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From Value One, Autumn 2015 No. 50  

Hashiguchi hammers red-hot iron as Akune and Samejima (right) observe

Minamisatsuma City is situated at the southwestern end of Satsuma Peninsula in western Japan. This is the home of the blacksmiths of Kaseda, who have been crafting sturdy, sharp, double-edged cutlery for 450 years. In its most prosperous days after World War II, Kaseda's blacksmiths were turning out a hundred thousand sickles and cooking knives a year. As demand fell and successors decreased in number, however, master blacksmith Masurao Akune found himself the only craftsman carrying on the tradition.

In 1999, a turning point came. Takeshi Samejima, the former treasurer of now-defunct Kaseda City, sensed a crisis: the tradition of Kaseda blacksmithing might be lost. He volunteered to become Akune's apprentice. At first, partly because of his age, Samejima says he was given the cold shoulder.

"When you put a piece of iron into fire, it changes wildly, as if it were a living thing," declares Akune, who has dedicated over seventy years of his life to blacksmithing. "You cannot tell in words how you should handle it." This is his conviction. Yet Samejima continued to visit his would-be master day after day, and his persistence and enthusiasm finally bore fruit. Akune accepted him on condition that Samejima would pay for his own workshop.

In 2001, Samejima did build his own workshop, called Shikoan, and inherited the whole set of equipment needed for the work. Shikoan became the "school of Kaseda blacksmithing," and Akune has so far taught the craft to some twenty persons, including Norito Hashiguchi, who had retired from his job at a manufacturing company. Hashiguchi was so talented that Akune recognized his skills after only four months of apprenticeship. It was no wonder; Hashiguchi's grandfather had been a Kaseda blacksmith. With his family background of blacksmithing in addition to his innate good sense, Hashiguchi learned the skills far more quickly than his age would have suggested, and Akune named him his designated successor. Hashiguchi is now polishing his skills day and night at Shikoan.

Hashiguchi is already sixty-five years old, making it imperative for him to find younger talents to maintain the tradition. Samejima says he would like to urge young people in the town to find interest in the job. "I have to learn even more from my master to hand over the art to the next generation," Hashiguchi adds. The fire of traditional Kaseda blacksmithing has survived the crisis, with two torchbearers doing their best to keep the flame burning.
Cutting the blade with a tool directly inherited from his master


Hashiguchi crafted these sickles and cooking knives, which are also available for sale here


Shikoan occupies a corner of an ancient samurai residence complex


A DVD the educational commission of Minamisatsuma City produced


A problem common to production centers of traditional crafts throughout Japan is the scarcity of successors. Many of these lines of craftsmanship are characteristic local trades dating back to the Edo Period (1603–1867), and the critical shortage of apprentices reflects decreasing demand, a flood of cheap imports from overseas, and the declining population of these localities. The educational commission of Minamisatsuma City has produced a DVD depicting the work of Masurao Akune, the last Kaseda blacksmith at the moment. It visualizes in detail how cutlery is made—including twelve distinct processing steps—so that young people can utilize the DVD as a true-to-life learning aid.
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