The Japanese sword, otherwise known as nihonto, is a traditional craft that has been produced in Japan for 1000 years. While it was originally made as a weapon, now the role of weapons has ended an many people appreciate the Japanese sword as a beautiful art object. Its shape is refined with a gentle, but not simple curvature. Pale white patterns on the edge are called hamon, which are different on every blade. Forged by hand, there are no completely identical Japanese swords in the world, even though the same swordsmith may have made the blades.
Easy to bend
the sword is made of high-quality tamahagane, or Japanese steel that is manufactured from smelting sand-iron and charcoal together in a clay furnace using a traditional method called tatara. The Japanese sword is characterized by the qualities of “not break and not bend”. In fact, it is very difficult for these two properties to co-exist. High-carbon-concentrated steel is hard, but relatively weak and easy to break. On the other hand, steel with a lower carbon concentration is ‘sticky’and difficult to break, but easy to bend.
The tempering process
The Japanese sword uses soft steel (singane) layered with hard and pure steel (kawagane) to prevent bending. Each steel element is heated to a red-hot heat, hammered, and folded to harden repeatedly (tanren). In this way, the carbon concentration is sophistically adjusted through many layers. Finally, the sword body is heated and rapidly quenched in water in the tempering stage (yakiire). Through this process, the steel of the blade becomes harder and the edge keener. Then, the sword is sent to be polished by a polisher.
There are several schools of Japanese sword-making and each school’s way is different and individual swordsmiths also have their own methods. Thus, if you carefully inspect a sword, you can find out when (historical era), where (region) and by whom it was made.
Hints to appreciate the Japanese sword
Here are some basic appreciating points, among many
Curvature (sori), length, and total balance are key elements when inspecting a blade. The era when the sword was made can be assumed from sori.
Steel surface markings created by tanren and yakiire, though they are a little bit difficult to clearly see in glass showcases in museums.
In tempering, the blade, which has been coated with a clay slurry, is heated and rapidly quenched in water. Temper patterns (hamon) are mainly created around the border between thickly coated and thinly coated parts. The temper pattern is an important point to analyze in ascertaining who made the sword, because the temper pattern is handed down in each school.
Originally made to protect the swords body, “mountings”- the various housings and fittings that hold the blade of a sword when being worn by the person wielding the sword or while stored,-developed in various ways in successive ares. Each part was created by a special artisan with a variety of materials, such as lacquer, wood, leather and gold and other metals. Sword mounting was an outstanding craftwork in itself, and was also a kind of fashion. Fashionable samurai in olden days took pride in the “total coordination”that decorative sheaths and so on added to their total attire and look, not onlike a common day Lolita might match her hair ribbons, make-up, purse and stockings to go along with her general appearance.
Places to appreciate Japanese swords
Bizen Osafune Japanese sword museum
Bizen Osafune token village
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