By Akihiro Takeda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterMore and more people are being drawn to the wonder of Japanese swords, with a sizable 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 center I visited, several men and women in hakama skirts 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 part of a training session for battojutsu — the martial art of quickly and skillfully drawing a Japanese 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.
Sword training begins with learning the form for cutting the air with fake Japanese swords, which have blades made of aluminum alloy. The trainees repeated the same moves many times. After that, they tried real swords.
They slashed a roll of tatami-omote — the fiber surface of tatami mats — about 10 centimeters in diameter, cutting it in two with one slice of the sword.
These training sessions were launched four years ago, and have a growing number of participants. Currently, about 40 men and women ranging from young to elderly come to receive the training.
People are allowed to possess Japanese swords as works of art if they obtain registration certificates from prefectural boards of education. 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 said. “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 stood in front of a tatami-omote roll in the center of the training room. They stood in different poses and silently moved the swords in various directions such as upper right, upper left and horizontally. The tatami rolls were quickly decimated.
“If the willingness to cut is too strong, you can’t do it well,” said Suiju Kaito, 70, the great grand master 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 seemed especially polite, complete with good posture.
Kaito explained the attractiveness of the martial art, saying, “With real Japanese swords, your behavior and actions naturally become beautiful.”
Drawn by online game
The Society for 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, told 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 said the blades of Japanese swords bear wave-like patterns called hamon, and the patterns express the “dignity of the swords.” I looked closely at the swords. It was difficult to see the difference in the patterns, but I was naturally 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 only two or three people participated. Now, however, the participants are fairly evenly divided between men and women, and all the lectures are fully booked. Some participants come from as far as Hokkaido and Kyushu.
Participant Yukiko Gonda, 46, said 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 makes me better understand how beautiful they are,” she said. “Thinking about the long history of the swords, I think my enthusiasm will only grow.”
Boosting the local economy
Sword exhibitions have also been highly popular in many parts of the country. One local government is even using Japanese swords to help revitalize its local community.
In Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, the municipal Ashikaga Museum of Art exhibited through April 2 a Japanese sword called “Yamanbagiri Kunihiro,” which is designated as a national important cultural asset. The sword was made in 1590 at the request of the then lord of the Ashikaga feudal clan.
About 37,800 people visited the exhibition, which lasted about a month. This surpassed the annual number of visitors to the museum, which was about 25,000 in fiscal 2015.
The city government jointly developed food products with local stores as well. The products included “Token [sword] parfait” and “Yamanbagiri Ramen” noodles. The economic gains from the exhibition were estimated to be about ¥420 million.
Takao Katayanagi, 52, a senior official of the city board of education’s culture section, said the municipal government aims to continue planning events related to Japanese swords to help revitalize the local community.
“Though I had heard there has been a boom, I had never dreamed so many people would visit,” he said.
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.