Hirata Tantojo - The Japanese Swordsmith Power Couple Keeping Katana Making Traditions Alive

The best way to learn about a country is by getting to know the locals. With our interview series “People of Japan,” we’ll bring you even closer to Japan by introducing business owners, cultural ambassadors, and all-round amazing people in the country bonded by strong passions. In this article, we cover master swordsmith Sukehira Hirata and professional “murage” iron maker Nodoka Hirata, a husband and wife duo of artisans and some of the last makers in Japan to employ traditional katana forging methods. Through this article, learn more about their different view on Japanese swords and their mission to make the industry thrive once again!

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Sukehira and Nodoka’s Journey Into the World of Katana

Our interview took place after we had the opportunity to observe Sukehira and Nodoka at work. It didn’t take long to realize just how passionate they were about their art - even when off duty, they were just as diligent and focused on katana making. We instantly felt at ease thanks to their friendly personalities.

Opposite to the solitary image that many might have of Japanese craftspeople, the unstoppable duo behind Hirata Tantojo found strength in teamwork and connecting with the world, creating a well–oiled mechanism fed on mutual respect and trust in each other’s expertise. During the hours we spent together with them, we caught them praising each other’s work more than once. Even when they sat down for the interview, they stayed close together, with just a few centimeters separating them.

Of course, as individuals, they both had equally extraordinary expressive powers and fascinating backgrounds. 

Sukehira Hirata - Carrying the Strong Determination of a Katana Master

Now in his 30s, Sukehira started his journey as a professional “katanakaji” sword maker right after graduating from high school. It was his love for kendo, which he practiced as a student, that sparked in him the desire to approach such a complex yet inexplicably beautiful form of art. At one point in our interview, he even recalled a katana exhibition at a local museum in Fussa City, not far from his hometown, Kodaira, where the bewitching beauty of the displayed old blades made it hard for him to believe they had been forged by human beings. 

Desire, however, isn’t enough to become a professional katanakaji. Not only is the art of making katana a difficult craft to learn in itself, but nearly all aspiring katana makers need to undergo years of training, during which they receive almost no salary, if at all. Even for those willing to go through years of strenuous learning and practicing, money often becomes a decisive factor in abandoning their ambitions. 

Sukehira had to move all the way from the metropolis of Tokyo to rural Osafune Town in Okayama Prefecture, sacrificing the comfort of a life in the city just to train to be a professional katanakaji. Unknown to many, the little town is actually one of the most famous areas in Japan for sword making, with centuries of tradition in crafting high-quality blades. There, he spent 13 years training and working under the guidance of Sukesada Ueda, a master swordsmith specialized in producing the prized Bizen Osafune steel in-house.

When inquired about those years of training, he still clearly remembered the struggles he endured out of sheer love for the art. To him, it was all worth it since making Japanese swords deeply appeals to his creative side, which he described in the following way: “The process of forging katana is never the same. You can always look forward to seeing how the sword will turn out in the end each and every time. This is what makes forging katana so fun and fascinating to me!”

His consistent effort and persistence to stick with the craft bore fruit, as he’s now one of just 130 katana professionals who are still operating in Japan to this day. 

Nodoka Hirata - Destined to Become an Iron Maker

Okayama is also where Sukehira met his wife, Nodoka, who was born and raised there. Nodoka never thought of becoming a “murage” iron master, but her encounter with Sukehira suddenly opened a totally new world to her.

This captivating art she knew almost nothing about but felt drawn to was actually revealed to run in her veins. When organizing some old documents in their family home, they found out that her great grandfather also worked as an iron maker! “At that point, I felt like it was destiny,” she exclaimed.

Nodoka didn’t attend any specific training course to become an iron maker. Everything she knows today about making iron in-house with the traditional tatara method, she picked up from her husband. At first, she would help with whatever she could while studying, from miscellaneous tasks to management. Gradually, she began to work on tatara iron manufacturing supported by Sukehira and, after about five years of daily study and practice, she became able to handle it completely independently.

"I chose this path because I wanted to help my husband. I wanted to create an iron that’s easy for him to use and suitable for our own way of forging katana. At first, I failed badly, but this actually motivated me. I hate to lose!" she mentioned with a laugh. 

Nodoka thinks of iron making as a matter of trial and error. It is a craft that, as anything artistic usually is, speaks more about the human behind it, about their flaws and virtues. “Iron doesn’t lie,” she repeatedly said during our interview. “Katana are purely the results of a person’s efforts, a reward obtained after great struggles. So, if there’s fault in the iron, there’s fault in the artisan.” 

Her path to become the only existing female murage in Japan might have been filled with struggle, but when we pointed that out to her, she said that she didn’t mind those difficulties. “This is exactly what makes katana special. They’re imbued with human feelings and hard work.” 

The Birth of Hirata Tantojo

When they were still living in Okayama Prefecture, the couple had a realization one day - just making katana wasn’t enough! “We felt the urge to share our unique perspective on Japanese sword making with the world, so we decided to take the next step and open our own business together in Tokyo!” explained Sukehira.

The duo immediately started looking for a place to set up Hirata Tantojo. Building a swordsmith workshop, which produces quite a bit of smoke and noise, in a residential area was incredibly difficult. So, for them, finding a quiet yet easily accessible neighborhood was key. 

Eventually they stumbled upon Ome City, a place of vast nature not far from Sukehira’s hometown and located in the rural suburbs of Tokyo. The locals were incredibly warm people who helped the couple find and contact the landowner of a plot of land they fell in love with. “I was riding my motorcycle when I unexpectedly found the current location of Hirata Tantojo!” said Sukehira. 

As if it was yet another sign, they found out from the landowner that the surrounding area used to be home to a mountain castle and that a katanakaji once lived there! “We thought it just had to be this place!”

After receiving permission from the owner, they spent about a year building the workshop themselves. Finally, in 2019, Hirata Tantojo opened its doors.

Taking Their Unique View on Japanese Sword Making Worldwide

Sukehira and Nodoka finally had a space where they could freely express their art. It was the first piece of a puzzle that would see them contributing to a new wave of interest in the world of katana just a couple of years later. 

Sukehira reached for some chalk and used the side of the tatara furnace as a blackboard to illustrate a kanji and an unexpected hidden truth the couple always keeps in mind when crafting each one of their blades: “At the beginning of my career, I simply viewed katana as something cool. But the more I studied and worked on creating them, the more I realized something important. Nowadays, we are so used to seeing katana portrayed as deadly weapons in period movies that we lost the concept of them as tools that respect life.”

Establishing Hirata Tantojo allowed him to share this belief - the true essence of Japanese swords contained in those white lines of chalk - with others. ”If you analyzed the Japanese kanji for weapon (武), you can notice it is formed by two parts. Together, they can be interpreted as: to stop a spear. It refers to something that is used to defend oneself, not to attack. This is the actual spirit of Japanese swords.” 

To make this long-lost fundamental piece of knowledge more accessible and spread the studio’s distinctive artistic vision, Nodoka - who had racked up quite a bit of experience handling the management side of the workshop’s operations while learning how to make tatara iron in-house - put great care into their social media presence. These efforts have been repaid with a growing number of followers. In recent years, Hirata Tantojo’s international audience spiked to the point that she even started adding English translations to their posts. They also decided to start an English website for overseas orders! 

When we mentioned that we also first got to know them through social media, Nodoka burst into a smile and expressed her joy in seeing so many people intrigued by Hirata Tantojo’s way of doing things. “We are extremely happy to meet so many people interested in the world of Japanese swords, and we want even more people to know the true essence of katana!” 

Their drive to show others their unique perspective on Japanese swords can be seen in all their interactions with their followers on social media, as well as with their customers. For example, they dedicate time to online meetings to personally get to know their customers and thoroughly understand their preferences. This is extremely unusual for the industry, which tends to be poorly accessible to overseas enthusiasts. 

Changing the System From Within

Despite being one of the very few swordsmith studios practicing the ancient way of katana forging, Sukehira and Nodoka work with an eye to the future, researching methods to revive and change the industry for the better. 

Nodoka dreams of a katana industry populated with more female artisans. “I’m the only female murage in Japan and, in general, you can count the women working in the katana making field on the fingers of one hand. Only men were thought capable of doing certain jobs.” 

In an industry notoriously dominated by men, she puts in double the effort to not just simply belong, but to set an example and take the first step towards industrial change. “At first, when I thought of becoming a professional (tatara iron maker), I didn’t think much about the preconceptions that might have surrounded my presence in this world of men. I wasn’t even aware that there were so many prejudices… I just did the job I wanted to do! Of course, there were people who were happy to see the industry evolving, but for those who are more conservative, it’s harder to accept that things might change.” 

She hopes that her work will show young women that they can also follow this path if that’s what they desire. Both Nodoka and Sukehira believe that the unique approach of female artisans’ will be of great benefit and bring positive change to the world of katana making. 

As for Sukehira, he wishes to build a more sustainable system for all the artisans involved in katana making. “Katana making involves an incredible number of different artisans - from those who craft the katana case, to those who provide the charcoal for the iron making process. We should stick together for the sake of preserving this beautiful art instead of acting like it’s every man for himself. By building connections and even expanding awareness about Japanese swords abroad, we hope one day to be able to provide a fixed quantity of work to other artisans involved and perhaps even make sure that apprentices are adequately paid.”

In an industry where there are few young artisans ready to take up the baton and an ever decreasing number of customers, Sukehira believes that such changes are necessary to keep the craft alive.

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Hirata Tantojo - Striving to Make the Japanese Sword Making Industry Thrive Once Again

Little by little, Sukehira and Nodoka are bending the norms of the world of katana with their presence and actions. If you are traveling to Japan and are interested in Japanese swords, definitely pay them a visit during one of their free studio tours or even attend one of their workshops to learn about katana and the story of this exuberant duo directly from them! 

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Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Stefania Sabia
Born and raised in Italy, Stefania spent some of her teen years in Ireland. Today, Stefania lives in Tokyo and she likes to explore traditional Japan, hidden spots, and anything with retro aesthetics. Since childhood, she has always admired Japanese culture, and after coming to Japan, she made it her mission to explore the country and showcase its beauty on Instagram.
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