Katana might be a familiar word to those interested in Japanese history, traditional culture, and samurai sword-fighting stories in modern manga, anime, and films. It refers to the swords that samurai carried and used during feudal times. With sharp-edged blades made of hagane steel, katana have unique shapes and structures that can only be created by artisans. Bizen Osafune swords (from the town of Osafune in the Bizen region of Japan) were considered among the most well-made and precious katana during the samurai era, and they continue to be treasured today.
Although several areas were known for producing katana in samurai times, Bizen (in Okayama Prefecture) is one of the oldest and most important, with a history that dates back a thousand years. Half of the existing katana that have been deemed National Treasures by the Japanese government are from this region. Bizen is the ultimate capital of Japanese swords.
These days, there are no official samurai, and nobody uses katana in daily life. Though the functions and significations of katana may have changed in the years since the samurai era, the swords remain objects of high aesthetic value. In Setouchi City, where the town of Osafune is located, the techniques and artisanship behind katana making are still alive, and we can observe them in the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum, which is dedicated to katana. This is a rare spot where you can not only view exhibitions of Bizen katana but also observe artisans from around Japan making katana. In addition to its regular displays, the museum also hosts special exhibitions, demonstrations of katana making, and workshops in which visitors can try making their own knives.
Katana truly are works of art. To make just one sword requires an extremely elaborate and complex process that usually takes an entire year: forging iron into a steel blade by hammering, followed by polishing and sharpening the blade, making the blade collar, making the saya (scabbard), lacquering it, wrapping the tsuka (handle), and engraving the blade. In the museum, you can learn about these processes from the exhibitions and also watch artisans making katana and even talk with them. A demonstration of the traditional style of hammering steel is held on the second Sunday of each month. If you wish to acquire your own katana, you can order one at the museum. Artisans handcraft your katana, customizing to your favorite length, color and design, but note that it takes about a year to finish and costs $20,000 and up.
Traditionally, steel made of iron sand is heated to about 2,400 °F and then hammered to make a blade.
Sharpening the blade is an important process that adds character to the katana. It takes 80 to 100 hours to complete.
The handle of this katana is wrapped with shagreen and reinforced with silk thread. This makes the handle easier to hold and beautiful to look at.
The guard of a katana, also made with wrought iron, has beautiful engravings, sometimes with inlaid decorations.
*Sword production photos by Takemi Nishi.
Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum
966 Osafune, Osafune-cho, Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture
TEL: +81-869-66-7767 | www.city.setouchi.lg.jp/token