TOYOKUNI – A Japanese knife employing Katana technology

 

 

Forging is to make shape by hitting

 

Toyokuni, a knife maker located at Nankoku city, Kouchi prefecture in Japan, manufactures a variety of knives such as kitchen knives, knives in general use or in agriculture and forestry. And this should be specially mentioned that they use the same technology as that used for the Japanese sword (“Katana”) making.

 

The fourth generation of TOYOKUNI, Makoto Takiguchi

The fourth generation of TOYOKUNI, Makoto Takiguchi

 

Metal working for steel products can be generally categorized into two methods: casting and forging. Casting is an appropriate method to be employed in mass-production as the cost is reasonable, where the molten metals are poured into a mold to be formed. However the material sometimes contains the blowholes inside after being melted in casting, which may result in reducing the strength of the product. Furthermore, a stress could remain inside the object when the parts with different thicknesses are cooled down, which applies the force from inside and results in less strength as well.

 

On the other hand, forging is the manufacturing process to hammer the metal to be shaped and shaped again until the material obtains a beautiful form. Any shapes can be produced including those of long or short swords, or hatchets. During the forging process crystals are refined and blowholes are removed inside the metal through the hammered. The forged part can be strong as well as flexible giving the sharp knife both strength and endurance.

 

The material is hammered not only by hand but a belt hammer
The material is hammered not only by hand but a belt hammer

 

Toyokuni only applies forging to manufacture their products.Mr. Makoto Hamaguchi, a president of the company, has succeeded as the 4th Toyokuni, the name of the craftsman. The name has been passed from generation to generation by the primary successor of the house. Yet the history of smiths in Tosa, which is an old name to Kochi prefecture in Japan, is longer than their company history. Going back to the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the industry was associated with two major Samurai families in Tosa. One was called the Yamauchi family who were rewarded with lands in Tosa from the shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, for their extraordinary performance at the Battle of Sekigahara. However the area had been governed by the other family called Chousokabe since before the battle and remnants of the family were still wandering around there. The Yamauchi samurais, who had been from Kakegawa in Shizuoka prefecture and invaded into Tosa to govern the area, repeated the battles against the remnants of the Chousokabe endlessly. Then there were demands of swords and spears for everyday use.

 

The ascendants of local smiths in Tosa, including Hamaguchi family, were commissioned to work by Ieyasu Tokugawa at that time. Having followed Yamauchi family, they had moved into Tosa from Sado Island in Niigata prefecture. Their works involved not only forging Katana and spears, but repairing those arms at the battle fields. A Japanese sword, katana, can be broken, bent, or even lose its sharpness easily during the battle. Once it happened the samurais went back to their own encampments and asked for help in fixing their arms for better performance.

 

The smiths of Tosa started forging the agricultural tools after Yamauchi family had settled the area and the war era ended. The time of peace helped the agricultural growth in Tosa and it continued more than four hundred years until the mechanization on agricultural tools such as hoes, plows, and sickles, occurred.

 

A hatchet just taken out of a flame of 1100 degree

A hatchet just taken out of a flame of 1100 degree

 

The farmers didn’t have to commit to manual labors fully, although there were some left, and the demands for the forged farm implements gradually decreased. Meanwhile, the needs for the knives used in forest industry were grown in 1930’s. The tools included the hatchets, the billhooks, the sickles, saws, and small cutters.

 

Makoto Hamaguchi, the fourth generation of Toyokuni and one of the representatives of Tosa smiths, was born in 1963 when the industry has begun to show such changes. His playground was the work site of his father, a forging factory, since he was four. At the age of six, he was finishing the forged products including knives made by his father. He was taught how to hammer the material in forging process by his father. “I have been a skilled worker who applies forging to the knives, so called a smiths, from birth”, Makoto said.

 

Measuring the length of a blade

Measuring the length of a blade

 

Having said that, Makoto hasn’t been always pursuing his career path such smoothly, but he has experienced his personal defeat many times in his life. Also he had an inferiority complex on his professional technics to his father and brother, who have been standing before him like a big wall almost impossible to climb up. He recalls those days saying, “I once came up with the idea to become a tax accountant, not a skilled worker”. He knew himself as being good at numbers and was interested in economics and business administration, but not skill man-natured.

 

Visual check for distortion

Visual check for distortion

 

Makoto left his home factory, where his father and brother working hard, and went up to Tokyo. “In Tokyo, I participated in the study group organized by Mr. Inamori, a founder of KYOCERA Corporation. Or sometimes I joined the study session of business management run by Panasonic”.

 

He has even worked as a private secretary for a president from well-known company. Makoto continues, “A president writes down his schedule in a calendar. When you looked at it, you learn a lot of hints for business”. When does a president meet up his clients? What does he talk with them about at the meeting? Are such meetings held for a short hours? Does a president see and have a dinner with someone afterwards, or does he just go back home straight? Makoto was able to observe key factors to generate company profits, which are hidden behind the president’s communication with people. “They don’t manufacture the product because they can make it. The need for a product comes first, and then manufacturers must respond to it. Or otherwise a skilled worker can fall into a trap where he makes the product as he likes, only for the reason to confirm his own techniques / skills. They may be able to produce a fully self-satisfied premier product, but never be successful to produce a winning product in market”.

 

The knives made by Toyokuni have been well sold not only in Japan but in the rest of the world thirty years after late 80’s.

 

The imprint, Masano, is a former craftsman name of Takiguchi before being given TOYOKUNI

The imprint, Masano, is a former craftsman name of Takiguchi before being given TOYOKUNI

 

I met Mr. Hamaguchi for the first time in April, 2003. At that time he said, “I can’t still catch up with the skills my father and brother possess. That is why I will try to involve in product development and extending its market”.

 

I met Makoto Hamaguchi again in October, 2010, when he has reached the top position of the smiths at Toyokuni. He was managing the company Toyokuni and looked so confident being hammering and shaving knives. There was no word to describe him other than ‘Shokunin’, a skilled expert. “It took for me for forty years to obtain the skill my father has”, he has proudly claimed.

 

I will introduce a variety of Toyokuni goods in next chapter before moving into the topic of master craftsmanship.

 


 

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