Page Last Updated: Wednesday, 04 November 2015 13:35 EDT, 1975, 2013

Role of the Sword Maker

by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.

Netsuke Seminar Program, Oct 1 - 4, 1975, East Dennis, MA


There are two reasons for my being here today. One is my long standing interest in the art, history, and culture of Japan - and of course, by extension, in all Oriental art and history. My own interest was originally set fire by a pursuit of knowledge concerning the Japanese sword - or Samurai Sword as it may more commonly be known. Study in this field inevitably has led - and is still leading - to more and more areas of interest. These include ceramics - Japanese cha-wan, or tea bowls; Japanese and Chinese porcelains and pottery; paintings, prints; lacquer; cloisonne - and certainly, netsuke. Now I am not a true collector of netsuke - one has to make a decision about his own specialty, and mine is swords - but I joined the first group who responded to the call for support of the Journal, and have read and re-read every issue. It is, incidentally, a beautifully prepared and presented magazine - and I know the type of problems encountered, since I edit and publish Louisiana's official aviation magazine - not nearly so well done as is the Journal. I can only hope the Hurtigs let nothing discourage them from continuing to publish it.

A second reason is of equal importance to me - I was asked to come up by a treasured friend of many years. Anything that Betty Killam could ask of me, I would make every effort to accommodate - even to playing hooky from my my department and classes at Northeast Louisiana University as I am now. Actually, the Dean of my College (Pure and Applied Sciences) understands that besides being an aviation nut for 35 years, I also have other idiosyncrasies which must be humored, so I am here with his blessing. I hope no one is too disappointed.

In talking to various groups on a subject close to your own heart - but not necessarily close to theirs - it's difficult to know just how to go about it. For example, I could talk about sword fittings, which would be fairly close to the field of netsuke study - or I could talk about the problems and joys of collecting, but I'm sure you have all heard or read Virginia Atchley's comments on the subject as they appeared in the latest Journal. She has covered the subject so well that I can only suggest that you re-read it if you have any questions. So I think I'll try to stick to the subject of swords themselves - their history, how they are made, and what is their impact on Japanese history and culture. I could say this is really the only true field of collecting, but we all know that isn't so. In fact, besides the few netsuke I have, I also collect anything good that I can afford. Actually, my primary thesis is that, if you seriously collect and study one specialized area, you are inevitably led to an interest in many more.

So, with that, I think I'll try to give you an overview of one of those areas - The Japanese Sword. To start with, you should understand that every blade which is forged in the manner of the big sword itself is, to us nuts, a "sword." That is big swords, medium swords, daggers, spears and pole-arms of all shapes and sizes, etc. But first, so I'll have an idea of how much trouble I'm in:

How many of you actually own one or more swords (or daggers)?

How many are seriously enough interest to have devoted some study to the subject?

Well, at least that gives me an indications -- and we'll proceed from there.

The first question is - "Where and when did the Japanese sword originate?" Captain Frank Brinkley has written some interesting deductions concerning the origins of the Japanese - one being that a significant proportion of their ancestry derived from China.

Certainly, there is the theory of the two-edge sword of the Chinese, from which the Samurai sword derived. Certainly, the ancient Japanese used two-edged bronze swords for combat - and stone replicas as symbols. The stone molds for casting these bronze swords have been excavated and dated to periods B.C. and shortly after.

Then, around 550 A.D., the KEN - or TSURUGI, and iron two-edged sword originated in China appeared in Japan in the train of Buddhism. The blade of the Imperial Regalia - Kusunagi-no-tsurugi - which I will discuss later, is such a ken.

Afterwards, either as an improvement on the ken, or as an independent development a single-edged, tempered iron sword was employed during the Dolmen Period - which ended around 650+/- A.D. These blades have been excavated from the dolmens and re-polished - showing some sophistication of construction.

Around 700 A.D., there was a period of transition. More sophisticated straight single edged blades were made, and curved single edged blades began to make their appearance. It was around this time that the names of swordsmiths became important. The swordsmith AMAKUNI of Yamato province was shamed into making higher quality swords for the emperor. One of his blades, the Ko-garasu maru (Little Crow) was made in this period and is still extant in the Imperial Collection. Older oshi-gata purport to show Amakuni's signature on this blade, but the characters cannot be detected today. This is probably the most famous sword in existence - and had just been polished by Mr. Yoshikawa Kentaro just before I visited him in 1970. (Mr. Yoshikawa will be in Chicago on Oct 18-19 to examine and appraise swords.) Also still in existence and intact is the sword of Emperor Shomu (724-749) which is stored in the Sho-so-in. This is one of the good straight single-edged blades.

One of the first authentically signed and identified swords was made by YASUTSUNA of Hoki province. He is traditionally believed to have worked in the period 749-811, but later research places him at about 900 A.D. There are in existence several signed blades by Yasutsuna.

Other smiths followed, refining and improving the design and strength of the sword. Sanjo Munechika - ca 987 - of the Yamashiro province made swords of such grace and beauty that the curvature of his blades was described as "- not of this world."

My own favorite sword was made by MASAZANE of Bizen province around 1055. This blade is intact, signed, and of the absolutely classical shape of the Ko-Bizen (old Bizen) blades of the Heian period. It has been declared a JUYO TOKEN.

It was in this Heian period, during the reign of Emperorr Go-Reizie (1046-68) that the Samurai sword achieved one of its highest peaks of recognition. The Japanese were at that time carrying on quite a significant level of trade with the Sung dynasty in China, with swords being a much sought-after item of trade. To show the high regard in which the Chinese held the Nippon-to (Japanese sword), a poet of the Sung court wrote:

"Treasure-swords of Japan are got from the East by merchants of Yueh. Their scabbards are of fragrant wood covered with fish-skin; gold and silver and copper and other metals adorn them. They are worth hundreds of gold pieces. Who wears such a sword can slay the barbarians."

The quality of the swords as weapons, the beauty and grace of their shape, the basic design - all were established; and with modifications to accommodate to changing conditions, have remained constant to this day. The old Go-kaden (five schools) who developed their own special adaptations of the basic techniques, and guarded them jealously for centuries; the Shin-To (new sword) smiths who learned many of the old secrets through the wide-spread dissemination of these secrets when printing came to Japan (1594-1868); the Shin-shin-To (modern) smiths have all striven to maintain the basic traditions of quality and beauty. I know this to be true, because a friend and teacher of mine in Iwakuni Japan, the swordsmith Fujimura Kunitoshi, made on commission from me a broad dagger in the exact style of Masamune of Sagami province (1326+/-). Although Masamune might be called the most famous of Japanese swordsmiths, the tanto made by Fujimura-San compared so unbelievably well in texture, quality, and shape with the original (a National Treasure owned by Okano-San of Okayama) that he was awarded the national "Masamune" prize in 1963. There are still living swordsmiths working today - some so good as to be designated "Living National Treasures."

A logical question might well be - "What are these swords with such a long history of quality construction?" "How did they earn their fame?" "How are they made?" I have several samples here, from a long sword signed and dated in 1345 to a small lady's dagger (Kwaiken) made in 1871. In these blades you can easily see the "texture" and "temper lines" I will be talking about later. Since the real reputation of any sword is based upon its ability to cut, I have to advise you that these are razor sharp. For that reason I will not pass them among you, but I will show them to you afterwards. In any case, please do not ever touch any sword blade - both to protect yourself and to avoid the corrosion of the blade which the oils and acids in even the lightest perspiration will cause.

With regard to this sharpness, you may be sure that blades have been thoroughly tested, both in battle and at other times. Usually the tests were made on bodies of executed criminals - but occasionally on live criminals (story of the swallowed stones, if time permits). For example, I have a blade by Hizen Tadahiro which has on its tang a gold inlay certifying that the sword cut through two bodies with one stroke. There are in existence swords which have cutting certifications for 3, 4, 5 - and even one for 7 - bodies at one stroke. Obviously, to achieve that level of capability, a rare combination of sharpness, blade design, resilience, and skill on the part of the tester would be necessary. Some swordsmiths were so consistently successful that any sword made by them was automatically classified as being of "Supreme sharpness" or "Outstanding sharpness," etc.

However, to cut well, they first had to be made. Well to cite an example, we will consider the conditions in Bizen province (now Okayama prefecture). Here, the rushing streams washed iron ore - ground into sand by the streams - down from the hills behind the village of Osafune. The swordsmiths gathered this raw ore, smelted it out using the pine wood from the forested hills - and then proceeded to refine and forge the raw iron into swords. The rough iron was smelted out with charcoal and limestone, using foot operated bellows - and poured into a thin sheet. This thin sheet was broken up and stacked on a hammered plate of the same iron, to which a long handle had been attached. I am passing around some samples of these stages, encased in plastic. These came from my friend Fujimura Kunitoshi. It was then heated white hot in a charcoal forge and hammered out - forcing out impurities and welding the chips together. Then it was cut and folded, coated with a slurry of charcoal and limestone, heated, hammered and folded again and again - for 15 to 20 times. The last hammering beat the ingot into the basic shape of the final sword. This was then shaped with files and metal planes - and covered with another coating of a special slurry which left the cutting edge bare or thinly coated. This coated blade was then heated to just the right heat (known to the smith by the red hot color seen in his darkened forge) - and quenched rapidly in a tank of water of just the right temperature. After being polished and sharpened, the "texture" of the steel caused by the hundreds of thousands of layers resulting from the folding was visible - as was the hardened cutting edge, which, even for swords 500 years or more old, has been tested as being the equivalent of our modern middle grade tool steel. A blade showing the slightest flaw was destroyed at once, which explains the survival of those very old blades which still exist in museums and also in private collections.

With this history, is it any wonder that the Japanese sword has a unique place in the culture of Japan. Its importance is reflected in the mythology of the country, in the code of chivalry of the knights of Japan - the Samurai - and in the reverence in which it is still held by Emperor and commoner alike.

In the dim ages of myth, Susa-no-o-no-mikoto, the "bad boy" brother of Amaterasu the Sun-Goddess (who was progenitor of the 2600 year lineage of Emperor Hirohito), slew a dragon from whose tail he drew a sword now called "Kusunagi-no-tsurugi" (Grass mowing sword). Afterwards this sword was used by Prince Yamato-dake (around 110 A.D.) in fighting the northern savages. He used it to cut down a circular fire-break around himself when he was trapped in a burning grass-field - hence its name. Having saved the prince's life, this sword, the mirror (Kagami) which had been used to entice Amaterasu from her cave, and the Magatami (curved jewel) became the three items of the Imperial Regalia. As I mentioned before, this blade was one of the two-edged, or ken, type and is  preserved now at Atsuta shrine - or, depending on your sources, a replacement copy is there, the original being lost when Emperor Antoku and the original blade were lost at sea when the Taira were defeated by the Minamoto at Dan-no-ura in 1185. The story of the "Grass-cutting sword" was used as recently as two weeks ago in a joint Japanese-American "western" starring Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune - caught in a prairie fire from which Toshiro Mifune saved them in the same manner Prince Yamato-dake was saved. The movie was "The Red Sun." In the centuries between, as in this movie, the sword has been called "The soul of the Samurai" - clean, bright, faithful, defender of honor. It is still so regarded.

An interesting fact is that, from almost the beginning, the swordsmith was recognized as a person of importance. Amakuni developed the first true Samurai sword - The Little Crow - in response to a requirement laid on him by the emperor when swords made in an older style broke in battle. In 900 A.D., Sanjo Munechika was assisted in forging Kogitsune-Maru by Inari, the fox goddess. This is represented on tsuba, menuki, and in netsuke. Some of you may have such netsuke. Around 1200, Emperor Go-Toba - the brother of the ill-fated Antoku - called the best swordsmiths of the land to advise and instruct him. As a result of these instructions, there are in existence blades made by Emperor Go-Toba (called Kiku-Go Saku - since he signed with the Imperial chrysanthemum). Certainly, if an Emperor can forge swords, it cannot be beneath the dignity of any man to learn.

The blades made by Toshiro Yoshimitsu were considered lucky by the Tokugawas, especially after Iyeyasu tried to commit seppuku with a Yoshimitsu tanto after a serious defeat - and it would not cut him. So he re-grouped, counter-attacked, and started the 250 years of peace known as the Tokugawa period. On the other hand, blades made by Muramasa of Ise were so dangerous to the Tokugawa - inevitably cutting them if they were brought close enough - that they were banned and ordered destroyed. One important lord was discovered with a hoard of 24 Muramasa blades and executed. They have retained their bloodthirsty reputation to this day - and in fact I acquired one because it accidentally cut rather badly a little girl when it slipped from her father's hand one Sunday while he was showing it to guests.

In the period 1329-1350 the greatest of all swordsmiths, Masamune of Sagami revolutionized the forging of swords to allow them to be even sharper and more durable than before. To illustrate the high value set on a swordsmith's knowledge and skill, when Masamune detected his favorite pupil, Samonji, surreptitiously testing the temperature of his quenching water with his hand - before he had earned that right - he cut his hand off with a sword.

The Go-kaden continued until around 1594 when printing allowed dissemination of pirated copies of sword making secrets - and the Shinto (New Sword) period came in. In this period, although it was a time of peace, the martial arts and the code of the Samurai (Bushido) were not forgotten. Swordsmiths of great skill were even given the right to sign themselves as officials of the provinces - Kawachi no Kami Masahiro, Omi Daijo Tadahiro, Kaga no Suke Sukenaga, etc., and were held in the highest repute. Today we have and American, Keith Austin, craft name NOBUYOSHI, who is a recognized master swordsmith. We have Miyairi Kenichi - Akihira - a living national treasure. And why should this not be so!? These master smiths have, since before the written history of Japan, been the agents who produced those "souls of the Samurai." They have labored for years as apprentices - cutting charcoal, cleaning the forge, wielding heavy hammers while the master did the fine work - in order to earn the right to sign their own art name to a sword. Fujimura-San apprenticed himself to a much younger master when he was in his fifties - with obviously successful results. To them, all of this was more than repaid by the honor and recognition accorded to a person who could produce such a symbol of the history, culture, and greatness of Japan.

One small point - in war times, or in times of strict austerity, a Samurai could wear no ornamentation save that on his sword, or associated with it. In addition, the protocol of the court required certain types of fittings fro different occasions. Since the fittings (clothes) of a sword may be quickly changed by removing a single bamboo peg from the handle, which in turn could then be easily removed, each Samurai was able to show his pride in his sword by the quality of the fittings which he maintained for different occasions. This lead to a very important parallel field of collection - the assembly and study of fine sword mounts. Here too, the artist was finally recognized, and frequently signed his work with pride. Some of the most magnificent metal work in existence may be found in collections of this sort. Although only Samurai could carry two swords, doctors and merchants could carry one - and not being restrained by the strict Samurai code, could really exploit and display their wealth and position - note the opulence of this merchant's sword, which incidentally, has a very good blade (not always the case). The carving is very well done indeed.

As a final note - so important has the sword been throughout the history of Japan that no more fitting gift between rulers or persons deserving of recognition has bee devised. The Japanese swords were sent as gifts to China - blades were presented to Commodore Perry and are now in the Smithsonian - a sword was presented to President Wilson by the Emperor in 1918, and is now in my collection - others were sent to European Kings, Presidents and Heads of State.

All of this has been about swords - but one cannot, if he has any curiosity or interest, fail to explore the hundreds of other avenues which continually branch out into Japanese art, history, and culture. I can't and I'm sure you can't remain bound by a single field of interest when so much is waiting to be explored and learned.

Dean Hartley


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