Who owned the Shirase sword?

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Frozen continent, Australian geologist and Japanese explorer are the protagonists in a story about a legendary weapon known as the Shirase sword.

In the shortest version, the Japanese Antarctic exploration of 1910-12 under the command of Lieutenant Nobu Shirase was greatly aided, if not rescued from derailment, by Professor Edgeworth David – Antarctic explorer and accomplished geologist at the University of Sydney.

Professor Edgeworth David
shirase expedition professor Image: unknown

Japanese explorers camped over winter at Parsley Bay in Sydney, but received a hostile reception and suspicion from the public and local press. Professor David reversed this attitude via his visits, public support and thoughtful assistance. On departure from Sydney to Antarctica Lieutenant Shirase presented his samurai sword to Professor David as a symbol of gratitude and friendship.

This sword of outstanding quality was made by a highly accomplished swords maker Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu in Osaka in 1644-48. We don’t know who owned it afterwards, but I suspect it was a high rather than a low ranking warrior, and his descendants.

The sword was given to Lieutenant Shirase by his sponsor Tasaburo Fukuda in 1910, just before Shirase’s departure on his voyage of exploration to Antarctica. In the following year he gifted it to David.

Professor David was in possession of the sword for 23 years. Subsequently inherited by his younger daughter Mary, the sword stayed with the family for 68 years.

35 years ago, in 1979, Mary David generously donated the sword to the Australian Museum, which has held it proudly ever since.

Regrettably, we don’t know (yet) who the owners of the Shirase sword were for over 260 years, between the time it was forged and the time it was given away in support of the Japanese Antarctic Expedition. I am unable (yet) to find any details about the exploration sponsor Tasaburo Fukuda.

I am not suggesting, heaven forbid, naming it differently, but the Shirase sword could also be called the sword of David.

The sword timeline:

1648 – made by Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu
1910 – presented to Lieutenant Shirase (1861-1946) by Tasaburo Fukuda
1911 – presented to Professor David (1858-1934) by Lieutenant Shirase
1934 – inherited by Mary David (1888-1987)
1979 – gifted to the Australian Museum by Mary David