The sword of Kusanagi, the storied sword that completes the Imperial Regalia of Japan, is the stuff of ancient history and timeless legends abound by gods, monsters, and the few mortals who dared wield its piercing magic. But is the sword of Kusanagi, its very existence, part of real-life history? Or is this most storied blade fashioned only from tall tales forged brilliantly into an enduring legend? For us to arrive at answers, we must first take our journey back to a much, much earlier point in time.
The Imperial Regalia: The Three Great Treasures of Japan
The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, or grass-cutting sword, makes one of the three Imperial Regalia, The Great Treasures of Japan. Along with the Kusanagi sword, the other Regalia objects consist of The Regalia Mirror Yata-no-Kagami and the Regalia Jewel Yasakani-no-Magatama. The Imperial Regalia is said to embody the three primary virtues central to the ancient and now modern Japanese society. While the Yasakani Jewel embodies benevolence, and the Yata Mirror represents wisdom, the Kusanagi Sword is the very embodiment of valor.
Ever since the 7th century, the presentation of The Regalia Objects to the Emperor by a priest has been an essential element to the enthronement ceremony. The enthronement ceremony is a highly private tradition in which only the emperor and selected priests have the privilege of actually laying their eyes on the sacred treasures. Two of the three treasures, the Yasakani Jewel and the Kusanagi Sword, were last seen in 1989 during the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Akihito.
Before it was known as the Kusanagi, the sacred sword carried a different name—Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, which translates to Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven. The legendary sword’s origin is one that extends to an equally legendary battle that went down between the Storm God Susanoo and the eight-headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi.
Once in time, according to ancient Japanese lore, there existed a fearsome eight-headed serpent named Yamata-no-Orochi. For the longest time, the monster-serpent wreaked havoc to the province of Izumo, while it terrorized the province’s ruling Ashinazuchi family. The ruling family had nine daughters, and the serpent having devoured eight of them, was coming for the last Ashinazuchi daughter. Not wanting to lose another daughter, the head of the family sought the help of the then exiled Storm God Susanoo.
Upon hearing the story, the Storm God Susanoo wasted no time and tracked down and attacked the eight-headed beast. His valiant efforts, however, were in vain. Orochi proved to be a formidable beast, and the Storm God was ultimately forced to retreat. Although defeated at the moment, Susanoo wasted no time as he started to devise his next plan of attack against the serpent Orochi.
Susanoo’s plan was as cunning as it was simple. The Storm God planned on getting each of Orochi’s eight heads drunk. And so, the Storm God Susanoo went on with the preparations. He had arranged eight giant bowls of sake, Japanese rice wine, to lure out the eight-headed serpent. Orochi took the bait and fell for the trap.
Intoxicated and asleep, the beast was defenseless when Susanoo attacked, ferociously decapitating each of Orochi’s eight heads. To make certain that Orochi was unable to regenerate and return, Susanoo with his sword chopped off the serpent’s tails. Olden stories have it that it is in one of the Orochi’s tails that Susanoo recovered a second sword, the legendary sword which at the moment he named Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, or Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven.
Yamato Takeru: The First Kusanagi Swordsman
The Sun God Susanoo did not keep custody of the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi for very long. Although a god, Susanoo was banished from heaven because of a long-standing quarrel with his sister Ameterasu, Goddess of the Sun. Wanting to make peace with Ameterasu, Susanoo gifted the Sword of Gathering Clouds to her as a peace offering thus ending his long exile.
Entire generations have come and gone. And many generations soon after, the Sword of Gathering Clouds changed hands once more when the Sun Goddess Ameterasu presented the sword to the great warrior Yamato Takeru, the son of Emperor Keiko—the 12th Emperor of Japan. It was in the hands of Takeru that the sword claimed its present name. It was also in the hands of the great warrior that the Kusanagi extended its existence deep into the imperial line of Japan.
According to the legend, Takeru first discovered of the sword’s magic during a hunting expedition when a rival warlord lured him onto an open grassland. The warlord had his men shoot flaming arrows, thus setting the grass ablaze, and trapping Takeru in the fiery landscape.
Moments away from burning to his death, Yamato Takeru drew the Sword of Gathering Clouds. With a series of wild swings, he used it to cut down the grass and clear a path that he can use to escape. Olden stories tell that it was during Takeru’s desperate attempt to escape the fiery grassland that he first discovered the Kusanagi’s magical ability to control the wind. Taking advantage of its new found magic, Takeru used the Sword of Gathering Clouds to gain control of the wind and sweep the great big fire across the landscape to the direction of the rival warlord and his men.
Celebrating his victory over the treacherous warlord and commemorating his narrow escape from death, Takeru changed the name of the sword from Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven to Grass Cutting Sword—The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. At that moment Yamato Takeru became the first man to wield the legendary Kusanagi sword. And since then, the Kusanagi bestowed upon its wielder the supreme power to be most powerful ruler in all of Japan. It is for this very reason that the Kusanagi sword, along with other Regalia Objects, are presented in the enthronement ceremony when a new Japanese Emperor assumes power.
Historical Accounts of the Kusanagi
The earliest mention of the Kusanagi sword appeared in the ancient Japanese text, Kojiki. However, since Kojiki is a collection of Japanese myths, the text in it describing the existence of the Kusanagi is regarded less as a historical account and more as a work of early Japanese fiction.
The first reliable historical mention of the sword is found in the Nihonshoki. Although parts of this book consist of mythological stories, the Nihonshoki prominently contains sections that recorded real-life historical events that were contemporary to its writing. In the Nihonshoki, it was the written that the Kusanagi was removed from the Imperial Palace in Nara in 668 AD after the sword was suspected to cause Emperor Tenmu’s ill health. Having been removed from the Imperial Palace, the Kusanagi was the sent to the Atsuta Shrine to be safeguarded by Shinto priests.
Originally built 1900 years ago, the Atsuta Shrine is among the most prominent places of worship from the time of ancient Japan. As the Atsuta Shine underwent major repairs during the Edo period, the Great Grand Shinto priest Matsuoka Masanao claimed that he was able to witness the legendary blade in the flesh. Upon describing the sword, Matsuoka detailed what became the most popular account of the Kusanagi:
“A stone box was in the wooden box of length 150 cm, a red earth had been stuffed into a gap, a cored camphor tree log like a box shape was seen in the stone box, and gold was laid out, the sword was placed on it. A red earth was also stuffed between the stone box and the camphor tree box. The sword was about 84 cm long, shaped like calamus, the middle of the sword had a thickness, and from the grip, about 18cm is like a fish spine, fashioned in a white metallic color, and well maintained.”
Almost immediately after witnessing the Kusanagi, the Great Grand Priest Matsuoka was banished from the Shrine, while several Shinto priests died strange deaths.
The Tale of the Heike
After the sword’s possession by Yamato Takeru, there are few other stories that make prominent mention of past whereabouts of the Kusanagi. In The Tale of the Heike, a 14th-century collection of Japanese epic oral poetry, the Kusanagi sword is said to have been lost at sea following the defeat of the Kusanagi owners Heike clan and the child emperor Antoku in the Naval Battle of Dan-no-Ura.
In the story, the Emperor's grandmother upon gathering the news of their clan’s defeat led the Emperor and his men to commit suicide by jumping into the waters. It was said that the emperor’s grandmother took with her two of the Three Sacred Treasures—the Regalia Jewel Yasakani-no-Magatama, and the Regalia Sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. The Regalia Mirror, meanwhile, stayed with a lady servant.
Stories tell that while the Regalia Jewel was salvaged in its casket floating at sea, the Kusanagi Sword was lost forever to the great waters. The historical reliability of this account, however, is regarded as questionable as the Tale of Heike was written 200 years well after the actual Battle of Dan-no-Ura took place. In those 200 years, more than a few replicas of the Three Sacred Treasures were made and lost when rival members of the royal family soldiered their way into power. It is widely thought that the Imperial Regalia lost in the Battle of Dan-no-Ura were mere replicas, as the original Regalia Objects remained tucked away in the Atsuta Shrine.
The Kusanagi Today
Today, it is believed that the Kusanagi sword remains safeguarded, as it was in the ancient times, well within the walls of the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. The sword’s last known appearance in modern history was when it was presented to Emperor Akihito, along with the Regalia Jewel, in his enthronement ceremony in 1989. And even then both imperial objects remained practically unseen as both were shrouded in packages.
Whether or not the Kusanagi, and the rest of the Imperial Regalia, still exist in their original incarnations can only be the subject of wild and probably endless speculations. Perhaps the only thing that holds some semblance of certainty is that these ancient, sacred relics—part-myth and part-history in their very existence—have shaped Japan in the most real way imaginable.