Location: Land’s End Restaurant
Paul’s site: http://www.thejapanesesword.com/index.php
Growing up in London, Paul was a British karate champion back in the 90’s as well as a kendo practitioner. He had a part time job at the British Museum; one day at work he noticed the glistening Japanese swords staring at him behind the window panes. This is essentially where he had his epiphany moment. He’d been interested in Japan through martial arts, but up until that point he’d only seen swords in films (7 Samurai/The Yakuza); seeing them in real life sparked something. He befriended the local “sword specialist” at the museum, quickly moved to Japan and the rest is history.
After moving to Japan years later he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the sword in Japanese history and culture. He’s been featured on BBC, Discovery, The History Channel, Japan Times and has helped produce two documentaries. He’s studied swords at many museums, shrines, and the workshops of eminent swordsmiths and polishers. He studied the art of oshigata drawing from a curator at Atsuta shrine in Nagoya (home of the Imperial regalia sword – the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi) and a sword specialist from Tokyo National Museum.
We had coffee and talked — well, swords, of course.
Swordsmiths in Japan are regulated by the government. Smiths have to be licensed and are restricted to making two long swords or three shorts swords per month, and it’s all done by hand. Due to the various craftsmen involved in the completion of one blade, there are various waiting lists and on average it takes one year from your initial payment. A good sword runs for 20-35k USD…and some handles are made from stingrays.
The history of the swords extend far back into murky tails of Japanese mythology and were compiled into a single narrative in the 6th century (The Kojiki). Even today the emperor has a small 7-branched dagger allegedly passed down from the legendary Empress Jingu hundreds of years ago.
The history is fascinating because we don’t know if Empress Jingu existed for certain, and it’s hard to untangle myth from reality. What were the “real” origins of the sword in Japan? The simple answer is that we don’t know, and the sword falls into the realm of “semi-myth” in Japan which only makes it more interesting to study.
Common Misconceptions People Have About Swords:
To many people the Japanese sword brings to mind horse-riding samurai from the Edo period, pulling the lethal weapons form their sheaths to be used in mortal combat. While there’s certainly no escaping the fact that it was a weapon, Paul explains that there’s a much deeper connection to nature.
Documentaries in the US focus on how sharp the Japanese sword is and whether it would break under certain condition and so forth. They don’t care about that in Japan. The other conditions are: it has to be beautiful and it has to reflect elements of nature. All the terminology associated with swords in Japan are all mostly related to nature (itami = wood grain pattern, yo = drifing/falling leaves etc.). Nothing relates to killing. In reality swords were expensive and people preferred not to use them.
This is also reflected in the terminology used to describe the crystalline activities in the steel. Japan’s oldest extant collection of indigenous poetry, the Manyoshu, was compiled around 759 CE. Many of the poems are tinged with a sentimental sadness (mono no aware), a feeling that can also be found with the appreciation of swords and in the motifs of sword fittings such as torn fans (impermanence) and weather beaten exposed skulls (nozarashii), etc, and just as many later verses make allusions to earlier ones, so were later swords made as copies (utsushi-mono: reflective works) of masterpieces of earlier periods, and sword shapes of previous eras to be reflected upon in later periods. Manufacturing methods remain relatively unchanged for over a thousand years, and the practice of producing utsushi-mono continues today.
Exciting Projects Paul is Working On
Paul is working closely with the Japanese tourism board to help promote sword culture and history. Specifically, he’s been appointed as the Samurai Spirit Ambassador by Fukushima prefecture. This entails acting as kind of a face/guide for those visiting the area.
“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.” Apparently this is Warner Herzog’s favorite documentary, too. (It’s got to be either pretty funky or deeply disturbing)
Favorite Movie: The Yakuza
Kyoto National Museum has a big exhibition coming up this September.