The Soul of a Samurai

CERTAINLY we had equipment enough. It evidently required a whole kit of tools to ‘look at swords.’ Mild wonder seized me as my Japanese friend unpacked tiny mallets and wedges, a red pouch of white powder, large lumps of black crayon and soft paper for rubbings, a magnifying glass, and, as a last surprise, a stack of green kleenex. My orders were to learn what I could, but it was n’t time to start the questions yet.

The material for the day’s study, an unromantic collection of natural-wood sword cases, was arranged on a wide shelf. A quotation floated through my mind: ‘The sword is the soul of the Samurai.’ But surely something more on the order of Excalibur would fit that thought — jewel-studded scabbards and hilts of cunningly wrought gold. These swords were nothing but great knives in rough wooden cases — Mr. Otatsu was already drawing one out and peering intently at the plain steel blade.

‘Is it a good one?’ I asked to start conversation; then, ‘ Why is it?’ To me it seemed scarcely more an object of art than a stainless-steel vegetable knife.

‘ How does the grain in it look to you, sandy or woody?’ appealed Mr, Otatsu.

Trying to play the game, I stared at the blade and saw for the first time a delicate pattern like fine moiré silk in the steel, only it was pricked with microscopic pits so that it was actually a grain. How exciting — in polished steel! ‘It looks woody,’ I decided. ‘But where does it come from?’

Mr. Otatsu replied politely that it was the result of forging; that each swordsmith had a style in forging which depended on how the steel was beaten into the blade. These styles are as individual as handwriting, and a swordsmith’s work may be identified by the sandy, striped, or whorled pattern in the mirror-like surface. Under our close scrutiny other decorative features of the blade became apparent to me.

There is an irregular, rather frosted band which marks the cutting edge from the flat of the blade. ‘The hamone,’ explained Mr. Otatsu, ‘It is from tempering.’ The swordsmith covers his blade with clay before heating it and dashing it in water to temper the steel. The blade would be too brittle if it were all as finely tempered as the edge, so the cutting side is scraped clear of clay, leaving the irregular border which marks the hamone. ‘No one knows what this clay may be,’ continued Mr. Otatsu. ‘One man uses ashes, maybe sand, maybe little charcoal mixed in; who knows? It’s secret. And mixture of water for hardening secret too. One man, he used human blood — make very cruel swords.’ And Mr. Otatsu paused to see the effect of this news. My interest was lively now.

‘See that groove?’ said he. ‘That’s drain to let blood run off.’ Then, relenting, ‘No, that’s only story. It is to make blade lighter — that’s the truth. Here, try to swing it.’ Gingerly I did. ‘With one hand,’ insisted my tutor. I made a dangerous, if somewhat lame, gesture. ‘Now try this,’ he pursued, ‘and use one hand to hold horse.’ Quite excited by now, he handed me a grooveless weapon. It was so heavy that an aimless flop was all I could manage. ‘See why they have to be lighter?’ triumphed Mr. Otatsu. ‘You could n’t ride horse and cut off head with heavy sword like that, could you?’

‘No. No,’ I told him, ‘I could n’t.’

‘Have to swing these,’ murmured Mr. Otatsu. ‘Sometimes cut through two, three men at once.’

‘Why, they’d never stay there,’ I objected sanely.

‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘One stroke, very quick. More men for one stroke, better sword. Sometimes two, three. Sometimes four, five. New sword must be tested — then write on blade how many men one stroke kill.’

‘They could try them cutting up meat, could n’t they? ’ I suggested brightly.

‘Oh, no!’ cried Mr. Otatsu. ‘It must be living flesh. New swords sometimes given to executioner — try them out. But not enough criminals always.’ Mr. Otatsu became moody. ‘Then take new sword on dark night. Stand on corner. First person come around corner, cut off head. See how works. That was in olden times — oh, yes,’ comforted Mr. Otatsu, noting my frozen expression. ‘Later they write on blade how many men this sword kills, but who knows whether it tried out? You say for light one hundred candles. You don’t light candles. You say for car five hundred horsepower, but no horses. So you see on sword, “Five men at one blow.” That makes sword very valuable — but did it kill five men?’ Mr. Otatsu shrugged his shoulders. I shrugged mine. No wool was being pulled over our eyes.

Mr. Otatsu tapped his red cloth bag up and down the sword blade and covered it with a dust of powder which in turn he wiped off with the kleenex. This removed the oily sheen which protects against rust, and allowed the finish of the blade to show. And also the colors. Some steel is dark and blue, some is white. Each of the blades was like a person to Mr. Otatsu. He spoke of their shoulders and waists. How could I have thought their forms were monotonous? Some had long, graceful points. Some were broad-shouldered and serious. Some curved exactly in the middle; some below the middle; some were almost straight. Some had their greatest thickness like a ridge in the midst of the blade; some were thickest at the back. And for every variation there was a name — torii-zori, kochi-zori, Bizen, Soshu.

At last we came to one that was furnished more elegantly than those in the plain wooden cases. Its hilt was shark skin ornamented with little gold insects, and its scabbard was richly lacquered. The workmanship was exquisite, and the parts fitted one another so perfectly that the whole looked like a homogeneous piece. But Mr. Otatsu deftly drew the blade, which slid out easily. Imagine my surprise when he seized a small mallet and with one smart blow loosened the blade from the hilt, so that a handful of loose parts came away, and to my horror I saw the little gold insects, finely carved oval rings, the handle and guard, all in a heap on the table. The naked blade was stripped, exposing a square unpolished end. I thought Mr. Otatsu had wrecked a museum piece and I was thoroughly shocked at such vandalism.

’How shall we ever get it together again?’ I whispered hoarsely, for I felt like an accomplice.

‘That’s easy,’ returned Mr. Otatsu, smiling broadly. ‘Don’t you know they come apart? Sure. One pin to hold it — that’s all.’ It was astonishing, but true. The six pieces forming the hilt of the sword slipped in sequence on to the end of the blade, and the whole group was secured by a single peg, the mekugi, or ‘eye-nail.’ ‘ Very important — always bamboo,’ remarked Mr. Otatsu. ‘But not any bamboo — oh, no! Must be strongest kind. When bamboo flowers, tree takes all strength from roots. Then cut wood for mekugi.’ He looked at the tiny peg. ‘Very powerful,’ he said. ‘Before fight, do this.’ And he slipped the peg in the hilt and appeared to kiss it on each end. It was the custom, he assured me, for the moisture caused the peg to swell so its hold was infallible.

All Japanese swords are held together this way. They may be the small dagger type used to throw like a dart (or, in times of peace, ‘to cut finger nails,’ according to Mr. Otatsu), or any of the various short or long styles up to the huge votive swords too large ever to be swung. And as varied as the sizes — no, a thousand times more varied — are the characters of these swords. For legend gives the swordsmith a supernatural rôle. Just at the moment of tempering, the soul of the sword takes life from the soul of the swordsmith. The swordsmith’s mood at that instant determines the nature of the sword.

There is the example of the sword which would cut through anything from copper basins to floating feathers when wielded by its owner; but when planted upright in a stream it would not even cut a blade of grass borne to it by the current, for such was its spirit that it would do no wanton damage. It took a prize on that account, because the Japanese respect nobility in their blades. They are not merely weapons. Almost any magical quality in them is credible. And why not? The most famous sword of them all was drawn by Susa-no-o, the brother of the Sun Goddess, from the tail of the Eight-headed Dragon. What could be more wonderful than that? And still it’s true. I asked Mr. Otatsu. And besides, it is even now preserved in a temple as part of the imperial regalia of Japan.