The Japanese Sword - Gregory Irvine

The Japanese Sword
The Soul of the Samurai
Gregory Irvine
Victoria & Albert Museum, Far Eastern Series
ISBN: 0834804751 (Amazon link)

More Japanese history, this time explicitly combined with my somewhat adolescent interest in shiny, sharp things. I recently read a few Japanese history titles, and realised that although I've trained a little with a katana, and have now read a bit about them and their development through history, I still couldn't say if a particular blade on display in a museum was interesting, and if so, why. I could tell you if it was a tachi, or a katana, make a guess at the rough period, maybe identify a mon if I'm lucky and it's a well known one, but that's about it. I would be able to say nothing at all about the blade itself, or whether the hamon, for example, was interesting. Still, I've always enjoyed Japanese war-gear in museums for purely decorative reasons, and it's easy to see why there remains such a mystique around the Japanese sword in particular. Even when lavishly mounted, there is no mistaking the awful purity of the weapon's design; I can't imagine seeing any other weapon decorated as lavishly without looking purely ceremonial or downright ridiculous. Pity an interest in the field is generally associated with running amok in supermarkets.

As you would expect, this title is very heavily illustrated, but it isn't just a picture book. Although I picked it up in a bookshop to flick through the pretty pictures, I bought it because one of the first I saw answered several questions I'd had about illustrations in other books I'd read. Specifically, when forging blades, why the formal robes, what are the zig-zags of paper on ropes, and why is a ghostly figure with foxes often shown?

The Japanese Sword introduces both the technical study of blades and their mountings, then traces the evolution of the weaponry chronologically, always in historical context. Each chapter generally covers one of the recognised Japanese periods, from pre-Heian to post-Meiji. In later chapters in particular, when social change was particularly rapid, the history is very much in foreground for several pages, and this book could cheerfully be read as a general introduction to Japanese history. Irvine writes well, and despite the many, and fascinating, pictures, I never found myself skipping over the text, even where I was familiar with the content. For example, I particularly liked his suggestion that the familiar title Shōgun is best translated as 'Barbarian Conquering Generalissimo'.

Still, there are lots of history titles out there, and many of them are lushly illustrated, particularly given the rich visual heritage of Japan. The real reason you'd read this title is if you wanted to bridge the gap between general history texts and heavily technical books aimed at nihonto collectors. This book is an easy way to learn what captions like this mean: "This unsigned 14th-century blade [...] is in katakiriha-zukiri, the omote is in shinogi-zukui while the ura is in hira-zukuri. Both sides have a long hi which on the omote extends into the nakago. The ura also has a carving of a suken and a bonji." (Random choice, page 44, photograph 25, 4 panels.) Most of the illustrations are blades, only a few mounts are shown. You need to see several blades, side by side and in detail, to be able to discuss the differences - making it more curious that I can't think of a general title which even tries to summarise the different styles.

The only criticism I'd have is possibly unfair; while the general text is very well written and does a nice job of leading us through some complex history, the technical terminology is introduced perhaps too swiftly, with insufficient reminders about what a certain piece of terminology means. I found myself frequently flipping back to the early, general chapters, or to the end to hunt through the glossary again. I appreciate that the field has a certain terminology, and the only terms that make sense are the real ones, but it did occasionally derail my enjoyment, generally just when I was getting hang of appreciating how, say, these Momoyama blades differ from the Kamakura blades in the last chapter.

I can't see myself lending it out to friends much, but I really enjoyed this title.

Posted: Fri - July 30, 2004 at 05:52 AM