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The Japanese Sword

On Saturday, October 28, 2006 there was a demonstration of various aspects of the Japanese sword at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. The featured guest was Jirokunisetsu Kiyota Sensei a master swordsmith from Japan. Also presenting were David Pepper, Doug Blain, and the JCCC Iaido Club.

In the morning, Doug Blaine, from Guelph, explained his role as a sword polisher. He takes old or damaged swords and restores their looks by painstakingly grinding them a few centimeters at a time to remove nicks or rust.

David Pepper, from Windsor, has been fascinated by swords for nearly fifty years. He specializes in restoring the handles. He rebuilds them using wood and ray skin, then wraps them tightly in silk cord.

Both polishing and wrapping are time-consuming labors that require great skill and dedication. The respective presentations were real eye-openers for some of the fifty or so observers.

In the afternoon the JCCC Iaido Club, led by Chief Instructor Ohmi Sensei, gave a demonstration of sword-drawing and practice-cutting. The audience was shown how the Iaido practitioner begins by seeking internal calm and focus, and then proceeds to draw the sword in defense against imaginary opponents. Using highly sharpened blades, this is a dangerous practice unless done very attentively.

Even more potentially dangerous is tameshigiri, practice cutting, when a water-soaked, rolled up straw mat is sliced into a successively smaller length by a series of straight and angled cuts. Members of the audience clearly enjoyed the opportunity to try it themselves under the careful supervision of the Iaido students.

The highlight of the day was the lecture and demonstration by Kiyota Sensei. Assisted by his Canadian apprentice, Pierre Nadeau, Kiyota Sensei explained the process of sword-making. The first steps were shown by means of a video presentation from the All Japan Swordsmiths Association. We saw iron ore being made into two grades of steel, one for the inner part of the blade and one for the outer coating. It is this combination of the outer strength and inner flexibility that gives the sword its effectiveness in combat.

Then Kiyota Sensei proceeded to apply in a meticulous fashion a coating of clay to a blade that had already gone through the initial stages of heating and hammering. For about an hour he sat cross-legged on the floor and patiently covered the blade with a mud-like mixture on to which he drew a wavy design.

Finally he went to a temporary forge that had been set up outside of the JCCC. There the audience was allowed to watch in silence as the clay-coated blade was fired red-hot and then immersed in tub of water. As is the case for a skilled potter, the challenge for the smith is to heat the material to exactly the right temperature.

At the conclusion the spectators were allowed to observe the blade up close and to see how the lines drawn in the clay had been transferred into the steel surface of the blade, creating a beautiful design.

For over ten hours the audience paid close attention as various aspects of the Japanese sword were displayed at this highly informative session organized by the JCCC Heritage Committee, Iaido Club, and Token Kai. Why would they be interested in such a weapon?

For some, it is the process that fascinates them. The traditional technology and the craft of the artisan hearken back to an age of individual creation before mass production by machines.

For others, perhaps the majority among the spectators, the swords are art objects. The design and texture of the blades’ surfaces are very pleasing aesthetically. Collectors treasure their swords. There is a small market of connoisseurs who will pay considerable sums to obtain a rare or particularly beautiful blade. One senior Nisei commented that he had purchased his first one decades ago for under $200, but then spent thousands of dollars to have it polished and restored.

The Nihonto was for centuries one of the three principal weapons of the Japanese warrior along with the bow and spear. Wearing of swords in public was a jealously guarded privilege usually reserved for the samurai. But in 1876, about the time the first Japanese immigrants came to Canada, the wearing of swords was prohibited as Japan moved rapidly toward modernization in the early Meiji period.

Three hundred years earlier the samurai’s traditional weapons had already been rendered somewhat obsolete. Firearms, rapidly copied from Portuguese models, had decided the outcome of most of the key battles for central control of Japan. It was masterful use of strategy and gunpowder, not swords, that brought Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu successively to power in the late 16th century.

Why, then, would students of Kendo, Iaido, and Aikido continue to practice with swords today? There will never be an opportunity to use one in attack or defense. Is it just some samurai fantasy?

For them the Japanese sword is a tool for self-discipline and self-discovery. Training in the carefully prescribed etiquette and techniques is a form of moving meditation. Mind, body, and breath must be coordinated as the martial artists strive toward self-perfection rather than self-protection. In this manner they hope to retain and absorb the best qualities of bushido, the way of the warrior.

In a world where technology can often separate us from nature and render us physically inactive, the martial arts of East Asia offer an opportunity to get in tune with our true selves.

There is a plan to follow up this successful day of discovering the Japanese sword with another visit by Kiyota Sensei. Also the great-grandson of Saigo Takamori, the authentic personality behind the fictional character in Tom Cruise’s movie “The Last Samurai,” has accepted an invitation to visit the Toronto JCCC some time in the near future.


* This article originally appeared in "Nikkei Voice" and was contributed by Sedai - Japanese Canadian Legacy Project of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, Canada. The JCCC is a Discover Nikkei affiliate.

© 2008 George Hewson