On the edge
The connection between the sword and Japanese culture is a very interesting one. Not because it is original (swords have always been admired by all the cultures using them), nor because the item itself is of the highest quality (it is not better than the swords used by other peoples all over the world), nor because the sword is one of the three imperial symbols (present-day Japan may have a lead here since is the only country retaining the title “emperor” but the idea of a sword as a symbol of power was definitely not a Japanese invention), nor because in Japan a whole universe was created around its use (schools of swordsmanship abounded in Europe too). What makes the connection interesting is that it remains present and vivid even though the people using the sword have been lost in the back pages of history.
The sword exists within the language as part of many ideograms, words, phrases and names of people and places, in the classical No and Kabuki theaters as part of their costumes and their plots, in period dramas and comedies played incessantly on the television and the cinemas, in many manga comics, in the collections of almost all museums, sometimes as original exhibits and sometimes as elements in paintings or ukiyo-e woodblock prints, in the statues of various deities as a weapon or as a symbol and, more active and functional, in many classical and modern martial arts; even those that don’t specialize in its use, exploit its image as much as possible. And, of course, in almost the entirety of Japan’s history and mythology, from the personifications of the powers that created the country to the militarists that destroyed it.
Given all the above, it is no wonder that pinpointing the contemporary Japanese’s appreciation for the sword is a hard task; an appreciation extending to its (specific and numbered) creators being registered in state inventories and their creations’ path in and out of the country being tracked and recorded. Certainly, this is owed at least partially, to the romanticism of both Japanese and foreigners who have draped it with unhistorical platitudes about “the soul of the samurai” but it goes way beyond that. Perhaps it has to do with the sword being the first symbol of an obsessive dedication to detail, the first effort to connect the elements of nature and the art and craft of many people, the ones making it and the ones using it, to a single item; like a cup of tea created by a master potter (who, incidentally, is held in the same respect as a master swordsmith) it is a small, tangible piece of perfection in an imperfect world.
Photo © Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.