Polishing a Japanese Sword

Polishing a Japanese sword is crucial to bring out the characteristics many sword enthusiasts worldwide seek. Traditional Nihonto (Japanese swords) like the katana, tachi, and wakizashi look more formidable and elegant, with their blades shimmering when the spotlight shines.

Unlike polishing conventional blades like knives, Japanese sword polishing is an art. Experts say transforming a newly-forged blade into a masterpiece takes longer than forming the sword.

But why should you polish a Japanese sword? Who’s responsible for polishing these blades? Are there types and stages of polishing these bladed weapons? Has the process changed over the years? Worry no more about these riddles. We’ll answer them in this post.

Why Polish a Japanese Sword?

Japanese swords are some of the most beautiful blades worldwide. They are culturally and historically significant, too. Although these weapons might seem flawless on their display stands, Nihontos have unique artistic details, setting them apart from non-Japanese blades.

Polishing these swords lets their characteristic features shine. For example, sword enthusiasts can marvel at the unique temper-line pattern (hamon), faint yet distinct grain styling (jihada), and the glistening tamahagane steel surface (jigane).

These features won’t be visible without polishing, and the world won’t appreciate the Japanese sword as a work of art.

Moreover, polishing allows experts to assess and evaluate the sword. It also helps facilitate the identification of the bladesmith or swordmaking tradition.

Polishing a Japanese sword also enhances its deadly effectiveness and unparalleled functionality. After all, a samurai is only as formidable as their swords. Polishing ensures the blade’s leading edge (ha) can slice through the thickest tatami and cut down a massive opponent with only a few strikes.

How to Polish a Katana

Who Can Polish a Japanese Sword?

Although ordinary folks can polish a kitchen knife, only a skilled polisher can earn the title of Togishi or Japanese sword polisher. This individual is different from the swordsmith (katana-kaji).

Creating a Japanese sword requires weeks to months of processing irons and (satetsu) and forging raw tamahagane steel into a sword-shaped object. Only then can swordsmiths pass their creations to a Togishifor polishing, refining, and sharpening.

polishing a katana

A togishi polishing a Japanese sword by Paul Martin on YouTube.

Becoming a Togishiisn’t a walk in the park, either. Aspiring Japanese sword polishers must apprentice for ten years. They must also pass certification and licensing from the Society for the Preservation of the Japan Art Sword (Nihon Bijitsu Token Hozon Kyokai).

Although a non-Japanese (gajin) can learn from Japanese masters, the path to a full-pledged Togishi is challenging. Language barriers and cultural differences are some barriers many gajins must overcome.

Stages of Polishing a Japanese Sword

Polishing a Japanese sword occurs in two stages and can be as complex but more extensive than smithing the blade. Each phase requires polishing stones with varying fineness or coarseness to bring out the sword’s unique attributes.

how to polish a katana

A Japanese sword polisher in action by Tamahagane Arts on YouTube.

Foundation Polishing: ShitajiTogi

A katana-kaji hands a newly forged Japanese sword to a togishi for the first stage of polishing. The master sword polisher sets the blade’s geometry or shape, focusing on straightness. Togishis are responsible for fixing any imperfections from the swordsmithing process.

One can consider this step as a bridge between swordsmithing and final polishing. It allows the togishito remove imperfections, straighten the blade, and fix damaged sections. Sometimes, the togishi reshapes the blade to conform to the sword’s standards.

The togishi uses various polishing stones to achieve the desired results. These polishers include the uchigumori-jito, arato, kasei, uchigomori-hato, kongoto, koma-nagura, binsui, chu-nagura, and suita.

For Japanese swords with fullers (hi) or longitudinal grooves on the blade, the togishiuses a burnishing needle (migaki-bo) to make the indented surface as smooth as possible.

Finishing Polishing: ShiageTogi

After the first stage comes even more complex work, demanding a keen eye for detail and steady hands to ensure a fine-looking sword ready for the display.

Shiagetogi focuses on ensuring the blade features a mirror-like finish, allowing its unique features to shine through. It includes refining the blade’s sharp tip (kissaki), ensuring the sword is as deadly as it is beautiful.

This stage of sword polishing requires smaller stones, typically cut wafer-thin. Moreover, the togishi secures the blade on a platform and moves the polishing stones on the blade’s surface. They work inch by inch, section by section, to achieve the best results.

polishing a Japanese sword

How Traditional Togishi Polish Japanese Swords

Transforming a dull and rough Japanese blade into a shimmering weapon requires meticulous attention to detail and years of back-breaking training. That’s why sword enthusiasts worldwide revere traditional togishi. But how do these master sword polishers turn an ordinary-looking sword into a work of art?

Hazuya polishing

Right after the initial shitajitogi or foundation polishing, the togishi grabs a hazuya polishing stone and secures the sword on a platform. They move the hazuya over the blade to remove blemishes, scratches, and other surface imperfections.

Hazuya polishing focuses on the Japanese sword’s razor-sharp edge (ha) and temperline (hamon). The togishi is careful not to polish the kissaki or blade tip because this section requires a different polishing stone.

how to polish a katana sword

Hazuya polishing by Ryan Sword on YouTube.

Jizuya polishing

The togishi focuses on the blade’s grain pattern (jihada) to allow it to pop. Master polishers use a jizuya stone for this step, giving the blade its characteristic dark hue. It’s the perfect attribute for maintaining stealth among the mighty Samurai class.

Nugui application

This step requires the togishi to combine clove oil and iron oxide to create a nugui solution. It’s a chemical mixture that gives the blade a darkened and non-reflective finish.

The togishi is careful not to apply too much nugui on the blade’s surface. Doing so can blacken the sword and ruin months of hard work. Unfortunately, only with years of experience will the togishi know how much nugui is sufficient to bring out the sword’s intricate details, like the jihada.

Hamon finishing

The hamon or temperline is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Japanese swords, especially the katana. Two schools of thought or styles exist regarding hamon whitening or finishing.

Sashikominugui

This hamon finishing style naturally follows the nugui application after hazuya and jizuya polishing. The togishi uses magnetite (tsushima) to polish the surface, lightening the hamon while darkening the surrounding areas.

It’s the perfect technique for swords with well-defined jihada and hamon, preserving the natural beauty of these intricate details. Unfortunately, sashikominugui is a dying art, with only a handful of togishi still practicing this method.

polishing a Japanese sword

Alt-text: Image of a Japanese sword with the distinct hamon by David Hofhine on Flicker.

Hadori

More and more togishi are ditching the sashikomi style for the more modern hamon finishing method known as hadori. This post-Meiji era technique is popular for its ability to make the hamon brilliant and highly visible.

The style produces a sword with a characteristic dark spine and a lighter leading edge, giving the blade an impeccable visual appeal. It requires exceptional hand-eye coordination to follow the hamon’s boundaries (nioguchi and habuchi). Otherwise, the hamon and jihada’s natural beauty won’t shine.

Kissaki polishing

The sword’s tip (kissaki) is the second to the last sword section deserving a togishi’s attention. It requires two processes to bring out the kissaki’s unique attributes.

First, the togishi polishes the yokote line extending from the nagasato the kissaki’stip. Experts call this process sujikiri. Only then can the togishi focus on the kissaki’s point area, using the narume technique.

Nagasa burnishing

This last step delivers a mirror-like finish to the Japanese sword. It requires burnishing (migaki) the blade’s (nagasa) surface using a burnishing spatula (migaki-bera) and hardened steel burnishing needle (migaki-bo).

The togishi focuses on the nagasa’s back surface or spine (mune) and the section above the blade’s ridgeline (shinogi-ji).

polishing a Japanese katana sword

Japanese sword polishers at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya by Greenmantis on YouTube.

Expert Japanese sword polishers (togishi) can take weeks to polish, refine, and finish a single sword. And that’s why these craftspeople require extensive training and meticulous certification. After all, Nihontos are natural works of art and a symbol of national pride.

Japanese Sword Polishing through the Centuries

There was a time when swordsmiths polished their creations. After a while, the demand for swords required specialized skills, demanding other craftspeople to continue with sword polishing and refinement.

Kamakura Period

The first sword polishers, distinct from swordsmiths,started appearing between 1192 and 1333. These polishers were adept at their skills that they could reveal a blade’s artistic details. It allowed master swordsmiths to focus on sword creation, leaving the finishing applications to the togishi.

Muromachi Period

By the 14th century, a new breed of sword experts entered the picture. Sword appraisers began evaluating Japanese swords for their function and aesthetic qualities. This movement prompted togishito improve their craft, producing newer sword polishing and finishing techniques.

Edo Period

From 1603 to 1867, the Shogunate and its many Daimyos required more functional and artistic Japanese swords. These bladed weapons became symbols of power, refined craftsmanship, and prestige. As one can expect, the togishi had to up their game.

polishing a Japanese sword

Final Thoughts

Polishing a Japanese sword is no easy task. It requires expert knowledge of Japanese sword polishing tradition and access to natural polishing stones. Although modern polishers and finishers exist, the results might not be as stellar as traditional methods. Unsurprisingly, foreign owners of Japanese swords are extra cautious about their blades to preserve their natural beauty and functionality. Otherwise, it’s a costly trip to Japan for a shot with an expert togishi.

Polishing a japanese sword

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