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Strength, sheen, artistry

Special to The Times

We’ve seen it in a hundred samurai movies -- the long, curved blade shimmering, then slicing through the air with a “whoosh,” piercing an enemy torso or lopping off a body part.

Today the celebrated katana, or Japanese long sword, has lost its function as a weapon of personal destruction. It’s more likely to be seen in museums, shrines and antiques shops, and when publicly brandished, it’s for demonstration only. What it has retained, however, is an aura as a work of art and a symbol of the warrior spirit.

Yoshindo Yoshihara, one of Japan’s leading swordsmiths and a designated “living cultural asset” of the city of Tokyo, goes further.

“I believe the sword represents the spirit of the Japanese people more than any other art form,” says Yoshihara, sitting with a group in the garden of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, where “The Art of the Japanese Sword: The Yoshihara Tradition of Swordmakers” has opened. It features more than 50 blades by him, his family and apprentices, including katana, short swords and even miniatures suitable for letter opening.

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“It has beauty, of course, but it also has strength, and it has a protective quality, more than other art forms,” Yoshihara says through a translator, Meher McArthur, the museum’s curator of East Asian art. “They can be considered protection for the kokoro,” which means “heart” or “spirit” in Japanese.

“Kendo [Japanese fencing] is not about cutting down people; it’s about the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment,” adds Paul Martin, the show’s curator and a former martial arts champion in his native England. These days, he says, it’s the artistic and spiritual aspect of the sword that is emphasized.

Dressed in Japanese-style formal wear -- a crisply pressed short jacket and baggy trousers -- and sporting a goatee and rimless glasses, Yoshihara has a kindly, grandfatherly countenance and an amused air about him. As a third-generation swordsmith, he is nearly an arriviste in this ancient trade, whose history can be traced back some 1,500 years.

His grandfather, Kuniie Yoshihara, was a 10th-generation blacksmith. When the Japanese government decided to revive the disappearing craft of swordsmithing, Kuniie signed up for the newly established Japanese Sword Forging Institute in 1933. There was also a practical reason for this school: It was established during an era of Japanese imperialist expansion, and all military officers were expected to carry swords.

Then came World War II and Japan’s defeat. Yoshihara’s father hardly practiced swordsmithing, which was banned under the U.S. occupation that demilitarized Japan. When it was legalized again in the 1950s, Yoshihara and his younger brother Shoji decided to pick up where their grandfather had left off.

“When I was a child, I would work at the forge with my grandfather,” Yoshihara recalls. “I’d be working the bellows and standing right behind him.” He makes a push-pull motion and indicates how he would watch the process from under his grandfather’s left arm. “So I could see everything very clearly.”

The katana is traditionally made with iron ore found in mines and along riverbanks in Japan. After it is refined, the metal is beaten into small rectangles that are heated and hammered into a solid piece of steel the size of a pack of chewing gum. This is folded and hammered out about 10 times, creating strength in layers. Yoshihara favors 13 folds, which results in 8,192 layers. Too much folding turns the metal into mush.

The blade is then elongated and shaped by heating and hammering, with the cutting edge created through applications of clay and grinding. What Yoshihara likes best are the final stages -- creating the hamon, the pattern of the cutting edge, and carving in characters and designs along the blade. “This is where I put in my personal touch,” he says.

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At the museum, the first gallery displays swords by Yoshihara and his family, including those made by his grandfather and his brother. Many blades are displayed alone, while a sample is also shown with their handles, scabbards and fittings.

The care given to creating these accessories is also evident -- one short sword lies parallel to its lacquered bright turquoise scabbard, which is strung with a black-and-white braid. The handle is wound with dark blue threads and incorporates gold fittings.

The second gallery features Yoshihara’s works and those of his apprentices. Here we find his favorite blade, with a lively mythical tiger etched along the lower half. There are also showcases of accessories, including one containing four tsuba, or sword guards, with various patterns, that are on loan from a private collection of objects formerly owned by architect Charles Sumner Greene. “Charles Greene collected Japanese things,” McArthur says. “These patterns actually inspired some decoration for furniture that Greene & Greene designed.”

Though there are about 250 sword makers in Japan today, only 50 or so are professionals. Of those, about 10 have studios with apprentices, and Yoshihara is among them. There’s a governmental limitation to how many swords he can make, however -- two long swords or three short swords a month. The law originated with the U.S. occupation, but it is still enforced.

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“It’s a bad law, in place because of stupid bureaucrats,” Yoshihara says with a good-humored scowl. “There was never a limitation before the war, so why should there be one now?”

Still, Yoshihara commands $35,000 per katana, which takes about two weeks to make. He has a backlog of orders. It could take a year or two for a katana from his workshop to be delivered -- and that doesn’t include the scabbard and bindings.

Who orders these blades? Individual collectors, museums and shrines. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York commissioned one katana, which is on display at the Pacific Asia Museum.

Yoshihara shares his studio with his son, Yoshikazu, and three apprentices. Though there are no female swordsmiths, a woman recently approached Yoshihara about apprenticeship -- but nothing has come of that yet. Will women ever be admitted into the fraternity? Yoshihara measures his response: “There will be women swordsmiths in the future.”

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The Art of the Japanese Sword

Where: Pacific Asia Museum,

46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena

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When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays;

till 8 p.m. Fridays. Ends June 19.

Price: $7; $5 students, seniors

Info: (626) 449-2742; www.pacificasiamuseum.org

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