Long before it was a nationalist rallying cry in Japan during WWII, the term Yamato-damashii referred to something less like racial imperialism and more like chivalry — the “Japanese Spirit” or “Old Soul of Japan,” as Greek-Japanese writer Lafcadio Hearn wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, the “Japanese Spirit” was not based in the martial arts of the samurai at first, but in the scholarship of China, as the ancient novel The Tale of Genji explains when defining Yamato-damashii as “a good, solid fund of knowledge… a fund of Chinese learning.” This would change when the code of Bushidō evolved, and the samurai, with his elaborate armor and elegant swords, became a central figure of honor in Japanese society.
In The Japanese Sword as the Soul of the Samurai, the nearly half-hour documentary above by traveling American documentary filmmaker Ken Wolfgang, George Takei narrates the tale of the samurai’s sword. The film begins with the legendary character Yamato Takeru (who one scholar speculates may share a common origin with King Arthur). This ur-samurai inherited the first sword from the tail of a eight-headed dragon that was slain by a god.
The sword, nicknamed “grass-mower,” Takei tells us, is enshrined near Nagoya, “the second of the three sacred symbols of Shinto, the national religion of Japan.” When we turn from myth to history, Takei says, we find that the “earliest known swords are found in the… tombs of the ancient Yamato people, who are believed to have inhabited Japan between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD,” and who are the origin of Yamato-damashii.
“As Japan developed, so did the sword,” becoming ever more refined in the country’s Middle Ages, where the weapon reached its “peak of perfection…. Its quality has never been surpassed to this day.” The sword became a soul — and we, as viewers, are treated to an insider’s view of the methods of its forging. The smithing of swords is no mere craft; it is a “religious ritual” that begins with prayers and offerings — fervent imprecations to the gods that the new sword may approach the perfection of a “grass-mower.” The forge is lit from the alter’s fire, and it can take months, or even years, to make just one sword. Don’t miss the rare opportunity to see the process in just over twenty minutes in this short documentary film.