The Iaido Journal  June 2003EJMAS Tips Jar

Book Review: The New Generation of Japanese Swordsmiths and Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths, From 1868 to the Present

Copyright © Jeff Broderick 2003 All rights reserved.


The New Generation of Japanese Swordsmiths (Tamio Tsuchiko, 256 pp., Kodansha)
Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths, From 1868 to the Present (Leon and Hiroko Kapp, Yoshindo Yoshihara, 223pp., Kodansha)

Kodansha's release of two English language books on the Japanese sword is wonderful news for non-Japanese speaking sword enthusiasts the world over.  The amount of information available in English has been fairly scant thus far, with only about a half-dozen books in the "must-read" category.  Kodansha seems ready to remedy this situation with these wonderful and indispensable books.

What is rather curious is that Kodansha has released two books which are concerned with the same topic -- modern-era swordsmiths and their work -- and which take the same format and approach: interviews with the smith followed by an analysis of their major work.  These two books should be seen as complementary; there is a lot of overlap between the two, but each contains valuable information not found in the other.

Both books are very similar in content and format.  The first section of each is dedicated to a visual depiction of the numerous terms used to describe every aspect of the sword.  Both books make excellent use of sketches, while the Kapp/Yoshihara volume adds beautifully illustrative photographs of horimono (carvings) and grain patterns.

Tsuchiko's book continues directly with interviews with leading smiths of the modern era.  His position as a leading authority on the Japanese sword gives him access to some of the foremost artisans working in the field, and his interviews are extremely insightful.  Each interview finishes with a close look at one of the smith's most impressive pieces.  The swordsmiths themselves come across as artists in steel, each with a personal vision of what the true meaning of the Nihonto should be.  The smiths' struggle to achieve mastery of their craft is particularly fascinating, and it is evident that they all view swordsmithing as a continuing process of discovery and experimentation.  Mr. Tsuchiko finishes with a section entitled "Pioneers of Gendaito: Tracing a New Movement" where three giants within the Nihonto world (two Living National Treasures and a highly influential connoisseur) discuss the future of swordmaking in Japan.  This is a fitting end to the book, as it leaves the reader with a sense of the vast potential and exciting possibilities of this area of artistry.

Kapp, Kapp and Yoshihara (already well-known for their "Craft of the Japanese Sword") begin with a very illuminating history of swordmaking since the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868.  Their history covers the wane of swordmaking as a result of the Haitorei (edicts prohibiting the wearing of swords) through the pre-war revival of gendaito and the swordsmithing conducted at the Yasukuni shrine.  It is a fascinating read, supplemented with photographs from the period.  (Keen-eyed readers with an interest in iaido will notice Nakayama Hakudo, founder of Muso Shinden Ryu and himself a keen nihonto enthusiast, in some photos.)  The book then proceeds with interviews and profiles of leading modern swordmakers.  (Interestingly, many of the artisans feature in both books; this tells me that there is a fairly small pool of people who are recognized as undisputed master craftsmen.)  The photographs here are beautiful, and tend to show at least two of the artist's best blades.  The book finishes with essays on gendaito from various perspectives: a curator, a metallurgist, a martial artist, a polisher, and a swordmaker.  Finally, a lineage of swordmaking traditions in the modern era is presented.

Both of these books are well-written, meticulously researched, and beautifully illustrated.  They both present a fascinating glimpse into the human side of Japanese swords, a topic which all too often becomes bogged down in the technical description of temper-lines, grains, and signatures.  These books take a step back, and portray the swords for what they are: the products of human artistry.  If one wanted a direct comparison between the two, "Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths" by Kapp/Yoshihara has a slight edge by virtue of its inclusion of a historical background, and a few more photographs of swords.  But these books should be viewed as companion pieces, and both should be in the library of anyone interested in the current state of swordmaking in Japan.

For those interested in swordsmithing from a practical viewpoint, you may want to check out the Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts swordsmithing course to be held next month in Guelph Ontario.

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TIJ June 2003