I’m going to put out some posts with the title “WayStation”, which will be a periodic series, not in any order, in which my purpose is to describe interesting people I have met along my path so far, people who have made a powerful impression upon me, or shaped my life’s path, for one reason or another.

Watanabe the Swordsmith.

I lived in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, for about 4 years, most of that in rural contexts. For two of those years I lived in a small coastal town called Toyo-ura, which was a production center for aquaculture (scallops) and also strawberries. Just down the coast a spell from Toyo-ura was Date (dah-teh) City, which was a good place to go for hardware, tools, and sushi, among other things. The sushi in Hokkaido is the best in all Japan in my estimation.

Anyway, at one point I found myself at an ‘international’ social mixer in Date City, and there met the wife of the town’s resident swordsmith. Not that other towns had resident swordsmiths too commonly – he was the only one in all of Hokkaido, an island with a population of some 6 million. I was chatting with his wife, and given my interests in budo (martial arts) and craft, I told Watanabe-san I was very interested to meet her husband. She arranged just that.

Watanabe-Tosho was a gruff and very intense fellow. His first name is actually Korehira, but given the prestige of his work, one appends the title ‘-tosho’ (刀匠, swordsmith) to his surname. I met him at an interesting juncture in his life, as the city of Date had just decided to spend a few million dollars on a dual-use facility, housing a forge for Watanabe-Tosho, on the one side, and an indigo dying facility on the other. The idea of the facility was to promote local craft by placing it all behind glass so observers, schoolkids, tourists, etc, could come by and watch traditional craft work in progress from behind the glass. For smithing work, this was a little odd, since it required darkness to be done properly, thus one could say that the forge the town was to build was essentially a theatrical stage. Watanabe-Tosho used his normal forge for doing the serious forging work elsewhere. I might add that the best time to forge a sword or tool is during the nights around a full moon, as that light gives, apparently, the smith the best look at the important and rapidly changing colors of the metal during the forging process. Timing is everything in forging. In fact, if you go to buy a 10-set of Japanese chisels, you will pay a premium of $150~200 for chisels forged around a full moon, as they are thought to be just that slight bit better.

Besides the new forge facility that the town was providing, the Watanabe family was also moving into a new house – this was also being provided, but I never was quite sure how that came about.

I told Watanabe-Tosho that I thought traditional smithing was very intriguing. He had no apprentice, and I had a job which only engaged me for about 10 hours a week, on salary for 40 hours, so I said I could help him out on a volunteer basis if he was interested. He was, so I did.

Watanabe-tosho wanted me to be his apprentice, and treated me like his apprentice – by this I mean he wasn’t especially nice. There are those out there, dear reader, who might be inclined to characterize me as a tad dogmatic, or elitist, or even severe, however I have nothing on Watanabe-Tosho. He was like a throwback to some pre-Edo Period character. His life was utterly devoted to swordsmithing, and that was that. He wouldn’t deign to make a kitchen knife for his wife – only swords were to be made.

After the second world war, the occupying Americans forbade the practice of martial arts and the making of swords. After about 5 years, these regulations were rescinded, however the government decided that swordsmithing needed to be quantified and limited in scope, so they had an elderly swordsmith produce a couple of blades. That took that smith about a month, so the law was set that a swordsmith can only produce one long sword and one short sword per month, despite the fact that a younger and more vigorous smith could certainly produce much more than that. But the law is the law, especially in Japan, and that rule has remained in place ever since. As a result, it is a bit difficult to make a living as a swordsmith, and in fact many of them are partially state-supported, kind of like, I suppose, the US Defense Industry.

The city of Date spared no expense with Watanabe-Tosho’s new forge. All the equipment was high-quality Japanese made, like this spring hammer:

He has a motorized grinding wheel approximately a meter in diameter which had an electric brake on it:

Here a friend of the swordsmith helps unload some equipment:

When I started volunteering my time with Watanabe-Tosho, my work was to help set up the forge, which meant setting equipment and doing some clay and concrete work at the individual forging stations:

Some fine ‘early’ woodwork of mine there folks.

When the concrete was set, the forms were removed and the clay was applied to the concrete:

Notice the shape of the flanks of the forging pit, the Japanese swordmakers call this o-shiri:

Now o-shiri means ‘honorable buttocks’ and in fact the shape is meant to be in the form of a woman’s buttocks. I leave it to readers to fill in the rest of the associated imagery that goes with forging within such a form…

The forges were force fed air in two ways – one was by motorized fan, and the other was using the traditional wooden bellows, which is called the fuigo:

In the above picture, the top lid is off the fuigo, so the slightly inward-cambered design on the box can be seen. The movable baffle is lined with some sort of animal pelt, I can’t quite remember what it was, though it may have been from a fox.

Japanese sword forging is a complex process, with many ‘secrets’. Compared to blacksmiths, Japanese swordsmiths are a very secretive bunch. I therefore won’t be revealing much about the actual forging of a sword, but I can say that one of the most important secrets in swordsmithing revolves around the ingredients in the flux that is used to join hard and soft steels together.

Japanese swords are composed of an inner core of very hard steel, which forms the cutting edge, termed ‘ha-ga-ne‘. This core is wrapped on three sides by a U-shaped jacket of iron, which is a softer material than steel, and is called the ‘ji-ga-ne‘. The metal for the cutting steel is very special, produced just once a year from a special iron sand obtained from a river near Kyoto (if I remember correctly) – this steel is called ‘tama-ha-ga-ne‘ (lit. “jewel-edge-metal”). It’s called jewel-metal, I think, because some of the trace metals in it glint like colored jewels in the light.

Once the tama-hagane is forged, the sponge of raw material is broken up and distributed to the various swordsmiths across the country (hardly what you might call a numerous bunch) – Watanabe had a large lump of the stuff sitting on a shelf – its an extremely beautiful material to see and I wish I had some good photos of it. The steel for the backing of the brittle cutting edge is obtained from wrought iron, which is no longer produced any more. So, swordsmiths, like many blacksmiths in Japan, obtain wrought iron from salvaged old ship anchors and anchor chain. Watanabe-Tosho had one such anchor out the back of his shop, which he went and cut a piece of material off of when needed. I don’t have a picture of that anchor, but they look pretty much like this:

I also helped the Watanabe’s move house. During one such trip I noticed that a dresser they owned was in need of repair and I offered to fix it for them. They let me do just that, so I took it with me back to Toyoura and worked on it in the town’s Junior High School woodshop, which I had the run of since the previous shop teacher had cut off a finger and retired. I returned the dresser a week later, and they were apparently delighted with the repairs I had done. Then I noticed another wooden item, a piece of transom (called ran-ma) which needed some work. I offered to fix that too. Watanabe-Tosho said, “sure”, but a slightly troubled look passed across his countenance. That wasn’t unusual for him, in my experience of interacting with him, so I thought nothing of it.

A day or two later I came back to pick up the ranma, and Watanabe-Tosho, was annoyed. He said I COULDN’T do both swordsmithing and woodworking. I had to choose one path. That is a quintessential Japanese attitude: you can have only one master and only one devotion in life, they believe that doing more weakens and means you will never attain true skill. I used to believe this strongly myself at the time, so I told him I would think about it, and in the meantime keep helping him at the forge, and would leave the ranma repair for the time being.

A few more tasks completed the forge set up – here the swordsmith is troweling a concrete pad upon which a small anvil will be set:

From that point on, my quasi-apprenticeship began. My task, on the days of the week when I came to help out, was to sit in front of a stump and chop chunks of birch and pine charcoal into specific shapes with a little hatchet. The shapes and sizes of the charcoal chunks to be made depended upon a myriad of factors – among them, ambient humidity at the time of forging. The physical skill of chopping the charcoal takes approximately 5 minutes to master – from then on out it is a task of pure repetition. I did nothing but chop charcoal for the next 5 months or so. Watanabe-Tosho told me one day that during his apprenticeship he chopped charcoal for 3 full years. The thought of that was hardly heart-warming to me, but at least once in a while I could help him out at the forge – even with the spring hammer, there were occasions when he wanted me to use a large sledge and help him forge. He never explained anything- that is the way of the master-apprentice relationship. You are set a mundane task most of the time, mistakes are punished severely, and after years of that your inner determination to learn the techniques and progress is supposed to lead you to scrutinize your master’s technique so intently that ultimately the secrets reveal themselves. It’s called chishiki wo nusumu, “stealing the knowledge”. If I made some mistake, Watanabe-Tosho would fly into a rage, and even throw stuff, including chunks of metal, at me. You learn to dodge and smile, and apologize.

When I first got involved, I thought that making swords in today’s day and age was a somewhat bizarre anachronism. After all, it’s been a long time since such a weapon was used on the battlefield in Japan, so what was the practical value? I thought of swordmaking as some sort of quaint olde craft, of little relevance to the modern world. How wrong I was about that! The glimpse of the sword smithing world that my time with Watanabe-Tosho provided me, was very much like looking over the edge and down into a near-bottomless well. It is such a deep art! It is the ultimate and most evolved expression of the elemental relationship man has with earth. And Watanabe-Tosho was not only the product of a 6 year apprenticeship, he had also done 4 years in a technical institute studying metallurgy. He had a complete devotion to his art, a well rounded background in his material, both in terms of physically-learned skills and knowledge gained via book learning. I realized that even if there was no application for the sword in an age of laser-guided missiles, the knowledge and techniques of the sword-making art must be preserved. It is such a treasure!

Ah, but then there’s the small matter of the preserving, which involves the transmission of knowledge from master to apprentice. Japanese young people, by and large, aren’t interested in the abuse they will suffer in these sorts of apprenticeship learning arrangements; specifically, they have little interest in the “Three D’s”: anything Dirty, Demeaning, or Dangerous, is of no interest – yuck. Thus many traditional craft specialties have no apprentices, just some elderly master, last in a long line. Watanabe-Tosho had no apprentice, and one day told me that he thought in all of Hokkaido perhaps “one or two” individuals with the ‘right stuff’ might be found. I don’t know if he ever found such a person. The charcoal upon which Watanabe-Tosho depended, was also made by an old fellow with no apprentice. What young person aspires to become a charcoal maker in the cell phone age? And on it goes, every traditional Japanese craft in much the same boat.

While I have tremendous respect for the art of the smith, in the end, after much thought and consideration, I chose wood as my path. I told Watanabe-Tosho, and on that day our nascent association ended. He wanted an apprentice as devoted to the art as he was, and I well understand that. That’s the sort of apprentice i would be looking for as well. Swordsmithing takes years and years of devotion to master; besides the physical demands of swinging sledges, there’s the wear and tear of a lot of time hunched over a forge, breathing soot, gradually losing one’s hearing from the clang of the hammers. It’s not an easy path, and certainly not a route to riches.

A month or two later I visited the Watanabe’s to give them a small token of my appreciation for all they had done. Watanabe-Tosho collected swords, and I had a fancy new laminated hardwood training sword, so I gave it to him. He accepted it in his usual gruff manner, his wife by his side:

And that was the last day I ever saw him, as I left Hokkaido a few weeks later and returned to Canada. After my year with the master, I had learned so much. I’ll always remember him for his dedication to craft, and for showing me the depth and wonder of an art.

Thank you Watanabe-Tosho.

12 Replies to “WayStation”

  1. Hi Chris,
    I have to agree with you… the Hokkaido sushi is the best, especially the nama uni.
    Great story and sadly it's true that so many of the great craftsmen of Japan are disappearing.
    I worked in a sushiya as a kid under a very similar type of fellow. He told me it was over a year before he was allowed to even cook the rice.
    My wife's grandfather was a master temple builder in Fukushima, sadly he passed away without a successor. He did set up a small school there that is still open and I plan on visiting when I can.
    Japan does set aside a small annual stipend to help (slightly) those deemed “Living National Treasures.” Unfortunately it isn't enough to attract more individuals to the difficult life of apprenticeship.
    Thank you for sharing that story.


  2. You should have stayed sword smithing, opportunities like that dont come everyday, especially where foreigners are concerned. This is looked upon as a strictly Japanese Craft, they normally dont take on foreigners. The only other one I know of is Murray Carter, he makes regular trips back to Japan. He can be seen on You Tube. Japanese smiths dont just give that knowledge away to anybody. So to have that opportunity should have been looked upon as a real honor. You should have stayed swordsmithing.

  3. Anonymous,

    I don't have any regrets about that. It was an honor to learn with Watanabe, and I got a lot out of it.

    I don't usually post comments from people unwilling to leave their name, as you did, so maybe I have that as one small regret at this point, otherwise its full steam ahead. I think I'm doing okay in my chosen path.


  4. Just to be able to be there for a year!! Simply amazing opportunity. It would have been awesome!!! Anonymous has no clue!!Wish I could do that!! I am just getting into the japan way,and can't wait to learn what I can!! i'm getting a late start{i'm 46}at least I seen their lite and i'm ready to follow!!Hope to talk to you soon!!I want to learn japan and Chinese joinery with woodworking now!!joints without glue,yes.Time for career change for me too!!! LATOR J.T.

  5. John,

    thanks for the support. It's easy to second guess sometimes, however I never do that in regards to my time with Watanabe. Woodworking is the path for me. A late start, by the way, is better than no start at all. Good luck!


  6. nice to reread this again a couple of years…or is it four! later…maybe tanuki fur originally but also racoon now that there's so many little rascals to be had…i'm saving a piece for when i get around to attempting a fuigo…unless you are in the area and need a quick project…in trade for some shaped steel perhaps?

    chopping charcoal is good opportunity for character refinement ^_^ carry on the journey of wood.

  7. Chirs,
    I am reading and re-reading your posts since the first one, as i missed your blog for such long time…besides there´s a lot of comments i wish have donne by the time they´re “new and fresh” , i don´t want to keep repeating other´s comments and compliments. But as far as now about Japanese mastercraftsmen, and their relationship with appentices, you sure took the right decision. In respect of his dedication to his art, you would not be a gentleman staying with him just to “grab the oportunity” , since your craft-love was in another path…
    Decline the invitation was the most honorable decision you could take at the moment.

    John T. Zulick , hope you could read this one day…you´r not the only one starting over at 46+….i know it isn´t any easy, but when you know by heart what you should do, just go trought it, no matter what. I´m fighting for my path. Hope you´re beeing succeeding at yours.

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