higonokami traditional Japanese brass knives

The oldest and most used pocket knife in Japanese history!

In the world of knives, the higonokami is a living fossil. This small Japanese folder is one of the oldest knife trademark still in production, is almost unchanged since its creation and is also one of the cheapest on the market

The higonokami knife was born in 1896 in Meiji era Japan when a man named Tasaburo Shigematsu brought back a knife from the Kyushu province and asked a knife maker named Teji Murakami from Hirata in the Miki region to manufacture it. This original knife had a misconception at the start, as it didn’t feature any device to lock the blade. The story says that it is this maker named Murakami who first had the idea to add a lever to the blade, thus giving the knife the look it still has today and ensuring its commercial success. Some sources mention a second blacksmith to have been influential in this birth, Shigeji Nagao. Please remember his last name, you will hear it again below.

The story of the Higonokami intertwines with the tormented history of Japan during the past two centuries. In the middle of the XIXe century, threatened by the canons of US Navy Commodore Perry’s gunships, the Empire of the Rising Sun is forced to open its borders to the rest of the world. Japan all of the sudden goes through a tremendous change, having to evolve from a feudal society to become a modern industrial state or risk being colonized. In 1877 occurred the last battle opposing a party of rebellious samurais to the modern army of the emperor (as in the film, “the last Samurai”). Having been defeated, the samurais were little by little stripped of their privileges and lost the right to carry their swords in public places. In consequences, a lot of blacksmiths lost their main customers, had to find other incomes and started to make knives. A lot of them settled around Miki, a region with a lot of river and iron ore sands and also the historical birthplace of the higonokami. The name of the knife is strongly related to these events. “Higo no Kami” in Japanese means “Lord of Higo”. Higo is the old name of the Kyushu province, where the original knife came from, but “Higo no Kami” is also an aristocratic title historically given to powerful samurais. In these times, Matsudaira Katamori was the acting Lord of Higo; he was also the very last one. He was involved in both the Perry episode and the last battles of the samurais.

In 1899 a knife maker’s guild was created in Miki and in 1907, the name “Higonokami” was trademarked. Only the members of the corporation could manufacture the knife. The tale of the Higonakami changed into a success story. He became the most popular Japanese knife, the one all the kids had in their school bags, the utilitarian pocketknife of everyday. Pencils sharpening mass contests were even organized, with rewards for the fastest.

Mind its simple and basic design, the knife had some outstanding qualities, it was very sharp with a quality sanmai carbon blade, was easy to sharpen, inexpensive and over 50 makers were manufacturing it at the time. The knife survived the lack of raw materials during WW2 and the following US occupation. The Americans outlawed the making of swords and again a lot of blacksmiths had to look for another job.

The “coup de grace”, the death blow, to the higonokami success story hit in 1961 when a 17 years old mentally disturbed youngster murdered the head of the socialist party by slashing him in public with the same kind of sword that has been banned a century earlier in 1876…

An unprecedented and hysterical anti knife campaign went through the country, it became forbidden to take the higonokami knife to school and tough knife laws were adopted, restricting the carry of knives. This was a hard blow, the Higonokami almost disappeared and if it survives today it is because of knife lovers or of people nostalgic of their childhood, who kept the flame alive. Today the knife has lost its popularity and a lot of young Japanese don’t even know anything about it.

So if “higonokami” is a trademark and if only the makers belonging to the corporation in Miki can use this name, which are the real higonokamis among all the different models on the market? In fact, sadly there is only one maker left in the guild, all others have stopped making them. The only « real » and « historical » higonokamis are easy to spot. They are the ones that are sold in the little blue and gold paperboard boxes.

They are made by Motosuke Nagao, established in Miki, descending from four generations of blacksmiths and whose one ancestor was this other Nagao I mentioned at the start of the story.

Today, Motosuke Nagao is quite old, his succession is not ensured and the trademark might disappear with him.

His basic and better-known model is called “Sada Koma” and exists in three shapes: small, medium and large.

It is the archetype of the higonokami knife:

- A handle made out of a folded sheath of brass stamped with kanjis detailing the name of the maker and the steel of the blade: a sanmai with an aogami edge (blue paper steel).

- The presence of a chikiri (the lever) on the blade, to open the knife.

- The lack of a locking system.

- The fact that the blade entirely disappears in the handle when the knife is closed.

There are different shapes of blades but the most common is the one with the point in line with the edge, the so-called “inverted tanto”.

There are also other versions with different steels.

Some of them are even cheaper with a Shirogami blade and a blackened steel handle. There also exist some special editions with a damascus sanmai blade.

As Motosuke is alone to produce all these knives he is struggling to keep up with quality standards. It is almost impossible to find one that is perfect and there seems to always be a detail that is wrong: scratches and imperfections on the blade, lever that doesn’t adjust well on the handle, grinds that aren’t symmetrical, file marks, scratched brass and so on… The finish is not finished, the back of the blade feels like a file and sharp angles make the knife unpleasant to grip. I had some that had the lanyard hole missing and others where you had one but couldn’t use it because the blade was too long and would cut through it! As they are tools as well as knives and because they are so inexpensive (9€ in Japan) it is up to their owner to finish them. Mine are polished with sand paper and polishing paste, filed to round the angles and to erase the defects, in order to make them smooth and pleasant to touch. Their brass mantle shining like solid gold, they go through a metamorphosis, become almost sophisticated, taking the look of a precious knife. This beauty doesn’t last; it is as ephemeral as the blossoming of the Sakura flowers on mount Fuji. After a few days, the brass gets tarnished and they become again humble and modest.

And what about the other ones? The ones sold in blue and white boxes with a samurai on the handle? Are they not Higonokamis?

Officially no, they are not higonokamis. They cannot use the name « higonokami » as their maker Miyamoto SEISAKUSHO (who makes them since 1932), left the corporation in the sixties. He calls them « Higonaifu » which is the Japanese pronunciation of « higo knife ».

Technically they are quite identical to the « real » ones. They share the same sizes, the steel of the blades is the same as is the material of the handles. They are also better made and better finished. No need to waste time and energy to improve their looks.

The most well known is the one with a black painted steel handle and a raw forged blade but you can also find models with chromed steel or the more traditional brass handles.

Sophisticated versions of it also exist with a cooper handle and a damascus blade forged by Mr. Ikeuchi.

The warrior pulling his sword on the handle is Miyamoto Musashi, a legendary ronin samurai who never lost a duel and invented a technique to fight with two swords. At the end of his life he retired in the province of Higo and wrote several martial arts and strategic treaties like the « Book of Five Rings » that are still read and studied today.

I find it the funny that the official higonokami is named after an official samurai and that this one has got the name of a renegade ronin…

These texts were taken off the British Blades forum