Paul Martin , Japanese Sword Specialist

1. Lots of people are interested and or fascinated by the beauty of the katana but besides absorbing some general info on the web and watching some documentaries, 98% doesn’t get any further than that. How and why did you ended up in this fascinating world of the Japanese sword?

My interest began in much the same way as many people’s did—through participation in martial arts. I would hear about samurai spirit and bushido, etc. This of course led to an interest in Japanese cinema and Kurosawa, and Kobayashi Movies. This was the beginning, but then in 1993, I joined the British Museum and saw Japanese swords up close for the first time. I had always thought that Japanese swords were cool, but I had only ever really seen them strapped to the hip of cinematic samurai. I was immediately captivated by the metallurgical activities in the hardened edge, and the hues and textures of the steel itself. Until that moment, I had never realized that there was such a thing as a Japanese sword specialist, and I think that it was in that same moment I decided that I wanted to be one.

My epiphany coincided with an element of luck. At that time the only Japanese trained sword specialist in the UK was the keeper of the department of Japanese Antiquities: Victor Harris. Victor was a direct student of Kanzan Sato and the first translator of Miyamoto Musashi’s book Go Rin no Sho: A Book of Five Rings. He also understood the sword in its spiritual capacity and was a Japanese fencer (Kendoka). The chances of finding a mentor like this are very rare. From that point on I worked very hard studying Japanese language, kendo and swords until a position in the Japanese department became available. Even then I had to compete for the position, but my enthusiasm for the subject won through. I was consequently given responsibility for the care of the Japanese arms and armor collections.

I later realized that even staying at the British Museum for all of my working life would not allow me to study Japanese swords to the fullest. I decided that if I wanted to become a sword specialist in the Japanese sense, I would need to go to Japan and study all aspects including kantei and oshigata drawing like a Japanese sword specialist.

2.  There’s always a lot of discussion about real and ‘fake’ tamahagane. So the question of course : can tamahagane produced outside of Japan (by either  a kera oshi tatara or zuku-oshi tatara )  still get the label ‘real tamahagane’ ? After all, we tend to forget that the process of producing tamahagane was introduced by the Chinese (and the Korean?).

This is a rather complex question and subject to one’s point of view. In the metallurgical sense, you could say ‘yes, that all steel produced from the same raw materials of iron (Fe) and carbon (C), using the kera-oshi method or zuku-oshi method produces a form of ‘Japanese-type steel’ for sword production even outside Japan.

However, even inside Japan, we have to begin by defining what is ‘real tamahagane’? Is the locally produced tamahagane of the Kamakura period the same as Edo period tamahagane when centralized smelting took place and steel was shipped along the main roads? Is kera-oshi real tamahagane, or is decarburized zuku-oshi the real steel?  Are Shinto era blades made from nanban-tetsu not real Japanese swords? Even today, not all smiths use tamahagane made at the Nitto-ho tatara in Shimane, and many of the ones that do add their own special ingredients trying to emulate a distinctive jigane of a particular smith or school.

Additionally, just as it can be argued that the differences in locally gathered raw materials used for the jigane of the different traditions within goka-den can be distinguished in the hues and textures in a completed blade, a difference can be seen in both the manufacturing methods and the steel itself on non-Japanese made blades. This is not a new discovery by any means, it is said that there are distinguishable factors between continental (Chinese and Korean) made chokuto and domestic chokuto of Japan’s Ancient and early Heian periods that are kept in the Shosoin imperial repository, Nara. Both China and Korea were rich in iron ore, but as it was expensive for Japan to import ore, it resulted in iron and steel production techniques using sand-iron flourishing in Japan. It is undeniable that the steel technology came from China and Korea, but once steel and sword making took off in Japan it began to immediately develop its own characteristics culminating in the introduction of the distinctive curve into the blade.

However, rather than just judging the raw materials alone, we must look at the characteristics of a completed blade as it is not only the jigane that separates Japanese made blades from their non-Japanese counterparts. Swordsmiths in Japan do not just produced a blade with a curve in it and call it a katana or a tachi. The Japanese swordsmith is also something of a connoisseur. He must also study sugata and understand the different shapes of the various periods, and the subtle difference in the sugata of the school that he is aiming for. All smiths in Japan are aiming for a specific school or tradition, and are not just making ‘generic’ Japanese style swords. I think that just as importantly as researching jigane, to be successful, ‘Japanese style bladesmiths’ should also be studying other aspects such as sugata, the related activities produced in a hamon, and should focus their work by aiming at the workmanship of a specific school in a specific era.

3. The Japanese Sword has gone through a lot of characteristic changes throughout the history but there’s very little information to find (at least in English) about changes throughout the forging process and or the relation between forging and characteristic changes of the katana. Has there been a big evolution there as well?

I have not seen much written on it, and I believe that there is no conclusive evidence, but essentially is would seem that the main processes remain relatively unchanged. However, I do know that many of today’s smiths spend quite a lot of time researching jigane through trial and error in order to try to reproduce the similar results as to that of earlier periods or schools. I have also discussed this with some researchers and specialists and the general consensus seems to be that it is thought that originally the billets were formed from small nuggets, or whole chunks of tamahagane. The mizu-heshi process of flattening chunks of tamahagane, breaking it into smaller 2 cm diameter pieces and stacking it, was introduced around the start of the Shinto era of sword making. Also, generally speaking, the number of times the steel was folded (less folds, larger hada) has changed depending on school and era. For instance, early Koto era blades tend to have larger hada, whereas Shin-Shinto blades tend to have a rather tight hada.

Additionally, there are theories that the application of clay in the differential hardening process was a later addition, or that there was a different method. The evidence to support this theory is the continual gradual contrivance of the shape of the hamon from its original natural midare, and the disappearance of utsuri. When blades are quenched using a method that does not include a clay insulator, the chances of producing a form of utsuri increase dramatically. This can be seen in the works of modern swordsmith Sugita Yoshiaki. However, this is not a recent discovery. Smiths have been aware of this for some time, but the objective for them has now become controlling and producing other forms of utsuri like choji, jifu and the like.

4. Is there a certain style/school/period you like and why?

I enjoy each blade for its own merits including shinsakuto.

5. Let’s say we have a +500 years old blade (maybe unsigned) in our hand that seems to be preserved very well at first sight. How do we determine it’s origins and health? It may have been used in many battles and most likely had a lot of ‘facelifts’ through the years to keep it ‘nice looking’.

This is a complex subject that cannot be answered simply. We discuss this in depth in our book Facts and Fundamentals of Japanese Swords (Kodansha international), I would recommend further reading on it there.

As for determining its origins, one must look at the sugata (lit. shape, but also incorporates dynamics) to determine the period. Next, by looking at the folding pattern of the hada, in combination with the hues and textures of the jigane, one can determine where in Japan, or by which school the blade was produced. Then, finally, as one inspects the pattern and quality of the hamon, it is possible to determine the actual maker of the blade by the idiosyncrasies in his hamon application procedures. Like analyzing handwriting, the smith’s habits appear in the consistency of his hamon through the timing of his quench, and the activities that appear in the hamon through the way he applies the clay.

However, from a more pragmatic point of view, as the workmanship of blades is subjective, there is no 100% guarantee of a correct attribution to the maker of a blade that is unsigned, or has had the signature removed. The most that can really be gleaned from the blade is the school, or tradition. Any speculation beyond this is purely the appraiser’s opinion. Some opinions are more reliable than others, but unless you were there at the time of the forging of the blade, or the time of the signature removal, it is only an educated guess as to who the maker is. In the Koto period, smiths had many students, and the many students’ work is likely to be similar to the teachers’. It is also estimated that during the Koto era there were at least one or two smiths per village all over Japan, therefore increasing the chances of many unrecorded smiths, and the possibility that blades similar in workmanship to mainline smiths, or of unknown origins were made.

Today with the improved techniques of polishers, many polishers are able to hide most flaws, and the appearance of a blade can change radically from one polish to the next. The objective of a modern art polisher today is to recognize from which tradition, school or maker the blade is from, and bring out the correct shape and characteristics that correspond with that attribution. However, the nugui application alone can change the tone of a blade and help to hide umegane repairs and the like.

However, blades can only diminish with age; steel lost through battle damage or numerous polishings cannot be replaced. There is an old adage amongst polishers: “You can take it (steel) off, but you can’t put it back on.” This is to remind polishers to be conservative at all times when polishing blades. So, when looking at a blade it is helpful to know what a healthy example of a sword from the same period should look like. First, check the overall sugata, and compare it mentally to a healthy example. Then check for funbari in the area from the machi and a couple of inches above. If there is no funbari, this means that the blade may have been adjusted or shortened (okurimachi/suriage). Also check for nakago funbari. The area of the nakago that meets the machi should fan out. If it does not, this could mean that the nakago has been filed down just below the machi to accommodate wear to the cutting edge. Does the hamon run off? Does it have an original boshi? Are there patches of plain steel or different hada amongst the overall hada? These could be patches of core-steel coming through the skin-steel. These are all classic indications that a blade may be ‘tired’, or worn.

6. With all the knowledge, tools and sources Japanese swordsmiths have these days, how and where are they different from the swordsmiths back in the old days ? You often hear people say that back in the good old days, their skills were much better than the modern swordsmiths. If that  statement is indeed true, why the old swordsmiths are still outperforming the modern one’s?

This depends on what you deem to be “outperforming.”  Modern swordsmiths are very confident that they are making blades that are just as functional and as beautiful as ancient blades. Some modern smiths are even making blades that are being mistaken for Ko-Bizen school works. Personally, when it comes to modern smiths I think that we live in exciting times. In Japan, all of the top polishers judge and view all of the entries to the annual sword making competitions, and are just as impressed with a great shinsakuto (newly made sword) as they are with a great Koto blade. The snobbery of Koto blades being superior to shinsaku/gendai blades is gradually dissipating.

One of the main arguments is that swords have not really been employed since the end of the Koto period, so swords made since then have never really been put to the test. However, this point of view must be kept in perspective. Swords were never really the primary weapon. They were used as a last resort for close combat, self-defense, or duels. There have always been more efficient weapons for fighting the enemy at a greater distance: bows, yari, naginata and the later introduction of the gun. This is why so many great examples of Japanese swords have survived in tremendous condition. We must also consider the differing east/west perspective on swords too. To the Japanese, the sword is not merely a weapon, it is an intrinsically beautiful sacred object, with many preserved because of their presentation to shrines.

However, at the same time, swordsmiths are very proud artisans and have 100% confidence in the functionality of their work. In my DVD Art of the Japanese Sword, I interviewed several swordsmiths including Mukansa swordsmith Kawachi Kunihira. He stated that as he began making swords just after the war, his swords had never been tested in battle, so he was worried that they would not be effective. However, his teacher, Living National Treasure Miyairi Shohei who had made swords during the WWII said, “I know my swords cut well. Follow my methods with no mistakes, and your swords will be effective too.” Additionally, in Japan they still test blades on TV from time to time, cutting armor, shooting them with 50 mm full metal jacket rounds, cutting steel sheets, and they still do as what they are supposed to: not bend, not break, and cut well.

From an aesthetic perspective, as I mentioned earlier, many smiths are researching jigane and are beginning to be able reproduce characteristics from what is commonly referred to as the golden age of swordmaking; the Kamakura period. Many smiths test their skills or fulfill the wishes of their customers by making utsushi-mono (facsimile) of famous blades or national treasure blades. However, when smiths are aiming at the workmanship a particular school, this is not to say that they are hoping to emulate the work of specific smith, but to encapsulate the characteristics of that school and incorporate them with their own style and character. For example, the smiths Nagamitsu, Sanenaga, and Sanemitsu all worked contemporarily within the Osafune school, but they all retained their individuality. This is the same for today’s smiths. They want to achieve results similar to that of bygone eras, but still want their work to be recognizable according to their personal characteristics.

7. How important is the functional aspect of a blade for a collector? After all, it should be the most important factor to determine the ‘real’ quality of a blade.  Or do I need to ask, is there a difference in forging a display and practical/functional blades?

Ideally, a blade forged for artistic purposes should still be fully functional. Obviously, the primary function of a sword is to cut. However, as they are an anachronism in modern society, this becomes a complex question in the case of traditional Japanese swords.

Presently, there are modern steels that are much more effective than tamahagane at meeting the functional requirements of not bending, not breaking, and cutting well. However, these modern materials do not meet with the Japanese traditional, aesthetic, and spiritual elements. If these modern steels were employed it would render the Japanese sword a mere weapon (just like the currently banned mass-produced gunto of WWII).

For example, if you look at mono-steel blades produced outside Japan that do not require a hamon, you tend to find that they are buffed along the cutting edge to give the appearance of having a hamon, or are differentially hardened to imitate one. However, when comparing a buffed edge or the line produced by differential hardening on a mono-steel blade to the hamon of real Japanese swords, you will notice the absence of the depth of activities in the steel. For example, mono-steel blades lack the interaction between the subtle pattern of the folded steel and the visible martensite crystals in their various combinations that make each traditionally made Japanese blade unique. Therefore, Japanese smiths reject these very tough modern steels in favor of traditional raw materials that still produce durable blades but also meet the Japanese aesthetic, and in turn remain uniquely Japanese. Do these swords that are made with traditional raw materials have to be functional? Yes! Are they as resilient as modern steels? No—but that is not really the point. The point is a myriad of reasons that go back over fifteen hundred years in Japanese history. Any blade made today in Japan as an art-sword must be 100% functional. Otherwise it does not classify as a sword, only merely a pretty steel bar. Conversely, a three-foot steel bar fashioned into the shape of a Japanese sword and made razor sharp doesn’t make a Japanese sword either.

There are many collected antique Japanese swords that have acquired flaws over time such as hagiri (cracks in the cutting edge), or the appearance of fukure (blisters) that have rendered them unusable as weapons. However, because they have acquired antiquity and retain all of the criteria that make them a Japanese sword, they are still collected. Additionally, through the criteria required of a Japanese sword, the blades become appraisable to period, region, or possibly even maker. Appraisal of this degree will not be able to be applied to modern made mono steel blades. However, that is not to say that these disposable type blades do not have their place in modern martial arts. I say ‘disposable’ in the mass-produced sense of the kazu-uchi type blades that were made during the periods of heavy civil warfare in Japan. Kazu-uchi blades are purely functional and are deemed inferior to the better made, more aesthetic collected blades. Therefore, kazu-uchi blades, despite their antiquity and functionality, are not desired by collectors. Additionally, mass-produced gunto (separate to traditionally made gunto) of the Second World War are classed as offensive weapons in Japan and are declared illegal.  Many collectors outside Japan take a similar view, and mass-produced gunto are more likely to be collected as militaria than as traditional Japanese swords.

In summary, functionality is a requirement but not the only factor to be fulfilled for Japanese sword collectors. They must have a recognizable hada, hamon and the associated activities. They must also have a recognizable shape that attributes it to a particular period. Japanese swords are unique in that the blade alone is intrinsically beautiful and recognized as a steel work of art brought to life by a polishing method that is just as unique. Many modern made Japanese style swords (made only outside Japan) only meet the functional aspect, and are therefore not appealing to genuine Japanese sword collectors. Some are even folded and most exhibit a pattern along the cutting edge that attempts to resemble a hamon. However, on closer inspection they are easily distinguishable from the real thing by the lack of activities in the hamon. Whereas modern Japanese swords made by licensed smiths in Japan, follow traditional manufacturing methods based upon years of passed down knowledge and experience. It is not something that can be learned from a book or the internet. Additionally, since the demise of the warrior class in Japan, there has been no call for further changes in shape or dynamics. Therefore, all modern made Japanese swords are based upon shapes and workmanship styles of bygone eras. There are no generically shaped Japanese swords.

Paul Martin (