Category Archives: JAPAN

Was this Massive Sword from the 15th Century used by a Giant Samurai?

Was this Massive Sword from the 15th Century used by a Giant Samurai?

The Norimitsu Odachi is displayed in its full glory at the Kibitsu Shrine in the Okayama Prefecture. The giant sword has captivated Japan and its foreign visitors with its size and grandeur.

The Norimitsu is so large, legends have stated that the weapon was once forged and wielded by a giant warrior. Other than its measurements, 12.37 feet in length and 31.97 lbs in weight, the exact origins of the Norimitsu Odachi continues to be shrouded in mystery.

A Look into the Mysterious Norimitsu Odachi

Samurais have been a part of Japanese culture since the start of the tenth century. They were fierce warriors who swore oaths to protect their respective clans. One of the things they were most renowned for was their primary weapon of choice: the sword.

The giant sword is 12½ feet long (3.8m), the body being 7 ½ feet (2.3m) and the nakago 5 feet (150m). It weighs about 31lb 15.47249oz pounds (14.5 kg). 1)

There are a wide variety of blades produced by the skilled swordsmiths of Japan. The katana is without a doubt the most popular one due to its connection to the samurai.

A lesser-known traditional Japanese sword is the odachi, which literally translates to “large/great sword.” In order to be classified as an odachi, the weapon must have a blade length of 3 shaku (35.79 inches or 90.91 cm), though there have been some records of blades reaching around 6.56 feet in length.

What was the purpose of the odachi?

The odachi functioned either as ceremonial objects or infantry swords. As an offering to a shrine’s patron gods. Some odachi was actually used as an offering to the gods to protect warriors in battle. Others were displayed in temples as mythological symbols.

As a ceremonial object.  Production of the odachi was at an all-time high during the Edo period where it was used in various ceremonies. Researchers have also stated that the odachi had a more “ritualistic” role when it came to war, similar to that of flags during a battle.

The odachi was also said to be a weapon of choice during the fourteenth century, specifically the Nanboku-chō period. This claim is backed up by literary works such as the Heike Monogatari and the Taiheiki

As a weapon for war, the odachi’s large size proved to be a problem. It was believed that samurai would carry it on their back or by hand.

During the Muromachi era, samurais would have their assistants carry the massive sword to help draw it during battle. Foot soldiers were more likely to carry the sword slung across their backs as opposed to katanas, which were typically carried on the side.

Fumon Tanaka, a traditional Japanese martial arts practitioner, uses a special drawing technique for a “shorter” odachi. It involves pulling out the sheath rather than drawing the actual blade. Swordsmanship schools around the country have adopted this method, as well as the Shin musō Hayashizaki-ryū and Iaidō.

Production and decline

Forging the odachi proved to be no easy feat. Their length made heat treatment more complicated due to its expense and technique. Polishing was quite the challenge too.

Because of their size, the odachi needed to be hung from the ceiling or carefully placed in a stationary position to be polished as opposed to normal swords that are merely moved over polishing stones.

The odachi’s reverence dwindled down after the 1615 Siege of Osaka (Osaka Natsu no Jin), in which the Tokugawa Shogunate annihilated the Toyotomi clan. The loss was said to be due to the Shogunal government prohibiting swords above a set length. Odachi swordsmiths were forced to cut down the length to meet the standards.

So what is the truth behind the Norimitsu Odachi?

Everyone agrees that if the sword truly had an owner who took it out to battle, they would have been a giant of unproportionate measures.

However, if one were to disregard mythology and folklore, it looks like the Norimitsu odachi was nothing more than a ceremonial sword created by a skillful craftsman. Whoever was behind the forging of this beautiful weapon certainly wanted to showcase their skills—or wealth, for that matter.

Yonaguni Monument: Man-made structure or natural geological formation

Yonaguni Monument: Man-made structure or natural geological formation

THE YONAGUNI-JIMA KAITEI CHIKEI, LITERALLY translated as “Yonaguni Island Submarine Topography,” is an underwater mystery off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 

The massive underwater rock formation is speculated to have existed for more than 10,000 years, but whether the formation is completely man-made, entirely natural, or has been altered by human hands is still up for debate.

The monument was first discovered in 1986 by a diver searching for a good spot to observe hammerhead sharks. After its discovery, Masaaki Kimura, a marine geologist at the University of the Ryukyu, explored the monument for nearly two decades.

Yonaguni Monument: Man-made structure or natural geological formation

Kimura remains convinced that the site was carved thousands of years ago when the landmass was above water.

According to Kimura the Yonaguni’s numerous right angles, strategically placed holes and aesthetic triangles are signs of human alteration. He also claims that carvings exist on the monuments, resembling Kaida script.

He believes that a pyramid, castles, roads, monuments and a stadium can be identified within the structure – which for him is evidence that the monument is what remains of the Lost Continent of Mu, the Japanese equivalent to Atlantis.

As with most theories of lost civilizations, Kimura has met with controversy about his beliefs. Robert Schoch, a professor at Boston University, has dived at the site and explains that the formation is “basic geology and classic stratigraphy for sandstones, which tend to break along planes and give you these very straight edges, particularly in an area with lots of faults and tectonic activity.”

Sandstone structures typically erode into rigid formations, and it is unlikely that the structure was entirely man-made, if man-made at all, because the visible structure is connected to a hidden rock mass.

Geology and strong currents may explain the peculiar shape of the rock, but they cannot account for the pottery, stone tools and fireplaces found there, possibly dating back to 2500 BCE.

However, the items merely show that the area was once inhabited and do not indicate that the monument is anything other than a natural geological formation.

Yonaguni is composed of sandstone and mudstone that dates back 20 million years. If the monument was carved by human hands, it was during the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) when Yonaguni was part of a land bridge that connected the site to Taiwan.

Both the Japanese Government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Government of Okinawa Prefecture deny Yonaguni as a historical-cultural site.

Emergency food from 1965 Japan expedition found in Antarctica

Emergency food from 1965 Japan expedition found in Antarctica

The Asahi Shimbun reports that Japanese researchers have found fragments of a cardboard box and a cache of emergency food dated to 1965 about five miles from Japan’s Syowa Station in Antarctica. The ration included a can of Coca-Cola, chewing gum, and a can of stewed beef and vegetables. 

A can of the first generation of Coca-Cola, which went on sale in Japan for the first time in 1965

On 3 September, the unopened objects were found at the Mukai Rocks location about eight kilometers from the Syowa station in Japan. The location had been used to land in Antarctica after a voyage through the sea ice through the 10th Japanese Antarctic expedition.

Four members of the current 61st Japanese research expedition team visited Mukai Rocks for observation. There were pieces of cardboard around the food, suggesting they arrived in a box.

The National Institute of Polar Research, which dispatches Japanese expeditions, said no records have been left about the food. Apart from the Coca-Cola and the chewing gum, a can of stewed beef and vegetables, made in February 1965, was found with a label that denoted it as an emergency ration of the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

It was the year when Japan’s Antarctic research resumed with the dispatch of the 7th team. Syowa Station was closed temporarily after Japan’s first ice breaker, the Soya was decommissioned. The Fuji, which succeeded Soya in 1965, was operated by the MSDF.

Susumu Kokubun, 85, a former member of the 7th expedition, recalled that Masayoshi Murayama, who headed his team, went to a location near Mukai Rocks in January 1966 on a helicopter that was loaded on the Fuji.

“He may have left the food on that occasion,” Kokubun said.

The can of Coca-Cola came with a label written in katakana and no stay-on tab opening mechanism. 

According to Coca-Cola (Japan) Co., it is the design of the company’s first canned Coca-Cola introduced into the Japanese market in 1965. A drinker opens it by making a hole with an opener on top of the can. 

The product was available in the market for only one to two years, a company official said, adding that no stock of that particular product is left at the beverage maker.

“It is greatly encouraging to imagine that expedition members had Coca-Cola in the harsh environment,” the official said.

The chewing gum, Cool Mint from Lotte Co., comes in a package featuring a penguin, an iconic creature symbolizing Antarctica. Lotte said it is the design of Cool Mint when it was first released in 1960. But it is not just ordinary, everyday chewing gum.

Records by the company and former members of the Japanese expedition teams show that Eizaburo Nishibori, head of the first wintering party, requested in 1956 the confectionery maker develop a special gum for the country’s first expedition team prior to its departure for Antarctica.

Lotte presented them with a gum mixed with vitamins and minerals that can be preserved for a year and five months without deteriorating despite traveling through the equator or areas where the temperature drops 50 degrees below zero.

Nishibori’s request led Lotte to give birth to Cool Mint in 1960, with its catch phrase “Fresh like in Antarctica.” It was a hit and a long seller. The company said only one Cool Mint sample from those days is left at Lotte.

“It was a pleasant surprise to know that the chewing gum remained after the passage of many decades,” said a public relations official with the company.

Noriaki Obara, one of the four members of the current expedition who discovered the food, said he was stunned to stumble into the long-forgotten cache.

“I initially suspected that they were things just scattered about,” said Obara, 55. “I feel a special connection with the discovery because I was born in 1965.”

1.4-Million-Year-Old Bone Hand Ax Identified

1.4-Million-Year-Old Bone Hand Ax Identified

According to a BBC report, paleoanthropologists Katsuhiro Sano of Tohoku University and Gen Suwa of the University of Tokyo have identified a 1.4-million-year-old hand ax made from a hippo’s leg bone at Ethiopia’s Konso-Gardula site. Tools at the site are thought to have been crafted by the human ancestor Homo erectus. 

A 1.4-million-year-old bone hand ax found in East Africa (shown from both sides) expands the known toolmaking repertoire of Homo erectus, scientists say. Hardened sediment attached to the artifact is lighter colored than the tool.

Approximately 1.4 million years ago, researchers claim, Homo erectus, a likely direct ancestor of people today, crafted an unexpectedly cutting – edge tool from a hippo’s leg bone.

This find is a rare example of an ancient type of hand ax made out of bone rather than stone, reports a team led by paleoanthropologists Katsuhiro Sano of Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and Gen Suwa of the University of Tokyo.

The tool was discovered at Ethiopia’s Konso-Gardula site, which has produced stone tools and fossils attributed to H. Erectus.

Along with a variety of stone tools now recognized at several East African sites (SN: 3/4/20), the bone hand ax “suggests that Homo erectus technology was more sophisticated and versatile than we had thought,” Suwa says.

Taken together, these finds show that, perhaps several hundred thousand years earlier than previously known, the H. Erectus toolkit consisted of items requiring a series of precise operations to manufacture, such as stone and bone hand axes, as well as simpler tools that could be made relatively quickly.

H. Erectus at Konso-Gardula modified a chunk of a hippo’s leg bone so that a roughly 13-centimeter-long oval piece with a sharp edge near the tip could be struck off in one blow from a stone or bone hammer, the researchers conclude July 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One or more toolmakers then chipped off the bone from the artifact to render its final shape. Signs of wear indicate that the hand ax was used in cutting or sawing activities.

Only one other bone hand ax of comparable age has been found. That roughly 1.3- to 1.6-million-year-old implement, from Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, contains fewer signs of chipping and shaping than the Konso-Gardula hand ax does, the scientists say.

Dental Tartar Yields Food Data from Japan’s Edo Period

Dental Tartar Yields Food Data from Japan’s Edo Period

Rikai Sawafuji of the University of the Ryukyus, Shintaroh Ueda of the University of Tokyo, and their colleagues analyzed samples of tartar from the teeth of 13 people who were buried in what is now eastern Tokyo in the latter half of the Edo Period, from A.D. 1603 to 1867. DNA from the rice was identified in the tartar of eight of the individuals. The DNA of other foods, including daikon radish, the minty herb “shiso” perilla, green onion, Japanese chestnut, carrot, and the pumpkin was also identified. 

A tartar formation found on teeth (Provided by Rikai Sawafuji)

However, the scientists from the University of the Ryukyus, the University of Tokyo, and elsewhere identified even the families and genera of plants eaten at the time by surveying calculus on the teeth of human remains.

The findings, expected to shed light on the dietary and other habits of people of the time, were published in the academic journal Plos One. The team of scientists sampled the DNA from teeth on the bones of 13 people unearthed in Tokyo’s Koto Ward that date to the latter half of the Edo Period.

The researchers studied what plant the samples are from, as recent research has revealed tartar contains the DNA of what was consumed by the individuals. According to the team’s findings, rice-derived DNA was detected from calculus specimens of eight people, while DNA highly likely connected to such plants as the daikon radish, “shiso” perilla, Welsh onion, Japanese chestnut, carrot and pumpkin from nine genera in seven families were also discovered.

Those plants are, according to the scientists, described as foods in records from the period. Meanwhile, DNA from the tobacco genus was identified as well, reinforcing the theory that smoking had already become a popular practice by that time.

A Dipterocarpaceae-linked DNA sample, which is typically found in the tropics, indicates that the resin of the plant was used as an ingredient for tooth powder in the Edo Period, the scientists said.

Team members included Rikai Sawafuji from the University of the Ryukyus, a research fellow affiliated with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science who now belongs to the Graduate University for Advanced Studies; and Shintaro Ueda, a professor emeritus of bioscience at the University of Tokyo. 

Sawafuji expressed high expectations for the possibility of the DNA analysis allowing researchers in the future to determine even people’s personal favorites based on the remnants left behind on their teeth.

“The technique will make it possible to survey what each individual ate,” said Sawafuji.

Another anticipated benefit of the method is that how plants were used, including the staple foods of each era, which can be determined, because “plants detected from the teeth of many people’s remains were likely widely consumed.”

Tartar as Research Specimen

In the past, calculus formations remaining in human skulls were often simply removed, since their presence made it difficult to examine the shapes of teeth and other factors.

But DNA, starch particles, proteins, and other substances contained in tartar can currently be surveyed in detail, adding to calculus’ significance for research purposes.

Among other ways to take advantage of tartar, the DNA analysis was introduced 10 or so years ago, although more than 99 percent of DNA detected from the object come from bacilli and the method was first adopted to research changing bacterial floras in the oral cavity.

In the early stage of the development, a study was carried out in 2014 to collect DNA from pork and wheat ingested by Germans in the medieval period.

In 2017, the results of the analysis of calculus from Neanderthal men dating to 50,000 years ago were released, showing they ate different foodstuffs in different regions because DNA from mutton and other kinds of meat, as well as moss and mushrooms, were found.

As the poplar-derived DNA was also discovered, speculation swirled that the plant, currently used for making aspirin, “could be used to ease the pain.”

Hiroki Ota, a bioscience professor at the University of Tokyo, noted, however, that the DNA-based method should be combined with various other techniques for improved research.

“Tartar DNA no doubt reflects what the person ate, so use of the substance will spread further,” said Ota. “But calculus could be formed differently in differing dietary cultures. So the research accuracy needs to be improved by conducting a variety of methods using coprolites (fossilized feces) and other objects to uncover all details.”

Massive Stones Unearthed in Shogun’s Garden in Central Japan

Massive Stones Unearthed in Shogun’s Garden in Central Japan

Eight massive stones, including one that weighs nearly ten tons, have been unearthed in the garden at Muromachi-dono, the so-called Flower Palace built by the Ashikaga Shogunate in A.D. 1381. 

A massive stone is unearthed in the garden of the former residence of the Ashikaga Shogunate during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573).

The largest stone is nearly 3 meters long and one of eight, seven of which are situated around the site of a pond in the former residence of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

On April 10 the Kyoto City Center for Archeological Research announced the findings. The Kyoto site of the Kamigyo Ward is called Muromachi-dono, also known as “Hana no Gosho” (Flower Palace).

The unearthed stones, which are unusually huge compared with those found at other garden sites of ruling elites, were undoubtedly intended to show off the great power wielded by the shogun and his family, Expert Said.

In 1381 the complex was completed at the request of the Third Shogun of Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), and used as his and his successors’ residence and headquarters.

The site is estimated to have spanned around 7,600 tsubo, or about half the size of the massive Tokyo Dome in the capital’s Bunkyo Ward. One tsubo is equivalent to about 3.3 square meters.

The residence is also depicted in “Uesugi Rakuchu-Rakugai Zu” (Scenes in and Around the Capital), a national treasure. Kyoto in those days was the capital of Japan.

The eight stones were found in the southeastern part of the site and are deemed an especially important discovery.

They measure between 95 centimeters and 2.7 meters. Seven of them were situated close to each other.

The institute believes the stones were placed during the rule of the eighth Muromachi shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), who also involved in constructing Kyoto’s fabulous Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion), based on an analysis of earthenware excavated from stratum in which they lay.

The residence is believed to have comprised a group of buildings in the north and a garden that centers around a pond in the south.

During the excavation, researchers also found that the pond stretched at least 45 meters north to south and about 60 meters east to west.

“Ashikaga Yoshimasa until now hadn’t been held in particularly high regard for his political skills because he triggered the Onin War (1467-1477), which was followed by the Warring States period,” said Hisao Suzuki, a professor of archaeology and history of gardens at Kyoto Sangyo University.

“This discovery shows that he excelled at fostering culture and engineering technology.”

The excavation was carried out from January through April 9 ahead of the construction of a building. 

Due to the new coronavirus outbreak, the excavation site will be backfilled, and no on-site briefing session for the public will be held.

Ancient Persian Glassware Identified in Japan

A fragment of a glass bowl unearthed on Okinoshima island came from ancient Persia during the Sassanian dynasty

Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture — During the Sassanian dynasty (226-651), researchers confirmed that a fragment of a glass bowl discovered on Okinoshima Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site here, originated from ancient Persia.

The glass bowl fragment found on Okinoshima island.

Munakata Taisha shrine teamed up with experts and used X-ray imaging to analyze the artifact as well as small pebble-shaped “kirikodama” ornaments made of glass. They date to the late fifth century to the seventh century.

Okinoshima island, located off Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, is considered by the shrine to be so sacred that only males can visit and only if they engage in purification rituals before coming ashore.

The island has yielded a treasure trove of artifacts from ceremonies held there between the late fourth and ninth centuries that are believed to have been carried out during the time of the ancient Yamato kingdom.

To date, around 80,000 items unearthed are designated as national treasures.

The glass bowl fragment measures about 5.6 centimeters. It has a circular base and the surface of the bowl is scratched.

It bears the characteristics of cut glass produced during the Sassanian Empire that encompassed modern-day Iran and surrounding countries. Iraq has yielded similar examples of the glasswear.

Munakata Taisha shrine worked with a team headed by Izumi Nakai, professor emeritus of Tokyo University of Science who specializes in analytical chemistry, to examine the artifact and pebble-shaped ornaments.

As an expert in analyzing ancient glass products, Nakai subjected the materials to fluorescent X-ray analysis so as not to damage them.

The results showed that the ashes of plants were mixed with molten glass, a characteristic of Sassanian Persia glassware.

But the pebbles remain something of a mystery, as no similar examples have been found in Japan or elsewhere. However, it was assumed the ornaments were produced by reprocessing Sassanian Persia glassware.

Makiko Fukushima, the curator of Munakata Taisha Shinpokan museum, said: “We were able to gain very precious insight into where the unearthed items were created, the route used to bring them to Japan and the degree of influence of those involved in the ceremonies where such glassware was used.”

Sixteenth-Century Wall Unearthed at Japan’s Gifu Castle

Stonewall points to Japan’s oldest castle keep built by Nobunaga

This seems like another pile of rocks to the uninitiated. But stones unearthed here apparently constitute part of the oldest castle keeps ever built in Japan. The stones form part of the top section of the base of a Gifu Castle keep likely built by legendary warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582).

The Gifu Castle keep is seen in the background of a statue of Oda Nobunaga in Gifu Park.
Gifu Castle 

The discovery was made last October and is regarded as significant in the study of castle building in Japan.

City officials, revealing the discovery on Jan. 7, said it is the first time researchers have identified what they believe was part of the original keep.

The hilltop castle was captured by Nobunaga during the Warring States period (late 15th to late 16th centuries).

The castle was renamed from Inabayama Castle after Nobunaga defeated its lord, Saito Tatsuoki, in 1567. He also renamed the region, then called Inokuchi, Gifu.

Luis Frois, a Portuguese missionary who visited the site two years after the takeover, wrote, “There was a gorgeous Japanese-style guest room (at the castle on the mountain),” according to the city’s education board.

A detailed image of the stone wall, including the base of the keep, is depicted in a drawing dating to the Genroku Era (1688-1704).

Stone walls of a keep are depicted in a drawing of the castle made during the Genroku Era (1688-1704) of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

However, it had been believed that most of the original wall was long gone, as the structure was torn down during reconstruction work in 1910.

The excavation work covers an area of about 1,410 square meters atop Mount Kinkasan.

Team members decided to excavate around a stone sticking diagonally out of the ground near a wall where the rebuilt structure stands. After digging out about five square meters, the members found what is believed to be the original stone wall.

An excavated stone wall in Gifu believed to have been built under Oda Nobunaga. The excavation team started digging around a stone, center, sticking diagonally out of the ground.

The section, about 1.8 meters long and 70 centimeters high, has three levels and is located above a layer at the northwestern corner that was created during the Warring States period.

The team also found a piece of stone that supports the bottom of the corner as well as areas where the stones were joined with mazumeishi pebbles to fill the gaps, matching the characteristics of walls built under Nobunaga.

In the castle drawing, a four-meter-high stone wall is depicted above the three layers of stone walls in the vicinity of the one recently discovered.

“We will continue our research to uncover all of the details,” said Mayor Masanao Shibahashi.

Hitoshi Nakai, a professor of history of castle building in Japan at the University of Shiga Prefecture, said the discovery will shed light on the history of castle building, particularly how feudal-era keeps originated.

Nakai added that similar techniques were used for building stone walls at Azuchi Castle, and noted that the same might be true for Sakamoto Castle, where a subordinate of Nobunaga, warlord Akechi Mitsuhide (1528-1582), resided.