Artefact of the Month

Samurai Sword


by Gábor Wilhelm

From the late 12th century until the commencement of moderisation in 1868, the samurai (bushi) were regarded as one of Japan’s most distinguished social classes. A hereditary caste of warriors serving Japan’s feudal landowners, the samurai lived and fought by a strict code of behaviour and wielded array of arms (spears, bows, swords, armour) appropriate to their role. Though the use of these was subject to continuous development, by the 1600s, the samurai’s military role had nevertheless begun to wane.

From the 12th until the 17th century, the samurai fought essentially as mounted bowmen, a function that determined the character of their armour: its flexible construction of overlapping scales covered in leather offered excellent protection against arrows. From the 17th century onward, this style of fighting lost currency, due in part to the rise of infantry, the gradual spread of firearms, and lengthening periods of peace.

This samurai sword, or katana, was donated to the museum by Aladár Flesch (1859-1926), who for years served as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s Imperial and Royal Consul General at Yokohama. The piece comes from a collection of more than a thousand Japanese artefacts gathered by the Hungarian during his period of service at the end of the 19th century.

Given its exact size and mountings, it can be classified as a kodachi type, having a length that falls between swords with longer and shorter blades. Visible on both its ray-skin (shagreen) grip, and its lacquered, gilded scabbard is thesymbol of the Hōjō family (Clan Hōjō), a micu-uroko (the ‘three scales,’ or ‘three virtues’) formed from an arrangement of triangles.

NM 117414.1-2. Japan, 18. century
NM 117414.1-2. Japan, 18. century

Inextricably intertwined with traditional Japanese culture, Samarai swords are not unusual among the Japanese material of ethnological collections. Yet one might ask: given developments in collection principles over time, do such swords have the same value to the discipline today as they have in times past? As an item exclusive to the warrior class, the samurai sword was not typically possessed by the island nation’s common people. Certainly, European collectors encountered them in significant numbers only after the 1870s, when Japan began opening up to the outside world, by which time they were already collector’s pieces. By the 19th century, the samurai class and its way of life had been swept away by modernisation, making the samurai sword an exotic addition to ethnology museums and a type of acquisition characteristic of the age preceding that of the scientifically based collection.

A classical anthropologist or ethnographer would have commenced work with the everyday objects of Japan’s rural population. Yet if one were to view Japanese cultural artefacts through the eyes of the Japanese themselves, the katana would be much more likely to earn its place on the pedastal than the villager’s sickle or hoe. This is because to the Japanese, the samurai warrior class and its way of life were, in fact, more representative of Japan.

Thus, this object type demonstrates both the inconsistency displayed by the ethnographic and anthropological sciences in applying their own principles, exemplified by a past tendency to exoticification, and the problems that arise when attempting to utilise the concepts of these fields in a non-Western environment.

NM 117414.1-2. Japan, 18. century
NM 117414.1-2. Japan, 18. century