Like many cultures, the Japanese revere its meteorites. Japan is home to the Nogata meteorite which is the oldest recorded witness fall that occurred over a millennium ago. Nogata, a stony L6, is over six centuries older than Ensisheim. Nogata was witnessed on 19 May 861 A.D. and recovered the following morning by villagers from a hole in the ground. The meteorite has been preserved since its fall in a Shinto shrine at Suga Jinja where the meteorite had fallen. It is publicly seen every five years at the grand shrine festival, when it is carried in a decorated ornate cart at the head of the parade.
Japan is home to another all world hall of fame meteorite – the Shirahagi meteorite. It is my favorite meteorite in my collection due to my Japanese ancestry, and its historic and remarkable story.
The Shirahagi is a fine octahedrite of group IVA iron and is the second largest meteoric iron ever found in Japan. The iron is folded or curled like an ocean wave or the letter “C.” Dr. Sadao Murayama of the National Science Museum in Tokyo thought the Shirahagi iron was probably distorted during its flight thru the atmosphere although Dr. Vagn Buckwald thought it was due to a cosmic shock event. It is a peculiar and interesting meteorite with an extremely distorted Widmanstatten pattern, evidence of a violent cosmic collision.
There are two versions of where and who found the Shirahagi meteorite. One version is that it was found in April 1890 in the stream of the Kamiichi-gawa river in Shirahai-mura, Toyama prefecture, by a mine worker, Sadajiro Nakamura, and preserved by Issei Kobayashi, a mining engineer, who employed Nakamura. Initially, they did not know what they had, and in 1895, it was discovered to be a meteorite by Kwaijiro Kondo of the Geological Survey of Japan.
The other version of the story is that in 1890, a farmer was digging for potatoes and came across the unusual iron specimen. Curious as to what it was, the farmer presented it to a few appraisers. Not even the Osaka mint knew what it was. It spent the next several years being used as a weight in the pickling process of vegetables. In 1895, geologists from the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce determined that it was a meteorite.
The two versions of the story then merge. The 22.7 kg (50 pounds) Shirahagi meteorite was purchased in March 1895, by Enomoto Takeaki, a Samurai, who would go on to play a key role in the creation of Japan’s first modern navy and serve as Minister of various departments. Takeaki stayed in Russia as a special envoy, where he was fascinated by the Russian “meteor sword” – James Sowerby’s sword made from the meteorite Cape of Good Hope for the Czar Alexander I.
Since Takeaki was a Samurai, he must have been inspired by the “meteor sword.” According to the Samurai code or “Bushido” literally “way of the warrior,” a Samurai’s main sword represented his soul. “Bushido” was an ethical system, rather than a religion. The principles of Bushido emphasized honor, courage, skill in the martial arts, and loyalty to a warrior’s master (“Daimyo”) above all else. The Samurai usually carried two swords. The “Katana” or long sword (blade length about 100 cm or 40 inches) was mainly used in battle. The second companion sword was either a “Wakisazhi” or short sword (2/3 – 1/2 the length of the “Katana”) which was the Samurai’s back up sword used for close quarter combat, or a “Tanto” (blade about 8 inches or 21 cm) which was more like a long dagger. The “Katana” was a two handed sword while the “Wakisazhi” and “Tanto” were one handed swords. The scared swords were handed down from one generation to the next.
Takeaki enlisted the services of master swordsmith, Okayoshi Kunimune, and commissioned the creation of five blades collectively known as “Ryuseito” literally “Comet swords.” Two “Katana” or long swords and three “Tanto” or short swords, were forged from the Shirahagi Meteorite. About four kilograms (8.8 pounds) of Shirahagi iron meteorite was used to create the five blades. The swords were difficult to work with due to higher nickel content, less carbon, more impurities, such as, schreibersite which required higher temperatures during forging, and the blades were comparatively resistant to hardening during quenching. It took three years to create the swords, and they were finally finished in 1898. The blades were made with 70% Shirahagi meteoric iron and 30% “Tamahagane” or iron sand-rich metal used for regular “Katanas.” The blades have a beautiful, and unusual dark swirling similar to a combination of tiger stripes and leopard spots “Hamon” or tempering pattern to them due to the meteoric content. The inner hilt of the swords had been engraved with solid gold inlay reading “Seitetsu,” or “Star Iron.” The remaining main mass (18.2 kg or 40.12 lbs.) was presented to the National Science Museium in Tokyo. The higher quality “Katana” was donated by Enomoto to the crown prince of Japan, who later became Emperor Taisho, who was the 125th Emperor and reigned from 1912 to 1926. The remaining four swords were handed down to Takeaki’s heirs. The other Katana or long Samurai sword is owned by Tokyo University of Agriculture which grew out of an institution Enomoto founded. As for the three “Tanto,” one is housed at the Toyama Science Museum in Toyama city, another was donated by Enomoto’s great-grandson and is in the Ryugu Shrine as a “shrine treasure” in Otaru, on the island of Hokkaido, and the last space sword’s whereabouts are unknown.
Shirahagi is a historic meteorite with a royal connection and wonderful story. The swords created from the Shirahagi meteorite can also be called “Tentetsutou” or “Sword of Heaven.” I would like to think that I obtained my specimen due to “Kami unmei” or “Devine destiny.”
My special cosmic specimen comes to me from my friends, Mike Bandli and Jay Piatek and has a University of New Mexico pedigree with accompanying UNM label with matching number on the meteorite. A big thanks to Mike and Jay! Mike’s write-up on the Shirahagi meteorite is outstanding and can be found at The Shirahagi Meteorite, Japan (historicmeteorites.com) Many years ago, reading Mike’s article introduced me to the historic extraordinary Shirahagi meteorite. I also have a big thank you my friend, Craig Zlimen, who did an outstanding expert job of etching and polishing this rare Shirahagi iron. I want to acknowledge my brother from another mother, Jesse D. Piper who also shares in my love of Japanese meteorites, culture and all things Japanese.
Wikepedia: Nogata meteorite
The Meteoritical Society – Meteoritical Bulletin Database – Nogata and Shirahagi
Highlights of Astronomy, Volume 16 XXVIIIth IAU General Assembly, August 2012: “The quinquennial grand shrine festival with the Nogata meteorite” Hitoshi Yamaoka
SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) – “The Peculiar Structure of the Shirahagi, Jpana, Siderite” Sadao Murayama, The Tokyo Science Museum, Uyeno Park, Tokyo, Japan, Journal: Meteoritics and Planetary Science, Vol. 1, p. 99-102 (1953)
Japantoday.com – Lifestyle: “An up-close look at one of Japan’s five Ryuseito Swords, forged from meteorites” September 26, 2019 by Casey Baseel, SoraNews24.
82nd Annual Meeting of The Meteoritical Society 2019 (LPI Contrib. No. 2157) – RYUSEITO: THE JAPANESE SWORDS MADE FROM SHIRAHAGI IRON METEORITE. M. Komatsu, A. Yamaguchi, M. Ito, S. Yoneda, T. Saito, T. Ohgane, T. Hayashi, M. Sakamoto, T. Mikouchi, M. Kimura.
Facebook – Samurai history & Culture Japan (July 12, 2017)
The Royal Society Publishing | Notes and Records 2013 Dec. 29 published online 2013 Sep 4 – James Sowerby: meteorites and his meteoritic sword made for the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, in 1814.
ThoughtCo. “Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior” Kallie Szczepanski updated September 6, 2019
Buchwald, Vagn F. (1975) Handbook of Iron Meteorites. University of California Press, Shirahagi, volume 3, p 1115