Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Memoriam: Nakagawa Taizoh Sensei

Nakagawa Taizoh Sensei at his forge circa 1997 photo copyright Peter Boylan 1997

My dear friend and mentor, Nakagawa Taizoh passed away on November 16, 2017. He was 85. Nakagawa Sensei was an artist and teacher of the first rank. He was a swordsmith who made swords that were exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally functional. He was also one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met regarding Japanese art and culture. I want to share my memory of this wonderful man.

I met Nakagawa Sensei in the spring of 1992 while working on the Jet Program in Japan. My sister and I were riding our bikes home after getting haircuts in Yokaichi, Shiga, Japan, where I was living,when I noticed someone sharpening something on a huge, old fashioned grinding wheel It was the biggest grindstone I’d ever seen. We stopped and stared at the grinding wheel for a while when it occurred to me to look at what was being sharpened. It looked like a sword. Of course that couldn’t be, because guns and swords were illegal in Japan, weren’t they? As all of this was going through my head, the guy doing the grinding looked up and noticed us. He waved for us to wait for him.

He finished what he was doing shortly after that, and introduced himself as “Nakagawa”. Then he invited us upstairs for tea. He lived on the second floor of the two story metal building behind the workshop where he’d been working; up a steep set of metal stairs on the outside of the building.. Inside was a small room filled with books and antiques and yumi (Japanese bows) and posters for sword exhibitions and cats - and swords. Mostly it was filled with swords. He had a pile of unfinished blades in one corner of the room that quickly convinced me that swords must actually be legal in Japan. 

Nakagawa san made some tea for us and we started to talk. He took out a finished sword and started pointing out some of the features. Other than the fact that this sword was amazingly beautiful, I couldn’t appreciate it because I didn’t know what I was looking at. Remember that, up until a few minutes before, I’d thought swords were illegal. He showed us a couple of other blades and pointed out the pile of blades that were his experiments as the cats walked across the unfinished swords and flicked their tails against the finished ones.

Nakagawa Sensei cleaning one of his swords photo copyright Peter Boylan 2018

I don’t remember nearly enough of that first meeting, partly because I’d only been in Japan for a little over a year, and conversations were still difficult for me. I was still looking up a lot of vocabulary in my cool, new, electronic dictionary (a godsend after hauling around a paper dictionary all the time). I do remember that he gave me one of his business cards, which helped my understanding and gave me his first name, “Taizoh”. It also confirmed for me that he was a swordsmith! I was still quite green at figuring out Japanese etiquette on the fly, but I decided that a guy who was licensed to make swords deserved more respect than to just be called “Nakagawa San”, so I upgraded the honorific I was using to “Nakagawa Sensei”, which seemed more fitting. When we left he invited us to come back any time (at least that’s what I understood). As a parting gift, he gave us a pair of antique soba cups from the Edo period.

Nakagawa Sensei's business card

After that, I started visiting Sensei whenever I could. I was teaching English in the local junior high schools, so I’d visit after work and on the weekends. Sensei’s patience with my poor Japanese amazes me to this day. If he was working in his forge, he was happy to let me watch, and I was thrilled to be able to. I got to see a lot of incredible swords through Sensei. People would often bring him swords to look at and appraise. Sensei was friends with many sword collectors in the area and sometimes we would visit them together. I wanted to understand more about all the beautiful swords I was seeing and handling I found a copy of Leon Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara's The Craft Of the Japanese Sword and started reading. Our conversations about swords quickly become much more interesting and complex as I added to my sword-related vocabulary, but Sensei was still very patient with me as I looked up words in every other subject we discussed.

I had been training in Judo since 1985, but Sensei introduced me to the world of koryu budo as a result of our discussions; and the opportunity to handle so many fine blades made me want to understand them even more. I eventually decided that to fully appreciate these swords, I would have to understand how they were used.

Nakagawa Sensei was always happy to meet people and share his love for Nihonto. I introduced him to administrators at the local extension campus for Michigan universities (JCMU). The students were very interested in meeting Sensei, and learning about his art, and he was completely open to the idea. We arranged for a group of the university students to visit Sensei’s workshop to see him work and learn about swords, and Sensei arranged a side trip to see the collection of a great sword collector in the area. He happily shared an amazing experience with them that very few people anywhere can have.

Sensei shared his knowledge and passion for Nihonto with anyone who was interested and respectful. He also freely shared his swords. Shortly after starting iaido with Takada Sensei, I mentioned to Nakagawa Sensei that I was thinking about grinding a blade to use in trying tameshigiri. Nakagawa Sensei was dismissive of the idea. Instead he got up from where we were sitting on the floor of his front room and disappeared for a minute. When he came back he had a long, purple cloth bag in his hand. He handed it to me and said “If you want to do tameshigiri, use this.”

I opened the bag and took out a heavy sword in a shirasaya. As I drew the blade from the saya, Sensei told me “I made this but I won’t sell it. I think the steel is a little too soft. It’s good for you to do tameshigiri with though.” I protested that I couldn’t possibly use the beautiful blade I was holding for tameshigiri, but Sensei assured me repeatedly that it was fine for me to cut with this sword. I let Sensei convince me that it was ok.

At the next practice, I talked with Takada Sensei about doing tameshigiri and explained that I had a sword we could use without fear because it didn’t matter if I damaged it. Takada Sensei was excited by the idea and we started planning. A couple of weeks later we had everything we needed put together: sword, tatami omote rolled and soaked, some bamboo stalks, and stands to hold everything. Oh - and Nakagawa Sensei.

Nakagawa Sensei offered to come to keiko on the night we did the cutting. He picked me up in his car and drove to gym where we trained. Just in case there were any problems, Sensei brought along a couple special tools he had for straightening bent blades. Takada Sensei had a stand in which we could stack rolled mats horizontally. We set up the stand and stacked mats three-high on it. Takada Sensei went first, swung a big kiriorishi and cut through the top two mats with ease. Then it was my turn. I had only been doing iai for a few months. I raised the sword up and took a huge, muscular swing into the mats and managed to cut through two of them. I also managed to put a rather extreme bend in the blade. Fortunately, Nakagawa Sensei told the truth when he said it was ok for me to cut with the sword. He just smiled, took the sword from me and started straightening it out with tools he had brought. Then he handed it back to me and we did some more cutting.

Nakagawa Sensei had very high standards for what made a sword good enough to leave his forge. The sword we had used for tameshigiri, for all its beauty, strength and flexibility, did not live up to his expectations. He felt the steel in the blade was a little too soft for a proper sword, so even though he went to the expense to have it polished and mounted, he would never consider selling it. The sword wasn’t quite good enough.

As I got to know Nakagawa Sensei, he began to let me help around the forge. I did all sorts of little things like cutting charcoal to size (I never dreamed that charcoal has to be the proper size for various operations in the forge to go well. I still have a scar on my index finger where I managed to cut myself instead of the charcoal once.) Even though he had a power hammer that was mechanically precise, he would have me swing the big hammer for him from time to time, as much for me to experience doing it as for the pleasure of working as a team, I think. The big hammer differs from a western sledge hammer in that the haft is offset in the head. Instead of coming into the middle of the hammer so the head is balanced on the end of the haft, it comes in on one end of the head. This makes the hammer unbalanced and more difficult to control, but the offset head almost swings itself, making the strikes stronger with less effort. I wasn’t very good, but Sensei never seemed to mind my lack of skill, and I did get better over time.

In 1998 Nakagawa Sensei established a forge in Ihara-cho in Okayama prefecture. I was beyond honored when he asked me to help out with the dedication ceremony. The ceremony was to include a Shugendo priest and anoffering of traditional dance by a young boy. In addition, offerings would be made to the deity of the forge. Sensei would also ritually smelt and work the first piece of steel assisted by a group of deshi swinging the big hammers. Sensei asked me to be one of a pair of deshi swinging the hammers for him. No power tools would be used for the ceremony.

The new forge decorated and fired up during the dedication ceremony. Photo Copyright 1998

In the days before the ceremony, we prepared the new forge by sweeping it repeatedly and hauling up chairs for people to sit on. Ihara-cho is on top of mountain in rural Okayama Prefecture, and the forge was difficult to get to - up a steep slope that defeated some cars. We set up a platform for the altar with offerings, including kagami mochi (rice cakes), fruit and sake. We also hung traditional rice paper and erected standing green bamboo around the forge.

The shugendo priest blessed the forge and we hammered away at a fresh piece of ore. It’s difficult working the hammer by yourself but working in a man team also requires cooperation and coordination so only the hot ore is hammered and not anything else. Sensei directed the deshi where to strike and in what rythm by tapping with his hammer. After we had worked the ore into steel by hammering and folding it a number of times, Sensei quenched it in some water and we placed it on the altar as an offering. Then the young boy performed a traditional dance for the gods. The ceremony finished with us cutting up the kagami mochi and opening the sake for everyone to share.

Working the first steel in the new forge with Nakagawa Sensei Photo Copyright 1998 Peter Boylan

Sensei loved to discuss art and politics and culture and history. Because of my passion for martial arts as well as for swords, we spent a lot of time talking about the relationships among traditional arts in Japan, budo and swords. Being surrounded by swords while talking with a master swordsmith who also practiced classical Heki Ryu kyudo and was also very familiar with many of the classical sword arts and much of their internal politics didn’t leave much room for me to hang onto illusions about the world of swords and martial arts. I traded my myths about unbreakable swords that could cut through anything for the fascinating truth of swords carefully crafted by smiths, polished so finely that the grain of the steel becomes visible, and wielded by people who may be masters of the art of swordsmanship but are still quite human.

What else can I say about a man who was a talented sculptor and a university professor before he became an incredibly skilled swordsmith? As a skilled practitioner of Heki Ryu kyudo, Nakagawa Sensei had participated in some extended endurance shoots. Though he never tried the 24 hour shoot, he successfully completed some of the shorter ones. He owned a Ming Dynasty bowl while living with three cats. The bowl got broken. The cats were excused and forgiven.

Nakagawa Sensei in his living room, the pile of swords in front of him, and his Ming bowl on the bookshelf. The cats were hiding. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2018

He enjoyed Japanese green tea and soba noodles. He worked in a charcoal dust covered forge and got absolutely covered in charcoal dust himself when working. Nonetheless, when he cleaned up to go out, he was one of the most stylish people I have seen, with a personal sense of elegance that was wonderful to the eye. We would visit art museums in Kyoto and the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya to see the paintings and sculpture as much as to see the beautiful swords they often had on display.

Nakagawa Sensei was a great smith. I once watched him turn down a commission for five swords because it was a boring commission. The buyer wanted five matching swords, and the idea of making five nearly identical swords didn’t interest Sensei at all. On the other hand, he made a beautiful omamori tanto and gave it to my wife and me to commemorate our wedding. He could tell you the carbon content of a piece of ore by looking at it (really! I challenged him on this once and he fired up his grinder, handed me a book with spark patterns for steel and proceeded to accurately identify every piece that he sparked on the grinder).

One of the things he allowed me to help him with was gathering old steel to use in making swords. When old temples and shrines were being renovated we would go and gather up the old nails and iron fittings with a huge magnet. Then we would go through and sort the pieces into traditional Japan-made steel and western-made steel. With a little study, you can tell the difference between the two easily. I spent many pleasant hours collecting and sorting steel while Sensei did things that took far more skill than I ever acquired.

I will always treasure my memories of helping Sensei in the forge and sitting with him in his living room surrounded by swords and cats and yet more swords, talking about everything under the sun.

I miss you Sensei.


Denise Ray said...

Peter, Condolences from your many friends in Texas. John Ray

The Budo Bum said...

Thank you John.

Sasha said...

Thank you for the beautiful story.