A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Like other ancient cultures, magical weapons in Japanese mythology are more than supernatural armaments or expressions of godly might.
The nature and shape of these weapons often hint at actual historical events – the most obvious example being the “grass cutter sword” Kusanagi no Tsurugi. Here are 12 amazing Japanese mythological weapons to know about. Read between the lines of the associated legends and you will surely have a glimpse into Japan’s past.
1. Ame no Nuhoko (天之瓊矛)
In Shintoism and ancient Japanese mythology, this was the bejeweled spear used by creation gods Izanagi (伊邪那岐) and Izanami (伊邪那美)to raise the islands of Japan from the sea.
At the Floating Bridge Between Heaven and Earth (Ame no Ukihashi | 天の浮橋), Izanagi stirred the sea with the spear, following which salty drops from the tip formed the islands of Japan.
Within Japanese art, the mythical spear is famously depicted as a naginata in a pre-modern painting by Kobayashi Eitaku. Of note, historians and writers often highlight the underlying sexual procreation symbolism within the myth. The tragedy that ultimately befell both creation gods after this episode also laid the foundation for subsequent Shinto myths and legends, including the supposed lineage of the Japanese royal family.
2. Totsuka no Tsurugi (十拳剣)
The “Sword of Ten Fists/Hand Breadths” is not a specific weapon in Japanese mythology. Rather, it refers to the immense ancient swords wielded by Shinto gods.
Most famously, Storm God Susanoo no Mikoto (素戔嗚尊)used one such sword to slay the multi-headed Yamata no Orochi Serpent in Izumo. His mighty sword was then chipped when the Storm God attempted to chop up the dead serpent’s body. What damaged his sword turned out to be none other than the famous Kusanagi Blade (see below).
3. Ame no Ohabari (天之尾羽張)
The Totsuka no Tsurugi wielded by Izanagi, Male Progenitor God of Shintoism. After his wife Izanami died giving birth to Kagutsuchi (加具土), the God of Fire, Izanagi used this sword to behead his fiery offspring. The bloodshed then gave birth to new triads of important Shinto Gods.
For some anthropologists and historians, this myth is considered symbolic of Japan’s eternal struggle with volcanoes.
4. Futsunomitama (布都御魂)
Futunomitama was the Totsuka no Tsurugi wielded by Takemikazuchi (建御雷), the Shinto God of Thunder, during the mythical quelling of the Middle Country (i.e. Izumo).
In another legend, it was also the divine sword given to Emperor Jimmu during his campaign against the monsters and deities of the Kumano region. Today, the spirit of the sword is enshrined at Isonokami Shrine in Nara Prefecture.
5. Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi (天叢雲剣)
Also known as the Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙の剣), the “cloud-gathering sword” is hands-down the most famous Japanese legendary sword ever.
In classic Japanese mythology, this was the mythical blade found within the carcass of the Orochi Serpent after Storm God Susanoo no Mikoto slew the monster. After Susannoo gifted the blade to his sister Amaterasu, it was passed down to Yamato Takeru (日本武尊), the legendary twelfth Emperor of Japan.
Today, the blade continues to be venerated as one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan. It is, however, never available for public viewing. Not even during imperial coronations.
Of note, “Kusanagi” means “grass cutting” in the Japanese language. This alternate name comes from the legend of Yamato Takeru using the blade to slash large swaths of grass when trapped by his enemies in a field.
Yamato Takeru subsequently also used the magical powers of the blade to control the wind, thus redirecting the wildfires set off by his adversities. In games and Anime, the sword tends to be referred to by this shorter and catchier name. Typically, it is also an “end-game” weapon i.e. a supremely powerful heavenly armament.
6. Ame no Makakoyumi (天之麻迦古弓)
The Kojiki, a collection of ancient Japanese myths, speaks of the subjugation of the Kunitsukami (Land Deities) by the Amatsukami (Heavenly Deities).
In one chapter, the heavenly deity Ame no Wakahiko (天若日子) was dispatched to Izumo to battle the defiant Land Deities, with the Ame no Makakoyumi i.e. a divine bow being his given weapon.
Wakahiko, however, fell in love with the daughter of Okuninushi, the ruler of Izumo, and did not return to heaven for eight years. He later even used his bow to slay the heavenly emissary sent to question him.
Wakahiko himself was ultimately killed when the Heavenly Deities threw back the arrow fired from the magical bow at him. This whole myth itself might or might not reference ancient political intrigues. There is also no further mention of the mighty bow elsewhere in Japanese mythology.
7. Kogarasumaru (小烏丸)
A Japanese Tachi, or samurai blade, Kogarasumaru was supposedly forged by the legendary 8th Century swordsmith Amakuni (天國).
Part of the current Japanese Imperial Collection, the blade is also believed to be one of the earliest samurai swords created, as well as an heirloom of the Taira Family during the Genpei War. Alternate legends claim that the sword was given to the Taira Family by Yatagarasu (八咫烏), the divine three-legged crow of the sun in Shintoism.
8. Kogitsunemaru (小狐丸)
The “Small Fox” blade is a mythical sword believed to be forged by Sanjou Munechika (三条宗近) during the Heian Period for Emperor Go-Ichijō (後一条天皇).
Last owned by the Kujou Family, the current location of the blade is unfortunately unknown. It is also said that Sanjou did not forge the sword alone; instead, he was assisted by a child avatar of Inari (稲荷), the Shinto God of Food.
Of note, Inari was the patron god of Emperor Go-Ichijō. The supposed involvement of the food god, who’s always depicted as a divine fox, led to the curious name of the weapon.
9. Onimaru Kunitsuna (鬼丸国綱)
One of the Five Legendary Blades of Japan.
Legend goes that Regent Hōjō Tokimasa (北条時政) of the Kamakura Shogunate was tormented in dreams every night by a malicious imp. One evening, an old man appeared in the regent’s dreams too, claiming to be the spirit of a famous sword. The old man additionally stated that he was unable to leave his scabbard as he had been defiled by dirty human hands. Most importantly, the spirit told Tokimasa that should he wish to permanently rid himself of the hateful imp, the regent should help to clean the blade of its rust.
Desperate to be able to sleep well again, Tokimasa did as he was told. While carefully cleaning the blade, Tokimasa finally noticed the decorative leg of a brazier in his room resembling the imp in his dreams. The freshly cleansed sword then moved by itself to lop off that decorative leg, thus freeing Tokimasa from his nightly torment. The Regent subsequently named the blade as Onimaru in gratitude, “Oni,” in the Japanese language, means ogre.
10. Onikiri (鬼切)
The “Demon Slayer” is a mythical Heian Period sword given to Watanabe no Tsuna (渡邊綱) by his leader, Minamoto no Yorimitsu (源頼光). The name itself stems from Watanabe’s legendary defeat of the ogre Ibaraki Dōji (茨木童子) at Kyoto’s Rashamon Gate. According to legend, Watanabe severed the arm of the wicked ogre with the blade after an epic battle.
11. Dōjikiri Yasutsuna (童子切)
“Dōji” means youngster in the Japanese Language. In Japanese mythology and folktales, though, dōji tends to refer to supernatural offsprings or ogres.
In this case, the “ogre slasher” was the legendary blade used by master samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu to slay the awful Shuten Dōji (酒呑童子). This beastly ogre tormented medieval Kyoto nightly with his rampages, stealing wine and kidnapping women, till tricked and vanquished by Yorimitsu and his retainers at the outskirts of Kyoto.
12. Muramasa (村正)
Nowadays famous in pop culture as a cursed katana in Japanese myths, Muramasa was actually the family name of Muramasa Sengo (千子村正), a superb Japanese swordsmith who lived during the Muromachi Era.
In later centuries, the school Muramasa founded was also favored by the early leaders and samurais of the powerful Tokugawa Clan; Muramasa blades were widely owned by top Tokugawa warriors.
Subsequent Tokugawa leaders, however, came to regard Muramasa blades as sinister items, to the extent official Tokugawa records included fabricated stories about the blades being cursed. Today, there are still a good number of known Muramasa blades in existence. Exhibitions are also occasionally held in Japan. For example, at the Kuwana Museum in 2016.
© 2019 Yong Kuan Leong