Presented by the local Dai nobility to a British customs officer in 1936.
Sheathed 72 cm
Bare blade 44 cm
(Notice it misses a guard)
Wood, iron, steel, cherry bark, paper, silk.
Ainu culture, Hokkaido
Ainu sword: 18th-19th century
Box, polish & shirasaya: late 19th to 20th century
Recently imported from Japan
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This sword was sold in 2021.
The Ainu people were the earliest settlers of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, and are considered the indigenous people of this area.
Their swords are called emush, and steel swords were, according to ethnographers, primarily used during ceremonies for expelling evil.1 The older the sword, the more powerful it was, and so many wealthier Ainu families kept collections of older swords. One of the earliest references to Ainu swords is from 1645 where Maarten Gerritszoon Vries observed that they hung the sword of a respectable deceased over his grave.2
An Ainu shortsword. It comes in a Japanese box with a label.
“Ainu country maigusa sword
No 2 pickup no 7″
Maigusa sword refers to a small group of very early forms of tachi with the words maigusa inscribed in the tang. Whoever made the label probably likened the piece to an archaic form of Japanese sword, like the maigusa.
The rest of the label refers to at least two acts of collecting, perhaps during the annexation of Hokkaido during the Meiji period.
Whoever this sword ended up with, he thought highly enough of it to treat it like a Japanese heirloom sword: The box contains an Ainu sword blade in Japanese shirasaya (a resting scabbard) and an Ainu hilt and scabbard held together by a wooden sword called tsunagi. This is how any Japanese collector would keep his prized sword and mounts, separate, to ensure the best survival of the blade.
The blade itself has also been subject to a Japanese polish, which allows us to see the details in the steel. Interestingly, the sword bears more resemblance to Chinese swords than Japanese, in the fact that it was constructed with a high-carbon edge plate between layers of milder steel. On Japanese swords, the construction tends to have a high carbon steel outer jacket around a softer iron core.
Both sides of the blade have a deep straight groove and a shallower, wavy groove, somewhat coarsely done and typical Ainu in style. Looking along the edge profile there is a very minor recess in the top section of the blade; an indication of more intensive grinding in this area which means either repeated sharpening or damage that was polished out. Such a recess is common on swords that have actually seen action, suggesting a life as a true weapon before it got a purely ceremonial function.
Hilt & scabbard
The hilt is made of a piece of wood with a slit on the reverse side, it is strengthened by bands of cherry bark. Normally, the hilt would have some metal fittings and it would have a guard, which are absent on this example.
The scabbard is made of two halves of wood bound together with rattan. It has a number of domed-shaped iron ornaments and three circular ornaments with three comma-shaped elements called mitsudomoe in Japanese. Some losses due to rusting.
At the end is a flaring endpiece, somewhat reminiscent of Chinese 18th-century styles.
1. John Batchelor; An Ainu-English-Japanese dictionary (including a grammar of the Ainu language). Tokyo Methodist Publishing House, 1905. For the ritual, see, same author: The Ainu of Japan: the religion, superstitions, and general history of the hairy aborigines of Japan. London, Religious Tract Society, 1892.
2. Reize van Maarten Gerritszoon Vries in 1643 naar het noorden en oosten van Japan, volgens het journaal gehouden door C. J. Coen, op het schip Castricum. Amsterdam, F. Muller, 1858. Page 377
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