The Craft of Japanese Swordsmithing

Scene-de-forge-edo-p1000665Japanese samurai, the military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan, have long captured the interest of many. The teachings of the samurai are an important aspect of Japanese culture and way of life. It isn’t difficult to be in awe of their strict adherence to their set of rules known as bushidō, their code of conduct, their mastery of martial arts, their unique armor, and their swords.

Forging a blade. Print from an Edo period book. | Rama

The samurai sword is commonly called a katana. It is known for its characteristic curved, single-edged, thin blade with a rounded or square guard and long grip so it can be held with both hands. It is known for its strength and incredibly sharp blade. The katana and other traditional Japanese blades are made with legendary Japanese swordsmithing techniques that involve labor-intensive bladesmithing processes unique to Japan.

katanaThe steel used in creating a katana is called tamahagane or “jewel steel,” produced from ironsand (sand with heavy concentrations of iron).

Samurai katana with koshirae (ornate mounting) and shirasaya (plain wooden mount.). | Samuraiantiqueworld

The smelting process of transforming ironsand to kera (steel bloom from ironsand) is a tedious and rigorous. Forging the blade can take weeks and is considered a sacred art, accompanied by Shinto religious rituals and traditional processes. It involves several other master craftsmen with their own specialties in swordmaking such as  the smith, the smith’s apprentice, a polisher, a specialist for the edge, and a horimonoshi or engraver. Most of the blades are decorated with designs, grooves, and file markings, usually at the hilt of the sword. This is never supposed to be cleaned because it is meant to show how well the steel ages. Some of the more notable swordsmiths include:

Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) 13th century – considered the founder of the Soshu-den tradition that combined the knowledge and traditional methods from Yamashiro and Bizen. The oldest dated sword he created was from 1293.

Portrait of Masamune.

Masamune (正宗) 1264–1343 – also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, is considered Japan’s greatest swordsmith and was a student of Shintōgo Kunimitsu.  His swords are of superior quality and  possess remarkable beauty. Masamune is thought to have brought perfection to the art of “nie” where steel becomes crystalline structure resembling stars in the evening sky.

Hikoshirō Sadamune (相模國住人貞宗 ) 1298-1349 –  learned his craft from the  Sōshū school. He was originally from Gōshū (also known as Ōmi province) and he was a student of Masamune.