WWII Imperial Japanese Army Officers Sword

I have found out more information on the sword dad brought back from WWII. I have previously described it as an Imperial Japanese Naval Officer’s sword, as that is as close as I could get from researching similar looking swords.  

After much additional research, and purchase of a rather expensive, out of print book on Japanese military swords, I have found that the sword originated from the Japanese occupation of Korea.  These swords were authorized for military officials of the colonial government of Korea from 1911 to the end of the WW II in 1945. 

Japanese occupational troops in Korea

Dad’s sword was issued to a Hannin, or junior-level officer in the Japanese Army that was assigned to occupation duty in Korea prior to, or during World War II.  It is in great shape overall, with a beautiful ray skin covered handle and brass fittings.  

A similar sword that was for sale for $600. I found 2-3, selling anywhere from $600-$1200.

The style of the sword is kyu-gunto (roughly “old”, or “first” pattern military sword). Starting in 1875, a new sword was developed that became the first standard issue for the new army. It is a hybrid of European ideas and Japanese sword traditions. If you’ve seen the rather fictionalized “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise, you know the time period this sword was originally designed in. 

At the start of the Meiji Restoration, the Samurai were disenfranchised and the Japanese government began creating an imperial army along European lines, changing their military swords from the traditional Samurai style, to a more European style.

The hilt is very European with its guard and knuckle bow, with the sacred Imperial Chrysanthemum, or kiku, incorporated on the pommel. The chrysanthemum is the emblem of the Imperial Family. According to historical records, Emperor Gotoba and his three succeeding emperors enjoyed using chrysanthemums as a pattern. Although this crest was reserved to the Imperial Family, it was also awarded by the imperial court to other people who had shown excellence in service to the imperial household. 

Chrysanthemum flower on pommel

The sides of the backstrap have a Kiri emblem of the Paulownia Imperialis flower bloom, with a main 7 floret bud arrangement with 5 smaller florets on either side, signifying government service in Korea. 

Kiri emblem on hilt

The Paulownia is a deciduous tree that is widely cultivated in Japan. It belongs to the figwort family Paulowniaceae and it is also known as the “princess tree” or “emperor tree”. 

This tree was adopted as a crest motif because it symbolizes good fortune. In China, people consider it a lucky tree where phoenixes reside. It was also believed that these phoenixes sing “long live the king!” in the high, blooming branches of the tree.

Because of this belief, the paulownia tree became a pattern used in the emperor’s clothes and then later became a crest during the end of the Kamakura period. This crest is awarded by the imperial court to retainers. The retainers also awarded the crest to vassals who had performed exemplary deeds.

The blade itself is in the style of a katana, with an edge that turns up abruptly just before the tip.

Blade showing fuller and katana tip

Like older, traditional Japanese swords, the blade passes through a rectangular collar (habaki) which appears to be made of copper, and a flat spacer with a rippled edge (seppa) before entering the guard. 

Showing copper habaki and rippled seppa on hilt

The grip is traditional Japanese same-kawa, white ray skin, wrapped in typical European style with a triple strand of wire.

White Ray skin handle

The sword also has a folding leaf that is part of the cross guard that serves as a catch for securing the sword in the scabbard.  

Hinged leaf to lock sword into scabbard

The blade is just a little under 26 inches long.  It has a blood groove, more properly known as a fuller, running almost the entire length of the blade. 

Full length fuller groove

The scabbard is constructed of wood, with a thin lacquered shark skin covering.  

Lacquered shark skin scabbard

This has three nice brass fittings, two at the top that serve as hangers, and one at the bottom to protect the tip.  

Brass hangers on scabbard
Brass scabbard tip

In the definitive (and expensive!) Fuller and Gregory book “Military Swords of Japan 1868-1945”, they call the sword a “1911 pattern Hannin (Junior) Officials sword of the Government General of Korea”. They go on the say that the sword should be considered rare, and is considered a purely ceremonial sword.

The description in the book:

Japanese Chosen Hannin Level Official Dress Sword

This is a rare example of a Japanese Chosen (Korea) Hannin Level Official’s Sword that would have been carried by Japanese Officials assigned to the occupational Government. It is mounted with a machine-made blade that has a cutting edge measuring 25 3/4 inches in length.  The sword is 31 inches overall. The plain brass frames a beautiful white Same-kawa, a ray skin wrapping of the hilt, with its original twisted wire wrap still tightly in place.

How dad came to be in possession of this sword is a mystery, and most likely will always be a mystery.  It is very possible he picked it up somewhere on the battlefields of the Philippines or Okinawa where he was subjected to a number of banzai charges as the Japanese grew more desperate.   

Page from dad’s diary describing his first banzai charge

A Banzai charge is the term used by the Allied forces to refer to Japanese human wave attacks mounted by their infantry units. This term came from the Japanese cry “Tenno Heika Banzai” for “Long live the Emperor”, and shortened to banzai, and it specifically refers to a tactic used by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War. 

Banzai attack

Banzai was born of the militaristic government of Japan that had again adopted the concepts of Bushido to condition the country’s population to be ideologically obedient to the emperor. Impressed with how samurai were trained to commit suicide when a great humiliation was about to befall them, the government educated troops that it was a greater humiliation to surrender to the enemy than to die. 

During the war period, the Japanese government began disseminating propaganda that romanticized suicide attack, using one of the virtues of Bushido as the basis for the campaign. The Japanese government presented war as purifying, with death defined as a duty. By the end of 1944, the government announced the last protocol, unofficially named ichioku gyokusai, literally “100 million shattered jewels”, for the purpose of resisting opposition forces until the surrender.

Often, banzai participants drank large quantities of sake and beer to work themselves into a frenzy and give themselves additional courage to charge headlong into overpowering firepower.  It had to be terrifying on both sides of such a charge. 

As children, we, at least I, imagined exactly this type of situation occurring with this symbol of the most frightening kind of hand to hand combat…a crazed enemy emerging out of the darkness screaming banzai and swinging a three foot, razor sharp blade with a total disregard to whether he lived or died. 

Holding the sword, I imagined dad coming face to face with a wild-eyed Japanese soldier intent on running him through, surviving the melee, then collecting the sword as a trophy of battle.  It wouldn’t have been the first time in that war, as he had narrowly escaped a face to face run-in inside a Japanese bunker.

Although I asked dad how he acquired the sword several times, I never got a real answer. “During the war” or “Off a dead Jap” were typical responses.  He never elaborated, perhaps for good reason. It may well have been on the battlefield from an officer that had served in Korea prior to being posted in the Pacific But it may be just as likely that he picked it up wheeling and dealing after the surrender of Japan.

Dad was posted to occupy Korea right from the battle in Okinawa to help keep the Japanese under control and prevent the Russians from moving beyond the 38th Parallel.  

Army of Occupation Medal for Asian theater

So, he might also have picked the sword up from a Japanese POW in Korea, or from a pile of surrendered weapons, or he might have just traded a few cartons of smokes to another GI for a cool officer’s sword. 

Japanese soldiers being disarmed by US-forces in Korea

It wouldn’t have been easy packing a sword around in the jungles of the Philippines or the horrific monsoons of Okinawa. While they kept non-combat essential gear in rear areas, they were constantly on the move.

What I am sure of is that dad saw more than his share of charging Japanese infantrymen brandishing swords, bayonets and grenades, as witnessed by the shrapnel he carried in his body his entire life.

They were all trying to send him, as he wrote in the pages of his war diary, “to go see his honorable ancestors” before they saw theirs. I’m glad it took him eighty years to see them instead of just nineteen.

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