Mokume-Gane: Fashion and Status

Samurai wearing a katana (long sword) and wakizashi (shorter sword
Samurai wearing a katana (long sword) and wakizashi (shorter sword). Public Domain Photo – Wiki Commons

You may already know that the story of Mokume-Gane is a story about swords and samurai, but did you know it’s also a story about fashion and status?

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu  famously said the sword was ‘the soul of the samurai’, the sword held much more importance in Japanese culture than it had in any other culture in the world. In 1588, when the right to carry a sword in Japan was restricted to samurai only, the sword took on even more importance. After this edict, the samurai always wore two swords; a short sword (the wakizashi) and a long sword (the katana) as a way of advertising their privilege and importance.

But within 50 years (in 1615), after hundreds of years of ongoing warfare, an extended period of peace lasting over  two centuries began in Japan, and the sword became more of an ornament than a often-used tool.  Samurai had to redefine themselves. Prohibited from taking up  trade or merchant occupations, many became bureaucrats or administrators if they could not maintain their positions as soldiers in a daimyo’s service. Those who could not find honorable work or survive on limited pay either became outlaws or gave up their samurai status to find other ways to survive.  To those that remained samurai, the swords they wore became the way they conveyed their identity. The craftsmanship that went into making samurai swords became increasingly competitive, ornate, and expensive. During this time, Denbei Shoami (1651 – 1728), who was a master metalworker, first came up with the process for creating mokume-gane.

It wasn’t until much later that mokume-gane was used as a technique for making jewelry. But if you think about it, it was a form of jewelry all along. The mokume-gane-embellished swords the samurai wore were essentially large pieces of jewelry; fashion elements intended to convey their position and status to the world.

Today you can wear your own mokume-gane without hauling around several pounds of razor sharp metal. But every piece of mokume-gane we make carries the full weight of this story.

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