Comments for the Internet Discussion Group
By Kenji Mishina
< Sword Polishing >
First of all, I believe that we Hon-ami polishers are granted a privilege and advantage of enormous knowledge and information about Japanese sword and polishing, which have been accumulated for 400 years.
It is most important thing for sword polisher to understand what kind and quality of sword he intends to polish and such understanding is only obtained through experiences including supervison of his teacher and senior students' works. It is natural that fine swords go to skilful polishers for polish, for instance most of fine swords owned by shogun and daimyo had been polished by the Hon-ami polishers, some of them done by Kiya and Takeya polishers in old days. Therefore student who expects to be first-class polisher needs to practice sword polishing in workshop where fine swords are always worked on. It is very dangerous that polisher who has no experience of polshing fine swords tries to polish such high quality sword as he could damage it. I think the expression of "damaging sword in polishing should be understood appropriately by collectors and of course by polishers. Many people do not realise the result of the damage after polish. It can be said that people who understand it properly have alreadly attained a certain level of sword study.
Generally speaking, Hon-ami polishers are conservative in order to avoid any kind of accident and succeed their tradition to the next generation. We know Many swords have been conserved for 1000 years. We are hesitant and very careful to use new materials even if they look very useful and we should refuse using them when we sense any possibility of damaging sword. I know a few famous polishers used a chemical and gained fame with their flashy polishing in the past but it became clear that the chemical was damaging the swords they polished. Collectors sometimes take bold and reckless action in order to remove rust and try to see hamon and jihada. I do wish they would not make retrievable mistake.
It may sound arrogant to say, but it is widely acknowledged in Japan, that the choice of teacher is essential in starting apprenticeship of sword polishing. Low-class polisher never produces first-class polisher and there is no chance for self-trained polisher to be first-class polisher. In the meantime, apprenticeship under firs-class polisher does not guaranttee his future as first-class polisher. That is why we have only a small number of firs-class polishers here (with this theory, Hon-ami polishers are not always first-class polishier).
People in Japan say that I am a polisher who understand science and theory (concervative polishers hate them) as I graduated a university and understand English. Though I have experienced that science and theory do not make first-class polisher. Hard working, patience and experiences with some talent are indispensable elements to become first-class polisher. I know many students who failed to be first-class polisher because of lacking one of them. Sword polishing is very complicated business and has not been fully explained in theory. Therefore we have to heavily relay on our sixth sense and aesthetical eye that are fostered through experiences and they are never obtained without facing fine swords that make us feel historical and artistic value and enormous power in extremely tense atmosphere.
I have no intention to neglect low-class polishers ( I have no intention to offend them this word 'low-class' but it sounds better than 'cheap polisher' and 'cleaner') and it is true that most of Japanese swords are polished and conserved by them. It is, by no means, possible that a few first-class polishers take care of all of 2,300,000 swords that have been registered in Japan by now.
Turnig eyes to the situation of foreign countries, I know there are a certain number of local professional polishers in several countries. I admit some of them are improving their skill and don't mind to leave the conservation work of Japanese sword to them as there are too many swords in foreign countries to be polished by Japanese polisher also complicated procedures and expenses to transfer swords to Japan make the situation worse.
Please remember again Japanese sword is very delicate and easily damaged with inappropriate handling and polishing. Considerable devaluation could be caused with the damage. The same damage is differently estimated depending on the value of the sword, In comparing between 100,000 dollar sword and 1,000 dollar sword, for instance, the damage causes 10% devaluation of each sword. 10% means 10,000 dollars for the former and 100 dollars for the latter. It is as simple as that calculation and becomes clear how important the choice of polisher and handling sword are.
Meanwhile, there are many people who are making mistake in the choice of sword polisher in Japan because of long waiting list of first-class polisher and polishing charge too. I know that long and hard apprenticeship (at least five years are needed in full time engagement) does not attract young Japanese people in these days and we are concerned of the shortage of young skilful polishers who are expected to be future first-class polisher. Though mastering traditional sword polishing is never attaind in short time also they are required a talent to be so. First-class polishers must have long waiting list for their polish and collectors need to be patient to wait for their turn. I would say that patience must be rewarded and impatience could cause serious problem.
< What Constitutes A Great Polish? >
What costitutes a great polish? This is rather difficult but very important subject. The follwing is my opinion and I believe that it is shared by many Honami polishers.
First of all, there is a basic theory of the ground work of sword polishing that has never changed since our Honami polish was established 400 years ago. Each sword must be shaped up according to the basic sugata of school of each period in the ground work. This theory will never change in the future either. Also it must be noticed that some smiths have their own sugata differing from other smiths of the same period, like Rai Kuntoshi, Ryokai, Hizen-to and Kiyomaro. Japanese sword has successfully been conserved for a thousand years because polishers have been faithful to keeping the basic theory of the ground work. If this theory is neither ignored nor practised, Japanese sword is at risk of serious damage.
Polisher must restore sword keeping the losses of the steel to a minimum while he reshapes the sugata and removes rust and chips. Once the sugata of the sword is restored correctly, little losses of the steel is expected in the next polish (but unskilled polisher easily ruines the restored sugata). Even a hair difference is not allowed in goo polishing but there are not many collecters who can recognise it (this is crucial in forming kissaki and hira-niku also crispy lines are never drawn without this accuracy). It is almost impossible to understand "Great Polish" without this accurate eye.
Finish work changes according to people's taste. Generally speaking, flamboyant finish work is favoured when business is good then subtle finish work is favoured when business is sluggish. Therefore subtle finish work has been favoured in these years because of lasting economic recession.
Simply speaking, good point is emphaised and shorcoming is hid or subdued in good finish work. Good point is hid or subdued and shortcoming is emphasised in bad finish. Meanwhile, exposing all of good and bad points is not good finish work. Polisher must have an image of the final appearance of the sword before he starts ground work and finish work too. Masamune must look like Masamune, Kotetsu must look like Kotetsu and Kiyomaro must look like Kiyomaro when they are finished. The image he created through his experiences is gradually realised with his technique and stones then the sword becomes to expose the characteristics and workmanship of the sword in the best condition for viewing. Collectors must share the image of the polisher to appreaciate the sword and polish properly.
Hamon itself does not change in the finish work but the brightness of the hamon is declined and hataraki may be hid when polisher has wrong choise of stone and short-cut stone works.
Jihada is very delicate and dramatically changes depending on what kind of stone polisher uses and how he uses it. Fine and dense jihada disappears instantly with inappropriate manner of ji-zuya work as well as hataraki like chikei and ji-nie then coarse and rough jihada becomes more conspicuous and looks ugly. Empahsising fine and dense jihada and subduing coarse and rough one are contradictory technique but skilful polisher make it possible.
Understanding jihada and jigane are the most important and difficult elements in swprod appreciation. Good polisher can see through inside the blade and sense hidden hataraki even if the blade is in bad condition. Though collectors can hardly expect this ability therefore good polish is neccessary to appreciate Japanese sword properly.
I don't think I have answered the question fully but I believe it includes some clues to understand "Great Polish". Finally, I understand that great polish should reflet polisher's character therefore he must have artistic sense and be well aquainted with Japanese sword culture.