Japanese Blacksmiths Forge On (Photos)Culture
Blacksmiths are artisans, forging red-hot iron into blades with expert hammer strokes. Just as we could not feed ourselves in a world without farmers, our lives would be very different today without this key profession. Civilization itself would have come to a halt in the Stone Age.
Vital Members of the Community
There are many kinds of blacksmiths. Some create swords that are works of art, and others forge knives for professional chefs. There are also smiths who specialize variously in scissors, carpenters’ tools like chisels and planes, and farming tools like spades and sickles.
Among these, the most common and closely linked to people’s everyday lives were nokaji, or “field smiths,” named so as they typically worked outdoors. Among the items they produced were agricultural implements, household knives, nata hatchets for woodcutters, and harpoons.
They were also accomplished at repairs like replacing worn-down hoe blades. Local communities relied heavily on their skills and sought their advice whenever they had problems with their tools.
Yet today the once vital nokaji have all but disappeared. Industrial transformation, a decline in the number of farmers and woodcutters, and the replacement of traditional hand tools by machines have stripped them of their former indispensability.
The Pleasure of Handmade Tools
In today’s society it is all too easy to buy whatever we need, a situation that threatens the blacksmith profession. For example, fishmongers, supermarkets, and department stores all sell fish that are pre-sliced. Even salads and fruit are increasingly sold ready to eat, removing the need to slice or peel foods.
A downside to this overreliance on the service industry, though, is that an increasing number of children are unable to use bladed tools properly. Japan built itself up as a technological superpower on the knowledge, techniques, and enterprise of its artisans, including blacksmiths. Yet, even the finest traditions cannot survive without support.
There is still time to preserve the special role of blacksmiths if people can rediscover the enjoyment of using handmade tools for such pastimes as cooking, gardening, pursuing a do-it-yourself hobby, or camping. Rather than buying everything ready-made, people should enrich their lives by taking the time to create one-of-a-kind experiences.
(Originally published in Japanese on March 29, 2017. Banner photo: The Katagiri Kajiya blacksmith in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Photographs by Ōhashi Hiroshi. Text by Kakuma Tsutomu.)