Meet America’s top Japanese sword maker
Although he grew up in San Francisco watching “too many” samurai movies during the 1960s, Michael Bell was well on his way to becoming a professional musician when he found life quite literally cutting him a new path: The Californian has spent the last four decades making exquisitely crafted Japanese swords.
In 1970, he and his band had a few albums, a recording contract with MCA, and a plan. “We released a couple records, none of which did all that well. It was Asian fusion. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Or maybe not,” he says without irony. Bell planned to keep forging ahead in the music world until he met Nakajima Muneyoshi, a Japanese master swordmaker, who took on the young charge as an apprentice. Bell spent more than five years sleeping on his master’s floor, eating miso soup for breakfast, and learning the delicate arts of swordsmithing, polishing, habaki-(sword mount)-making, and saya-(scabbard)-making.
Forty-two years after fate intervened, Bell is one of the only men in America practicing the ancient art. At Dragonfly Forge in rural Oregon, he makes beautiful pieces for clients around the world – swordsmithing, remarkably, is a booming, $1 billion global business – and trains students at Tomboyama Nihonto Tanren Dojo (Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School). Bell is establishing a swordmaking lineage as well. His son Gabriel is a partner in the business and is working towards his certificate of mastery as is another person who has been apprenticing under the elder Bell for nine years. A previous apprentice, Ron Macy, successfully achieved mastery and is practicing independently.
But before he could teach, Bell had to learn. In Mr. Nakajima he found the perfect mentor. Traditionally, Japanese craftsman only learned one of the four skills, but Nakajima was practiced in all of them. He passed along his knowledge of technique, technology, and tradition to his willing pupil. The wide range of the education allowed Bell to build a business in the United States “It was not only fortuitous; it was necessary. There were no specialists. If I was going to make a sword, I was going to have to grind and polish it, and make the scabbards. There was no other choice,” he says of his time with the man he still calls Mr. Nakajima.
Today, however, Bell sees a growing market for Japanese swords in America, one that is fueled by the movies and the media. “The style of sword has captured our imagination. Look at Kill Bill or The Last Samurai. I’m not going to say that any of them are historically accurate, but the interest is there,” he says.
Bell believes increased specialization will be possible in the United States as the business continues to grow on a national and international level. (The Chinese market is rapidly becoming the world’s biggest.) Very little about Japanese sword design has changed over the past 1,000 years, so even new blades are seeped in tradition.
Bell works on four to six swords at one time, each in a different stage of completion. He will spend one day pounding away at the forge, the next on the polishing bench, and a third focusing on woodworking. The variety helps with both sanity (his own) and quality (his work). “It’s nice to have a break from the close detailed work of finishing where everything is done at the focal point of 18 inches and move to something that’s more dynamic,” he says.
The cost of a finished blade, which can take up to a year to complete, varies on the materials used and the complexity, but they generally run between $6,500 and $20,000. Bell also runs the Forging School where people take workshops to learn about the art. The swordsmith instituted a series of formal classes in 2006. The cost ranges from $540 for a two-day Habaki course to $1,350 for the basic forging class and others. Bell’s best students: Dentists and orthodontists, who he says have “great hands.”
The Forge, established in 1987, and the school are located on a hill overlooking the Coquille Valley on the southern Oregon coast. Bell took names from his surroundings, another fortuitous coincidence. “First thing I noticed was the abundance of dragonflies. The Japanese have always found dragonflies fascinating. It’s in their art, in their folklore. The dragonfly symbolizes victory,” he says.
For Bell, swordmaking proved victorious over the life of a musician. He chose an unusual path, but one that works for him. “I just gave it all up when I met my teacher. It was really what I wanted to do. And here I am, 42 years later every bit as enthusiastic as when I started,” he says. “Maybe even more so.”