Japanese Sword Craftsmen

Authentic weapons are like the craftsmen responsible for the Japanese sword. Globally known for their long tradition of excellent craftsmanship.

For centuries, the Samurai’s honor, appeal, authority, and symbol has remained powerful. As for the Katana, it is revered for its effectiveness and tensile strength. Skilled craftsmen started the production of these swords in Japan for over centuries ago. 

These pieces have a distinct place in the hearts of the people. Due to the fact that swords are used by the Samurai, nobles, and martial artists.

Who are the Craftsmen Behind Japanese Swords?

Creating a Japanese sword is a very challenging process. Traditionally, creation involves many craftsmen. There will be at least eight people present to contribute to the creation of the piece.

We will explain what the crafts are and what they stand for, giving you a better understanding of the creation of Japanese swords. An explanation of the craftsmen will also be present since it is vital to know this information.

These people took years to learn such crafts and decades to master. Thus, making them vital elements in the production of Japanese swords.

Murage

The Murage is also called the Tatara operator. He ensures the proper quality of the melting sand by checking expelled molten slags. This is seen via vent holes at the end point of the clay furnace.

The Murage is in charge of checking the technical side of the Tatara operations. He also watches the Tatara’s condition and blaze. The challenge is that he has to keep watch on this for successive nights and days.

Murage

The process occurs within a furnace from a hole referred to as the Hodo Ana. It’s found on the Tatara’s lower side portion.

The person involved will provide directions for adding more charcoal and iron sand. The Murage will also give directions on how much speed the bellows need. Generally, the goal of the Murage is to maintain the conditions and stability of the furnace.

According to the Murage, the flames burn simultaneously with the colors of the sun. This occurs during the phase of Komori which happens on the first day. On the second day, the flames burn with the color of the sinking sun to the west that goes behind the mountains.

Unfortunately, the Murage has to look inside a very hot furnace for years. This quickly weakens their eyesight because of the intense light. So at some point, these Murage lose their sight entirely.

Generally, the Murage creates iron through a heroic and dangerous struggle with fire.

Tosho

The Tosho or bladesmith is the most important role when it comes to the production of swords.

They gather all the necessary steel needed for making a sword. The Tosho chooses the correct type of steel wafers. These are made from Tamahagane ore’s flattened fragments.

Before the folding process, the forged pieces are put together. The process makes around thousands of steel layers, and this takes about 12 to 14 folds in total.

Tosho

Generally, the Tosho is in charge of creating the blade using a hammer, forge, and other smithing tools. They make use of different metalworking approaches like what blacksmiths use.

Bladesmithing is an ancient art form in Japan, China and other cultures.  There are different myths linked to this process, like other art forms wrapped in history.

Traditionally, bladesmithing is the manufacture of blades by any means. Yet a lot of modern craftsmen called bladesmiths make blades via forging to shape this.

Historic Bladesmithing

The technology that caused the improvement of the Japanese sword came from China. Then, the Koreans brought it to Japan.

The quality of iron found in Japan wasn’t good. With that, bladesmithing became a rigid and intricate process in the country. It involved forge-welding and folding steel many times to make a laminated blade.

By the Kamakura era, the country was under the military class. It was a time when they repelled the Mongol invasions. It was the Golden period of bladesmithing. The emperor of this time was Emperor Toba II who was a bladesmith himself.

Historic Bladesmithing

After the abduction, Toba II called on all the finest bladesmiths in the country. He wanted to create the perfect sword which was hard to keep a sharp cutting edge. The issue here was that hard steel is brittle and shatters easily under heavy pressure.

Luckily, the bladesmiths were able to find a solution to this issue. They wrapped a softer low carbon steel core in a jacket of steel containing high carbon content. An example of the steel core that is softer would be wrought iron. After wrapping, the edge will undergo hardening.

Yet when under heavy use, its edge leads to more chipping compared to its European counterparts. These European pieces can withstand heavier armor than the Japanese swords. It’s answered by the Ashi, which is a softer kind of steel that allows projection extensions. This is to form a harder cutting edge during differential hardening.

Tosogu Shi

The Tosogu Shi, also called Kinko Shi, is the maker of sword fittings. He could also be the fine metal jeweler or worker. This person creates the metallic fittings of a Nihonto like the Tsuba, Kashira, Fuchi, and Menuki.

He is also in charge of making the Kojiri, Saya Jiri, Semegane, Kozukaare, and Kogai.

This specific craftsman uses chisels, jeweler’s saws, files, and punches. These are necessary to create intricate details in the sword’s furniture. Sometime they also apply patina methods to put color to their creation.

Iron, brass, and copper are the most common material to use when making sword fittings. Yet a few copper-based alloys are also used. Aside from the base materials, the art of metalworking uses gold or silver inlays. It is also possible to use Japanese alloys like Shakudo and Shibuichi.

Togi Shi

The Togi Shi works as the blade polisher. He makes use of various grades of water stones to give the sword’s blade a sharp edge. These also give it a stunning appearance.

When polishing, the Togi Shi needs to constantly check the symmetry and geometry of the blade. After shaping and sharpening the sword, the Togi Shi will do the Shiage polish. This is the last touch where the Togi Shi concentrates on bringing out a few details. These are hidden in the steel.

Samples of these would be the Hamon, Hada, and crystallization design. Accentuating the details are possible using the right stones, tools, and techniques.

Also included in the finalizing stage is the finishing of the Kissaki, and burnishing of the Mune and Ji. The Togi Shi can choose to leave their signature on the sword’s blade as Mikagi lines.

 

The striped pattern is under the Habaki or on the back part of the sword’s tip.

Once the rough blade is complete, the smith gives the blade to the Togi Shi so he can refine the blade’s shape. He will also work on enhancing its aesthetic value.

The whole process will take a lot of time; and in some cases, would reach up to several weeks.

Earlier Togi Shi used three kinds of stone while modern Togi Shi uses seven of these. In the past, around the year 1600,  contemporary high level of polishing was not done. This was because the greater emphasis was on function and not on form.

The process of polishing takes much longer than crafting. Plus, good polishing can enhance the beauty of a sword’s blade. Furthermore, inexperienced Togi Shi can ruin the blade. It’s possible for them to wear down too much steel or by disorganizing its geometry.

Both of these can destroy the sword’s historic, monetary, functional, and artistic value.

Saya Shi

The Saya Shi functions as the woodworker. He’s responsible for the Tsuka and Saya of a Nihonto. Depending on what the client wants, the Saya Shi will create a Shirasaya or Nury Saya for the sword.

In such instances, the construction happens by gluing the Omote and Ura side. This is where swordsmiths carve to the shape of the Nakago and the blade slot. The Saya Shi uses various shaves, chisels, planes, and knives to give the Saya and Tsuka their last shape.

The craftsman collaborates with the Nuri Shi and Tsukamaki Shi.

Saya Shi

Tsukamaki Shi

The Tsukamaki Shi handles the finishing of the sword’s Tsuka. With the Saya Shi, they can tell the shape of the Tsuka. Plus, they can also fit the sword’s furniture to align everything to the sword’s Sugata.

Before he can start with his work, the Tsukamaki Shi has to receive wooden handle or the Tsuka Shita Ji. It is the Saya Shi who provides this item. He also needs to get the sword’s Fuchi, Kashira and Menuki, from the Tosou Shi. If the sword furniture has been fit to the Tsuka, requiring the sword blade isn’t necessary.

The Tsukamaki Shi will then apply the ray skin. Next, he’d figure out the position of the menuki, then finalize its wrapping.

Aside from the functional and useful feature of a wrapped Tsuka, it has a lot of cosmetic details. The Tsukamaki Shi should be able to handle all these.

Tsukamaki Shi

The Tsuka wrap should be tight, has crossovers, is symmetric, and aligns with the fittings. These are on the Tsuka right under the binding or Tsuka Ito.

A Tsuka of a Nihonto is wrapped using various materials. These include silk, cotton, or leather bindings. Different eras in Japan used a variety of techniques and materials for wrapping.

There are lots of variants of the Tsuka Maki which gives off a different feel for the period. The standard type of wrapping on contemporary swords would be the Hineri Maki. For art and antique swords, the Tsumami Maki is often used.

Habaki Shi

When it comes to this craftsman, he can also be the Tosogu Shi, yet it is a different profession. He’s responsible for the Habaki of a sword. This locks the Saya over the sword’s blade and works as a stopper for its Tsuba.

The Habaki consists of softer metals like brass, copper, or other copper-based alloys. Silver or gold Habaki are scarcer but is not considered rare.

A rectangular metal sheet wraps around the Nakago and soldered with a metal and silver wedge. A sword blade has customized Habaki.

Using the Tosogu method, the Habaki can be patinated and decorated. Yet the inlays techniques are usually left out. This is because the Habaki functions in holding the Saya.

Custom Katana

Life of Kamakura Shogunate- Minamoto Yoritomo
Kyudo- The Way of the Bow
Shang Dynasty Swords

Nuri Shi

The Nuri Shi works as the lacquerer. The tradition of Japanese lacquer’s found in a lot of objects like boxes, plates, and more. They use Urushi lacquer which is a kind of resin based on lacquer or a lacquer tree sap. Urushi is generally poisonous, thus, causes allergic reactions.

Urushi Nuri – Urushi Lacquering

This is an intricate process since it requires up to 40 steps with 10 to 14 layers of Urushi lacquer.

The Saya of a Nihonto should be light, tough, water and scratch resistant. And when using Urushi lacquer, it can withstand decades of use. Even after centuries, some pieces made with this are still in top condition.

Urushi Nuri - Urushi Lacquering

There are hundreds of different types of lacquering styles. These are stone-like structures, mother of pearl or egg shell inlays, and high-gloss finish. Other natural materials used provide the lacquer work a unique style.

By utilizing pigments, the Nuri Shi can create the perfect color that he needs for the process. The Maki-E, or Urushi art work, even utilizes silver and gold leaf and powder, pine needles, and beetle wings. This is to categorize the Saya of a Nihonto as a true work of art.

Final Thoughts

All these Japanese craftsmen are irreplaceable in the creation of the Katana sword. They contribute to the beauty and charm of all these pieces throughout history.

With each craft having more than a thousand years of history, it’s impossible to master every one of them. Japanese sword tradition grasps onto this principle – “Jack of all Trades, Master of No One”. A person can only achieve near perfect results with continuous years of dedication.

All in all, a lot of labor goes into the creation of one sword. The cost of this collective work is astonishing.