Two Swords

Two swords, and the Birth and Death of a Navy

By Richard W. Babin


The overthrow of the 250 year Tokugawa shogunate and the reversal of its strict isolationism via the Meiji restoration in 1868 resulted in a whirlwind change from an agrarian feudal state to a fully trading world industrial power by the Japanese nation over a short 30 years. A constitutional monarchy partially based on England and France, a newly invented state religion loosely based on the folk and shogunate traditions of the past in symbiosis with Buddhism, an Army based on Prussian principles, a Navy based on English ones and an industrial-military complex influenced by both America and Europe all came into being during that short period as Japan reinvented itself.(1) Hand and hand with this came an intense nationalism which represented both the best, and the worst of the newly formed Nation. And of course, in the process, many babies, including the art of creating nihonto were nearly thrown out with the bath water. By the turn of the century, the number of functioning sword smiths had so diminished that the Meiji Emperor, himself a sword collector, appointed two influential smiths, Gasan Sadakazu and Hayama Enshin as “Artisan of the Imperial Household” to honor their skill and dedication to the preservation of the art, and to insure the art was not lost forever. (2)  In 1896 Horii Taneyoshi became an official sword smith of the Imperial Household and was later succeeded by his son, Horii Taneaki.  At the beginning of the Taisho era, the Nihon Steel production company, which had been very active in metallurgy research invited Horii Taneaki to join their Muroran Branch factory in an undertaking called the Zuisen Tantojo. His entire family joined him in Hokkaido including his son, Horii Toshihide. (3)


Japan was intimately aware of the political weakness of its most significant neighbor, China, and how she had been prostituted by the European powers during the entirety of the 19th Century.  As part of Japan’s self-defense and for the projection of her own national interests she elected almost immediately to become the prime sea-going power in Asian waters. Under the premiership of Ito Hirobumi her first ironclad ships were built in Europe, where, at a time, a great expansion of fire power, speed and armament was taking place. Japan’s strategy was to use these first foreign build ships as models that she could then use to forge her own fleet on Japanese soil and sea.  The last and greatest of these ships, the Mikasa was a pre-dreadnought battleship built by Vickers in Great Britain , launched in 1900 and commissioned in 1902.  At 15140 tons displacement, a speed of 18 knots and with  4 12 inch guns in turrets and a host of smaller rapid fire guns and 4 torpedo tubes, she was as good as anything the English themselves had in their fleet at the time. (4)


At the turn of the century Japan had been the butt of Russian-Chinese “negotiations” for control of Manchuria and Korea which all three nations considered in their sphere of influence.  Japan had defeated China obliterating her modern battle fleet in a short war in 1894-1895 through strategy. In so doing she thought she had gained control over some of the all weather ports on the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. Mutual suspicion of Russian expansionist efforts resulted in the Anglo Japanese Alliance of 1902. Not withstanding, European influence encouraged Russia, buoyed by their advances during the Boxer Rebellion (1900) to try to dominate the Manchurian and Korean peninsula and establish more southern all-weather ports for her pacific fleet at the time based in Vladivostok.  Out of frustration in 1904 Japan launched an attack on the Liaotung peninsula at the end of which was the heavily fortified Russian Fort Arthur in which lay the Russian Pacific fleet under command of Admiral Rozhestvensky.

The Japanese fleet was commanded by Admiral Heihatchiro Togo, whose flagship was the Mikasa.  Togo had been born in Kagoshima, the castle town of the Shimizu clan of Satsuma prefecture and he had seen action in both the Meiji and Satsuma rebellions as well as having trained with the British Navy between 1871 and 1887.(5) Among the many seamen serving with him on the Mikasa in the Yellow Sea was one LtJG Yasumi Saburo, on leave from duties with the recently formed torpedo training school.(6) (torpedoes were most often launched from surface vessels at this stage of naval warfare.)  Togo audaciously sailed to Fort Arthur and attacked the Russian fleet at anchor with torpedo gun boats.  When the Russian fleet cleared the harbor the next day to do battle, they were overwhelmed by the speed and gunning of the Japanese fleet and retreated back to the port with several losses.  Admiral Togo made several unsuccessful attempts to bottle up the Russian fleet in the port. On April 13th 1904, he managed to entice the Russian fleet from the port. During the maneuvering that ensued, Admiral Rozhestvensky’s flagship, the Petropavlovsk, the most powerful sea fighter in the Czar’s navy, mysteriously blew up in the process with the loss of fleet Commander-in-Chief ADM Markaroff.  While the official Russian story was that it hit an anchored mine, it is most likely that it was the first ship-of-the-line to ever be destroyed by a submarine, one of four newly launched in Japan, designed along new American lines and included with the Japanese fleet.(7)  All in all, the battle of the Yellow Sea was an astounding Japanese victory over a much more numerous but poorly commanded Russian fleet.  During the battle, one of Mikasa’s sub-guns on the side of the vessel was damaged and was replaced.


Following the defeat of the Russian Pacific fleet, the Japanese land forces attacked and laid siege to Fort Arthur, gradually rolling up each of the defensive positions. Russian supply lines were shaky at best along the 2000 mile single track Siberian railroad, subject to Japanese espionage and Russian disorganization whereas the Japanese were easily reinforced by freighters from home almost daily.  Despite brave resistance by the Russian army and bloody and heroic fighting, Fort Arthur fell to the Japanese on January 1, 1905.   By this time, Russian had dispatched its Baltic fleet to the Far East, setting up the final act of the war, the battle of Tsushima Straights. On May 27, as the Russian Baltic fleet attempted to make a run for the port of Vladivostok, Admiral Togo set his attack in motion by raising the “Z” signal flag on the bridge of the Mikasa.  This message was a predetermined code for the statement “The fate of the Empire lies with this battle.  Let every man do his utmost.” a phrase he borrowed from Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar.  The Japanese fleet did just that, making a sudden sequential 180-degree turn and raking the Russian fleet and driving them onto pre-positioned Japanese mines. At the end of the Japanese battle line aboard the armored cruiser Nisshin was a young officer who was knocked unconscious by a Russian shell and lost two fingers of his left hand. His name was Takano Isoroku, but he would be better known at a later date by his adopted name, Yamamoto.(8)  Of the 38 ships of the Baltic fleet that fought in this battle, only one cruiser and two destroyers were able to reach Vladivostok.(9) The Russian’s claim to Manchuria and Korean ports became history.


Mikasa and Admiral Togo became characters of international renown.  The Admiral served as Chief of the Navy General Staff, was made a count, in 1911 attended the coronation of George V and then in 1934 became a marquis. Following the Russo Japanese war, the IJN fleet continued to grow. The last ship of the line to be built in a foreign country, the Kongo was launched by Vickers in 1913, the largest fighting ship in the world at that time and boasting newly designed and arranged 14” guns. (10)  From her lines, three sister ships were later built in the yards at Kobe.  Mikasa experienced an unexplained explosion, that sent her to the bottom of Sasebo harbor in 1905 but after a year she was raised and extensively renovated. Mikasa was gradually outclassed by the newer ships, especially the dreadnoughts of the Kongo class.  She remained in the fleet until 1921 when she was decommissioned as a result of the Washington Naval Treaty that set a ratio of ships for England, the US, and Japan.  In May of 1922, now CAPT Yasumi Saburo, and an expert in torpedo warfare took command of Mikasa for 5 months, perhaps to move her to her final resting place at Yokosuka on Tokyo bay. Despite pressure from Russia to scrap her, the Japanese disarmed her, but preserved her hull. As such she later rode out the Great Pacific War.  In 1924, CAPT Saburo took command of the Kongo for a year until he was promoted to RADM and became commander of First Submarine Detachment. (11) 


It is clear that by the start the Showa era, war with the United States was considered a distinct possibility.  The overwhelming philosophy of the Imperial navy built on the lessons of the Russo Japanese war, and the English- German naval conflict during WWI was the concept of luring the US fleet out to the Western Pacific and annihilating it by the use of fast, heavily gunned Battleships.  To that end, the Imperial navy had built a fleet that sacrificed the need for frequent refueling for speed, armor and fire power. As the likelihood of war with the US increased substantially in the late 1930’s, only a handful of influential naval leaders felt that the battleship as the primary instrument of naval success had been superseded by air power. This prevailed despite their experience with Chinese air power in the land war in Manchuko.   In 1932, RADM Saburo addressed the lower house of parliament and warned that the United States was supplying China with pilots and training for multiple airdromes surrounding Japanese interests. (12) On another occasion he addressed the same body on the cycle of distrust involving their relationship with Great Britain who was concerned about their colonies in the south Pacific.  The most influential of the air-power proponents was VADM Yamamoto Isoroku who was to eventually be the overall Commander-in Chief of the attack on Hawaii.  Also championing the air superiority concept was CAPT Takijiro Onishi, Chief of the Education Bureau of the Naval Aeronautics Department who would later go on to conceive and implement the Kamikaze air suicide missions in 1944. (13)  Another strong proponent of massed air attack was CAPT Minoru Genda, a brilliant air-staff officer who almost single-handedly worked out the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor for ADM Yamamoto. In the mean time, the Manchurian incident was spiraling out of control. On the eve of the fall of Nanking in on or about December 19, 1938, touring in his current role as Vice Minister of Overseas Affairs and Political Affairs, VADM Saburo writes “When we left the city of Nanking and went to Guanghua Gate, I was told that until a few days ago, cars had been driving over bodies.”(14) He apparently resigned his commission and retired shortly after completing this trip.


From the Meiji era, both the army and navy had established officer’s friendship associations.  These groups rapidly spread their influence in a variety of directions and served, in part as military supply centers for personal items for officers, including weapons.  The Navy group, the Suikosha, originally was housed in a building in the Tsukiji area of Tokyo, but in 1928 moved into the traditional mansion of the Hisamatsu estate.(15)  The group was very active in promoting fleet growth, not the least of which through the development of pro-navy civilian entertainment literature.  By 1935, they had expanded the property with a large annex, in which athletic events were held.  For example, on May 27, 1937, Navy Day, Futabayama won a sumo tournament in the presence of His Majesty the Emperor. (16) Many high ranking officers used the facility for recreation and entertaining and it is claimed that the plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor were often discussed on site.(17)


Since the 1920’s, the Suikosha had pushed for the forging of otherwise traditional nihonto as patriotic symbols with a small admixture of steel from the sub-gun of the Mikasa that had been replaced in 1904. Finally, the Muroran Industrial Factory’s Zuisen Sword Workshop in Hokkaido was selected for the work shortly after it’s founding in the mid 20’s.(18) The noted sword smith Horii Toshihide, between January, 1928 and May, 1932, supervised their production by his group under his original art name, Hideaki,. A total of 229 Katana were forged and labeled “steel from the guns of the Mikasa” at least some of which were by special order. One blade described is engraved as belonging to Lt GEN Takijiro Onishi, mentioned above and at the time the sword was commissioned was commander of the First Air Fleet. (19)  Another is inscribed the property of VADM Yasumi Saburo, a reservist and Parliamentary Vice Minister of Cultivation.  Nine hundred and seventy-three Ko Mikasa dirks were forged and engraved with the phrase “The fate of the Empire is decided by this battle” on the omote of their blade.  Four hundred and fifty-one Otsu-grade Mikasa dirks were also forged. (20) Most of the blades are believed to have been sold through the Suikosha, many of the dirks going to Naval Academy cadets. Other “Mikasa swords” have been documented.   VADM Yamamoto Isoroku is reported to have commissioned Sakai Ikkansai Shiemasu, from his home town of Nagaoka to produce ten identical dirks engraved with the “Z phrase” and identified as Imperial gifts.  VADM Yamamoto’s name appears on the tang. Only one recipient is known, VADM Ugaki Matome.(21)  Horii Toshihide, at Zuisen Sword workshop is also known to have made a presentation sword from Manchurian steel in 1942 presented to the Showa Emperor by the Manchuko Emperor on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the founding of Manchuko .(22) He also participated in an Imperial exhibition in 1935 of Japanese crafts that finally, under pressure from the ultranationalists, included swords and was rated very highly for a stunning 2 shaku 7 sun blade (23)


By the end of the war, most of the above players had come to bad ends.  In 1945, while sailing off Taiwan the Battleship Kongo was sunk by the USS Sealion.  This was the first ever and the only time a full battleship had been sunk by a submarine. (24)  Admiral Togo had passed away in 1934, and his son, the Japanese war minister was sentenced to be hung as a class A war criminal.  Admiral Yamamoto was killed when his transport was shot down by American P-38s near Bougainville in 1943.  His recovered remains lay in state in the Suikosha and from whence started his funeral procession.  Horii Toshihide, considered a premier sword smith of the first half of the Showa era passed away of natural causes in 1943.  His son and grandson continued to carry on his traditions in Zuisen Tanto sho of Hokkaido.  GEN Onishi committed seppuku at the announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender, leaving behind a note condemning the Kamikaze concept and expressing sorrow for all the young pilots lost. (25) Only VADM Saburo, The Zuisen Tanto sho and the Mikasa had come through, intact. The Admiral resigned his commission in 1945 and quietly passed away in 1965 at age 84. According to the Muroran Times of February 1, 2007, Takimoto Yousuke, 20 years of age and the nephew of Horii Tanetada, the fourth generation sword smith at Zuisen Tanto sho, has been hired as their new apprentice.  The battleship Mikasa won a permanent place of honor as a museum ship in Tokyo bay at Yokuska, one of  the designated “three great historical warships of the world” the others being the Constitution in Boston and the Victory in Portsmouth.. And of course, there are the swords.


Sword One


Group:              Mikasato dirk

Jidai:                 Early Showa

Mei:                  Mikasa hou hagawa hideaki

Uramei:             showa 5 nen 8 gatsu jitsu

Sugata:             hirazukuri

Nagasa:            10”

Sori:                 uchizori

Mune:               iore

Boshi:               komaru

Jigane:              uniform koitame

Hamon:             nioideki suguha  with multiple sunagashi and localized areas of nei

Horamono:        Omote: kokoku no kobai kono issin ni ari

Kasane:            0.32”

Motohaba          O.97”

Yasurime:         kesho yasuri

Habaki:             new solid silver

Koshira:            new shirasaya


Sword Two

Group:              Mikasato kaigunto

Jidai:                 Early Showa

Mei:                  motte gunkan mikasa hoko hideaki

Uramei:             showa 6 nen 2 gatsu kitsu jitsu   Yasuri Saburi Shiyomo

Sugata:             shinogi zukuri

Nagasa:            26.6”

Sori:                 0.7”

Mune:               iori

Boshi:               komaru

Jigane:              uniform koitame

Hamon:             nioideki  uma no ha midare with very long ashi

Motogasane:     0.25”

Saikgasane:      0.20’

Motohaba:         1.25”

Sakihaba:          0.9”

Yasurime:         kesho yasuri

Habaki:             one piece silver

Koshira:            Old shirasaya


(1)        Fujitani T, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan

            Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

(2)        Kishida T, the Yasukuni Swords, Rare Weapons of Japan 1933-1945

            Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2004 pg 44

(3)        Kishida T, op cit pg 45





(8)        Miller JM Thrilling Stories of the Russian-Japanese War

            Copyright J Martin Miller 1905 pg 334 (no publisher named in text)




(12)       Guangqiu Xu, War Wings

Westport CT: Greenwood publishing Group 2001 pg 98

(13)       Goldstein DM, Dillon KV, Ed. The Pearl Harbor Papers-Inside the Japanese Plans

            Dulles, VA: Brassey’s 1993 pg 7

(14)       Fellman M,  Memories of the Events Surrounding the Fall of Nanking

            NUCB JLCC, 7, 1 (2205), pg 10



(17)       Goldstein DM op cit pg 77

(18) - Mikasa to



(21)       Fuller R, Gregory R, Japanese Military and Civil Swords and Dirks

            Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing Ltd 1996, pg 211

(22)  presentation sword




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