Tue, Jan 7, 2020

Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum in Setouchi, Okayama Pref.: Home to a thousand-year history and tradition

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Clockwise from top left: lacquerer, polisher-sharpener, scabbard-maker, handle-weaver, engraver and habaki (wedge shaped metal collar) maker (Photos courtesy of Takemi Nishi)
By Sophie Dillard / CIR for Setouchi, Okayama Pref.

First and foremost, I believe it is important to explain the name of this museum in order to avoid any confusion. Setouchi city is born from the fusion of three towns, Oku, Osafune and Ushimado, and is located in what was once known as the region of Bizen (present-day Okayama Prefecture). The museum is situated in the former town of Osafune, thus its name Bizen-Osafune.

Setouchi city, and Osafune in particular, is famous for having been one of the most important historical centers of high-quality sword-making for centuries mostly thanks to its abundance of high quality iron. Its golden age spanned from the late Heian period all the way to the Muromachi period during which generations of highly skilled swordsmiths would work hard towards creating the finest swords for warriors all over the country, as well as further developing their technique.

This area was home to two of the most famous schools of the Bizen sword making tradition: The Fukuoka Ichimonji School and the Osafune School.  They are renowned, amongst other characteristics, for the choji midare, or splendid clove pattern, and the ‘mistiness’ of their hamon, or temper line. To put it simply, a hamon is a visual effect created on the blade during the hardening process and outlines the hardened zone. It is one of the main artistic value of a Japanese blade. Today, around half of the Japanese swords designated as national treasures have been forged in this small but rich corner of Japan.

The hamon is not the only feature that differentiates Japanese swords from its overseas counterparts. Indeed, overseas swords mostly consist of hard iron in order to obtain an extremely sharp cutting edge. However, hard steel is very brittle which means that a sword can easily be snapped in two in the midst of a furious battle. In order to avoid that, the Japanese came up with an astonishing metallurgical solution around a thousand years ago: the fusion of soft iron in the inside of the blade with hard iron on the outside.  Soft iron ensures that the sword will bend instead of break, and the hard iron will give it the legendary cutting edge that the Japanese sword is famous for.

Swordsmiths at work(Photo courtesy of Takemi Nishi)

It is with the goal to honour, preserve and convey the art of the Japanese Sword and this unique regional heritage that the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum opened its doors in 1983. But it is far from being your normal average museum! Indeed, this is the only public museum in Japan in which you can not only admire the beauty of the Japanese blades but also watch all the artisans who play a role in the creation of the Japanese sword at work in their studios. Which is something that is incredibly interesting! When we think of a Japanese sword, we usually only think about the swordsmith as he obviously plays a central role. But there are actually 6 to 7 other artisans who play a crucial part in the fabrication process of the Japanese sword, namely the lacquerer, the polisher-sharpener, the scabbard-maker, the handle-weaver, the engraver and the habaki (wedge shaped metal collar) maker (See top photo).

Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum (Photo courtesy of Setouchi city)
Artisans’ studio (Photo courtesy of Bobby Coutu)

Therefore, this one single traditional piece of art that is the Japanese sword encompasses an entire range of various traditional arts. But what adds to its beauty is the exclusive use of natural resources, whether it is the pure silk thread braided around the handle, the iron of the blade, or even the rice based paste used to glue together two pieces of wood to create the scabbard. There are no artificially-made components within a Japanese sword and its mountings. 

Today, the Japanese sword is no longer a weapon but a piece of art in its own right, yet its true beauty and uniqueness remain fairly unknown. The museum thus plays a very important role in opening up the mysterious world of the Japanese swords to both international and domestic tourists, making it an important source of knowledge and cultural hub.

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

Profile

Sophie Dillard

Sophie is from France and has been living in Setouchi for over 2 years. She is working as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) at Setouchi City Hall, and her job mainly involves promoting the city and its uniqueness abroad. With this goal in mind, she has organised and carried out a talk about Japanese swords in three European countries with a local swordsmith as the main guest. She has created a website in both English and French, and has given tours of the museum to tourists as well as influencers and travel agents. Her hobbies include chanoyu and cabaret dance. (Photo courtesy of Bobby Coutu)

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