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Tanto by Keith Nobuhira Austin
NobukuniClose.JPG (490509 bytes)
Click to see detail of kissaki and hada
Keith Nobuhira Austin
July 5, 1934-April 20,1997

Keith Austin was born in Fergus Falls, Minnesota on July 5th, 1934. He became interested in art and its history at a very young age with every intention of making it a lifelong endeavor. After completing his high school education, he traveled to New York in 1958 to start his career as a budding artist and painter While sharing an apartment with his brother Neil, Keith Austin began to "break into" the New York art scene, exhibiting his work and achieving some recognition. At the same time, he was beginning to actively pursue his long held interests in Asian history. A dramatic change in his life was about to happen.

After attending classes in Asian art, customs, and religion at the New School for Social Research, Keith Austin decided to give up his career as a painter and move to Japan to study Japanese art and culture, firsthand. Arriving in 1961, he was to remain there for nine years. Communication was difficult at first, so he practiced the art of calligraphy as a way to "get into the language" and became proficient at it.

It was not long before Keith Austin was introduced to the arts of the Japanese sword. It captivated him and he set his sights on becoming a sword smith. Persistent and completely serious, he enlisted the help of Dr Homma and Dr Sato of the NBTHK, Japan's leading experts in sword studies. After introductions and much diligence, he was accepted as a student by Takahashi Sadatsugu. The first two years of his apprenticeship were spent learning the basics, which often meant hours of just breaking and preparing charcoal for the forge. During the third year Takahashi Sadatsugu passed away. After his death, Keith Austin, along with most of his fellow students went to study with Miyairi Akihira. This was a very fortunate occurrence, as Miyairi Akihira is numbered among the greatest sword smiths of the twentieth century. He was a Mukansa (above competition/judgment) ranked smith, who at that time (1963), became only the second man to be elevated to the rank of "Juyo Mukei Bunkazai," or "Important Intangible (Living) National Treasure." During the remaining five years of his apprenticeship with Miyairi, Keith Austin was to meet and work with many of the best contemporary smiths. This had a tremendous effect on his development as a Toko. With all of his training completed, Keith Austin successfully graduated, becoming a licensed Japanese sword smith. To this day, he is the only foreigner ever to have attained the rank.

With his newly chosen professional name Nobuhira, Keith Austin returned to the United States in 1970. He then traveled to a number of places, spending time in several cities including Grand Rapids, Seattle, Portland, and Oakland. He finally settled in Yuba City near Sacramento, in central California.

Keith Nobuhira Austin established his forge there, making most of the tools and equipment he would soon be using and was determined to craft quality Nihon- To with purely American materials. He produced his own charcoal, found raw iron ore, and developed a personal clay mixture formula for tempering. His goal was to achieve superior steel regardless of the cost or sacrifice.

For more than two decades he worked at reproducing the famous Kamakura era steel found in the finest Japanese swords. Always a perfectionist and never satisfied, he kept working to "find the way'." This often held his production down, but a number of excellent tanto and forged iron tsuba were made during that time. The swords are usually signed with his name, date, and locale. He almost always inscribed tsuba in just two characters, "Nobuhira."

Keith Nobuhira Austin died on April 20th, 1997. To all those associated with the Japanese sword, it was a tremendous loss. Although having no sons or trained students to take his name and carry on his tradition, he was ""Sensei" to many who had the distinction of knowing him. At least one of his friends who assisted him often at his forge is determined to keep the tradition of Nobuhira alive here in America. The expertise and scholarship of Keith Nobuhira Austin, given so often and willingly is gone, but his legacy will be preserved by his many friends and associates, and in the art he created.

The tanto described here is one of his finest, and shows the great range of talent he possessed. It is of typical dimensions and shape, although other examples show an even greater reversed sori. Keith Nobuhira Austin made swords in a number of styles, experimenting with several traditions including Bizen and Soshu, a favorite of his. Mokume, itame, running hada, and O'hada can be seen on his blades. Suguha, midare, and notare hamon in both nioi, and nie-deki can be found on various works as well. Carvings (horimono) are rare, but Nobuhira was fond of making sukashi tsuba that incorporated a variety of well cut designs. This large and very sturdy tanto could almost be classified as a ko-wakizashi. It has the look and feel of a much older blade. **

**Oshigata and written information prepared by Richard Montegani. Special thanks to Mr. Paul Allman for supplying much of the material used in the remarks. (See the June 1997 issue, N. C. J. S. C. Newsletter)

Note: The complete article, including a description and oshigata, can be seen in the supplement to the To-Ron dated "97-9"