The Wooden Sword
(Inspired by the classic Chinese tale "The Empty Pot.")
(Copyright c. 2001 Paul Turse. All rights reserved.)
Long ago in ancient Japan, the emperor needed to find a warrior to replace the old master, who was the captain of his bodyguards. He was still a great warrior, but he was getting on in years and had served his emperor well and thus deserved to spend his last days in peace, and not in war. So the emperor decided to call all the younger bodyguards together to determine which should be the successor to the master. But he had no idea how to decide and what method he should use to select the most worthy warrior.
In those days, the great swords were forged by the sword smiths, men of great artistic talent. It was believed that the swords made by the masters contained the soul and spirit of the warrior who would use them in the defense of the Imperial land. The emperor wondered if a man who was not a warrior could create such a sword, what a majestic sword could be created by a warrior himself. If he could find such a warrior, who could create his own sword and put his own soul in that sword, he could only use it for goodness and never for evil.
Although he was not a warrior or a sword smith himself, the emperor was a very wise man, and thus he finally designed a test for the young warriors. He called them all together and gave them some precious metal and told them that at the end of a fortnight to return with the best sword that they could forge from this special metal, a sword that would represent themselves and also be a gift to the emperor. The warrior with the best sword would be chosen as the Captain of the Royal Bodyguards.
And so, all the young warriors went off to forge the best sword that they could fashion. All of them came from wealthy families, so it would be easy to find a place to work and create the sword of swords. Makoto was from a very poor household without much money, but he returned home and began to work. He built the hottest fire he could and worked until his body was dripping wet, but as hard as he could, the sword would not forge but melted and dripped into the fire, like the sweat on his brow.
What a dilemma for Makoto. He would have to return to the emperor, but he could not do so without a sword, so he did the next best thing. He went off into the forest and cut himself the best kashi branch, or oak branch, that he could find; and then day and night, he carved a wooden sword to bring to his emperor.
Soon a fortnight was over and Makoto returned to the palace, humbled by what he saw. All the other warriors had fashioned beautiful swords with jeweled hilts, which glittered as bright as any star. How dull his pathetic wooden sword appeared when surrounded by such gleaming pieces of metal. The young warriors were called to attention as the emperor walked down the ranks and inspected all the fine swords. When he came to Makoto, he paused for what seemed to be forever. As was the custom, Makoto kept his eyes downward for it was not polite to look upon the emperor.
“Why did you bring me this piece of wood,” the emperor demanded.
“I was unable to forge one, your majesty. I guess I do not have the spirit within me,” Makoto humbly explained.
“And so you brought this as your best work? As your gift to me?” the emperor asked.
“I beg your forgiveness, your majesty, I have lost face,” Makoto said sadly.
All the other warriors tried to conceal their smug expressions. They were glad that Makoto would soon be chastised. They all knew that a lower caste samurai like him should not be in the Royal Bodyguard.
The emperor smiled gently. “What is your name, lad?” he asked.
“Makoto, your highness,” Makoto answered.
“Young man,” the emperor said with great authority as Makoto waited for the worst. “I will return your kashi…”
The other warriors did their very best to hold back their snickering as the emperor continued. “I bestow upon you the Kashi [which also means “honor”] of Captain of the Royal Bodyguard. "
The rest of the warriors and the royal court were shocked at this decision, but they did not dare speak or question. However, the emperor knew their inner thoughts and spoke to all: “The mark of the warrior is not his sword, but his character and his honesty. I don’t know how all of you warriors created such beautiful swords, and beautiful they are. But you see, the metal I gave you could not possibly be forged. I was not testing your ability to make a sword, but your integrity.”
The emperor paused for a moment to allow his words of wisdom to sink in. “So you see, your fine swords are as worthless to me as the metal I gave all of you. But this wooden sword is of great value to me because it has the real spirit of the warrior within.”
The emperor looked down at Makoto. “Your name Makoto means 'truth'; thus, I shall always treasure your gift as the sword of truth: this, the wooden sword."