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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012
Sakai blade smiths forge export channels
OSAKA — Artisans forging blades in the traditional knife-making center of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, hope to reinvigorate their centuries-old craft via exports.
Unlike cheap, mass-produced knives, Sakai-brand handcrafted blades require time and skill to make, with each blacksmith producing just 15 or so per day.
The Sakai brand, dating back more than 400 years, has been recognized by the government as a prominent traditional craft and is prized by chefs nationwide.
But the existing pool of artisans is too small and elderly to maintain the tradition. Just 35 still work in Sakai.
Stressing the need for new blood, sword smith Tadashi Enami, 50, said, "There should be 20-something artisans."
Most of the cheap knives sold as Sakai-brand blades are actually not made by artisans in Sakai but only go through wholesale distributors there.
Enami said that although handmade blades require meticulous care, maintaining them is worth the effort.
Seven "younger" smiths, including Enami, who do not belong to Sakai's blade guild, formed a group to try new approaches to keep the craft alive, including launching a new brand of knives and seeking out foreign demand.
In August, a U.S. association of kitchen appliance makers invited the group to demonstrate their blade-forging at retailers in five cities, including Atlanta and San Francisco. The sight of the smiths striking hot iron particularly impressed the audience.
Handmade Japanese blades have failed to be widely accepted in the United States because unlike stainless steel blades, they will rust if not maintained.
But Enami's group succeeded in underscoring the solid quality of the Sakai brand.