Top 10 Famous Japanese Swordsmiths from History and Today
A Japanese Swordsmith or Katana-kaji is an expert in forging Japanese swords (Nihonto). This bladesmithing tradition dates back to ancient times and has evolved through generations of experts, allowing the art of Japanese sword making to remain very much alive today. Forged from Tamahagane steel, the steps include quenching, folding to remove impurities, and adding mountings as seen on a traditional Katana.
In this article, we look at the top 10 Japanese swordsmiths and how they contributed to the art of Japanese sword making.
1. Goro Nyudo Masamune
Goro Nyudo Masamune is known as one of Japan’s greatest swordsmiths. Frequently referred to as Okazaki, his name was believed to have been possibly fabricated by the Tokugawa shogunate to enhance their dynasty’s prestige.
Though the specifics of Masamune’s life are somewhat obscure, he is known to have crafted high quality weapons for the samurai, including the Tachi and Tanto. As the Katana gained prominence over time and became the most popular, many of Masamune’s swords were modified. As a result, most of his remaining works today are Katanas and Tantos.
Historical evidence suggests that Masamune created his swords in Sagami Province during the latter part of the Kamakura period, between the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. He honed his craft under the guidance of experts such as Saburo Kunimune, eventually passing down his skills and knowledge to the Soshu School of swordsmithing.
In contemporary Japan, the highest honor for Japanese swordsmiths is the Masamune Prize. This award is reserved for blacksmiths who have demonstrated skill in their work and serves as a tribute to Masamune’s enduring legacy as a master swordsmith. Today, his fame has extended beyond historical circles into contemporary media and anime, confirming his status in popular culture.
2. Sengo Muramasa
Sengo Muramasa, also known as Muramasa, was a renowned Japanese swordsmith who crafted exceptionally sharp and high-quality Katana blades during the Muromachi period. Although he was popular during his lifetime, little is known about his personal life. However, he is best known today for creating the infamous “Wicked and Cursed Katanas.”
Muramasa has become a prominent figure in modern media, with the legends surrounding him often portrayed as intense, brutal, and even eerie. These stories mainly focus on his Katanas, which are depicted as bloodthirsty weapons that have the ability to take control over the samurais who wield them.
The origins of these myths and legends can be traced back to the anti-Tokugawa movement, during which Muramasa’s Katanas were associated with a series of misfortunes that befell the Tokugawa dynasty, many of which wielded his blades. The revolutionary movement seized upon these stories and further mythologized them, resulting in the chilling myths and legends that are popular today. This interpretation serves as a testament to the profound cultural and historical impact that Muramasa’s work continues to have.
3. Amakuni Yasutsuna
Amakuni Yasutsuna, a legendary swordsmith, is often credited with being the oldest Japanese swordsmith and crafting the first single-edged longsword (Tachi) featuring a curved edge. This significant development in swordsmithing supposedly took place around 700 AD in the Yamato Province, a time when Japan was influenced by Chinese swords.
As the leader of a group of swordsmiths in the service of the ruler of Japan, Yasutsuna played a vital role in equipping the Emperor’s warriors with effective weaponry. The legend is that Amakuni and his son sealed themselves in the forge and prayed to the Shinto gods for seven days and nights. They then collected the best iron sand ore and refined it into a sword.
The true craftsman behind Yasutsuna’s work remains a mystery, but elements of the sword’s design may have inspired the samurai swords that followed. Despite the scarcity of surviving works bearing Yasutsuna’s signature, he is often credited with the creation of the double-edged Katana, Kogarasu Maru, which is commonly associated with the Yamato schools of the Edo period from the same province.
4. Hikoshiro Sadamune
Hikoshiro Sadamune, an apprentice of the illustrious Soshu Masamune, is also recognized as one of Japan’s most esteemed swordsmiths. He is believed to have not only preserved Masamune’s legacy but also surpassed it in terms of the quality of his blades. Such was the closeness of his relationship with Masamune that he was considered his son, even adopting the “mune” suffix from his master’s name.
During the peak of Japanese swordsmithing, Sadamune’s craftsmanship was so outstanding that some critics and historians argue that his blades surpassed not only those of his mentor, Masamune, but also those of other contemporaries. Like Masamune, Sadamune originally crafted Tachi blades which were later converted into Katanas. Presently, there are surviving Daisho sets (a paired long and short sword set) which stands as a testimony to his skills.
5. Shizu Kaneuji and Kanenobu Clan
Kanenobu is a famous name in Japanese swordsmithing that refers to both the legendary craftsman and his influential clan. The Kanenobu clan is renowned for their expert creation of samurai weapons, such as Katanas, Wakizashis, and spears, possibly spanning over six centuries.
Since the blades created date back to the mid-13th century, the founder of the clan, Shizu Kaneuji, was believed to be a student of the legendary Masamune. He firmly established the clan’s reputation within the Mino School – Tokaido style of sword making. Starting in the 17th century, the Kanenobu swordsmiths have been recognized as leaders in their field, contributing significantly to the Koto and Shinto eras (9th to 18th century).
6. Nagasone Kotetsu
Nagasone Kotetsu, the son of an armor blacksmith, rose to prominence as an early Edo-era Japanese sword maker under the name Nagasone Okisato. Around the age of 50, following the defeat of his patron Ishida Mitsunari, Kotetsu moved to Edo to establish his trade as a swordmaker.
His blades were renowned for their exceptional ability to penetrate helmets and armor. However, due to the widespread acclaim of his work, numerous fakes emerged, some of which were so well-made that even Kotetsu couldn’t distinguish them from his own creations. Despite countless imitations, Kotetsu’s impact on the art of swordmaking remains significant and has endured throughout the years.
7. Shintogo Kunimitsu
Shintogo Kunimitsu is a prominent Japanese swordsmith who specializes in forging Tantos, a traditional Japanese short sword or dagger. He is credited as the founder of the Soshu-den tradition, a significant school in the history of Japanese swordsmithing.
Most of what is known about Kunimitsu pertains to his craftsmanship and the knowledge he passed on to his disciples. In fact, his most notable student was the legendary swordsmith Masamune, who is believed to have significantly absorbed and adopted Kunimitsu’s techniques and styles in his own work. The oldest existing piece attributed to Kunimitsu dates back to 1293.
8. Yoshihara Yoshino
Yoshihito Yoshihara, also known as Yoshihara Yoshindo, is a highly respected Japanese swordsmith. Born in 1943 from a long line of renowned swordsmiths, he honed his skills from an early age under the tutelage of his grandfather, the first-generation Yoshihara Kuniie, and his father, Masahiro Yoshihara. Today, he is accredited by the Japan Art Swords Preservation Society and recognized as a holder of intangible cultural property by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Yoshihara’s sword making journey began in 1965 when he received certification from the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Inspired by his brother Soji’s success in the New Masterpiece Sword Exhibition, Yoshihara committed himself to the art of sword crafting. His dedication bore fruit in 1972 when he won the Grand Prize at the New Masterpiece Exhibition and the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Prize. He also became the inaugural recipient of the Takamatsunomiya Award, the highest honor of the New Masterpiece Sword Exhibition.
Over the years, Yoshihara has had numerous students, and has been honored three times with the task of crafting the “Sacred Treasure Sword” for the Ise Jingu Shikinen Sengu, a significant Shinto event. His swords have attracted high-profile personalities, including acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg. By 2018, he had produced over 500 swords and continues to foster the next generation of master craftsmen from his blacksmith shop in Tokyo. He is one of the most popular Japanese swordsmiths today.
9. Akitsugu Amata
Akitsugu Amata (1927 – 2013) was a modern Japanese swordsmith who followed in the footsteps of traditional Japanese swordsmiths. He attended the Nihonto Tanren Denshu Jo, a specialist sword making school operated by the renowned swordsmith Kurihara Hikosaburo. At the age of thirteen, Amata began learning the fundamentals of sword-making and spent the next six years under Kurihara’s guidance.
Post-World War II restrictions by American forces initially halted traditional sword production in Japan, but when the ban was partially lifted, Amata obtained an official swordsmith’s license in 1954 from the Cultural Properties Protection Committee.
Despite an eight-year period of disability due to illness at the age of 33, he bounced back and earned numerous awards, including the prestigious Masamune Prize at the New Katana Sword Exhibition in 1968. He won the same honor in 1977, 1985, and 1996. In 1997, he was recognized as a Living National Treasure of Japan.
10. Masamine Sumitani
Despite being in a family who owns a business in the production of soy sauce, Masamine Sumitani chose a different path to become an esteemed Japanese swordsmith. He studied under Sakurai Masayuki, adopting the Bizen tradition, renowned for its sturdy swords. He distinguished himself through choji midare or “clove patterns” along his blades’ hamon and also specialized in forging tosu knives.
Honored with numerous awards, Sumitani achieved national acclaim. He co-founded the Zen Nihon Toshokai, a significant platform for swordsmiths and earned the status of mukansa, marking his works as beyond judgment in competitions. His craftsmanship and contribution led to his recognition as a Living National Treasure in 1979.
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