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'Tanebasami' hand-forged scissors - a morning with the makers

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The younger Mr Tabata The elder Mr Tabata Mrs Tabata Mr Ikenami


A fairly steady stream of magazine writers make their way to the Tanegashima island offices of Ikenami Hamono ('Ikenami Edge Tools'), in part a result of Japan’s thriving magazine industry and in part due to the continuing appeal of the island's traditions. The company showroom has a display of magazine stories about Tanegashima’s scissors and knives that have appeared over the years, and there are some heavy-hitting national titles amongst them.

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Today the company is hosting a writer and a photographer from ‘Clim’, a Fukuoka-based supermarket co-op magazine with a predominately female readership doing a piece on tanebasami, as Tanegashima’s famous scissors are called. The forges will be fired up for their visit, which is lucky for me as it means I can tag along and see the scissors being made while I’m on the island. It’s still something of a mystery to me how steel can be worked by hand from two small solid blocks into an elegant pair of blades. I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s done.

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from block to blade

I once asked how long it would take to make a single pair of Tanebasami from scratch. About seven hours was the answer but really, it wasn’t such a clever question because no-one would do it. Tanebasami are made in batches, from forging to finishing.

We arrive at the company factory to witness the process, an open-fronted workshop located at the Tabata family home on the hill outside Tanegashima’s main town of Nishi-no-omote. The space looks like it has been used forever, and the plethora of old commercial-quality senpuki electric fans testify to the heat generated by the forges. The workshop is unpretentious and utilitarian, and the forges are hot.

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warm work

The four craftspeople with Ikenami Hamono are all involved in the making of tanebasami. There are the two Tabata brothers, Mrs Tabata, and Mr Ikenami himself, who is mainly concerned with the final sharpening and assembly. From start to finish it’s a wonderful process to watch. Listening to the question and answer sessions between the visiting journalist and Mr Ikenami I do a quick on-the-sleeve calculation. Between the four there’s over a hundred and fifty years’ experience, not counting the years Mr Ikenami spent in the workshop at his father’s knee.

Mr Ikenami is nowadays mostly occupied with the management side of the business and today it is the Tabata brothers who are forging, shaping and selecting the matching blades. I find this matching really interesting – after initial forging, the best partner needs to be found for each blade. It’s one reason tanebasami scissors are traditionally given as wedding gifts here in Japan. They represent a perfect marriage, two parts working together for all their lives. Sadly, some blades never find a partner. They are quietly sent back to the forge.

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hammer and anvil

The first stage of the process is the hottest – the red-hot white-1-steel is forged into a basic do-it-from-here shape, ready to be ground and worked into blade and handle. Both brothers are working at this stage, expertly handling the tongs from forge to forging hammers, occasionally using a hand hammer and anvil to work the steel. The photographer from the magazine, with a much bigger camera than mine and a lot more confidence, darts around the men as they work the heated steel, with me trying to get a few shots and keep my feet out of his at the same time. At the end of the process I have a few blurry low-light photos, the pro photographer looks satisfied, and there is a selection of blades-to-be on a tray, laid out like yakitori sticks.

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matched, marked... ...shaped... ...and drilled

One of the features of the workshop I like most is the work islands, big, solid tree stumps sitting on the concrete floor, bearing the marks of years of use. They offer a kind of balance to the steel and machinery, and when I have a workshop I think I’ll follow the example set here.

The bellows quieten, the younger Mr Tabata sits himself at one of the islands and proceeds to mark each blade with a centre punch. Even here, there must be craftsmanship. How will a pair of blades work without the perfect fulcrum? The rudimentary blades are paired and marked, and when every blade is ready Mr Tabata carries the well-worn wooden tray to the grinding wheel for the initial shaping process.

That accomplished, the tray moves with Tabata san to the bench drill, where the work of drilling the fulcrum holes is done. At this point today Mr Tabata’s older brother takes over, to hand-shape the elegant handles and impart the slight lateral curvature to each blade that is key to the cutting ability of the scissors.

I start to have a better time with my camera. Perched out of the way of the pro photographer and with a good view of proceedings I can try to catch a hint of the art in the making of these scissors. From start to finish it is meditative work, and it obviously suits the Tabata family temperament.

The younger Mr Tabata has shaped the blades, now the older works the pairing into their final shape, at times hand-working the steel. The first time he does so the writer gasps and starts scribbling, it really is quite unexpected. After the very tip of the handle is levered and worked into its distinctive decorative roll, the long thin handle is lightly hammered into a slight arc and placed in a pattern housing, then with good old-fashioned muscle power it is bent into the timeless shape of a tanebasami handle, as they have been for hundreds of years. Some delicate work with the hammer and anvil, measuring, comparing, holding up to the light, and a recognisable pair of scissors emerges, then another, and another. At this stage each pair is but half way to completion, yet to be sharpened, ground and polished into its final handsome presentation. There is much more work to be done, but that's for another day.

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start with a slight arc... ...a bit of leverage... ... a handle! fine adjustments and a well-balanced pair


From forging, pairing and grinding, and finally shaping I get a sense of shokunin katagi, which my dictionary translates as the spirit of a true artisan. Mr Ikenami tells me that for the Tabata brothers work is a form of relaxation. He shakes his head as he tells me how they know how to draw the best out of the steel, one master craftsman expressing wonderment at others. I realise that watching the process once is a far cry from learning anything and that there’s a depth of skill in the work I’ve seen today that I simply can’t recognise. But I can guess that for Tabata san and his brother there’s deep satisfaction in every practised movement in such a familiar space, knowing that the products they are working into shape will last a lifetime, and longer.

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We finish up with some island goodies, soft-shelled sweetened peanuts, fat grapes and some lovely green tea. Up here on the hill is a nice place to be. Work done, my six companions sit and relax together in the middle of a warm and sunny weekday, engaging in some of the light-hearted banter between strangers that seems to come so naturally to Japanese.

I mention the black iron-laden sand that I saw sparkling at Kanehama Beach on the east coast of the island, where I’d spent the early morning, and it's decided we should all go. Another visit to the beach? Sounds good to me.

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