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Japan is running out of swordsmiths, and a strict apprenticeship requirement is a big reason why

By Casey Baseel, SoraNews24

Although it might sound unusual for artifacts with a centuries-long history, swords are currently in vogue in Japan. Museum exhibitions of historically significant katana have been attracting large, enthusiastic crowds in recent years, but the blades’ surging popularity is yet to solve a few problems.

In 1989, the Japanese Swordsmith Association counted 300 registered swordsmiths in the country. Not 20 years later, that number has been nearly cut in half, with only 188 smiths currently registered, and their average age rapidly increasing.

Swordsmithing isn’t just an industry, it’s also part of Japan’s cultural heritage. To preserve the craft, Tetsuya Tsubouchi, one of the Japanese Swordsmith Association’s directors, says two things have to be done. First, new swordsmiths have to be trained and certified to replace the craftsmen who’re retiring or otherwise being lost to old age, but there are some major hurdles in the way.

Not just anyone start hammering away and producing swords for sale in Japan. Practitioners are required to first serve as an apprentice under a registered swordsmith for a period of five years. These apprenticeships are unpaid, meaning that blacksmithing could be considered one of Japan’s harsh “black enterprises.”Those who want to complete the training must either burn through savings they amassed working in another field (before quitting that job to start their apprenticeship) or rely on financial support from their families. But while Japanese parents are generally willing to invest in their children’s education, it’s pretty difficult to convince Mom and Dad to cover all of your living expenses for a half-decade so that you can take a shot at making it in as niche an industry as swordsmithing. As a result, Tsubouchu says that though there’s actually been a recent uptick in apprenticeship applications, very few apprentices actually make it to the end of their five-year training period.

Even if they do complete their apprenticeship, prospective smiths still have to pass a national certification test, which takes place over a period of eight days. The test is offered only once a year, so if you fail, you’ve got a long wait until you get to take another swing at it. Oh, and once that’s all done, the estimated cost to set up a swordsmithing business of your own is 10 million yen, an amount of seed money that’s kind of hard to scrape together when your last paycheck was five years ago.

The other thing the industry needs, Tsubouchi says, is new customers. Collectors of art and antiquities have long been happy to buy and sell historical pieces, but a demand for preexisting blades isn’t creating much work for present-day smiths. What they need are people who’re interested in buying freshly forged swords, especially since they can't just sell batches to the local samurai warlord like their predecessors in the feudal era did.

Luckily, a surge in popularity among sword-carrying anime and video game characters (some of which are actually swords themselves), as well as cosplayers dressed as those characters, has raised awareness of katana among young people, especially Japanese women, who’ve been showing a renewed interest in Japanese history in general over the past decade. Tsubouchi also points to collaborative efforts such as exhibitions that combine anime and katana aesthetics, such as a popular traveling display of swords inspired by the Evangelion franchise.

Tsubouchi also sees potential in the fact that rekijo, as Japan calls women with an interest in samurai history, range in age from teens up through women in their 30s and 40s. The director points out that in the past, it was often older, married men who wanted to buy katana to keep as family heirlooms, only to have the idea shot down as overly extravagant by the women of their household. But if both husband and wife, and maybe their daughter too, are keen on having a sword on display in the home, that purchase becomes a lot more justifiable.

The hope, Tsubouchi says, is not necessarily for new customers to convince people to buy ultra-premium pieces, but rather to cultivate a market for Japanese swords that are within the budget of even people who aren’t wealthy art collectors. He even muses about the possibility of reestablishing the largely forgotten custom of omamorigatana, in which swords were given as a good luck charm commemorating auspicious occasions such as births and marriages.

Still, with Japan placing so much importance on financial stability, it’s going to be an uphill battle encouraging people to seriously consider a career in swordsmithing, at least until there’s some solid evidence that all those people lining up to see swords at the museum would be genuinely willing to buy one for themselves.

Source: Yahoo! News Japan/Oricon News via Otakomu

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Japanese city offering authentic handcrafted swords in exchange for “tax” payments

-- i-katana? Apple designer collaborates with traditional craftsmen to create Japanese sword set

-- Want to see a katana being made from scratch? Of course you do!【Video】

© SoraNews24

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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It sounds like they need to find new export markets where there is still strong demand for chopping off heads, hands, etc. There are a few.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Based on the issues identified in this article, I'd say their dwindling numbers will only continue.

The contemporary Samurai's weapon of choice is a briefcase, not a sword.

Adapt or die.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

do you need a real sword smith to make swords that can be easily and legally purchased?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Maybe pay these apprentice a living wage or continue to stabe your self in the foot so to speak. If you work and get no money then no one as is this case wants to do it.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I agree with Cricky. Times change, and while I doubt anyone will accept adopting modern techniques to make the swords, the payment issue needs to be looked at. Five years unpaid may have worked in the past but it is certainly not viable in modern Japan. So saying, it may just be the case that supply needs to drop to match falling demand? If demand increases in the future, sword prices will go up, making the business attractive again.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Cricket is wrong asking for Salaries to go up.

A friend is studying traditional methods(Saitama), he lives with his master(room, board, salary, etc).

His apprenticeship will take many more years before he is considered to have mastered it all.

And here lies the problem the master needs to know that his apprenticeship is sincere and will stay the duration. But most younger people want quick results and graduation, if it takes too long they will find new employment.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I think that the J government should back and invest in apprentaships, because once the masters have passed on, you will loose a large part of Japanese history and culture, you will loose this skill set for ever, and you can not replace 1000's of years of sword making, well I suppose you can but it will never be the same. the other week the government gave money so that a popularity event for AKB 48 to be held in Okinawa, is this really necessary ? sword making in Japan is ingrained in its culture, its so wrong on so many levels to let this art die out, it needs a good investment NOW! before it dies out.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

It's not just sword smiths, but all the traditional Japanese arts which suffer from these problems. Dancers, musicians, artists have a hard time finding a modern, Japanese youth who has the time and money to live with this strict mentor-system. many of them lament the fact that to keep these traditions alive, they have to conform to modern standards, and are they still traditional then?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Time has changed and people also are changed. The traditions itself also can't stay the same as it used to be anymore. You might have to ask young Japanese whether they take it seriously or not first. If they don't anymore, then that's it. No matter how many Westerners have a outrageous fantasy in samurai swords or not. It is totally up to them.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"...that number has been nearly cut in half..."

In the context of the article's topic, the author should have written, "...that number has been slashed!" =P

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Actually, forging a sword is hard work. When I was in High School we had metal workshop and we learned to forge tools and operate heavy machines. Forging a simple tool - even a chisel, takes quite a lot of works also need to study alloy compositions as well we why alloy is stronger down to molecular level and temperature control. In other words, it is much better if the person has passion or enthusiastic about it.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

especially since they can7t just sell batches to the local samurai warlord like their predecessors in the feudal era did.

Other than the required typo, this explains why swordsmithery is on the decline: there's no money in it anymore. After a five-year apprenticeship, apprentices could sell their wares. Now, they can7t, (to quote the article).

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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