Master Swordsmith Tsuguyasu Matsuda and his swords that won the Prince Takamatsu award. He started as a student and apprentice of famous swordsmith Tsuguhira Takahashi. After moving out on his own, he began to incorporate detailed measurement and scientific inquiry into his swordsmithing techniques. In 1999, he held a solo exhibition in London, and in 2006 he won the Prince Takamatsu award. In 2009 he reached the pinnacle of the art: he was designated a Mukansa *1, recognition that his work is so good that it has transcended the realm of competition itself.
*1 Mukansa, is one of the top awards. A Mukansa, is entitled to display their work at annual swordsmith competitions with no prior screening.
The Goal: Recreating Famous Kamakura-Era Swords
― Please give us a little background about the history of Japanese swordmaking, and about what to look for when judging a nihontō (Japanese sword).
First, we should note that the term nihontō (Japanese sword) is not even used when talking about the oldest swords—which had straight blades and were quite different from those that came later. Curved-blade swords entered the scene in the middle of the Heian period (historical period that started in 794 and ended in 1185). These early swords—from the latter half of the Heian period and all through the subsequent Kamakura (1185–1333) and Azuchi-Momoyama (1573 to 1603) periods—are referred to as kotō (“old swords”). Swords from the early and middle years of the Edo period (1603–1867) are called shintō (“new swords”). Pieces from later in the Edo period are known as shinshintō (“new new swords”). All swords made from the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912) up to the present are dubbed gendaitō (“modern swords”).
Toward the end of the Edo period, famous swordsmith Suishinshi Masahide declared that Japan swordmakers should return to the Kamakura-period style. And since that time, many swordmasters have indeed worked to reproduce this style. Note that, in swordmaking, there is always something of a tradeoff between functionality and beauty. A functional sword is one that “doesn’t break, doesn’t bend, and cuts well.” But if you move too far toward functionality, you lose some of the aesthetics, and vice versa. Kamakura-period style is known for its balance: it achieved a high degree of both beauty and function. But the technology itself was lost as history passed it by.
The Two Poles: Beauty and Function
― Would you give us a brief explanation of the processes involved in creating a Japanese sword?
We start out with ironsand—an iron-rich sand with high concentrations of magnetite—and we smelt it in a charcoal-fired furnace, called a tatara *2, to produce a rough steel called tamahagane. It takes about 4 to 5 kilograms (9 to 11 pounds) of tamahagane to produce a single blade, which will weigh in at about 850 to 900 grams (just under 2 pounds). The swordmaker has to put the steel through a whole series of different processes; but, roughly speaking, there are three broad stages: Tempering (where the steel is rendered less brittle), sunobe (where the steel is drawn out), and a repeated cycle of hitsukuri (shaping), and yakiire (quenching), during which the steel blade undergoes differential structural change and hardening (where the degree of change varies across the blade).
*2 Tatara is the traditional Japanese furnace used for smelting iron and steel.
― Japanese swords have a worldwide following. What processes, in particular, make these swords so special?
Japanese sword blade has hard steel on the inside, wrapped in softer steel on the outside. If you don’t take appropriate measures at the quenching stage—when you plunge the stretched and glowing metal into the water—you can end up with a weak and breakable blade. In Japan swordmaking, we carry out a unique process called tsuchioki, where we coat the blade with a
clay mixture before quenching. This makes it possible to differentially control the cooling rate—so that some parts of the blade cool faster than others—resulting in a strong blade that does not bend or fracture.
This tsuchioki process is where the beauty of the Japanese sword emerges. The swordsmith carefully applies a thinner coat along the edge and a thicker coat up toward the spine. This result, after quenching, in the hallmark characteristic of the Japanese sword—the hamon, or
visible tempering line, that forms along the border where the harder edge side meets the softer spine side. (See Photo 1.) A lovely hamon—one that gives you an aesthetic charge when you see it—that’s the sign of a great sword. I myself work on creating the relatively straight hamon that are typical of the Bizen school *3. These hamon may seem somewhat monotonous on first sight, but when you look more carefully, you see that there’s a subtle articulated inner pattern that is truly beautiful.
*3 Bizen school refers to all swords made in the former Bizen province area from the latter part of the Heian period through the first part of the Kamakura period. The province—located in what is today southeastern Okayama prefecture—arose as a swordmaking center during the middle of the Heian period.