Pierre , a Japanese Swordsmith Apprentice in Japan

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Hi everyone!

I would like to thank you for your interest in my little adventure, and thank you for your questions. Such questions are the best way to understand myself, really, because I have to think about aspects of my life that I usually just live without much consideration. I enjoy the game and hope the answers are satisfying for you.

What first interested you in becoming an apprentice?

pierre2

Pierre at work in his smithy

What really motivated me in becoming a swordsmith apprentice in Japan was the prospect of developping

skills that allowed me to play at “that” level. This is something I yet have to attain, but there is no doubt that the rigor and devotion the Japanese put in their work in general allows for a certain degree of accomplishment that in the West is often isolated to hardworking individuals.

In the West, we tend to get satisfied with less; and, I must add, this reflects in a much better quality of life in general! The Japanese are terrible at enjoying their lives, they’re working machines. Japanese pay attention to detail and are always proud to do their best, and this reflects in every aspect of their culture.

On top of that, the very intuitive approach of the Japanese to craftsmanship was also very appealing to me. I often get questions regarding technical aspects of my work (there’s one down here!) and I just can’t answer, because we do everything by “nose” and by experience, by intuition. Of course, I believe in the scientific method and in a more in-depth analytical approach (and am using them too), but what the Japanese taught me is that the only genuine teacher is Experience. One truly learns only by doing it.

How long have you dealt with nihonto/swordmaking?

I entered apprenticeship in early 2006. This is therefore my fourth year as an apprentice. Although I had a vague, typical young boy interest in swords and martial arts my whole life, until I actually entered apprenticeship I had never ever studied the nihonto or anything related to sword making.

I remember once, when I had just entered apprenticeship, someone mentioned to me Masamune (the most famous name in sword history, a smith who would have lived in the 13th century), and I just asked where he lived, and if I could meet him! I knew nothing at all regarding anything japanese sword, and much later I realized this had helped me be accepted within the world of swords.

As for the making, I have been working with my hands all my life (woodworking, home renovation, potery) so feel very comfortable making stuff and getting dirty, but I had never ever got anywhere close a smithy.

In Japan, an apprentice will be accepted or refused in a traditional craft without regards for his background or experience. The apprentice is to come and learn, he therefore doesn’t need to know! On the contrary, knowing is sometimes seen as a disadvantage, for one will already have habits and concepts, some of them maybe in the way of performing well, or at least in the way of “doing in Rome as the Romans”.

What is important is the apprentice’s attitude and commitment. Japanese don’t care about natural talents, they see it as a weakness sometimes, because he who is naturaly good tends to make less efforts than he who is poor with his hands. They consider that anyone who puts the right amount of effort will get there sometimes. Of course, the best of the best is he who has natural talent and puts in an infinite amount of efforts.

I like that very much. No one can’t say they can’t do it because they have no talent of anything. It’s just a matter of keeping the focus steady for as long as required, and then one gets there, no mistake.

Out of which characters does your Mei consist?

I don’t have a mei! I’m an apprentice. My mei will be given to me upon becoming independent, usually by my master, and usually containing one of his character, in this case either Miyairi Yukihira’s “hira” that was passed down to us, or Kawachi Kunihira’s “kuni”, depending on how things go in the coming years (stay tuned!).

Was it difficult to get accepted as an apprentice being a westerner?

It has nothing to do with race, sex, or any other factor. It has to do with what I mentioned before, and because I was never pushy, and never in a rush (from the moment I discovered swordsmithing, four years elapsed before I entered apprenticeship, if you can wait that long, you’ll be accepted).

Because I simply firt with the craftsmen, visiting some of them regularly, and reading books on my own, they saw that my focus was the same for years, and that I was pushing for results. At some point the relationship with who became my present master was such that it was natural for me to become his apprentice, and keep visiting him everyday to learn.

Many Westerners have this perception that it is very difficult, but this is because most that come to be accepted as apprentice are in Japan for one month on a tourist visa, and pushing to get results before they fly back to their country! This is the exact opposite of how things go in Japan. First settle in Japan, assimilate the language, cutlure and customs, start meeting people in the sword world, make friends, and then things will fall in place naturally, without having to make efforts or push.

View in front of Pierre's smithy

View in front of Pierre’s smithy

You are a three year apprentice, did you bodge any swords along the way?

Fourth year now. Apprentices don’t make swords. For starters, it is illegal for them to do so (you need the licence to legally make swords in Japan), but even without the licence issue, an apprentice is working on his master’s work.

If, for the sake of simplicity, the making of a sword had ten steps, the apprentice will start by cleaning around, cutting charcoal and observing. Then he will become more involved in preparing the work set-up, and observe closely his master.

Then he will be asked to make step one, and his master will take care of steps two to ten. Then he might be asked to work on step five, not necessarily in order, and so on. The apprentices work on swords, they do every aspect of the work, but they never make a sword by themselves from start to finish, otherwise that’d mean they’re independent swordsmiths!

Have you worked on your own swords, tanto already?

See question above.

If yes, could you share you experience with us? Was it difficult to help / to do everything yourself?

See question above, but yes, it’s very difficult!

Could you show us some of your work?

Wait a few more years 😉


How are you accepted by the japanese smith community? Are they  accepting of a gaijin learning there trade, such a traditionally japanese skill set?

The Japanese are a very welcoming people in general, and most craftsmen are usually lonely, and glad to have visitors. If they can perceive that I am serious, they are very happy that I came to learn one of their traditions. Most never believe that I will ever continue, and people are getting more an more suprised that I am still there after four years. Yet, I don’t think many believe that I will complete my apprenticeship.

In the begining, this was tough, but now it makes me smile and I enjoy showing them that I’m not a quitter. But to answer the questions, Japanese are generally very welcoming, and very generous of their knowledge. Of course, this gets much better when they feel you are making an effort to truly learn their culture, speak their language and study dilligently. They hate those who talk a lot but don’t do much, and so do I.

Just a little note here, there was a big discussion about the word Gaijin vs Gaikokujin 😮

The real word for foreigner is gaikokujin (“outside country person”). Gaijin is a modern contraction of the word, and usually perceived as a bad word to use. It’s not a real word, but by removing the “koku”, it turns the expression into “outsider”, which means a lot in Japan (everything here is about groups, and who’s “uchi”, in the group, and “soto”, and outsider).

In the kanto area, people are timid about using “gaijin” for they think it’s innapropriate and insulting to foreigners. In the kansai area, people are a lot more easygoing, and most are now used to using gaijin as a common word (they use it on TV all the time), and not many people think much of it. I use gaijin now with people I know, and when it’s a formal conversation, I use gaikokujin. If you’re not sure, definitely use gaikokujin: it’s the proper word!

What path lead Pierre to Japan?

Girls!

I always say that…   But throughout my life, I became interested in several things, and only later did I realize they all led to Japan. It started with the sword fencing style in Star Wars (not purely japanese but..), with Luke Skywalker’s clothing (a japanese craftsman’s working “samue”; and, although I don’t fall for it much, Darth Vader’s mask is very much a samurai kabuto!), then martial arts (those I was interested in were japanese), the samurai-geisha themes, temples-in-the-mountains-with-fog, Zen, a common attitude towards work and social relationships that was natural to me, etc.

All this pointed the way to Japan, and once in 2002, I met a japanese girl who never became my girlfriend, but allowed me to come and stay with her family. This was an open door, and I jumped on the occasion to experience daily life here for one year (one month at my friend’s, and the rest on my own). And girls kept me here 😉

Were you a smith before you went to apprentice?

Never ever even got close to a smithy!

Pierre's smithy

Pierre’s smithy

Do you study any other Japanese arts? (anything from Ichibana to budo)

I did practice Aikido a lot both in Canada and Japan (and wish I could now, but the nearest dojo is an hour drive and money is scarce). I also enjoy Shakuhachi and the game of Go, although my serious lack of discipline makes me hesitate to say that I “practice”! Otherwise my best affinity with Japan was my attitude towards work: caring for details, quality, working simply to produce masterpieces, working intuitively, being aware of my whole self in the process of creation.. All this is natural in Japan, but raises eyebrows in the West.

What is your favorite style of blade?

I don’t have any favorite style. I have swords that I fall in love with, but no specific style. I do like Sue-Bizen blades (my master’s style) for they were very practical tools, very down to Earth and functional. The great tachi of early Kamakura move me without doubt, too. I also like early Muromachi tanto, the remnants of an era of assassination and self-protection!

Whose blades do you most admire? (other than your sensei’s of course)

My master’s are not those I admire the most! He is very good, actually, but I feel his work is too “new”, too clean. But don’t misunderstand me, his blades are stunning and I respect most of his work very much. If I go back in history, I loved the late Miyairi Yukihira’s work very much, impressive steel.

Then four centuries earlier there was Sukehiro, whose nioi-guchi is just a technical impossibility! Before that Yosozaemon (Sukesada, Sue-Bizen) had impressive work. The great Soshu smiths, of course, are just beyond understanding sometimes (I have Norishige in mind). And the Ko-Bizen smiths’ steel is what moves me the most, right now. I wish I could go back in time for a just a month… just to watch them! I also like Muramasa very much, but saying that in sword circles is like saying “my favorite painter is Picasso”…

It’s too common to be appreciated! But I genuinely like Muramasa. I think he was cool, and he was a free spirit. He tried different things and he was obviously very skilled. I’m talking about the second generation, the best of them.

If you could have any blade out of history to study (for one week), what would it be ?

Ko-Bizen Sadazane (I held it in my hands for half-an-hour once, but that wasn’t enough!). Priced at $200 000.

Do you want to sell your swords in the western world? Or do you  want to ‘come back’ and work as swordsmith?

Yes to both questions. I will always have a foot in Japan, and one in the West. But I’m hoping to build my forge in Canada (at least for now, let’s see what will really happen!)

If you don’t know the type of steel/carbon content you are going to treat with traditional claycoating and water quencing – Do you have any tips on what to do to optain strong hamon and no cracks in a katanalength blade. I realize that you can’t really give any guaranties for succes, but I would like to hear your opinion.

Try, and judge!
I’m sorry, but there’s no way around it. Even for us, the steel we use is always different, so we never know its carbon content or internal structure. We have to test it. Take samples, quench them, write down your datas (temperature by eye, in your own words, time heating, temp of cooling bath, etc). I think, for the sake of practice, you should try heating up only the edge without any clay, and see what happens. When you get something at that, then applying clay will make more sense: you will know why and what you want.

I would like to know more about the L-6 bainite blades. I have read some good things about them but would like to ask someone who knows more about it than me.

Wrong: you know more about it than me!
I don’t know anything about L-6 and I don’t understand bainite enough to even discuss it. It’s very simple: I work only with carbon steel smelted in Japan. I’m isolated from the world and have no clue what is happening “out there”. I am curious, though, and would be glad to learn about whatever’s steel-related! I’m always very thirsty to learn new stuff, and I don’t know anything at all about modern industrial alloys. Nothing. Nothing at all.

I’m like a caveman of metallurgy 😉


More goodies can be found on Pierre’s website