Alongside my fascination with the japanese sword I often find myself becoming interested in other facets of the culture, some big others small, and one such small fascination is the folding pocket knife called "Higonokami". "Higo no Kami" means Lord of Higo which is the old name of the kyushu province where the knife first originated from as well as a title for exceptionally powerful Samurai.
A fully open Higonokami, notice how theres no lock, the only attachment to the blade being the lever used to open it.
These particular knives sprang into being at some time during 1896 and were largely influenced by a design brought back from the Kyushu province. There were some changes made to the design of this knife to make it more practical to use and the name "Higonokami" was trademarked several years later alongside the creation of the knifemakers guild. It was immediately taken up by children and workmen alike as the "go to" pocket knife of convenience, and although since the 1960's, Japanese law has prohibited the carrying of knives above 6cm in length, this has only served to increase production of these knives under this designated length.
Whilst we're on this topic, another merit to consider with the Higonokami is that it is legal to carry in many places where other knives are not, such as the UK because of it's length and lack of a locking mechanism. It's also quite frankly not the most easily or quickly opened knife and as such this restricts its use to the more practical applications :) Something for which I'm glad.
The popularity of this knife I believe is rooted in firmly in its simple design. No piece is in any way over engineered and not only that, it's simplicity means that the cost of its manufacture can be kept low enough to warrant its use as a tool. Any knife that is so prohibitively expensive that you worry about using it is not a knife that I would bother buying at all.
Showing the simple pivot mechanism with washers and rivets. You can also see the way the knife handle bows inwards to meet the blade surface. This tension helps keep the blade from flopping open and puts the friction into this friction folder.
The handle is a simple folded piece of metal, sometimes with a hole drilled in the end for attachment to a clip or lanyard or beads and the pivot of the knife is a simple washer and rivet. The opening mechanism is a lever that is an integral part of the blade simply flattened for ease of use and this is the closest thing that this knife will see to a lock. Everything is simple and there is very little embellishment; all the cost of this knife is seen in the blade.
This picture shows the lamination line on the blade of the knife. The actual edge which shows darker in this photo, will be a much harder steel than the sides of the blade. Edge retention and durability in one small package
Any quality Higonokami will have a high carbon steel laminated blade usually in sanmai. This means that the sides of the blade will be made of a lower carbon steel and the centre core will be higher carbon, harder and more brittle but able to keep an incredibly sharp edge. My cheap little higo pocket knife is the sharpest I have ever owned which goes to show that keeping the knifes function in mind first and foremost is what is paramount in the design.
I have read that the knife is left intentionally unfinished and that it is up to the new owner to finish the knife, removing blemishes, polishing up edges and so on but I admit to liking the rough and raw finish to it as it keeps me one step closer to the person and the craft that brought it into being.
Also, these knives aren't meant to look polished and flashy, they're meant to be used and they have an aesthetic entirely of their own. There are however more complex designs available with different handle colours and more elaborate forging techniques but they aren't necessary, as long as the knife blade is functionally on par then anything else is largely irrelavent. The kanji on the handle usually details what steel the blade is made from and the name of the smith who made it.
The kanji on the side of the handle usually indicates who made the knife and what steel was used in its production.
Now finally, just in case I'm making people twitch, I admit that I have been calling all of these blades, Higonokami (Higo no kami) which is technically innacurate. The original people that started production of this little folder trademarked the name. This means that any other knives, like the one I have for instance, are not 'real' Higonokami. These are often referred to as Higonaifu, or more simply as Higo's but although the name is different, the quality is pretty much the same. Motosuke Nagao, a descendant of Shigeji Nagao, who was one of the original founders of the design, is the only man to be still making these knives as proper Higonokami. He is now very old and the future of the trademark is uncertain. There is no doubt that the design itself will persevere but whether it does so as the original "Higonokami" or simple as generic Higo styled knives is unclear.