubbing the blade over a stone) to such an object. An odachi was hung or placed in a fixed position during polishing as the artisan did their work.
And it seems the physical labor paid off, as Norimitsu Osafune gained lasting recognition for his sword. And whoever commissioned the work must be really wealthy, for forging such a large object was expensive.
1. Kazuhiko Inada (2020), Encyclopedia of the Japanese Swords
2. Mol, Serge (2003). Classical Weaponry of Japan: Special Weapons and Tactics of the Martial Arts. Kodansha International.
3.Norimitsu Odachi: The Mysterious Giant Sword of Okayama (08 February 2020) Retrieved from Norimitsu Odachi: The Mysterious Giant Sword of Okayama - Nspirement.