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The Japanese Sword Part 3


Iaido is the Japanese art of drawing the long sword. Basic Iai kata (set movements) combines drawing the sword with either a defensive block or cut, usually followed by another cut, then chiburi (moving the blade in such as way as to clean any debris from the blade) and noto (returning the blade to the scabbard). Iaido which became known to the West in the 1930’s, is now used not only to teach sword techniques, but as a form of mental and physical discipline, emphasizing correct technique and form, meditation and character development.

There are many different Ryu (schools) of Iai, some very ancient and some modern amalgams of different Ryu. Although it is sometimes demonstrated with a partner, Iai is, for the most part, practiced like many kata as a solitary art and is much more about the form than the martial act that it grew from.

Modern Japanese sword-smiths

There are a growing number of sword-smiths now working in Japan. After WW2 the Americans who occupied Japan, outlawed all weaponry and that included swords. If you want to look further into this matter you can, but be warned, you will find details of many thousands of blades that were destroyed.

The outlawing of blades combined with the outcome of the war, which was the first time the Japanese had lost a major conflict, meant that apart from a few dedicated smiths, who were still allowed to make blades for state and religious purposes, the ancient skills began to be lost, some forever and some only temporarily. In the early 1950’s the Americans left Japan, a Japanese Government was formed and some of the pre war smiths began once again to practice their art.

This has now grown into what is still a minority ‘cottage’ industry, but there are some skilled smiths producing good blades and some fine smiths producing amazing pieces. There has also been a movement to rediscover how the ancient smiths made such fine resilient steel.

As I have said, I am not an art sword fan, but I recognise the contribution these pieces make and I appreciate the skill of the smiths who make them, so how do you go about buying a brand new Shinsakuto blade?

This is not so easy, and it will require some thought and research, unless you happen to speak and read Japanese. A good starting point is with an Internet search for the All Japan Swordsmiths Association. The reason I say do a search, is that the Japanese tend to open and close web sites on a regular basis, so any current address I may have, could well be out of date by the time you read this. Also look for www.murakumokai.jp. This is a co operative called the Guild of Swordsmiths. There are other sites both Japanese and American, who act as agents for Japanese smiths. One of note is www.moderntosho.com, run by Keith Larman and Ted Tenold, two very talented sword polishers in America. They are working hard to build up a working relationship with several good tosho in Japan.

So what could you buy and how much would it cost? Well in Japan little knives called Kogatana are very popular. They are small blades with all the representative traits you could find in a full sized blade, but for a few thousand Yen. Production of these blades is not restricted, and so the smiths like making them. Alternatively you could have a fine tanto made for £1,000 to £2,000 a wakazashi will cost double that and a katana or tachi can be anything from £5,000 for a bare blade upwards.

These may look like staggering figures, but do some research and you will find that a good, well fitted and well made tanto from the Edo period could cost you £1,000, so a brand new blade, made just for you, could be appealing.

To put this cost into perspective. Each smith must be licensed. To gain a license he must be apprenticed (a five to seven year process). Once licensed, his output is restricted to two long blades and three short blades per month. That is a maximum production of 60 blades per year. All blades must be made from traditional Japanese ore, smelted into Tamahagane (traditional raw steel).

So, if you then take it that a good smith will start producing blades in his mid 30’s and may continue until he is around 70 years old, you are buying a limited edition blade of possibly only 2,400 that smith will ever make. To be finished, the blade will have to go to a specialist for the habaki (the fixing collar) to be made and to a polisher who will also be apprenticed (seven to ten years) and licensed. It will then be fitted into a shirasaya (storage scabbard) before returning to the smith for signing. There is a considerable amount of paperwork involved in exporting a licensed blade. Considering all that work, £5,000 starts to look cheap. You will however end up with YOUR blade. A blade, made by a smith in the traditional way, which is unique. Tempting isn’t it?

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Non-Japanese Sword-Smiths

It is worth mentioning an alternative method of owning a hand made shinken (modern sword). There are a growing number of swordsmiths outside Japan making fine blades. These are Japanese STYLE blades, as they are not traditionally made. All of the people listed are sword-smiths, they can all produce fine art or practical blades. I own and use blades made by James Raw and Rob Miller and you know you have a custom blade in your hand when you handle them.

Rob is based on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, so there are no duties or issues with importation. James works in South Africa and his blades are sold via his web site. Both smiths make blades to your requirement, to order.

At the forefront in the production of art swords made outside of Japan, are the American smiths and I have listed just a couple of web sites to visit. Some of the designs, especially of the koshirae can be very modern, but if that is to your taste, then the sky is the limit. I have to say that this is not necessarily a cheaper route, as the same number of people are involved and especially when it comes to polishing, several of the top polishers in America are Japanese trained, as are some of the koshirae makers.

So, the choice is yours. An old blade, starting at a few hundred pounds for a WW2 Gunto blade in tatty fittings and poor polish, which is where I started. Or perhaps specialising in tanto made in a certain style, or maybe trying to put together a Daisho (pair) from the same smith or of a similar style and on and on it goes, right up to a custom made and fitted Shinsakuto from Japan or perhaps a shinken from Scotland, and all things in between.

Take Your Time

I would advise that you look and read long and hard before you buy. There is no panic here, as there are more quality blades available from more different sources, than there ever were in the past. You don’t need to rush out and buy the first Japanese looking thing you see in an antiques shop (chances are it is a bad Chinese copy anyway). Go to the arms fairs and specialist auctions, keep your eyes and ears open and your hands in your pockets, and I hope you get as much pleasure looking for, learning about and owning Japanese blades as I have.

Non-Japanese Sword-Smith Contacts:

Rob Miller, Castle Keep Forge, Isle of Skye, Scotland. 01471 866376 www.castlekeep.co.uk

Paul Baker (Bushman.uk) 01453 825208 www.bakk-knives.com  

James Raw, South Africa www.rawblades.com

Walter Sorrells, America www.waltersorrells.com

John Lundemo, Odin Blades, America www.odinblades.com

Rick Barrett, America www.barretcustomknives.com

Finally, no list would be complete without Howard Clark, Morgan Valley Forge, America www.mvforge.com