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Dr. Homma's Visit to Boston Museum - October 1965

by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.

As I may have mentioned before, while talking with Dr. Homma in Kojima City (near Okayama) last March, he mentioned his anticipated trip to the U.S., and jokingly indicated that he might "need" me to help him out after he got here. At the time, I told him I would be most happy to be of whatever service I could to him on his trip here, and at any rate most sincerely hoped I would get a chance to visit with him.

About the middle of August, I received a letter from Mr. Junzo Sato (of Sun Wave Industrial Co., Ltd. in Tokyo) who had acted most kindly as interpreter on previous visits with Dr. Homma. He mentioned that Dr. Homma was leaving for the USA on 19 September, accompanied by Dr. Walter Compton as his host and sponsor. He stated that Dr. Homma would be in Boston about the first week in October, examining the collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and since the collection is quite large, that Dr. Homma would appreciate my helping him. I answered that, my military duties permitting, I would not only be happy, but even more, honored to assist him.

On 20 September, I received a letter from Dr. Compton, setting up the dates 5-8 October. He mentioned that they would be examining his swords for a couple of weeks; then to Boston; on to Philadelphia for a three-day look at a private collection; a visit to Norfolk, VA., to check General MacArthur's holdings; three days at the Metropolitan in New York; to Los Angeles for a day or two; on to San Francisco to have some serious discussions with the group there; and on home. Dr. Compton was to accompany him on the entire trip, as was Dr. Homma's daughter and one of Dr. Compton's Tokyo office secretaries (as translator -- she is pretty knowledgeable in the sword business). Her name is Miss Hiroko Yamaji, and she proved to be both a competent and extraordinarily personable young lady.

Unfortunately, a military requirement did arise about that time, requiring my presence at a conference of "Educational Directors" of all the top level military schools. I called Dr. Compton and advised him I would miss the first two days, but would like to make the last two, and it was so arranged. Having completed the conference, I rushed back on Wednesday night, and drove up to Boston on Thursday morning.

When I arrived, they were expecting me, and Museum folks escorted me down to the basement (it was like the TV show "Get Smart" -- unlocking and locking doors along endless corridors). When we finally arrived there was Dr. Homma, his daughter, Dr. Compton, Mrs. Compton, a museum "assistant" (name of Frank -- and he was invaluable as well as friendly), and an unexpected addition. This was Mr. Toshihira Endo, president of Endo Press Co., Ltd. of Tokyo. He was there (for the entire trip) at his own expense, for the purpose of assisting Dr. Homma -- and, I suppose, to get a look at all the fine and otherwise swords. He is one of Dr. Homma's top students, if not the top. He has about 100 blades, including one Koku-ho, and fifteen or twenty others in the top categories. He's a pretty sharp amateur appraiser. There was also Mr. Dart, Deputy Director of the Asiatic section, and Mr. Tomita, retired after 55 years in that section.

A regular production line was set up -- Frank would bring the swords to a table where Mr. Endo took the blades apart and cleaned them. To do this, he opened them -- and this required the big plastic hammer and block of hardwood at least half the time -- and then cleaned off the age-hardened oil by using co-ets (cotton pads) soaked with nail polish remover, drying, and then using uchiko. These he placed beside Dr. Homma, who had a lamp to his right front to sight along the blades. The doctor made his notations (in Japanese) in his notebook, not infrequently making an oshigata directly on the notebook page. Miss Yamaji translated Dr. Homma's notes into English notes and passed blades and notes to Dr. Compton. He recorded these notes on a tape recorder, he and I examined the blade, and on important blades, he made photographs on a rig he had set up. I then gave the blades a final cleaning, reassembled them, and gave them to Frank to put away again.

Now -- what about the swords? Well, there are about 575 of them, mostly from three collections -- the Bigelow, the Weld, and that of Major Henry Lee Higginson. (Dr. Bigelow was the son of another Dr. Bigelow who taught Dr. Compton at Harvard.) They are kept, with the exception of a few gaudy mounts for display (one of which is a for-real Kanemitsu in number one Tachi mounts and another an equally for-real Kagemitsu in the same quality katana mounts) in the cellar, in two long, five-shelf cabinets. Each of the shelves is divided into three sections, and swords are catalogued by shelf number and section -- and just stacked in there. If they have bags, that's better, but most don't. The cabinets are closed by pairs of glass-front doors -- the glass being painted, so the blades are in the dark for months or years at a time. Apparently the last one to examine them was a Japanese gentleman about two or three years ago -- name unknown, but probably Mr. Junzo Sato. He only looked at a selected few. Although in nearly every case the shirasaya are shrunken and occasionally split, and nearly all saya are too tight, (some fancy handles could not be gotten off without too much damage) the lacquer is in pretty good shape. The blades themselves are not in nearly as bad condition as we had been led to believe -- in fact, with few exceptions, good cleaning was all they needed.

There were all kinds of mounts from legitimate, good copies of Shosoin tachi (with good blade copies inside), through ito-maki tachi, tanto with solid gold mounts (a "blah" Shinto blade), to the finest types of han-dachi, katana, and "points in between" mounts. Several of the mounts were accorded "green paper" ratings by Dr. Homma. For swords and mounts he gave "A" for top quality; "a" for green paper, high level; "b" for good green paper; "c" for white paper; and "d" for no good. Some of the lacquer work on the scabbards was unbelievably fine, as well as some of the metal work of the mounts. I didn't see too much of this, but it was good! There were very few yari or odd shaped blades (one or two only) -- all were basically what might be called "standard" shapes.

The doctor was only able to get through about 325, but fortunately they started at the right end -- and what did they find? Well I'll list some that I saw, all good unless so indicated:

And on into the day. Naturally there were some "not so much" blades, some junk, some fair, etc.; but the total collection was much better than most folks had expected. However, the proportion of good Shinto blades was much higher than in Koto. Too many Koto were forgeries. It's certainly worth the time and effort if any of you can get in to see these. I plan to go back myself when things slack off.

A little personal note -- on the first night I was there (I stayed in Boston), I had dinner with Dr. Homma and Mr. Endo in Dr. Homma's room at the Ritz-Carlton. I had taken some of my blades Dr. Homma had not seen, plus some he had seen to show to Dr. Compton. Since neither Dr. Homma nor Mr. Endo could (or would -- although Mr. Endo is working at it) speak English, I had to shift back to Japanese pretty quickly -- and it was not as difficult as I thought it might be. Anyway, we ate and looked at my blades, with the following result:

  1. My Nobukuni tanto is genuine-Oei.
  2. Gassan Sadakazu Kwaiken is real, mounts are number one, and coiled dragon menuki are top Goto.
  3. Another unsigned blade is several times better than I thought -- a Hizen Tadayoshi school -- smith Yukihiro.
  4. Masamune tanto is Mihara Masamune.
  5. My long Kanemichi (2.4.9 1/2 shaku) is a katana, not cut-down nagamaki, despite shape; is genuine Kanemachi -- before father of Iga no Kami Kinmichi. He put a Japan value of around Y 110,000 on it, at least. (That was one I got at Disneyland gun show, just before I left for Rhode Island. I feel pretty good about that.)
  6. Tachi blade, old nakago with a "donged-out" signature is Sue Koto, Muramasa style and shape, probably re-tempered. (Yakanaoshi)
  7. Most interesting of all (to ME) has to do with my Ko-Bizen tachi. Dr. Homma wanted to keep it overnight, so I left it. Next morning, he brought it in, complete with Sayagaki, certifying it to be Ko-Bizen Masazani, to be so long, to belong to Hatorei Tai-Sa (me), and so certified on 7 October 1965 -- with Kao. This blade apparently was seen by Dr. Compton, because the next morning I heard him telling the Museum PIO that this blade was made around 1000 AD, and that it was one of only three blades known by Masazane. (Dr. Homma confirmed this.) Apparently Masazane is the son of Awataguchi Masatsugu -- this not from Dr. Homma.

Next day, same routine, but took off a little early so Dr. Homma could look over the museum. We were escorted by the Director, Mr. Rathbone, who gave us the full treatment. I talked with him at some length, and plan to call on him again, as I mentioned earlier. When the tour was over, and we had packed up (I had to get a pass to get my Masazane out of the cellar), Dr. Compton repeated the invitation contained in his letter to accompany them on the remainder of the East Coast swing, but I had a week's back work at the War College, so I had to decline, with very real regret.

Random Notes

  1. In making oshigata, try two little silk bags (4" x 3/4" diameter) filled with small bird-shot, to hold the paper on the blade.
  2. In cleaning off time-hardened oil or other preservative try cotton pads and fingernail polish remover -- followed by uchiko.
  3. Suriage -- Shinto blades are marked down in appraisal, regardless of authenticity (they're too "new" to have to be shortened).
  4. Gold inlays, including Honnami attributions, can be phony.
  5. The same applies for sayagaki.
  6. The samurai in period just around and after Oei thought a straight blade gave you just a fraction of a second advantage in parrying pole-arm blows (yari, naginata). The Bungo-Takada Smiths followed this up by making practically straight blades in this period. I saw a katana with almost a negative zori.
  7. On the East Coast, the prices on swords, abumi, helmets, tsuba, etc. are all going up -- fast!!
  8. Besides the so-called "polisher's yakiba," there is another way which is used to "replace" lost boshi or hamon -- one which does not polish out. This is called Tsukuroi, or, literally, "tattooing." This is done by drilling many small pin-point holes along the desired nie line and filling them with hard steel. This, when polished out, gives the exact effect of nie, insofar as polishing is concerned -- and does not polish out. Dr. Homma is one of the few experts in detecting this process, and has discovered a blade in Dr. Compton's collection with this false boshi. Once recognized, it is easy to see.

I hope this is of some interest to you --

Dean Hartley

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