THE JAPANESE SWORD OF JAPAN.

By Kunimasa Matsuba



1) The Dream and the Conflict of the Swordsmith.

In the post-Edo era ,the famous swordmaker Suishinshi Masahide advocated a return to the traditional ways of sword manufacture and smithying. His influence was such that a whole generation of swordsmiths were to fall under his spell, and revert to the old methods of production.
Now, as I compare my own works to those produced in the past, using the old ways, I become slightly sad. For me, their beauty is such that it is almost unattainable by modern standards.
In the last two hundred years, many swordmakers have tried to reproduce pieces to match the standard of those Koto produced pre-1400(works which are generally considered to represent the pinnacle of quality and beauty)Yet it has to be said that these attempts have been largely unsuccessful.
I myself have found that when I actively try to create a sword with the work of Suishinshi in mind, the result is more often than not a failure. Paradoxically therefore, it is better not to consciously work toward emulation. In this way, the finished work tends, in my estimation, to be far superior.

2) Myself as a Japanese Swordmaker

Ever since I was a poor young man, I have been fascinated by the Japanese sword, and the two opposing and seemingly irreconcilable aspects of its being: its sheer beauty as an object, set against the simple fact that it is created to be a deadly weapon. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject, and heard a lot of talk, but I’m still not much closer to breaking down the puzzle and bringing the two sides together.. As I write, many makers of the Japanese sword are hard at work, each with their own conscious purposes and goals. However I cannot help but feel that most of them are concerned solely with the superficial, disregarding the hidden and deeper meaning of their work. Of course, it must be said that there do exist a few highly-skilled craftsmen in this field. There are those, who believe that everything depends on the jigane(base material of the sword)and who, having first poured heart and soul into the creation of a superlative jigane, are now able to produce it with ease. Other smiths stress the importance of the sword as a weapon, judging its merits by the keenness of the blade. Still others insist that modern swords are in fact superior to those of old. Whatever camp they may be in, these are all skilled workers and entitled to their own opinion. Still, I must confess that I am unconvinced by many of their arguments. I am particularly opposed to those who claim that our business is merely a type of steelwork, or the production of a decorative object. I must also disagree with those who see the sword as purely a weapon of war.

3) About the Beauty of the Sword

For most true lovers of the Japanese sword, the delicate play of the konie, the grain, the lustre and the depth that can be seen in the great pieces are as important as they are beautiful. These traits are especially apparent in swords made in the fourteenth century. The quality of those tochi(broad-bladed katana)and tanto(short katana)is incomparable, and they must be placed in a completely different category to the swords of today. However, it should be noted that recently, despite obvious differences, swords of greatly varying quality are being lumped together and classified as one. We have to learn to recognize; to sort the wheat from the chaff, whilst remembering that there are still many swordsmiths capable of producing great works(I have been told that with more sharpening, and a little extra rust on the handle, my own works could maybe pass for a sword of another century!)
When we look at the swords that remain to us, produced hundreds of years ago, we should remember that what we are actually seeing is the inside of the sword as it was first made. Decades of sharpening, of polishing have exposed the inner grain, the disposition of the metal as it first set. We are reminded that we must understand the whole of the piece if we are to recreate, or at least to echo it.
The restoration of the really old ways may, however, not appeal to everyone. Many swordmakers for example look to the work of Sukehiro. Active in the Edo period, he pioneered the forging technique known as toran which is still used by some today, resulting in some very fine works. Another swordmaker, Kiyomaro is also an influence on modern smiths. Working at the end of the Edo, his colourful life is a source of interest to many. Naturally it is up to the individual how they work, and who they emulate, but for me, the swords of the fourteenth century are those that possess the true depth, encapsulating the enigma; the interaction of light and dark that characterizes the Japanese sword.

4) Japanese Martial Arts and the Japanese Sword

For hundreds of years, strength, ease of use, and sharpness have been considered the essential ingredients of the sword. How then, at the same time, can this instrument of death contain and display such beauty? I have still to hear a clear answer to this question, and yet the whole value of the sword is directly related to this paradox: were one side to be lacking, then the sword would necessarily be diminished. For my part, I believe I have found the answer(or at least the answer as it relates to me)through the practice of Aikimanseido(Aikido)Unlike sport in the traditional sense, Aikido is not a question of winning or losing, strength or weakness. Rather it concerns aiming for a state where losing is simply not a possibility.
We have already mentioned the two opposing sides of the sword. In the past, a bushi(samurai)would carry a sword at all times, relying on it in battle to be an effective weapon. He would also demand of the smith that it be a beautifully crafted, finely honed object. What he probably didn’t much consider was the nature, the duality inherent in the sword he was carrying. Of course, as we have seen ,this is not an easy question to address, but we do know that bushi were driven by a vague ideal. Could it not then be argued that they themselves, however unconsciously, wished to become more like the katana they wielded? Powerful yet flexible and subtly beautiful?We can conjecture, and form many opinions as to what these bushi were really like by reading the written records which remain to us. In many ways, they were probably no different from us, yet in modern Japan there surely remain few who possess such a combination of spirit, skill and strength.
For those who live in the peaceful and relatively secure Japan of today, it is difficult to imagine being born into the strife-ridden, unpredictable world of the past. It was during this time however, that bu(the martial arts)were created of necessity, and in turn handed down to us through generations, little by little. They contain an elusive quality, more spiritual than mental, and that is one reason why the practitioners of arts such as Aikido can demonstrate such surprising strengths. When we think deeply about bu, we may as well be contemplating the human spirit, though this is not to say that people well versed in the martial arts will necessarily become shining examples of humanity! I will say however, that when I look at the world I feel that through bu, I have come to realize the value of things; to separate the profound from the trivial. Perhaps to be more discerning.

5) Conclusion

Up to now, I feel that the level of bu I have achieved is directly reflected in the standard of work which I produce. My swords have been judged very favourably at exhibitions, and my pieces are valued by many people.
The katana made and infused with the spirit of bu has the power to move me greatly. It inspires and leads me to new ideas and possibilities for my work. This is no vague feeling but a strong impulse engendered by the sword.
The object of the Aikido technique is harmony of man and his surroundings. A tempering of the soul which can lead to surprising abilities and rewards. In The same way, I hope to attain a still higher level of skill, a greater understanding of my craft which will result in still more beautiful works. Having said this, I’m not going to kill myself trying! I intend to make swords at my own pace, spending everyday testing my work on the local bamboo, enjoying Aikido and practicing my penmanship.
When I see a beautiful Japanese sword, I get a buzz, and a good feeling about life. Recently I have started to feel a thrill just looking at my own work as it arrives back from the polisher. This may sound a little odd, But I think I’m already excited, waiting for the swords I haven’t even made yet!