Korehira Watanabe: The Last Nihontō Swordsmith The Deadly & Dying Art of Crafting Samurai Swords

    Swords have always been a big deal in Japan. Japanese swords, or nihontō (日本刀) are one of the most highly sought after types of swords in the world today. A sword was even involved with the mythological creation of Japan. The Japanese sun goddess of the universe Amaterasu gave her grandson Ninigi the legendary sword Kusanagi (along with a mirror and jewel) when he was sent down to Earth to plant rice in Japan. But what makes these legendary swords so awesome? And who if anyone is making them today? Korehira Watanabe, that’s who.

    A Master of His Craft

    Korehira Watanabe has the kind of passion and dedication you can’t help but respect. He is not only doing what he loves, but he is doing it for his country, for the Japanese people, and for tradition. He is keeping the ancient Japanese sword-making spirit alive. From an early age he knew what he wanted to do and he never gave up on that dream. Despite protests from his family (he was more or less disowned for his career choices), he followed his own path and ultimately succeeded in his endeavors. He is truly an inspiration.

    Watanabe in profile saying: TOday, there are only 30 people, including me, who are making a living as a sword maker

    Korehira Watanabe is one of the last thirty traditional sword makers left in Japan today. He has been painstakingly perfecting his craft for the past forty years but only in the last five has he really started to achieve results acceptable to him.

    Many traditional craftsmen respond to modern times when handing down his craft. But the essence of the tradition suffers in doing so. I think it is meaningless to carry on the tradition that way.

    He is attempting to recreate the legendary craftsmanship found in Koto swords from the Heian and Kamakura periods (794-1333 AD). This is nearly impossible to do because there are no blueprints or directions for making these swords and it’s not exactly possible for him to reverse engineer them. But these overwhelming odds have not slowed him down in the slightest. Even after forty years of hard work, Korehira Watanabe is still going strong with no signs of slowing down.

    Recently he believes he has managed to create a few swords that match the quality of Koto swords, however. The art of true Japanese Shinken (lit. real sword) is in danger of dying out and Korehira Watanabe is striving to keep it alive.

    Watanabe preparing to hammer a piece of metal
    It's hammer time!

    Luckily for the tradition, Korehira Watanabe already has a budding apprentice, Nobuhiro Kikuchi. And it’s not only the refined sword making techniques he is passing down, but also the passion and dedication to the craft that makes it so special. He hopes that this tradition of master and pupil will continue on for generations. While there may not be many traditional Japanese sword makers left in the world, what they lack in numbers they certainly make up for in dedication.

    It is my duty to build up a disciple better than me. Otherwise the tradition will wear thin with time.

    For further reading, a very thorough post of the sword making process can be found here, and a great post detailing samurai sword history can be found here.

    So What Makes Japanese Swords so Cool, Anyway?

    Diagram of the different parts of a Japanese sword

    There are a handful of different types of Japanese swords and they are differentiated by size, application, and method of manufacture. But it’s not only the craftsmanship that makes these swords so special, it’s the deep tradition and connection to each masterfully crafted piece. When you own a sword made by one of these master craftsmen, you’re not owning a mere blade, but a part of the blacksmith’s soul, a part of Japan, and part of an amazing tradition.

    Undeniably, the most well recognized Japanese sword today is the classic katana. These long, single-edged swords were traditionally worn by samurai starting in the 15th century. Other types of Japanese swords include the tsurugi, ōdachi, nodachi, tachi, wakizashi, and tantō. Even though the naginata and yari are pole-mounted like spears, they too are considered nihontō due to the process in which the blade is forged.

    And the forging process is most certainly a process. One small mistake can ruin hours upon hours of hard work. Quality swords can take more than three months to craft (three months!). The art of Japanese swordsmithing is a painstaking one indeed.

    And this is a really cool post with pictures depicting what differentiates each style of blade. I think it’s really interesting so you should check it out too.