Photo/IllutrationA sword forged by the first-generation Tadayoshi (Takashi Konishi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

SAGA--Legend has it that “Izo the man cutter,” a notorious samurai assassin in the closing days of the Edo Period (1603-1867), wielded a Hizen sword.

Feudal executioner Yamada Asaemon also raved about the sharpness of the blades that allowed him to perform his grisly work.

Those curious for an up-close view of these masterpieces of weaponry now have the chance to do so at the Saga Prefectural Museum.

Revered blades forged by the first-generation Tadayoshi and his disciples are currently on display at a special exhibition.

Reputed for creating swords whose sharpness was ranked among the best, the Tadayoshi school was based in Hizen Province, or present-day Saga and Nagasaki prefectures, during the Edo Period.

The 18-century book “Kaiho Kenshaku” evaluated swords based on “tameshi-giri” skills wielded by Asaemon and others on the corpses of executed criminals. It ranks swordsmiths from all eras on the basis of the sharpness of their blades.

The book's top-ranked “Saijo O-wazamono” included swords forged by renowned swordmakers Magoroku Kanemoto and Nagasone Kotetsu (aka Okisato) and other craftsmen. Swordsmiths from Hizen Province, the first-generation Tadayoshi (aka Tadahiro, or Hashimoto Shinzaemon) and the third-generation Tadayoshi, also made the list.

The first-generation Tadayoshi was a blacksmith employed by the Nabeshima clan of Saga Province and is believed to be the founder of Hizen swords. The school produced more than 100 swordsmiths up until the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when the group was headed by the ninth-generation Tadayoshi. Some of the Hizens were even presented to family members of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

It is said that Okada Izo of Tosa Province, aka “Izo the man cutter,” also wielded one during the final years of the shogunate’s rule.

Swords forged by the Tadayoshi school and hand guards featuring designs inspired by plants and Western trading ships are among 48 items regularly on display at the special exhibition.

Seventy-five items will be showcased at the event, a number of which will be replaced midway through its run.

One blade featured is a practical broadsword forged in 1600 by the first-generation Tadayoshi with a large tip.

Another sword manufactured in the 17th century by the first-generation Munetsugu, also from Hizen Province, and a “koshirae” mounting are designated by the Saga prefectural government as important cultural properties.

It is believed that the sword was once kept by Ko Kozen, who was brought to Japan by an army led by Nabeshima Naoshige, founder of the Nabeshima clan who ruled Hizen Province and took part in warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea. Ko later left an indelible mark as a secretary and a calligrapher.

A sword worn by Shinpei Eto, Japan’s first foreign minister who led the unsuccessful Saga Uprising, was added to the exhibition on June 4.

After World War II, Allied occupation forces stockpiled swords and blades confiscated in the Kanto region. Many of the items handed over to the Saga prefectural government about 20 years ago are also included in the exhibits.

Curator Mariko Kawasoe said many young women, drawn by the recent popularity of Japanese swords, have visited the exhibition.

“I want visitors to see how beautiful the swords are,” she said.

The “Saijo O-wazamono: Tadayoshi to Hizen-to” exhibition runs until July 15. The venue is closed on Mondays except for national holidays. Admission is free. Photos are permitted except for some of the exhibits.

For more information, visit the museum’s official website at (https://saga-museum.jp/museum/language/english/).