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.

eric-chevallier

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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Bob

Whilst there is a certain logic that scissors would take longer to make than knives I am surprised that this is really the case given the relative total length of the blades, sharpness and handles etc.

I know on my one trip to Japan a craftsman blacksmith there said that his most basic gyuto (chefs) knife took 125 man hours to create and with some of the more elaborate damascus patterns or handle inlays etc it could be considerably longer.

Its always amazing the level of artistry in crafts in the far east. To become a fully qualified doctor in the UK is 6 years, to be able to hand pull noodles in China is 8 years

Jason homrighaus

I think it is much more about the fitup and symmetry. With a knife there is but a single edge. Here you must achieve two perfectly matched edges and they have a slight curve in them so that the edges are shearing across each other over their entire length.

PatrikJ

Thanks for this Simon. I used to live in Sakai and go to university there as a student, I hope you enjoyed it.
It is very interesting how the transfer of tacit knowledge is being done in these traditional crafts, I wonder if business management and knowledge management literature also has the same view on this – I wouldn’t be surprised.

Mervyn Davies

Hi,

As both a clothes and food afficianado, please can we see some actual pictures of the knives? It would be like a post about Corthay shoes, and then not showing any shoes!

Thanks,

Merv

Mervyn Davies

Many thanks

Sam

So, did take the plunge and by a anything?

Anonymous

What’s the purchase process for these knives?

Fede

It’s nice to see you have an insterest in knives. Now, if you want to really get a grasp of what custom made means in this field, be sure to check and contact Javier Vogt for folders and CAS (Sobral brothers) for fixed Blades. They will be more than happy to take an interview. Regards, F.-

Eric Chevallier

Simon and Jamie,
Thank you for coming in Sakai and visit our forge. I really appreciated your pictures (i seem good on my portrait ahah)
If some people are interested in Sakai traditional knives, you can find it on my website Japonika.fr

Best regards,

Eric

Hedwig

Hello to all, for the moment, I am in Sakai on bussinestrip. until 15/12/16)
Can somebody give me an (or some more) adress where to buy a really good Japanese knife please?
Thanks,
Hedwig

Eric Chevallier

Yes sure. don’t hesitate to contact me on [email protected]. I can help you to visit traditional knife maker.

Eric Chevallier

My email changed: [email protected]
If somebody need information about Sasuke or Sakai knives 😉

Sue V

My husband and I are very interested in visiting this knife crafting forge and learning about the art of Japanese knife making when we are in Osaka in November this year. The email address provided by Eric Chevallier is not working. Is it possible to arrange a visit?
Thank you
Sue

[email protected] I

Eric Chevallier

Sue,
Iam sorry, i forgot to notice i change my email adress…
I hope you spent good time in Japan during your trip last year.
[email protected]

Jim

Me and my brother visited the shop/forge in 2013. Hirakawa-sensei was a great host. Got a tour of the forge and had some tea with his family. One highlight of my trip. Ended up with a wonderful yanagiba knife.

Malou Tan

Is the shop open for visitors? My 17 yr old son built a forge in our backyard and started forging Japanese style knives. We are planning to go to Japan this summer and I know he would be ecstatic to visit the shop

Malou Tan

Thanks for the reply. What is their contact information?

eujun

is there any possible way that i can get in touch with Eric? id like to travel and learn about the craft too!

S. Brent Cardani

I believe the joining process you reference in the article is brazing, rather than “gluing”. Although, I understand your point that it is akin to “gluing” the metals together.

Shelley Kawakami-Smith

We enjoyed reading about Yasuhiro Hirakawa. We recall watching an NHK program last year about a knife/scissors master craftsman. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the master’s name but it was very interesting to see the process of construction. Truly a specialized art that I hope continues. We would like to know if it would be possible to be granted a visit with you and Mr. Hirakawa. Thank you, Eric.

Cecilia

Thank you for the lovely article as well as the beautiful layout and font. I am headed to Osaka very soon and I would love to visit this workshop, is it possible to get the address?

thank you so much

Justin

I am trying to authenticate some scissors that my wife inherited. Are there markings unique to Hirikawa’s work?

Eric

Hi Justin,
Iam Eric Chevallier the former apprentice of Sasuke. You can send me pics of your scissors on my email: [email protected]

Gary Crumrine

As information, due to your interest in hand-made quality, Murray Carter is the only ABS MasterSmith in America (Oregon, actually) who is also the successor to a Japanese forge. He is, I think, the (not “a”, but “the”) 17th generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith. He specializes in Japanese kitchen knives but occasionally forges an outdoor knife, of which I have two: a neck knife and a sheath knife. Both are splendid. Website: https://www.cartercutlery.com/

Disclosure: I am unaffiliated with him other than as a paying customer.

Cordially,
Gary Crumrine