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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo swordsmith creates sharp, stylish katana

Katana works by swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara are seen in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward on Feb. 14, 2022. The one in the back shows beautiful "hamon" wave patterns along the edges of the blade. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- In the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1867), Edo, or present-day Tokyo, was one of the largest cities in the world and is said to have been home to over a million people. Not only was Edo the headquarters of the Tokugawa shogunate, it was also a unique town with nearly half of its population consisting of samurai warriors and affiliated parties. This was due to a shogunate policy that required daimyo feudal lords from across Japan to live in Edo for periods of time, alternating their residence between Edo and their own domain. Among these warriors gathered in Edo, Japanese swords, or katana, of various sizes were special possessions that can be said to have embodied the spirit of the samurai.

    Meanwhile, those outside the samurai class were not allowed to possess katana, but there were members of the court nobility and wealthy residents who owned ceremonial swords with decorations or daggers for self-defense purposes.

    Swordsmiths today carry on this tradition of katana, which has an extremely significant presence in the history of Japan. At a workshop in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, Yoshindo Yoshihara, 79, a renowned creator of nihon-toh Japanese swords, and five disciples continue to create katana using traditional Japanese methods.

    Swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara shows a katana in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward on Feb. 14, 2022. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "Steel called 'tamahagane,' which uses domestic satetsu, an iron ore that is found in sand form, is used to create nihon-toh. Of course, since it was originally created as a weapon, it has the ability to cut," said Yoshihara.

    He then proceeded to show us a "shinken" (authentic) katana removed from its sheath. Its length is around 72 centimeters, and its weight over 1 kilogram, and the "hamon" wave patterns seen along the edges of the blade were shining beautifully but also mysteriously. It was relatively heavy, even when held with both hands, and a scary tension ran through the body upon close observation.

    In historical movies and television dramas, battling scenes that use katana are crucial elements, but did people in the old days really fight using these katana swords? Yoshihara said, "The Edo period was a peaceful age, and so I think that battles involving opponents actually slashing each other with authentic katana were limited. Indeed, this thing is too scary to swing around."

    We were shown some steps from the process to create katana swords at the workshop in Tokyo. In the center was a traditional "hako fuigo" (box bellows) -- a wooden structure that allows the smith to supply air blasts to the forge by pulling and pushing the handle slowly back and forth. Pine wood charcoal used as fuel burned with a bright red flame. The furnace is around 800 to 1,300 degrees Celsius. When a "tamahagane" is placed inside and heated, the steel also turns red. When a trainee struck this with an iron hammer, clangs continuously echoed throughout the workshop.

    A heated tamahagane, to be used as material for Japanese katana, is being repeatedly hammered in accordance with verbal cues from Yoshindo Yoshihara, in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward on Feb. 14, 2022. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "In the past, there were blacksmiths' shops in any town, and they created kitchen knives, farming tools and other implements. My ancestors did the same. Katana must be the pinnacle of metal hardware for ironmongers who wish to master the creation. If the blade is attached fittingly, a beautiful 'hamon' pattern also appears along the edge of the sword. There are no two hamon patterns which are the same. Though it is not a weapon, it can be said that having both functionality and beauty is the role of modern Japanese katana," Yoshihara said.

    Katana, which used to be weapons, are loved by not only the Japanese, but also by enthusiasts around the world, as traditional art objects. Yoshihara's custom-made katanas, which cost 5 million yen (about $41,000) apiece, were created over a long period to fulfill the needs of such fans. Behind the creation of such authentic katana are the genuine and diligent efforts of sword craftsmen.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    A word of wisdom: It may look stylish, but it's not a real katana if it can't cut well

    "The first basic fact about authentic katana is that they are made of 'tamahagane steel.' If it's not 'tamahagane,' it can't be considered a blade," said 79-year-old swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara, at his home in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward. Showing a round piece of the rare and precious material, which was decorating the living room, Yoshihara stated proudly that it was the key to producing iron of high purity.

    In addition to the special ingredient, Yoshihara also holds pride in the traditional method for creating katana.

    Tamahagane steel, which is used to create Japanese swords, is seen in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward on Feb. 14, 2022. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "A crucial process is 'orikaeshi tanren,'" he said. This involves forging stacked pieces of tamahagane into a bar that is repeatedly stretched through hammering and folded over onto itself. The steel is heated to the highest temperature possible while making sure it doesn't melt completely, and the impurities are beat out with a hammer."

    At the workshop, 31-year-old trainee Kei Tsujimura, demonstrated this task of forging. He swung down a hammer using his whole body as Yoshihara held the burning steel in place with a metal implement. This task, which took over 30 seconds each, was repeated six times while we were present, and continued even after we left. In some cases, the steel cracked and the pair had to discard it and start over again with a new piece. This showed that the forging process alone demands not only great skill but also patience.

    Yoshihara said that a sword that takes the shape of a katana can actually be created by "cheating" without following the proper traditional method of "orikaeshi tanren." However, he warned that in this case, impurities remain and the katana blade will not have a good cutting edge.

    While katana are not used today as weapons, Yoshihara emphasizes, "Katanas are works of art, but they are not simply works of art." He elaborated: "It's not a real katana if it can't cut well."

    Swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara is seen heating "tamahagane" steel, as he operates a traditional bellows and sends air blasts to the forge, while charcoal burns, in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward on Feb. 14, 2022. By heating the tamahagane to a maximum of 1,300 degrees Celsius, impurities are burned. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Indeed, when removed from its sheath, what had once been an object blending in with other furniture, turned into a gleaming sword that was at once beautiful and chilling. As Yoshihara grasped the hilt, I became sharply aware that the object before me had the ability to slash and cut. Its presence even dictated our positions in the room, as the four of us scampered around the swordsmith to avoid getting too close to the cutting edge.

    "The significant elements of a katana is its beauty and the iron's quality, which is something we create with our own hands," Yoshihara remarked after applying oil to the sword before carefully storing it away.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    "Tamahagane" steel used for Japanese swords is created through a traditional Japanese method in a smelter called a "tatara," using satetsu, an iron ore that is found in sand form, and charcoal. Tamahagane production has been passed down in the Shimane Prefecture town of Okuizumo in west Japan for around 1,400 years.

    Tanren (Forging)

    "Tamahagane" steel is placed inside a "hodo" furnace, heated until it turns bright red, and is hammered. By repeating the process of making such adjustments and shaping the iron, impurities are removed.

    -- Making the "heshitetsu"

    The tamahagane is hammered out into thin flat pieces.

    -- Kowari

    The flattened tamahagane pieces are struck and broken into smaller pieces. Their firmness is discerned based on the way they break, and the pieces are categorized accordingly. Soft material is used for the inner steel core of the sword, while hard material is selected for the blade. This process of using soft and hard material in different areas gives rise to katana's quality of cutting well while also not breaking or chipping easily.

    -- Tsumiwakashi

    The swordsmith stacks the classified pieces of tamahagane while considering the desired properties for the type of steel they need, and forges them into a clump.

    -- Orikaeshi-tanren

    The stacked pieces of tamahagane are forged into a billet that is repeatedly drawn out and folded over onto itself.

    -- Tsukurikomi

    This photo provided by Yoshindo Yoshihara shows the process of a composite bar being forged into a single piece to create a Japanese sword. =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Soft tamahagane are shaped into the "shingane" inner steel core of the sword, while hard material is used for the "kawagane" which wraps around the "shingane" and becomes the blade. The U-shaped "kawagane" steel is clipped on the "shingane" steel, and the two parts are joined together as the inner core and welded into the outer layer through continuous forging.

    -- Forming the final shape of the sword ("Sunobe" and "Hizukuri")

    After the hard and soft steel are combined, the iron bar is around 20 centimeters long. This is stretched out thinly and hammered into the shape of a sword.

    -- Arashiage (rough finishing)

    The blade's surface is made smooth, and twisted areas are straightened.

    -- Tsuchioki (Applying clay)

    Clay is applied to the surface of what will be a katana sword's edge in this photo provided by Yoshindo Yoshihara. =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Clay slurry, which is a mixture of whetstone and charcoal particles, clay and other material, is applied to the body of the sword. A thin layer is applied on the blade's edge, while the "mune," or the back side of the blade, receives a thicker coating. It is work that requires great mastery and sharp intuition, and this process largely influences factors including the cutting edge and the beauty of the "hamon" patterns of hardened steel along the blade's edge -- all of which determine the quality of a katana.

    -- Yaki-ire (Heat-treating)

    A katana, coated with clay, is heated up to around 800 degrees Celsius, and is immediately plunged into cold water. The blade's cutting edge iron, which has a thin clay coating, is cooled instantaneously and hardens. At this point, the steel transforms into material that is capable of cutting well if polished. The blade's back side steel shrinks as it cools slowly, and this creates the curved shape unique to Japanese katana. The hamon pattern also appears on the blade at this stage.

    -- Finishing

    Once the katana is sharpened and adjusted, and the sword name, often including the smith's name, is inscribed, the sword body is complete. A scabbard, or protective covering for the sword, the hilt, and the "tsuba" sword guard that separates the base of the blade from the top of the grip, among other parts, are then created by specialized craftsmen, and the katana is brought to its complete form.


    While it is believed that ironware culture entered Japan during the Yayoi period (dating back some 2,000 years), it was from the Heian period (roughly spanning from the late 8th to 12th century) that swords took on the shape of Japanese katana. With the birth of samurai warriors, katana became essential items, and sword making flourished in the Middle Ages.

    Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who completed a 16th-century campaign to unify Japan, imposed the "katana gari" (sword hunting) policy to prohibit the use of arms by those other than samurai. The following centuries during the Edo period were peaceful, and Katana's value as art objects as opposed to weapons grew during this time. In the late 19th century, the Meiji government issued the "sword abolishment edict," leading to their disposal. Demand for swords was revived amid Japan's growing militarism following the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). However, this demand for swords as weapons disappeared once the Pacific War ended, and katana are now appreciated as art objects among enthusiasts.

    * * *


    Japanese swords have grown popular in recent years due to the influence of anime and games. Katana have even attracted many young female fans, known as "touken joshi," or "sword girls." A swordsmith character also plays an important role in the popular anime "Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba," while a special type of katana is used by the Demon Slayer Corps to get rid of demons.

    How is such an impact viewed by actual katana swordsmiths? Kei Tsujimura, 31, who is in his seventh year training at the workshop, expressed enthusiasm toward the trend, saying, "As long as they do not get the wrong idea on how to handle a katana, I think it's a good opportunity for young people to hold an interest in Japanese swords."

    * * *


    -- "Shinken shobu":

    This term is a combination of the words "shinken" (authentic katana) and "shobu" (match or game), and is used when describing someone who is earnestly tackling an endeavor by putting everything they have on the line.

    -- "Aizuchi o utsu":

    This term literally indicates a master and trainee taking turns hammering at an object in harmony during the forging process, and is commonly used to describe listening to another person while keeping in step with the other party's speaking rhythm by nodding, using verbal fillers and other means.

    -- "Seppa tsumaru":

    "Seppa" is the metal fastener that holds the sword guard in place. "Tsumaru" means "to get stuck," indicating the seppa getting caught in the sheath, and the sword not being able to be drawn. The term is used to describe a situation where one is driven into a corner and cannot do anything about it.

    * * *

    Japanese swordsmith Yoshihara

    Address: 8-17-12 Takasago, Katsushika Ward, Tokyo

    Yoshindo Yoshihara's ancestors were originally blacksmiths who worked in a farming village in Ibaraki Prefecture. His grandfather came to Tokyo to start sword making at the start of the Taisho period (1912-1926), and went by the name "Kuniie Yoshihara." In a 1942 nationwide ranking of swordsmiths, Kuniie was given the title "Yokozuna (grand champion) of the east." Yoshindo, who acquired his skills mainly through his grandfather, is the third-generation master of the workshop. His katanas have the name "Yoshindo" engraved on them.

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    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights Japanese traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture dating back several hundred years. The stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of the articles, accessible via the link under the right of the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all the texts' kanji characters. The user-friendly text primarily targets elementary school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

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