An ancient sword, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, is linked to ancient tales of gods and serpents in Japanese lore. The sword is seen as a weapon of immense power, a weapon that legitimizes the rule of a Japanese emperor. But where is this sword now?
Serpents and Swords
The story of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi begins with an eight-headed serpent known as Yamata no Orochi, which happened to hide an empire-changing sword within its tail.
On a yearly rampage, the serpent Yamata no Orochi targeted a well-to-do family, eating seven of the family's eight daughters over the years. The annual daughter-eating-binge led their father to call on the legendary warrior and god of storms, Susanoo, to dispatch Orochi.
Susanoo immediately launched a direct attack on the formidable serpent, but failed. Defeated, the head of the family offered his final daughter's hand in marriage as a reward should Susanoo slay the eight-headed serpent.
Taking up the challenge, Susanoo plotted to trap each one of the eight heads of Yamata no Orochi. Susanoo used a simple trick — the god lured each one of the serpent's heads away with giant bowls of rice wine.
While the serpent laid intoxicated and sleeping, Susanoo chopped off the heads of Orochi one by one with his sword. Susanoo sliced off to the tails of Yamata to ensure that the serpent would not return.
Within one of Yamata no Orochi's tails, Susanoo found a second sword, one he called Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi - the "Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven". This second sword would play an important role in shaping Japanese tradition.
After the Dragon
Susanoo did not keep custody of the sword for long. Banished long ago from the company of the gods by the deity Izanagi, Susanoo gave the sword to his sister, Amaterasu, to amend their sibling rivalry and end his exile. While in Amaterasu's possession, the sword would become an accoutrement of Japanese emperors.
According to Japanese mythology, Yamato Takeru, the son Emperor Keikō, was given the sword. While in Takeru's possession, the sword gained its current name, and its ties to the imperial line. While on a hunting trip, a rival set fire to the dry grass around Yamato Takeru, dooming the son of the emperor.
Takeru used the sword to cut the flaming grass down and send the fire in the direction of his rival. After this battle, Takeru renamed the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which translates to "Grasscutter Sword".
The legend of the sword continued to grow from this point, with the possession of Kusanagi implicated in the death of the Emperor Temmu in 686 A.D. After his death, the Kusanagi is placed in the Atsuta Shrine, where a duplicate of the sword resides today.
Why a duplicate? That's a pretty complicated question. During the 12th Century Battle of Dan-no-ura, a monumental sea battle between the two dominant clans of Japan — the Minamoto and Taira — the sword was lost forever.
Killed during the battle was the kindergarten-age Emperor Antoku. Instead of allowing the Kusanagi to fall into the hands of the Minamoto clan, a soldier tossed the Kusanagi into the water.
Two theories exist as to the fate of Kusanagi after this battle — the fabled sword either sits at the bottom of the sea and is forever lost, or priests recovered the sword when it washed ashore. The former is much more likely.
Where is Kusanagi now?
Whether or not the modern Kusanagi is original, it still maintains all the symbolism attached to the original. Along with a sacred mirror and jewel, the Kusanagi makes up a trio of Imperial Relics that passed on to each new emperor as he comes to power.
The current emperor of Japan, Akihito, received the sword during his ascension ceremony. The sword, however, did not see the light of day, as the sacred relic remained covered throughout the ceremony. Whether Kusanagi or any of the trio of relics still exists today remains a mystery.
While the current existence of Kusanagi remains questioned, depictions of the sword abound. The sword makes an appearance in the video game Ōkami, the Final Fantasy series, the Naruto franchise, and the Usagi Yojimbo comic. The Kusanagi name is also lent to the protagonist of the Ghost in the Shell series. So even if the sword is never seen any more, its influence on pop culture remains strong.
The top image is of the late 19th Century painting "Susanoo slaying the Yamata-no-Orochi" by Toyohara Chikanobu and within the public domain. Image of the Atsuta Shrine via Paul Davidson/Flickr. The statue depicts Yamato Takeru, a statue which resides in Osaka and the image is in public domain. For more info on this fabled sword, the Nelly Nauman published "The Kusanagi Sword", an extremely detailed history of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. Sources linked within.