A Swedish man has become an unlikely protector of ancient Japanese swords by learning the art of sword-crafting, despite numerous setbacks including the major earthquakes that rocked Kumamoto in 2016.
Hans Koga, 45, also known as Hansuke Koga, lives in Nagomi, Kumamoto Prefecture, and is one of the rare koshirae artisans specializing in meticulously repairing the exterior, including the handle and sheath, of Japanese swords.
The southwestern Japan prefecture is where Higo koshirae originated, a sword style established by Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646), father of the first daimyo of Kumamoto.
By replacing old and damaged sword-handle ito (wrapping cord) and other parts, Koga explains that he is able to help preserve a sword for another hundred years, something he sees as his “part in contributing to cultural history.”
“I am only interested in this culture. This is my work,” he says.
Growing up in Stockholm, Koga developed an interest in Japanese swords and began collecting them after learning about iaidō, a Japanese martial art that involves drawing a sword. However, he only moved to Japan in 2012, after a hand injury led to him leaving a career as a ship builder.
In Japan, he trained at a Tokyo studio, during which time he became particularly interested in Higo koshirae, a style that attracted him because of its simplicity and functionality.
In the fall of 2015, when Koga moved to Kumamoto, he discovered that there were no active Higo koshirae craftsmen, and so he asked a retired craftsman to train him.
On April 14, 2016, however, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake hit the region, and was followed by a magnitude 7.3 tremblor two days later. The disaster was devastating, killing more than 200 people and leaving thousands more injured. Koga’s home, which he used as a studio, was also destroyed.
Undeterred, Koga remained in Kumamoto, fearing that if he didn’t, there would be no keeper of the tradition. Now, having taken on an apprentice last year, Koga says he is even more determined to keep the tradition alive.
As an artisan who respects the original form, style and design of the swords that he works on, Koga worries that with the population of the koshirae craftspeople declining, there is also a rise in the number of repairers who alter the style of the original swords.
When repairing an old Japanese sword, Koga carefully takes it apart, cleans its original strings or cords and other trimming, such as shark skin, and then binds the parts together, methodically following traditional techniques, including the use of lacquer as glue.
If a sword is repaired in a different style, he says, its original appearance will be forgotten and lost forever.
“I choose exactly the same color,” he says. “And I replace (parts) to (make the sword) look exactly the same as it was.”
Want to learn more about Japan’s swords?
The Japanese Sword Museum (www.touken.or.jp), which closed last year for relocation, re-opened last month in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. Its first exhibition in the brand new three-story space is “Contemporary Swords and Artworks: The Ancient Techniques Inherited for Generations” As the title suggests, the show covers the work of artisans currently working in sword-making and restoration. The exhibition runs until March 25, with an admission fee of ¥1,000.
For a more historical rundown, the Tokyo National Museum‘s Honkan Room (www.tnm.jp )in Ueno is showing “The History of Appreciating Swords in Japan,” featuring Heian Period (794-1185) to Edo Period (1603-1868) swords and accessories. Entry is ¥756 and highlights include National Treasures, such as two 14th-century katana swords by Masamune. Be quick, though, as the exhibition ends on Feb. 25.
If you’re looking for something more casual, The Samurai Museum (www.samuraimuseum.jp) in Shinjuku offers displays of original samurai armor and weaponry, including a section on swords. Many exhibits are also not in cases, allowing visitors a closer look at details. Entry is ¥1,800, but it includes daily sword battle demonstrations and the opportunity to try on replica samurai helmets. For an additional fee, Japanese sword classes (and calligraphy classes) are also available.