Deadly weapons forged as art

There's a gory history to every Japanese sword — even those being made today

by Raju Thakrar

The slow, rhythmic thrust of a piston covered in tanuki (raccoon dog) skin blasted air from box bellows onto the searing-hot charcoal. A casual glance at his forge was, however, all that Yoshindo Yoshihara needed to know the fire’s exact temperature.

His sharp eyes behind his glasses may have been intent on that vital blaze, but they also appeared completely relaxed as this rather small man with a goatee beard brought his decades of experience to bear — working, it seemed, completely absorbed in the moment. Then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he yanked the red-hot length of metal off the bed of fire with a pair of long-handled pliers and across onto an anvil.

No sooner had Yoshihara done this than the two young men beside him began to bring down their hammers alternately on the metal, filling the downtown Tokyo workshop with the clanging and ringing of their blows. Sparks flew in all directions as this master swordsmith gripped the pliers unflinchingly, staring fixedly at the red-hot metal.

The days when samurai ruled Japan with an iron fist may have ended some 150 years ago, but in this smoke-blackened smithy their presence lingers on, as it does in many aspects of Japan’s culture, from the traditional noh and kabuki theatrical forms in which they so often feature to the rigidly hierarchical structure of its companies, in which underlings still often refer to the boss between themselves as the “top samurai.”

Indeed, some people will tell you that the reason cars are now driven on the left-hand side of the road is because the samurai, who wore their swords on their left hips, would walk on the left so the tips of their long scabbards would not touch. Should that by chance occur, it would be considered the height of insolence and reason enough to fight a duel to a chillingly bloody conclusion.

Not that the samurai — the only one of the four divisions of feudal Japanese society (whose other classes were farmers, artisans and merchants) allowed to wear swords in public — would look for any excuse to draw their swords in the way swashbuckling movies like “The Last Samurai” might suggest. In fact, to members of that fabled warrior class, the cold, hard steel of their swords transcended mere lethal weaponry to symbolize no less than their very souls.

“If the sword was just a tool, why would tokkotai (suicide-mission) pilots during the Pacific War have one stowed in the cockpit of their planes that they aimed to slam into oblivion against an enemy ship?” says Yoshihara, who is one of Japan’s top swordsmiths.

Indeed, there are countless fables and legends extolling the power and mystique of the Japanese sword, and its role in Japanese history, with one named Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi even mentioned in the eighth-century “Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters),” Japan’s oldest surviving historical record. There, it is identified as one of the three Imperial regalia, along with a jewel and a mirror. In 1185, it is said that the 6-year-old Emperor Antoku drowned clutching it in his arms during the defeat of his Taira clan at the great sea Battle of Dannoura off present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, rather than have it captured by the enemy Genji clan.

For Yoshikazu’s part — not to be outdone by his dad — martial-arts movie star Jackie Chan popped in recently to purchase one of his creations.

Sword stores sell both new swords and old swords that are hundreds of years old. At the Sokendo store in Harajuku, Tokyo, the cheapest sword costs about ¥300,000 and the average price is ¥1 million.

At 41, Yoshikazu has many years ahead of him to carry on the Yoshihara style of sword-making, and the future will be even more secure if his son in turn follows in his father’s footsteps.

Me, though, I was keen to know if Yoshihara thinks this ancient art form would still be around 100 years from now.

“If you count one generation as lasting 25 years, 100 years would be four generations,” Yoshihara said. “Judging from the current state of sword-making in Japan, I think there will still be swordsmiths around a century from now. How many, though, I don’t know.”

Not that the sprightly 64-year-old Yoshihara is ready to pass on the torch to the next generation just yet.

“With every sword I make,” he said, smiling, “I try to improve on my last one. But I still haven’t made one that I am 100 percent satisfied with. I know that will never happen, though — even to my dying day.”