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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Deadly weapons forged as art

There's a gory history to every Japanese sword — even those being made today

Staff writer

The slow, rhythmic thrust of a piston covered in tanuki (raccoon dog) skin blasted air from box bellows onto the searing-hot charcoal. A casual glance at his forge was, however, all that Yoshindo Yoshihara needed to know the fire's exact temperature.

Swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara eyes a chunk of the basic tamahagane steel from which he makes his swords
Iron in the soul: Swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara eyes a chunk of the basic tamahagane steel (above) from which he makes his swords (below). YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
News photo

His sharp eyes behind his glasses may have been intent on that vital blaze, but they also appeared completely relaxed as this rather small man with a goatee beard brought his decades of experience to bear — working, it seemed, completely absorbed in the moment. Then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he yanked the red-hot length of metal off the bed of fire with a pair of long-handled pliers and across onto an anvil.

No sooner had Yoshihara done this than the two young men beside him began to bring down their hammers alternately on the metal, filling the downtown Tokyo workshop with the clanging and ringing of their blows. Sparks flew in all directions as this master swordsmith gripped the pliers unflinchingly, staring fixedly at the red-hot metal.

The days when samurai ruled Japan with an iron fist may have ended some 150 years ago, but in this smoke-blackened smithy their presence lingers on, as it does in many aspects of Japan's culture, from the traditional noh and kabuki theatrical forms in which they so often feature to the rigidly hierarchical structure of its companies, in which underlings still often refer to the boss between themselves as the "top samurai."

Indeed, some people will tell you that the reason cars are now driven on the left-hand side of the road is because the samurai, who wore their swords on their left hips, would walk on the left so the tips of their long scabbards would not touch. Should that by chance occur, it would be considered the height of insolence and reason enough to fight a duel to a chillingly bloody conclusion.

Not that the samurai — the only one of the four divisions of feudal Japanese society (whose other classes were farmers, artisans and merchants) allowed to wear swords in public — would look for any excuse to draw their swords in the way swashbuckling movies like "The Last Samurai" might suggest. In fact, to members of that fabled warrior class, the cold, hard steel of their swords transcended mere lethal weaponry to symbolize no less than their very souls.

"If the sword was just a tool, why would tokkotai (suicide-mission) pilots during the Pacific War have one stowed in the cockpit of their planes that they aimed to slam into oblivion against an enemy ship?" says Yoshihara, who is one of Japan's top swordsmiths.

Indeed, there are countless fables and legends extolling the power and mystique of the Japanese sword, and its role in Japanese history, with one named Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi even mentioned in the eighth-century "Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)," Japan's oldest surviving historical record. There, it is identified as one of the three Imperial regalia, along with a jewel and a mirror. In 1185, it is said that the 6-year-old Emperor Antoku drowned clutching it in his arms during the defeat of his Taira clan at the great sea Battle of Dannoura off present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, rather than have it captured by the enemy Genji clan.

More recently, the internationally acclaimed novelist Yukio Mishima chose to end his life on Nov. 25, 1970, by plunging a short sword into his belly in time- honored fashion as part of the seppuku (ritual-suicide) ceremony. A follower then lopped off his head with "Seki no magoroku," a longer sword that was Mishima's pride and joy.

But the likes of Mishima and other militarists apart, few people in modern Japan — other than practitioners of the martial art of iaido — now regard these weapons as more than fancy "ornaments." So, what drives swordsmiths like Yoshihara to still put their heart and soul into making them?

"If it's true that the sword in today's world is just for show, and not a weapon, then it hasn't been a weapon since the end of the Warring States Period (1467-1568) when guns were imported into Japan," Yoshihara declared.

"But swords have always been weapons; it's just that they were no longer used to determine the outcome of battles. That was when they started to be weapons that provided a source of spiritual strength for the samurai."

Yoshihara has won numerous awards during a career that spans more than 40 years. In March 2004, he was designated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a "Mukei Bunkazai (Important Intangible Cultural Property)," and many believe he will one day join the other two swordsmiths who are designated Living National Treasures — the highest title the national government can bestow on a craftsman or artist.

During World War II, Yoshihara's grandfather, Kuniie, then Japan's top swordsmith, made gunto (military swords), many of which were also forged on the grounds of the contentious Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. But everything changed after Japan's defeat in 1945, and sword-making was banned for the next seven years under the Allied Occupation.

Those "dark" years forced Kuniie, his grandson Yoshihara recounts, to turn his tough but dexterous hands to making carpentry tools for a living — only forging swords illicitly and occasionally in the corner of his workshop. After that, as the young Yoshihara watched and worked with his grandfather, he slowly acquired many of the basic skills needed to make swords. Then, after he graduated from high school, he joined the family firm full time.

These days, the smithy is still where it always was in the Takasago district of the capital's Katsushika Ward, next to the house where Yoshihara now lives with his wife, Kinue, their son Yoshikazu, 41 — one of the top young swordsmiths around — his wife and their 7-year-old son.

Due to the noise of the hammering in the workshop — a single room 8 meters long and 4 meters wide — Yoshihara usually only works there on weekdays. On weekends, though, he will often retire to a workroom on the second floor of the house to more quietly and painstakingly file or finish off his latest creation.

"The art of making a sword basically hasn't changed in 1,000 years," Yoshihara says matter-of-factly, explaining that despite all today's technological advances, the only machine he uses other than the mechanical bellows is a power hammer he employs sparingly, generally preferring the "feel" he gets for the metal by wielding a hammer himself.

Yoshindo Yoshihara sets sparks flying in his Tokyo smithy
All fired up: Yoshindo Yoshihara sets sparks flying in his Tokyo smithy. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The raw materials he uses, too, have barely changed through the ages. The basic steel he starts with, called tamahagane, is made in a smelter from charcoal and an iron ore called satetsu that's found in the form of fine sand. This is then forged by repeated heating to over 1,300 C, hammering and folding — typically 12 to 15 times in Yoshihara's case — to uniformly distribute the carbon content and break up any impurities. The end result is a hard steel called kawagane (jacket steel) that will become the sword's razor-sharp edge. This is then wrapped around a piece of softer shingane (core steel) to ensure that the sword as a whole is not so hard and inflexible that it would be brittle and snap under impact.

After all that, one of the last major processes is adding a hamon (temper line) that includes the sharpened edge. This crucial step involves plunging the piece of steel — heated red hot — into a trough of water after coating its length with clay to create the cloudy hamon pattern along its length. There are dozens of styles of hamon, from straight to wavy. This is perhaps the main part of the sword-making process in which the swordsmith can make his own personal statement, as Yoshihara tends to do with his rather flamboyant temper-line patterns.

Many other detailed processes go into making what Yoshihara calls the "ultimate type of steel," and though good weapons-grade steel has long been made in parts of Spain and Sweden, for example, he insists they don't undergo the various traditional processes of a Japanese sword.

"The whole process of making a sword, from forging to polishing by a professional polisher, is very precise and involves countless minor details," says Yoshihara. "That's because the Japanese sword is more than just a weapon."

Students who train with Yoshihara learn the finer points of sword-making much later on. They start off by sweeping the floor and cutting up pieces of charcoal, then graduate onto wielding a hammer.

"I get my students to hammer the metal because it's the only way they learn how to judge for themselves how it is transformed," says Yoshihara. "But it would be much less scary for me to do it myself. It's pretty scary when they don't know what they are doing," he jokes.

He currently has three students working under him, ages 20, 24 and 33. All of Yoshihara's past students have been men — including a 50-year-old and an American — though he has no aversion to teaching women. In fact, he said, there was one woman who inquired about learning, but it didn't work out in the end.

Students have to train for at least five years under a professional swordsmith before they are eligible to take a test administered by the Ministry of Culture. Only when they pass that hurdle can they make and sell swords themselves.

"But becoming a professional doesn't guarantee that you will be successful," Yoshihara says with a wry smile.

In fact, a law in force since 1953 doesn't exactly make it easy for swordsmiths to earn a living, as all swords have to be registered with the Agency For Cultural Affairs. Tougher, though, is the stipulation that registration certificates given to swordsmiths limit them to making and selling two katana (swords 60-cm long or more) and two wakizashi, (short swords between 30- and 60-cm long) or tanto (ones 30-cm long or less) per month. To legally sell a sword in Japan, it has to have such a certificate, although this does not apply to swords sold abroad.

For Yoshihara, however, that has never been a problem, as he has managed to sell the 500 swords he has made so far both in Japan and abroad. Also, while I was there, he showed me a 78-cm long, dead-straight ceremonial chokuto sword that he is currently working on for Ise Jingu, Japan's top Shinto shrine in Mie Prefecture.

Yoshindo Yoshihara in his smithy last year with famed American movie director Steven Spielberg
Master class: Yoshindo Yoshihara in his smithy last year with famed American movie director Steven Spielberg, who bought one of his creations. COURTESY OF YOSHINDO YOSHIHARA

Sword stores sell both new swords and old swords that are hundreds of years old. At the Sokendo store in Harajuku, Tokyo, the cheapest sword costs about ¥300,000 and the average price is ¥1 million.

Though Yoshihara gives his blades a basic rough polish, he leaves most of the finishing touches to a professional togishi (sword polisher) — in his case to Yoshihiko Usuki, 51, who has been polishing his swords for more than 30 years.

A few months ago Yoshihara went to Florence, Italy, and took along one of his wakizashi to be put on permanent display at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. It lies there now in a case — the only piece of modern art in a room full of Renaissance paintings and antiquities.

Meanwhile, he said that his individual customers are mainly American or European, although an Arabian prince owns one of his short wakizashi. Just last year, famed movie producer Steven Spielberg also came to visit to purchase a 77-cm-long sword with a choji midare (irregular clove-shaped) hamon.

For Yoshikazu's part — not to be outdone by his dad — martial-arts movie star Jackie Chan popped in recently to purchase one of his creations.

Sword stores sell both new swords and old swords that are hundreds of years old. At the Sokendo store in Harajuku, Tokyo, the cheapest sword costs about ¥300,000 and the average price is ¥1 million.

At 41, Yoshikazu has many years ahead of him to carry on the Yoshihara style of sword-making, and the future will be even more secure if his son in turn follows in his father's footsteps.

Me, though, I was keen to know if Yoshihara thinks this ancient art form would still be around 100 years from now.

"If you count one generation as lasting 25 years, 100 years would be four generations," Yoshihara said. "Judging from the current state of sword-making in Japan, I think there will still be swordsmiths around a century from now. How many, though, I don't know."

Not that the sprightly 64-year-old Yoshihara is ready to pass on the torch to the next generation just yet.

"With every sword I make," he said, smiling, "I try to improve on my last one. But I still haven't made one that I am 100 percent satisfied with. I know that will never happen, though — even to my dying day."

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