Culture Japanese Swords

Artistic Industrial Craft Made by Fire and Steel

Japanese Swords

The Japanese sword, otherwise known as nihonto, is a traditional craft that has been produced in Japan for 1,000 years. While it was originally made as a weapon, now the role of weapon has ended and many people appreciate the Japanese sword as a beautiful art object. Its shape is refined with a gentle but not simple curvature. Pale white patterns on the edge are called hamon, which are different on every blade. Forged by hand, there are no com- pletely identical Japanese swords in the world, even though the same swordsmith may have made the blades.
The sword is made of high-quality tama- hagane, or Japanese steel that is manufactured from smelting sand-iron and charcoal together in a clay furnace using a traditional method called tatara. The Japanese sword is character- ized by the qualities of “not break and not bend.” In fact, it is very difficult for these two properties to co-exist. High-carbon-concentration steel is hard but relatively weak and easy to break. On the other hand, steel with a lower carbon con- centration is “sticky” and difficult to break but easy to bend.
The Japanese sword uses soft steel (shingane) layered with hard and pure steel (kawagane) to prevent bending. Each steel element is heated to a red-hot heat, hammered, and folded to harden repeatedly (tanren). In this way, the carbon con- centration is sophisticatedly adjusted through many layers. Finally, the sword body is heated and rapidly quenched in water in the temper- ing stage (yakiire). Through this process, the steel of the blade becomes harder and the edge keener. Then, the sword is sent to be polished by a polisher.
There are several schools of Japanese sword- making and each school’s way is different. And individual swordsmiths also have their own methods. Thus, if you carefully inspect a sword, you can find out when (historical era), where (region) and by whom it was made.

Hints to Appreciate the Japanese Sword

Here are some basic appreciating points, among many.
1. Shape
Curvature (sori), length, and total balance. The era when the sword was made can be assumed from sori.
2. Ji
Steel surface markings created by tanren and yakiire, though they are a little bit difficult to clearly see in glass showcases in museums.
3. Hamon
In tempering, the blade, which has been coated with a clay slur- ry, is heated and rapidly quenched in water. Temper patterns (hamon) are mainly created around the border between thickly coated and thinly coated parts. The temper pattern is an im- portant point to analyze in ascertaining who made the sword, because the temper pattern is handed down in each school.

Mountings

Originally made to protect the sword body, “mountings” – the various housings and fit- tings that hold the blade of a sword when be- ing worn or stored – developed in various ways in successive eras. Each part was created by a special artisan with a variety of materials, such as lacquer, wood, leather, and gold and other metals. Sword mounting was an outstanding craftwork in itself, and was also a kind of fash- ion. Fashionable samurai in olden days took pride in the “total coordination” that decora- tive sheaths and so on added to their dress.

Places to Appreciate Japanese Swords

The Japanese Sword Museum (Tokyo)
Tokyo National Museum (Tokyo)
Kyoto National Museum (Kyoto)
Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum, Bizen Osafune Token Village (Okayama)

This list is some of the museums where you can see Japanese swords. There are other muse- ums with permanent exhibitions or which hold special exhibitions from time to time.

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