For many foreigners, Japan conjures up visions of women dressed in beautiful kimonos and samurai warriors wielding swords in combat.
Although kimonos are still a big part of the Japanese culture, samurai can only be seen on television or in theaters. As for the swords samurai once wielded, there is a small group of individuals who are trying to preserve the weapons, including an Air Force officer on Yokota Air Base.
Capt. Tom Raper, 30, a cyberspace operations planner for U.S. Forces Japan, is fascinated by Japanese swords, or katana. But, he is not a collector. He is learning the craft of sharpening these weapons of yesteryear under the tutorage of Japanese katana master Masuki Ishii.
“Learning the skills and history of katana from a master is very rewarding,” Raper said recently while working on a sword at Ishii’s home.
Needless to say, honing katana is demanding and time-consuming work.
“It takes even a skilled sharpener a couple of weeks to a month, 8 hours a day to hone and reshape a sword into good condition,” said the 62-year-old Ishii.
“It also requires a great deal of patience,” added Raper. “One hour a day for a month is the minimum to remove rust or corrosion from an old katana, and that is the first of several steps.”
The work consists of 8 to 10 processes depending on the condition of the sword. After removing rust or corrosion with a rough stone during the first step, they keep working on the sword by changing to stones with finer surfaces. There are seven types of stones - binsuido, kaiseido, nagura, komanagura, uchigumori, diduya and haduya - each costing between 30,000 to 50,000 yen ($250-420), according to Ishii.
Although honing a sword is physically demanding, the two are quick point out that concentration is paramount.
“Working on a razor sharp katana with wet bare hands has obvious consequences if the sword is mishandled,” Raper said.
So, what drove a U.S. Air Force officer to delve into the art of Japanese sword sharpening?
“Simply the opportunity to learn from Ishii-san,” Raper said.
Originally, a November 2013 issue of Stripes Kanto (now Stripes Japan) featuring a story about Ishii and honing katana caught Raper’s attention. He visited Ishii’s home and workshop several times to see Ishii’s collection, and actually bought a sword from Ishii.
After several visits by and conversations with Raper, Ishii asked the Air Force officer if he’d like to learn the art of honing katana.
“Yes,” Raper recalled saying immediately after the master’s invitation.
Ishii let Raper choose a short sword out of his collection, and the two started lessons this March. Raper visits Ishii at least once a month and works on his sword for about an hour after work each day.
Despite the monotonous look of the work, Raper says he has never felt it boring, as the color and condition of a sword gradually changes as the sharpening process proceeds.
“Sword sharpening is both an art and science,” Raper said. “You have to use your senses and touch to feel the katana and stone interact. Angles and abrasion are keys.”
Raper also says that honing the old katana makes him feel as if he was in contact with those who created, used, sharpened and polished it generations ago.
It is evident when they are together, that the two swordsmen have a keen respect for one another.
“We are separated by generations and national cultures, but we share the same mind and spirit of bushido (code of the samarai),” said Raper, who describes Ishii as “respectable, honorable, experienced and funny.”
Raper’s enthusiasm for learning the art is what really impressed Ishii.
“I feel he is in search of something through sharpening swords,” Ishii said. “Being engaged in a highly-developed computerized communication system in the U.S. Air Force, he might have felt the limitations of technology, as he often says a single problem might cause a malfunction of the whole system.
“So, he seems to find something in the art of sword honing that can surpass the limit of advanced technology,” Ishii continued. “He’s set on seeking the truth, just like samurai in the old days.”
Ishii’s ancestor, Kiuemon Ishii was a lieutenant under Gen. Mitsuhide Akechi in the late 16th century. After being defeated in the Battle of Yamasaki in 1582, Akechi was killed and Kiuemon Ishii and his soldiers escaped from their hometown of Mino (currently, Gifu prefecture) and settled in Sagamihara.
Masuki Ishii lives in his ancestor’s home and most of the katana and other samurai weapons in his collection were used by Kiuemon Ishii, his offspring and his soldiers.
“We are not sharpening artwork of famous sword makers that were created for generals or other high-ranking warriors or aristocrats that are often displayed in museums,” Ishii said. “We are sharpening lieutenant and soldiers’ practical weapons that have actually been used in battle to kill the enemy.”
In fact, unless a samurai was high ranking, he usually had to re-sharpen his own swords for each battle, just like Ishii and Raper are doing.
The two discussed the concept and meaning of lieutenant or soldier swords and their differences from so-called general’s swords when they first met, according to Raper.
Regardless of a katana being used in battle or not, the re-sharpening work is a must in order for it to maintain its condition. A katana can be kept in good shape for 15 to 16 years as long as it’s oiled three times a month, Ishii said, explaining that after that time, the sword will begin to rust.
Ishii has already sharpened about 200 swords of his family collection, but another 100 need to be done.
“I am getting older and I don’t know how many more katana I will be able to work on,” Ishii said. “I have a son, but I am not sure if he will succeed me in doing this work.”
Although Ishii wishes to pass these lieutenant and soldier swords to the next generation, they are often called “zatto” (miscellaneous swords) and considered to have less artistic value than others. Even if Ishii took almost a month to sharpen one, it would sell 200,000 yen ($1,700) or less, according to Ishii.
“I am concerned that many of these swords would be lost and not get sharpened if I find no successor,” Ishii said.
It should take at least four years to master the art, according to Ishii. Unfortunately, Raper is about to leave Japan in October.
“I asked Tom-san if he got promoted to general, would it still be all right to learn this art of sharpening swords from such a lower ranking samurai as me, an offspring of a lieutenant for a feudal lord,” Ishii said with a smile.
Raper, however, says he intends to keep honing katana of frontline warriors for the rest of life, even if he continues to move up in rank.
“I will practice until I return to Japan and Ishii-san will tell me if I have mastered the art,” Raper said.
Deadly heirlooms show art of war
By Tetsuo Nakahara
Editor's note: this story was first published in November 2013
Masuki Ishii, 61, carefully draws the dulled blade of a curved katana sword, wielded four centuries ago in battle, across a wet stone with focused precision. It is part of an armory that, like his Sagamihara City home, has been passed down in his family for generations. As he hones the steel, a glint of its former luster emerges and with it a glimmer of his forefathers’ samurai spirit.
“These katana were actually used in battles; you can even see bloodstains on them from 400 years ago.” says Ishii. “These are normal katana, not those made by famous swordsmiths for special needs (or persons); these were used by normal samurai on the battlefield to cut people.”
Ishii says most of the katana, or Japanese longswords, and other samurai weapons in his collection were used by his ancestor Kiuemon Ishii and his soldiers from about 1580 through the early 1600s. Kiuemon was a lieutenant for Toshimitsu Saito, a commander under Gen. Mitsuhide Akechi (1528-1582). Akechi served the feudal lord Nobunaga Oda (1534-1582) during the tumultuous Sengoku, or warring-states, Period when civil wars raged from the mid-15th to early 17th centuries.
It was customary in such times, Ishii says, to prepare about ten extra katana for each samurai because the swords became too worn for use after fighting a couple of opponents. Unless a samurai was high ranking, he usually had to re-sharpen and hone his own swords for each battle.
In all, Ishi has about 150 of these swords as well as 60 muskets, 30 spears and other items from this era such as armor and folding screens. He keeps them on his 200-year-old samurai estate. He often re-sharpens and hones the katana to maintain their condition.
“It takes about two weeks, 8 hours a day, to hone and reshape a sword into good condition. It is serious work,” says Ishii as he meticulously draws a blade across a wet stone. He works in silence with intensity, as if each stroke also sharpens his mind to commune with the samurai spirit. “I think about my ancestors, the history of these katana, how many people were killed with them and what it must have been like to be in battle. … My ancestors fought so many battles and survived with these things.”
Gen. Akechi eventually betrayed and killed Lord Oda at Honnoji in 1582; he was then defeated by Oda’s other general, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, at the battle of Yamasaki that same year on the boarder of Kyoto and Osaka. Akechi’s samurais dispersed throughout the country to avoid retaliation. It was not easy to escape; farmers would lay in wait in order to kill them, then steal and sell their weapons and armor. Those who survived escaped with their weapons and armor to Yoshioka and Ayase as well as Kanagawa where Ishii’s family settled.
“I feel scared sometimes when I think about samurai battles,” says Ishii. “But the fear makes me respect these samurai and I feel a face-to-face connection with them through these katana as I hone them. I think these katana have more meaning than the nice and shiny brand new katana (sold in stores). I want people to know the meaning and history behind these katana, not just how good they are designed.”
Because of this, Ishii and his son Takeshi Ishii say they are open to selling some of these family treasures to interested buyers. Katana prices start at about $2,000 and vary depending on the condition of the sword. They can also teach buyers how to hone and maintain the sword.
“I want people to feel the samurai spirit from these items,” says the younger Ishii. “It is nice to use them to decorate a home, but I want them to see the history behind these items. All these items are survivors of the samurai spirit.”
For this reason, his father, who also has a keen interest in American military aircraft and pilots, says he is particularly interested in finding U.S. military buyers.
“I think the samurai and military pilots have something in common,” says Ishii. “It seems to me that those pilots put their life on the line to execute their missions. I think that is the same kind of spirit that the samurai had in battle.”
For more information about purchasing one of the Ishiis’ samurai swords, call Takeshi Ishii at 042-746-2356 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Curator talks katana shop
By Tetsuo Nakahara
The Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo is home to about 190 swords, sword hilts, armor and other related objects dating as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185), including three swords listed as national treasures. If you are interested in Japanese swords, this is the place to go.
Established in 1968 by Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords), exhibits are detailed in both English and Japanese. English pamphlets and books are also available at the shop.
Hiroko Tanaka, a curator at the museum, shared some of her knowledge on the subject with Stripes Okinawa.
Q: What is so unique about Japanese swords?
A: The big difference between Japanese swords and those from other countries is that these are not found by excavation. They are preserved in excellent condition and passed down over generations. It is part of Japanese culture to treasure old artifacts with care. As you can see, these swords are a thousand years old and still in good condition.
Also, Japanese swords are famous for not breaking or bending and cutting sharply. Historically, European swords were heavier compared to Japanese swords because they used heavier armor (in medieval Europe). European swords were more for hacking armor, but Japanese swords were made to cut people and hence needed to be sharp. The average weight of a Japanese sword is about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) so they could be used handily in the battle. Japanese also found beauty in the craftsmanship of swords. People were already appreciating swords for this reason in Kamakura Period (1192-1333). So while the sword is a weapon, it has also been considered a work of art for a very long time.
Q: Do you have any tips for people interested in buying such swords?
A: There is very wide range of swords to buy – from souvenir swords to highly appraised swords, and the prices vary, too. The shapes of swords differ according to each period they were made in because there were trends and needs of the time. Sadly, there are so many fake Japanese swords out there. Even fake swords can be certified and registered as works of art. Some imitations are very good and hard to detect if you don’t know about swords. Some imitations (in material, quality or design) were made in the same period as their genuine counterparts. They look just the same. We have certified appraisers if you want to know if a sword is genuine.
Q: Anything people should know before they purchase a sword?
A: After World War II, swords were considered (strictly) as weapons and confiscated from Japanese homes by (the U.S. led Allied Forces). Some were discarded in the ocean, others were stockpiled. Eventually, the Japanese convinced them that those swords had an artistic value and were passed on in families from one generation to the next. As a result, swords are only permitted as certified works of art by law today, not as weapons. Police recommend that swords not be carried even with the proper registration, except when appropriate, such as when returning home after purchasing one.
For more information on the Japanese Sword Museum, visit: www.touken.or.jp/english/index.html
By Tetsuo Nakahara
Similar to the craftsmanship Japanese swordsmiths have put into making swords, samurai and modern martial artists alike, have honed the ways in which a sword or similar device can be wielded. Owing to the long history of the sword in Japanese culture, there are different types of swordplay that have developed in Japan that are practiced today.
•Kendo, a sport wherein opponents use a bamboo sword, is probably the most popular type of swordplay in Japan. It is derived from swordsmanship, but does not simulate real sword combat. Most Japanese high schools and junior high schools have kendo clubs. It could be considered Japanese fencing. For details on kendo, visit International All Japan Kendo Federation at: www.kendo-fik.org/english-page/english-top-page.html
•Iaido is the art of drawing and deploying a Japanese sword. This martial art has developed more into a form of meditation and study of techniques for their own sake rather than actual combat training. A typical kata, or form, consists of drawing the blade, practice cutting, casting (imagined) blood from the blade and returning it to the scabbard, all without looking away from the imaginary opponent. Most practice is solo with real (but unsharpened) blade. There is also the related Battojutsu which includes cutting objects with a sharpened sword. For details on iaido, visit Japan Iaido Federation at: http: www.nichiiren.or.jp/english/iaido.html
•Battodo is a form of Battojutsu. This martial art practices cutting objects with Japanese swords. While traditional Iaido uses many sword drawing techniques performed from kneeling and standing position, Battodo is performed standing only and also involves practice cutting objects with a sharpened sword. The focus is primarily on actual cutting, according to the All Japan Battodo Federation (zenbaturen.world.coocan.jp).
•Jodo is the art of sword drawing using a wooden sword. The “jo” is a short wooden staff measuring 3 to 5 feet long. The art was created by Muso Gonnosuke some 400 years ago. It is said that Gonnosuke used it in defeating the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, according Tokyo Jodo Federation (www.tojoren.jp/01jo/josyoukai.php).
Where to learn swordsmanship
Tokyo Kyumeikan Kendo Dojo(Iaido, Kendo):
(English instruction available)
Shinagawa Sobukan (Iaido):
Nihon Butokuin (Iaido):
International Battodo Federation (Battodo):
Sagamihara Iai Battodo Yamaguchi Dojo (Battodo):
Katsushika Jodokai (Jodo):