Japan’s Master Swordsmith Kunimasa
of Hyuga City
It was a refreshingly cool afternoon in October as we drove along the Miyazaki coastline toward the home and workshop of swordsmith Ichiro Matsuba Kunimasa. I was full of anticipation—excited to meet the sword-maker and admire the award-winning katana swords that have earned him the title of ‘master’. Kunimasa, also known as the Swordsmith Kunimasa of Hyuga City, is one of a select few granted the unique honor of Mukansa (“without judgment”) by the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords. Typically, all swords submitted to the society’s ‘masterpiece’ exhibitions must undergo a juried evaluation before securing one of these coveted spots. But because of Kunimasa’s exceptional craftsmanship, his swords are automatically reserved a place in the exhibitions.
When my traveling companion and I arrived at the smithy, we were greeted by the swordmaster himself, wearing white work pants, a matching wrap-shirt, and dark tabi socks (socks that separate the big toe and other toes). A patterned cloth mask covered Kunimasa’s face as a safeguard against COVID-19, though the twinkling creases of a smile still shone through his eyes. With a hearty “Hello!” he instantly put us at ease. We followed him into his house, soon to discover what exactly makes his works truly ‘masterpieces’.
Inside his workshop, Kunimasa creates swords that take on a new life and meaning from their ancestral samurai roots. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 abolished almost all forms of Japan’s feudal systems, swordsmiths diversified their skills into making kitchen knives and other finely edged tools. Remarkably, the art of sword-making survived this period of reform, and a handful of artisans, including Kunimasa, passionately continue the traditional craft.
Our host led us into a small tatami room containing a small table, bookshelf, and most intriguingly, a sword-length metal cabinet against the far wall. Kunimasa brought in cups of coffee as we took our seats. Even the largest of the three mugs looked small in his big, sword-making hands. “A German friend made this cup for me,” said Kunimasa in near-perfect English, “and he’s about this tall!” He held his hand up well above his head. Kunimasa set the cup down, then turned to the metal cabinet and opened it to reveal a collection of swords carefully swaddled in sumptuous fabric.
As he drew one of the swords from its sheath, I began to understand why he was called ‘master’. The blade length glistened in the light, and I held my breath before its sheer beauty.
As we sat on the tatami mats sipping coffee, Kunimasa shared his inspirations. As a child, Kunimasa practiced kendo, iaido, and karate. Still today, martial arts is a big part of his life, and he is a teacher of kenjitsu and aikido. In his twenties, Kunimasa enrolled in an agricultural studies program to learn the art of rose cultivation in California (which accounts for Kunimasa’s superb English). Kunimasa eventually returned to Japan with plans of furthering his martial arts training, and commissioned a sword for his kendo training. Little did he know that it would lead to his encounter with his soon-to-be sword master, Kobayashi. At their very first meeting, Kobayashi suddenly asked Kunimasa to become his apprentice. This caught the young agriculture student completely off guard.
“I don’t know what made him ask me, but I thought he was joking!” mused Kunimasa. “I turned his offer down at first, but he insisted, so I changed my mind. He told me, ‘It’s easy!’” Kunimasa laughed. “He lied.”
After a combined seven years of tutelage and continued studies in Okayama, Kunimasa opened his first shop in the late 1990s. The first swords he completed were in his favorite style from the Nanbokucho Era (1336–1392). During this period, the odachi or ‘long sword’ was developed for use with the cavalry, needing extra length to be used with horses. It was blades in this style that won him the first of many prizes from the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords.
After carefully wrapping the katana back in its fabric cover, Kunimasa pulled out another sword, this time shorter. It is important to note that a finished katana sword is not the stand-alone work of a single master smith. In addition to Kunimasa, who is the bladesmith, up to eight different master craft-persons work to complete a single sword, including a hanaki (goldsmith), a polisher, and a saya scabbard-maker. Inlay, engraving, and enamel work are just some of the other processes a sword may undergo on its way to completion. This labor-intensive collaboration can take up to three months to finish a single sword.
Even Kunimasa revels in the mastery of his fellow artisans. “This lacquer is perfect,” he says, holding a finely made scabbard up to the light. I gaze at the black lacquerwork with small, gold ornamentation and delicate details on the sword handle, imagining each artisan’s devotion to achieve such an exquisitely finished piece.
Kunimasa took us back outside for another surprise: a private demonstration of his expert swordsmanship. In the middle of the lot, his artfully timed movements brought a bamboo post down in a matter of seconds. We stood motionless, stunned by the sword’s actively sharp blade and Kunimasa’s swift and precise gestures. He made it look easy.
Following patient instructions from the master, my traveling companion tried his hand with the art of bamboo disembowelment. He did it gracefully. Next was my turn.
Holding the sword, I noticed fewer ornamental details on its sleek, polished blade and the modest handle compared to the examples we saw inside the house. I stood poised, feeling the weight of the samurai sword in my raised arms. Then I focused my concentration on the bamboo post in front of me. Scenes of sword-wielders from samurai movies elegantly slicing through wooden posts filled my mind. As I let gravity carry my arms down, I imagined a satisfying sensation of my razor-sharp blade cutting through the bamboo stake in one, fell, swoop. However, to my utter horror (and the collective gasps of onlookers), I missed my mark entirely, driving the blade tip into the gravel with a resonating ‘ping!’ There were many things I’d anticipated for my visit to meet the master swordsmith, but this wasn’t one of them.
I doubt a real-life samurai would have been so forgiving of my blunder. Luckily, Kunimasa had a solid sense of humor. “Ahhh-ah, yatchatta (you goofed),” he said playfully, as he took the sword in his hands. Through my mortified apologies, he repeated his step-by-step instructions, and without hesitation, handed back the sword to let me try again. The second time, I was successful.
At the end of our short but action-filled afternoon visit, I realized that it was a quiet conversation over a cup of coffee that had made the biggest impression. I had encountered not only a disciple of an ancient tradition, but a person who has lived a varied and adventurous life, that through chance and circumstance, sent him down the path to become a master swordsmith.
As the Swordsmith Kunimasa of Hyuga City waved us goodbye with the same twinkling smile in his eyes, I felt reassured knowing that Kunimasa, and other talented artisans like him, will carry on the katana sword-making tradition well into the future.