USC Pacific Asia Museum

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The Japanese Sword: The Yoshihara Tradition of Swordmakers

March 19 to June 19, 2005

View the Exhibition Brochure [PDF: 4MB]

Three swords. Made by Yoshindo Yoshihara
Photograph courtesy of Leon Kapp and Aram Compeau.

The Japanese sword is the most efficient, intrinsically beautiful, meticulously hand-crafted icon in the world. Their method of manufacture has remained relatively unchanged for over a thousand years. Once forged, a sword undergoes a rigorous polishing procedure which brings out the qualities of the blade – a wood grain type pattern in the steel – and the crystalline structure
(hamon) along the blade’s edge. Hamon gives the blade a tough resilient edge that remains sharp even with heavy use.

The sword has always been highly revered within Japanese society. In Japanese mythology the first sword was found in the tail of a dragon and was
brought down from heaven with the ancient gods to begin the imperial line
of Japan. Swords are often dedicated to shrines and temples as gifts for the
residing kami (gods) or as vessels in which they reside. In many cases, it was the sword that wrote Japanese history. Later, during the peaceful Edo period (1603-1868), swords were viewed as instruments of guidance for warriors seeking enlightenment, steering the samurai on ethics of conduct and self-improvement.

Yoshindo Yoshihara with a sword.

With the restoration of power from the Shogun (military commander) to the
Emperor Meiji in the latter part of the 19th century, the samurai became a
relic of Japan’s ancient past. As Japan modernized, the call for swords
declined and the art of swordmaking was almost lost. In 1933, in an effort to
save the craft, Kurihara Hikosaburo, a sword enthusiast and a member of the
National Diet, began a project to recruit and train swordsmiths from all over
Japan. The first member to sign up for this project was a toolmaker, Yoshihara Katsukichi. Katsukichi was later to use the art name Yoshihara Kuniie and become one of the most famous swordsmiths of the Shôwa period (1926-1989).

To this day, Kuniie’s descendants continue to produce Japanese swords in the traditional manner. The exhibition displays examples of several generations of his family and their former apprentices. The current head of the Yoshihara school is Yoshihara Yoshindo who has recently been appointed an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Tokyo. The exhibition includes work by twelve award-winning swordsmiths, four of whom have been elevated to the rank of mukansa (above competition level) by the Agency of Cultural Affairs of Japan. The swords will be exhibited to emphasize their spiritual and artistic qualities and illustrate the different styles of workmanship and the expression of the individual artist.

Related Events:

  • March 19th, 2005, 1pm to 2pm
    The Life of a Master Swordmaker

    Yoshihara Yoshindo, a third generation swordsmith of the Yoshihara lineage, will talk about his craft and give visitors a glimpse into his life as a Mukansa level smith who has been named Prefectural Living Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government. Free with museum admission. In case of rain, this program will be postponed to Sunday, March 20, 2005, 11:30am to 12:30pm.
  • March 20th, 2005,1:30pm to 2:30pm
    The Art of the Japanese Sword:Beauty and Spirituality
    Exhibition curator Paul Martin will give an informative tour of The Art
    of the Japanese Sword
    as he guides visitors on an exploration of the religious and social symbolism of this beautiful art from. Free with museum admission.
  • April 16th, 2005, 1:30pm to 2:30pm
    Swordplay: Making and Breaking the Japanese Sword

    This lecture, with Professor Bruce Coats of Scripps College, Claremont, will examine the fabrication of Japanese swords and the Shinto rituals involved in their production. This program is part of the April Teacher Program and is sponsored by the Freeman Foundation. Free with museum admission.
  • Saturday May 21, 2pm
    Leon Kapp
    Lecture: Appreciating the Japanese Sword

    Leon Kapp, co-author with his wife Hiroko Kapp of The Craft of the
    Japanese Sword
    and Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths, will speak about the history and traditional craft of Japanese swordmaking.