[From December Issue 2013]
Blades are useful for a variety of tasks in our daily lives: kitchen knives to cut raw fish up into sashimi, scissors to create beautiful hairstyles and razor blades to keep skin smooth. These days most blades used in Japan are manufactured in Japan. Sharp edged and suitable for delicate work, blades made in Japan are renowned throughout the world. So why are Japanese blades at the cutting edge?
Located in the center of Japan, Seki City in Gifu Prefecture is an area known for the production of blades. Blades made there are distributed not only to the domestic market, but also to other areas, including Europe and the U.S., making it a world famous brand like Germany’s Solingen. Blades made in Seki have the largest share of Japan’s market; from blades used for haircuts – which are the best in the country – and kitchen knives, to other types of knives and scissors.
The reason Seki became the center of production for blades in Japan is that it is following on from a 700 year old sword making tradition that began in the Kamakura era. YOSHIDA Ken, a representative of sword maker Kajita-token, says, “It could be that the level of craftsmanship of blades in Seki is so high because it’s ideally located to easily source high-quality materials and there is an infrastructure in place to distribute swords around Japan.”
Yoshida says, “Compared to other sword makers, who were protected by powerful military commanders, sword makers in Seki did everything themselves from production to sales, so they gradually became powerful themselves, without having to rely on people in power. It could be that craftsmen who heard about this reputation flocked to the city, and this also contributed to Seki becoming a city that is highly regarded throughout the world for the production of blades.”
When a knife cuts well, it’s often said that it is “as sharp as a sword.” The reason that Japanese blades are so sharp is that skills acquired through making swords were utilized for making other kinds of blades. For instance, scissors are made with two blades and it’s particularly important when manufacturing to both make the blades sharp and to put them together. To get a sharp edge, it’s necessary to toughen the metal immediately after it is heated.
Simply put, the art of sword making is in making steel from a reaction of iron fillings with carbon, which is then repeatedly forged into the shape of a sword. There are many steps in the production process but the main phase is forging. The work of a sword smith involves repeatedly striking steel so that it is stretched out; in temperatures of 1,300℃ little by little it takes shape. This reaches its climax in a process called tempering. Tempering involves hitting steel that is still rather soft to strike off impurities; this adjusts the structure of the steel. When the small mallet of a licensed sword smith and the large mallet of his apprentice are swung down alternately, a lot of sparks fly around.
In this way, a sword smith’s work is all done by hand. Because it’s impossible to automate, experience, intuition and all the five senses are brought into play. To make the best swords, high temperatures are important for creating the finest possible steel. This is reflected in the English phrase “Strike while the iron is hot.” Forging has a close connection with sword making.
Text: ITO Koichi