Page Last Updated: Wednesday, 04 November 2015 13:35 EDT, 1978, 2013

Japanese Armor and Weapons

by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.

The American Society of Arms Collectors (ASAC), Mar 29 - Apr 2, 1978, Vicksburg, MS


There are probably as many strange and unbelievable stories about Japanese swords as about any other weapon - except perhaps the so-called Damascus blades of the Saracens, with which we have been so much more familiar through centuries of history of the crusades. However, since World War II, we have become ever more exposed to the tales of the Japanese sword. We have heard that they will cut a machine gun barrel in two. We have heard that they will cut a human body in two with one stroke - or even two or three or more bodies. We have heard that there are swords made and signed around 930 AD that appear to be as fresh and new as the day they were made. We have even heard that there are National Treasures at large in this country, and that one sword may sell for as much as $70,000.00 in this country. We have also perhaps not heard that the armor of the Japanese equivalent of the European knight could turn most sword cuts as well as its European counterpart, and yet be light and flexible enough to enable the wearer to leap from his horse and fight with great agility on the ground.

So now I will tell you that there is indeed a great deal of truth in those stories. One method of official court testers of the cutting ability of swords was to cut down through a standing iron plate. There is - or was - in existence a movie of a highly qualified swordsman cutting cleanly through a 50 cal. machine gun barrel. In my collection I have a sword with a gold inlay by a famous tester certifying that he did indeed cut through two bodies with one stroke and another by an equally famous tester - and his son - on which it is inscribed that the father cut through the pelvic girdle of a man and his son cut through a "stack of bodies," each with one stroke. I am sorry to say that I don't have a sword signed and datable to 930 AD - but I do have one signed and datable to around 1055 AD - and it is as fresh and clean as a brand new sword.

I think I had better digress here and explain that "a nice brown age patina" is the last thing we want on a blade. In fact, when we can afford to, we send our good swords to Japan to be "polished" by an expert at a cost of somewhere around thirty dollars per inch. Polishing is actually a misnomer. What really is accomplished is a re-sharpening and special surface finishing - all by hand - to bring out the texture of the many-times-folded steel. Never, never, buff polish a Japanese sword. We are looking for the same thing gun collectors look for - a weapon theoretically ready to perform now. With a Japanese sword, that performance is to cut. So we have our blades "polished."

Back to the story - there are National Treasures loose here in the United States. There were fourteen of those, plus twenty-eight other Important Cultural Object swords "lost" to American service men who did not realize that the sword standing unprotected in that apparently deserted shrine was indeed a designated National Treasure, and may have been sitting there equally unprotected for three to five hundred years, with no danger of loss. Of these, Dr. Walter Compton (President of Miles Laboratories, and a long time collector of Japanese Arms and Armor) found one in a gun shop and returned it to its place in Japan. One other National Treasure is legally in the possession of a collector in this country, and perhaps the locations of three or four others of the forty-two are known to one or two collectors. As with any country's National Treasures, they may not legally be exported from Japan - nor can the next two levels of artistic rating. The highest art rating exportable is Juyo Token, which might be called a "third level National Treasure." There are several of these in this country owned by collectors such as Walter Compton - or even by me and a few others who have been collecting and studying for many years until we could recognize one when it came by.

Finally, are there individual swords in this country worth as much as $70,000.00? Indeed yes! An Army colonel (in Seattle, I think) owned several swords, one of which did in fact bring $70,000.00 at a Sotheby Parke Bernet auction about three or four years ago. Others have also been sold at very high prices - but -

  1. Although collectors do buy, trade, and sell (as you all certainly know), you don't sell the "only one" or "the best one" just for money - not and claim to be a collector. Of course there are always perfectly good reasons to sell - I am just explaining why there are some unbelievably fine swords in this country which can't be bought.
  2. The majority of the half- to three-quarter million Japanese swords brought back from World War II are good only as the souvenirs they always were. They are machine made, armory stamped, or mass produced by fourth level apprentice blacksmiths (Showa-To) who rushed to fill the sudden demand for swords with the resurgence of Bushido (the way of the warrior) in the 1930s.
  3. Of the properly made swords - eighty five percent are still collectable only as decorators or examples, and would not be worth the $30.00 per inch to re-polish. As for the remaining fifteen percent, of those actually signed with "big names," probably eighty percent are forgeries. Since the very beginning, Japanese swords have had false names put on to enhance their value. The best bet is to study blades, not signatures, and be able to recognize the treasures among the unsigned blades - which make up the preponderance of available swords.
  4. That "treasure" you see in the shop, or that the service man brought back from the Pacific, even with the "certificate" from the Japanese expert may be real and valuable, but in all probability it is not. Most of those "experts" after the war were so only in that they could read the Japanese name on the sword, find that name (along with eight-six other similar names with the same characters) in a reference book, pick out the most important of the eighty-six, and write a certificate so stating. You should know - age does not automatically confer value. A sword is judge and valued according to the reputation of the swordsmith as a maker of swords that cut well and didn't break, or from the beauty of the worked steel (it is visible, you know), or sometimes, and to a lesser degree, from the historical relationships of a particular sword. (Oh yes - did I tell you? You will notice I have been referring to blades. The fittings, scabbards, guards, etc., while being eminently collectable in their own right, are, in the final analysis, the "clothes" of the blade. That's why you will hear a hard-core collector call himself a "blade man.") So -
  5. You can't start out green and make a fortune in Japanese swords - but you can have one fine time learning.

So: The first thing to learn is that the Japanese sword is the finest cutting weapon ever devised. The only legitimate contenders - and far back - are the Persian blades, the so called Damascus swords. And why is that? Well, in its finest form, the Japanese sword is made in its entirety by the swordsmith. He gathers the sand iron ore washed down from the steep mountains, smelts it, purifies it, divides it according to the qualities desired, and starts to make a sword. He needs pine charcoal, ground limestone, some special trace chemicals known only to himself, a hand operated furnace, three apprentice hammer men, a forge which can be darkened when desired, a set of exceptionally fine hammers, and a mirror smooth anvil weight 300 - 400 pounds or more.

Then he starts with a stack of thin, thumbnail size flakes of iron on an iron plate with a handle and douses it with a slurry of limestone and charcoal. This he heats to welding temperature and hammers into a solid mass. Then he folds, heats and welds again - and again for 15 - 16 times. Each fold drives out more impurities, adds a little carbon, and refines the metal. This will be the cutting edge. Then with fewer foldings, he fashions side pieces, a back piece, and with the fewest foldings (five) he hammers out the core. At this point he assembles all of the various forged billets into proper relationship to one another - and hammers the whole mass right out to basic sword shape. Remember - the final hammering must retain each segment in its proper place and relative thickness. Using files and draw knives he does a final shaping and cleaning. Now he has a multiple-layer laminated bar - but not yet a sword. That is when he darkens his forge. He coats the blade with a special mixture of clay, leaving the cutting edge bare or thinly covered. Working in the darkened forge he heats the whole until it is exactly the right color - and dunks it into water to cool. The bare edge cools immediately into high carbon steel - the covered part cools more slowly into mild steel - and the soft core remains flexible. There we have a high carbon cutting edge, supported and reinforced by the mild steel side plates and the flexible core. So, off to the polisher for sharpening - and a bit of quality control. Because, you see, if any of the fold welds didn't take and they show up in polishing as visible flaws, the whole blade is broken up. If not, after polish, the signature is put on, "clothes" arranged - and we have a sword, at last - after about one to three months.

There is still - to this day - a great deal of ceremony associated with making a sword. Does the "to this day" confuse you? It might well do so, but the fact is that swords are still made as they were over a thousand years ago. They are made by swordsmiths who have managed to continue the master-student line continuously (and often with great difficulty) from those ancient days to the present. One of these Fujimura Matsutaro, who signed his blades with the art name KUNITOSHI was my friend and sensei (teacher). He lived and worked in the city of Iwakuni, about thirty-five kilometers from Hiroshima - and died at the age of seventy-six while at his forge working on a sword. He made for me the sample set of steps in making various types of swords which is on display.

The sword is held in such high regard even today that smiths of exceptional skill are designated "Living National Treasures." One of these, Miyairi Kenichi, who signed YUKIHIRA has died within the past four months and was mourned throughout Japan. At a purely commercial level, swords made by these smiths may bring $10,000.00 or perhaps more - and they are limited by law to making only a small number each year.

What is the source or cause of the very great respect in which Japanese swords are held? Most of our modern collectors of Japanese arms and armor have a tendency to think that we have only just now invented the collecting of these magnificent and beautifully artistic articles of war. That is perhaps a natural feeling for anyone with a newly discovered enthusiasm, but the facts are that Japanese arms and their accoutrements have been wandering about the world since around 1007-1072 (in the Chinese Sung Dynasty). This period coincides with the Japanese Heian period (794-1191), and is the period during which the Nippon-To achieved the shape and qualities which have persisted through the ages. It is, in fact, from this period that the term "Nippon-To" (simply Japanese sword) was applied to the Japanese sword, resulting from the earliest written reference to an interest in Japanese swords by people outside of Japan. In this period, Ou Yang Hsiu wrote of the "Nippon-To" which were so eagerly sought by the Chinese; "Treasure swords are obtained from the east (Japan) by merchants of Etsu. Their scabbards are of fragrant wood" (probably impregnated with the oil of cloves used in preserving the swords from rust) "covered with shark-skin. Gold, silver, copper, and metals adorn them. Hundreds of gold pieces is their cost. When wearing such a sword, one can slay the barbarians." Obviously a reputation for quality had already been established - a reputation which remained virtually intact through the centuries. Joao Rodriguez, a Jesuit pries who came to Japan in 1585, and stayed for about 40 years as a priest and confidant of Tokugawa Iyeyasu, has written, "Some Lords may ask other nobles for some men who have been condemned to death in order to see whether sword cuts well, whether they can trust it in emergencies. They often sew up bodies which have been cut by swords and put together the severed parts so that they may once more cut and see if the sword passes through the body with one blow." John Saris, an English salesman, came to Hirado (a small island just off Kyushu) in 1613, and as a result of his experiences and observations, wrote "Every man that listed came by to try the sharpness of their katana upon the corpses so that before they left off they had hewn them all three into pieces as small as a man's hand." Rodriguez further comments on the swords after this, "In olden days, there used to be fine armorers who were very famous in this art because their weapons are now of great value for their perfection in cutting and everything else. Scimitars, daggers, blades of lances of war size," (here he is referring to naginata or nagamaki) "arrow heads and others which are valued. Swords and daggers as we have noted, are worth many thousands of quesados and even nowadays through the whole kingdom there are craftsmen who are very skillful with these weapons. Experience has shown that Japanese weapons are in general the best, and cut better than any others. One of their ordinary swords can cut a man through the middle into two parts with the greatest of ease, while a dagger or sword of one and one-half or at the most two spans in length will part a man's head from his neck and the lance will do the same, for their blades are such that they not only wound with a thrust but also cut like swords." Rodriguez discusses appraisal of swords, "There are certain experts whose office is to recognize by their style and marks the swords, daggers, and other iron weapons made by ancient and famous craftsmen. Such weapons command a high price and esteem among the Japanese; not only on account of their age and the smith who made them, but also much more because they are excellent weapons which will cut anything without notching or blunting the cutting edge. Even when they touched bodies lightly, they cut them like lopped turnips. This (sword appraisal) is highly esteemed and important art among the Japanese, and even the noble lords devote themselves to it so that they may not be deceived when they deal for such valuable things. Some of these blades bear the marks of the craftsman who made them. There are many, many false and counterfeit ones. Others do not bear any marks but there are infallible rules which make it possible to distinguish the genuine blades from the false ones." Rodriguez continues, discussing sword fittings. "Nor are the men whom we could call goldsmiths less superior in the art of working gold, silver, and copper and they are superior to the Chinese and any other nation in the orient with regard to their excellence, the type of work, and the mixture of copper with silver and gold with which they make a third metal which they call black copper. This is highly esteemed among the Japanese and they use it to make certain instruments which they insert in sword scabbards and which is decorated with a flower or an animal carved by very skilled craftsmen." (This would be kozuka and kogai.) "These men are highly regarded by them and enjoy high esteem in the art of working gold and silver. This sort of engraving of trees, plants, birds, water and land animals, and ancient legends on copper is extremely fine and life-like in every detail. -- They are incomparable in embellishing and engraving with gold and silver or inlaying gold with silver and silver and black copper with gold and all of it engraved. This is something very excellent and attractive, and work of this kind is found only among the Japanese."

In the late 19th century, to continue, Professor Basil H. Chamberlain wrote in his Things Japanese, "Japanese swords excel even the vaunted products of Damascus and Toledo. To cut through a pile of copper coins (or a body or two) without nicking the blade is, or was, a common feat. History, tradition, and romance alike re-echo with the exploits of this wonderful weapon." Of course we today continue to uphold this superiority, and have the multiple-body cutting test to sustain our beliefs.

It would probably be appropriate to divide the chronological periods of "foreign" interest in Japanese arms into five basic segments.

  1. These would begin with "early history" - say 800 AD to the advent of Europeans into Japan around the middle of the 16th and 17th centuries
  2. ["short-middle, around the middle of the 16th and 17th centuries] (followed by some 250 years of seclusion) -
  3. a "middle period from the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1853 to the Haitorei Edict in 1876, at which time the wearing of swords as every-day wear was prohibited -
  4. a "late" period from the Haitorei Edict to World War II - and
  5. a final period from World War II to the present.

In considering these five periods, certain interesting differences occur. For example, as mentioned earlier, even in the Chinese Sung period, the reputation of the Japanese sword had been solidified, and we have Ou Yang Hsiu's comments. Not too long afterward, during the period of the Yuan, or Mongols (Genghiz Khan and Kublai Khan), one Marco Polo was in the Chinese court, and in his writings refers to "---the weapons of Cipengu (Japan)." This was in the period around 1280-1300. There was also instituted around 1032 - and lasting to 1547 - a series of eleven Kon-Go trade missions between Japan and China. It is estimated that between 100-300 thousand swords were exported to China in this period. It must be assumed, since Marco Polo had established trade relations between Europe and China - relations which were to continue and grow from that time on - that some of these swords, and the unique style of Japanese armor, must have found their way to Europe. As an indication of this, at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, Sir Winston Churchill reported that one of the dervishes slain by Lord Kitchener's troops was wearing a partial suit of Japanese armor. One may wonder at the slow progress of this armor westwards, to end up in near modern times in Africa. With regard to this period, Captain Frank Brinkley notes that, around 1420, a brisk trade was carried on between Japan and China, where "--- a sword costing one kwanmon in Japan fetched five kwanmon in China." Already the pattern has been set.

With the landing of a Portuguese ship on the island of Tanegashima, off the southern coast of Japan in 1542, we enter the second or "short-middle" phase. As was inevitable during that period, priests were hot on the heels of the explorers, and the traders immediately behind them - and all protected and reinforced by the fleets and soldiers. These "visitors" were at first welcomed by the Japanese, and were given the highest recognition and finest gifts the Japanese had to offer - specifically, swords. They also brought the Portuguese matchlock, which was copied by the Japanese almost without change until Perry's arrival. Joao Rodriguez reports that blades of the highest quality, in addition to two suits of armor - were given to Viceroy Mathias de Albuquerque by Hideyoshi, over the objections of his retainers, who maintained that the Viceroy could not possibly appreciate the extent of the honor represented by these blades. During this period, it was customary to honor foreigners and their sovereigns with gifts of swords. For example, there is now a group of swords in the Etnografic Department of the National Museum in Kopenhagen, Denmark, which belonged to King Frederick III - and so cannot date after 1670. At the same period in Denmark, artist Karl Van Manders' possessions at his death included "two Japanese daggers." It is also reported that in his will, Leonardo da Vinci bequeathed his Japanese swords to his heirs.

It is doubtful if there was any further significant export of swords, especially to Europeans or Americans after Japan was "closed" in the mid-1600s until Commodore Perry's "re-opening" with his landing on 8 July 1853. Perry's journals refer to a number of swords that were presented to the President at that time. In addition, a fine sword (now in the Smithsonian) was presented to Perry himself and others to members of his crew and staff. One of these was presented to Major Jacob Zeilen (USMC), and is now on display in the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia. Others were given to other individuals. Similarly, blades of quality were presented to other heads of state, as for example, a sword by MAGOROKU KANEMOTO (a swordsmith famous for very sharp blades) which was presented to Queen Victoria by Shogun Iyemochi in 1860, and is now in the Victoria an Albert Museum. During this middle period, many rather fine blades were presented to various dignitaries and governmental representatives, the "face" or prestige of the Japanese being at stake, as Hideyoshi had pointed out in the 16th century.

However, with the accession of Mutsuhito - that is Emperor Meiji - to the throne in 1867, and the return of power from the Shogun to the Emperor, Japan entered the modern world. Emperor Meiji acted to break up the feudal system under which Japan had operated - and remained stagnant - for so many centuries, and to re-direct the energies and imagination of his people toward joining the rest of the world. He issued in 1876 the Haitorei Edict, which in effect deprived the daimyo of their great powers, abolished the samurai class as such - and in so doing, made the Nippon-To, that symbol of the rights, prestige, and power of a select group, nothing more than a cutting weapon. From that time until just before World War II, the sword had in general little meaning. They were tied in bundles and sent to Europe for sale as souvenirs. Some non-Japanese, however, recognized the inherent artistic qualities of the swords and their fittings. Tourists swarmed over the land, picking up mementos, with individuals of each nationality revealing some of their national traits in the way they collected.

The above listings are mostly of US collections. A listing of European collections of importance would be of great interest - but not in the time we have. But what of individual blades? Well, when then Crown Prince Hirohito visited England before his accession to the throne, he presented a solid gold mounted blade to then Edward, Prince of Wales. This blade was pursued for many years by a friend of mine who eventually acquired it. I believe it is still in the United States. On 18 July 1917, a Japanese artist, Mr. J. Yoshida, presented a "600 year old Samurai Sword" to President Wilson - wearabouts unknown. On 23 October 1917, a "Samurai of Japan, Yasujiro Ishikawa" presented, on behalf of the Mikado, a tachi-mounted sword which was then "386 years old." One of the four others which Mr. Ishikawa was carrying on to Europe to present to King George of England, President Poincare of France, King Albert of Belgium, and King Victor Emanuel of Italy may be seen on page 597 of Stone's Glossary, under "Tachi." On 4 July 1918, Viscount Kikujiro Ishii presented a very fine tachi (which I have seen and which was being carefully preserved - it has only recently been stolen) to the town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on behalf of Dr. Toichiro Nakahama. Dr. Nakahama was the son of one "John Mungo" (otherwise Manjiro Nakahama) who was rescued at sea in June of 1841 by Captain Whitfield of Fairhaven, brought home and raised as a son, and finally returned to Japan. There, among other things, he acted as interpreter for Commodore Perry. Thus the sword has come full circle as a sign of esteem and high regard.

Since World War II, many, many (hundreds of thousands) of swords have come out of Japan, because, upon Japan's loss of World War II, the Nippon-To for the second time lost its place as a status symbol. Once again, they were available in large numbers - some legitimately so, others not quite so. Swords collected during and after World War II fall into two major categories. There are battlefield souvenirs and the post-war acquisitions. There exists a strange and false myth about the battlefield swords. Both American collectors and Japanese experts have propagated the misconception that there were no good swords on the battlefields. Such a belief is, among Americans, understandable, until a genuine assessment is made of the quality of blades so obtained. For Japanese to maintain such a position is either self-deception or profound ignorance of their own national character. The position is based upon a presumption that no one would take a valuable sword into combat, for fear that it would be lost. Come now! The Japanese did not expect to lose a war, or even a battle - and what more appropriate than that the famous sword of a valiant ancestor should have yet one other victory added to its credit. Even I, a gaijin, would feel that way today. Perhaps this misconception was based upon a statistical evaluation - certainly there were many Showa-To, blades of no value, lost on the battlefield, but this was only because each soldier did not have access to a sword of his ancestors. There were not enough to go around, either because of numbers or high costs, so that Showa-To and arsenal blades were produced in the millions, thereby diluting the percentage of good blades. It is also true, for the same reasons, that the proportion of good "battlefield" swords was higher in the early phases than toward the end - but the original premise was patently false. After the war, the Occupation Forces required all swords to be turned in, with the stated goal of destroying them as weapons. Only the ceaseless efforts of Dr. Junji Homma, of the Japanese Art Sword Preservation Society, and a few of his associates, and the help of Americans like Army Colonel Cadwell (Tokyo Provost Marshal) made it possible to conserve these tangible evidences of a long and rich culture. Nevertheless, the blades were turned in, and many blades of great historical and artistic value were lost. Dr. Walter Compton found the one I mentioned earlier and returned it to its owners. Others of lesser importance were returned to specific owners - I was fortunate enough to return a Nagamitsu, dated 1288 and for centuries a family treasure, to Lieutenant General Nemoto Hiroshi. These blades were returned in realization of their genuine importance to their owners. Hundreds of thousands of others, however, were either given out of the warehouses as souvenirs, "creamed off" from the warehouses by individuals with access and skilled advice from a Japanese assistant, or just plain stolen. I have seen groups of 10-15-30 swords which were "acquired," with no real appreciation of their importance - but with an absolute refusal to release them to individuals who did know and care. I have seen fine swords released to children for chopping brush - a beautiful dagger employed for 30 years as "the turkey knife." I have seen opportunists grab up every blade in sight to hoard as a "speculation." But then I have also seen individuals and groups undertake a genuine study, first of swords, and then of the entire history and culture of Japan. All of this is necessary if one is really to understand the impact of the Japanese sword on Japanese culture and vice versa. So there are accumulators (they could just as easily collect beer cans), collectors, and students. Then there are American dealers, European dealers, and Japanese dealers. It is very unlikely that any one person is purely one of the above, so we will consider the major thrust of each person's interest. It is my guess that there may be 20-30 genuine students in this country. There are perhaps 3-400 serious collectors, and 7-800 more genuinely interested collectors - and then there are the others.

Early in the occupation phase in Japan, some truly interested gai-jin sought help from a knowledgeable sword expert in Japan. I know that one of these gai-jin was Hans Conried (the actor) - I don't know any of the others. The expert was Inami Hakusui, proprietor of "Japan Sword" in Tokyo. He and his son Tomihiko - I hope both are well - still operate there. Inami wrote, with encouragement of his class, the book Nippon-To. Those of us who have an autographed first edition feel rather fortunate. Then John Yumoto wrote The Samurai Sword, which was my first introduction to this fascinating field. In this country, around 1962, the Japanese Sword Society of the United States (JSSUS) was formed. At a later date, I had the honor of twice being Chairman of the JSSUS. The Southern California Sword Club (Nanka Token Kai) was also formed, and I was also fortunate to be President of that club at one time. There are other groups which are active and progressive - a group in the San Francisco area which was formed by John Yumoto, a group in Chicago, a group in New York, the Maryland Sword Society which has been goin on in Pikesville for many years - and of course the Dallas group which organized and carried off the first ever NBTHK Shinsa (authentication meeting) outside of Japan. With Dr. Kanzan Sato (who has just died last month) as the head of the team, we gai-jin had an opportunity few of us had ever dreamed of, to have our blades authenticated by the real experts - here at home.

With the constant help, understanding, and instruction of Dr. Homma and others, I think we have now begun to dispel the idea that there are no good swords in the United States. The second false idea is that there are no gai-jin capable of recognizing or appreciating Nippon-To. If there were none, those good swords just mentioned would still be in use as brush-cutters and cane-cutters. With this beginning, there should now be a sound basis for communication between Japanese and non-Japanese lovers of Japanese swords and arms.

There is more - so much more, such as "how do you explain the painting of the interior of a genuine Oglala Sioux teepee, by the famous Western painter George Catlin, which shows a Japanese war tachi hanging against the inside wall?" and "when will we exhaust our sources of Japanese blades? - and what will collectors do then?" and more. I commend all of those unanswered questions to you - and I thank you for the opportunity to put in my few (hundred) words. It should be apparent that the Nippon-To has indeed been wandering around the world longer and to a greater extent than one would have thought when we first started collecting and studying this strange item from the Far East. There is certainly much to learn from just following those wanderings. Join me in following the trail.

Dean Hartley


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