How to become a swordsmith apprentice in Japan

The number of individuals who wish to become a heir in the tradition of Japanese swordsmithing by undertaking traditional apprenticeship in Japan has grown considerably. This is probably due to the internationalization of communications, giving a feeling that the very remote and peculiar culture of the Japanese sword is now more accessible, and it probably is.

There is neither secret entrance nor elitist criteria to become a swordsmith apprentice in Japan. However, information on the subject is scarce indeed, and cultural and linguistic obstacles have cooled more than one. It is probably for such reasons that so few foreigners have tried their hands at it. There is the legend of a Westerner who would have set up his own forge by the end of the 19th century but not much is known about him. Then there’s the better known Keith Austin — apprentice to the late “Living National Treasure” Miyairi Yukihira, actually at the same time than Kawachi Kunihira, Kiyota’s master — but he unfortunately passed away in 1997. Many more seem to have come and gone over a few years or even a few months stay, some practicing the craft to some extent in their home country, some others turning to entirely different fields.

There are, at the beginning of the 21st century, about 250 swordsmiths at work in Japan. No doubt each of them has his own opinion on what swordsmithing and its learning should be, his own habits and personality, and to a certain extent his own culture. The approach explained here relates to the author’s personal experience, his own understanding of the culture and customs, and also to his beliefs. There are certainly other ways that lead to a similar result, but probably not identical.


A classical apprenticeship implies for the apprentice to reside at his master’s. He lives among the family and help with daily chores. During apprenticeship, one obviously learns techniques, but mostly it is to learn to recognize quality and the conditions that allow it. Even with decades of practice, an isolated smith would not be able to make a fine Japanese sword simply because he wouldn’t know what it is. To live by one’s master allows to soak in his standards (which justifies the importance of choosing the best craftsman in a given field) and thus make them one’s own.

At the beginning of the 21st century, financial, social, and cultural considerations are at the root of the diversity in craftsmanship and related apprenticeship formats. Some were remunerated during the late 1980’s economic bubble, while many demand that a pension be paid. Some apprentices live by themselves and get to their master’s each day. There are no norms anymore, but for the expected quality.


There are no academic institutions where Japanese swordsmithing can be learned. To forge blades longer than 15cm in Japan, one must be licensed by the Ministry of Education. To obtain this license, one must go through apprenticeship under a licensed smith for at least 4 years, after which period one might be allowed to take the yearly test for new smiths. The test involves the making of one sword, from raw material to basic polishing and lasts about a week. Most apprenticeships last for about 5 years.

The decisive factor, thus, is to be accepted by a licensed smith as his apprentice.
Here’s how…

The master and the apprentice

The relationship between master and apprentice is personal, and for life. It is not that of a teacher and his student, for the master isn’t expected to teach anything. It is rather expected of the apprentice that he assimilates as much knowledge as possible while he shares his master’s life. It is not a superior and his subordinate either, as there is neither remuneration nor contract. There is no exchange: the relationship is authoritarian and one-way, from master to apprentice. It is not a partnership! It shall be the apprentice’s duty to pass down his knowledge to the next generation.

Upon entering apprenticeship, Kawachi tells the freshman that, if the master looks at a black crow and says the crow’s head is white, the apprentice’s only response should be “yes sir!”. In other words, it is by default that what the apprentices think is wrong, and what the master thinks is right, even if the truth is different, or even when apprentices and master think alike.

The master is a craftsman at work. The apprentice is the person who comes to his side, and who watches, mostly, and assists, depending on his abilities. Kiyota often says that the apprentice’s only real task is to be scolded.

It is interesting to note that master and apprentice, like any other denomination, have their worth only within a given relationship. In other words, the master is not a Master, but his apprentice’s master. Thus, the master is himself apprentice in front of his own master. There is no absolute denomination! There is no such thing as a Master. Beware those who pretend otherwise.


Conditions

To be accepted as an apprentice in a given traditional Japanese craft, considerations of race, nationality, social status, money, experience, abilities, talents, academic background, language, one’s curriculum vitae, and in most cases gender have no importance (certain crafts are still reserved for a given gender, although this is changing rapidly).

What, then, is necessary?

What follows could easily constitute an exhaustive list of the required criteria:
– Be liked by the master
Not by consciously charming him, but rather simply with one’s nature, just as strangers who like or dislike each other at first sight; the apprentice-to-be does not have much control over this.
– Patience
– Honesty
– Modesty
– Silence
– Devotion and sustained effort
– Open mindness and flexibility
(mostly related to unavoidable cultural tensions)

That’s it. If only one was to be isolated, it would be patience. A key element of all Japanese successes and of the Japanese culture in general. Patience as no Westerner can conceive it. In fact, even for the young Japanese, patience is developed along their education. In Japanese this is expressed as “gaman”. This word has no direct equivalent in English, but could explained through the words endurance, restraint, patience and tolerance.

Although the conditions are enumerated above, the method isn’t yet provided!
Read on…

Japanese swordsmiths are just human beings. Although their specific culture is unique, they have the same longings, fears and joys as do most human beings on this planet.

What is important to understand is that high-level craftsmen in Japan actually feel it is a big responsibility to pass down the tradition for future generations. They cannot let it be perpetuated by luke-warm souls who would let fall the very standards of their trade. Accepting an apprentice is a responsibility both in the face of the tradition and that of the individual thinking to make this life choice.

No matter how much you are convinced that you want to be a swordsmith or any other craftsman in a serious tradition, just keep in mind that desires, just like fears, are no less valuable or important than fog. They come and go, no matter their intensity, and living by them implies a life of slavery to the mind. Just think about what was the focus of your “lifetime desire” a year ago… !

No matter how much you are convinced that you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, you have no way of knowing what those sacrifices are. The only way of knowing is experience, and experience cannot be imagined or read about.

Japanese people are generally very aware of that. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter to them how much you are willing or strongly wishing to do this or that, because they know that this also shall pass.

What’s important is your very personality. Are you honest? Because a dishonest person — at every level of the expression — cannot possibly do good work. Are you patient? Because patience will be necessary for you to keep going when the fog of your enthusiasm will clear, leaving only sweat, bodily pains and boredom as companions on your journey. Are you inspired? Because a dull mind cannot make bright work. Are you a quick, intuitive learner? It’s not because one is taught that one learns. Are you ready to sacrifice? It doesn’t matter whether you think you are or not, the question is “are you?”.

It is very difficult to prepare oneself for this kind of assessment. It’s a matter of existence, of way of living and thinking. I know that my entire life up to recent years has prepared me to be accepted as an apprentice, but I wasn’t consciously preparing for anything but trying to materialize my ideal vision of myself.


But there are tricks that can help you avoid cultural mishaps and feel the way for yourself.

Patience. « All comes to those who wait. » This couldn’t be more useful in this case! What’s five years, ten years, if you’re serious about making a lifetime commitment?

Not hesitating. Hesitation is a demonstration of lack of focus. And lack of focus is a fatal flaw in any practice.

Acting the part. If you already behave as an apprentice (doing your homework without being told or asked, learning the language, customs and manners, keeping your focus straight, no matter what you’re told, always being available and serviceable but not demanding, etc), it will feel natural to accept you.

Taking the time to build relationships. A total stranger cannot become the apprentice of a total stranger. The implications are just too great to make such moves.

…and the list goes on!


As in Rome we do as Romans, the apprentice-to-be’s first duty is to assimilate the customs, to understand the culture (or at least accept it) and local history, and to learn the language. One is not expected to become a fine scholar of all things Japanese, nor a Shakespeare of the local language, but to hope to be served in one’s own language and according to one’s own customs when learning a traditional trade, one must be plainly arrogant.

Luckily, at least in the case of Japan, learning the culture can only elevates the one’s spirit, and assimilating the language is far from impossible. All that counts, as mentioned above, is patience. And patience is never missing in Japan.


So, it all starts with coming to Japan. First and foremost, obviously!
How could you become an apprentice sitting at your keyboard or in a coffee shop in some foreigh country?!

” For how long ? ”

That is the perfect wrong question! Wasn’t patience mentioned?!
Thus this question shall not be asked.
Indeed, this kind of patience!

Keeping warm and dry, making sure the Way is safe and that all bridges are sound, and then only getting on the move is not how this is done. It is rather about walking towards the goal and, once at the cliff, stepping in the emptiness with faith that the bridge will be under the foot, step after step.

It is by following the Way that It opens up,
not while contemplating it from a safe place…

It is important to understand that the true intention of the apprentice-to-be is more important that his words and actions. He who truly intends to become a swordsmith apprentice in Japan is already engaged, and that shows. He does not wait to be accepted to devote himself entirely. Thus, commitment will show to the master, and the choice will be more easily made.


Step by step

Once settled in Japan, while one is taking care of lodging and feeding oneself and of acquiring the basics of one’s new culture, one may start to get in touch with swordsmiths. Visits and talks are the way to go, without mentioning any apprenticeship, or at least not in the form of a request.

Visa issues are always a challenge. The “Bunka Katsudo” (Cultural Activities) visa is appropriate for the apprentice with a guarantor in Japan and no need to receive remuneration in any sort or way. Someone needing to work might want to look for a working visa, but that generally implies working 25 to 50 hours per week, which does not leave much time for apprenticeship. Otherwise, fall in love with a local and get married!

One will then identify one, maybe two individuals under whom becoming apprentice seem an interesting prospect. One continues to visit the craftsman to build the relationship. The apprentice-to-be must not avoid confronting his dream with reality. In many cases, dreams are to be kept as such, and dreamers shouldn’t shy away from admitting this to themselves. One must not be afraid to change one’s mind before engaging in apprenticeship, because once embarked, any quitting makes the whole adventure a tremendous waste of time and energy both for the master and the apprentice.

At some point, the possibility to become someone’s apprentice will show up naturally during conversation.

What happens at the right time does not need to be forced. If one forces, it means that is it neither the right time nor the right thing to do.

The apprentice-to-be must, however, beware those who would offer an apprenticeship too easily. The best craftsmen are the most reluctant to accept apprentices because they know the way and know that only one out of thousands, if not more, has what it takes. Thus, one should always address the best craftsman in a given field. Personal preferences of taste, personality or attitude shouldn’t prevail on the only thing that really counts: the quality of the work.

Because quality is truth.


Note to the reader:

Those pages were written with the hope to satisfy an actual need. Indeed, many individuals contacted me to obtain the same information. I have therefore decided to make an entire section out of it on this Web site.

This being said, I remain open to helping all those who would be undertaking the adventure. If you did read (several times) these points and if you are settled in Japan or about to do so, it will be my pleasure to give you hints.

You must understand that I am in no position to refer anyone to anyone else. That does not forbid me from offering often useful guidelines.

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