It has been said the Japanese sword possesses a soul of its own–that it is an extension if not the very counterpart of the warrior’s soul itself. I believe this to be true, though I also maintain that the sword is a reflection of its creator–the tosho, the swordsmith. The swordsmith is charged with the arduous task of upholding a tradition that has existed for well over a thousand years. With only the barest of resources–iron, sand, fire–combined with his knowledge and the strength of his hands, the tosho must strive to create something greater than himself, instilling life in each blade with every strike of his hammer.
Prior to beginning the meticulous process of forging a blade, the smith must first undergo a series of rituals to cleanse both his body and mind. The union of the mind and body is critical. The mind must be pure, completely void of thought or indecision, lest the blade may be deemed insignificant, or even crack during yaki-ire, heat treatment, rendering the blade a failure. In feudal times, a poorly forged sword would surely bring upon death to any samurai hapless enough to carry it into battle, but even worse than that, it would be a death without honor.
While the islands of Nippon personify the birthplace of the Japanese sword, the craft of bladesmithing itself has spanned from the distant seas of Japan to America. Modern technology has since implemented new tools to aid in the process, i.e., the steel press, power hammer, etc. However, the techniques that originated with the craft and embody it as one of the truest forms of art are still applied to this day. In fact, there are several American smiths who have taken it upon themselves to sustain the art of swordmaking, some of whose work I’ll elaborate on further in this article. Some are of the opinion that any sword forged outside of Japan is substandard when compared to nihonto. I disagree. A smith–Japanese or otherwise–should be solely judged by the quality of the blades he produces. Nothing more. It is the excellence of his craft and the characteristics he possesses as an individual that should define him, both as a smith and as a human being. Ethnicity is irrelevant.
Michael Bell of Dragonfly Forge is without question one of the single-most respected smiths working in the U.S today, and rightfully so. Having undergone an apprenticeship under the tutelage of master swordsmith Nakajima Muneyoshi in 1970, Michael Bell has since dedicated his life to the craft and has become a master tosho in his own right. With over three decades of experience, Mr. Bell is renowned for forging blades of irrefutable elegance, not unlike many nihonto seen in museums today. Forging blades made of oroshigane–handmade steel–as well as forge-folded cable steel, Michael Bell’s works are highly sought after by both collector and martial artist alike. His cable steel blades are especially known for their resilience and devastating cutting ability, while also possessing vibrant hamon and jihada.
Anthony DiCristofano, native of Chicago, IL and founder of Namahage Swords, is another highly reputable American swordsmith. Very much a traditionalist, Mr. DiCristofano is well known for his ability to create swords of indisputable beauty with striking hamon. In an interview with Antonio Cejunior of Bladesign, when asked to elaborate on his ability to clay a blade in such a way as to achieve the exact hamon result intended, Mr. DiCristofano replied with the following: “I have studied hard to produce very active and flamboyant hamon not unlike those seen on nihonto. To say exact would say I had some sort of dominance, complete control or mastery (another word that I dislike). I like to think of the outcome more as a negotiation between the fire, steel, clay, water and myself. A violent dance resulting in beauty.”
I for one feel very fortunate for the caliber of blades forged in the U.S. by such notable smiths as Michael Bell and Anthony DiCristofano, along with a number of other talented smiths, whose works are just as noteworthy. Louis Mills, another traditionalist, whose blades composed of oroshigane are very similar to those forged of tamahagane, Japanese steel. Howard Clark, another leading contemporary smith, has elevated steel to a new height with his indestructible L6 bainite construction. Rick Barrett is also renowned for his forge-folded blades of immeasurable quality, along with his affiliation with Enomoto Sadahito, a highly regarded tosho. Each smith in his own way has made an invaluable contribution to the craft of the Japanese style sword, prolonging the legacy of nihonto and enriching it as a whole. Were it not for their dedication to this magnificent art, I truly feel my appreciation for the Japanese sword would not have flourished as it has. My sincerest gratitude goes out to you all for your accomplishments, both attained in the forge and in life.
While times have undoubtedly changed and the sword no longer represents a weapon of war, for me at least the depiction of the katana remains the same as it did centuries ago: bushi no tamashii, the soul of the warrior.