A Hypnotic Look at How Japanese Samurai Swords Are Made

Paper, books, wooden joints, tea whisks — Japanese culture has, for seemingly all of its long recorded history, greatly esteemed the making of objects. But no one object represents the Japanese dedication to craftsmanship, and within that the eternal pursuit of approachable but never quite attainable perfection, than the sword. You can see what it takes to make a katana, the traditional Japanese sword of the kind carried by the armed military class of the samurai between roughly the 8th and 19th centuries, in the 26-minute video above, which offers a close look at each stage of the swordmaking process: the Shinto blessing of the forge, the hammering of the red-hot metal, the tempering of the freshly shaped blade, the construction of the scabbard and hilt, the final assembly, and every painstaking step in between.

Originally produced for the United Kingdom’s National Museum of Arms and Armour and Portland Art Museum’s collaborative 2013 special exhibition “Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection,” the video’s wordless but certainly not silent portrayal of this ancient and continuing practice has a kind of hypnotic quality.

But if you’d like a more verbal explanation to accompany your views of the making of a traditional Japanese sword, you’ll get it in the 50-minute documentary above, The Secret World of the Japanese Swordsmith, a portrait of the highly respected Yoshindo Yoshihara, one of only thirty full-time swordsmiths currently practicing in Japan. If you then feel up to a Japanese swordsmithing triple-bill, give Samurai Sword: Making of a Legend a watch as well.

This 50-minute program tells the story of the katana itself, beginning with this breathless narration: “For over one thousand years, one weapon has dominated the battlefields of Japan, a weapon so fearsome that it can split a man from throat to groin — yet it spawned an an entirely new art form and spiritual way of life. A sword so technologically perfect in structure, so beautiful in creation, that it gave rise to an aristocratic warrior creed.” It also gave rise to no small number of samurai movies, a tradition that many a cinephile among us can certainly appreciate. Though inextricably tied to a specific time and place in history, and an even more specific class that arose from the peculiar political circumstances of that time and place, the katana continues to fascinate — and in this digital, hands-free age, its makers draw a more intense kind of respect than ever.

Related Content:

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

Female Samurai Warriors Immortalized in 19th Century Japanese Photos

Mesmerizing GIFs Illustrate the Art of Traditional Japanese Wood Joinery — All Done Without Screws, Nails, or Glue

Watch Japanese Woodworking Masters Create Elegant & Elaborate Geometric Patterns with Wood

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

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.

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  • Robert Gigs says:

    It’s clear that the Japanese are better marketers than the Chinese…
    Hardly ever is the Chinese jian – the straight, dubbel edged sword – subject of these kinds of videos. Although in my opinion this sword is superior to the katana.
    Look at this video: here a guy tests his jian and in the third cut makes an upward movement with the back side of his sword and cuts the mat.
    That’s the power of a double edged sword.
    Especially with the beautifull, subtle technique of a tai chi master like Chen Man Ching you can see the beauty and power of these swords.

  • Jamea says:

    Following on from the previous comment, it’s important to remember that the Japanese learnt sword forging techniques from the Chinese. It was only due to the unique circumstances present in Japan, both in available steel and fighting techniques that the Katana differed from Chinese efforts.
    BladesPro have a great article on the rise of the Japanese Katana forging process https://www.bladespro.co.uk/blogs/news/authentic-samurai-swords-laid-bare.

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