What is Tamahagane?
Sword steel smelted in traditional Japanese fashion
Tamahagane is the raw steel smelted in Japan and used exclusively for the making of high value edged weapons. Tamahagane itself of course varies and is distributed by the type of edged weapon it will be used to create. Typically speaking, the higher grade steel is intended exclusively for sword making.
The raw steel is virtually impossible to accurately replicate because of the localized nature of the core materials used in its creation. The volcanic geography, the Japanese history and knowledge with the process have maintained a product of such quality that it has been manufactured in the same way longer than any other manufactured product in history.
The smelting process itself is an exercise of endurance, patients and intuition that create ever moving variables that all contribute to a unique steel that is then further refined in the forging and folding process.
With the potential for failure or unintended results being very high, there are huge amounts of pressure for every smelt to be a success. Just like many Japanese traditions, the formal structure of enabling hard driven apprenticeship to master certification is very much a part of Tatara culture.
Currently Kihara Akira is the murage in charge. Murage meaning, appointed as authorised conservators of the traditional craft of tamahagane manufacturing, as designated by the NBTHK. To Japanese culture this level of recognition puts you into a class known as Living National Treasures.
The production of Tamahagane is limited for several obvious reasons such as scarcity of resources and ability to perform the work, but quality control and the inability for it to be any bigger without mechanization creeping in any more than it already has also play a part.
There are not many Tatara operating today in Japan and even less that produce sword quality steel; the Tatara being the actual location where Tamahagane is made. The heavy costs involved with creating Tamahagane and its restricted availability make the base costs of producing Japanese swords much more expensive than simply using a flat bar of modern steel.