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How Japanese Sword Making Changed One British Man's Life

With manga and anime driving a global renaissance in the appreciation of Japanese sword making, one British man aims to communicate the art to the world.

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Tumi Grendel Markan explaining about Japanese swords, Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture (©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

Thanks to the influence of games, manga, and anime, the sword craze continues. As international interest in Japanese sword making grows, Tumi Grendel Markan, a 28-year-old from the United Kingdom, has found himself working at the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum. Markan serves as a multilingual support staff member at the museum, based in the Osafune district of Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture.

"It's been a dream of mine to work here," he says. "From the weight of its history, passed down for over a thousand years, to the numerous traditional crafts that come together to make it, this space allows me to convey the Japanese sword's many charms in a truly multi-sensory way."

Communicating Sword Making's Complexities

As a guide for international visitors, he participates in the monthly public traditional forging demonstration, using gestures to explain the work and techniques of the swordsmiths to a group of foreign visitors. Held every second Sunday in the workshop adjacent to the museum, the event showcases one step of the steel-working process, where tamahagane steel is heated in a traditional bellows-powered furnace until it is glowing hot, then repeatedly struck with sledgehammers on an anvil to forge it.

As a multilingual support staff member, he has been tasked with improving the museum's offering for visitors from abroad. Besides guiding tour groups and translating for spectators of the traditional forging demonstrations, he writes English captions for exhibits and has created the museum's first foreign-language social media presence.

Isamu Shiota, the museum director, highlighted the complexity of Japanese swords. "Japanese swords come with many specialized terms that can be challenging to explain," he noted. "For instance, when describing the hardened edge, nie refers to slightly coarse particles. On the other hand, nioi describes faint, misty particles that are hard to see without magnification." Shiota explains, "Often, these terms lack direct equivalents, or their meanings differ significantly from common usage. This makes accurate communication difficult without proper expertise."

Traditional forging of Japanese swords conducted in the workshop adjacent to the Sword Museum. (©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

History and Treasures of the Sword Museum

Originally established in 1983 as the Osafune Town Museum, since its foundation it has featured a permanent exhibition of Japanese swords. Between the mid-Kamakura period and the Showa era, the Osafune area was home to the Osafune school of swordsmiths. In 2004, with the formation of Setouchi City as the result of a municipal merger, it was reborn as a specialized museum dedicated to Japanese swords.

Known for its collection of approximately 400 swords, primarily from Bizen (the historical name for this area), the museum houses the unsigned national treasure Ichimonji tachi "Sanchomo." This sword was crafted by the Fukuoka Ichimonji school, which was active in Osafune Town 800 years ago, and is renowned as the cherished sword of the Sengoku warlord Uesugi Kenshin. The museum typically displays around 40 swords at any one time, with the Sanchomo featuring as the highlight of their annual special exhibition.

Sparking an Interest

Since childhood, Markan has been keenly interested in crafts. He says "the sparks and clamor left a strong impression" on him and kickstarted his interest in forging.

"Japan is renowned for its forging techniques, and on my 19th birthday, my mother gave me a book," he recalled. It was one of the few English works on Japanese swords, co-authored by renowned contemporary swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara. "As I began exploring weapons from around the world, I became captivated by the dominant presence of Japanese swords," he reflected.

Markan specialized in archaeometallurgy at University College London (UCL). During the summer break of his second year, he spent about a month in Japan thanks to a short-term cultural exchange study program, visiting various museums around Japan, including his current workplace.

Tumi Grendel Markan (center), guiding foreign visitors during traditional forging demonstrations, Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture (©Sankei Motohiro Wada)

A Life-Changing Experience

"I first saw Japanese swords at the British Museum" he reflects. However, he says that seeing them in their country of origin left a profound impression on him. "Seeing the museum suddenly appear from among the rural houses and glistening rice paddies, and then entering to be confronted by the countless Japanese swords was incredible. It made me realize that I wanted to work here someday," he reminisces.

After graduating from university, Markan spent 19 months in Japan on a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation scholarship. For the final six months, he interned at Setouchi City Hall and the sword museum.

It was only several years later, after the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, that he successfully secured his current position of multilingual support officer. Expressing his delight and surprise, he says, "To my mind, this is the perfect place to study Japanese swords. I felt incredibly fortunate."

Tradition, Decline, and Revival

The origin of Japanese swords is traced back to the late Heian period. They gained prominence during the mid-Kamakura period as Japan transitioned from an aristocratic to a warrior society. Swords were widely produced as weapons until the 1876 Sword Abolishment Edict, after which swordsmiths faced cycles of prosperity and decline.

Following World War II, the occupying government of the victorious allies, GHQ (General Headquarters, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers), implemented a host of policies, including the confiscation of most weapons. Though at risk of extinction, Japanese swords were recognized as works of art and were saved. They continue to be made today.

In recent years, the popularity of swords has only grown through games like Devil Kings and manga/anime series such as Rurouni Kenshin and Demon Slayer. Furthermore, the museum attracted significant attention when Sanchomo became a character in the game Touken Ranbu. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum saw approximately 2,000 foreign visitors annually.

English exhibition information made possible due to Tumi Grendel Markan's extensive specialized knowledge, Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture. (©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

'A Crystallization of Japanese Culture'

Following the successful acquisition of an Agency for Cultural Affairs grant for the promotion of Japanese swords at the museum, Setouchi City started recruiting for a multilingual support officer. As a result, Markan was appointed in May 2022 and assigned to the City's Culture and Tourism division.

Director Shiota expressed high expectations: "Markan is diligent and eager to learn, with a bright and curious personality. We look forward to his future growth, especially given the increasing importance of international publicity."

"Swords are a symbol of power and hold religious significance, such as being offered to shrines and revered as protective charms," Markan explains. "Each one requires individual specialists in blacksmithing, polishing, scabbard (saya)-making, lacquerware, weaving, and silversmithing. In many ways, it is a fully-comprehensive traditional craft and a crystallization of Japanese culture."

Looking ahead, he adds, "I've long admired craftsmen and want to remain in Japan to study Japanese swords and artisans further. While continuing my work with the museum, I aim to deepen my appreciation of Japanese sword making techniques and aesthetics. I hope to achieve this through direct engagement with artisans and learning about their craftsmanship."

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Read the article in Japanese.

Author: Motohiro Wada