If you were to call 51-year-old Yoshihiko Usuki a makeover maestro, he’d probably just chuckle, go back to his hunched position and continue sliding the sword clasped in his hands over a polishing stone.
Yet togishi (sword-polishers) like Usuki are essential players in the process of making Japanese swords look beautiful.
The craft of polishing these fearsome weapons dates back to the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), and polishers are just one of several craftsmen involved in the completion of a sword. Others include the scabbard-maker and he who wraps the handle.
When a swordsmith has finished forging a sword, his creation will look like a long strip of metal with some file marks on it. This is when it will be passed to the likes of Usuki, so that he can work on it and bring out the patterns that lie beneath those striations.
The end result is a gleaming, shiny, razor-edged sword such as those that are on display in many museums worldwide. The other main role of a togishi is to remove rust that has built up on older swords.
A total of seven or eight polishing stones are used in the entire polishing process, which is roughly divided into two stages. The coarse stones used in the foundation polishing stage are often, due to limited availability, synthetic and made from silicon carbide or aluminum oxide. Finish polishing is carried out with natural stones that are cut into wafer-thin slices.
Usuki is one of only 18 sword-polishers in the entire country who has reached the level of mukansha, which literally means “beyond appraisal.”
Born in Fukugawa, Tokyo, where he still lives with his wife and three children, Usuki graduated from high school and then became the live-in apprentice of one of the premier sword-polishers at the time, the designated Living National Treasure Matsuo Fujishiro.
For the next 10 years — a standard length of time in this world — he learned the art of sword-polishing at his master’s side.
Since turning professional at the age of 28, Usuki has polished hundreds of swords, from modern creations to ones made 1,000 years ago.
Many individuals and organizations from all over the world, including the United States, Canada and Italy, also regularly send him swords to polish. And, as he proudly declares, “I once polished a sword for the British Museum.”
The position he adopts when polishing is painful. He sits on a low stool with his right knee hunched up against his right shoulder in a position that nonetheless allows him to precisely control the pressure he applies to the blade he holds between his hands.
But a wealth of experience has taught Usuki that all swords are not created equal. Good ones have an excellent shape and hamon (temper line), he said, while the best were owned by powerful samurai families who looked after them well from generation to generation.
Sloppy maintenance of a sword can allow it to rust, a problem that increases if the weapon is not polished. On the other hand, polishing — if not done properly — can alter the shape and balance of a sword, and done excessively it can disastrously thin the blade.
It typically takes Usuki 10 days of working from morning to night to completely polish one sword.
If it were just a weapon, however, the sword would only need a deadly cutting edge — so why should anyone go to all the trouble of making it look so good?
“If the only role of a sword was to cut things, there would be no need to polish it to make it shiny,” says Usuki. “But as they were revered by samurai to represent their soul, sword-polishers like me were required to completely bring out their beauty as well. It’s like putting makeup on the blade.”
For sure, no mere makeover artist, he.