What comes to mind when you think of art looted during wartime? Or the kind of weapons used during the Second World War? In both cases, swords are probably not your first choice.

And yet when visiting the Imperial War Museum a swirling array of Japanese swords draws a sharp contrast with the firearms on display. One of its swords is part of the collection of Lord Mountbatten, whose title at the end of the Second World War was Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command.

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Japanese officer's sword presented to Lord Louis Mountbatten, at the time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
Japanese officer's sword presented to Lord Louis Mountbatten, at the time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945. © IWM WEA 1313

The katana, with its long curved blade and ornate hilt, remains mysterious. We may not know much about its provenance or who made it, only that this was a Japanese officer’s sword. However the way Mountbatten "acquired" it leaves little room for ambiguity. Looking at photographs from the period, another display of swords emerges in black and white - row upon row of swords laid out on the ground. In August 1945, Japan’s surrender came with a direct order for Japanese soldiers to surrender all arms to the Allied Forces - including their swords. The fact that many of these swords were kept at US. 8th Army Weapons Depot at Akabane, Kita Ward, Tokyo led to the nickname Akabane Swords.

Japanese swords are more than just a traditional weapon: their surrender in the Second World War, would have carried a great deal of emotional weight. In the buildup to the war, all Japanese officers were required to carry a sword. Many of these would have been cheaply mass-produced in ways which did not uphold traditional ways of crafting a sword and valued far less. These are called “gunto” and are not considered as “true” Japanese swords.

Yet many drafted soldiers would have left home with their families’ true Japanese swords. These treasured heirlooms would have been considered works of high traditional craftsmanship. The craft of Japanese swordsmithing made them deadly weapons as well as works of art, often adorned with ornate patterns on the blade and hilt. They created a significant personal and national historical connection with sword-wielding Japanese warriors.

Amongst them, the most famous would have been the samurai. This military nobility and officer caste emerged in the medieval period and persisted until the 1870s. They benefited from immense prestige and a legacy that remains alive to this day via mainstream media in Japan and beyond. Samurai would not have been the only warriors to wield katanas - and sword-wielders were not only men. Onna-bugeisha fighting women, also part of the samurai class, often fought alongside them. They would often protect communities with less male fighters. Whether samurai or onna-bugeisha, the sword was not always the Japanese warrior's weapon of choice. Historical records show that they would also have used a range of weapons, from the bow and arquebus to the spear. Yet the symbolic value of the sword persists to this day, being considered in many ways as a representation of the warrior’s very soul.

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Tomoe Gozen in the Battle of Awazu by Utagawa Yoshikazu
Tomoe Gozen in the Battle of Awazu, by Utagawa Yoshikazu. Image in the public domain.

A surrendered sword would have been less valuable as a weapon and much more so as an object with deep historical spiritual and cultural meaning. Taking a family sword to war would have had many complex meanings relating to this. It would have been considered as a sign of protection - or invoking the hope that both sword and soldier would return home safely. We do not know how many swords returned home without their owners, but can guess roughly how many soldiers returned home without their swords. To this number, we also have to add swords confiscated from the general public.

Indeed, Mountbatten had ordered Japanese officers in the South East Asia Command area to surrender their swords. This is how he took this sword and how many others came into his possession, often as "gifts". However the surrender of swords extended far into the American occupation of Japan. At this point, orders were given that all swords, including civilian swords, should be handed over to the Foreign Liquidation Commission. The Allied Forces confiscated roughly 5,500 swords as a consequence. Many swords were either buried, destroyed or shipped to the United Kingdom and the United States as war trophies, like Mountbatten’s sword.

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Japanese rifles and samurai swords are neatly stacked by members of the Japanese garrison on tiny Woleai, an island in the Carolines just west of Truk, preparatory to being evacuated by US Pacific Units cleaning up by-passed islands in the Pacific, September 1945
Japanese rifles and samurai swords are neatly stacked by members of the Japanese garrison on tiny Woleai, an island in the Carolines just west of Truk, preparatory to being evacuated by US Pacific Units cleaning up by-passed islands in the Pacific, September 1945. Image in the public domain.

Many of the swords had a wooden plate attached to them with their original owner’s name. Many would have been awaiting their return under the belief that this confiscation would be temporary. Some descendants of Allied Forces soldiers used these labels to return the swords to their families of origin. About 1,100 were returned in the 1950s and 1960s when the owner could be identified. In the 1990s, 3,209 swords whose owners could not be identified were donated to Japanese museums.

Yet many remain lost. These include the Honjō Masamune - considered one of the finest swords ever made and recognized as a Japanese National Treasure in 1939. It was handed over at a police station in 1945 by the head of the family himself along with 13 other heirloom swords. Its whereabouts are still unknown.

These actions had long term consequences for Japanese swords. Sword production was forbidden in Japan until 1953 and nowadays, many swords made after this period are illegal - unless they have been made by hand. This clashes strangely with our enduring fascination for the Japanese sword nowadays. Many more are mass-produced outside of Japan - and ironically, owned by white, Western lovers of Japanese culture.

The surrender of these swords presents a complex question for our understanding of wartime and weaponry. Can these swords be considered as looted art, rather than confiscated military items? The Japanese sword’s cultural, historical and artistic value definitely points in this direction. It remains up to museums and heritage sites dealing with weaponry and wartime to define them as such.

Find out more:

Sword (Akabane Sword), Hyogo History Station website

Paul Martin, Do Japanese Art Swords Surrendered after WWII Constitute War Loot?

Onna-Bugeisha: Female Samurai Warriors of Feudal Japan, 1800s

Legendary Japanese swords: Tall tales and lucky leaves