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To live by the sword: A life in polishing

Jon Bowhay appears on a CNN program
Jon Bowhay appears on a CNN program

TOKYO (TR) – When Jon Bowhay picks up a Japanese sword, samurai fantasies of hacking at armor and crushing bone — probably standard visions for most — are not what come to mind. Rather, the sword’s overall condition, its design and quality of craftsmanship, are his focus.

First, he’ll hold the sword by the handle in his palm, ensuring that he doesn’t actually touch the blade itself.

“I check to see if it is straight,” he says, tucking his right fist under his nose and extending his left in front as he might if he were staring down the barrel of a gun. “I check for lumpiness and dips. I check to see if there are any flaws or forging problems to be careful of.”

Jon Bowhay is a Japanese sword polisher, or togishi. “Restorer,” though, is likely more appropriate wording since his work might require that he remove rust accumulated over hundreds of years, reshape edges to eliminate nicks, or strip off steel to remove pits.

“As a polisher you have to make sure the (sword’s) cross section remains consistent to the original,” explains the 65-year old, a bit of throwback in two-decade old gray slacks and white cotton shirt adorned in a series of stitched filigree patterns. “You don’t want to just sharpen it. You want to return it to the original.”

For centuries Japanese swords were the trusty weapons of the samurai who wielded them. Today, swords that possess ornate designs and fine craftsmanship can be seen as very valuable artifacts.

The job of the polisher is to give this art its due respect in the form of preservation. But the task is hard work that requires a 10-year apprenticeship and countless hours of working the steel blade over a stone in a hunched-over position. For the average polisher the physical grind is daunting enough, but for the foreigner who chooses to enter this field, seen solely as a Japanese art, the challenge is magnified much more.

In the first polishing step, known as shitaji, stones of varying degrees of coarseness remove rust and restore the blade to its original shape.

“You have to find the stone that works well with the proper sword,” Bowhay warns of the importance in the selecting of stones, which can be as large a box of tissues and as small as a pinky fingernail. “If you don’t, you’ll get scratches.”

This determination requires an understanding of the period and smith school of the blade. The lay of the steel, the manner in which the steel has been worked or tempered and the curvature of the blade are all factors.

The forging of a blade is not simple. Two different types of steel (roughly in the shape of a blade) are first hammered together. In a repetitive process that requires heat from a fire and sweat from the smith, the steel is folded over upon itself and then hammered back out to its original thickness and length. This folding gives the blade a layered composition. When this is finished a file is used to give the sword its shape.

“Any period of time you’ll find any shape,” says Bowhay whose oldest sword he has worked on dated to the 7th century. “So you have to look at everything to decide the period of time. There are copies as well, and they are legitimate copies. If a smith liked a particular style, he did it. You have to look at everything as an aggregate to determine the period.”

His work takes place at his polishing bench situated within the workshop within his home in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward. Here, a rubber strap holds the stones onto the bench’s wood frame. Holes cut into the wood on either side are for Bowhay’s legs. As he works, he sits and moves the blade over the stone.

This setup is an innovation on his part. Initially, like most togishi, he held the stone with his feet, resulting in a much more hunched position than this new arrangement. A hernia caused him to make the change.

The final polish gives the sword the renowned mirror-like finish along its back, non-cutting surfaces. This is due to burnishing with tapered, hard steel rods, the tips of which alone can cost 15,000 yen.

“Even if you are careful, you can scratch the hell out of it,” Bowhay explains. “So have you have figure out what direction the steel is going in. It takes tactile skill; you have to mash the steel in one direction.”

Working 10 to 12 hours a day, the entire polish could take a couple weeks. A typical charge, including the polish, a new sheath, and any adjustments needed to the handle, is roughly 400,000 yen.

Since metal is being stripped off with each polish, a sword’s life depends on the damage and makeup. Time between polishes could range between 10 and 100 years, and often longer. It is hardly an exact science.

Though a sword’s principal function is combat, care is a key to increasing the length of time between polishes. For one, touching the blade is strictly prohibited, Bowhay advises. Otherwise, you will “spoil the steel.” Storage in a low humidity environment is necessary as well.

Born in the United States, Bowhay came to Japan with his family near the end of the Occupation. He became interested in swords at an early age but he wasn’t able to get an apprenticeship until 1979.

At his peak, he made 8 million yen annually. Today business has fallen but he still polishes 8 to 10 swords a year.

Love of art was his reason for entering this, as he describes, “arcane” field, likening the study of swords to the admiration of a painting. “To appreciate it,” Bowhay says, “you have to look at the brush strokes, you have to look at the coloring, the composition, everything, to see how it works. Swords are even more so, because they are so delicate.”

But there are hazards to this business. In addition to the migraine headaches, accidents will happen. Bowhay once dropped a sword. When he reached for it out of instinct, his thumb caught the cutting edge. “A piece of my thumb went bouncing across the floor,” he remembers.

There is general frustration as well. Bowhay believes that the narrow definition of art in Japan has resulted in sword polishing being “very ethnocentric” and only open to the Japanese.

He feels that art is supposed to move the human spirit, the part that is difficult to express. Such expression is to lack ethnic boundaries; this isn’t true in Japan, Boway believes.

Acceptance of his work has been very difficult in spite of the fact that he is highly trained and greatly respected outside of Japan. As a result, nearly all of his customers are collectors in the United States.

“To be effectively made impotent in your own vocation with great intent is overly cruel,” he says of the general lack of appreciation he has received in Japan.

Even though he has been in Japan for a half-century, Bowhay, who has two adult children, sees himself eventually leaving. Colorado, where he is currently storing his custom-made, cream-colored 1979 Lincoln Mark V with blue crushed velvet interior, is a possible destination.

While today there are only a handful of non-Japanese togishi around the world, the aura of preserving swords, Bowhay feels, will allow the profession to continue to draw the interest of outsiders in the future.

Bowhay sees the romanticism of the samurai, whose spirit, it is often said, rested within his sword, as a powerful draw. “We all get off on romanticism,” he says.

This article originally appeared in September 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.