Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Samurai Sword

(This post comes to us from Benjamin--thank you Benjy)

Swords have had special significance in Japanese culture dating as far back as the Kojiki. Chapter 19 of the Kojiki tells of a sword which Susa‐nö‐wo (brother of Ama‐terasu) finds in the middle tail of an eight headed and eight tailed dragon, after breaking his own sword while slaying the beast. The recovered sword, known as Kusa‐nagi, was given to Ama‐terasu by Susa‐nö‐wo, who later gave the sword (along with a sacred mirror and jewel) to her Grandson Ninigi, who handed them down to his great-grandson Jimmu Tenno (Ashkenazi 262). These three items, the Imperial Regalia of Japan, are the marks of divinity of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, and ground the divinity of Japan’s royal family and the Japanese culture as a whole.

The Samurai sword (katana) in particular, has taken on both historical and spiritual significance in Japanese traditions. The art of making Samurai swords is complex, and despite lack of scientific knowledge, is often considered to have attained perfection around 1,200 CE at the hands of the Bizen smiths (Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin 4/21). Though the craftsman would hardly be able to explain everything that was required, they had developed their art to a precise science. A brief documentary on the traditional making of the Samurai swords explains how only the purest iron-ore is used to make the steel known as tamahagane, and how scrutinizing the craftsman must be in choosing the pieces to use. Once the steel is prepared and the purest pieces chosen, it is formed into a block and the craftsmen begin to hammer it, and fold it over itself countless times, such that there results in more than 5,000 layers per centimetre of steel. Once the shaping is complete and another layer of harder steel is coated around the non-cutting edge of the sword, it is covered with a secret mixture of clay and charcoal, heated to 800 degrees, and rapidly cooled to harden. It is said that a single sword can take three men three months to produce.

It is in the precise moment of cooling and hardening that the sword is believed to attain to its spirit; “at the critical moment of hardening, when the smith plunged the glowing blade into the water, a part of his spirit was believed to enter the steel” (MFAB). It is believed that the state of mind of the craftsman at that moment is imbued in the sword, and therefore, various ceremonies and rituals surround the process in order to guarantee the sword’s spiritual strength and virtue.

Various other elements of the process, including the clay covering applied before the firing (which gives certain parts of the blade a non-mirrored finish) and certain decorations and inscriptions along the blade are also designed to give each sword its unique character. The finished product is one which symbolizes the spirit of both the craftsman, and the samurai who uses it; it is said that the sword is the soul of the samurai (MFAB).

Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin Vol. 4 No. 21:

~guest blogger, Benjamin Sherer