More and more people are being drawn to the wonder of Japanese swords, with a sizeable number actually wanting to hold one in their hands. What is it about Japanese swords that ensnares the hearts of people today? I love samurai TV dramas myself and took a look into the mystery.
At a dojo (training centre) I visited, several men and women in hakama (skirt-like pants) were swinging mock Japanese swords through the air in complete silence. Only the sound of the blades parting the air could be heard.
It was a training session for battojutsu – the martial art of quickly and skilfully drawing a sword – held at HiSUi Tokyo in Tokyo’s Ginza district. HiSUi Tokyo is a school where visitors can learn traditional Japanese culture, including the sado tea ceremony and shodo calligraphy.
Training begins with learning the form for cutting the air with fake swords with aluminium alloy blades. The trainees repeat the same moves many times before they try real swords.
They slash a roll of tatami-omote – the fibre surface of tatami mats – about 10cm in diameter, cutting it in two with one slice of the sword.
These sessions were launched four years ago and have a growing number of participants. Currently, 40 men and women ranging from young to elderly come to receive the training.
In Japan, you can own swords as art works if you register them. Ryohei Yamazaki, a 23-year-old company employee who has been participating in the training since January, was fascinated by Japanese swords and purchased one.
Japanese swords are “cool”, he says. “I can’t help but closely look at mine at home. I feel like I’ve become a samurai, which has a naturally dignified feeling.”
When trying out a real Japanese sword, each participant stands in front of a tatami-omote roll in the centre of the training room. They stand in different poses and silently move the swords in various directions, such as upper right, upper left, and horizontally. The tatami rolls are quickly decimated.
“If the willingness to cut is too strong, you can’t do it well,” says Suiju Kaito, 70, the great grandmaster of the Hisuiryu school of the martial art. “It’s important to use a sword by trusting its edge. Swords reflect your state of mind.”
All the participants seem especially polite, and always stand with good posture. Kaito explains the attractiveness of the martial art, saying, “With real Japanese swords, your behaviour and actions naturally become beautiful.”
The Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, holds a monthly lecture on how to appreciate Japanese swords.
“When you hold a sword, don’t speak,” society member Susumu Miyajima, 49, tells 10 participants at a recent lecture. “Spit can cause the blade to rust.” Always bow once to the sword before touching it, and never touch the blade with your bare hands.
Miyajima says the blades of Japanese swords bear wave-like patterns called hamon, and the patterns express the “dignity of the swords”. I look closely at the swords. It is difficult to see the difference in the patterns, but I am fascinated by the blade edges shining in the light, and the beauty of their hamon.
In recent years, more and more women are becoming sword fans, partly because of the popularity of the Touken Ranbu Online game. The online game personifies famous Japanese swords as warriors.
When the lectures on sword etiquette began five years ago, many participants were men, and there were times when there were only three or four people. Now, however, the participants are fairly evenly divided between men and women, and the lectures are fully booked. Some participants come from as far as Hokkaido and Kyushu.
Participant Yukiko Gonda, 46, says she became interested in Japanese swords through the online game.
“Actually holding a Japanese sword in my hands is scary, but at the same time, it helps me better understand how beautiful they are,” she says.
“Thinking about the long history of the swords, I think my enthusiasm will only grow.”
Sword exhibitions have also become highly popular in many parts of the country. In Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, the municipal Ashikaga Museum of Art recently exhibited a Japanese sword called “Yamanbagiri Kunihiro”, which is an important national cultural asset, and about 37,800 people visited in a month. This surpassed the annual number of visitors to the museum, which was about 25,000 in all of 2015.
When I had a close look at Japanese swords and touched them, I felt my mind calmed and my senses sharpened for some reason. Perhaps because the Japanese swords are beautiful and have passed through many folds in history.
I’m now fascinated by Japanese swords, as I think about their various features. If you are ever in Japan, I recommend you experience this wonderful splendour for yourself. – The Japan News/Asia News Network/Akihiro Takeda