A Muramasa blade is one of exceptional quality and great bloodlust. It’s called a youtou (妖刀) in Japanese. Depending on how you translate that, it could mean cursed sword, mystic sword, or demon sword. In this episode I talk about one of the most well known youtou made by Muramasa Sengo.
Have you ever seen a Japanese katana being made? The lump of glowing red steel pounded by the sword smiths in time. It’s folded, thrust into a fire, and pounded again. This molten lump of tamahagane, a kind of impure steel, is forged, hammered, polished, and sharpened. The tsuba (guard), tsuka (handle) and saya (sheath) also need to be made with meticulous care. From beginning to end the whole process will take over a year to complete a single sword.
Now imagine you have a master craftsman, a genius really, who creates the sharpest, strongest, and most deadliest of swords. But he might just be a madman. Or so the legend goes.
A foul temper, single-minded concentration, and prayers whispered to the gods. Some say his own murderous spirit possessed the blades. Others say he made a deal with the devil.
Whatever it was, this legendary swordsmith, Muramasa Sengo, created these Muramasa blades which also go by the name youtou (妖刀), you as in youkai, and tou meaning blade. Depending on how you want to translate that, a youtou is a cursed sword, a mystic sword, or a demon sword.
So today let’s talk about bloodthirsty blades.
Hey hey, everyone. How are you? Better? Even a little bit? I certainly hope so. I’m doing fine, busy, antsy, nervous. They still haven’t started vaccinating anyone here in Japan yet. That despite our numbers going up and the UK strain being found not only in my prefecture, but in the city where my son works. So, you can imagine that my nerves are quite frazzled. It does sound like they’ll start vaccinating front line and other health care workers at the end of February possibly March.
It’s funny. I was scratching my head about why almost every Japanese friend I talk to here isn’t gung-ho to get the vaccine, at all. Then I remembered back when Julyan was a baby and getting his childhood vaccines. There was one that they made a big deal about, do you REALLY want to get this one the nurses asked. Are you sure? Um, yes?
It turns out in the early 1990s, the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) shot was believed to be making quite a few children sick. I’m not sure how proven it was, but the government did lose a few court cases and the vaccination was pulled. I believe even to this day, MMR still is not given as a three in one jab. Anyway, there is a lot of one eyebrow raising around new vaccinations it feels.
n other news: If you don’t know or haven’t heard, I am just about to launch another show called Soothing Stories Podcast. The plan was to have it on air on January 28th. However, we decided to launch with three episodes at once, instead of one, which it taking a little more time as you can imagine. So the new launch date is February 11th, my birthday. And a holiday in Japan.
The catch copy is:
“Helping you escape this addled world through high quality audio, immersive music, and smooth narration; one great story at a time.”
We aim to be very headphone friendly and relaxing, albeit, if you know me at all, you know the stories I like aren’t necessarily mild-mannered. Case in point, two of the first three shows we’re going to put up are “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
So if you listen to this after February 11, the website is soothingstoriespodcast.com and the show should be available on most platforms you listen to podcasts on. Please give it a listen, and if you like it subscribe and maybe leave a review?
Cursed Swords Youtou
Now, onto today’s show. You might not know this about me, but during high school and all through university I practiced kung fu. Ba gua, Tai qi and Hsing Yi, to be more specific. I got a Chinese broadsword at one point and fell in love.
When I came to Japan to study at university here, the first thing I did was visit different clubs on campus to see which one I wanted to join. I had planned to enter the Aikido group, seeing as how the theory reminded me of the internal kung fu styles. But instead I fell head over heels in love with the kendo club. Swords!
Anyway, I’ve had a couple listeners and patrons ask me to do an episode about swords or other Japanese weapons. There is so much interesting stuff out there, but this being my first on the subject, I want to start with the youtou, cursed blades.
You can’t talk about youtou without mentioning Muramasu Sengo. An incredible sword-smith who lived during the Muramachi Era, think 14th – 15th centuries, which was Feudal Japan.
It seems like while alive, his reputation was quite good. I mean he did make the best blades around, known for their quality, sharpness and strength.
But after his death the rumors and legends began to turn more colorful and awful. So enticing they were that to this day it’s really hard to separate fact from fiction.
The stories about Muramasa being not only a genius craftsman, but also wild and unpredictable and, is often written, on the brink of madness, are quite intriguing. That his swords actually had a bloodlust and gave their owners superhuman strength and resistance to pain on the battlefield, even more intriguing.
But the story gets better. It’s said that the swords got to a point where they needed to draw blood. That once drawn, they had to strike someone down before being re-sheathed. If not an enemy, maybe a friend would do. Or, they would turn on their owner causing him to commit seppuku, ritual suicide.
A note here. When performing seppuku, you don’t use your long katana. You use a shorter blade called a tantou. Now if you have a kaishakunin the person who performs kaishaku (your beheading) then I guess they could borrow that bloodthirsty Muramasa blade of yours for that purpose. I guess they could keep it, too. Because you won’t be needing it anymore.
The funny thing is, I really couldn’t find anything on this in Japanese, the Muramasa katana causing samurai to commit seppuku. If anyone knows anything or has read anything, please let me know. One of my great curiosities in life is how information and stories change when translated from one language to the next. So I kind of wonder if that’s just an English language thing or not.
Okay, back to the youtou. Finally, the katana could, if circumstances were right, or wrong as the case may be, drive its owner insane.
A couple unusual distinctions of a Muramasa sword. It had a Muramasa-ba, or edge. That’s that gorgeous wavy shape running along the blade.
And the Muramasa-nakago where the tang of the sword is curved like the belly of a fish.
The shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu gave the Muramasa swords the nickname youtou, cursed blades and made them illegal because he developed a great fear of them. The story is long and detailed but basically Ieyasu’s grandfather, father, and first son were all killed by Muramasa swords. He son having been beheaded by one.
Two Muramasa Blade Facts
Two more Muramasa facts before I go into a couple other youtou.
Fact number one I found really interesting — keep in mind that Japan and Russia have a chilly relationship — back in 2017, when then Prime minister Abe met Putin they exchanged gifts. Abe, knowing that Putin loved the sport, gifted Putin with a book about judo. What did Putin give Abe? A Muramasa sword! It was taken by American troops during WWII, somehow ended up in Russia and Putin ‘returning’ the sword to Japan was reported to be a sign of goodwill.
Fact number two: Wolverine had a Muramasa blade and he might be getting another.
There are other interesting and cursed blades out there and I’m still reading about them and taking notes, definitely going to do a part two to this.
Muramasa and Masamune Legend
Let me end with a story.
There is another master sword-smith out there. His name is Honjo Masamune and is thought to be the best sword maker ever. Now this is a great legend, but it’s interesting that it could never have happened because Honjo Masamune and Sengo Muramasa didn’t even live at the same time. Still, it’s a good tale.
One day the wild and crazy Muramasa challenged his master, the calm and peaceful Masamune to a test to see who made the finer sword. They would suspend their best blades in a river with the cutting edge facing against the current.
Muramasa was first. His katana was called the Juuchi Yosamu (10,000 cold nights). It cut through everything that flowed toward it. Leaves, fish, even the very air that blew by. Masamune was impressed. He hung his own sword that he had named Yawarakai-Te (soft or tender hands). They waited. But only leaves were cut. Fish did swim up to the blade, but they weren’t sliced.
Muramasa laughed at his master and declared himself the winner. A monk, though, had been watching the whole scene. He came over, hold up. He explained what he’d seen.
Muramasa’s katana was a fine sword, but it was blood thirsty and evil. It didn’t care what it sliced through. It could be slicing innocent butterflies or enemies heads. It didn’t matter.
Masamune’s sword however was by far the better. It could differentiate between evil and good and wouldn’t needlessly kill an innocent life.
There are actually a couple different versions of that story. They’re all pretty good.
Okay, I’ll stop there for today. There is a lot of cool sword stuff out there. Like for example, one of my patrons asked about the extremely long and mysterious Norimitsu Oodachi. It’s 3.77 meters long and weighs 14.5 kilograms. Impossible for a samurai in the 15th century to carry. So was it ceremonial or perhaps wielded by a giant? I’m still reading up on that one. I hope to get an episode about it later this year.
And finally, finally I have a podcast recommendation. If you’re at all interested in Japanese spirits (the alcohol variety, that is). Please give a listen to a show called Japan Distilled. It is Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman, both experts in the field and both have written books on the subject. The reason I know about it because Uncanny Japan’s Rich Pav is sound engineer for them. It’s a fun, interesting, and really informative show. I’m not a big shochu or whiskey drinker, and I’m riveted. That’s the Japan Distilled Podcast.
Thank you every single one of you for listening, stay safe and well, and I will talk to you again in two weeks.