Strict Apprenticeship causing shortage of Japanese Swordsmiths

In his book Bladesmithing with Murray Carter, Carter-san describes the extensive apprenticeship he underwent to become a 17th-generation Yohimoto lineage bladesmith. As you can see from the photo above, it is far from a glamorous pursuit at the beginning. Apparently this long and grueling process is not so attractive to young Japanese, and the number of smiths is rapidly decreasing.

From RocketNews24:

In 1989, the Japanese Swordsmith Association counted 300 registered swordsmiths in the country. Not 20 years later, that number has been nearly cut in half, with only 188 smiths currently registered, and their average age rapidly increasing.

Swordsmithing isn’t just an industry, it’s also part of Japan’s cultural heritage. To preserve the craft, Tetsuya Tsubouchi, one of the Japanese Swordsmith Association’s directors, says two things have to be done. First, new swordsmiths have to be trained and certified to replace the craftsmen who’re retiring or otherwise being lost to old age, but there are some major hurdles in the way.

Not just anyone start hammering away and producing swords for sale in Japan. Practitioners are required to first serve as an apprentice under a registered swordsmith for a period of five years. These apprenticeships are unpaid, meaning that blacksmithing could be considered one of Japan’s harsh “black enterprises.”Those who want to complete the training must either burn through savings they amassed working in another field (before quitting that job to start their apprenticeship) or rely on financial support from their families. But while Japanese parents are generally willing to invest in their children’s education, it’s pretty difficult to convince Mom and Dad to cover all of your living expenses for a half-decade so that you can take a shot at making it in as niche an industry as swordsmithing. As a result, Tsubouchu says that though there’s actually been a recent uptick in apprenticeship applications, very few apprentices actually make it to the end of their five-year training period.

Even if they do complete their apprenticeship, prospective smiths still have to pass a national certification test, which takes place over a period of eight days. The test is offered only once a year, so if you fail, you’ve got a long wait until you get to take another swing at it. Oh, and once that’s all done, the estimated cost to set up a swordsmithing business of your own is 10 million yen (US$91,000), an amount of seed money that’s kind of hard to scrape together when your last paycheck was five years ago.

This makes Murray’s, and everyone who completes the process, accomplishment all the more remarkable and impressive.

I remember when was working on the Gambier Folk Festival in college, a nationally recognized bluesman made a comment, “If Blues music is going to survive, it is going to be because of middle-class white boys” – the ones who were actually learning to play guitar in the old style.

I think there is a parallel there. To survive, these ancient traditions might be carried on by folks who are not necessarily ethnically Japanese.


  1. Ourorboros says:

    In the old days, in Europe, apprentices were at least given room and board with a little spending money. In restaurant work there are still Stages, where cooks work free for a short term. Usually this is to get some time working under an esteemed chef. But even then it isn’t uncommon to be given room and board.
    I have also read that the licensed swordmakers themselves can find the work unprofitable. Government regulations limit their output. While there is a balance of quality and quantity, these guys still need to make enough swords to make a good living. So there is little incentive to be free labor for 5 years just so you can put down $100k to barely live.

    I tend to think the trades would all do better if they get ride of the old system where newbies just do step and fetch for years. Morimoto (the Iron Chef) was told decades ago to leave Japan if he wanted to move up the restaurant work faster, instead of moving up incrementally according to a calendar instead of by skills. In the old restaurant world new guys just hauled stuff around before even trimming vegetables. Sushi work wass similar, being a few years before they could cook and cool rice. Now there are accelerated programs.
    Of course, in the old days labor was cheap, so room and board for cleaning & being dumb muscle wasn’t bad. But hasn’t restaurant food really grown since people are moved up by their growth in abilities? Why restrain people because they’ve only been in the field for three years?
    I notice a lot of people doing the old arts & crafts in Japan were actually born into families that did these things. Their families either had to support them or they returned to the field after having helped out in the shop when young. I believe on of the initiatives in teaching knife making is in Tosa, where the city built a center to share knifesmithing knowledge. There were some independent knife makers & some students. Essentially a community college for knife making. Instead of hording secrets, makers could collaborate & apprentices could learn from different smiths.
    That’s the kind of initiative the sword making world needs.

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Strict Apprenticeship causing shortage of Japanese Swordsmiths

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