DUBAI: One of the world’s leading Japanese swords experts Paul Martin talked to Arab News Japan about his career and the 15 years he has spent living in Japan.
Martin was also a former curator in the Japanese section at the British Museum in London.
He holds an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of California, and is a trustee for the Nihonto Bunka Shinko Kyokai Public Foundation (NBSK). Additionally, he is a designated Bunka Meister (Master of Culture) for Kyoto’s Honganji Temple’s cultural organization, the Japonisme Shinko Kai, and a recognized specialist by the Japanese Government’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), where he advises various prefectures on how to promote swords and other aspects of Japanese history and culture to non-Japanese visitors.
Martin shared his inspiration & passion for katana saying: “I grew up learning karate from my father from the age of seven. So, I grew up hearing the terms ‘Bushido’ and ‘Samurai Spirit.’ I eventually got into the England Karate squad, and became lightweight English Karate Champion three times. Also growing up I watched Akira Kurosawa movies like Seven Samurai.”
Martin said his first visit to Japan was in 1998, as part of his job at the British Museum in London. He had to take special care of Japanese arms and armor. One of his other responsibilities was to bring objects back and forth from Japan.
About the establishment of his career as a Katana expert, Martin said: “I began at the British Museum as a security guard in 1993. However, when I was shown the Japanese gallery, there were Japanese swords on display. Although I had seen them in movies and on TV, I had never seen them up close before. I was very moved by their beauty, and there were excellent explanations beside them of their importance to Japanese culture as they are not regarded as merely weapons, but also as sublime art, that has religious and cultural significance. Someone in the gallery informed me that the head of the department was a Japanese sword expert. I was very surprised; I had no idea until that moment that such a career existed.”
Martin said he had realized his life’s dream at that moment. He then went on to study swords and joined the Japanese Sword Society of Great Britain. He also learned the Japanese language.
“By chance, five years later, a position opened up in the Japanese department. I applied and won the position,” he added.
About the challenges that he faced during his career, Martin said: “My first challenge was the lack of career promotion prospects in the Japanese department. I left the British Museum in 2003, and became a freelancer. I don’t think that any non-Japanese person has ever become a freelancer Japanese sword specialist in the history of the world except myself, so the challenges were enormous. I moved to Los Angeles for a year where I wrote sword articles for a local newspaper in the Japanese-American community. I also put forward a proposal for a sword exhibition at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. My proposal was accepted, and in 2005 I held an exhibition entitled, The Japanese Sword: the Yoshihara Tradition. The exhibition was a huge success and broke the visitor number records at that time.”
A year before the exhibition, Martin had moved to Tokyo, because he said he realized that if he wanted to become a Katana expert, he would have to study the same way the Japanese did.
“I also ended up translating sword books, and exhibitions, and became the first non-Japanese to win the sword appraisal competition in Tokyo twice,” he explained.
Martin said in order to distinguish Japanese swords from other types of swords, one has to realize that the “Japanese sword is not considered merely a weapon. There is an intrinsic beauty in the steel and the patterns of the hardened edge that is brought out by fine polishing and resembles natural phenomena that also aligns swords with the Japanese appreciation of nature.”
Most Katana swords are made of Tamahagane, or jewel steel. “Tamahagane is a type of bloom steel that is produced from smelting large amounts of sand-iron with large amounts of charcoal in a clay furnace,” he said.
According to Martin, a sword can be forged in about a week or 10 days. “However, due to swordsmith licensing restrictions and the number of supporting craftsmen, waiting times can usually take from about nine to eighteen months for the blade alone. There are currently about 200 licensed swordsmiths in Japan today.”
Martin worked on organizing an event to celebrate the life Japanese Emperor Gotoba, who was a swordsmith that lived between the 12th and 13th century.
“Emperor Gotoba was famous for being a renaissance man brilliant at all things; martial arts, equestrianism, poetry, sword appraisal,” he told Arab News Japan.
“Tired of being a puppet emperor, he tried to rise up against the military government in what is known as the Jokyu Disturbance (1221). In preparation, he invited the best swordsmiths in the land to the imperial palace and engaged in sword making with them in monthly rotation. The swordsmiths who were honored being able to make swords with the emperor were given the collective honorific title of the Gobankaji. Swords said to be made, or at least quenched by Emperor Gotoba bear a hairline engraving of a chrysanthemum in the base of the blade. This engraving is alleged to be the origin of the Japanese imperial crest. There are about fourteen swords that still exist today that are claimed to be made by Emperor Gotoba.”
“Emperor Gotoba was soundly defeated in the Jokyu Disturbance and exiled to the Oki Islands for the rest of his life. It is said that in an effort to console him, swordsmiths were also sent to the island in bi-monthly rotation so that he could continue his sword making. In 1939, Oki Shrine was built close to his gravesite on the Oki Islands. The event coincided with the 700th anniversary of his death. A group of swordsmiths were formed and ten swords were devoted to the shrine in his honor. This group of swordsmiths became known as the Showa (1926-1989) Gobankaji. These swords are on permanent display at the Emperor Gotoba Museum close to the shrine.”
Martin said he was surprised not many in Japan knew who he was and tried to gather a group of swordsmiths to pay homage to the late Emperor.
Those who wish to learn more about swords can visit Martin’s official website.