By David Goldberg
Head straight into the face of death to prevail!
Literally translated into English - "the bridge of life", as explained by Mitsugi Saotome, aikido shihan and philosopher, in his book The Harmony of Nature. Japanese samurai swordsmen who survived until natural death invariably understood this concept.
During the Mongolian invasion of Japan (Kamakura period), a great samurai warrior from the Minamoto clan residing in Sagami (the Soshu Province) commissioned a local master swordsmith to create a daito, or long sword. Soon after, he encountered a group of nine armed warriors. With skill and grace, he defeated the group by himself. Before the next battles of the day, he chose to clean his swords. He found a secluded spot, hidden from view in the woods. He pulled from his obi a small black cloth pouch, which held his uchiko (limestone powder), cleaning cloth, and oil of clove. While cleaning and inspecting his newly acquired daito, he noticed the blade was unscathed. His past blades hadn't had nearly the same strength, flexibility or sharpness as this new blade. His strong, sharp sword and expert technique helped him to gain a reputation of fierce excellence. With this sword, the samurai warrior helped his clan along with all of the other samurai clans from Kamakura defeat the Mongols, reinforce the strength of the feudal government and unify the spirit of Japan.
The Japanese samurai sword's development paralleled the history of Japan. Soon after the first empire of Japan was established (roughly at the start of the Christian era), the art of weapon making was brought from China and Korea. The Chinese and Korean swordsmiths taught the Japanese how to make swords, but it was the Japanese who perfected the art of swordmaking throughout centuries. This was largely due to the way the Japanese people were about life-meticulous and idiosyncratic. The swordsmith was clean and reverent, with the greatest respect for every detail. His rituals would include praying, wearing white, and performing misogi purification. The process required complete focus and concentration.
The ancient sword period-also known as the ken or the straight sword period-lasted about 300 years. The swords of this era were made of steel; however, the hardening process was not perfected. The quality of the edge and strength of the sword was affected by the lack of understanding of the hardening process. Some blades were double edged and some were single edged, and they all imitated the Chinese blade styles.
Through the Nara and Heian periods in Japanese culture, swordmaking remained in the ancient period, making little headway. The need for a better quality sword arose.
A legend states that a swordsmith, Amakuni Yasutsuna, was the leader of a group of swordsmiths. They made swords for the emperor and his warriors. One time, Amakuni and his son Amakura watched the emperor and his warriors returning from battle. They noticed most of the swords brought back were broken or badly damaged. They gathered some of the broken swords to examine, realizing that the reason for the failure was due to incorrect forging. So for one week Amakuni and Amakura prayed to the Shinto gods and purified themselves by misogi meditation. Then they gathered the finest ore and refined it to create the first single-edged sword with a curved blade. It was polished and presented to the emperor. The other swordsmiths thought this was insane; however, as the days went on Amakuni and Amakura continued their efforts to improve technique and created many swords in this fashion. The next time the warriors returned from battle, virtually all of the blades they brought back were intact and in excellent condition. (This legend was passed down from the swordsmiths of the Yamato province.)
In the middle of the Heian period of Japanese culture, the next sword period-called koto or old sword period-took place. The need to stay connected to China diminished and the art of Japanese samurai swordmaking leaped ahead. The swords that emerged from the latter part of this era are of the finest made to date and are the most sought after by collectors and the Japanese government of today as examples of national treasures.
Times of peace declined with the change of power in Japan. A new samurai class came to be, and warfare became a means to power. The double-edged swords of the ancient period were replaced by curved blades meant for slashing. This type of sword has become the sword shape we know and is most widely used today.
Forging and hardening steel from iron and carbon, swordsmiths created perfect swords with simple tools. The most famous swordsmiths in history came from this period. In the koto era, the blades were usually wielded from horseback and were up to four feet in length. They hung suspended on cords from the armor, worn edge down. This style of long sword was called tachi. The samurai also wore a tanto (knife) in his belt. Later on, as more samurai became foot soldiers, the need for the long blade diminished and the katana was born. The blade was two to three feet in length. The katana mounting was worn edge up in the belt (obi). The samurai usually carried a second, shorter sword in the same style as the katana called wakazashi. The two together were a matched set called daisho (dai-to long sword and sho-to short sword).
The latter part of the koto era coincided with the Muromachi period of Japanese culture. There were many wars at this time, and the demand for swords was high. Great numbers of high quality swords were made.
The "new sword" or "Shinto" period coincided with the Azuchi Momoyama and Edo periods of cultural history. The rigid class system consisted of established Daimyo (powerful land-owning lords), samurai, artisans, farmers and merchants. Japan closed itself to foreign trade.
During this time, samurai wore katana and wakazashi. The need for the tachi diminished greatly, but there were many skilled swordsmiths at this time. The style and tradition of the koto era was lost and the emphasis was put on beautiful embellishments and looks rather than function. The koshirae was highly ornate, using themes such as flowers, bamboo, dragons and fish. The cases were decorated with different colored lacquers. Handles were tied with silk in varied styles. It was the time when the artisans showed off their high art with meticulous detail. There was virtually nowhere else in the world you could find this level of craftsmanship in a functional three-dimensional art form.
The last historical sword period is called the modern or Shin Shinto era, paralleling the modern era of Japan. Wearing swords in public was banned. The majority of swordsmiths turned to general blacksmithing, making tools, such as shears and chisels. Machine-made blades were produced for the World War II effort as well. In the Showa era (1926 to the present), swords are still made on a small scale.
Swordmaking still exists in Japan and has spread to the United States and Europe. Swordmakers are striving to reach the level of excellence of the great masters of the past. Today you can find contemporary swords of high quality at fair prices. You need to have experience or be guided by an experienced sword collector or perhaps a sensei that is willing to help you find the right sword for you. There are custom swordmakers in Japan and in the United States who are willing to talk with you to lead you to the right choice.
Aikido or aikijutsu are self-defense martial arts dealing with harmonizing with the attacker's energy. Students learn to use bokken and shinai in kata form or paired practice. This helps the student to understand movement, timing, and distance as they relate to self-defense practice.
Kendo - the art of Japanese fencing - is usually practiced wearing armor and training with a bamboo shinai. However, many schools practice kata with bokken, iaito, or live-bladed swords. Modern kendo is primarily a competitive martial art.
Kenjutsu is another form of fencing from Japan that deals with the sword that has already been drawn from the case. We can find many styles of kenjutsu practiced today. Some schools use live blades, while others use bokken or leather covered shinai.
Iaijutsu or iaido focus on instantly drawing the sword from its case as one deals with an attack from the enemy. Iaido is counter-attack oriented, and usually studied in kata form only. Some schools do paired practice with bokken or shinai.
Battojutsu or battodo deal with the actual cutting of prepared straw mat targets. Training is performed with live blades. As in other arts there are choreographed kata or forms laid out by the instructor or sensei.
Why do we study Japanese swordsmanship? To learn how to wield a blade, like the great samurai, perhaps? To learn how to use strategy and technical movement to better understand self defense in modern times? To train in the techniques of cutting targets and perfecting our strike?
I think all of this is true; however, it is a way to find the truth. A path to self-transcendence, and a real way to pursue, polish, and perfect the essence of our own spirit. In these turbulent times, we must learn to cope with daily stress, anxiety, and fear. We need to find the correct distance between others and ourselves, in relationships of vocation, avocation, friendship, and love. Swordsmanship is a "path" or "michi"-a way to understand the self.
I would like to thank John M. Yumoto, author of The Samurai Sword, as much of the information for this article came from his book. Some suggestions for further information on this subject are: The Japanese Sword by Kanzan Sato, The Samurai Sword, An American Perspective by Gary Murtha, Military Swords of Japan by Richard Fuller and Ron Gregory and Japanese Swordsmanship by Gordon Warner and Donn F. Draeger.
David Goldberg is a full time swordmaker making Japanese style swords using the traditional materials and methods since 1987. He runs an aikido and iaido dojo affiliated with ASU and the North American San Shin Kai Iaido organization. If you would like more information you can contact him by e-mail at Kinzan3@aol.com or visit his web site at www.goldmountain.com.