“The Art of the Japanese Sword” is an extensive tour through the methods of sword creation, preservation, and appreciation. More than that, it is a celebration of the creativity and dedication of a culture in refining a tool of war into an implement of extreme philosophical and aesthetic beauty.
In this review I would like to present the contents of the book as well as its pros and cons as a title. I will give my opinions on whether or not it is worth the investment, and provide links for those interested in learning more.
What’s In the Book?
This book is broken up into five major sections exploring different aspects of the Japanese sword. The sections are as follows:
* Kansho – Appreciating the sword
* Rekishi – History
* Tamahagane and the Tatara – Traditional steel making
* Sakuto – Making the sword
* Finishing the Sword – Polishing, habaki, and saya
Japanese martial arts are known for their extreme attention to detail and extensive usage of etiquette. The katana is the most revered of all weapons and as such features no shortage of etiquette in its handling. Many people do not realize that even in the viewing of a blade there are correct and incorrect methods of handling. These subtle matters are important philosophically as attention to them reflects a person’s own character and understanding of the art of the sword. Small etiquette techniques can also help the viewer in comprehending minor but important details in the sword itself, such as weight, balance, construction method, reflectivity, and more. The first chapter is entirely dedicated to educating the reader on these matters.
The rest of the chapters are just as detailed in their coverage. High quality pictures are used throughout to add historical context to the work as well as demonstrate to the reader the differences in sword construction described by the expert authors Yoshindo Yoshihara, Leon Kapp, and Hiroko Kapp.
All aspects of the katana, down to the most minute portions of the blade and furniture, are done with careful attention. By comparing and contrasting the different styles, “The Art of the Japanese Sword” provides the reader with a rare glimpse into the painstaking precision of the sword making process.
Book Pros and Cons
Pros: This book spares no expense in terms of production quality. It utilizes a thick paper stock and glossy print due to the high number of images. Many of the images are generously sized and in clear resolution, making this one of the most visually interesting books ever made on the Japanese sword. The design and structure of the information presented is also well done, utilizing easy to read fonts and digestable organization. A book with this much content could easily become overwhelming or boring, but this book manages to avoid those issues through clever usage of color and images.
The level of informational detail is probably the strongest aspect of this book. I have personally been studying Kenjutsu for about eight years and there are a lot of details and subtleties brought up in this text that I was not fully aware of. It was enlightening and a resource that I suspect I will come back to frequently as my understanding of the Japanese sword continues to grow.
Cons: The level of detail in this book may be considered overwhelming or tedious by some. This book is not a thrilling adventure, filled with stories of Samurai and test cuts that penetrate multiple bodies. This book does not deal much in the intrigue and mysticism that draws many people toward the Samurai. That being said, if you are interested in the nitty gritty details of hours upon hours of extreme focus and labor that goes into the creation of a sword, this book will show you the way.
Final Thoughts and Where to Buy
Most of my martial arts books are used for research and personal development. I mark them up, put sticky notes in them, and otherwise abuse them. Not this book. I find myself handling “The Art of the Japanese Sword” very gingerly, carefully scrolling through pages as I appreciate the images and information. I realize now the intentional effort put into this title – it’s own beauty and refinement reflecting the nature of its source material. I intend to have this book on display either in my home or in my dojo.
The price point is, in my opinion, very reasonable for the quality of the book. If you are a Kenjutsu lover, someone looking to understand the fine details of sword construction and etiquette, this book might be for you. Click the link below to learn more:
I’m very pleased to present a new partner to IkigaiWay – “Swords of the East”!
From time to time I get the opportunity to meet owners and operators of martial arts related businesses. If the business provides a high quality and relevant service that I think would benefit my readers I discuss the possibility of a partnership with them. This is one of those occasions. “Swords of the East” is one of the most popular and expansive weapons retailers on the web. Their stock is so extensive that it would take multiple visits just to see everything they have to offer.
Let me tell you about why I welcome them as part of my site and why I think they are worth checking out.
What “Swords of the East” Has to Offer
It’s tough for me to encapsulate all the different kinds of swords SOTE has available, but here are a few of the most important and most interesting branches of the site:
|Katana – The backbone of SOTE is katana, no doubt about it. The designs and styles vary widely, and the list of different makers is extensive (Paul Chen, Rittersteel, Ryumon Swords, Ten Ryu, etc etc). The quality ranges from inexpensive display pieces to high end, high carbon works of art.|
|Iaito Training Swords – Most iaido students begin their training with Iaito (unsharpened swords) rather than Shinken (sharpened swords). Iaito are specifically designed to handle repeated drawing/sheathing as well as avoid common rusting problems associated with high carbon blades.|
|Full Armor Sets – To me personally this is the most exciting offering on the site. These full Japanese armor sets are absolutely beautiful. These are not cheap replicas – they are functional, wearable, and displayable. Browse these. you won’t be disappointed.|
|Medieval, Historical, and Fantasy Swords – If you’re a collector of creative blades these offerings are for you. The styles vary widely from military, to historical, to movie prop. Many of the blades are functional while some are purely for adornment of walls.|
There’s a lot more but I thought those specific branches might interest you. While many other websites offer swords and weapons, no other resource contains the breadth of product available here. Sword enthusiasts of all budgets will find something appealing to them, from $50 show pieces to $2000 shinken.
Special Discount Code for IkigaiWay Readers
SOTE would like to extend a special offer to all readers. After you’ve selected your products enter the coupon code “OFF10NOW” (no quotations) during the checkout process for 10% off your total order.
Once again, welcome to “Swords of the East”!
I was recently at an Iaido seminar working Seitei waza. The instructor, Iwakabe Hideki Sensei, was demonstrating one form in particular known as Sanpogiri.
(For reference, here is Noboru Ogura Sensei demonstrating the form):
After discussion of technical details and multiple demonstrations it was our turn to try. We performed as a group, and then individually. When it was my turn I got up, moved through the waza as best I could, and then waited. Iwakabe Sensei shuffled up to me, smirked, and said:
“Good, but next time don’t walk like an old Japanese man.”
You see, after decades of training Iwakabe Sensei has developed a subtle gait to his walk, taking careful steps so as not to find himself off-balance or tweak any pre-existing injuries. These adjustments over the years were born of necessity and a desire to continue training despite the natural effects of both age and hard exercise.
I was watching Iwakabe Sensei as closely as possible, and while I was focusing on the technique I was inadvertently absorbing everything else. In order to make myself perform like him, somewhere my mind and body decided I needed to walk like him too. This was in no way an actual conscious decision. It was astute of Iwakabe Sensei to catch me on that and correct me ASAP before it became a habit of muscle memory.
The Natural Evolution of Kojin Kata
We often think of kata as these unchanging obelisks of technique, handed down throughout the centuries. Of course, we all do our best to live up to that lofty standard of “unchanging-ness” but never truly achieve it (nor, as it turns out, would we want to).
As a person grows in their understanding of a form it naturally takes on subtleties that the performer may or may not realize they are imbuing into the performance. These nuances can come from mindset, understanding, visualization, and favored ways of moving the body. Another way nuance develops is through age. The combination of mental growth as well as physical aging turns into something known as “kojin kata“, roughly translated as an “old man’s form”.
It sounds slightly derogatory, but kojin kata is far from it. As a martial artist grows they are better able to understand their own abilities (and eventually limitations). The end result is economy of movement and clarity of purpose. Unlike sports competition, classical “do” (“the way”) martial arts are designed to enhance a person’s life, increase longevity, and give a sense of purpose.
For example, this performance by Higa Yuchoku Sensei occured just a year before his passing. You can tell the limitations he has but also his strength of spirit:
Higa Yuchoku is forced to perform his version of Passai in a way that suits his understanding and capabilities. It would NOT be suitable for a young practitioner in their 20s or 30s to move in such a way. This was the point Iwakabe Sensei was trying to get across to me. At my age, I need to move in a way that is either natural for my body type or constructive for body development.
Naturalness vs Body Development
One of the biggest lessons to be learned in traditional martial arts is how to be natural vs how to develop body conditioning. Every style emphasizes both things to a different extent. For example, Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Seitei Waza emphasizes a lot of body development in terms of flexibility, strength, and balance. The stances used in these forms are long and deep, the movements big and smooth. Old (koryu) styles like Muso Shinden Ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu tend to have a more combative focus and thus the stances are higher, natural, and mobile. The cutting and sheathing motions tend to be sharp and quick.
In karatedo, the mix of naturalness vs body development is just as pronounced. Some styles like Shotokan feature many deep stances and large movements ideal for body development. Old Okinawan styles like Matsumura Seito feature body movement that is higher and smaller for combative engagement. This comparison can be done with almost any style, and most styles have elements of both to different degrees.
Back to Kojin…
Connecting all this back to the original point of kojin kata – it’s important to look down the road when practicing your style. Take note of how your instructor trained and how it eventually affected his/her body. Heed their advice in terms of things to do and NOT to do. Most of all, don’t be overly focused on mimicking individuals who teach you at the expense of what they are trying to tell you. Also, remember that arts inevitably grow over time. The only way this becomes detrimental is if those teaching and passing the art along don’t fully understand what they are doing and how it is changing while in their care.