Japanesesword

Tradition & Innovation

Swordsmith Yoshikazu Yoshihara
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Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist Tadashi Harada

Supple, yet unbending... Slender, yet unbreakable... Strong, yet beautiful...

These seeming contradictions describe a Japanese sword (nihonto). Nihonto have remained constant even during long periods of peace and despite the evolution of warfare; for the Japanese, these swords do not fade away into the past, but rather maintain a special place in our hearts. It is not just due to their perfection: perhaps it is because they possess qualities that mirror the Japanese mentality. In fact, for over 900 years the appearance and production methods of nihonto have gone largely unchanged as the traditions have been carried on to the present day.

"Originally, Japanese swords were not weapons; they were treasures and works of art," says the swordsmith Yoshikazu Yoshihara. He is the youngest swordsmith in history to achieve the highest rank of mukansa, which literally means his work is "exempt from examination" prior to exhibition. Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist Tadashi Harada paid a visit to Yoshihara. Harada has worked for Shiseido at fashion shows in Japan and abroad and is also the Principal of the Shiseido Academy of Beauty & Fashion (SABFA), a school for hair and makeup artists.

Tend the Fire, Beat the Steel... Swordmaking As It Was 900 Years Ago

The smells of charcoal and clay permeate the silent workspace.

In a quiet residential area of Tokyo's Katsushika Ward is Yoshihara's smithy, where he fashions Japanese swords of the highest quality. The faint smell of charcoal and clay wafts through the air of the facility, some 30 square meters with two forges to heat the steel. Hammers and tongs are arranged next to the forges.

"It's very well organized," says Harada.
"No, not really," Yoshihara replies with a laugh. "We made all the tools in the smithy ourselves. Even the hammers for striking the steel are hand-made to suit our own ease of use."
The many hammers he shows Harada differ subtly in size and facet angle. They are wielded for different purposes in order to produce modern-day swords of great repute.

The process of crafting a nihonto has gone largely unchanged for the past 900 years or so. The raw material, tamahagane, is a special material produced from iron sand. It is broken down into small pieces, which are then carefully inspected one at a time to determine carbon content. After that, tamahagane of equal quality is gathered and heated to recombine it into a single block of steel.

The harder carbon-rich steel is used for the outer layer of the blade, called the kawagane. The softer steel with less carbon is used for the shingane, the inner core. The kawagane and shingane are heated separately and pounded into a longer shape with a hammer, and the steel is then folded over. This tempering process is called tanren, and it is repeated many times. This removes impurities from the steel and is an important step toward making it stronger.

The two blocks of tempered steel—the kawagane and the shingane—are forged into one piece, and the swordsmith pounds the merged block to draw it out into a longer blade shape. Striking with the hammer turns what was once a mass of steel into something that looks almost like a sword. After shaving the surface smooth and placing clay on the blade, the swordsmith gives the sword a heat treatment called yaki-ire, thus producing the hamon, the distinctive outline along a Japanese blade that appears on surface when the steel hardens during yaki-ire.

The sori, or "curve" of the blade is determined during this process. Thereafter, the blade undergoes further meticulous sharpening, its scabbard and fittings are crafted, and the swordsmith inscribes the meikiri bearing his name. The sword is now complete.

Careful attention is paid to the sound of the boiling steel and the color of the gas and flame.

Today, Yoshihara is performing tsumiwakashi, a step in which he heats pieces of tamahagane steel to combine them into one. He also demonstrates the tanren technique of pounding the steel to temper it.

After checking the preparations made by his apprentices, Yoshihara quietly takes a seat in front of the forge. With his left hand he controls the bellows (fuigo). With his right he grips a fire iron for tending the fire and a steel rod with the pieces of tamahagane sitting at the end. As Yoshihara moves the fuigo, it emits a singular sound, like the low growl of an animal. His motions force air out the vent leading from the burning charcoal, thus adjusting the fire's intensity.

At the same time, Yoshihara maneuvers the tamahagane with his right hand to ensure uniform heat conduction while preventing it from crumbling apart. Harada watches intensely. Perhaps noticing his gaze, Yoshihara speaks.
"The charcoal heats quickly. In our parlance we say we 'boil' the steel when we heat it, but the difficult thing is to maintain just the right temperature so that it does not actually catch fire. I watch the steel's color, listen to the boiling sound, and monitor the gas and the flame color to consider and seek the proper temperature."

When the pieces of tamahagane steel become one block, Yoshihara finally moves on to the tanren tempering. As he sets the pace with a clanging sound from his small hand-held hammer, three apprentices hastily assemble at the anvil with otsuchi (sledgehammers) in their hands. The red-hot tamahagane is proffered. Whenever the otsuchi sledgehammers swing down, sparks fly from the crimson steel. They pour on water, producing great blasts of steam that unleash a roaring sound in the tense air of the smithy. This is intended to remove impurities from the surface. They strike the steel over and over again to draw it out, score the blade lengthwise with a chisel, and fold the blade over longitudinally. They then return it to the forge, pound the steel, chisel a sideways mark, and this time fold it over so the two ends meet.

The temperature of the steel is carefully estimated, and the hammers come down with gusto. During the tempering, stillness is followed by action, again and again. The process is generally repeated 12 to 16 times. If performed 15 times, the steel will have a bewildering 32,768 layers. However, that does not necessarily mean that more folding makes a better sword. Every time a smith strikes and folds the steel, it removes impurities and tempers it, but the steel also loses carbon, which makes it softer. The swordsmith must use his best judgment to decide how many folds are needed.

Stillness and action, delicacy and boldness, moments of intensity are repeated.

"Beating the steel is teamwork," remarks Harada. "It was interesting: it felt that even I was part of the 'oneness' of the team."
"When the apprentices swing their otsuchi, I wield a small hammer. The way I swing my hammer tells the apprentices how quickly or powerfully to swing the otsuchi. We call this beating aizuchi—'interbeatings'—the same word as is commonly used in Japanese for 'interjections'."
Many Japanese idiomatic expressions find their origin in Japanese swordmaking terminology. "Ton-chin-kan" is another example.
"When you strike the right spot with a good rhythm it sounds like 'ton-ten-kan,' but when your timing or your accuracy is off, it sounds like 'ton-chin-kan.'" Yoshihara adds mirthfully, "That's the origin of the Japanese word ton-chin-kan, which means something is odd or wrong."

Communing with Materials

It is a matter of pride to a swordsmith that no steel goes wasted.

In addition to his smithy, Yoshihara also gives Harada a tour of the workroom where he performs such tasks as preparing the yaki-ire heat treatment, sharpening blades, and fashioning their guards. Every single item—partly-assembled swords, sample ornamentation, various materials, tools large and small—is stored in its assigned place, with seemingly no space wasted. It is like they are all quietly waiting their turn to jump into action. Yoshihara lays out two floor cushions to provide a place to talk. Harada, who has been constantly saying he has "so many things to ask" from the time the meeting was first scheduled, finally gets his chance to interview the swordsmith.

"Today has been truly educational. This was my first time to see the raw tamahagane," Harada starts out.

Yoshihara responds, "I think making a sword may be like cutting hair. The methods themselves haven't really changed for a very long time, right? It's the same with swords. The raw material is the tamahagane, and you make the blade by heating it, beating it and stretching it out. Every swordsmith starts out this way, but no two swords are finished in the same way. Even if two hair stylists cut hair using the same techniques, the result is different because they are different people. That's where I think instinct comes into play."

"And not all hair is the same. Its condition can be completely different depending on the qualities of the person's hair, humidity, their physical condition, and so on. If what you're working with is poor in quality, then the result will be poor as well. That's why a hair stylist will try not to pick up the scissors until the hair has been brought to a better condition."

"I think taking good care of materials is another thing in common with swords. With a sword, it's very important to manage the temperature during tempering. The competence of the swordsmith determines whether the steel turns out good or bad."
If the temperature is too high, the steel will get too hot and burn, and if the temperature rises too quickly, it will not heat through to the core. Yoshihara performs a delicate balancing act putting to work all of his senses while his left hand moves the bellows. Watching him work is like seeing someone holding a conversation with a living being... an ongoing dialog with the steel that transcends spoken language.

Harada asks another question, "During the tempering, do you have an image in your head of how you want it to turn out?"
"When I pound the steel, I am conscious of the final form and I try to make the next sharpening process as easy as possible for the sharpener. That being said, something unexpected always happens in the process. A swordsmith demonstrates his true skill by how well he can deal with the unexpected and still make something good. If your proficiency is lacking and you perform even one step poorly, then everything is ruined. There was a time when steel was more valuable than gold, so another thing a swordsmith must do is not waste the precious steel."

The Daily Challenge: To Outdo Himself Again

A constant challenge to make his next sword his best sword.

"Every year I enter my best work in a contest, but as soon as I start working on my next piece, that 'best' is already not good enough for me; I want to do better and I think about how I can improve," says Yoshihara. "Every time, I'm trying to make my next sword the best. I couldn't keep doing this if I didn't feel that way. I believe there's always room to improve."
He is the best of the best in swordsmithing, and yet he says every day is a new challenge. On this occasion Harada had the chance to view Yoshihara's latest work, which was displayed at the Katsushika Artists Exhibition, in person.

The most distinguishing trait of the swords Yoshihara produces is the hamon temper pattern that forms during the yaki-ire heat treatment process. The pattern is called kawazuko-choji (tadpole pattern) for its resemblance to a line of tadpoles. The pattern is so identified with Yoshihara that you need not read the meikiri inscription bearing his name to know who created it.
Harada holds a real nihonto for the first time ever on this day. The experience takes his breath away. "I didn't think I would actually gasp... It's so beautiful, and it makes me feel serene, so much so that I can't imagine hurting somebody with it."
Yoshihara smiles sheepishly and tells:

"Speaking of challenges, there's one other thing: changing the way the Japanese think about nihonto. We misunderstand these swords more than anybody else in the world. Historically, Japanese swords were almost never used as weapons. They were intended as offerings for deities, while one was selected as one of the Three Sacred Treasures of the Imperial House. They were literally treasures. And in the days of the samurai, they were not used for sword fighting, but rather as good luck charms. In warfare, a samurai was more likely to wield a bow and arrow or a yari spear, and then guns in the modern era. I believe that, even in times of war, Japanese soldiers carried nihonto not as armaments but as good luck charms or for personal appearance. After all, you can't cut down an enemy who is targeting you from beyond sword range, can you?

"Most people today imagine swords being used in duels like you see in period dramas. I think very few Japanese people understand what really went on. I mean, most people are unaware that you don't need a permit to possess a nihonto. I see it as my challenge to correct these misunderstandings, spread the view that Japanese swords were originally works of art, and expose more people to the swords by presenting them as good luck charms for the bearer."

Carrying on the nihonto tradition, Yoshihara continues to wield his hammer and take up his daily quest for improvement. There is no end to his quest to bring out the beauty of these swords, thus fostering their image as pure works of art that bring peace to their owners, rather than as instruments of harm. Yoshihara has dedicated his life to working with steel and fire and going through the repetition of stillness followed by action. In everything he says, one hears his deep love for swords.

I set out to create the best sword every time I make one.
If I no longer had that feeling, I wouldn't continue.
I think it would really be the end.

Swordsmith Yoshikazu Yoshihara

Like Mr. Yoshihara, I want my latest hair design to be the best I've ever created,
and I continue designing with that mentality. It's a competition against myself.
The goal is to see the person smile, so no matter how hard a challenge may be,
I'm going to do my very best to make them happy.

Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist Tadashi Harada

Yoshikazu Yoshihara

Swordsmith

A swordsmith since his 20s, Yoshihara entered a piece for his first contest at the Exhibition of Newly Made Swords organized by the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords, where he received the Third Prize and the Award for the Best New Talent. Afterward, Yoshihara received a First Prize for 10 years straight, and in his 30s he became the youngest person to attain the highest swordsmith rank of mukansa. His paternal grandfather, Kuni'ie Yoshihara, was listed in the Gendai Swordsmith Listing that named Japan's great modern-day swordsmiths. Yoshihara's father, Yoshindo, and his father's younger brother, Kuni'ie III, were also awarded the rank of mukansa.

Tadashi Harada

Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist

In addition to working on hair and makeup for Shiseido's advertisements, Harada's projects have included Fashion Weeks in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. As Hair Director for the Shiseido UNO line, his duties include product and content development. Harada became Shiseido's Beauty Top Specialist in April 2012. In 2016 he was appointed the Principal of the Shiseido Academy of Beauty & Fashion (SABFA), a school for hair and makeup artists. That same year, Harada released a new special edition line of hair scissors in collaboration with musician Tomoyasu Hotei.

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