1. Lots of people who are fascinated by Japanese swords are very interested in the forging process of the sword. In most documentaries that’s the part of the sword making process that’s being highlighted, mainly because of the fire and the hammering I suppose. How come your path followed the art of polishing ?
Well, I guess to answer that I’d probably have to start at the beginning. I grew up during the 1980’s “ninja craze”, and the mystique of all that must have had a strong influence on my young, impressionable mind, because that’s where my original interest in things Japanese started. During that period I became involved in martial arts and also developed more of an interest in the sword.
The Japanese sword seemed fascinating to me and I had heard some small amount of information about them in a TV documentary. I remember in my late teens I began to search for a place I might see a real one and in my search stumbled upon a small antique store in downtown Atlanta. I still remember the add in the yellow pages, “We buy Japanese Swords”.
The name of the store was “Curiouser & Curiouser”, inspired by a line from “Alice in Wonderland”, and the eclectic/unique aspects of the store and its owner were no less fascinating than the movie which inspired its name. The store owner was an eccentric fellow with a love for Japanese swords. He didn’t really make any money off of them, but he enjoyed keeping a few moving through the store to study.
It was during those years, in my late teens/early twenties, that I had my first introduction to real Nihonto and the various crafts involved in making them. Probably like most, I had a sincere interest in the forging process, but I also found myself strongly drawn to polishing. The concepts seemed so strange and foreign to my mind when they were first explained to me and the idea of revealing the hidden treasures that were usually hidden on most of the blades that came through the store was exhilarating.
I spent many evenings in that little shop in Buckhead rummaging through the owner’s large book collection and looking at the blades that would make their way through the doors. Most were guntos but there were also quite a few nice blades as well. Of course it was all magic to me, especially at that time. It was all new and I was just soaking it in.
It was shortly after that period when production swords first started hitting the market and many custom makers were gaining popularity for swords made in the Japanese style. I began playing around with polishing some higher end production swords simply for my own amusement. A friend who’s a broker for sword restoration work saw one I had done and asked if I would consider doing this on the side. The rest is history. 🙂
2. Did you receive any training in the art, or, as most of the artists, did you learn by reading, watching and trying yourself?
In the beginning it was pretty much just trial and error(emphasis on error). Of all the sword related crafts it’s always seemed to me from both experience and what I’ve been told, that polishing is probably the hardest to break into. Information isn’t shared as openly as it tends to be with sword making and some of the other crafts. Generally, anyone who’s known or even thought to have done more than rub oil on a blade and hasn’t served a full apprenticeship to do so, is going to be met with considerable suspicion within the sword community.
It’s more or less a case of you’re guilty until proven otherwise. Of course much of that is for good reason and not without some merit. There’s probably no telling how many
swords have been ruined beyond repair by amateur polishers, it really has been and continues to be a serious problem. Sword polishers in Japan normally apprentice for about 10 years in order to acquire the vast knowledge of swords and sword history necessary to properly restore antique Nihonto.
There is simply so much a polisher needs to know when attempting to restore an older sword and the more you learn the more you realize the truth of that. When I look at the work of a polisher like Jimmy Hayashi, all of that becomes immediately clear and there just isn’t any way around it. Of course the flip side of the coin is that there are different types of swords out there, many of which won’t warrant polishing by someone on that level.
There are also many newly made blades by modern smiths made with modern materials. These blades are a rule unto themselves and require different methods in their
finishing than traditionally made blades. It just takes some time when you do this type of work for people to come to know that you respect the boundaries, know your limits and aren’t just some hack grinding up antique blades in the basement.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to develop relationships with a couple of traditionally trained polishers and have gotten a great deal of help from them. I also plan, as time permits in the future, to travel to Japan and train some there as well as with others here in the US. My main goal in doing so is to broaden my abilities in working on traditionally made swords, but not to break into the antique side of the craft.
3. Since the main task of a polisher is to refine the sugata (shape) and overall appearance of a blade, how important is contact with the swordsmith and or client? And in the case of an antique sword, how good does your knowledge need to be in terms of sword history(styles, school, smiths, etc.) in order to not ruin a fine piece of art.
When it comes to modern blades by smiths like Rick Barrett, Walter Sorrells or Howard Clark, the shape is pretty much already there. Most shaping is going to be subtle and normally won’t require any contact with the smith. In the case of antique blades, I probably answered that above, but a thorough understanding of kantei(appraisal) is a must for working on older swords.
4. Speaking of Schools, was there also something like “polishing schools/styles” in ancient Japan (or even now) that are known for having their own characteristics?
Today the two main schools of sword polishing are the Hon’ami and Fujishiro. Both schools differ in their approach with the Fujishiro allowing somewhat more freedom to the polisher to apply what “works” for them with the Hon’ami being a bit more on the strict side from what I’ve been told. It’s going to be hard to give examples that would differentiate the schools in the finished work since every sword is different and every polisher is different, so there’s more than a few variables involved. Both schools produce excellent polishers who do excellent work, so I guess in the end that’s all that really matters.
5. Did swords which were made in ancient Japan to serve on the battle field get as much attention in terms of polishing than for example a ceremonial sword? In other words, how important is the stage of polish when looking only at the functionality/purpose of a katana?
Anything past binsui(foundation stone) will do little if anything to improve the swords functionality as a weapon. The general consensus seems to be that most swords in the old days were usually left in “the white” and probably taken to the nagura/uchigumori stage and received no finishing.
6. Rumor goes(and only a polisher can confirm or deny) that shaping and finishing the kissaski of a katana and making a crisp yokote line is a very hard task, but does that have any functional purpose or only a cosmic one?
Yes, shaping the kissaki is the most difficult part of the polishing process, but is mostly the result of a proper use of the stones. In other words, if one works the different surfaces properly on the stones, these lines install themselves as a result of that. Don’t know if that will make sense to everyone, but nonetheless it is the case.
As for the functional purpose of the yokote, a while back amongst all of the “yokote” debate, I saved a small piece from a post that Keith Larman wrote on the subject and I think it sums it up fairly well. I hope Keith won’t mind me quoting him.
“The yokote exists when a blade is healthy and polished correctly, precisely and accurately to get that particular shape. In polishing a shinogi zukuri we want the blade to be healthy and robust all the way up towards the kissaki so we have a robust monouchi. Then where the kissaki starts we want a strong, supported in all directions, tough tip that can both slash and thrust. If it is done cleanly, precisely and with tremendous care there will be a transition “line” between the two. That is the yokote. The yokote is a “side-effect” of the geometry of the blade. Thinking it has a “purpose” in and of itself misses the larger picture. It is there because it *should* form if everything else is done correctly. Over time it will be one of the first things to slowly lose definition. And there are many factors which affect how pronounced it is (length of kissaki, thickness of blade, degree of niku and placement, number of polishes, etc.)………..It doesn’t have a purpose per se. But it is a sign of a healthy blade that has been well shaped and polished.”
7. To continue the yokote story, what is a real and what is a fake yokote… Is a geometric change necessary to make it a ‘real’ one ?
This is a question that seems to get thrown around a lot on forums and one that I’ve tried (sometimes to my dismay) to answer many times. While it’s certainly hard for me to add anything useful to the explanation above, I’ll give it a whirl again.
In the truest sense, there is no such thing as a fake yokote. It can either be properly described as physical, cosmetic or both. The yokote is the line of separation between the kissaki and the ji. Whether that line is an actual physical change in the form of a pronounced ridge depends on a few factors, but nonetheless I’ve encountered blades both new and old that had varying degrees of physical change here, so it’s just not a simple cut and dry answer, although I do believe Keith did an excellent job of explaining the brunt of it in the quote above.
In an ideal situation with all things being as they should, there will be a physical change in geometry here and the yokote will be present in this form before narume(whitening of the kissaki) is done. If this physical change is not present, then the line will be cosmetically installed by the polisher during narume. Either way the line itself is real after it’s installed. The bigger question is whether or not the shaping was done correctly or why the physical line might not be present.
8. I’m not sure how many different polishing stones a polisher needs(probably a lot) but how do you know which stones to use if you get a half rusted sword in your shop with no further info on the steel or forging process?
It’s generally pretty easy in that regard for newly made swords from modern steels as they are all just extremely hard. Generally it’s going to come down to a choice between a couple of stones for each stage and I’ll know when the blade touches the stone which will be the best. For older swords it gets way more tricky and convoluted, as selection of the proper stone becomes more critical with each stage of the process. Since a polisher will always be limited by the stones he has to choose from, the better polishers who work primarily on older swords will have a large selection.
Hope I’ve answered your questions satisfactorily and not gotten to wordy in the process. Also, thank you for the opportunity to share!
Some of Chris’s work :