Some of the most frequently asked questions we receive are in regards to becoming an apprentice swordsmith. This article is meant to help answer many of the questions we are asked about apprenticeships.
Michael Bell undertook a traditional five year apprenticeship to Japanese master swordsmith Nakajima Muneyoshi. Michael ‘s teacher, Mr. Nakajima, was unique in that he learned all of the Japanese sword arts: swordsmithing, polishing, habaki-making, as well as the making of koshirae. Usually each aspect of Japanese sword-making is preformed by a specialist; a sword can pass through the hands of four or more artists before being fully completed. It was for this reason that he was brought to Oakland, California in 1963 by the Japanese Sword Society of the United States; Mr. Nakajima could perform all the different jobs necessary to restore old swords. In 1970 Michael Bell was introduced to Mr. Nakajima and shortly thereafter became his apprentice.
Today Michael Bell strives to pass on the knowledge taught to him by his teacher. Since the foundation of Dragonfly Forge in 1987 in Coquille, Oregon, Michael has taught many students in various aspects of the Japanese sword arts. Interest in such instruction was so great that in 2006 Michael began offering formal classes at Dragonfly Forge. Following two years of great responses from students, Dragonfly Forge founded Tomboyama Nihonto Tanren Dojo in 2008 with the construction of a new larger shop and smithy.
During the two decades after Michael began Dragonfly Forge, he has many students, but only a handful of apprentices. The distinction between students and apprentices is important. Students only spend a few days, a week or two, while an apprenticeship is a long term commitment spanning several years. Some past students of Michael have wrongly referred to themselves as apprentices, while only studying with him for a week. It is not that there are secrets to the arts that a kept from students of our classes and shared only with apprentices. But to begin to master the art requires grasping the subtleties that can only be learned through long hours of study and experience. To date, only one person has completed their apprenticeship to Michael and been granted a certificate of mastery, Ron Macy.
Given the number of inquiries we receive regarding apprenticeships outside of our formal scheduled classes, this article will hopefully be informative for those seeking more insight on the subject.
Apprenticeship requires a great commitment from both the apprentice and the teacher and it is critically important that both have personalities that are compatible, given that this is a relationship that will often last many years.
For whatever reason, swordsmithing, and Japanese swordsmithing in particular, is often perceived as a glamorous, easy-going career. And although there is nothing else in the world that we would rather do, swordsmithing is hard work. While its obvious that a forge fire is hot, some people fail to realize how hot it really is for the smith who must spend hours working next to it. Swordsmiths will get burned; that is just something that goes with the job. Forging and grinding causes blisters in unusual places, until calluses have time to form, and undoubtedly a swordsmith will be cut several times during his lifetime (although less often as each experience slowly teaches us). These are the dangers of the job, of which aspiring swordsmiths should be keenly aware.
More important than strength or toughness, an apprentice MUST have patience and dedication if they are to learn the art of swordsmithing. When Michael Bell first began his apprenticeship, in an attempt to emphasize the hard work and dedication one needs to learn, Mr. Nakajima warned, “Long hour, small pay.”
Years of teaching students here at Dragonfly Forge have reinforced our belief that an apprentice who has had no experience working with their hands has a much longer road to travel in order to master the sword arts.
Apprenticeships can vary greatly from sensei to sensei, but traditionally last a minimum of five years. In Japan, swordsmiths are greatly restricted by several laws. Under these laws, one can only become a swordsmith by serving a minimum five year apprenticeship to a licensed Japanese swordsmith, followed by a series of tests.
Because Nakajima-sensei never registered as a swordsmith following the war when the laws requiring swordsmiths to be licensed were passed, under Japanese law apprentices of Mr. Nakajima could never become officially recognized smiths in the Japanese tradition. Anyone seeking such apprenticeship must seek a licensed teacher in Japan.
Gabriel Bell became an apprentice in the perhaps the most traditional way, by being born the son of a professional swordsmith. For a large part of Japanese history, this was the way nearly every swordsmith began to study the art. The creation of swords, being advanced military technology, were closely guarded secrets. Because of that, this knowledge remained within the clan, and promising apprentices who had not been born into their teacher’s family often became adopted sons.
Thankfully today’s swordsmiths are generally very generous with their knowledge and experience, to the great benefit of the art as a whole, and one does not have to be born into a swordsmith’s family to learn the art.
Given modern life, the tradition of live-in apprentices has pretty much vanished, even in Japan. However, it is still essential that apprentices are able to spend the long hours with their teacher that the art requires. This poses another problem for potential apprentices as they must either find a teacher nearby, or relocate. Given that there are no more than a handful of swordsmiths working in the United States, relocation may be the only option.
Also it is important to be aware that apprenticeship has no salary whatsoever and a great deal of cost to both the apprentice and the teacher. After traveling expenses, apprentices must face the cost of long hours and much effort for knowledge that will only be profitable after many years, if ever. For the teacher, he faces the cost of time invested in instruction, as well as the cost of fuel burned and tool wear once the apprentice is ready begin learning firsthand. Generally this debt to one’s teacher is repaid by doing whatever chores the teacher requires or by other efforts. However, all too often apprentices lose sight of this debt and the giving becomes one-sided; such relationships are always destined for failure.
Apprentices of Michael Bell do face some challenges apprentices of other teachers do not. Because his teacher was unique in his knowledge and experience in all of the swords arts, Michael’s apprentices must learn to create a complete sword. It is not enough to only learn to forge and heat-treat a blade. Before a certificate of mastery can be awarded, the apprentice must also be able to make professional quality habaki and koshirae in the Nakajima tradition, learn the fundamentals of polishing, and grasp the aesthetic essentials. As mentioned earlier, only one man, Ron Macy, has fully completed such an apprenticeship. Outside the Bell family, he is the only person granted the privilege of using the character “tombo” in their signature.
For those who are interested in apprenticing as swordsmiths, we would greatly recommend first attending one of our Basic Forging Courses at our swordsmithing school, Tomboyama Nihonto Tanren Dojo (Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School). Taking such a course gives one the chance to experience swordsmithing firsthand, without the expenses and commitment of becoming an apprentice.
For those interested in learning more about Japanese swords in general, we highly recommend the book The Craft of the Japanese Sword by Leon Kapp, Hiroko Kapp, and Yoshindo Yoshihara. Those interested in sword polishing should also read the book The Art of Japanese Sword Polishing by Setsuo Takaiwa, Leon Kapp, Hiroko Kapp, and Yoshindo Yoshihara.