"The Art of the Japanese Sword"
(Lecture At London University)
By Kenji Mishina
I started training as a sword polisher under Kokan Nagayama in 1974 when I was 23 years old and this was a
very late start as a sword polisher. It was thought that an apprenticeship had to be started in teenage in
those days. I became chief instructor of the Nagayama Japanese Art Sword Polishing Institute after five years
I taught about 35 students during my eight year role as the chief instructor at the institute. Most of the young first class polishers that are working today, were fostered by the institute. I was authorised by the Cultural Agency of the Japanese government to polish swords designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Assets by the government. There are only a few sword polishers with this authorisation in Japan today.
When I was 35 years old, I decide to move to England and work for Western sword collectors, as I knew there were many people who wanted a qualified sword polisher in their country. Fortunately my friend Tony Chapman, who was ex-chairman of the Token Society of Great Britain as well as my student, lived in Halstead in Essex and kindly arranged everything for me in order to start my business in this country. The following year I got married and my daughter Helen Miyako was born in 1990. My daughter has dual Japanese and British nationality. It is our great concern over which nationality she will chose when she becomes 22 years old.
After a six year stay in this country, I had to make a hard decision. This was that my parents-in-law were getting older and they have only two daughters and my sister-in-law was moving to Texas in US because of her husband's business. My wife is the eldest daughter but has no brothers, so it was then her responsibility to look after her parents, according to Japanese tradition. Thus we returned to Japan with a lot of happy memories in 1992. In actual fact my wife is missing England very much and she has not yet given up the hope of coming to live in England again.
I started working in Mitaka City, a suburb of Tokyo and lived with my parents-in-law. I knew there was only a little information of Japanese swords in English and that this made it very difficult for Western people to study Japanese swords. Nowadays I am working hard to send as much information in English as possible overseas. But I know my effort is limited and it can not change the present situation drastically. I really hope communication concerning Japanese swords, between Japanese and people in other countries will be improved in the future and I shall be happy if this occasion is of any service to you.
2. History of Japanese Sword
(Before completion of Japanese sword - 8th Century)
In fact, the pre-history of the Japanese sword is not very clear. Many Chokuto (or straight swords) made in the 8th Century have been kept in the Shoso-in store (or an Imperial repository in Nara) which was built in the 8th century and preserved the collection of the Emperor Shomu. The swords in the store are believed to have been imported from the continent, but it seems any noticeable technique of sword making was not yet developed in Japan.
These Chokuto swords have no curvature and a roughly forged wood-grain pattern. The tempered lines are obscured and it is difficult to find any trace of clay-coating tempering or quenching which is uniquely practiced in Japanese sword making. (this quenching, or Yaki-ire, on the edge of a proper Japanese sword, provides a hardened edge which can be sharpened to provide a fine cutting edge).
(Transitional stage - 10th Century)
In the transitional stage from the 8th to the 10th Century, it is not certain how the Japanese sword was developed and completed in the late 10th Century. This is because few people have researched this period seriously and there are not many extant works. Most techniques of sword making were imported and many swordsmiths were invited to come to Japan from China and Korea.
Examining extant works of Japanese swords before they were fully developed, such as Kogarasu-maru and Kenuki-gata-tachi, it becomes clear that they played a transitional role to the next stage of the completion of the Japanese sword, as they have curvature and centre lines on both sides called Shinogi and an advanced technique of tempering is employed.
(Appearance of Bushi (later Samurai) or warrior - Late 10th Century)
Within this transitory stage of the Japanese sword's history and influencing it's development, the appearance of Bushi is an important factor/ as this was also the period of the transition of power from aristocrats to Bushi. In the early stages, some aristocrats who were unhappy with their promotion in the administration or the Imperial Court, left Kyoto which was then the metropolitan capital of Japan, and went into countryside and started invading manors owned by other aristocrats who were living in Kyoto. These people were actually the origin of Bushi or Japanese warrior class.
As a result of frequent conflicts between these Bushi in the countryside who were against administration and the aristocrats in Kyoto, the country was gradually dragged into the war between the Genji clan (which was anti-aristocracy) and the Heike clan (which was pro-aristocracy).
Through the continuous battles, the Japanese sword became fully developed and became not only main weapon, but also status symbol of Bushi. Accordingly it was expressed as 'The Japanese sword is Soul of the Samurai' in the later Edo period.
By the end of the 10th Century, the elegant and refined shape of the Japanese sword was formed and it was made by using high quality material and was skilfully forged. In the meantime tempering sword with clay-coating (to form the hardened edge) became well controlled. The functional and artistic completion of Japanese sword was due to be realised in the next stage.
I am talking about the period 1000 years ago. It is amazing to know there are many extant works of those days which have been preserved in good condition for 10 centuries and we must realise how carefully they have been handled and cared for by succeeding generations.
(Kamakura period - 12th Century)
The Kamakura period from the 12th to the 13th Century had been the golden age of the Japanese sword and it was also the period that Bushi took power and governed the country for the first time in the Japanese history. It can be said that the Japanese sword had been completely developed in every aspect by this time. Indeed Japanese sword making has basically been subjected to this period since then /and most of all smiths have tried to emulate the fine swords of the Kamakura period.
It is true that more than 70 percent of National treasure swords were made in this period also many great master smiths and schools like Masamune, Sadamune, Awataguchi and Ichimonji appeared at this time.
In the Kamakura period each school shows distinct characteristics in their workmanship and locality of their Jigane (of which forged and folded steel is clearly seen) as they produced their Tama-hagane, or raw material, by themselves using local iron sand. Therefore, the various and unique workmanship of each school and province may be seen. You may not believe that it is not so difficult for us to single out one swordsmith from thousands of smiths, a few minutes after examining a sword of which the maker is unknown.
(Edo period - 17th and 18th Century)
A local war lord Oda Nobunaga finally quelled a hundred year civil war in 1573 and Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1603. Entering the Edo period, the Japanese sword came to have a political meaning and additional value as the Shogun used swords as reward to feudal lords and his retainers instead the more usual gifts of land, as the Shogun had no land to give them after the Tokugawa clan defeated the Toyotomi clan at the Battle of Sekigahara.
Bushi became to be called 'Samurai' in this period and they were not truly warriors any more as they began to function more as bureaucrats. Even so, the pair of swords worn by them were regarded as a symbol of Samurai, namely 'The Soul of the Samurai'.
Just before the Edo period, Tamahagane or steel became to be mass-produced/ and it was supplied to swordsmiths living in various places. Also Shingane or soft iron, which contains little carbon, was put inside the steel in order to improve flexibility and reduce the consumption of more expensive steel.
The Edo period was a long-lasting peaceful time /and the country had closed the door to foreign countries. The Japanese sword was losing its meaning as weapon. At the same time, swordsmiths were employing decorative Hamon ( or the pattern of the hardened edge) and sword shapes, which are not very practical. But the steel was uniform and lost its local characteristics. Generally speaking, older steel is softer and older steel has more complex and varying activities in it. In other words, the Japanese sword was losing local characteristics and uniqueness as swordmaking continued to develop.
The downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration dramatically changed the Japanese society and traditional Japanese culture was ignored /as the new Meiji government was very keen on introducing Western culture and technology. As a result, many important fine arts and crafts were exported or taken away by Western visitors. The Japanese sword was not an exception.
Under these circumstances, most of the Japanese sword craftsmen lost their jobs. But one of polisher of the Hon-ami school called Hon-ami Heijuro renovated the finishing or last stages of sword polishing. It was really an outstanding and un-experienced expression of the Japanese sword. This finishing work is called 'Kana-hada' polish or Kesho polish (so-called, cosmetic polish) and is demonstrated by many polishers today.
In this polish, the Jihada or pattern of forged and folded steel in the 'body' of the sword and its activities are clearly exposed. In old Sashikomi polish, which was used until the end of the Edo period, fine texture and activities of Jigane were hardly ever seen after polishing. Also the impressive contrast and effect of black and white created with Hadori work or whitening of the Hamon /attracted people again. It can be said his renovation of sword polishing saved many Japanese swords /and resulted in people recognising another aspect of beauty of the Japanese sword, which had never been appreciated before.
(After World War II)
Japanese swords had to experience hard times yet again after Japan was defeated by the Allied forces in 1945. It is believed that more than a million Japanese swords were destroyed and taken to foreign countries. People involved in the Japanese sword really thought there could be no future of the Japanese sword at this time. But ironically this movement of Japanese swords has resulted in spreading Japanese sword culture to foreign countries and we see many people who are interested in and studying the Japanese sword all over the world today.
In Japan about 250 swordsmiths are engaged in sword making now and they produce 2000 swords, which are called Shinsakuto, every year.
In fact, the old methods of sword making has been lost and is not known today. There is no written document of the old methods as it had been passed on by oral instruction by swordsmiths, until the end of the Edo period.
A swordsmith called Suishinshi Masahide of the late Edo period wrote about and analysed the old methods of sword making in the early 19th Century though no one has been successful in implementing his theory.
Many modern smiths have been trying to realise the fine swords of the Kamakura period for years. In recent years I have heard a few smiths discovered the old method /and are partly being successful in sword making with the old method. Now we are expecting they will accomplish it in the near future.
3. History of Sword Polishing
(Before the completion of the Japanese sword)
A description of sword polishing is seen in a document called 'Engi-shiki' was written in 905 for the first time. Meanwhile, the oldest recognisable polishing on a Tanto (or dagger) was discovered from inside the body of a Buddha image made in 1274. The Tanto was polished with one of the finishing stones called Uchigumori and Migaki or a kind of burnishing was done on a part of the blade. In this case, Tsuya (or finger polishing with thin and tiny pieces of finishing stone called 'Narutaki') and Nugui ( or polishing powder) seem not to have been employed. But it is speculated that there was already a similar method to modern finishing work in that period.
(Completion of sword polishing)
It seems that the traditional sword polishing we can see today was completed by the mid 10th Century. In a history book called 'Kanchi-in Bon' which describes the history of the early 14th Century, sword polishers' name were seen for the first time.
In the book there are two polishers' name called 'Kunihiro' and 'Tamesada' who were chosen by the ex-Emperor Gotoba in order to polish the swords made by Goban-kaji who were designated the monthly smiths who worked for the ex-Emperor. Incidentally the ex-Emperor Gotoba had a profound knowledge of the Japanese sword and was an expert of sword appreciation. The description proves that the sword polishing which makes the sword appreciation, possible had been completed by then.
Since then the word 'Polishing' began to be used for sword polishing, thus it definitely had a different meaning from grinding or sharpening of edged tools. It is now thought that three stages of sword polishing already existed in the early Heian period of the mid 9th Century.
(Sword polishing and artistic value of the Japanese sword)
From the previous description we can speculate that they already had a recognition that the Japanese is not only an excellent weapon but also one of fine arts in the early 13th Century.
When we talk about the practical aspect of a sword, finishing work with extremely fine stone is not necessarily needed and the stage of a middle grain stone called Nagura would be ideal to make the sword work practically. Furthermore, polishing stages after the Nagura stone were developed in order to enhance the artistic value and expose mysterious beauty of the Japanese sword.
The unique finishing work using Uchigumori and Narutaki stones is the only way to bring out the patterns of the Jihada and the Hamon properly. In fact, we have no other option. In a sense, it might be said that the artistic value of the Japanese sword was established and has been appreciated highly because of this exceptional sword polishing.
(Appearance of the Hon-ami family and the Edo period)
It is said that the basis of the modern sword polishing was established by Hon-ami Kotoku of the Momoyama period of the late 16th Century. Since then, the Hon-ami family had been retained by the Tokugawa Shogun and worked for the Tokugawa family and fuedal lords for generations. Meanwhile the Hon-ami family had eleven branch families during the Edo period and had been the most authorised connoisseur of the Japanese sword and issued certificates. The old certificates of the Hon-ami family are highly praised by sword collectors even now.
Sashikomi polish had been practised by the Hon-ami family until a new Kanahada polished was developed in the early Meiji era.
Actually I am a sword polisher belong to the Hom-ami school as my teacher Nagayama Kokan learnt sword polishing from Hon-ami Koson who succeeded as head of one of the Hon-ami families.
(Downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration)
In 1867 the Tokugawa shogunate was replaced by the Royalist government and the government introduced Western style military and banned wearing Japanese swords in 1876. Many people believed that they didn't need the Japanese sword anymore and its mission as weapon had ceased. At that time one of the Hon-ami sword polishers, called Hon-ami Heijuro, tried to increase the artistic value of the Japanese sword by renovating finishing work which enhanced the beauty of the Japanese sword and enlightened many people.
The Japanese sword managed to survive the Meiji Restoration with the tremendous efforts of craftsmen like Hon-ami Heijuro and enthusiastic collectors. The new life of the Japanese sword just started after the end of the Samurai's period that had lasted 700 years.
The new sword polish is called Kanahada (Iron oxide) polish or Kesho (Cosmetic) polish. In this polish, inside the Hamon is whitened along the tempered line and the pattern of Jihada and the activities are exposed conspicuously after all. In the Samurai's period, the Japanese sword had been monopolised by Samurai but in this period the Japanese sword begun to be collected and appreciated not only by former Samurai but also by civilians.
(After World War II)
After Japan's defeat of World War II, all activities concerning the Japanese sword were suspended by the Allied Forces. But the activities were gradually resumed in the wake of Japan's independence in 1950 and the beauty of the Japanese sword is appreciated by many people both in and outside of Japan nowadays.
It seems that the sword polishing has reached the highest level in technique but there are not so many top-level polishers because it requires a long and hard apprenticeship. The Japanese government understands that the sword polishing is one of the most important traditional techniques and it must be succeeded to by the next generation. Therefore it has designated three sword polishers as Living National Treasure by now.
4. Sword Polishing
Japanese sword polishing is divided into 13 stages. Different stones and tools are used in each stage applying
different movements. In the finishing stages the thumb is used to polish Jihada and Hamon with extremely thin
and tiny pieces of Narutaki stone and thin lacquered Uchigumori stone.
Normally one sword takes about 120 hours to be finished. In sword polishing, even an error of a hair difference is not allowed and its machine-like accuracy demonstrated with polisher's eyes and hands is obtained only with long and hard apprenticeship.
In order to express Jihada and Hamon of the Japanese sword, this unique polishing method was developed several hundred years ago. Especially the finishing work is effective only for the Japanese sword and it never works on other swords in the same way.
The groundwork is important and should be performed very carefully. Fine swords have been preserved for centuries because perfect ground work has been done by master polishers. Therefore we do our best to maintain the original shape of a sword and try to mend it with minimum sacrifice when we remove chips and rust in the ground work. When the sword is used in fighting, it could be damaged considerably and then the life of the sword could be finished after several occasions of use in the battle field. In actual fact, old swords in sound condition seem to have rarely been used in fighting.
(Shape of the sword)
The Japanese sword consists of curved lines and it is extremely difficult work to keep the lines precisely in the ground work. The stones for the ground work have a gently curved surface, both lengthwise and crosswise and the sword is polished on the stones in a complicated movement which is a combination of different actions like pitching, twisting, pushing and pulling. Otherwise, the stone grains can not be parallel to the sword's curvature and the lines would be ruined. The Kissaki or the point is the most difficult part in sword polishing and it is always polished in horizontal and in very fine movement.
Furthermore, a difficult thing in sword polishing is that we can't see where we are actually polishing. We are looking at the part of the other side of the sword, but we must know exactly where we are polishing at that moment. This X-ray like ability becomes possible to have only after highest concentration and sensibility are obtained by polisher. The shape of the Japanese sword is a crucial point to judge its period, it is that the length, the curvature, the thickness and the Kissaki or point of the blade, always indicates its period of manufacture.
Finishing work would be unnecessary if the Japanese sword were simply a weapon. Though this fine and difficult technique was innovated in order to thoroughly expose the beauty of the Japanese sword and the technique is being developed by modern polishers even today. The finishing work is extremely delicate and deeply depends on polisher's sensitivity, as the result could change the attribution and even the value of the sword.
(Jihada - Pattern of texture of steel)
Jihada is the pattern of the steel which is the result of small pieces of Tama-hagane ( or raw material of the Japanese sword) being piled into a square block and then folded twelve to fifteen times. In this process tens of thousands of layers are formed and the layers are brought out in finishing work. The appearance of the pattern depends on the way of the folding. The pattern is expressed like veins of wood, cross grain, running grain, wavy grain, straight grain and so on. The Jihada varies between different schools and smiths.
Paper-thinned Narutaki stone is used in polishing Jigane or steel. It is broken into tiny pieces like sand then the face of the thumb folds the tiny pieces and polishes all over the blade lengthways. No other stone works effectively to express the pattern of the Jihada characteristically. Also the thickness, the size and the nature of the stone must be carefully chosen otherwise you never get the result what you expect. This is the most important and crucial stage in the finishing work. The expression of the Jihada is really delicate and sensitive. The finishing work of Jihada could end in waste of labour easily if your judgement of the Jihada and the choice of the stone are wrong. Once you fail it, you have to return to the ground work. It means you have to spend a few days in order to come back to the present stage.
The Jihada of the Japanese sword has aesthetic and mysterious beauty. In the meantime, the steel is not uniformed and contains many impurities but those factors are said to produce interesting and various activities. Though the activities are not fully expressed or shown by unskilled polishing.
(Nugui - Powder polishing)
Nugui is a mixture of several polishing powders like iron oxide, magnetite, stone powder and so on. It is mixed with clove oil then used to polish the sword and makes the Jihada dark. But the Jihada should not be a mirror-like surface. Such glittering surface ruins the pattern of Jihada and activities.
(Hadori - Whitening Hamon)
Hadori is a stage to whiten inside the Hamon along the tempered line with Hazuya or very thin and lacquered Uchigumori stone. A small and round Hazuya is delicately elaborately moved to make a formation of the Hamon and make inside the Hamon white. As I mentioned before, this is a relatively new technique which was innovated by Hon-ami Heijuro in the late 19th Century. The formation of the Hamon must indicate characteristics of the smith and his tradition. This work requires enormous concentration and patience as the work normally lasts several days. It is really a snail-walk job but exciting to see the process which gradually makes a beautiful contrast of black and white between Jihada and Hamon.
In this stage, the Shinogi-ji and Mune are burnished with a steel stick twice or three times in order to preventing the sword from rusting and scratching then the burnishing makes shiny mirror surface.
(Narume - Point polishing)
Narume is the final stage of sword polishing and this part of the sword is always polished vertically and Hazuya which was used in the Hadori is used again here. A Yokote line is made and the straight and vertical line is the border of the two parts of the Kissaki and the rest of the sword. It is another difficult work to precisely make straight line in an exactly right place. It is never realised without appropriate ground work.
At last the sword is finished beautifully. A sword polisher feels a great relief and joy when he is satisfied with his work after he accomplishes his duty.