On 19 November 1911, this samurai sword was presented by explorer Lieutenant Nobu Shirase to Professor Edgeworth David in gratitude for his assistance to the Japanese Antarctic Expedition during their stay in Sydney. The millimetres thin blade was made by Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu, a master swordsmith working in what is now Osaka, sometime between 1644 and 1648. The craftsman’s signature is inscribed in mirror writing on the tang – the base of the sword where the handle is attached. Shirase had been given this Katana-sword by his main sponsor Tasaburo Fukuda in 1910 as he admired the expeditioners’ courage in heading for Antarctica. Katana, such as this one were very highly valued in Japan and rarely given to non-nationals; that Shirase chose to present this sword demonstrates the great debt that the leader felt to David.
In late 1910, three separate expeditions headed to Antarctica with the hope of reaching the South Geographic Pole. The stories of Amundsen and Scott are both well known but the Japanese bid for Antarctica led by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase was little known of outside of Japan. Like Amundsen, Shirase was determined to be an explorer, joining the army to travel, gaining rare polar experience during his service. He argued that a Japanese expedition to Antarctica would make a significant scientific contribution, announcing the nation’s arrival on the world stage. Managing to raise funds through public subscription including the sale of the rights to the expedition’s first reports, Shirase set about making preparations for the trip. He purchased a relatively small three-masted schooner, which renamed the Kainan-maru (meaning Southern Pioneer), was refitted with an auxiliary steam engine and clad with iron plating.
On 1 December 1910, the expedition team of twenty-seven men and thirty dogs set off from Tokyo, aiming to re-provision in New Zealand before heading south. Reaching Antarctica in early March, the men were too late in the season to establish a winter base. By the 9 March, the ocean had started to freeze, and Shirase realising that there was a very real risk of becoming trapped in the ice, turned his ship around, heading for Australia. Needing supplies and to make repairs, the expedition sailed to Sydney to wait for spring, dropping anchor in Double Bay on 1st May 1911. Short of money and food the men set up camp at Parsley Bay, whilst a small number of the team returned to Japan to secure additional funds for a second push south.
The Japanese arrival was met with public suspicion and scorn, the newspapers trumpeting their failure and suggesting that the team were on a spying mission as they had based themselves near the fort at South Head. These allegations created difficulties for Shirase’s team and it was only through the intervention of Edgeworth David, an Antarctic veteran and Professor of Geology at the University of Sydney, that Shirase could access the supplies he so desperately needed. Meeting with David on a number of occasions, the Japanese explorer was able to discuss his plans and gain the benefit of the veteran’s knowledge and experience, something the team desperately lacked.
Shirase had originally intended to make a second attempt to reach the South Geographic Pole, but now realised that he would be too far behind the expeditions led by Scott and Amundsen. The focus of the expedition accordingly changed, and science became the primary reason for the trip. Leaving Sydney Harbour on 19 November 1911, the Kainan-maru once more set sail for Antarctica. The vessel’s passage this time was much clearer and by early January 1912, the expedition had reached the clearer waters of the Ross Sea. Choosing to base the team in the largely unexplored King Edward VII Land, Shirase and a team of six cut a path up the hundred metre high Great Ice Barrier, establishing a base camp on the top of the ice shelf. The Kainan-maru left the seven men with an agreement to return in a couple of weeks, during which time the vessel would explore the coastal side of King Edward VII Land and attempt a landing.
Heading south on 20 January, Shirase led a party of four men on sledges pulled by dogs on a dash to the interior. This ‘Dash Patrol’ aimed to explore as far south as possible; making weather observations as they travelled. Entirely dependent on the dogs and sledges the team forged on through blizzard conditions with temperatures as low as -25˚C. By 28 January the team had reached as far as they could safely go, having covered 237 kilometres in just eight days. Reaching 80˚5′S, the men planted a Japanese flag on a bamboo stick and buried a copper casket containing a record of their journey. After three Banzai in salute to the emperor, the men turned back to the Bay of Whales and they hoped the waiting Kainan-maru.
Reaching the Bay of Whales on 1 February the Japanese were shocked to see the changed condition of the bay with drifting floes and lumps of ice. In deteriorating weather, the men were loaded with great difficulty. Leaving in haste they were forced to abandon twenty of the dogs, marooned on the ice shelf. Their loss was felt keenly and it was with heavy hearts that the Japanese team turned north and headed for home.
Currently on display at the Australian Museum, Sydney.