Nami no Masuta, or My Perfect Sword
by Paul Yanuziello January 2021
I had been studying Japanese sword for about twenty years when I came across my old war sword. Living in Hawaii you often find antique shops with old things that are hidden away and virtually forgotten. This handle, sticking up out of an old umbrella holder, it caught my attention. It had a dusty old tsuka, the handle, with tsukaito, the handle wrapping, in a pale blue. I was always drawn to anything that looked Japanese. Vases, lacquer bowls, teacups, inryo, netsuki, menuki or weapons; you never know if it’s going to be authentic or a cheap imitation.
I knelt down and blew the dust off the handle, I rubbed my hands together and wiped them on my shorts. I drew the sword from the old umbrella container. The sheath, or saya, was of the old, WWII or WWI, era. I could tell it was old and it looked to be in bad shape, the green calcium build up on the metal parts falling away as the saya scraped the container. Holding the saya in one hand I pulled the tsuka from the saya, using my thumb to push on the tsuba. The tsuba, the handguard was black, a rectangular shape with sunshine rays in a gold pattern. The sword slid out with ease and seemed to sing to me. The blade was grungy. Corroded; turning green and rust-brown and it had a couple of small nicks, nothing major. The saya had a price tag of $300.00.
I could see the mekugi that held the tsuka on to the tang, it looked to be bone. The emblem on the handle, the menuki, under the tsukaito, was a dragonfly. I paid the clerk the $300 in cash. I asked her if she knew anything about this sword, “What’s the story with this rusty old thing?”
“I didn’t even know we had any swords left. Some collector came in last week and bought up all of the swords we had. Guess we missed that one.”
“Too much! How many did you have?” I asked, holding on tightly to my newly found treasure.
“Yea, indeed. I think we had ten, more or less. The guy wasn’t like you. He bargained for every one of them.”
I thanked the lady and continued looking around the store, I found an old shotgun case, one of those fabric camouflage cases, the price tag was worn out. The case was probably older than the sword.
“Excuse me. I need something to carry my sword in. This is perfect but I can’t see the price.” I gave the storekeeper the case. She blew some dust off the tag and then she sneezed all over my case.
“How’s ten bucks?” she asked.
I paid for the case and put the sword into it. I thanked the lady and headed for home. As soon as I arrived home I got out my sword cleaning kit. The sword was in rough shape but nothing a good cleaning, oiling and polishing couldn’t fix.
That Saturday I went to the dojo and showed my new, old sword to my sensei. He is Japanese and he recognized the sword as a Kai Gunto, a navy sword. Together we took apart the sword. Removing the handle, the tsuka. The first thing that I noticed were the grooved lines. Small lines carved into the metal, close to the tsuba and the seppa on the nakago, the tang. In total there were twenty grooves.
“Sensei what are these lines?”
“Poru san. Do you know how American cowboys put notches on their guns for every kill? Well, Japanese warriors put notches on their nakago under the handles of their swords. The other members of the dojo were shocked. “This sword has killed people, probably our people,” said one of the students.
“It’s not the sword that kills people, it’s the owner, the sword is just a reflection of its owner. Everything is everything!” sensei replied.
That night I researched my sword and I found it had a history. A dark history that went back to the 1600s. The swordmaker had given this sword a name, a Mai. Sensei read the inscription as, Nami no Masuta. Roughly, master of the waves. I found the sword mentioned in battles from every century. One samurai actually left the sword for his son, telling him that the sword was a natural born killer and it hated not to be used for war.
During the 400-year Togukawa Shogunate, when there were no wars, the sword had killed members of the owners family on five separate occasions. That warrior wrote a poem, “This sword is not a sword to hand down to family members, this sword is better as a gift to an enemy.”
These were just legends and I did not pay any mind to them. It was not too long before I put new fittings on the blade so that I could use it for my sword practice. I had used a sharp blade on many occasions and I was not worried about that. It is a heavy blade though, all the better for cutting through an opponent.
“Not really for sword practice, Poru san,” sensei cautioned.
I was assisting at the dojo one evening and a couple of us students stayed after class to continue our practice. There is a technique called furikaburi. A super-fast draw that goes straight up and then overhead to cut down on an angle, kesa, from left ear to right hip.
I prepared, I set my mind, got comfortable in seiza, the kneeling position. I flexed my toes to push off with the ball of my foot, tensed my core and drew straight up. I held the saya and the tsuka of the katana, pulling the katana straight up and the saya down, the sword cleared the koiguchi, the opening, the mouth, it reached my shoulder height and with a sudden involuntary twitch of my muscles, the sword came back down, its razor-sharp killing blade puncturing my skin and penetrating my chest.
I had finally found relaxation and the combination of relaxed heaviness, gravity and a perfect blade, seemed to suck the blade down and through me with precision. Directly between my breastplate and my top rib and pierced my heart. The last thing that went through my consciousness was the ridiculous thought; “Imagine, that a sword could be cursed and needed to kill.”