How important is a Japanese Sword's weight & balance ?

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How important is balance and weight in the manufacture of a sword to a contemporary japanese swordsmith ?

Obviously a fine sword has a fine feeling in hand. Some swords are made only for their look, and feel terrible in the hand. It’s up to each swordsmith to put more or less consideration into the actual practicality of a sword. Of course, there were many fencing styles and schools of sword making over the past 1000 years, and not all swords were fine tools either! As for myself, I’m hoping to make fine fencing tools as well as fine works of art, all in the same sword. Bear with me!

In order to be allowed to make swords in Japan, you need a licence. But how can you learn how to make a proper sword and pass your test if you are not allowed to make any during your apprenticeship ?!

You work on your master’s swords! That’s why it’s important to have a great master, and a proper training situation. Your master will be making swords, and then he will delegate work to you. He will ask you to actually make that or this part of the sword. That means he trusts you enough, and that trust has to be built. Because there is no such things as practice: we’re always working for real, from the start. We never “just practice”. Not much room for mistakes. I often hear of apprentices making terrible mistakes, and wrecking swords that were almost finished. It’s very scary. One way we practice, though, is by making our own tools, but we make them for real too!

You’ve got to be learning all the time. Your teacher will do something many times in front of you, and then once he will just say “do it!” and you have to do it well and perfect right there, or you just lost your chance to step up. This is stressful, but it’s very good to keep the standards and learning attitude very finely tuned. I once heard that traditionally, potters in Japan would train their son by making him stand in front the throwing wheel for hours while their father was working. At some point, when the father would say “do it!” after many weeks or months, the son would just know what do to.

I experienced that myself many times. I watched my master work for so long, by cutting charcoal next to him or assisting him directly, that I know intuitively what to do. The other day I surprised myself again, because I had to do something I had never done, and I couldn’t remember how to do it at all. But when I sat at the forge, my hands knew what to do! I knew every step and I just did it. It was a proof that japanese apprenticeship is the best way to learn. You don’t need to fill your brain with theories and explanations. Just observe very attentively a competent craftsman, and then do it. Observe again, and do it again. No need to talk, no need to explain.