Master at the cutting edge of art: The heritage of Japan's greatest swordsmith, Masamune

Japan is often seen as a blend of the advanced and the archaic. But this combination is nothing new, as a visit to an exhibition of swords now on at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo's Omotesando district makes clear.

Focusing on Japan's greatest swordsmith, Masamune, who brought the art of sword-making to the peak of perfection in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the pristine and gleaming weapons on show here seem almost alive with a lightness and energy that is difficult to explain. Compared to their ponderous, dented and dulled European counterparts, they embody workmanship so precise that it is hard to believe they are relics of a pre-industrial society.

Of Masamune himself, little is known. Apart from around 50 surviving swords attributed to him - 16 of which are displayed here - all that remains is his mystique and legend. Even Taeko Watanabe, director of Mishima City's Sano Art Museum and the exhibition's curator, can cast little light on the master's techniques. Generally, however, it is known that even before Masamune's time, sword-making in Japan was highly advanced, as seen in an excellent sword by one of his predecessors, Sukezane.

Manufacture involved the repeated heating, hammering and folding of iron to build up resilience, and the forging together of lengths of iron of different carbon content - high for the sharp cutting edge, low for the strength and flexibility of the wick. Temperature-control was also crucial, and was judged by the color glowing from the heated iron. Hence forges were always kept darkened.

Ironically, one reason sword-making was so advanced was because Japanese military techniques were so primitive. "For Japanese, war was like a game," Watanabe explains. The practice was for leading warriors to challenge each other to sword duels. The job of the swordsmith, therefore, was to supply the best toys for the biggest boys.

The Mongols, who constantly threatened Japan and twice landed in Kyushu during Masamune's time, were professionals by comparison. They fought en masse as an organized whole, with coordinated arrays of weapons and deploying tactics to confuse and demoralize their enemies.

On the side of the defenders, things were quite different. In rather the same way that present-day Japanese business culture makes it difficult for the government to attempt sweeping reforms, Japan's 13th-century battle tactics were rooted in a feudal system resistant to change. Instead of developing new weapons, the samurai preferred to stick with what they knew.

"The ideal was a sword with which one samurai could kill 10,000 Mongols," is how Watanabe describes the unrealistic mood of the defenders. With this almost mystical belief in the perfect blade, sword-making became a national priority for which nothing but the best raw materials would do - especially for top makers like Masamune.

The swords produced were not only impressive weapons but also objects of great beauty. In this respect, another important technique employed was differential cooling, achieved by coating a heated blade with varying thicknesses of clay, then quenching it in cold water. It was this process that gave the blades their characteristic curve, and also created beautiful abstract hamon (temper patterns) along the blades. "Especially with Masamune's swords, these hamon patterns seem to move," Watanabe observes, "just like clouds in the summer sky or water flowing."

For the samurai, an appreciation of beauty in objects, demeanor and movement was an essential component of the fighting spirit. In their grace and strength, Masamune's masterpieces perfectly reflect this samurai ideal, but whether that would have halted the Mongols without the aid of the kamikaze (divine wind) that, in the form of typhoons, twice destroyed their invasion fleets, is another matter altogether.

The exhibition also looks at Masamune's legacy, with a selection of works by his successors. However, the passing of the Mongol threat, new weapons and tactics ushered in by Japan's period of civil wars, and then the long peace that followed took away much of the impetus to maintain high standards in swordmaking. In the Edo Period, swords tended to stay in their sheaths and consequently the emphasis switched to the showiness of the accouterments rather than the deeper beauty of a perfectly tempered blade.

Japan Times
29th May, 2002
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