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Katana-kaji are expert makers of swords (tohken/katana), who specialize in the forging of Japanese swords (nihon-toh). The ancient origins of tohken can be traced back to the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihonshoki (Oldest Chronicles of Japan). Regarded as sacred treasures rather than weaponry, tohken were used as offerings to deities at Japanese shrines (jinja) and buried in the tombs of royalty.
According to renowned swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara, Japanese katana evolved into their present form around the latter half of the Heian period (10th to 11th century) with the rise of the samurai class and the advent of frequent wars. Even so, it was spears (naga-yari) and arrows (yumi-ya) that were commonly used on the actual battlefield, while swords were not unlike omamori (protective charms). Mr. Yoshihara jokes that we probably think of swords (katana) as weaponry due to samurai movies such as those directed by Kurosawa.
Rather than being used as arms, katana today continue to be utilized as they once were — serving as ceremonial gifts at Japanese temples and shrines, and treasured by enthusiasts as elite artifacts of Japanese craftsmanship. Katana-kaji, as creators of nihon-toh, must train for years to be certified by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. There are only about 300 such masters in Japan.
Among them, Mr. Yoshihara won fame in his 20s as a young prodigy in his craft. He has received the highest honors as a swordsmith for Goshinto of Ise Jingu (Holy Sword of Ise Shrine) three times, and is the greatest katana-kaji of our time.
What separates nihon-toh made by such masters from lesser katana? Sword evaluations give high marks to beautiful jigane (sword blade) and hamon (blade pattern), says Mr. Yoshihara.

Jigane refers to the body of the blade, and katana-kaji begin the process of making the katana by first creating the metal for the blade. Steel pieces called tama-hagane (meaning precious “jewel steel”) are made from iron sand. These are crushed into smaller pieces and heated to form one large piece. Heated further and repeatedly hammered, stretched, and folded, the steel takes shape as a Japanese sword. This 900-year-old forging process (tanren) continues virtually unchanged, creating jiigane of supple strength and superb texture.
“Normally, steel is made of iron ores liquefied by heat, but nihon-toh is formed differently. Tama-hagane pieces are never melted at high heat but only forged. This creates a quality feeling like no other metal,” Mr. Yoshihara explains.
Nihon-toh takes its distinctive appearance from hamon blade patterns shaped like waves. In the hardening process (yaki-ire), the heated body of the sword is quenched in cold water, causing quick cooling that alters the steel composition and creates striking patterns, which the swordsmith controls by coating parts of the blade with clay. Ornamental motifs depict nature scenes and town landscapes, revealing the artistry of the katana-kaji. It’s a marvel how ancient swordsmiths unfamiliar with modern steel and chemistry devised this enduring process nine centuries ago — and transformed technique into art.
Mr. Yoshihara has made more than 500 katana since becoming a katana-kaji 53 years ago. Yet he says, “I still feel excited when I can harden a sword and capture the beautiful hamon I want. Because, even after all these years, these two processes cannot be seen through to the end — there is no end. Even if I continue this craft until I pass away, I may never truly master it. All I can do is continue to strive as hard as I can.”

[photo]Yoshindo Yoshihara

Yoshindo Yoshihara

Born in 1943. He was initiated into sword-making as a child by his grandfather, the first-generation swordsmith Kuniie. Certified as a master swordsmith by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan in 1965, Mr. Yoshihara has won many honors including the Takamatsunomiya Award, and holds Tokyo’s Intangible Cultural Property status. He also attained the highest ranking as katana-kaji at age 39, which exempts him from re-examination for his craft — a testament to his exceptional skill. He teaches younger generations and promotes Japanese sword culture abroad, contributing greatly to the future of the tohken world.