Sasuke: Master Japanese knife-maker, Sakai, Osaka

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Monday, November 21st 2016
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When we were in Japan last month, Jamie and I tried to see a sprinkling of traditional Japanese craftsmen alongside the usual tailors and shoemakers.

This was both for general interest (always interesting to see how things are made) and to note any crossovers between these crafts and those in menswear.

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The dream scenario for such an artisan visit perhaps runs something like this:

  • travel to a remote location with no foreigners in sight;
  • track down a little old master still working the way his family has for generations;
  • witness the craft, learn about its superiority, and document it;
  • fall in love with both the quality and aesthetics of the product;
  • find a reason/excuse to use that product as part of day-to-day life;
  • buy something to treasure back home.

Most craftsmen, not surprisingly, were not like this. But master knife-maker Sasuke came very close.

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Yasuhiro Hirakawa at Sasuke (pronounced sass-kay) is a master knife-maker and scissors-maker - one of only five remaining in Japan.

And scissors, or shears, are a lot harder to maker than knives.

This is surprising at first, but in fact makes complete sense. To make a pair of scissors, you need to make two knives rather than one.

And those two knives need to be balanced to slice across each other perfectly. (Actually shaped in a slight curve, so they only meet at a single point throughout the cutting motion.)

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Perhaps most significantly, Sasuke is also the only scissor master with an apprentice - Eric Chevallier, a Frenchman (below).

The apprenticeship lasts 10 years, and several apprentices have come and gone in the past, never quite completing their time. Eric is four years in and - so far - going strong.

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One bizarre aspect of apprenticeships in Japan - but one that has some bearing on menswear crafts as well - is that masters never teach their apprentices.

Rather, the apprentice is merely permitted to work alongside the master. He must not ask any questions, merely watch and learn.

“In my second year I asked a question of the master and he looked at me for a moment, then gave me an answer,” Eric remembers.

“I tried what he told me and it didn’t work. Later I came back to him and said ‘why did you give me the wrong answer?’ He replied: ‘Because you shouldn’t ask questions’. He had deliberately lied.”

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Some Japanese tailors say this approach has parallels with the way many learnt in Italy, just watching and learning, working and copying.

When we met the factory manager at Ring Jacket he reflected that there was something similar in the way he learnt at Neapolitan factories too: that he would rarely ask, but at the same time plain copying would not seem wrong; more homage than theft.

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Back in Sakai (the traditional home of knifemaking in Japan, just south of Osaka), Hirakawa has been getting the furnace ready to show us how a pair of scissors is made.

Every blade comprises two layers, one of iron and one of steel, which must be melded together.

Each is heated to a different temperature, beaten and moulded, and then glued together with a mixture of borax and rust powder.

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Wonderfully, Hirakawa works the bellows for the furnace with his left foot, as he works the metal with his hands.

The two-toed traditional Japanese sock (tabi) is perfect for this, giving him a pincer-like grip around the bellows pusher that can then be slipped back into his sandal.

The metals are tried several times, to see if they are at the right temperature. Too low and they won’t stick; too high and the steel will burn.

When the time is right, they are melded together with a wonderful shower of sparks.

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A knife will take around one day to make; a pair of scissors four.

Most of the work is done in two large sheds, both blackened from floor to ceiling with soot.

White-paper shinto offerings hang from the ceiling. In the corner is a fox divinity, representative both of the local area and of craft.

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The blades are polished in a smaller shed, which is separated from the house by a traditional, beautifully executed garden.

Hanging on the wall are old halves of scissors, made by his father. These are purely for inspiration. (Hirakawa is a 22nd-generation blacksmith.)

And yes, you can buy knives or scissors - though pretty much only here, and scissors are at least twice as expensive.

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Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man 

Many thanks to Adam Marelli, Nagisa Kobayashi and all at Ring Jacket for their help in the visit. 

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