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  • Photography: Cameron Allan MckeanPhotography: Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Photography: Cameron Allan MckeanPhotography: Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Photography: Cameron Allan MckeanPhotography: Cameron Allan Mckean

The sharp end of a steel knife | Matagi / Akita Mountain Hunters 2

, 2014/12/16

The bear-hunting matagi of northwestern Japan have always been locked in a violent embrace with the mountains. It’s a loving war, waged with spears, sticks, guns and knives. As the centuries have gone by, powerful groups have sought to regulate rural areas like Kitaakita, and the matagi hunters of Akita residing there have been targeted because of their access to these weapons. First Buddhism did the targeting (later, the Nikko sect created a secret document absolving them of any wrongdoing related to their hunting), then it was the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800’s and now it’s the prefectural government that regulates when, where and how to hunt. But one weapon has resisted regulation and become synonymous with matagi culture: the nagasa. In a blacksmith’s workshop in Kitaakita, 66-year-old Noboru Nishine is in the early stages of making a nagasa blade by heating a piece of Hyogo Prefecture steel in a fire. “Business is good,” he says, as beads of sweat run down his forehead. “I make a lot of tools, shovels, hoes and things, but recently people don’t need farming implements. The number of matagi knives I make is going up, I make knives for hunters all over Japan.” The number of blacksmiths making nagasa is dwindling. It’s not easy work. “The matagi blade isn’t like a kitchen knife,” says Nishine, and he holds up the glowing piece of metal he is working on. He switches on the machine that will pound the melting steel into shape, before beating it by hand causing bright-red flowers of sparks to bloom above his workshop floor. I notice the date on the dirty machine — Showa 32 (1957). “Yeah, I’m a fourth generation knife maker,” he says when it stops. His 37-year-old son, working from the knife shop next door, is still learning, but knowledge is not passed on quickly. It takes years to master the techniques and subtle nuances of forging steel into a nagasa. And, sometimes, that knowledge isn’t passed on at all. We visit the workshop of Nishine’s late competitor whose machines sit dormant inside his darkened space, beside the butts of the old craftsmen’s smoked cigarettes. Dead insects are piled up at the windows. No one learned enough to carry on and all that’s left now is this dead museum to a dying craft. It’s easy to imagine that this could be where matagi culture is headed — a diorama littered with dead insects — but Japan’s traditional hunters have always been set upon by change. This era is no less special then the ones before: history still consumes everything we leave unguarded and bears still roam the forests. “But I’ve never seen one,” says Nishine as we leave, “and I don’t want to see one, either — I’m just a small guy, half bear size.”

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