Bladed Tools

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yoshikazu Ikeda

    Main guest

    Ikeda learned the art of knife-making from his bladesmith father. Since going independent in 1983, he has upheld the unique sakai-uchi smithing heritage of Osaka’s Sakai district, using techniques such as mizumoto-yaki and sumi-nagashi to produce blades that meet the demands of discerning professional users. In 1988, the Japanese government bestowed on Ikeda the prestigious title of Dentokogeishi (master craftsman), and since 2001 he has been chairman of the Sakai-uchi Traditional Bladesmiths’ Association.

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May 30, 2017

Bladed Tools

*You will leave the NHK website.

The image of Japan portrayed in overseas media often amounts to a somewhat contradictory blend of the traditional and the futuristic. The excitement of first-time visitors about their upcoming trip is fuelled in equal parts by images of samurai and robots, tea ceremonies and capsule hotels, and so some new arrivals may initially be surprised at how otherworldly the country doesn’t seem. 

Little do many of these holidaymakers realize that all they need do in order to glimpse a unique aspect of Japan that at once harkens back to the weaponry of samurai warlords, and represents (in more ways than one) the cutting edge of technology, is step into a sushi restaurant. 

There they will see an array of knives that, while superficially familiar, have evolved to fit the very specific needs of Japanese cuisine, where presentation is of paramount importance. A typical sushi chef will use as many as seven different types of knife on a daily basis for such tasks as skinning, deboning and slicing raw fish, as well as cutting and peeling vegetables and more. And the more demanding the task, the more specific the blade to match. 

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The texture of high-quality sushi depends on the precision of Japanese blades.

The form of the blades not only makes performing these various functions easier, it is also said to have an impact on the very flavor of freshly cut sashimi and other dishes. The chisel-ground cutting edge of Japanese knives––or wabocho (combining the characters “wa” [for “Japan”], and “hocho,” [“knife”])––allows for smooth cuts with a single stroke. As the Japanese word for tasty, “oishii,” pertains not only to flavor, but also to other traits like texture, temperature and juiciness, this difference is felt by many Japanese to have a direct impact on the deliciousness of the dish.

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Yoshikazu Ikeda has been making knives since his boyhood.

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While Western blades tend to be forged exclusively from hard––yet brittle––steel, Japanese blades are given extra strength by fusing a steel cutting edge to a softer iron base.

In addition to shape and diversity, there is something else that sets wabocho apart from Western blades: the very way they are forged and tempered. Japanese blades use techniques handed down from the blacksmiths who crafted the fearsome, curved katana swords so synonymous with the image of the samurai. While Western blades tend to be forged exclusively from hard––yet brittle––steel, wabocho are given extra strength by fusing a steel (hagane) cutting edge to a softer iron base.

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Special sharpening techniques ensure the smoothest possible cut.

 

In this edition of of Japanology Plus, host Peter Barakan pays a visit to the city of Sakai, which is part of Osaka Prefecture in Western Japan. Sakai has been known for bladesmithing since the Muromachi period (1333–1568), but it was during the Edo period (1603–1868) that blade making really took off. In this period of peace and prosperity, Japanese culture flourished. The emergence of sushi as the fast food of the age called for a range of knives for street-side vendors. 

The bonsai tradition, meanwhile, spawned a range of delicate shears and squeeze-scissors, a genre of tool that was also turned to the shaping of wagashi confections for the tea ceremony, and the fashion and beauty needs of an increasingly style-conscious populace. Indeed, this is the area of Japanese bladesmithing that continues to evolve, as we also find out with reporter Matt Alt’s visit to a factory in Gifu Prefecture that manufactures a range of scissors with accessible and eco-friendly design in mind, and also at a workshop in Tokyo that produces super high-precision medical implements that are in demand among brain surgeons around the world: a genuine link from Japan’s past to the future. 

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Since the introduction of shears to Japan in around the 6th century, a very wide assortment of scissors and shears has evolved. 

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Traditional Japanese sweets also rely on the delicate snips made possible by fine squeeze-scissors. 

 

Also appearing

Hideki Ino

For four generations, Ino's ancestors have devoted themselves to the art of sharpening knives at one Sakai blade forge.

Ryushi Takayama

Fourth-generation head of a Tokyo firm that crafts precision medical instruments, including fine scissors for use in neurosurgery.

Naohiko Hasegawa

Head of a firm in Seki, Gifu Prefecture, which for 80 years has specialized in the manufacture of scissors and other bladed implements.

Daisuke Kubonaka

Proprietor-chef of a sushi restaurant in Osaka's Sakai district, Kubonaka is a true connoisseur of knives.

*You will leave the NHK website.