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Ousted Myanmar leader Suu Kyi’s Japanese sword restored

Despite the fate of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi remaining uncertain after she was detained during a coup earlier this year, craftsmen in Japan have continued painstaking work to restore a Japanese sword belonging to her in hope it can one day be returned.

Before Suu Kyi was taken into custody during the February coup, she approached Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar, Ichiro Maruyama, about repairing the katana-style sword. Maruyama asked Nippon Foundation executive director Yuji Mori, who is knowledgeable about swords, to help get it fixed.

After Suu Kyi learned about Mori, she asked if he would be willing to help get it repaired, and the sword was later restored in a workshop in the city of Setouchi in Okayama Prefecture.

Because craftsmen there have not heard from Suu Kyi since her February arrest, they are understandably concerned. “I want her to be safe,” one of the workers was quoted as saying.

According to the foundation, the sword was a gift from the president of a major Japanese newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, during World War II in 1942 to army lieutenant general Shojiro Iida, who had been appointed commander of Japanese forces that occupied the country then known as Burma.

The sword’s whereabouts became unknown in the following years, but it eventually came into the possession of Gen. Aung San, who was a hero of Myanmar’s independence movement fighting first against British rule and later the Japanese occupation. He was also Suu Kyi’s father.

The general, who was assassinated in 1947, told his daughter it was “a gift from a Japanese soldier.”

A Japanese sword owned by Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi is pictured in the city of Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, on Nov. 6. | KYODO
A Japanese sword owned by Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is pictured in the city of Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, on Nov. 6. | KYODO

In February last year, Mori met with a minister and close aide to Suu Kyi in Myanmar about repairing the blade, which had become badly rusted, and brought it back to Japan. The foundation, which was entrusted with the sword, subsequently arranged for a workshop in the Bizen Osafune Sword Museum in Setouchi, an area famed for its sword craftsmanship, to handle the restoration.

Swordsmith Tomonobu Yokoyama, 49, and his apprentices began work on the sword in October 2020.

The weapon was created by the late swordsmith Sadatsugu Takahashi, who was certified a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government.

The sword’s condition had deteriorated significantly due to it being stored improperly, with rust having penetrated deep into the metal. The blade itself was also damaged.

Once the blade was restored, it then took three other craftsmen to work on repairing the handle. When he polished the sword, Yokoyama said the hamon blade patterns that its creator Takahashi was famed for emerged in the steel.

But Yokoyama was careful not to polish the sword too vigorously — leaving a little rust behind — so its shape would not be altered.

Yokoyama’s grandfather fought in WWII and died in combat in Burma in 1945.

“I felt a strange connection (to this sword),” said Yokoyama, who kept working on the weapon despite his worries after learning of the coup. “I worried if I could ever get it back (to Suu Kyi).”

The sword was handed back to the Nippon Foundation by the workshop at a ceremony in Setouchi on Nov. 6.

“I’m astonished. The sword has regained its brilliance as though it was just made,” said Mori, 68. “(This sword) is an important record that shows the history between Japan and Myanmar.”

Uncertain of the situation in Myanmar, Mori said that the foundation will safeguard the sword for the time being.

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