A Story about Two Swords

There is a folklore legend (though I have heard it said that this legend is true, I don’t think historically the two could ever have met given the eras their work dates from) about the two Japanese swordsmiths Muramasa and Masamune and it goes something like this. The two are placed in a situation where they must challenge each other over who can produce the finer sword. The swords they produce will be hung down blade first in a river to test how well they cut. Muramasa, the younger of the two, produces a sword with an exquisitely sharp edge which slices through everything in the river including leaves, branches, fish, etc. etc. Masamune’s sword however, cuts nothing at all when it is hung in the river. In spite of this, Muramasa is not declared the winner of the contest. In the version I wish to relate, I think the quality of the swords is judged as a draw or left ambiguous with no winner declared. It is consistent throughout the various iterations of the tale, however, that Muramasa’s swords are declared cursed blades or demon blades, and Masamune’s are called divine or holy swords.

Why did Muramasa not claim victory? Why was his sword, which was sharper and the better cutting implement not judged to be superior? The monk who judged the competition suggests that while Muramasa’s sword is clearly an excellent blade, it knows no restraint and is bloodthirsty (if you don’t like anthropomorphising bits of sharp metal, sorry, gonna have to deal with the metaphor), which is why it becomes known as a cursed blade. It is a sword which must always draw blood otherwise it will never be satisfied, a blade which cuts indiscriminately. Masamune’s on the other hand is a sword which never cuts without reason, which never cuts without purpose. It is a sword which espouses discipline, forgiveness, and restraint, and always seeks to avoid bloodshed, which is why it cuts nothing in the river. As such, the monk calls this blade divine, a blade which has the moral character making it worthy to judge a person, a blade which has the right to choose whether to give or take life.

So then is Masamune’s blade the better sword owing to its dignity and conscience? Not, perhaps according to samurai tradition. The samurai (if you really buy into all that) thinks of himself as his master’s sword above all other things and like a soldier his highest tenets are loyalty and obedience. A sword has no place choosing who or what it cuts in this tradition. It is simply a device for murder and a servant which follows orders. In this, Muramasa’s sword is superior, its only purpose to cut, never to judge what deserves to be cut or otherwise.

Can a better be decided?

I would argue that the answer is no, that the martial artist should always wield both. If your only sword is a Masamune, then you’re Jesus turning the other cheek, which is surely admirable in many respects and if you’re willing to sacrifice even your life for a belief in forgiveness then mad props, go for it. But, I’d argue that the real test of a martial artist isn’t really in self defence. It’s my firm belief that almost all situations which demand self-defence are avoidable. I think push only comes to shove when it’s someone else who you, as the martial artist, become obliged to defend. And I can’t really turn the other cheek on someone else’s behalf if they’re getting beat up.

And here I’ll need Muramasa’s sword. If it becomes necessary, should I need to kill in order to perform self-defence of another person (or whatever term you want to come up for that that’s neater and less of a mouthful), I believe that if I am a martial artist, I should definitely have that ability. Of course, I should always avoid using it if I can, but I should know how. I believe this is part of all martial arts, though Aikido is quite explicit about it. When Aikido calls itself ‘the forgiving martial art’, I believe this is what it means. The Aikido practitioner ought to be able to destroy his or her enemy at any time, but he or she should always choose not to. That’s what it means to forgive. It is to have the power to exact a punishment for wrongdoing, but to withhold that punishment out of mercy. And for that the martial artist needs to hold Muramasa’s sword in one hand and Masamune’s in the other, which is why I say that one cannot choose one over the other.

There are plenty of other interpretations for this folktale, and plenty of other ways of demonstrating the same principle (often called katsujinken [roughly: life giving sword] and satsujinken [roughly: life taking sword] in the traditional martial arts of Japan). I just thought this one was a nice story.

Anyway, this one has been quite heavily martial arts-focused (even compared to some of my others, which I consider less so) so if that ain’t your thing, thanks for bearing with me this far. Or perhaps you could consider it something of an ethical lecture too, if that’s any better?

Cheers for reading~



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