A Devotion of a Swordsmith

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Watanabe Korehira is a 62 year old Swordsmith living in Date City, Hokkaido, Japan.

He set up a sword-making dojo 30 years ago.

His goal is to achieve the same quality as that of Japanese swords made in the Kamakura period (A.D 12 C-14C).

Japanese swords have been made since the Heian period (AD 8c-12c).  Among them, generally speaking, swords made in the Kamakura period are thought to have the highest quality.

The sword color tells you its status. A new one is going to be born. Swords were believed to posses greater power and spirits of their own.

Traditionally speaking, the swordsmith is not a mere Artisan but an inspired Artist and his workshop a Sanctuary. Daily he commenced his craft with prayer and purification. Ideally, when swords which were made in the Kamakura period and ones that made are displayed side by side, mines don’t look inferior to the Kamakura swords at all.

 

Japanese Katana are classified into the following three types according to the production time: Koto (made in 8c-16c). Shinto (made in 17c-18c), and Shinshinto (late 18c).

Koto are valued highly due to their toughness and sharpness.

(Sword-making studio in Date City Cultivation Memorial Hall)

The inside of the furnace must be heated to the temperature higher than 1,000 ®C (1,830 F) to make Japanese swords, so pine charcoal of good quality is required.

The sword-making license issued by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is required to make swords in Japan.

Today, there are about 300 sword-makers, and, among them, only about 30 including Watanabe are able to earn his living by making swords alone.

His sword-making studio prepares materials for Katana. His face is clouded at the job his only disciple, Kikuchi, did.

It seems that Kikuchi has to do it over again.

“Remember what you did once. Don’t do your work in a slipshod manner” said Watanabe.

Watanabe is trying to pass to his sole disciple the secrets about materials and techniques, including even the mental attitude.

Think! Halfway jobs just produce failures.

In the Oroshigane-zukuri process, you are required to keep the fire temperature to a specific point higher than 1,000 ®C (1,830 F), allowing for an error margin of several tens of Celsius’s.

You concentrate your attention on the change in the color of the flame.

The materials are Tamahagane (a kind of Japanese steel) and old iron such as nails made more than 100 years ago.

After waiting for about 20 minutes since making a fire, the fire temperature is approaching to the desired point.

So, add the required amount of charcoal and you can begin the first step.

After a while, the fire began to change its color and make a whoosh sound.

The iron is boiling at 1,300 ®C (2,130 F).

The quality is satisfactory; this was because I changed the compounding ratio a bit.

Tamahagane and several nails have melted into a single block, the volume being reduced to about the half of the initial one.

The Oroshigane-zukuri process has low productivity.

You can’t produce what you really aim at without good materials like this.

Whether you will be able to succeed or not depends on the quality of materials you use.

Watanabe is a disciple of the late living national treasure, Miyairi Yukihira.

Miyairi Yukihira was born in 1913 and certified as the living national treasure in 1963.

Watanabe Korehira was born in 1949, was apprenticed to Miyairi Yukihira in 1974, and got licensed to make swords in 1979. He liked a sword fight when he was a child.

One day, he had a chance to see a real Katana and it gave him the shakes.

He determined to be a swordsmith against his father and brothers and sisters opposition, went all the way from Hokkaido to Nagano, 750 km (470 miles) in a straight line.

I thought I would grit my teeth and keep working hard for five years in order to be a sword maker. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to go back to my hometown.

My mother alone approved of my wish.

When I was about to leave my home, at the entrance, my mother took out an old envelope from the sleeve, folded it in half, and handed it to me, saying, “Take this with you.”

At the local port waiting for my ferry, I opened the envelope and found ¥70,000 worth of money in it. (At that time, the average starting monthly salary was ¥78,700 for a college-educated employee.) I burst into tears when I knew what’s inside the envelope.

After five-year ascetic training, he was given by his master the name Korehira, which includes “hira”, a part of the master’s name.

Hammering drives impurities out, resulting in purer steel.

No words are exchanged between Swordsmith Watanabe and his sole disciple. Nothing could be heard except sounds from the sledge and hammer.

“He is my only disciple, so I have to take him by the hand and teach him step by step” said Watanabe.

It’ll take you 7-8 years to hone your skills as a swordsmith.

I’ll do my best to hurry up and get myself established.

(At Korehira’s home):

All of this Katanas are made to order. This day, he hands over the newly made short sword for  Iai to one of his clients.

The price is comparatively high as paintings and potteries are so.  In Japan, you can own your swords at hand as long as you register them at the local board of education or public safety commission.

“Wow, the color has depth, Awesome!”

“If I make a few more swords, I think I’ll be able to learn the art of making Katanas.”

“This sword is about 62 cm (2 feet) long.” Watanabe referring to the sword he is holding.

He wasn’t satisfied with its accomplishment and worried about it so much, resulting in ruining his health.

It took him three years to complete this sword, reworking it over and over again. You might recognize his single-minded determination which emerges from the blade.

“Nothing makes me feel happier when I see the client be satisfied with my work.” Said Watanabe.

“I see the look on my client’s face, wondering whether he is satisfied with it or not” said Watanabe.

“That’s when I get nervous most. When I see the client satisfied with my sword, I think I’ll be able to hand over it to him.”

Now they are approaching the final process.

The muddy thing is composed of charcoal, clay, and whetstone powder. The compounding ratio is the school’s secret. After applying the mud to the sword, scrape it from the edge and put the sword in the fire. Then, the edge will be hard and sharp while other part where the mud is left will remain soft.

“Don’t touch this part too much. Or, the mud will be removed accidentally” Watanabe told his disciple.

The disciple learns his master’s specific moves by observation. He has no time to write them down. Note this is Master Miyairi’s way. Watanabe teaches Kikuchi ways specific to the Miyairi school, not his.

In the craftsmen world, where techniques are taken over from the master to his disciples, there is a unique rule for further advancement.

So, the basics are techniques specific to the Miyairi school. You can’t be called “a master” before you train at least one good disciple. The disciple, in turn, is required to produce works with higher quality than his master’s to do his duties.

My master would give me a telling-off, saying ‘What kind of disciples did you produce!?” when I see him on the other side if I fail to train good disciples.

Watanabe has been working 24/7 to make Katanas with the quality as similar to as that of Kotos. Inevitably, he didn’t have an enough time to spend with his family.

“I’ve been working hard for more than 30 years to make this sword. I’m thinking of having one of my daughters inherit it” said Watanabe.

He thinks this comes close to Kotos’ quality. This was due to his family staying close to him.

“After a manner, I was planning to attend my daughters’ school plays and concert or athletic festivals, which were usually held on Saturday or Sunday. But, in fact, I had to be with a client on Saturday or Sunday. So, I had to cancel to attend such school events. I feel sorry for not taking them out for pleasure when they were children. I’d appreciate it when they accept my apologies in consideration of my devotion to work. This sword represents my apology letter to my daughters” Watanabe said in his interview.

In this town, living with his family, he has been a martyr to sword-making. He inscribed the sword with the words, Made by Korehira living in Date City. This day, right before tourist season in spring, Watanabe and his disciple come to maintain Katana collections in Date City Cultivation Memorial Hall.

Here is one of the heirlooms of the Watari Date Clan, Usami Nagamitsu, was made in the Kamakura period. Its majestic form, brightness, and calm ardor—it would surely take your breath away.

Watanabe says that this sword has dignity which even modern technologies cannot reproduce.

At first glance, on the outside, this sword looks just the same as the others. Inside, however, it is very different. This has infinite depth, so I want to live as long as possible to get close to its quality. This day, quenching will be done, which controls the quality.

This is Watanabe Korehira, Swordsmith, living in Date City.

Kikuchi Nobuhiro is his only disciple.

Grasp the change in the fire temperature quickly. It changes rapidly 10 or 20 ®C in a moment.

“Nothing is more interesting to me than this. I want to continue to make swords at any cost. I make Katanas even in my dream” says Watanabe.

Here is a swordsmith living in Date City who has devoted his life to sword-making, longing for the ancient times and handing down the techniques to the future.

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