INTRODUCING...

Japanese blade craftsmanship in Tsubame-Sanjo

日本の刃物

Colours and Clothing in The Tale of Genji: A Talk by Dr Jennifer GUEST

The Tsubame-Sanjo region in Niigata Prefecture, Japan, is home to many small factories and workshops where some of Japan’s most distinguished metalworkers practice their craft, producing everything from tableware to agricultural tools. The region’s bladesmiths in particular have garnered a nationwide, as well as worldwide, renown for producing a large variety of high-quality, specialised blades, including every kind of knife, razors, scissors and thousands of varieties of hoes. 

In September 2018, Japan House London hosted three leading craftsmen from Tsubame-Sanjo, in a talk about Japanese blades – the talk was part of the programme of events marking the Biology of Metal exhibition at Japan House (6 September – 28 October 2018). In a rare opportunity, guests heard about the age-old techniques used to handcraft Japanese razors, billhooks and hoes in Tsubame-Sanjo.

Japanese Razors by Mizuochi Ryoichi of Sanjo Seisakusho

The Japanese straight razor wa-gamisori is unique to Japan. Originally used by samurai to shave the tops of their heads, during the Meiji period (1868-1912) straight razors came to be predominantly used as beard-shaving tools in barbershops. Composed of a bar of iron with steel forged onto the blade portion, Japanese razors are hand-made one-by-one using age-old forging techniques. The blade is sharpened to an extremely thin edge, capable of cutting hair on contact. In 2014, Mizuochi Ryoichi was acknowledged as a Master of Traditional Crafts by the Japanese government and is currently one of the last remaining Japanese razor craftsmen in Japan.

Billhooks by Hinoura Tsukasa of Hinoura Hamono

The knowledge for manufacturing nata – the Japanese hatchet or billhook – first came to Tsubame-Sanjo in 1661 but the introduction of chainsaws and cheap imported materials in the latter half of the 20th century caused a decline in demand. However, one father and son team in Tsubame-Sanjo continues to preserve the age-old techniques, manufacturing nata entirely by hand. Founded in 1905, Hinoura Hamono workshop is run by the third-generation Hinoura Tsukasa with his son Hinoura Mutsumi. The father, Hinoura Tsukasa, exclusively produces handcrafted knives that combine function and beauty of form. In 2012, he was recognized as a Master of Japanese Traditional Crafts by the Japanese government.

Hoes by Kondo Kazutoshi of Kondo Seisakusho

The hoe is one agricultural tool that varies in appearance and design across Japan, due to regional variations in soil characteristics, making it unsuitable for mass production. During the first half of the 20th century, there are believed to have been as many as 10,000 varieties of hoes. With the mechanization of agriculture, demand for hand hoes declined, though over time requests for hoe repair work poured into Tsubame-Sanjo from around the country. Kondo Seisakusho was founded more than a century ago and continue to create high-quality hoes. Metal craftsman Kondo Kazutoshi is highly skilled in manufacturing a vast variety of hoes and his work contributes to supporting the diversity of Japanese farming culture.