Lost Masterpiece

Is This Famous Samurai Sword Missing In America?

Considered one of the best swords to have ever been crafted, the Honjo Masamune has lived a storied life over the past seven centuries—but its whereabouts today are a mystery.

07.30.16 4:01 AM ET

From appearances on the big screen to glass-enclosed shrines in art museums, almost everyone today is familiar with the gleaming, curved blade of a majestic samurai sword.

In the fierce world of weaponry, the samurai sword holds a place of honor as the pinnacle of craftsmanship, blending functionality and beauty to create something like a practical piece of art. 

Japanese swordsmiths have been fashioning these delicate and deadly blades, also known as katana, for over a millennium, but there is none that has matched the sword known as the Honjo Masamune. 

Considered one of the best swords to have ever been crafted, the Honjo Masamune has lived a storied life over the past seven centuries. It has been wielded by samurai, passed down through generations of a Japanese shogunate, and been honored as an official National Treasure of Japan.

But the one test it has yet to overcome is the invasion of American soldiers during World War II, when it was seen for the last time. 

As with all good tales of mastery and adventure, the Honjo Masamune and it’s creator, Goro Nyudo Masamune, have entered the world of legend. It can be hard to distinguish fact from myth in the life of Masamune, but it is widely believed that he lived and plied his trade from the mid-13th century through the turn of the 14th, during the golden age of swordsmithing in Japan. During this era of Japanese history, known as the Kamakura Period, the samurai ruled Japan and fought off a series of Mongol invasions aided by their deadly weapon, which was commonly said to be the “soul of the samurai.” 

Well before modern tools or technology, Masamune was crafting some of the finest swords Japan had ever seen. The only man said to rival him was a fellow master of the craft known as Sengo Muramasa. While Muramasa was considered a top-notch blacksmith, he was also allegedly a troubled man, and these traits of violence were thought to be melted into the blades that he forged.

Legend has it that one day, the two swordsmiths decided to go head to head to see whose creations were truly the best in the world.

Masamune and Muramasa each dropped one of their swords, point down, into a nearby river. Muramasa was sure that he had won after his blade sliced through everything the current sent its way.

But a passing monk disagreed. He awarded the win to Masamune, whose blade had only sliced through the leaves, sparing the innocent lives of fish and other living things that had come its way. 

Of all of Masamune’s creations, the Honjo Masamune is considered to be his finest. It’s not clear who the sword was made for, but one of its earliest owners—and the man who contributed the first half of its name—was a warrior by the name of Honjo Shigenaga. The story goes that Shigenaga was attacked in a battle by a warrior wielding the blade. He was hit on the head and the sword cracked his helmet in half. But he quickly retaliated, killing his attacker and taking the prized weapon for himself. 

After Shigenaga, the blade passed through a series of hands, lost and won in battles and sold by owners in need of some cash. It eventually landed in the hands of the Tokugawa family, who ruled Japan for over 250 years. Because of the sword’s prestige, it became a symbol of the Tokugawa Shogunate and was passed down through generations of the family long after their rule ended. The Honjo Masamune was awarded the distinction of being named an official Japanese National Treasure in 1939. 

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When World War II blazed onto the scene, the sword was still a prized possession of one branch of the Tokugawa family. But that all changed when the fiery burst of atomic destruction brought the war to a sudden end. Japan surrendered, and the victorious Allies led by the U.S. army entered the country.

In a somewhat puzzling move, the U.S. decreed that all Japanese families must turn over their weapons, including the samurai swords that were long-time family heirlooms for many of the country’s top clans. This ruling was eventually overturned, but not before many swords were disappeared or destroyed. 

One of these was the fabled Honjo Masamune. The Tokugawa family, deciding to set a good example by abiding by the American decree, relinquished their famous sword to the U.S. military. It has never been seen since. Many believe it was given to an American soldier, who presumably took it back to the U.S. as something of a spoil of war. But the only name that was ever suggested as a possible lead was a Sgt. Coldy Bimore, a man who extensive efforts have failed to identify or locate.

Adding to the lack of viable leads is the fact that Masamune’s swords are notoriously difficult to identify and locate. The practice of signing the metal hilt of the sword was popular during his heyday, but, whether out of humility or preferred style, the most famous blacksmith in Japan often refused to follow this practice.

The whereabouts of only a handful of his creations are known today. In 2014, an expert at the Kyoto National Museum identified the first Masamune blade in over 150 years, one known as the Shimazu Masamune. Another sits in the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, gifted to the 33rd president by an American general who was given the sword by a Japanese family during the occupation at the end of WWII. 

But the most famous—and greatest—of all the samurai swords has yet to be located. It remains hidden, most likely sitting in a home somewhere in the U.S., languishing as an unknown and forgotten treasure of a long ago war. Albeit, a treasure that is now worth a serious amount of money.