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Japanese Swords Come to Life in New NHK Series

Acclaimed specialist Paul Martin brings new insights into the timeless art of Japanese swords in a bite-size documentary series that is also available online.



Mikazuki Munechika blade (©Tokyo National Museum)

A recent series by Japanese broadcaster NHK brings a novel approach to the appreciation of Japanese swords.

Hosting the show is Paul Martin, one of the foremost foreign experts in the field. A former curator at the British Museum who developed his interest through martial arts, Martin is now based in Japan. He has made it his mission to share the appeal of these cultural objects with the world.

"If you can understand swords, you are getting an insight into Japanese culture," explains Martin.

Actor Hiroki Nanami and Paul Martin (©Tokyo National Museum)

About the Series 

First broadcast in late January, the new series is called The Beauty of Japanese Swords: Famous Masterpieces. In it, Martin is joined by actor Hiroki Nanami, a former male role actor (otokoyaku) of the prestigious Takarazuka Revue troupe.

NHK's series is cumulatively about an hour long, split up into twelve short episodes. Each one introduces a famous Japanese sword, its story, and an explanation of its appeal. These episodes were broadcast on the English NHK World channel and a Japanese version on its e-tele (educational) channel.

As a result of the hosts' strengths, the show is both explanatory for experts and an easy introduction for complete novices. Nanami quizzes Martin on what makes the swords special and how to appreciate them."During the filming, the actress herself also grew to appreciate the remarkable beauty and craftsmanship of Japanese swords," Martin adds.

"People tend to get overwhelmed by the terminology. [Instead,] I would recommend people just enjoy the swords as works of art," Martin advises. 

Drawn to the History of Japanese Swords

Martin started his journey as an expert in an unusual way: as a security guard at the British Museum. 


"Like everyone else, I just thought that the swords looked cool, and I would go and look at them as they were displayed in the glass cases," he recounts. 

Since then, Martin worked his way up to curator of the British Museum and completed his postgraduate education. Now he lives in Japan where he studies and researches the swords and the artisans who make them. 

The specialist explains that he was initially drawn to the aesthetics of the blades. The hamon, or cutting edge of the sword, often features a wave-like pattern. This is derived from the particular procedure typical of forming and hardening the metal of Japanese swords. 

"I would recommend that people see the blade as a canvas, and see the patterns as resembling, for example, scenes in nature. They can think about the terminology later," he encourages.  

Examples of famous masterpieces appearing in the series include evocative names such as "The Demon-Cutting Sword" and "The Sword of Sincerity."

Mikazuki Munechika blade (©Tokyo National Museum)

How to Enjoy Japanese Swords

Martin has an impressive list of accomplishments that attest to his expertise in the field. He is a Hyogiin (Trustee) of The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Sword Culture (NBSK) and a recognized specialist by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT).

His most recent book for Swiss publisher Nuinui is in Italian. Titled Spade e Armi Giapponesi dei Trenta Piu' Famosi Samurai (Nuinui), it delivers an introduction to thirty Japanese sword masterpieces in a stunning picture book format. The book is also published in French. An English edition, Japanese Swords and Armor: Masterpieces from Thirty of Japan's Greatest Samurai Warriors in History (Tuttle), is also available for pre-order. 

Martin describes the universal appeal of Japanese swords in terms of their harmony of the shape and the beauty of the metalwork. In his words, "They are one of the greatest things made by man. They were weapons, but they also had to be beautiful."

Expanding Their Appreciation

Despite the craft and mastery that goes into Japanese swords, Martin argues that this is an underappreciated art. 


"People focus on the fact that they are weapons rather than art," he reflects. 

Giving an easily understandable example, he points out that a famous Japanese sword sold recently for $5 million USD. "But a Rembrandt, which is several hundred years younger, might sell for $40 million," he says. Martin posits that the level of skill is comparable. 

He points to many reasons that lead to Japanese swords having relatively low value compared to other types of art. For example, there is a logistical issue. When Japanese swords are designated as national treasures or important cultural property, they cannot be sold abroad. "If they could be sold abroad, their price would increase exponentially," he asserts.  

The sword specialist goes further, extolling that the relative lack of appreciation of swords as art is also contributing to a decline in artisans. This in turn makes it harder for the art to be maintained. 

The Next Generation of Japanese Sword Lovers

Martin was adamant about the need to cultivate people who research and showcase Japanese swords in English to a foreign audience. 

"There might be things that we [foreigners] notice that can appeal to a foreign audience," he says.

He also welcomes ways in which young people are drawn into this field. "I grew up watching Kurosawa movies, but every generation is different," Martin admits.

For example, younger generations are being drawn to Japanese swords by the manga-turned-movie series Rurouni Kenshin, the anime hits Demon Slayer and Touken Ranbu.


Here's to hoping a new generation of sword lovers will be stimulated thanks to this NHK series. 

Details of the series 


Author: Arielle Busetto

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