Ten Basic Rules Every Collector Should
- NEVER get emotional about any sword at any
price. Buying on emotion and rationalizing it with logic can lead
to the disappointment and regret also known as
"buyer's remorse". Auctions are the number one
place for emotion to over-rule common sense by building that
competitive spirit between "rivals". Establish your
limits and budgets and stick to them.
- Buy what you like and what you can afford.
Don't strain the budget looking to acquire. The prudent
sequence is; fund comfortably, acquire advantageously, enjoy
profusely, learn extensively, liquidate equitably, repeat as
- Take from the bottom, add to the top. A
singular great work carries far more merit in a collection than a
room full of low end junk. Great is always great. Junk will
always be junk. Always has been, always will be. But starting at
the top is not within the capacity of most folks, and starting
with lower levels (not junk though) can build experience,
knowledge, and savvy. Eventually, as knowledge, experience, and
tastes improve, these pieces can be used as markers to augment
moving into the next levels, by selling or bartering them into
other pieces. Every acquisition should attempt to build equity to
a future "better" piece. Take from the bottom, add to
- Learn about your acquisitions *before*
acquiring them. Your tastes will not only be verified and
satisfied this way, but an educated buyer is indeed a force to be
reckoned with. The singular most important thing you can do to
protect yourself is to continually educate yourself. It never
stops. Study is the due diligence you exercise for future
- If it was meant to be part of your
collection, it will be either now or sometime in the
future. Eventually it all comes back around, or perhaps something
- Buy from someone that you trust and will
not only help with rule number four, but also encourage you to
upgrade your collection and participate in it by a means of
trade-in's and trade backs to help with rule number three
also, and not just once or twice, but time after time. Find good
mentors and listen to them.
- Study everyone else's collections where
possible at shows, exhibitions, museums, private individuals,
internet, books, clubs, everything, all the time, at every free
moment. It's all good food for the brain that builds
recognition skills when that out-of-polish masterpiece trots
across your path in the most unexpected of places. Without study,
it will go unrecognized. Is it easy, convenient, or cheap? NO!
But what worthwhile education is? Accept the fact that regardless
of where you live, learning about swords will involve expenses
such as travel, books, memberships, and of course, the swords,
fittings, papers, restoration work, etc, and sacrifices are part
of the curriculum.
- If you walk away from an item, you
don't go away empty handed. You still have your cash, and
everyone wants it. Never feel guilty about walking away from the
negotiating table. Anyone throwing guilt on the matter is playing
their very last card. If you never committed, you have no reason
to be guilty. However, if you did commit and then back out,
don't expect favors in the future. The integrity you keep in
the deals is just as important as the other guy's.
Collecting communities are surprisingly small in many genres, and
an ill wind travels fast and far. The dealer/client relationship
will only prosper if due consideration and respect is maintained
by both parties.
- Never become complacent about costs. Top
grade stuff is serious money. Someone says to you; "This
sword is a great deal at $75,000.00", and indeed, it may
very well be. However, many collectibles are not as
"liquid" as others and the markets fluctuate. How
fast can *you* liquidate it, and for how much, if some emergency
or duress requires a quick sale? There are actually two lessons
here; the perceived or realized "greatness" of any
deal, and the true discretionary nature of the money one would
use to fund it. Pulling down the retirement account, maxing out
credit cards, or drawing out all the rainy day savings would be
ill-advised (see also rule number two again).
- Anything can happen. Be prepared for that
"anything". If one day you buy something on impulse or
compulsion, then you are unable to act on a better piece or
better deal that may come along right after the money is spent.
Be confident and discerning in acquisitions following the other
rules and think each decision through clearly. At least then if
such a situation arises, you won't hold nearly as much regret
because of the satisfaction in the purchase you made already.
Patience, knowledge, and logic not only minimize regret, but are
the keys to a great collecting experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
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Care and Maintenance
- Basics of sword ownership
- Congratulations, so you have just bought your first
traditionally-made Japanese sword. Hopefully you had spent a
decent amount of time and money buying books, learning about
Nihonto, asking for other's advice, and looking at good
examples in hand before making your purchase. This is the
recommended route, and is far better than the often-followed
route of buying a fake on eBay or elsewhere, discovering you
wasted your money, and then buying the first cheap, out of polish
but real blade that you could find. Perhaps you have been handed
down a family sword that was brought back from the war by
someone, or stumbled upon a good deal at a garage sale that you
couldn't resist. In all of these cases, you will be
wondering what to do next. The following advice is critical to
prevent any damage to the sword and to inform you of how to
begin, so please read carefully.
- NEVER clean, sand, grind or otherwise work on the
patina/rust or shape of the nakago (tang) of a Japanese
sword. The patina and rust there is critical to helping
determine who made the sword and/or its age, and to the
entire value of the blade. Japanese swords are traditionally
polished by experts, but the tang is always left to age
gracefully. Even if there is a signature that can't be read
due to the rust, removing the rust will reduce the value
dramatically and likely get you lynched by the first serious
collector you come across. If there is red and active rust on the
tang, you can carefully wipe it over with a soft cloth and
maybe add a tiny amount of oil to your fingertips and wipe softly, but
don't use anything abrasive on the tang. The idea is to preserve the
old and black stabilized rust, and limit red and recent active
rust. However most consider oiling the tang as generally not a
good idea and you should seek out your nearest expert or sword
appreciation club for further advice. When in doubt, do nothing to the
tang at all. An unreadable mei (signature) is far preferable to a
cleaned nakago. It goes without saying that you do not grind or alter
the shape of the nakago in any way.
- Rule number 2 is to never use anything abrasive on the
blade to clean or polish it. Directions for cleaning the blade can be found
below. No matter how much you are tempted, never use any grit of
sandpaper or other abrasive compound to remove stains or rust. Oil
left to penetrate, followed by regular wiping will stabilize a blade,
and prevent further damage. For very out of polish blades, regular
uchiko work done lightly over a period of months or years might assist
you in identifying the temper line (hamon) but this is also a
controversial subject and must be done cautiously. Again, the best
advice is when in doubt, do nothing except preserve with a light
coating of oil.
- NEVER use the sword to cut anything at all. There are many modern swords made
specifically for use in sports such as iaido and tameshigiri. Unless
you are an expert and have a legitimate reason, do not be tempted to
see how well your sword will cut. Antique blades are considered art,
and any use of them for cutting can be dangerous and/or detrimental to
the condition of the blade. Even the lightest of scratches will
necessitate a full polish at well over $1000 and significant loss of
metal. These swords only have a certain amount of polishes left in
them, and after that they are considered fatally flawed and
unrestorable. They could also have unseen flaws that could cause the
blade to snap, chip or bend, which is hazardous to your health...but
more importantly to the sword.
- Keep your fingers off the blade. Human oils can rust a blade in a very short period of
time. See the section below for instructions on handling a sword, and
always rest it on a clean and soft cloth. Do NOT check the edge to see
"how sharp it is" or put your fingers on the blade. In many cases,
people do not even speak while looking at a sword, as tiny drops of
saliva will end up on the blade and stain it remarkably quickly.
Always properly wipe or clean any sword that has just been
handled before storing it.
- Do NOT try and polish a blade yourself. You cannot possibly
do a job even remotely close to someone who has studied polishing
for over 10 years, and you will ruin the blade. Leave the polishing to
- Do not use any acids, juices or other
etchants on the blade to bring out the hamon. These will ruin the
blade, and any acids that get into the grain of the steel will
continue to eat away at the blade causing harm that cannot be removed
or repaired. Acid polishes are immediately identifiable to most
serious collectors, and will reduce the value of the blade and cost
you more money at the end of the day to re-polish. No matter who tells
you that some experts use acids or lemon juice etc to bring out the
hamon, resist the urge to try this.
- We are not the ultimate owners of these swords. Bear this in
mind every time you look at a blade. Many have existed for
hundreds of years, and we are only the temporary custodians until
the next generation. Respect the sword and treat is as though you
are only maintaining it for future generations. Every year many
antique swords are lost to careless damage, and remember that
these cannot be replaced. With knowledge, comes respect for what
these swords represent and a desire to preserve them and study
- Where do I buy a genuine Japanese sword?
You can buy Japanese swords in many
different places and from many different dealers: sword shops in Japan,
sword shows in the US or overseas, gun and military shows in the US or
elsewhere, eBay and other online auctions, postings on the For Sale
forum on this message board, from other collectors, and from online
dealers. Check the links at the top of this board 's home page and
you 'll find a list of dealers with swords at a variety of price
Finding swords to buy is easy; knowing what to buy takes
serious study. Your first ten swords should be books. You should
attend sword shows if possible and beg your way into collections to see
and learn. Read, ask questions, reread, and ask more
questions. Only with knowledge can you make an informed decision,
and appreciate and understand what you are buying.
If you are ready
to buy a sword but are uncomfortable with you level of expertise, you
would be smart to stick with well established dealers and/or swords with
authentication papers from one of the important sword societies in
Japan. Even then you should be asking lots of questions. If you
are still unsure, ask questions: From the seller, and from other
collectors. Ask this forum. but ask someone, as once you have bought, it
is too late to go back. Usually fellow enthusasts will be glad to assist
and guide you through the process. Always run the dealership through an
online search and see what other's experience of them was. You will
never find total concensus, but most should agree.
It is a fact
that you should always buy a sword in-hand and in person, and not from
pictures online. This is good advice to follow, and is probably the most
important advice you will get. But if you are unable to, then refer to
the advice above, or delay the purchase until
- How to disassemble and examine a sword.
Without rewriting the excellent guides that are already out
there, the following page has an excellent article on this,
together with pictures and a section on etiquette:
- How to oil and maintain Nihonto
- The starting point to preserving a blade is to pick
up some light machine oil, the type sold for sewing machines,
or some traditional oil for Japanese blades which is called
choji oil. This refers to clove oil, but is actually a light
machine oil mixed with a tiny bit of clove oil just for the
pleasant traditional scent. Do not use pure
pharmaceutical clove oil. Many other oils such as gun oils and
vegetable oil can gum up, leave stains or have other adverse
effects over time.
A few drops on a clean and soft cloth, lightly wiped over the
blade when it has been handled should do the trick. In climates
that are less humid, cleaning does not have to be done
very frequently. Less is more when it comes to Nihonto. Uchiko powder and commercial sword
cleaning balls containing powdered abrasive should generally
be reserved for blades heavily out of polish, and even then very
sparingly. They can be used occasionally on Nihonto to
remove old oil, but bear in mind that they are abrasive and will
dull a new polish over time. Removal of old oil can easily be
done with pure alcohol, otherwise known as dehydrated alcohol or waterless ethanol. This
is 99.5% pure alcohol.
Be careful when cleaning the area close to the tang - try to
avoid moving the tissue up from the nakago - the tissue
might pick up rust particles from the nakago (tang) and
scratch the blade. Move the tissue in one direction - from
the tang to the tip. Never ever move your hand up and down -
you could cut yourself badly some day (and blood will stain
Scented or otherwise hampered tissue paper is be avoided. Normal
tissue is fine and a lot easier to get a hold of. The best cloth
to use is micro fiber cloth, sold for photographic lenses.
known as the best of these brands and can be found online.
These can be washed in water when they get too dirty.
For newly polished blades or newly made
blades, the following is the traditional routine:- For the first 3 months, the blade has to be cleaned
every week because it can rust easily. After that it is cleaned once a
month for 3-6 months and then only every 6 months. It has to be cleaned
every time you use it or show it to someone. It has to be cleaned every
month for 3-6 months if you move it out of its usual resting place (you
move to a new house where the humidity level is different).
- Storage and Display
- Traditionally, the Japanese sword is
displayed as it is worn..in other words katana/wakizashi/tanto
edge up, and tachi edge down or vertically. The tsuka (handle)
usually faces to the left, as this shows the sword is at rest and
not in a position to be drawn quickly by the right hand in an
Tachi in a special tachi kake (stand) are sometimes also
Stands can vary from wall mounted horizontal racks, to
stand-alone kake or professional cabinets. Standing a sword
vertically with the point down will cause oil to pool in the
bottom of the saya, so this is undesirable.
Swords with both koshirae and plain scabbards called
shirasaya are sometimes displayed with the koshirae separate
using a wooden blade called a tsunagi to keep the koshirae
together. In this case, the sword in shirasaya is usually
displayed together with the complete koshirae.
Newly polished swords should have a shirasaya and new habaki made
for them. Old saya often have dirt and grit inside them that can
scratch or damage the new polish. Because of the change of
dimensions of the sword after polish, a new habaki is often
There are too many display options for the Japanese sword to list
them all here. The most important part is to ensure that moisture
does not affect the blade, and the environment is not too dry as
to cause shrinkage and cracking of the wooden parts. In
professional and sealed glass display cabinets with internal
lighting, a glass of water is often left inside the case to
prevent drying out. However always monitor the environment
inside the room or cabinet for excess moisture or dryness.
When stored, the sword is placed inside a slightly padded sword
bag with a tie cord. This prevents bumps from damaging the
laquerwork and metalwork.
Buying and Selling
- What books are recommended before buying?
•The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords By
Kokan Nagayama and translated by Kenji Mishina
Sword: A Comprehensive Guide By Kanzan Sato and translated
by Joe Earle.
•The Samurai Sword By John
•The Craft of the Japanese Sword By Kapp
•The Art of the Japanese Sword: The Craft of Swordmaking and its Appreciation By Kapp & Yoshihara
•The Arts of the Japanese Sword By B.W. Robinson
•The Japanese Sword : The Soul of the
Samurai By Gregory Irvine
•Nihon-To art swords of
Japan By W.A.Compton, Homma Junji, Sato Kanichi and Ogawa
•Samurai, The weapons and spirit of the japanese
warrior By Clive Sinclaire
•Japanese swords and
sword furniture in the museum of fine arts Boston By Ogawa
•Facts and Fundamentals of Japanese Swords: A Collector's Guide by Nobuo Nakahara
•Encyclopedia of Japanese swords By Markus Sesko
Intermediate and up:
•Nihon Toko Jiten (two volumes) By Matsuo
Fujishiro, Translated by AFU
•Nihon-To Koza (6 volumes) By Souemon/Kiyoshige, Translated by Harry Watson - AFU
Swords and Sword Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston By Morihiro Ogawa
•One Hundred Masterpieces from the
Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton: Japanese Swords, Sword
Fittings, and Other - Christies
•Japanese Swords and Sword Fittings from the
Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton
•Japanese Swordsmiths By Hawley
•Nihonto Newsletter Vol 1,2,3 By Albert Yamanaka
•Yasukuni-to Tradition and Ideal
Beauty By Tom Kishida
•The School of Hizen
Tadayoshi By Roger Robertshaw
•Mino-To By Malcolm Cox
•Cutting Edge: Japanese Swords In The
British Museum By Victor Harris
•Sword and Same'
By Henri Joly
•Swordsmiths of Japan By Markus Sesko
- Buying on eBay or online
- 95% or more of the old Japanese
swords for sale on eBay today, were made tomorrow in China. Of the
rest, many if not most have problems that the seller either doesn't know
about or doesn't want to tell you about. The very few real and
good quality Japanese swords on eBay are either labeled as such (maybe
they have papers from one of the organizations in Japan) or they are
diamonds in the rough. In the first case you will get a real and good
quality sword but you'll most likely pay more than you'd have paid
buying the same sword from a dealer; prices on eBay can be silly
high. As for finding the diamond in the rough, the great sword for
pennies on the dollar, even with decades of experience, can't
always be identified from a few grainy pictures and a brief
description. And if you can, then note that there are hundreds of fellow
Nihonto enthusiasts who will have seen the same auction, and will bid at
the end, driving the price up. There are few real bargains, and even
fewer that slip through the cracks without everyone seeing them. Buying
Japanese swords on eBay is a great way to burn through a pile of money
fast. If you are a beginner you'd be smart to stay away from Nihonto on
Buying online, however, can be a great experience. Stick with
well established dealers (many of which are linked on this Message
Board) and ask advice if you're not sure about who is well esablished.
Take your time, ask questions of the dealers, and study as much as
possible about the sword you're considering.
Before even starting
your search, read everything you can get your hands on, go to
Japanese sword shows if possible, ask your way in to see other
collector's collections, in short: STUDY. The more you know before
you buy a sword, the better you'll do and the more you'll learn from the experience.
- How to Pack and Ship a Japanese sword, by Grey Doffin.
- How to pack and ship a Japanese sword:
In this article I will discuss 3 scenarios: a sword in shirasaya or koshirae, a sword with saya (scabbard) but with no tsuka (handle), and a bare blade.
Whichever of these you are shipping, it makes sense to apply at least a thin coat of machine (sword) oil or, better yet, a layer of plastic food wrap (Saran Wrap) to the polished portion of the blade.
If your package is opened and examined somewhere along the line (Customs say), the examiner is less likely to leave fingerprints behind
Shipping a mounted blade
It is of utmost importance that the pin through the sword's handle, the mekugi, be firmly in place and sturdy.
If the mekugi is weak or missing, and if the package is dropped the blade can crash down inside its scabbard and shatter its kissaki (point).
If the mekugi is weak, replace it. You can fabricate a temporary replacement from a bamboo chopstick.
A rubber band tightly round the handle will insure that the mekugi doesn't wiggle loose during shipment.
Wrap the sword in plenty of padding: bubble wrap or soft foam, being careful to fold the padding over either end and tape securely to prevent the blade from coming loose in the scabbard along the way.
Stiff foam lining the inside of the box is another good idea. Your box should be sturdy.
Triangular or round tubes are better than rectangular shapes, as nothing will be stacked on top of them in transit.
The cardboard tubes that carpet comes rolled around make extra sturdy shipping tubes.
If you are shipping 2 or more mounted swords in one package it is a good idea to dismount the tsuba and wrap them separately.
This will prevent the tsuba of one sword from rubbing against the other.
If you do remove the tsuba, wrap a rubber band tightly around the sword's nakago (tang) behind the habaki to take up the tsuba's space and keep the blade from sliding too deeply into the saya.
Sometimes shirasaya will split along the glue line at the mouth of the saya due to rough handling in transit. To guard against this try the following.
Cut a strip of paper about an inch wide and long enough to wrap one and a half times around the saya about 5 or 6 inches below the koi guchi (mouth or top of the saya).
Tightly wrap masking tape around the paper. Now invert the saya on a counter top and force the paper/tape down as far as possible.
If you have done this right the paper/tape band will be very tight and prevent splitting. At the other end of the trip it can be slid off and no tape residue will be left behind.
The same process forced down the tsuka also makes sense.
Shipping a blade with saya only
Do not ship this combination with the blade in the saya. Without the tsuka and mekugi through its hole there is nothing to keep the blade from bottoming out inside the saya and shattering the
Tightly wrap the bare blade firstly in saran srap as above, and then in quite a few layers of paper, making sure to fold over both ends and tape the whole bundle securely.
Wrap the saya in a few layers of paper and tape this bundle securely. Now lay the blade bundle on the saya bundle, with the point of the blade an inch or so above the bottom of the saya, and very
securely tape the 2 bundles together. If the package is dropped it will be the bottom of the saya that will bump into packaging, not the sword's kissaki.
Shipping a bare blade
You will need a piece of very stout cardboard or something similar, or lightweight wood, that fits snugly inside the tube and stretches the tube's full length.
Tightly wrap the blade in paper as described in the paragraph above. Securely tape the blade bundle to the cardboard sheet, making sure the tip of the kissaki is an inch or so above the bottom of the
sheet. For added protection, you can tie a piece of insulated electric wire through the hole in the tang and cardboard sheet and around the sheet.
The cardboard sheet will suspend the blade inside the package and if properly taped won't allow the blade to bump into the package.
Which shipping service to use
Some private shipping services don't insure antiques. If your sword is damaged or lost in transit you may not be covered even if they sold you insurance when you shipped; best to check up front.
I live in the US and I always ship swords with the post office (USPS). They will insure antiques, including Samurai swords, up to insurance limits.
In order to collect if there is a loss, however, you have to be able to prove the value, usually with a receipt of purchase or sale. If you can't prove value insurance is worthless.
Note: there are private insurance companies that might insure the sword in transit.
USPS registered post is the best option in the US; insurance is available but isn't usually necessary as these packages almost never get lost or damaged.
You will have to cover all places your tube could be opened without cutting into the tube with gummed paper tape. This tape will be rubber stamped when you hand the tube over at the post office,
making any attempt to open the package visible. Every postal employee who handles the package between you and the recipient has to sign for it;
The post office will know who had the package if there was a problem. If the package spends a night in a post office it has to be in a safe.
As my guy at the post office told me, if you lose registered you lose your job. Registered is less expensive than other services with insurance once you get above minimal value, another advantage.
For international, among the best options is EMS, sometimes called Priority Mail Express International or other names depending on the country. This can be tracked and insured, and imho is very reliable. Please check
with your post office to verify the cost, and applicable destinations, as well as length limiations.
If you are shipping out of the country, you need to fill out a customs form and there are a couple things you need to take into account.
There is already a detailed discussion of the customs issue on NMB; you will find it pasted at the top of the For Sale or Trade forum or here's the link:
http://www.militaria.co.za/nmb/topic/1860-importingexporting-and-customs-queries-and-advice/ Customs will be on the lookout for ivory.
If your shirasaya has ivory eyelets at the mekugi-ana and they find them you could be in trouble. If possible, carefully pry them loose and ship separately.
Recently some of us have had customs problems with same', the ray skin under the wrapping of the sword's tsuka. No idea what the work around is for this one; good luck.
- Sword Appreciation and Identification
- Coming soon
- What is my sword worth?
- An often asked question with no real answer. When
dealing with any art, the simple answer is that it is worth
whatever someone is willing to pay for it. A $50K sword that
has been for sale for the past 5 years is obviously not
worth $50K, and pointing out that a similar one to yours is going
for that price is meaningless. Fashions and tastes change over
time. There has been a drop in sword prices over the past
few decades. This is possibly due to the fact that interest
has increased, but so has the availability. World markets also
play a major part in pricing and the economic climate currently
has had a detrimental effect on items considered
"luxuries" such as art.
What is true though, is that Japanese swords are a relative
bargain in the world of art. Whereas a top class painting might
fetch a few million $'s, a top name smith's sword can go
for a mere $100K or more. A one of a kind Kiyomaru sword can
fetch $300K which in terms of world art is relatively low in
comparisson with other art and big names. You can also pick up a
decent hand forged 500 year old blade in polish for $10K, which
in terms of art is a very low price indeed.
For every good sword though, there are hundreds of mass produced
swords worth a fraction of that. And because each sword is one of
a kind, there is no easy price guide telling you what a sword is
worth. The best way to value a sword is to look at as many swords
as possible that are for sale, and to know your subject enough to
be able to identify what you have.
This is all apart from the pricing on non-traditionally made
military swords that do not fall in the context of art. These are
militaria and values depend on prevailing market situations.
Prices on these have been steadily rising to the point that you
are advised to look at dealer websites to get a feel for what
they are selling for. Even the machine made NCO Shin Gunto which
used to sell for $300 has been selling for close to $1000 and
more in excellent condition lately, so for militaria I advise you
to check the current selling prices on eBay and dealer sites to
gather an idea for current prices.
For traditionally made swords, it all depends on condition and
other factors such as shortening, era and smith.
Theoretically, all other condition, maker and
workmanship factors being equal , a wakizashi would be
roughly half the price of a katana, and a tanto slightly more
than a wakizashi. Shinto that have been shortened are far less
desirable, and Shinshinto should not be altered at all.
Shortening is more accepted in Koto blades due to their age.
Unsigned swords and gimei swords take a hit in price, as do the
amount of flaws and staining.
Generally, the older a sword and the more important the work..the
more flaws are forgiven.
- Why polish a Japanese sword?
- In order to see all of the activity in the sword's
hamon and hada (temper and grain), the sword has to be in polish.
Unlike most collectibles, it isn't wrong to polish a Japanese sword and
restore it properly. In this respect, they are more like fine old oil
paintings which get cleaned and repaired, than they are like fine old
furniture on which the original surface is valued. Age patina on a
Japanese sword is only valued on the tang (nakago) and this is the part
that is never cleaned.
This is also where a good togishi will correct
the lines, shape and features of the blade, and bring it close to what
the original smith intended. Polishing a Japanese sword involves an
incredibly complex routine which doesn't open up the surface grain, but
allows the texture to be seen, and at the same time brings out all of
the incredible activities in the steel. This is way to ultimately
appreciate a Nihonto, and can only be seen properly when polishing has
However, every time a sword is polished some of the sword
is lost to the polishing stones. Eventually the skin steel will be gone,
the less refined and coarser core steel will show through, and the
sword's artistic, historic, and monetary value will suffer. For this
reason, only a properly trained polisher should ever polish a sword.
Proper training takes years of study, almost always in Japan; no one can
learn to polish Japanese swords by reading books and watching videos.
Amateur polishers remove too much of the skin and leave the sword with
an improper polish, which will need to be redone properly, which will
remove even more of the sword.
Japanese swords don't have to be
polished to survive; there is nothing about the polish that protects the
blade from corrosion. If you own a sword in reasonably OK old
polish, there is nothing wrong in enjoying it as it is and preserving
it. These is still a lot that can be enjoyed. Seek the correct advice
before doing anything, and try and see a few swords in full polish so
that you will know what is expected and what to look for.
- I'm new to Japanese swords and I want to get my 1st sword polished and/or have koshirae made for it.
- Slow down Grasshopper. Pretty much every new collector wants to do this. But it is not always a good idea. A polish isn't necessary to preserve your sword; as long as any active red rust is stabilized, your sword will be just fine in its old polish with proper maintenance. Sharpening = polishing and polishing removes steel from the blade and too many polishes remove enough steel that the blade's core steel starts to show through, a serious and ugly defect. Beginners often don't know how to properly care for a blade in polish. A new polish is easily scratched or even rust spotted and before you know it, the blade needs a polish again. Old scabbards can contain grit that can scratch a newly polished sword, or talking over a blade can lead to tiny droplets of moisture on the blade which turn into rust spots very fast.
Beginners often make the mistake of having their sword polished by an improperly trained polisher, which can irreparably damage the sword. Also,remember that not all swords are worthy of a polish: retempered, tired (core steel showing), and badly defected swords will not be worth the cost of polish. Low to mediocre grade swords are often worth less than the cost of polish. There are many periods in Japanese history where swords were produced as fast as possible, with less care about aesthetics and more thought about producing functional weapons. It is a fact that age doesn't necessarily mean value. In these cases your money would be better spent on a more worthy sword (or books). Learning to distinguish between mass produced utilitarian blades and those worthy of polishing is a huge part of your studies, and this is where the advice of knowledgeable collectors is invaluable. Spending $2500 on a polish for a sword that will be worth $1500 afterwards only makes sense if the sword has sentimental value. Otherwise, the money is better spent on upgrading.
Having koshirae (mounts) made for a sword is also a common desire of new collectors. While this will do no damage to the sword if done by a professional, it can put a serious dent in your wallet. When the time comes to sell (and it will, unless you plan to be buried with your sword) you will be lucky to recoup half of what you invest in koshirae. Other collectors want original "Samurai" koshirae, not something you put together.
Rather than jumping in with polish and/or koshirae, you would be smart to take your time to study and learn. With experience you will be able to make informed decisions and spend your money more wisely.
Also, your tastes will change. A few years from now you'll be glad you don't have way too much invested in something you want to sell.
•Who should I have polish my sword and how much can I expect to spend?
In the west, especially in the United States, there are many polishers to choose from. I can count on one hand the number of polishers outside of Japan who have proper training. A poorly done polish can do significant damage to a sword, both artistically and monetarily. Put another way, the most expensive polish is often the one that costs the least. We can not over stress this point: Don't give your sword to an amateur polisher.
•How do you know if a polisher has proper training? Ask experienced collectors (here on NMB, for example) who they'd recommend. If the polisher lives outside of Japan and he advertises his services on ebay or someplace similar, you don't necessarily want him to touch your sword; the true polishers have more than enough work without advertising.
•What will this cost? Prices vary with the condition of the sword to be polished but a good rue of thumb is $100-120 per inch of cutting edge. You will also need shira-saya (plain wooden mounts) and possibly a new habaki. You won't be putting a newly polished blade back in its old mounts because the polish can be scratched by any grit that found its way inside the saya over the centuries. Shira-saya can cost a few hundred dollars and habaki, if necessary, at least $200 more.
This isn't inexpensive, which is why you need to make sure your sword is worth the expense. A properly trained polisher will be glad to look at your sword and give you good advice.
•How do I know if my sword is worthy of a polish? If you have been advised by knowledgeable collectors or other experts that your sword might possibly be worth restoring, one way to find out for sure that doesn't cost an arm and a leg is to have a professional polisher open a "window" on your blade. This is a small area of the sword that is polished to see the actual workmanship, hada, hamon and hataraki and see if the blade exhibits quality workmanship. Most polishers will do a window or at least look at your blade and give you advice. The other way is to find a sword study group or sword show near you and get the advice of as many advanced collectors as possible. Online opinions are at the bottom of the reliability scale, as there is only a limited amount that can be determined from pictures, but if from advanced collectors, is better than no advice at all. The key is to ask, ask, ask...before doing. Then take some more time and think it over before you make up your mind.
- How much does it cost to restore a Japanese
Polishing a Japanese sword is a major undertaking. There are
only a handful of fully trained and competent togishi outside of
Japan, and links to them can be found in the links section.
There are many others inside Japan, but please note that for any
polisher, the waiting period can be from 6 months up to several
Within Japan, the laws for importing a sword make it easier to go
through a broker. This is someone who will handle the import
paperwork and deal directly with the polisher. This comes at
a fee which can be a few hundred dollars, but is well worth it to
be able to successfully complete the transaction with a minimum
Outside of Japan, expect a similar waiting period. The better the
polisher, the longer the waiting period usually.
Polishing comes at a significant price. The rate is usually
between $50 and $150 per inch of blade cutting length. This means
that an average katana of 25" blade length can cost on
average $2500 for a decent polish. Then you have to understand
that a newly polished blade usually requires a new habaki and
shirasaya. Old scabbards usually have built up dirt and grime
inside them that can scratch a newly polished blade, and
therefore a new resting scabbard is recommended. The change in
blade dimensions after a polish also require a newly fitted blade
collar (habaki) afterwards. This can be as simple or as intricate
as the customer desires. Expect a basic habaki to be in the
region of $300 and a shirasaya to be around $400-600. These
prices are estimates, and will vary depending on who is doing the
- Should I have my sword polished or not?
This is a question that is often asked, and yet is almost
impossible for anyone else to tell you. As can be seen above,
polishing and restoring a Japanese sword is a major and costly
undertaking. Spending $3000 restoring a sword that might be only
worth $2500 after restoration doesn't make financial sense.
On the other hand, for a good sword, the ability to be able to
study it, learn from it, and appreciate it afterwards is reward
enough for many people.
The first thing to decide is whether you have a decent sword or
not. This cannot usually be seen merely from online photos or if
it is badly out of polish. Fatal flaws can be hidden under rust,
and the blade could be tired (worn down from repeated
The best thing to do is get it to a professional togishi who can
open a window in the blade and see what the hada and hamon look
like. This involves polishing a small part of the blade, and will
allow the polisher to tell you if the steel is good and if the
hamon looks good. With his advice, you can usually decide whether
to proceeed or not.
The other way is to take it to a sword show or meeting near you.
Although there isn't always access to these everywhere, in
many countries there are sword appreciation groups and shows.
Questions posted on a sword forum will usually tell you if there
is a group, meeting or advanced collector near you.
It is usually not financially viable to have a sword
polished merely to sell it. Adding the cost of the polish to the
cost of the sword makes the end result fairly expensive. Unless
you turn up a sword by a good smith for little money, you might
ultimately lose money on the deal. In this case, it is best to
sell the sword out of polish and let the future owner decide how
If the sword has been identified by experts to be by a big name
smith or a very good piece, then it is recommended to have it
restored, as the end result will be a sword that shows the
smith's work as it was intended, and the blade should
increase it's value accordingly. But this involves positive
identification of the sword and its maker, preferably through a
In some cases though, collectors will spend the money on a polish
so that they can enjoy the piece and learn from it. There is no
doubt that there is no better way to study Nihonto than to look
at good swords, in polish. Little can be learned from a rusted
and stained lump of steel. In some cases it is sufficient to just
care for the sword and enjoy it for what it is, and leave the
restoration up to future generations.
In the end...the question of "should I have it
polished" comes down to your own finances and how dedicated
you are to preserving the blade. Cheap polishes by amateur
togishi remove metal and shorten the life of the sword. They
should be avoided at all costs.
Self-study will assist you in judging the shape and style of a
blade, and perhaps allow you to see something under the rust and
grime that indicates the blade has potential. Feel free to ask
for opinions on the internet forums, but take the replies as a
guide only, and try and have the blade evaluated in hand by
Accept the fact that during the polishing process, fatal flaws or
blisters or open grain can become visible that were otherwise
invisible. This is one of the risks that come with this hobby. On
the other hand, there is nothing as satisfying as seeing a blade
that has come back from the polisher in all its glory, showing
wonderful grain and a temperline that shows everything as the
original smith intended. This is what collecting is all
So in conclusion, there is no fast and easy answer to the
question of whether you should have a sword polished or not. If
money is no object, then yes. If you are like the rest of us, you
will want to take your time, get other opinions and weigh the
financial outlay vs what you will gain afterwards before you
How and Why....
- Gimei (false signatures)
- Gimei refers to a false signature. It does not
mean that the sword bearing a gimei is fake, but rather that the
signature is fake, added later, or by someone without the
knowledge of the original smith. Some swordsmiths or dealers, in
order to increase the saleability and value of a sword, would
have the signature of a well respected (famous maker) swordsmith
inscribed on the tang. This has been going on for a few hundred
years. The known original signatures of the smiths are recorded
in books, and a comparison of how a given smith signed his name
is compared to authenticate. Other factor also enter play here,
such as: is the sword of the correct time period of the signed
smith, is the style of work the same as is known for the
smith and is the work representative of the period/style?
Detecting gimei is an art in itself. Some are easy to spot,
others take a lifetime to identify. You have to have a decent
library of original and verified signatures to even begin the
identification process. This is a job for the experts, as even
slight subtleties such as stroke length, pressure and direction
can be give-aways. An understanding of how mei are chiselled is
important, and recognising that a mei is essentially a signature,
and therefore should be fluent and confident. Of course mei did
change over the lifetime of a smith too, and old age could change
the style of the mei. Therefore even more reason to seek the
advice of a professional.
Gimei does not make a sword
worthless. There are many fine swords with gimei on them. Each sword has
to be appreciated on its own merits. However gimei does affect
value, and a sword will not paper unless a gimei is removed. Gimei
can be done hundreds of years ago, or yesterday. Note the stokes, and
especially the age patina inside them. Does it match the rest of
the nakago? Do the strokes look fluent, or very hesitant? All
things to consider. And remember that when buying a big name sword
without papers, regard it as gimei until proven otherwise.
- How are we certain if a mei is fake, besides it looking newer compared to the age of the nakago?
1. Work is inferior and signature is high level.
2. Signature is in the wrong place (examples: sword is suriage, and has a nice signature up at the machi, -or- sword comes from a tachi era with a smith who would sign tachi mei, and signature is on the katana side, etc.)
3. Signature is too far outside the known styles of the smith (like mismatched handwriting)
4. Unfailing chiseling habits of the smith were not reproduced (like atari that always go in one direction being absent or going in the wrong direction)
5. Work is much newer than the signature would claim it to be, or wrong type for the maker (example: ubu Shinto katana with signature of Rai Kunitoshi on it)
6. Signature breaks a pattern, such as the Sue-Bizen habit of "Ju Osafune"
7. Faker used the wrong character for a smith, not having access to good information... I saw a gimei Soshu ju Akihiro for instance that had the wrong Aki character (since multiple characters exist that are pronounced the same way).
- Why did some swordsmiths not sign their
swords and why are there so many mumei (unsigned) swords?
There were many reasons why someswordsmiths did
not sign their work. Perhaps not all of these were valid at the time,
however they do indicate that there are many reasons why a smith might
not have signed a sword, and lack of a mei does not necessarily indicate
an inferior product. Among a few of the possibilities are the
1) The finished blade did not meet his standards, but was not
scrapped as sometimes done.
2) He did
not want the blade traced to him for personal
3) The blade has been cut down and the signature was lost (o-suriage)
4) The smith was not
completely happy with the end result, but the situation dictated that
the sword had to be released.
5) The smith regarded his work as
superior work, and standing on its own merits without needing a
signature to identify
6) A student made it without the teachers knowledge, but
duplicated the style.
7) He needed to keep his identity hidden,
perhaps making blades for an opposing clan.
8) He considered his
works to be unique and identifiable enough without a signature.
he did not want to seem arrogant.
10) Request by the person
ordering the sword.
11) A smith signing a sword would suggest that
the sword belonged to him, where in fact he was probably a subject of a
lord or monastery so him not signing the bladed was respectful.
12) Often, when a swordsmith got a chumon uchi (custom order)
from a high ranking offical, he usually produced two or three
blades and presented them to his client. The client picked one, and
the swordsmith would engrave his signature while the remaining production were sold off
without a signature.
13) The practice was not "en-vogue" at the time. It could be seen as
a little arrogant and boastful to sign one's work.
14) The smith was apprenticed
to another smith, and wasn't yet allowed to sign with his own
15) The smith was not yet fully qualified, but had produced
work for sale.
- How and Why did some swordsmiths get their titles
Japan was divided into 54 kuni ?, or provinces, at the time of the Taika reform. Some of those kuni were divided later, and some were added, so that in 823 AD the number was 68, which didn't change until the Meiji ?? restoration in 1868. The kuni were ranked, according to their size, as taikoku ??, jokoku ??, chukoku ?? and gekoku ??.
Originally governed by officials with the kabane ? (a court title) "Kuni no Miyatsuko" and "Inagi", of which emperor Jimmu ???? had appointed 144, they were replaced during the reign of emperor Kotoku ???? in the early Nara period ???? by the kokushi ??. The kokushi, gubernatorial officials, were headed by a kokushu ??, governor, and the titles they held are called zuryo ??.
The zuryo were (in descending order):
no Kami ? (governor, title of the kokushu)
no Suke ? (vice governor)
no Jo ?
no Sakan ?
no Shijo ??
Depending on the size of the province, the titles below "no Kami" were further differentiated, using either the prefixes dai ? or sho ? (in these cases the possessive predicate "no" is omitted): Daisuke ??, Shosuke ??, Daijo ??, Shojo ??, Daisakan ??, Shosakan ??, Daishijo ???, Shoshijo ???.
Domains with which the emperor rewarded princes or high officials were called shoen ??, the possessors thereof shoji ??. The shoji had only the produce of those lands, the land itself remained imperial property. The government of the land became more difficult as the number of shoen increased; some territorial lords started calling their domains shoen, too, and in the eleventh century, half of the country was thus converted into shoen. Some emperors tried to enact laws against this practice, but to no avail.
Minamoto no Yoritomo ???, the first shogun, started reforming this system with the goal of gaining stronger control over the lands. In 1185 AD, he entrusted the administration of the provinces to his vassals, who were called jito ?? in the imperial domains of the shoji, and shugo ?? (or shugoshoku ???) when appointed to "assist" a kokushi. The Kanto ?? provinces, which were directly under his jurisdiction, were governed by kuni-bugyo ???.
The shugo, who at first were called sotsuibushi ????, collected taxes, dispensed justice, and levied troops in case of war, gradually extended their power over the shoen, too, reducing the jito to secondary positions. Yoritomo himself was known by the title of Nihon-Sotsuibushi ?????? or Rokujuhakkakoku (68 provinces) no Sotsuibushi ?????????.
Another change came with Ashikaga ?? shogunate. The shugo became more powerful, and some governed several provinces. After the Onin war ???, they began to replace the kokushi, gradually forming the class of daimyo ??, and the jito were replaced by gokenin ???, house vassals. In the Edo period zuryo became in most cases merely honorific, awarded for merits in battle etc., and the holders had no jurisdiction over the respective provinces. There were, for instance, several Bizen no Kami ??? and Shinano no Kami ??? at the same time. Some exceptions applied, like the Shimazu ??, daimyo of Kagoshima ???, who bore the hereditary title of Satsuma no Kami ???.
Daimyo could appoint zuryo themselves, but the title had to be approved by the Imperial Court – which it usually did, for a fee, of course. The higher the title, the higher the fee. Not only samurai, but also sword smiths became eligible to apply for and receive such a honorary title.
Kinmichi (Kanemichi) ??, who founded the Mishina ?? school, received the title Iga no Kami on the 19'th day of the 2'nd month Bunroku 3 (1594), and worked also for the Imperial Court from that time onwards. Shortly before the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered 1,000 tachi from him, and due to the skillful management of all the workers, he was granted with the honorary title nihon kaji sosho ??????, lit. "master swordsmith of Japan". With that title, he had a certain influence at court on the granting of honorary titles for other swordsmiths. The title and the advisory function at the Imperial Court were hereditary, and held by successive Kinmichi generations until the bakumatsu era. It is said that they earned more money by acting as intermediaries for titles than by selling swords.
- Guido Schiller -
- Why can't I buy and use an old habaki on my
It is almost impossible to find a habaki
that fits perfectly, since each is hand made and hand fitted to a
blade, and everything depends on how many polishes your blade has
had and the individual dimensions of your blade. Your best bet is
to have one made by a professional. Having a new habaki made
is fine as long as one is aware that if there is an existing saya
involved, the new habaki may not necessarily fit the old saya
correctly. Sometimes an adjustment can be made and sometimes a
new saya will have to be made. Another point to keep in mind is
that having a new habaki made on any sword eventually headed for
polish is not a good idea, that is...not until after the new
foundation has been established by the polisher, otherwise the
habaki may no longer fit the sword properly. There is an order to
the restoration process: foundation polish---> habaki--->
shirasaya---> finish polish. This has to do with getting
correct fits and exposing the blade/polish to as little
opportunity for damage as possible.
- Taking apart a Tanegashima
- The following
steps will make life easier for anyone contemplating separating
the barrel and stock of their Tanegashima matchlock, in order to
read the Mei. Illustrations below, Pics 1~5.
1. Remove the Karuka (ramrod). This allows the stock to relax its
grip on the barrel.
2. Don't touch any pins connected with the mechanism, the pan
lid or any to the rear of the mechanism. Remove the two
(sometimes one, or three or four) horizontal Mekugi pins from the
Mekugi-ana in the wooden stock, forward of the mechanism, pushing
from left to right with the gun muzzle pointing away from you.
(Pic 1) You can use your Nihonto
Mekugi-nuki punch to get them started from the left side.
They should be made of bamboo, (preferably smoked) but some
Mekugi pins may be brass. You may encounter difficulty if the
pins have been inserted incorrectly after their arrival in the
West. Adjust accordingly.
Note 1: Note they will be of slightly differing sizes. Lay them
out in order to help you remember correct replacement.
Note 2: When replacing you will know the barrel is sitting in the
correct position if the pins slip back miraculously into their
Note 3: Some guns have an extra brass band holding the stock and
barrel muzzle together. Slip this off, noting whether it has an
inherent 'correct' direction to it.
3. You are now nearly ready to separate the barrel from the
stock. WAIT. Place the butt of the gun onto a soft object like a
slipper and hold the gun upright.
4. Pull back the serpentine into locked open position. It's
delicate, and may fall, but be patient and try again.
5. Hold the gun stock near the muzzle, between the straightened
fingers and thumb of your left hand, barrel towards your left
palm, (Pic 2 and Pic 3) ) and push the top of the barrel out with the heel
of your right hand against the muzzle itself, until the barrel
releases from where it is normally seated, with increasing
strength if necessary. Some stocks have shrunk over the years, so
you may need to bang the barrel out with hits from the palm/heel
of your hand.
Note: A rubber mallet may be necessary, but in that case you may
want to save yourself trouble next time by candle-waxing the
inside of the stock to decrease stickiness. (Or whatever your
preferred method of gentle lubrication might be.)
6. The barrel should still be seated at the breech end, split out
at an angle of about 10~20 degrees. Lift the whole barrel out
gently so as not to damage the lock or stock sides.
7. On the underside of the barrel, (Pic 4) you may find the Mei, which is often
the location and the gunsmith's name, (as in Nihonto), an
indication as to the method of manufacture, and in very rare
cases may give a date. You may also find some numbers indicating
manufacturing process or related parts for castle guns or guns
made in pairs or in quantity.
Note: There is a high possibility that it will be badly rusted
and almost illegible. Be careful not to attack the rust with any
approach that you may regret later. How to deal with that is a
separate subject, and is treated the same as the nakago of a
8. Look for any lettering (possibly in brush and ink) inside the
stock itself which may tell you something about the
9. If you are lucky, the large, usually square-headed, Bi-sen
('bee sen') plug-screw will twizzle out of the barrel
breech (Pic 5) ) and
make cleaning it 100 times easier. Don't damage the Bisen
with a heavy wrench. It will always carry the scars, not good; in
the worst scenario the screw will split and shear in half,
drastically devaluing your antique Tanegashima. There are methods
of removing stuck Bisen screws, but that too is another
specialized subject. (Initially you can insert penetrating oil
from both ends and tap in all directions with a rubber mallet,
and repeat over several days or weeks as necessary)
PART TWO .......... REPLACING
1. Having cleaned the inside of the barrel and having lightly
oiled everything, replace the Bisen. Note: Close too tightly, and
a square-headed one may not fit into the receiving square hole in
the mechanism area of the stock. Make sure the serpentine is
cocked open. Line the screw head with the stock hole, even if you
have to back off 1/8 of a turn. Holding the gun upright as
before, lower the breech end of the barrel into place and swing
the barrel shut. At this point, as with a Nihonto, a light tap
will help it fall into the exact place. You may want to drop the
whole gun an inch butt-first onto the slipper, but be very
careful not to damage the end of the butt. A carpeted floor will
be better than stone, for example.
Note: You may find a few squeezes will help the barrel sit down
deeply and firmly into the whole length of the stock.
2. The Mekugi pins should fit back into their respective holes.
Remember, replacing, so start Right, through to Left. They should
be fairly tight as they lock down through the loops on the
underside of the barrel. Tap them home and see if they feel
comfortable on both sides when you hold and aim the gun.
Note: The pins may vary in size, depending on their position and
the relative thickness of the stock. Don't mix them up!
3. Lower the serpentine gently, as always. Never allow the
serpentine to fall directly onto the pan lid without a matchcord.
Bad for both the lid and the serpentine. Insert a finger to catch
and cushion it if you don't have a length of cord
the Karuka, (narrow end first), twist to find the tight spot
- Gendaito, Showato and Arsenal Stamps
- There are many different stamps seen on WWII era
military issue blades. They have different meanings, uses, and
histories. It would take a book to address the full story so what
follows is the abridged version. The showa stamp was used to
indicate a non-traditionally made blade. When you see a blade
with this stamp, it means it is not a traditionally made blade.
The government ordered that this stamp be used because some
non-traditionally made blades were becoming difficult to tell
apart from those made the traditional way. Seki stamps were
placed to identify the blade as manufactured in Seki and may have
also served as a local acceptance stamp. The bulk of the gunto
made in WWII came from Seki. There was a veritable gunto
cooperative where this business was conducted. 99% of all gunto
made were not traditionally made in Seki. There may be the odd
ball seki stamped blade that is traditionally made but it would
be extremely rare. Some people in Japan say that the Seki stamp
was the same as the Showa stamp, others say it is not certain.
The Star stamp was used by the military as an acceptance stamp on
blades made by the Rikugun Jumei Tosho for the military. These
smiths had to pass a rigorous test to be accepted into the
contract program. They received tamahagane from the military
(which, as a strategic resource, was controlled by the military)
and charcoal from the prefectural governor. This is documented
fact. Therefore, in theory, all star stamped blades were made
traditionally with tamahagane. In practice, who is to say that
some smith(s) weren't hording it and passing off western
steel blades??? Well, there are two good reasons why this was
probably very rare: first, the blades, as mentioned, were
inspected. Yoshihara Kuniie, a prominent smith of the time,
worked as an inspector. You aren't going to fool him and risk
being tossed out of the program. Second, people were patriotic.
They were making the best blades they could for their soldiers.
It may have happened, but it was most likely rare....Safe bet to
say that star stamped blades are traditionally made. I have never
seen a showa or Seki stamped blade pass an NBTHK shinsa. I have
seen Star stamped blades pass and have owned at least one that I
recall submitting and which indeed passed. Why is there so much
confusion about stamps? Because nearly all Japanese collectors
have shunned WWII era blades, records were destroyed, many
Japanese don't much like to talk about WWII related topics,
and the experts have never bothered to really research these
blades because...see above. I have spent many pleasurable hours
talking with several WWII era Rikugun Jumei Tosho about their
experiences, spent many hours at the Diet Library digging up old
records and period literature (which is difficult to get
into-being a university professor made it easy), and sought out
many books and papers that most people would never bother to hunt
down even if they had heard of them. I also have handled
hundreds, if not thousands, of WWII era blades in the past 35
years. As I result, I feel very comfortable with the above
statements. As a result, my recommendation to any budding
collector is to consider star stamped blades. I have never seen a
bad one. They are, on average, pretty decent. Some are better
than others, but you can hardly go wrong with them. Conversely,
they are not on the same level as the smith's custom or
private work and as such are not the best you will find, but they
are honest, traditional swords that a new collector can buy with
some confidence. - Edited from an article
by Chris Bowen
*It is important to remember that the word Showato means a sword
made during the Showa era (1926-1989) and Gendaito refers to a
sword made between 1876 and 1945. However collectors do not use
the literal meanings nowdays, and for convenience, the following
is the currently used meanings of the 2 terms:
Showato - A sword made from
non-traditional methods, meaning not made from tamahagane.
Sometimes they can still be forged and folded from other steel,
and sometimes they can come close to being true Nihonto, but are
not regarded as such. Most Showato refer to swords that are mass
produced with little value to Nihonto collectors. The majority of
wartime blades fall under this category. They are usually (buit
not always) marked with an arsenal stamp such as the Sho- or Seki
stamp. They are often oil quenched as this was safer and
didn't lead to failure in quenching as much as traditional
water quenching. They usually lack activity in the steel, and a
decent hada. Note that some are made from good steel and can be
remarkably difficult to identify as Showato. However these swords
are illegal and may not be imported into Japan.
Gendaito - This term is nowdays used to
indicate a traditionally made sword, made from tamahagane and
water quenched. They are considered Nihonto and may be imported
into Japan. Some smiths made both types of swords, and each must
be judged on its own merits.
Shinsa Procedures and Practices
- Shinsa Judgement Examples and Explanations
There's ranking when it comes to papers that many are not aware of. As I am a collector of fittings and know little about Nihonto I will use a fittings ranking as an example, highest to lowest. There are analagous ranks in sword attributions. I will use the Kyoto Shirobei Goto (aka mainline Goto) as the example:
Yujo ?? (Shodai ?? -- first generation of Shirobei Goto School -- could be the name of any of the first four/five generations in this time frame)
In other words: the shinsa team is confident the piece is by a specific maker, pre-Edo.
Den Yujo ??? (Qualified judgement to the first generation but lacking some attributes to be specific).
In other words: the piece is most likely by the named individual but there is something anomalous which is preventing the shinsa team from being totally specific.
Ko Goto Muromachi ??? ?? (School attribution with use of specific time - Jidai - could be Momoyama, or if Edo, Shoki (earliest) Edo ????, etc. for later generations)
In other words: the shinsa team knows it is from a specific school and time period but are not certain of exactly who made it.
Ko Goto ??? (More generalized - School attribution only but pre-Edo)
In other words: the shinsa team knows it belongs to a specific school but cannot place any specific maker or time period, just prior to Edo.
Goto ?? (Even more generalized - School only - shinsa cannot tell anything specific enough to place it into a specific time period)
In other words: Very generalized term - the shinsa team recognizes it as a school piece but it lacks attributes to elevate it to a higher rank. The attribution of "Goto" means that the piece is of mainline characteristics, but not enough evidence to pick which generation with confidence, and most likely NOT Ko-Goto.
Waki (Kyo) Goto ?(?)?? (Work of a side school of the Goto tradition - schools founded by family members who were not first sons of the Shirobei master).
In other words: these are works by separate lines, not of the mainline school and not identifiable to a specific maker or branch school.
Kyo Kinko ??? (Quality does not reach into specific school level but still good level)
In other words: good quality work from Kyoto but not good enough to put it into the Goto School rank.
Kyo Kanagushi ???? (Made by lower level artisans - OK and worthy of preservation but not to be considered for any higher rank)
In other words: It's OK. (lol)
When the shinsa team addresses anything they have to rule out many criteria, such as if it's modern, gimei, repaired, damaged, fatal flaw, etc. and must know all of the kantei points for the school AND ALL of the school's members.
- The above would be for a mumei piece. (A piece with a mei is a bit easier as you must determine if the mei is correct and if the work conforms to the mei). They work from low to high, just as we do in medicine with a differential diagnosis. Start with the generalized and rule out until you come up with a final decision. Sometimes you can nail it, sometimes not. I have a kozuka which is published in the 1995 NBTHK Kozuka book to Goto Tokujo but papered to 'Goto Edo Shoki' (Goto School, mainline, earliest Edo). Most likely they couldn't find anything specific enough to attribute it to a specific maker, as the work looks like it could be either Goto Kojo (Shirobei fourth) or his son, Goto Tokujo (Shirobei fifth). Therefore, papered to the next lower level. The quality is not in question, they simply will not get more specific without more evidence.
Please also note that the above has nothing to do with the level of paper, Hozon, Tokubetsu Hozon, Juyo, or Tokubetsu Juyo. That is a totally different set of criteria having to do with quality, rarity, provenance, etc.
What one hopefully comes to understand from the above is that it takes an immense ammount of research along with an encyclopedic knowledge of a field and it's history to be a qualified member of a shinsa team. It also shows that to be a serious collector takes no less effort, even more so as a non-Japanese language student.
PS: I included the Waki Goto to address the side schools but please understand that it has it's own flow chart as you can get specific makers within it's ranks and it's placement in the above chart really should be with a lateral extension.
- Written and submitted by Pete Klein -