Born Hiroki Kiyota (first name, surname) in Amagazaki, between Osaka and Kobe, Japan, he followed the common path of all young Japanese until High School, where he decided to join an institution proposing the regular curriculum enriched with arts and craft studies.
Japanese students generally decide what to do next a year before graduating. Although Kiyota considered many options (art teacher, architect, cook), the idea of being a craftsman, and more precisely a swordsmith, crossed his mind. As his counseling teacher had nothing to say about this, he went on to find out for himself by visiting the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK), or Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords.
He was very impressed by the refined beauty of swords, and told himself that he might choose to become a swordsmith. But it is upon his second visit to the NBTHK, when he formally had an appointment with a curator, that he was introduced to who became his master, Kawachi Kunihira. Kawachi accepted him, and asked him to start the following year, right after his graduating in High School. His apprenticeship started in July 1994. He is the second apprentice, right below Takami Tarokuniichi. At this time, Hiroki enters apprenticeship while allowing himself to give up anytime should he not be convinced.
But right away he feels he is at the right place and makes great efforts to learn well his trade. During these six years of apprenticeship, the idea of dropping out doesn’t cross his mind even once. It is then in 1999 that his master suggests he takes the test then co-organized by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the NBTHK, which was held in Shimane prefecture, Southern Japan, at that time. The test, intended for swordsmiths-to-be, consists of the making of one sword from scratch up to basic polishing within about a week. After having received the licence necessary to legally make swords in Japan, he stayed at his master’s for another year during which time he produced the sword illustrated in the oshigata (sword rubbing and tracing) presented in the Kunietsu Sword Gallery — a Bizen-style tachi.
He settled as an independent swordsmith in Shimizu (now called Aritagawa), Wakayamaprefecture, in 2000, and remained there until may 2009, when he decided to move out to build his very own forge, about two kilometres away. A friend lent him at no cost a family property that Kiyota may use freely.
Each year, the NBTHK organizes a competition for every sword-related craft. To this day, Kiyota has submitted a sword alsmost every year. All have been accepted in the top ten of the general ranking “nyusen” and two have received the Prize in Recognition of the Effort (Doryokusho).
This ranking is very important in Japan for it determines the market price of a given smith’s work. It is said that, to survive, a smith must rank within the first 30 positions (this includes the top prizes, which can be attributed to more than one swordsmith). Above these categories exist about ten Special Prizes such as the Emperor Honorary Prize, the NBTHK President’s Honorary Prize, and so forth. If a smith is to enter this category 10 times, he shall be declared Mukansa (without supervision). Kawachi is one of them. Even rarer is the title often referred to as “Living National Treasure“, which exists for many traditional arts and crafts in Japan, in the case that such a master in skills and spirit does exist. In each domain, there is never more than one or two craftsmen that have reached such a level of mastery, personal accomplishment, research and reflection of the ideal spirit of the craft.
For Kiyota, today’s swordsmiths are on an upward hill in regards to the quality of their work, although he still considers them far from the ideals. “Our greatest responsibility is to continue a tradition already over 1000 years old, and to upgrade the standards of quality.” He therefore tries to grasp the essence of the best swords ever produced – during the golden age, i.e. the Kamakura period, from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, hoping to reproduce their refined beauty, “while not reproducing the exact same swords.”
“The world of japanese swords is one of collectors and appraisers, not of makers” says he. “When I study a sword, I try to understand in what state of mind was its creator when he made it, what was his intention, instead of simply assessing the sword’s aesthetical properties.”
Well aware that most people cannot afford a japanese sword, he hopes that they will anyhow aim to better understand their unique appeal. Kiyota is now building his new forge in Tooi, not far from Shimizu.
Please visit the Kunietsu Gallery