The Fine Art of Polishing a Japanese Sword
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I’m a big fan of PBS Hawai‘i and many of its programs. Among my favorites are: “Finding Your Roots,” “Independent Lens,” “Nature,” “Nova” and “Antiques Roadshow.”
On “Antiques Roadshow,” which airs Monday nights, I’ve seen people bring in their Civil War-era swords on several occasions. Most of them are interested in learning more about the history of their sword rather than its value. They seem to view their sword as a family heirloom to be passed on to future generations so they can learn about an ancestor and the role he played in our country’s history.
While watching an episode one night, it suddenly dawned on me that I should be thinking about passing on the World War II Japanese officer’s sword, or gunto, that my dad gave me many years ago. He said a Japanese officer presented it to him while he was serving in the Military Intelligence Service in Fukuoka, Japan, performing interrogation duties just after the end of World War II. My guess is that Dad had interrogated the Japanese officer, although it never dawned on me to ask him for details. I know that my dad would have treated him with dignity and respect. My hope is that the officer presented the sword to Dad in appreciation for his kindness.
The World of the Nihontö
When I examined my sword, I found that the blade was rusted. Since I intended to pass it on to the next generation in my family, I wanted to have an expert remove the rust. So, I went online in search of someone in Hawai‘i who could do the work. I found that person in Robert Benson, an acclaimed expert in polishing and restoring Japanese swords and owner of Antique Japanese Nihontö.
With my gunto in hand, I went to visit Robert with great anticipation. That anticipation grew as I stepped into a room in his home workshop, which was filled with beautiful Japanese art and other collectables. As we sat down to talk, my eyes were drawn to a centuries-old Japanese sword in a beautiful and intricately detailed scabbard along with other fine artifacts that lay on the table. My mind was racing. I had entered Robert’s realm of Nihontö, Japanese swords of feudal Japan.
People like Robert consider Nihontö to be the world’s highest art form involving the use of steel. After doing more research after my first visit, I learned that Robert Benson is considered one of the foremost Nihontö authorities outside of Japan. I was captivated by the art and motivated to delve deeper into his fascinating world.
Nihontö is to the samurai what lightning is to thunder — one does not exist without the other. When the Sengoku Jidai, or “Age of Warring States,” ended in 1615, so, too, did the samurai as we knew them. Samurai then took on the responsibility of governing through civil means rather than by military force. In 1876, it became illegal to wear swords, unless one was a member of the national armed forces.
The history and lore of the samurai are a source of cultural pride to the Japanese people. Through books and films, stories of the samurai have captured the imagination of the Western world, as well. More importantly, the traditional samurai code of honor, discipline and morality — known as bushidö, or “the way of the warrior” — are imbedded in the psyche of the Japanese people. It is the basic code of conduct for much of Japanese society.
All things samurai, such as weapons and armor, are highly valued and sought after by Nihontö art and antiquities collectors in Japan and around the world. There are superior quality swords that were forged by master swordsmiths centuries ago that have legendary status. Some of these precious cultural treasures are kept in museums with few opportunities to view them. Others are bought and sold by collectors or held in private collections. This is the world that Robert Benson has thrived in for 56 years.
Robert is a licensed togishi, a polisher and restorer of Japanese swords. He is highly respected in the United States as well as internationally for his skill and knowledge. He is also in demand as an appraiser and as an agent in helping clients certify their swords with the preeminent Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai, the Society for the Preservation of the Japan Art Sword. Certification is a complicated process that can take up to a year to complete and Robert is an expert in navigating the process. After a sword is judged, the Kyokai certifies its general rank and prestige, and that determines its value. Rank, prestige and value are what drive the Nihontö art and antiquities world.
Robert also buys and sells swords, armor and all things associated with the genre. The most expensive sword he has ever sold was a highly coveted Masamune, which he sold for $250,000. The Japanese government has declared Masamune, the legendary master swordsmith of the late 13th century, as an official “Japanese Treasure.” The oldest swords that Robert sold were two Hoki Yasutsuna treasures that date back 1,100 years — a Yasutsuna blade that has been certified a “National Treasure,” and the oldest surviving katana (long, curved blade) in all of Japan. It is now the prized possession of the Tokyo National Museum.
I came to see Robert Benson primarily as a togishi, a polisher, which was his entry point into this unique profession, as well. I was curious to find out what had inspired him to get into this traditional Japanese art form and how he had gotten started in the field. As he told his story, I flashed back to the old television series, “Kung Fu,” which featured a character named “Grasshopper,” a young American boy raised to be a monk in a Shaolin Buddhist monastery and mentored by Master Po.
Robert’s story isn’t quite as dramatic, but as a gaijin (foreigner) wanting to be a student of this traditional Japanese art form where bushidö is foundational, he, just like Grasshopper, had to earn the respect of the sensei.
Robert developed an interest in Japanese swords while in the Air Force stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa between April 1959 and November 1960. He was assigned to the munitions storage area, where he inspected, control-burned and exploded unsafe munitions. At night, he would train with other students learning Shörin-ryü Karate, one of the oldest styles of karate. It was at these night sessions that he witnessed old karate masters wielding a sai, a weapon that is said to have originated from an ordinary farm tool as a defense against the sword. In 1609, the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa) was invaded by the Shimazu clan of the Satsuma Domain of southern Kyushu with the approval of the Tokugawa shogunate. Shimazu prohibited Ryukyuans (Okinawans) from owning swords, which led to the development of the indigenous martial art of karate.
Interestingly, Robert said his interest in swords was sparked by his being told that he could not own one. He searched for information on Japanese swords with no success. Remember, those were the days before information was instantly available on the internet. He persisted, however, and eventually found an article by Sato Kanzan-Sensei, a leading expert on Japanese swords and co-founder of the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai. It lit a fire in him.
After being reassigned stateside for the next 22 months, the stars aligned and in August 1962, Robert was sent back to Japan, this time to Kyushu. The base offered classes in Japanese language, history and culture — Robert enrolled in all of them. While his fellow airmen were going to bars in their off hours, Robert was immersing himself in Japanese culture.
Not long after settling in, he acquired a hunting knife with a deep curved cutting edge from a colleague as payment for a debt owed him. Having read articles about Japanese swords that were polished with needles, he proceeded to purchase sewing machine needles. He went through a hundred of them to polish his knife. His scratched and worn fingers were testament to his tenacity and temperament to do the repetitive and exacting work required of a togishi.
That experience added more fuel to Robert’s burning desire to learn more. After hearing Robert’s story, I felt that his determination dictated his destiny.
In 1964, two years after he had returned to Japan, he was assigned to Saitama-ken. A three-month-long search for a traditional sword polisher led him to Shimura Tansaku-Sensei. Robert recalled that on his first visit to Shimura-Sensei, the master saw in him a gaijin infatuated with swords that would surely be short-lived. But the gaijin showed up to learn nearly every day for the next six weeks. Impressed, Shimura-Sensei agreed to teach Robert. But, first, Robert had to accompany Shimura-Sensei to Meguro in Tokyo and bring along $100 to purchase polishing stones. Sensei assumed that would be the last he would see of this gaijin. But it was Robert’s defining moment and he seized it. At the age of 26, his journey on the path to become a togishi was forged in stone.
Gaining proficiency in the art form was a steep learning curve. There was so much to learn: the Japanese terminology, the proper use of the tools, the myriad of polishing stones, the polishing regime, and the techniques and nuances all made for a daunting task. Just learning to sit in the contorted position while polishing the blade could take months before finding any comfort in it.
The polishing stones are cut from different quarries in Japan and range in price from $10 all the way up to $3,000. The complexity of the polishing regime consists of the Shitaji, which represents six degrees of polishing stones, from very coarse to hard stones of fine grain. They are called Bisui, Kaisei, Chunagura, Komanagura, Hato and Jito. And then there’s the Shiage, the final stages of the polishing regime: Tsuya, Nugui, Hadori, Shitamigaki, Uemigaki, Sugikiri and Narume.
You get the idea: It’s labor-intensive, and to a layman, tedious and mundane work. However, Robert doesn’t see it as drudgery. He gets excited as he advances a sword from one stage to the next with the desired results. People, even families, trust him to bring their valuable cultural art piece back to its former glory. That is far from being mundane work.
Robert was well on his way to becoming a togishi under the tutelage of Shimura-Sensei. Robert also spent time learning from Takano Kenichi-Sensei, who was both a swordsmith and a polisher. Subsequently, with good fortune, he also became a student of Ono Kökei-Sensei, a past Living National Treasure of Japan in the finishing aspect of sword-making. Ono-Sensei died in 1994. Robert spent time with all three sensei and gleaned skills and techniques from each of them.
By 1967, after four years of apprenticing under these highly regarded sensei, Robert had grown into a proficient polisher. He had just completed polishing the blade of a naginata, a heavy pole weapon. At the time, Robert was also studying to become an appraiser with Murakami Kosuke-Sensei, who is considered a top-ranked appraiser in Japan. He showed his naginata to Murakami-Sensei, who suggested that Robert enter it in the prestigious annual polishing competition sponsored by the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai. Ono-Sensei also saw Robert’s naginata and agreed that he should enter the blade in competition, and so he did.
Robert’s naginata was awarded the Dorokusho (Diligent Endeavor Award) and he was proclaimed the first foreigner to be granted the honor. He was 30 years old at the time. The award meant he was now a licensed togishi.
Those accomplishments all happened while Robert was in the Air Force stationed in Japan. After returning to the states, Robert began moonlighting, polishing swords and establishing a small business and a good reputation. When he retired from military service after 24 years, he had 10 years of experience in polishing swords under his belt. He decided to dedicated himself to the art form full-time and built a thriving enterprise.
Knowing the complexity and exacting nature of the art form, I asked Robert if he gets into a certain mindset when he sits to polish a sword. After a slight pause, he replied, “You don’t see the edge you are working on — you have to go by feel and by sound. You get into a meditative state and you establish a rhythm, like the Buddhist mantra, Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu. In that state, each pass of steel on stone sings.”
In December 1977, Robert-Sensei made Hawai‘i his home. He has shared his knowledge and skills with apprentices who have exhibited the desire (Robert-Sensei would say fire) to become a togishi. Today, his 19-year-old son Nickolas is his apprentice. An apprentice has to be young and possess the fire, temperament and an innate sense of artistry to even consider becoming a togishi. Nickolas exhibits those qualities.
I asked Nickolas the same question I had posed to his dad earlier: What inspired you to get into this field of work?
“I love the history, the preservation aspect, the art form and that it’s a unique occupation,” he said. And, he lives with his sensei.
Robert-Sensei had walked a path rarely taken by a gaijin. Through sheer determination and guidance from his sensei, he had reached his desired destination. Now, another path has appeared, where father and son must walk. And so the journey continues.
Getting back to my first visit with Robert-Sensei, which was to get my gunto polished — he assessed it and said it would cost $120 per inch to polish my sword, which has a 25-inch blade. That’s $3,000. Robert-Sensei added that the sword is valued at $600, so it would not be worth it. He noted also that my gunto is not valued in the art and antiquities market. Robert was frank, yet courteous in assessing my gunto. He also advised me on how to care for it. I was plenty good with that, thanked him and went on my way.
As I was leaving him that day, I wondered why he had even taken the time to see me. I had sent him photos of my sword prior to my visit — I think he could see that it was not worth the investment. And, yet, he gave this curious stranger — a gaijin in his world — the time to assess my sword and to advise me on how to care for it. Now, knowing his life’s story, I think I understand why. Metaphorically, Robert-Sensei is like a finely forged Nihontö polished by decades of extraordinary life experiences — a life guided by his bushidö, his code of conduct.
The monetary value of my gunto is of no consequence to me. My hope is that my dad’s name and the role he played in World War II will live on in this sword as it is passed from one generation to the next. On a deeper personal level, this sword symbolizes that moment in time when mutual respect and gratitude were shared between an American Nisei soldier and a Japanese officer. Therein lies the sword’s true value.
To learn more about Robert Benson’s company, Antique Japanese Nihontö, visit www.bushidojapaneseswords.com. Robert can be reached by phone at (808) 988-9908, or you can email him at email@example.com.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and most recently served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.