By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Nikkei Samurai” a traveling exhibit on display at the Go For Broke National Education Center (355 E. First St. in Little Tokyo) until Sept. 17, looks at the connection between Japanese swords and Japanese Americans who served with the Military Intelligence Service during and after World War II.
The exhibit was curated by Michael Yamasaki and Darin Furukawa of Jidai Arts (www.jidaiarts.com), who specialize in appraising and restoring swords.
During the U.S. occupation of Japan (1945-1952), led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Nisei translators and interpreters from the MIS played a vital role, Furukawa explained. “They really served as a bridge between the Japanese population and the occupying forces. They were able to speak the language and, more importantly, understood the culture, so they were able to ease tensions and make the occupation … a successful one.”
As part of a program to disarm the population, MacArthur ordered that all swords be confiscated. No distinction was made between swords that were mass-produced for the military and those that were objects of art or family heirlooms.
Yamasaki, the only sword appraiser from the U.S. to win an all-Japan championship, noted, “A lot of Japanese nationals did not want to turn their swords over to the American military. They’d rather it was surrendered to another Japanese person, even if they were from America. So a lot of these swords were brought back by the MIS … One guy I know had 40 of them. Everybody kept giving him swords. He didn’t know what to do with them …
“He was actually in charge of the area where they collected swords and were throwing them in a furnace to destroy them … or they put them on boats, took them out to the middle of Tokyo Bay, and they sank the barge. It took several people to convince MacArthur that a lot of these swords were important for Japanese history and culture. Then he decided to allow certain people to separate them.”
While a collection of thousands of swords known as Akabane-to was kept in the basement of the Tokyo National Museum, some 3 million swords were taken home as souvenirs by U.S. servicemen, marking the only time that there were more swords outside of Japan than in Japan.
During the opening reception for the exhibit, Yamazaki appraised a sword brought by Paul Abe, who received it from his late uncle. Abe was not sure how his uncle, who did not serve in Japan, acquired the sword. It turned out to be from the 1500s and was in good condition. During that period, Yamazaki said, “They fought one-handed. There was a great civil war. There wasn’t a lot of technique … basically a conscript army.”
Yamazaki also has swords from the 1200s and 1300s, an era that is said to have produced the best swords ever made.
Depending on its condition and whether the craftsman was a noted sword-maker, as indicated by the signature, a sword could be worth $1 million or more. If the signature turns out not to be genuine, Yamazaki said, “the value is very little, like a fake Van Gogh.”
He added, “The craftsmen made very beautiful artistic pieces because that’s what the samurai wore instead of jewelry during the time, so your sword was your personal piece.” Designs depicting dragons, rabbits, boars and other animals were common.
During the Edo period, Furukawa noted, Japan enjoyed about 250 years of peace and prosperity, with samurai at the top of the class system. “They were able to reap all the benefits of that social status … and had a license to kill if you offended them … Only samurai were allowed to carry long swords … If you were of a lower social station and caught carrying a long sword, that was grounds for execution.”
One sword on display was made for Tokugawa Iemochi (1846-1866), the 14th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, in a style representative of the Kamakura period. Such a sword would not have been used to kill someone. But another sword came with records of tameshigiri or test cuts.
“This sword was actually tested on human bodies for its sharpness, first on four bodies, then again on two … They would often use criminals for these tests,” Furukawa said.
Early Japanese immigrants brought with them an adoration of the samurai and their values, as shown by a photograph of two Issei in samurai armor on horseback during a victory parade for the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) in Rock Springs, Wyo.
Many of the first immigrants were former samurai seeking opportunities that they couldn’t find in Japan after the class system was abolished in 1868 and they were prohibited from carrying their katana (long swords) in public.
“Regardless of the class that they were in Japan, they saw the samurai as this way of maintaining pride in their culture, especially when they came to America, where they were treated as second-class citizens,” Furukawa said. “ … A lot of them had swords and fittings that they brought with them from Japan … They would collect items that came from their home province as a way of keeping that connection.”
Citing similarities between statements by Sen. Daniel Inouye, who served with the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, and the precepts of expert swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, Furukawa said, “That sort of warrior code was still very much alive in the Nisei veterans.”
Pointing to another sword on display, Furukawa said that his grandfather, Tech Sgt. Richard Furukawa, served with the MIS and was collecting weapons in a small village when he was greeted by an old woman. “He told the woman why he was there and she went back in, came back out with a sword and said, ‘I understand you’re American, but you’re still Japanese. I don’t want the white people to have this. I want you to take care of it.’
“So my grandfather brought this back with him, he had it restored and he kept it safe in his closet for six decades. He passed it on to me shortly before he passed.”
The exhibit includes a photo of thousands of swords piled up for disposal during the occupation, as well as videos from GFBNEC’s Hanashi oral history project in which MIS veterans talk about collecting swords.
After the war, Nisei formed organizations such as the Nanka Token Kai, which presented sword exhibitions during Nisei Week. “They were able to spread this culture and spread the knowledge of the importance of the sword and how to preserve these blades for future generations,” Furukawa said.
“Nikkei Samurai: Japanese Swords and the Nisei Veteran” is free with admission to GFBNEC’s “Defining Courage” exhibition. General admission is $9 for adults, $5 for seniors, and free for students and teachers thanks to a grant from the Aratani Foundation. Hours: Thursday from 12 to 8 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 328-0907 or visit www.goforbroke.org.