Japanese Craftsman Spends His Life Trying to Recreate a Thousand-Year-Old Sword

West­ern cul­ture has long used swords, and the smithing there­of, as a sig­ni­fi­er of Japan­ese cul­ture. It evokes revered tra­di­tion, per­fec­tion­is­tic crafts­man­ship, and a capac­i­ty for vio­lence equal­ly impul­sive and for­mal­ized, all of which car­ry aspects of cliché and stereo­type to which East­ward-look­ing West­ern artists often fall vic­tim. I think of books like Jay McIn­er­ney’s Ran­som (“he took up his katana in its pol­ished lac­quer scab­bard, the weapon made by the great sword­smith Yasuku­ni of the Soshu Branch of the Saga­mi School,” etc.), although more seri­ous­ly unse­ri­ous cre­ators like Quentin Taran­ti­no, equip­ping the hero­ine of Kill Bill with a blade forged by a mas­ter named Hat­tori Hanzō, know how to have fun with it.

Taran­ti­no, true to schlock-cinephile form, named the char­ac­ter in hon­or of one played by ear­ly mar­tial-arts movie star Son­ny Chi­ba, a 16th-cen­tu­ry samu­rai and gen­uine his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. Though he got a lot of use out of his sword (his achieve­ments include help­ing the shogun Toku­gawa Ieya­su rise to rule over a unit­ed Japan), the real Hanzō did­n’t make them. Still, we need not look back into the mists of his­to­ry to find a mas­ter sword­smith, for they live and forge still today. Take, for exam­ple, Kore­hi­ra Watan­abe, sub­ject of the four-minute doc­u­men­tary above, one of Etsy’s Hand­made Por­traits series.

“Today, there are only 30 peo­ple, includ­ing me, who are mak­ing a liv­ing as a sword mak­er,” says the Hokkai­do-based Watan­abe. “When I was younger I was mak­ing swords just because I loved it, but as I got old­er I start­ed to think that I need to pass along the aes­thet­ics and soul of the Japan­ese peo­ple through my swords.” This he seems to have accom­plished against long odds, and in defi­ance of his prac­ti­cal-mind­ed fam­i­ly’s wish­es. “There are basi­cal­ly no instruc­tions left to make Koto,” swords from the Heian and Kamaku­ra peri­ods which last­ed from the year 794 to 1333. “It’s impos­si­ble to recre­ate the sword. How­ev­er, that’s the kind that attracts me, and I’ve been try­ing to recre­ate it for 40 years.”

But as many a mas­ter crafts­man of any nation­al­i­ty knows, striv­ing to come as close as pos­si­ble to the impos­si­ble holds a cer­tain appeal. It also pro­duces results: “I’ve final­ly suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing a few sim­i­lar to Koto,” pro­claims Watan­abe, but only with­in the past five years. A good deal of his atten­tion also looks to go not just into shap­ing swords, but shap­ing his suc­ces­sor. “I want my dis­ci­ple to sur­pass me as a sword mak­er,” a future for his stu­dent, and a future for the craft of sword­smithing itself, that he con­sid­ers it his duty to ensure. With just a frac­tion of his ded­i­ca­tion to swords — or just a frac­tion of Taran­ti­no’s ded­i­ca­tion to movies — just imag­ine the kinds of near-impos­si­ble we could all achieve.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Japan­ese Things Are Made in 309 Videos: Bam­boo Tea Whisks, Hina Dolls, Steel Balls & More

The Mak­ing of Japan­ese Hand­made Paper: A Short Film Doc­u­ments an 800-Year-Old Tra­di­tion

Watch a Japan­ese Crafts­man Lov­ing­ly Bring a Tat­tered Old Book Back to Near Mint Con­di­tion

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Leg­endary Japan­ese Author Yukio Mishi­ma Mus­es About the Samu­rai Code (Which Inspired His Hap­less 1970 Coup Attempt)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.