Jon Bowhay

This article was originally published in The East magazine.
It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

As most people interested in Japanese history know, the Nihont˘ (Japanese sword) was wielded by the Mononofu, Tsuwamono, or as they have come to be known, the Samurai. The Nihont˘ is definitely a weapon, in fact the finest cutting weapon ever developed by man. But it is much more than a weapon because its physical construction elevates it to an art form.

The Nihont˘ is without exception the highest art form in steel in the world. That may sound biased, but I am convinced that is true after studying it for 10 years, during six of which I have worked as a T˘gishi (polisher and restorer of Japanese swords) [Jon was into his sixth year as an apprentice when he wrote this article; he has since completed the full ten year apprenticeship]. The Nihont˘, almost from the very beginning of its history, was certainly designed as both a weapon and an art form. If this were not the case, and if it had been designed as a weapon [alone], swords of inferior quality and shape would have been adequate. Looking at the examples that we have today, one comes to realize that the makers intended to produce something of great beauty, something that would appeal to the aesthetic sense of man.

The Nihont˘ has a very dynamic construction - soft Jihada (skin) steel and hard edge. The Jihada has a definite grain in it. The Jihada's grain is produced by the process of folding and drawing out the metal, which actually makes the finished product a laminated blade. It has a variety of different patterns. Sometimes there is a definite wood grain or burl grain.

The Ha (edge) of the blade is tempered into a highly visible pattern that is called Hamon. The Hamon is produced by covering the blade with clay and then removing the clay from along the edge until it is the correct thickness to produce the Hamon desired. The sword is then heated and quenched. Because ... the edge [has a thinner layer of clay, it] cools more quickly than the rest of the blade. As it cools it crystallizes, producing martensite and pearlite, the substances that make the Hamon.

The Hamon is part of the overall beauty of the sword. Its styles are unlimited. And actually, it has very little to do with the cutting ability of the blade.

The more than thousand year old Nihont˘ preserved in the Sh˘s˘in Imperial Repository of T˘daiji temple in Nara exhibit Suguha, straight temper patterns, of an extreme brilliance, and a Jihada of a fine, deep, serene nature. Technically, Suguha is more difficult to produce than a wavy pattern.

The T˘gishi's job is to restore a blade to its original shape and bring out the highlights of the Ha and Jihada. Accordingly, he must have a good knowledge of Japanese art, literature and history so that he can accurately judge the school, period, and general style of the blade, and thereby do the best possible job of polishing.

A T˘gishi must sit in a position that is actually quite painful until he becomes accustomed to it, usually one year after he has begun his apprenticeship.

His tools are quite simple in appearance, though difficult to master. Some of his most important tools are his polishing stones, which are quite expensive, quality stones being difficult to obtain at any price. He must possess each type of stone in varying degrees of hardness and softness, and coarseness and fineness because each stone and each sword is different, and he must match stone to sword. If the proper match is not made, the stone will be ineffective regardless of the ability of the T˘gishi. Therefore, T˘gishi are constantly searching for stones and their stock grows until it finally crowds them out of their house.

The T˘gishi must polish a blade in such a way that its art is revealed harmoniously and in accord with its school and period. Some blades require that the Jihada be brought out a great deal, others call for suppressing the Jihada to some degree. The Ha must be given similar attention. And the two must look right together.

Each blade requires a different style of polishing. But in general polishing can be categorized into Shitaji, or lower polish, and Shiage, or final polish.

Shitaji usually takes a minimum of 10 to 12 hours per day for four to six days, and requires many stones of varying degrees of coarseness. The stones correspond to the different steps in Shitaji. In order they are:
(1) Bisui (from Bizen) - This stone is used to take off heavy rust and return the blade to its original shape. It is very coarse and if poorly used can destroy a sword almost immediately.
(2) Kaisei - It refines the shape and takes off the marks of the Bisui. It was not used until recently.
(3) Chűnagura - A relatively hard stone of fine grain, it is used to take off the marks of the Kaisei.
(4) Komanagura - It is the same stone as Chűnagura, only it is finer since it is taken from the center of the deposit. It refines the Chűnagura marks.
(5) Hato - This stone is very hard. It is used to bring out the Hamon. It takes great skill and muscular endurance to pull the blade across the stone as both surfaces are hard. It takes several hours just to complete the Ha.
(6) Jito - The hardest stone, it is used to bring out the Jihada. If improperly used it will scratch the blade an ruin days of work. It requires the finest skill of all.

Shiage, or final polish, entails burnishing with a variety of tiny thin stones and a steel stylus. It takes about three days. The technique of Shiage varies from school to school. Some of these techniques have been developed after years of painstaking experimentation and therefore are not surrendered to others freely.

In general, Shiage consists of the following steps:
(1) Tsuya - The Jihada is finished with a Jizuya stone that has been broken into fine pieces. It is important that the Jizuya is chosen to match the Jihada formation. Next, the Ha is polished with a Hazuya, which is very thin and rectangular or square.
(2) Nugui - Nugui, or wiping, makes the Jihada stand out evenly and makes the sword rust resistant. In Nugui, a mixture of sword oil and finely ground Kanahada, an ash-like by-product of sword making, is rubbed onto the blade. During Nugui the sword takes on a darker color, sometimes a bluish tint, the degree of which depends on the sword.
(3) Had˘ri - In the Had˘ri an oval Hazuya is used to make the top of the Hamon white in what may appear at first glance as a string of mountains, which is in particular a characteristic of the H˘ami school of polishing. Today, about 80% of T˘gishi prefer the Had˘ri style, and 90% of the swords submitted for the annual sword polishing contest held at the Nippon Bijutsu T˘ken Hozon Ky˘kai [NBTHK] have been polished in the Had˘ri style [presently the percentage is probably even higher].
(4) Shitamigaki - In the Shitamigaki a polishing rod, or Migakib˘, is used to burnish the area between the Shinogi, the ridge running along the side of the blade, and the Mune, the blade's back, until a mirror-like finish is obtained. The Shitamigaki is the lower, preliminary polish with the Migakib˘.
(5) Uemigaki - The Uemigaki is the final polish with the Migakib˘.
(6) Sugikiri - Sugikiri is the process of defining the Yokote, the line at a 90 degree angle to the Shinogi at the tip of the blade.
(7) Narume - This is the process of imparting a whitish color to the B˘shi, the section of the blade forward of the Yokote.

During the Muromachi (1338 ~ 1573) and [especially] the Warring States [Sengoku] (1470 ~ 1570) periods, swords were not polished like they are today. There was no time. The nicks and battle scars were removed, and the blade was returned to its original shape. Except for those of the great Daimy˘ or those specifically kept as art objects, most Nihont˘ only received a Shirat˘gi, or white polish. I think that they often stopped with the Komanagura. With the advent of peace in the Edo period (1603 ~ 1867), more swords began to receive a highly artistic polish as there was time and money for such work.

But the high level of technology today (particularly in the Shiage) evolved during the Meiji era (1868 ~ 1912). During the Meiji era a law was passed that prohibited people from wearing swords, but allowed them to own them as works of art [Hat˘rei edict]. That was a drastic change from the Edo period, when the common people were more or less not allowed to own swords. Thus, on account of the new leading to an overall improvement in polishing techniques.

Another, and more important, reason for the improvement in sword polishing technology during the Meiji era was the invention of the electric light bulb, which enabled the T˘gishi to work at all hours of the day and allowed him to more clearly see the details of the Jihada and Ha. In particular, it accelerated the development of the Had˘ri style because the Hamon is much more visible under an electric light than it is under candlelight.

Sword polishing is very demanding physically and emotionally. A T˘gishi usually has little time for anything outside of his work. It takes years of his best efforts to reach the point at which he can produce a fine, flawless polish; it is impossible to fake a quality polish. A T˘gishi's deficiencies are apparent to himself as well as to his fellow T˘gishi. But the satisfaction of doing a good job and preserving the art form for future generations to enjoy is very great.

Nihont˘ collectors and study groups are increasing all the time as the Nihont˘ gradually takes its place among the world's great art forms. Unfortunately, many Nihont˘, especially in foreign collections [i. e. outside Japan], are not receiving proper care. This author hopes that collectors everywhere will join groups, who will gladly instruct them in the proper care and handling of the Nihont˘. The Nihont˘ is very durable, but without proper care is vulnerable to irreparable damage in a short time, making it unavailable for future generations.

Other articles on sword polishing by Jon Bowhay

Hada and Nugui

Hadori and Sashikomi

Editor Note: Jon Bowhay is one of very, very few Westerners to ever have completed the full ten year apprenticeship in Japan to become a fully trained and licensed sword polisher (togishi).

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