History of blade forging in Japan

Custom hand forged Japanese knife

 

For a long time, and still, associated with the fantastical framework of its ancestral traditions, Japan experienced at the same time as Europe a process of modernization at the end of the 19th century. Custom hand forged Japanese knife Yanick Blacksmith Knife maker

The book, by historian Pierre-François Souyri, Nouvelle Histoire du Japon (New History of Japan), published by Perrin, sheds light on this period. Pierre-François Souyri is a professor at the University of Geneva where he teaches the history of Japan. A former professor at Inalco and former director of the Maison franco-japonaise, he spent many years in Japan. He is undoubtedly one of the best European historians of this country.

After the imperial restoration of 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji era, began what Japanese historiography calls the era of “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika). In Japan at that time, the main aim was to westernise Japanese mores and customs. Japan is engaged in a process of adopting behaviour in line with that of the West. For example, it became forbidden to urinate in public spaces, to trade in prints considered immoral, and nudity was outlawed. The emperor also forbade the sword in agreement with his samurai elites, who at that time rejected bushido (the code of moral principles that Japanese samurai were required to observe) because it was a retrograde savagery and a little crude. They preferred the Way of the Learned (a set of behavior where restraint, culture and self-sacrifice are emphasized). A number of samurai will convert to the business world. Others will put themselves at the service of the State by entering politics.

( Later in the 20th century, bushido will be reinterpreted by nationalist thinkers to serve the new nation-state and its national army instead of castes).

As a consequence of this reform, blacksmiths will be forced to abandon the sword forge, for lack of orders, to convert to the forging of agricultural tools and cutlery. Many of them will not survive these changes, poverty will take over their fate.

Custom hand forged Japanese knife

Custom hand forged Japanese knife

 

Some knife-producing cities

TAKEFU ou ECHIZEN

After merging in 2005, Takefu is now part of the city of Echizen, in the north of the Chùbu region, Fukui Prefecture.

Originally Takefu was famous for its agricultural tools thanks to a craftsman who forged high quality sickles 700 years ago. Soon knives were hammer forged and the seal of Echizen Uchi-Hamono was the number one production seal in Japan for a period of time. Many Japanese writings speak of his famous products of high quality.

 

TOSA

City located in Shikoku Island with Kochi Prefecture.

Due to its remote geographical location, this region has developed different customs and traditions, producing blades with a unique style. The first forges were dedicated to agricultural tools and fishing. Today the knives are still hammer forged and have a rough finish called kuro-uchi.

 

NIIGATA et SANJO

Located in the very north of the Chùbu region.

In the 17th century, the town was revived economically thanks to the nail forge, then the blacksmiths expanded their range with agricultural tools which became very famous. The blacksmiths, from father to son, will then turn with the forging of kitchen knives replacing the tools, because of the opening of big factories.

Custom hand forged Japanese knife

SEKI

Located in the center of the island in the south of the​ Chùbu region with Gifu prefecture.

For 800 years Seki has been a famous forge town, formerly known for its katanas, which are famous all over Japan. It is said that this art was brought to Seki by a famous blacksmith around 1200, who settled in Seki for the quality of the land, the coal and the abundance of pure water.

Today the city has become the capital of modern cutlery (unlike Sakai, the capital of traditional cutlery) with many new industries. It is here that every year the largest knife show in Japan takes place. The knives are forged with new steels, more full silk, with more western shapes.

SAKAI

Port city near Osaka in the Kansai region.

Originally it was for cutting tobacco leaves, produced around 1540 at the request of the Portuguese, that the first blades were produced. These cutters quickly became famous for their sharpness and Sakai was synonymous with quality.
The Sakai blacksmiths worked together from the very beginning, sharing the different manufacturing processes. It is this unique feature that Sakai blacksmiths are still named after the old families or associations of cutlers.

The town is the capital of the craft cutlery industry (unlike Seki, the capital of “modern” cutlery) with many old families and small workshops.
The knives are therefore most often traditional, carbon steel and bevelled blade, with a specificity at the level of the fitting, on some models the tang is not completely retracted.

Couteau Japonais sur mesure forgé main Yanick Forgeron Coutelier