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“The relationship between swordsmith and polisher is similar to that between music composer and performer,” says Sotaro Matsumura, as he sits down on his workshop floor. “You’re creating this thing together – it’s a performance. You need each other for the sword to come to life.”

It is 07.00 and the scent of coffee hangs in the air when we visit Matsumura’s cedar-clad workshop. “Do you like bossa nova? That’s my favourite genre for gentle polishing. Of course, I play techno or dub for heavier, more physical work,” he says, walking over to his record player. “But don’t let this ruin your image of a very traditional Japanese craftsman.”

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Sotaro Matsumura at work with a whetstone

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Looking sharp

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Examining a blade during polishing

Looking at Matsumura, it’s clear that he is every bit “traditional”. He wears a dark indigo-hued samue, a robe sported by sword polishers for easy movement. It’s one of his many rituals. Like most togoshis, Matsumura is no stranger to repetition. After all, the discipline requires a lifetime of practice and dedication. It takes 10 years of apprenticeship just to become qualified to work with basic swords. Matsumura has mastered every type of sword: from tachi (his favourite) to katana and naginata. “The nihonto, created in the 10th century, has a distinctive curved shape,” he says. “But these are not just weapons; they’re art forms, treasures, guardians, symbols of wealth and power.”

Sword-polishing has been in his family for three generations. Growing up, he learned by watching his late father. The two worked together in their studio just outside Tokyo, in Funabashi, where they welcomed sword collectors, museum curators, film directors (they assisted Tom Cruise’s team in The Last Samurai) and even yakuza. “These walls hold so much history,” says Matsumura.

Still, there’s a risk that the tradition will die out. Fifty years ago, Japan was home to hundreds of sword polishers; today, only a few are left. Engaging younger generations is vital to keeping the craft alive but it is no easy task. “I have three daughters and, of course, I want them to understand the urgency in saving this cultural tradition,” he says. “But, while I’ve given my life to this, it is their choice. As a child, I watched my father with awe and wonder. It’s all I ever wanted to do. If they feel the same way, I’ll support them.”

monocle watches Matsumura repeatedly push the metal blade of an 800-year-old katana sword over a whetstone. His movements resemble a choreographed dance. Yet the process isn’t as smooth as it looks, he says. “I’ve cut myself many times. I can only see the true, raw beauty of the sword once I’ve polished the blade with the natural uchigumori [a type of stone], which makes it sharp.” After repeating this process for a few hours, Matsumura will wipe the blade clean and oil it before storing it in a handmade scabbard sewn using fabric from vintage kimonos.

As he prepares to go home, he wraps today’s blade and puts it away for the night. “A togoshi has to honour the sword,” he says. “That’s the whole point. When I’m polishing, I think of all of the togoshis whose hands have worked on this blade in the decades before me.”

For Matsumura, this is part of honouring the masters who went before. “Our ancestors have been taking care of these swords for more than 1,000 years. Now it’s my responsibility to preserve this part of our heritage or our history will fade away,” he says. “But if I do good work, people will treasure these swords for years to come.” 

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