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The Meiji Restoration, Knives and Tanebasami

Things changed dramatically for Tanegashima around the late 1860’s, as it did for other sword-making regions in Japan. The ending of the Edo Period marked by the Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought with it the banning of swords.

Families that had for many generations striven for perfection in the art of the blade found themselves without buyers. Sword-makers had the option to relocate to Tokyo to continue their craft for the government but not all could go – some had young families, some had ageing dependents or were themselves old.

It was a natural progression for these sword-makers of Tanegashima to move into the manufacture of knives, and so what were previously separate classes of craftsmen – sword-makers and smiths - merged into one guild.

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Tanebasami

As well as knives and tools required for the timber industry and agriculture, there was another local product Tanegashima’s craftsmen could turn to, the roman-style scissors that had been introduced by the Portuguese along with guns and crafted on the island since the 16th century. The scissors were known as Tanebasami – Tanegashima hasami, or scissors.

In the 1890’s something remarkable happened. Tanebasami won an Imperial Product Award and were selected for exclusive use in imperial education. Suddenly they were a must-have product nationwide, resulting in a production boom that lasted for decades. The island’s sixty or so craftsmen were kept busy at their production capacity for years, hand-forging about 600 pairs per day, feeding an insatiable demand. Such was the reputation of the product that by the 1930's forty percent of all scissors sold in Japan were sold as 'tanebasami', although only a fraction were the genuine article.

Tanegashima’s edge tool industry again flourished, so much so that families engaged in the industry were able to follow island tradition and educate their children to the highest standards. This was a double-edged sword, so to speak. Fewer chose the long and difficult family study of steel-forging, and craftsman numbers dwindled. There are still men and women on Tanegashima who are privy to the forging and sharpening skills of old but they are fewer today than ever before.

Visitors to Tanegashima often ask why the blades made there are so good, expecting to hear that the answer lies in Tanegashima’s unique steel. But it’s not the case – it was about 120 years ago that sand-iron and hagane steel were last produced locally in any volume. The steel used today is Japanese premium-quality carbon steel available to every knife-maker in Japan. It’s up to the craftsman at the forge to bring out the best in the steel. It is the forging and sharpening knowledge of Tanegashima's craftspeople that makes the difference.

Although today most Japanese closely associate Tanegashima with the arrival of firearms in the sixteenth century, the island's history of steel-forging is much older. To understand the quality of Tanegashima's knives and edge tools it is useful to look to the long lineage of the island’s craftspeople, guardians of the skills of master craftsmen of old, passed down from generation to generation, distilled over centuries, and still producing some of Japan's finest knives, scissors and shears today.


Web References

Tanegashima / Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/144748

Japan in the Edo Period: Global Implications of a Model of Sustainability
By Ei-Ichiro Ochiai
http://japanfocus.org/-Ei_ichiro-OCHIAI/2346

The Tale of the Tatara
http://www.hitachi-metals.co.jp/e/tatara/nnp01.htm

(We also read a few books published in Japanese but they went back to the library. We’ll update our list of references with those titles when we are able.)