By@Kenji Mishina


"Rediscovery of the Japanese Sword"


By Kenji Mishina

1. Introduction

Thank youvery much for gathering to listen to my lecture about the Japanese sword today. It is great honour to me to have such opportunity to speak to you here, by the request of the Asiatic Society of Japan.
Before I start the lecture, let me introduce myself briefly. I was born in 1951 in a small town in Fukushima Prefecture, 200 miles north of Tokyo. My ancestors had been swordsmiths retained by the feudal Lord Uesugi Kagekatsu before the Edo Period (1603 ---) but the family business had to be suspended in the wake of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu quelled the country after the battle but Lord Uesugi opposed the Tokugawa family and fought on the side of the Toyotomi family. The Uesugi family was relocated by the Tokugawa shogunate from Fukushima to Yonezawa City in Yamagata Prefecture and the fief of the Uesugi was reduced from one million koku of rice to 150,000 koku (1 koku=150kg of rice). My ancestor could not go with his lord to Yonezawa and had to give up the sword business and started farming in Fukushima.
Interestingly, the blood of the Mishina family was revived after 400 years, as a sword polisher, but not as swordsmith. In fact, my grandfather started researching the family lineage (liniidge) when I was a university student and I accidentally picked up one of the books he was reading and found my family name eMishinafin the book. I realized for the first time that my ancestor was one of the Mishina families that produced many distinguished swordsmiths and were allowed to use the chrysanthemum crest of the emperor which they inscribed on the tangs of the swords that they made.
As soon as I graduated from university in 1974, I started training as a sword polisher under Kokan Nagayama who is now designated by the government as a National Living Treasure or Important Intangible Cultural Asset. I was 23 years old at this time and this was a very late start as a sword polisher. In those days, it was thought that an apprenticeship had to be started when in onefs teenage years. I became chief instructor of the Nagayama Japanese Art Sword Polishing Institute after five years of hard training.
I taught about 35 studentsduring my eight year role as the chief instructor at the institute. Most of the young first class polishers, who are working today, were fostered by the institute. I was authorized by Bunka-cho or the Agency for Cultural Affairs 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 authorization 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 one of my English friends, who was an ex-chairman of the Japanese Sword Society of Great Britain, kindly arranged everything for me in order to start my business in England. I moved to a small town called Halstead in Essex and had a workshop in my house and polished not only for British sword collectors but also European collectors. I came to have a workshop at the British Museum two years later and polished some of the museumfs sword collection. During my six year stay in England, I polished many swords for Western collectors and museums then researched the Japanese sword collection of the Queen.
I returned Japan in 1992 and started working in Mitaka City, a suburb of Tokyo. I knew that there was only scant information about 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. I have translated several sword books since I returned to Japan and two of them were published by Kodansha International, gThe Connoisseurfs Book of Japanese Swordh and@gNew Generation of Japanese Swordsmithsh. But I know my effort is limited and it cannot fundamentally change the present situation. 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

It may be very interesting to know how many Japanese swords exist in Japan. In actual fact, about 2 million 3 hundred thousand Japanese swords have been registered by the Agency for Cultural Affairs since World War II. This number does not include mass-produced swords for military use made during the war. These were not forged by traditional methods and are not recognized as real Japanese swords either. On the other hand, it is speculated that the same number of Japanese swords were destroyed and flowed oversea just after the war.

(Before completion of Japanese sword - 8th Century)
Now, I would like to talk about the history of the Japanese sword briefly in order to give you an outline of the Japanese sword. 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 (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 that no noticeable technique of sword making was yet developed in Japan.


(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.

(Appearance of Bushi or Warrior - Late 10th Century)
Within this transitional stage of the Japanese sword's history and influencing its development, the appearance of Bushi (warriors) 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.
Through the continuous battles, the Japanese sword became fully developed and became not only the main weapon, but also a status symbol of Bushi. Accordingly, it was expressed as gThe Japanese sword is Soul of the Samurai'h 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 skillfully forged. In the meantime, tempering the sword with a clay-coating (to form the hardened edge) became well controlled. The functional and artistic completion of the Japanese sword was due to be realised in the next stage.
I am talking about the period 1,000 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.

Tachi by Gojo Kuninaga

(Kamakura period - 12th Century)
The Kamakura Period from the 12th to the 13th Century was 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 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. Many great master smiths and schools like Masamune, Sadamune, Awataguchi and Ichimonji appeared at this time.

Tachi by Rai Kuniyuki

(Nambokucho Periods - 14th Century)
After the demise of the Kamakura shogunate, continuous battles were fought between the pro Northern Imperial Court and the pro Southern Imperial Court all over the country. Emperor Godaigo tried to restore the old administration system of the ancient period and to seize political power. Though the government controlled by the Imperial Court did not last long and another powerful leader of the Genji clan, Ashikaga Takauji backed by bushi who were discontented with the royal government, challenged the emperor and eventually founded the Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto.
During this period, enormous swords of which had lengths are over 90 cm. were produced. It is speculated that warriors shouldered the long swords on their back and wielded them ostentatiously on the battle field. However, most of these swords were shortened to about 70 cm. at the beginning of the Edo Period and used as a katana.

Tachi by Osafune Kanemitsu

(Muromachi Period - 15thand 16th Century)
The Ashikaga shogunate lasted about 200 years but these were never peaceful times. The country became to present the age of rival warlords. The last 100 years of the Muromachi Period is called gThe Age of Civil Wars.
The Japanese sword changed drastically in this period in the wake of the innovation of large-scaled smelting and distribution systems. These innovations prompted technical exchange and the use of the same materials across the country, resulting in each province and school beginning to lose their individual and local characteristics.
Another important change was seen at the beginning of the Muromachi Period. This was the appearance of katana and the style of wearing it. The Katana was thrust through the belt with the cutting edge upward (tachi were slung from the belt with the cutting edge pointing towards the ground). Wearing katana (a long sword with a length over 60 cm.) and wakizashi (a sword with a length of 30-60 cm.) became the formal style of samurai that we can see in samurai films today.
It must be noticed that the changes of fighting style influenced the appearance of katana and its style of being worn, especially the introduction of muskets by Portuguese in 1543 had a great impact.

Katna by Osafune Katsumitsu

(Edo period - 17th and 18th Century)
A local warlord 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 rewards to feudal lords and his retainers instead of 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.

Katana by Echizen Yasutsugu

Bushi came 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 was regarded as a symbol of Samurai, namely gThe Soul of the Samuraih.
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.

Katana by Tsuda Sukehiro Daisho-goshirae

(Bakumatsu or the End of the Edo Period)
At the end of the Edo Period, copies of tachi and wakizashi of the Nambokucho Period with large kissaki and grand shape came into fashion since the American Pacific Fleet led by Commodore Perrier turned up in the Edo Bay.

Katana by Kurihara Nobuhide

(Meiji Restoration)
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 the polishers 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.

(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 for 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 engaging in sword making now and they produce about 2,000 swords, which are called Shinsakuto, every year.
In fact, the old methods of sword making have been lost and are 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.

The Japanese sword is basically classified into four categories, namely tachi, katana, wakizashi and tanto. Tachi is slung from the belt with the cutting edge down to the ground and its length is over 60 cm (its standard length is about 78 cm.); katana is thrust into the belt with the cutting edge upward and the length is over 60 cm. (its standard length is about 70 cm.), wakizashi is worn in the same style as katana and the length is between 30 and 60 cm. (its standard length is about 50 cm.), and the length of tanto is under 30 cm. (its standard length is about 26 cm.).

3. Functional Aspect of the Japanese Sword

As a weapon, swords are expected to meet three conditions; gCut wellh, gNot benth and gNot breakh. The Japanese sword has been praised because of its superb functionality, in addition to its artistic value for centuries. Its superiority comes from the traditional forging method.
Swordsmith applies a unique and complex method that is never seen in other sword forging in order to improve the flexibility, sharpness and durability of the Japanese sword. Small pieces of Japanese steel called tamahagane are piled up and it forms a brick like block. This block is heated, hammered and folded criss-cross many times. This work eliminates impurities that have harmful influence on the sword and produces thousands of layers that appear as jihada or steel grain after the finish work of sword polishing. It has a multiple structure that has different hardness in each part, such as the cutting edge, the skin steel and the core steel.
It is interesting to know that Japanese warriors knew the Japanese sword was an excellent weapon but it was hardly ever used as major weapon in the battle field through the 1,000 year Japanese sword history. It is believed that bow, spear, halberd and musket (after it was introduced by Portuguese in the late Muromachi Period) were the major offensive weapons. The Japanese sword was, in fact, the final weapon to protect wearers at the last moment on the battle field.

4. Cultural Aspect of the Japanese Sword

The Japanese sword was originally a weapon just like other swords. It developed a special nature that is not seen in others through the unique history of Japanese warriors and it came to have factors that had an influence on the samuraifs way of life. There is no doubt that the Japanese sword was closely related with Bushido in its establishing process.
Many fine swords were donated to shrines and temples praying for their victories and prosperity. Whatever samurai said in swearing by their swords, it had to be carried out whatever the risk, that is to say, gA Samurai never goes back on his word.h

5. Sword Polishing

I am a sword polisher of the Hon-ami school and had learnt from Nagayama Kokan who is a National Living Treasure for 13 years. The Hon-ami family had been retained by shogun for negations since the Muromachi Period and engaged in sword polishing and appraisal for shogun, daimyo and high ranking samurai for 500 years.
Their training system and polishing techniques have not basically changed for 300 years even though a cosmetic finish-work was innovated in the early Meiji Era. It has 13 stages and 8 different polishing stones are used and most of polishing tools are hand-made .It takes about two weeks to finish a sword. Sword polishing is hard work and requires a lot of patience. Maximum concentration is indispensable during the work. A polisher must have extremely accurate eyes that never miss a hair difference in the lines of the blade and be able to correct the lines at minimum loss of steel.
Only this unique technique makes it possible to bring out the essence of the beauty of the Japanese sword. Shape, steel and tempered line are the main factors of the Japanese sword appreciation. Also it becomes possible to judge the age, province, school and even a smith name after the blade is polished in the traditional way. The Sword attribution is very logical and it was established by the Hon-ami family through their 500 year experience from sword polishing.

Polishing stones
Polishing position at groundwork
Set up for finishing work

(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.
The Jihada of the Japanese sword has an 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.

(Hamon - Tempered Line)
As a result of quenching, a blade takes on an edge which is sufficiently hard for effective cutting. When looking along a blade toward the light, the hamonshines brightly and is quite distinct. The pattern of the border line between the edge and the other part is called hamon. The hamon is heavily influenced by tsuchi-oki (an application of clay coating). Before the blade is quenched, it is completely coated with clay, with a much thinner coating applied to the part that becomes the cutting edge than to the other part. Methods and pattern used in this clay coating are different in each school and produce various hamon like sugu-ha, notare, gunome, choji, and so on.

(Finishing Work)
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.

(Ji-zuya - Polishing Jihada Grain)
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 and characteristics of the Jihada. Also the thickness, the size and the nature of the stone must be carefully chosen; otherwise you will never get the result that you expect. This is the most important and crucial stage in the finishing works. The expression of the Jihada is really delicate and sensitive. The finishing work of Jihada could end in waste of labour easily if your judgment 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.

Jizuya stones
Jizuya polish

(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.

Nugui polish

(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 and elaborately moved to make and form the Hadori line and make the inside of 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 Hadori must indicate the characteristics of the smith and his tradition. This work requires enormous concentration and patience as the work normally lasts a few 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.

Hazuya stones
Hadori polish
Variety of Hamon

In the stage of burnishing, 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. The burnishing produces a shiny mirror-like surface.
Burnishing sticks

(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. This is the straight and vertical line that is the border of the two parts of the Kissaki (or point) and the rest of the sword. It is another difficult job to precisely make a straight line in exactly the right place. It is never accomplished 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.

Narume stand
Finished kissaki
Finished sword

6. Summarize

As mentioned above, the Japanese sword had not been a major aggressive weapon in the Japanese history. Needless to say, the Japanese sword is very sharp and cuts well, and many stories that prove the sharpness of the Japanese sword have been passed down since olden days, such as, swords that cut musket barrels and iron helmets. This superiority of the Japanese sword was realized for the first time by employing a unique sword forging method that was established 1,000 years ago. This was a result of swordsmiths who pushed to the limit its functionality. The Japanese sword came to have an accomplished and sophisticated form of beauty that hardly reminds us of the aspect of the Japanese sword as deadly lethal weapon.
When we draw a sword from its sheath in the stillness and take a look at it, we feel that it makes our mind purified and wicked heart exorcised in an instant. In this moment, it is by no means a weapon to kill enemy but it becomes an object to lead us to the world of nothingness, even it may bring us toward spiritual enlightenment. I wonder if it is an integration of our spirit and the sword, which is advocated in Zen Buddhism.
In the wake of the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867, the Meiji government denied the existence of samurai and banned wearing a pair of swords that had been their status symbol. They then introduced Western technology and cultures in order to modernize Japan and catch up with the Western countries. After 100 years, Japan realized an economic miracle and became the second economic power in the world and people enjoyed luxurious life of which we never dreamt (dremt) when we were defeated by the Allied Forces in 1945. Despite of the negligence of the samurai class by the Meiji government, there is no doubt that the development of Japan owed much to the energy of samurai and the spirit of bushido.
It seems to me that the way of thinking changed after the samurai generation that succeeded to bushido of the Edo Period and ended in the late Meiji Era. Commercialism was regarded as important then egoism became rampant. Various problems came to a head since Japanese gave economy preference and made little of tradition and culture. Nowadays, it seems that the work of eCulturef is a decoration for wealthy people and people have lost sight of something truly precious. As a craftsman engaging sword polishing, I am concerned that the succession of traditional craftsmanship will be in a critical situation if people do not notice the importance of tradition and culture which has been given little consideration since the end of the last war.
Japanese began to notice the problems 10 years after bubble economy burst and are struggling to find a way out of the difficulty. Their courage and decisiveness are challenged to solve the problems now.
I have been engaging in sword polishing for 30 years with respect for the tradition and culture that our ancestor has created. With this in my mind, I have associated with people who are interested in the Japanese Sword from all over the world and eventually this mutual interest has made it possible for me to make many friends from various countries.

(September 30, 2002 at the Seisen University)

The Asiatic Society of Japan is Japan's oldest learned society. Meeting regualrly since its establishment in 1872, the society prides itself on having been the first academic organization in Japan to promote research and disseminate knowledge about Japan around the world. Among the Society pioneers are such famous Japanologists as Dr. James Hepburn, Sir Earnest Satow, Basil Hall Chamberlain and William Aston. The historic inaugural meeting of the Society was held in the Yokohama foreign enclave in 1872, shortly after the Meiji Restoration.
Asia Society Japan

Recent lectures included : H.I.H The Crown Prince, H.I.H Prince Mikasa, H.I.H. Prince and Princess Takamado, Sir Hugh Cortazzi, H.E. Ambassador George Sioris, Dr. Donald Kean, etc.


c 2008@KENJI MISHINA,@All Rights Reserved.