Passion for swords led Briton to forge career as expert

Paul Martin seeks to broaden the appeal of Japanese swords for the younger generations

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Tucked away in a quiet residential street in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, the Japanese Sword Museum offers a glimpse into an era where men staked their honor and their lives on the blade. The museum appears to be something of a hidden gem, since many residents do not seem aware that it exists. However, it is surprisingly popular with overseas tourists, who come to soak up the history.

One frequent visitor to the museum is Briton Paul Martin, an expert on Japanese swords and their history, who now makes his home in Tokyo. Entering the museum on a recent weekday morning, he is warmly greeted by the staff. “I’ve done most of the English translation for the exhibits,” he notes.

As he makes his way around, Martin brings the history of the static displays alive with his rich knowledge of the swords, their makers and their owners. The only other visitor at that time in the morning, a young Westerner, looks across wistfully, probably wishing he had such a guide at his disposal.

While Martin could never have imagined becoming an authority on Japanese swords as a youngster growing up in East London, he had a keen interest in another aspect of Japanese culture — karate. His father had studied the martial art under the tutelage of the late Vernon Bell, the master responsible for introducing karate to Britain in the 1950s, and then went on to teach students of his own.

Martin junior displayed his own prowess by becoming the English lightweight karate champion three times during the 1990s and making the national team in his late 20s. He is also highly skilled in kendo and iaido, a martial art focused on smoothly and quickly drawing the sword for instant counterattacks.

After training as an electrician, Martin went to work as a member of the security team at the British Museum. With his interest in Japanese martial arts, he was drawn to the Japanese Antiquities, and he inquired about opportunities for moving from a support staff role to working as one of the curators. “At the time, I was told there was no precedent for such a move — it had never been done before. I set out to prove I was keen to learn, so I applied for and got approval to study Japanese at night school.”

These efforts paid off when a vacancy opened up in the Japanese Department and Martin went to see the head of human resources about it.

“She said to me, ‘This would change your life, wouldn’t it?’ and she had the rules amended so that I could apply.” Thanks to this combination of an HR chief who thought outside the box and his own initiative, Martin landed the position.

Thrilled to be given such an opportunity, Martin learned on the job, absorbing everything he could. In time, he was given charge of the sword and armor collections. “When I saw Japanese swords for the first time, I realized what deeply profound objects they are.”

The job gave him the chance to come over to Japan several times a year when objects from the collection were lent out for exhibitions. Whenever he could, Martin took extra leave during trips to Japan in order to further his knowledge about swords through visits to places such as the Tokyo National Museum and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya, one of Shinto’s major shrines and home to the sacred sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.

Once he successfully imparted his desire to learn, he generally had no problems getting people to talk about the swords in their care or to take them out to show him.

“I was taught the traditional methods of recording them, known as oshigata. First, traditional ‘washi’ paper is laid over the sword and an impression is taken with a waxy ink block. After removing the paper, you look at the hard edge of the sword and copy the markings there by hand.” He drew on his newfound skills to record some of the swords in the British Museum’s collection.

Martin points out the hand-drawn oshigata recordings at the Sword Museum. Learning to replicate the intricate markings in an accurate manner is clearly a skill that takes years of practice and devotion. Martin’s oshigata recordings are recognized as being on a par with Japanese professionals, and he credits his success to having learned the skill firsthand from masters here.

Learning oshigata helps sword scholars to recognize who made a sword, offering clues about its origins and history. In 2006 he became the first non-Japanese to win a kantei-kai (sword appraisal competition), successfully identifying the makers of five different swords. There are a number of groups that organize these competitions, which allow sword enthusiasts to put their skills to the test. This year he took second place in his biggest event to date, the prestigious New Year Kantei-kai held at the Japanese Sword Museum.

After five fulfilling years at the British Museum, his department became a victim of economic downsizing, so he decided to take redundancy and see where things would lead. His next stop was Los Angeles, where he had been invited to put on an exhibition for the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. “I was responsible for sourcing all the objects and putting everything together for this Japanese sword exhibition. It was very popular and I learned a lot in the process.”

In 2004 he returned to Japan and stayed for several years. He continued to coordinate exhibitions and source objects on a freelance basis for his former employee, the British Museum, and various other institutions around the word. His skills were equally in demand here in Japan, where he has worked on translation for such places as the Hayashibara Museum of Art in Okayama, as well as for the Japanese Swordsmith Association.

“By now I realized there was a need for my skills and experience, but at the time I lacked an academic qualification to back them up.” He applied to the Asian Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley, hoping to enroll in the undergraduate program. To Martin’s delight, the faculty considered his real-world experience sufficient, and he was admitted directly into the graduate program to study for a master’s degree in 2009.

Along with studying Japanese language, literature and history, he was invited to teach kendo at the club on campus. A casual comment from one of his students, a young man in his 20s, led to an “aha moment.”

“He asked if I knew about Ichimonji Norimune, a sword smith from the Kamakura Period. I was stunned that someone his age even knew the name. It turned out that the same name was given to a sword wielded by one of the characters in a popular manga and anime, ‘Rurouni Kenshin.’ I realized that while my generation’s introduction to Japanese culture was through martial arts and the films of Akira Kurosawa, today’s generation gets there through anime and manga.”

With a graduate degree under his belt, Martin headed back to Japan last year and took up residence again. In addition to his freelance curating and translating, a new line of work has been opening up. Interest from overseas has been increasing recently, particularly for historic Japanese swords. Although Martin does not deal with the selling of swords, he can offer advice to potential buyers, as well as make arrangements for appraisals and restoration work.

Realizing there was a lack of accurate and accessible information in English about Japanese swords, Martin has also written and translated several books and narrated DVDs on the topic over the past few years.

His skills have not gone unnoticed by the foreign media, either, and he is called on quite frequently to share his expertise. Martin talks about his latest appearance, a documentary for an Irish TV company about the late Dr. Aidan MacCarthy, an officer who spent time in a POW camp in Nagasaki during World War II.

“He was there when the atomic bomb was dropped, and although he survived, many in the camp were left dead or dying. The surviving prisoners of war began attacking the Japanese camp commander, but as the highest-ranking officer there, MacCarthy jumped in and locked the commander in a room and ordered the others to leave him alone. He also set about helping other Japanese survivors, and the commander presented him with a sword in gratitude. The camp commander’s family in Japan has been located and they met with the doctor’s daughter.”

Martin believes there is a need to broaden the appeal of Japanese swords for younger generations both in Japan and abroad. Taking a hint from his former kendo student back at Berkeley, he sees rising interest in anime and manga culture as a way to achieve this.

“There was one exhibition recently where modern swordsmiths had re-created swords based on designs from the ‘Evangelion’ anime.” This wildly popular series has spawned a TV series and several movies. “At first, some of us in the industry weren’t really sure what to make of this,” he admits with a grin. “But if it helps get young people interested and provides young swordsmiths with orders, it is a good thing.”

There are presently around 300 sword smiths in Japan, and while there are some young smiths signing up, it is difficult for them to get orders and many do not complete the required five- to six-year apprenticeship.

Before leaving the sword museum, Martin stops at the little gift shop, where he picks up the first installment of a new manga about a contemporary teenage girl aiming to master sword making, “Kanayago” by Yu Hikasa. The sword smith’s work is physically demanding and hard-going for any apprentice, particularly females, but Martin says there is a small but dedicated band of women in the industry.

His next project is creating a regular video magazine in English for YouTube. “I’d like to offer a window on to Japanese swords, something that can educate well as entertain, but making it authentic — not just based on preconceived Western ideas about them.”

Martin sees himself staying here long-term, and hopes to continue to be a bridge between foreigners and Japanese in the world of swords. “I followed my passion to get to where I am today, but I also feel there’s been this amazing serendipity in my life,” he says with a smile.

For more information, visit Paul Martin’s website: www.thejapanesesword.com. On Japanese Sword Museum, visit www.touken.or.jp/english/.

  • James Fiendish

    Excellent article and inspiring story. Mr Martin has achieved a lot by following his dream in a difficult arena.

  • 思德

    A great piece!

  • leftlite

    Really interesting piece. I’ve been to the Sword Museum, in fact, and found the artifacts there quite fascinating and I’ve often wondered how it is that the facility is not bigger, more modern and more accessible from the standpoint of non-Japanese people. Mr. Martin has carved out a really unique and interesting niche. It is great that he has found his passion.