Bears beware: Traditional Tohoku hunters’ dagger enjoys strong sales, internet popularity

Kyodo

A type of dagger used by traditional hunters of the Tohoku region, who are known as matagi, is selling well amid a string of bear sightings and reports of bear-related damage across Japan.

Individually handcrafted by master blacksmith Noboru Nishine in Kita-Akita, Akita Prefecture, the popularity of the daggers, called nagasa, has been boosted by attention on the internet, which has led to yearly growth in sales. The dagger can be used as a kitchen knife or to cut branches, and is popular among those who enjoy outdoor activities.

“One of these is all you need to survive in the mountains,” says Nishine, 69, as he points to a piece of iron yet to be crafted into a blade. Nishine is a veteran blacksmith with over 50 years of experience. Once the iron is heated red-hot, he forges the metal by striking it with a hammer.

While Nishine’s shop also makes farm tools like sickles and hoes, a declining number of farming households means those orders are rare. Instead, he makes around 20 nagasa a week. The length of the blade varies from around 15 to 25 cm. A 21 cm long dagger — the most popular — is priced at ¥19,000 and can be purchased at his shop or online.

Compared to mass-produced knives, those made by Nishine have a harder core and are much less likely to chip. They can be used for various purposes, from killing and dressing prey to chopping thick trees.

Nishine doesn’t elaborate on how he makes his daggers. His experience tells him the right amount of force behind each blow, the best temperature for the fire, and the correct composition of the oil he uses for cooling.

Nishine’s daggers have been gradually attracting more attention over recent years, presented on the internet with slogans like “soul of the matagi” and “the perfect survival knife.” Sales of the daggers, which can be used to gut fish and cut rope, have grown around 20 percent compared to two or three years ago. Around that time, he began receiving orders from campers, and those who enjoy fishing in mountain rivers and streams.

Nishine believes the rise in orders is also related to increases in bear attacks and related incidents. Since last year five people have been killed in bear attacks in Akita, and an increasing number of people across the nation have spotted bears or been attacked by them. That has led to rekindled interest in the matagi, who traditionally hunt bears, and the tools they use.

While metal forging is now often mechanized, Nishine believes he is receiving orders because he is “creating something machines can never make.”

The tension in Nishine’s expression softens as he takes a break from working the hot metal and chuckles, saying, “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s finally seeing the light of day.”