'Sword, the essence of Japanese art', a lecture at the British Museum

The Sword holds a special place in Japanese culture. These carefully crafted objects are the fruit of an extremely complicated technical process and the ability to appreciate them has been considered a tool to Buddhist enlightenment throughout the centuries.

Sword, the essence of Japanese art, the recent lecture on Japanese swords at The British Museum was a real treat for all Japanophiles. It was held by Keeper Emeritus of Japan at the British Museum and Christie’s consultant Victor Harris, and has been organised in correlation to the small exhibition Dressed to Impress, netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion on show from 19 June - 17 August.

Figure 1: Dressed to Impress, netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion at the British Museum.

The event started with a presentation of a blade produced by a swordsmith Sukesada from Bizen province (today’s Okayama). It was forged in the 16th century in Eisho era (1504 -1520). As often happens, the old blade is mounted in a later scabbard - this particular one coated with gold lacquer and decorated by a lavish fitting by Nakagawa Ishio. 


Figure 2: Victor Harris delivering his lecture. Sword, the essence of Japanese art, on 12 July.

Where previously simplicity was more in fashion, the fittings became very lavish in the 18th and 19th centuries. A disc dividing the blade and handle is called tsuba: the swordguard. In later periods these were richly decorated and became the equivalent of jewellery. They are often signed and even when not inlaid, valued for their sometimes rusted beauty. Alessandro Valignano (1539-1604) an Italian Jesuit missionary, asked a samurai once “Why do you people value old iron so highly”? The answer was: “For the same reason you value diamonds and rubies”


Figure 3: An example of a tsuba - sword guard. Image source.

A fully equipped fitting includes small daggers or pins called kōgai, used as a hairpin. It often has a small hook on one end - the mimikake - used for cleaning ears. A Kōgai split in two became chopsticks. 


Figure 4: Kōgai with a mimikake ending decorated with a Kaneiji family crest. Image source.

Sword-making techniques reached Japan from the continent very early. The first swords from the 2nd and 3rd centuries are straight and resemble their Chinese prototype. From the Heian Period (794-1185) Japanese swords gained their curve. This is when Japan developed a more independent culture and stopped sending envoys to the continent and the local culture developed. At this time it also became obligatory to date and sign swords on their tangs. It would bear the name and title of the swordsmith, his school, province, date, invocation, name of the owner and sometimes even proof of a tameshigiri – a body test carried out on a convicted criminal.

The swords made during the intense civil wars of the Middle Ages, like the one presented at the beginning of the lecture, became shorter; fit for single-handed use indoors. This is just a rule of thumb: some swords were custom made for particular marital arts and there are examples of blades taller than their owners: there are examples from the 14th century up to 2m (79 inches) long.

In the 17th century the capital of Japan moved from Kyoto to Edo. The city developed as the new cultural and political hub. In the provinces, the local landowners – Daimyo - were allowed to build castles and own a limited number of guns. As a means of controlling them, they were forced to keep a residence in Edo by an edict called Sankin-kōtai (literally: Alternative Living) introduced in 1635. They had to spend a year in their home province and a year in the capital, leaving their wives and children in Edo as hostages. Lavish processions of up to two to three thousand people travelled along the country giving the Daymyō an excuse to display the wealth of their entourage. By that time, all the Samurai were obliged by law to be equipped with a set of long and short swords called daishō. This was carried outdoors and a short sword (tantō) accompanied the owner all times, even to bed.

The making of a sword is a lengthy and technically advanced process. Japan does not have iron ore as found in the West and the process begins with iron sand, which is fed into a clay furnace called tatara and moulded into chunks over a few days. When the tatara is smashed and the iron extracted, the pieces are broken and sorted by their carbon content. They are then broken down further, and folded into a sandwich of thousands of layers of alternately soft and hard metal. In the end, the whole is folded into a U shape with a soft core inside, which gives the sword its durability and flexibility at the same time.

This is not the end of the process yet as the sharp side of the blade is coated with a layer of clay. The whole blade is again heated and dipped in cold water. This locks the carbon inside of the coated area and hardens the edge of the blade, giving it the white frosty pattern called hamon. The shape of it differs by school and province and even by swordsmith. 


Figure 5: A blade with a visible jihada and hamon. Image source.

All those steps ensure the quality of the metal changes throughout the blade, giving it its extraordinary flexibility. The final polishing process with stones of gradual softness brings out both the hamon and jihada - wood grain pattern of the blade- the layers of metal smashed by the smith.

Japanese swords are treated with utmost respect by their owners and are considered a work of art before being viewed as a weapon. There are more swords designated by the Japanese government as national treasures than any other type of object, even art. Despite the purpose for which they are produced, they are extremely delicate and need to be properly stored and maintained. Japanese swords are internationally researched and collected.

We will soon be publishing an article on the history of collecting of Japanese swords by Mr Clive Sinclaire, the chairman of the To-ken Society of Great Britain (Society for Research and Preservation of Antique Japanese Swords and Fittings). Stay tuned!