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Japanese Swords | About Seki City

Background

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The city of Seki (関) has continued for 750 years to be a major production area of Japanese swords, and boasts the country's largest capacity for output. At its peak, there were several hundred swordsmiths living in Seki. And now, it is the only city in Japan where the swordsmithing tradition continues to thrive. While there are several blacksmiths actively working throughout the country, Seki is now the only place where an organized group of swordsmiths still exists.

A sword made in Seki is a beautiful and refined example of the Japanese sword. The materials necessary to make a Seki sword are iron, water, pine charcoal, and yakibatsuchi (焼刃土) - a mixture of water, clay, ash, and other ingredients. The pine charcoal is used to build the fire for heating the iron, and the water is used to cool the red-hot iron. The yakibatsuchi is used to create the sword's blade pattern. Seki swords are made not only by the swordsmith, but actually will pass through the hands of several different craftsmen before it is completed.

In the early years, swordsmiths were divided up into four separate regions, but eventually came to be gathered together in Seki. The town of Seki was established in the early part of the Kamakura period. It was around this time that a self-governing organization (sort of like a self-defense militia) was established to protect the town.

The founders of the swordmaking tradition in Seki were the swordsmiths Motoshige (元重) and Kaneshige (金重), who arrived in Seki in the period spanning the end of the Kamakura period to the beginning of the Muromachi period. Gradually, more swordsmiths began to gather in the city. As Seki became established as the town of swordsmiths, periods of turbulence - such as the upheaval during the Nanboku-cho period (the Northern and Southern Courts period), and the Onin War of 1467 - led to a rising demand for more weapons. A large contingent of samurai warriors became proponents of the Seki sword, as it was well suited for use in battle, and the city responded to the rise in demand by producing them in mass quantities. Following the Onin War (応仁の乱), as various wars and skirmishes took place, Seki swordsmiths would enter a golden age of high productivity.

As the country began to become unified under Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), the Seki swordsmiths came under the employ of various daimyo lords throughout the nation. As a result, the Seki swordsmiths were scattered across the regions, but as they settled into their new locales, they contributed to the advancement of the local swordmaking industries. The biggest turning points would be the sword hunts (in which armies of a new ruler would scour the country, confiscating the weapons of the former regime) initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the advent of an era of peace ushered in by the Tokugawa shogunate following the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Subsequently, the demand for swords fell sharply. However, by shifting to the production of cutlery for daily use (such as kitchen knives) and the still-moderate demand for weapons, the swordsmiths were able to continue their work, and the city of Seki thrived.

After the Meiji Restoration, in 1876 the Haitorei (廃刀令) edict was declared, abolishing the use of swords. Swordsmiths around the country were forced into abandoning their trade, and the Seki swordsmiths were no exception. However, thanks to the efforts of a few swordsmiths, the tradition was kept alive. In 1934, the Seki swordsmiths put up their own private funds to establish a Japanese swordmaking school in the city. In 1938 they built a training facility for forging in the same location. This succession of tradition has led to the development of many new swordsmiths.
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