The mystery of the samurai sword

According to family legend, a samurai sword decorating the wall of a Brisbane house had belonged to an Australian World War Two soldier. But Australian soldiers were not issued with swords in World War Two. Research into our collections found that the sword was Japanese.  What was the story of the sword and how did it come to be in Brisbane? Senior Librarian Christina unravels the mystery of the samurai sword.

Pearl encrusted sword handle

The mysterious pearl encrusted sword handle. Image supplied

“I was asked to research history of a sword with pearl encrusted handle. It was made of brass and the sword belonged to the client’s grandfather. It had hung on a wall in a Brisbane home since 1949. We had recently done some family history on the grandfather and this was another mystery we could investigate for the client,” reports Christina.

The sword found in Brisbane does not have a maker’s mark or name on either the sword or its scabbard, so it is difficult to precisely determine a date of manufacture. The style of the sword pre-dates the twentieth century and using sources from our collection, Christina determined that the sword appeared to be a cavalry officer’s sword of the 1890s.

The sword bears the Kiri (Paulownia Imperialis) motif of the Imperial household and senior ranks of the military. During World War Two, British Commonwealth Occupation Forces, consisting of British, Australian and New Zealand troops, were instructed to seize all weapons from Japanese households, whether they were used in a military capacity or not. Many swords had been in Japanese families for hundreds of years.  There are photographs of soldiers at the military bases in Japan in rooms that were piled to the ceiling with confiscated swords and some military personnel were given swords as mementos.

“The next step in this mystery was to find the military record of the Australian soldier, so I consulted the National Archives of Australia. The soldier in question is mentioned in Australian newspapers (digitised on Trove) when he returned from Japan, accompanied by his wife and two children.  The soldier in question returned to Australia with his family but then left, possibly returning to Japan. Research into his movements continues,” Christina said.

State Library receives many questions each year about the date or provenance of antique objects. The search for the provenance of an object can uncover many details about the people and families who owned them. In our collections there are numerous works on swords and their history. Books, such as The Samurai Sword, by John M Yumoto and Japanese Military and Civil Swords and Dirks by Fuller and Gregory, provide in-depth information about the various marks and motifs on the swords, and their meanings.  Databases, such as Carters Antiques and Collectables (www.carters.com.au/) help us to provide information on the style, date and history of the object. SLQ staff cannot provide valuations on the objects but we can help research information about items. Visit us or contact us with your question and our staff may be able to help solve your mystery.
Listen to Christina as she discusses the mystery of the samurai sword on ABC Queensland radio Evenings program:  http://blogs.abc.net.au/queensland/2016/08/the-mystery-of-a-samurai-sword-with-christina-ealing-godbold.html

One Search: http://onesearch.slq.qld.gov.au

Ask us: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/services/ask-us

Christina Ealing-Godbold

Senior Librarian, Information Services