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From Value One, Spring 2013 No.40  

The length of tanebasami ranges from approximately 12 to 24 cm. The scissors on the right are approximately 21 cm long.

Tanegashima island is now best known for hosting Japan's only rocket-launch complex. The island was once recognized by most, however, as the place where the Japanese first encountered modern firearms.

It was in 1543 that the first guns appeared at Tanegashima. The lord of the island, Tanegashima Tokitaka, bought some matchlock guns from a Portuguese who happened to be aboard a drifting Ming ship. The lord lost no time in ordering Yaita Kinbe, a swordsmith on the island, to make a gun of the same type. The first Japanese-made weapon was produced the next year.

A relatively unknown fact is that Tanegashima was also an ironmaking center. Tatara iron had been produced from the iron sand abundantly available regionally since the Middle Ages. The islanders' ironmaking technology was a major factor in spurring successful gun production in Tanegashima starting in the mid-sixteenth century.

Today's tanebasami (Tane scissors) benefit from the time-honored techniques of ironmaking and the gunsmithing craft. Boasting outstanding sharpness, these scissors enjoy the reputation for becoming sharper the more you cut with them. The scissors are designed in a unique way that positions the fulcrum in the middle of the handles and the edges. It is said that 170,000 pairs of tanebasami were being produced during the peak period of the mid-1930s, but the postwar mechanization of production brought a decline in handcrafting such scissors. The ancient traditional craft of making tanebasami now rests in the hands of Yoshifumi Makise, the only craftsman still pursuing this trade. "The basic way of making scissors is the same as that of sword making, and the quenching is the most difficult part of the process," Makise says, explaining the technical delicacies. "Under-quenching of either of the two edges would make the scissors unusable."

Engineers at the Tanegashima Space Center also love the sharpness of tanebasami. Approximately twelve-centimeter-long scissors—just the right size for keeping in your pocket—are most popular, say regional souvenir shop owners, and they are sold out as soon as they are stocked.

The island has a long history of tatara ironmaking and later for gun production, and tanebasami embody the finest of the techniques developed then, while space rockets represent the forefront of modern technology. They mysteriously cross beyond time and space on this island of Tanegashima. The techniques of making tanebasami—and the spirit of the craftsmen who create them—will without doubt live on.
Mr. Yoshifumi Makise, the only tanebasami craftsman working today


Paired edges are marked with a small hammer.


One of the matchlock guns that came from Portugal (from the collection of Mr. Tokikuni Tanegashima)


Tanegashima Development Center (Teppo-kan)
7585 Nishinoomote, Nishinoomote-shi, Kagoshima
Tel: +81-997-23-3215
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on the 25th of every month (except in July and August)
Admission: ¥420 for an adult, ¥270 for a senior high school student, ¥130 for a junior high or elementary school pupil

A matchlock gun from Portugal and the first Japanese-made gun, made by Yaita Kinbe, are exhibited in the Tanegashima Development Center's Teppo-kan (Gun Museum). About a hundred old-fashioned guns from Japan and abroad are displayed in the uniquely designed museum modeled after a namban-sen (European ship) of the old days. The museum provides visitors with a visual history of matchlock guns and of guns around the world. The museum also features a georama illustrating the process of making tanebasami and panels showing the remains of tatara ironmaking, all presented in an easy-to-understand way.

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