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What is the secret of the Japanese sword phenomenon?
What is the secret of the Japanese sword phenomenon?

Historically, Japanese swords have been called the soul of the samurai, and the katana is the most famous of all types of sword. In the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun, the sword occupies a special place, and a blade made by the hands of a master can cost fabulous money. What is the secret of the phenomenon of this weapon, which has become a kind of fetish?

1. Japanese swords - an integral part of tradition since ancient times

Samurai in the center holding a katana

Historians have traced the history of the development of swords in Japan, and the most ancient examples date from the Kofun period (300-538). It is believed that the earliest samurai preferred bows, but it was swords that became the cult weapon of the Land of the Rising Sun.

2. The traditions of making Japanese swords are preserved to this day

The Japanese have preserved the traditional art of making swords

Despite the abolition of the samurai class (1868) and the decree banning the wearing of the sword (1876), the ancient art of making swords has not sunk into oblivion. Part of the dynasties of armourers kept their knowledge and work technologies for many years. Having survived a time of oblivion, they resumed the piece-making of swords, when interest in the culture of the East was revived.

Interesting fact:Some of the swordmakers have been awarded the title of Living National Treasure by the Japanese Parliament. Such a title is held, for example, by Gassan Sadaichi, Seiho Sumitani, Kokei Ono.

3. Samurai swords are incredibly difficult

There are tens of katana elements

Katana - a sword that was allowed to be worn only by samurai, refers to products with a complex structure. Two types of alloy are used for manufacturing, and the final design consists of many main parts and auxiliary elements.

4. It takes years to become a master

It takes years to achieve the qualification of mukans - "not in need of assessment"

Becoming a swordmaster is not easy - it is hard work that takes years. Students undergo training for at least five years, and sometimes all ten, working as an apprentice for a master who agreed to transfer knowledge.

Upon completion of the training, the student independently makes a katana, submits it for assessment by a commission of experts and passes the national certification exam - a complex multi-stage test that lasts eight days. If he withstands the test with honor, then he gets the right to be considered a master and put his mark on the products. But this is not the end of the road - it can take years to build a reputation as a respected swordmaker.

5. The number of sword masters is steadily declining

There are fewer and fewer Japanese sword masters

In 1989, the Japan Blacksmiths Association numbered 300 registered swordmakers in the country. And this number is constantly decreasing. There were only 188 blacksmiths registered in 2017 and their average age is growing rapidly. The reason lies in the difficulty of mastering the craft: an apprenticeship that lasts for years is not paid.

Pupils have to rely on the help of their families or their own savings, and very many “go out of the way” due to lack of funds. Those who have completed the training, but failed the exam, have to wait a long time for a second attempt, since certification is carried out only once a year. In addition, starting a sword making business requires start-up capital, which is difficult to raise by working without paying all the years of apprenticeship.

6. Ephesus of swords can be as valuable as blades

Tsuba inlaid with gold, circa 1750-1800

Tsuba - an analogue of the guard of Japanese swords, can be of no less value to a collector than the blade itself. Initially, this element had only a functional value, but over time it acquired a decorative function. The samurai code discouraged wearing jewelry, so the warriors began to decorate guards to demonstrate their taste and wealth.

Precious metals and stones were used to design tsubas. Over time, the manufacture of guards became a real art, which gave rise to the dynasty of Tsubako masters.Tsubas on their own can be worth thousands of dollars and there are collectors out there who hunt for this particular piece.

7. You can recognize the blacksmith school by the jamon drawing

Choji Hamon with an unusual chaotic design

Hamon is one of the characteristics by which you can distinguish a real Japanese sword from other products. This is the name of the line on the blade, especially clearly visible when the rays of the sun fall on the blade at a certain angle. It shows the boundary of zone hardening and can have a different pattern with any number of shapes.

Throughout history, Japanese craftsmen have distinguished their work from others with intricate patterns, and the ham can identify the blacksmith school with which the sword is forged.

8. Making a katana takes months

World War II Katana

Making samurai swords is a complex and time-consuming process, and the main part is not forging, but the preparation of the material. To begin with, the blacksmith chops coal, then obtains tamahagane steel by fusing coal with satetsu iron sand. The obtained pieces of metal are sorted according to their quality, and the selected pieces are put into operation. They are joined together and then repeatedly heated, beaten off, cut, folded, and the cycle is repeated again - from 5 to 20 times. Thus, the base of the sword is obtained, from which the desired shape of the blade is then tapped.

The last stage of the blacksmith's work is the hardening of the blade, after which the polisher begins to work, grinding and sharpening the product. The very last stage is the creation of the scabbard and the engraving of the master's signature. The process of making a sword using traditional technology can take over 18 months.

9. All Japanese swordmakers use steel from the same furnace

All sword-smiths in Japan use steel from one furnace

According to the classical technology, swords are made of tamahagane steel, which has practically no impurities. The metal is smelted in the Tatara furnace and in Japan there is only one such furnace, restored to an ancient model in 1977. It is located in Shimane Prefecture and operates only two months a year.

9. The sword polisher is just as important as the blacksmith

The craftsmanship of polishing has also been passed down from generation to generation

The relationship between a polisher and a blacksmith in Japan has been compared to that of a composer and a musician. Both craftsmen are required to create a katana as a beautiful piece of art.

10. The division of labor reigns in sword making

The Japanese sword is created not by one master, but by a team

There are no people in Japan who make a sword from start to finish. The creation of a katana is a collective process of masters who are constantly improving in their chosen field. When each of the participants in the creation of a sword reaches a high level of skill in their work, the product becomes a real masterpiece.

11. The release of swords is strictly limited

Katana "Fudo Myo" by master Miyazaki Keishinsai, second half of the 19th century

The Japanese government strictly regulates the production of traditional swords. A blacksmith is allowed to make two long swords or three short swords per month. On the one hand, this measure contributes to the maintenance of quality, on the other hand, the influx of new masters is becoming less and less: it is difficult to train for several years without remuneration and then work off the invested funds for years.

12. There are societies for the conservation of Japanese swords

Presentation of swords and accessories at the meeting of members of the Token Kai Club of New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019

Realizing that traditional sword making would disappear if no action was taken, Japanese enthusiasts founded the Nihon Token Hozon Kai (NTHK) Japanese sword conservation society in 1910. In 1948, with the support of the government of the Land of the Rising Sun, another society was created - Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK). Both organizations are respected in the world, and their certificates are the most prestigious document confirming the authenticity of a sword.

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