Page Last Updated: Wednesday, 04 November 2015 13:35 EDT, 2008, 2010

A Lesson in Japanese Swords

Wisdom by Old Timer, editing by Dr. Dean S. Hartley III


How do you learn about Japanese swords? You can read books and look at swords – and you should. However, discussions with those who are more knowledgeable are invaluable. The discussion below provides an example. Old Timer is a very knowledgeable person with considerable experience, gained over many years. The “Sword Student” starts off as a complete novice, but gains experience in the course of the discussion. The discussion itself covered several months and was conducted over the internet.

20 May

Sword Student: My grandfather gave me a sword a few years back that he had took from a mass surrender in Osaka or Kobe Japan at the end of the war. I took it to a dealer and he dated it as a 14th century Kane sword. The tsuba was a perfect match to one in the first few pages of a book solely on tsubas. I am interested in finding out the truth of the sword and its history. I truly hope you can help, thank you for you time.

Dr. Hartley: First, I'm not an expert. Second, there are no knowledgeable people in the U.S. who are completely impartial. In Japan there are government experts. In the U.S. most museum people are ignorant on the subject - even those who think they know something. The only people who have made a serious study of Japanese swords are those who collect them. Most of them are "traders." That means they try not to buy with cash, but trade something for something else. In a barter economy, a trade is good for both parties if each ends up with something they value more than what they gave up. Also, in a barter economy, there is no real "price" to quote you as the worth of your sword.

You will find some people, however, who enjoy swords enough to spend some of their valuable time talking about your sword and perhaps even doing some research on it. You need someone who has spent years looking at and researching swords and is nearby. You appear to be in [a location], so I'm recommending that you get in touch with Old Timer to see if he has any time to talk to you.

7 Aug

Old Timer: As Dr. Hartley indicated, I am a collector of Japanese Swords and have been one for more that 50 years. I can lay claim to knowing a bit about them. I do not however, claim to be an expert. For that, you need to be in contact with the NBTHK Appraisers at the National Museum in Tokyo, or one of the other Groups of professional appraisers.

The pictures that you sent me are somewhat confusing, as there appear to be two different blades, which I suspect is due to the foreshortening effect which is a result of the photography.

Two views of the sword.

It is also impossible to make an adequate assessment of a sword like this without actually having it in your hands. There are just too many subtle effects which cannot be determined from photograph. That having been said, there are some observations that can be made:

The kanji presented on the nakago (tang) is clearly "Kane", the first half of the Smiths name. The second kanji which would complete his name has been lost in the shortening process. It was probably "Naga," "Masa," "Toshi," or something like that.

Mei (signature) on the nakago (tang) of the sword.

The sword is almost certainly a converted pole arm. The shape and the groove style are indicative of either a naginata or a nagamaki, the Japanese equivalents of a European halberd.

Diagram of naginata shape and picture of Col Dean S. Hartley Jr. holding a naginata.

These were primary battlefield weapons of the samurai who rarely resorted to the sword, if they could get their hands on a yari (Spear) or a naginata. The naginata and the nagamaki are identical, save that the Naginata tended to have a wider blade and a sharply upswept point. Most of these weapons were later converted to swords by shaving off the upswept tip and reducing the length of the nakago. This one appears to have had that treatment. Only an examination of the temper line at the tip can reveal what was its original configuration.

Without having seen the blade, I would say that it is almost certainly a product of Mino or Yamato Province probably during the mid to late Muromachi period. Both of those regions were noted for the production of these weapons, Yamato primarily for the military monks on Mt. Hiei in that Province. They were noted for the use of this weapon. The other probable source for the origin of this weapon would be the armies of the Shogun Oda Nobunaga, who is known to have several regiments equipped with the long bladed naginata. You did not include the length of the blade on this sword, so that is a question I cannot speculate on. However, it does look like one of the long variety, which are rather rare.

It is impossible to tell which of the five types of swordsmithing then in use applies to your blade without an examination, as forging patterns in the steel are required to do this. The file marks in the nakago are usually indicative of Yamato or Mino, however.

Again, based on the photograph alone, it does look like a quality sword and one which a collector, probably including me, would like to own. The sword also appears to need to be repolished, which also significantly reduces its value. This is a hideously expensive process, probably in the $3000 region.

19 Aug

Sword Student: I had read something about the polishing process and was shocked at how many separate stages they go through in order to arrive at a finished process. It is strange that one of the final stages is iron oxide and I believe this brings out the temper line. I guess this is the only way you can get the depth of shine and steel color without modern plating. Yes, I am trying to save the money for the polishing and the papers from Japan. Also I have tried to find out some contact information from the Tokyo museum but I can find nothing.

Old Timer: There is not much to be gained from the NBTHK Museum in Tokyo. They will tell you nothing unless a sword is formally submitted, at a cost of about $300, and vetted by a review process to avoid wasting their time and effort. Then, unless the sword is in excellent condition, you would get at best, the lowest of several grades of paper which would say little more than "Yup, that's a Japanese sword all right." If they judge it to be not genuine, they will flat out reject it. These papers will rarely supply more than a generic province and, if you are lucky, a school – never a date. Higher papers are never given unless it is a very important sword and in great condition at that. They also cost a great deal more. A full length recorded signature improves those odds somewhat - if it is an important smith. Many good swords have been shortened (like this one) with an attendant loss of all or part of the signature. Sometimes this is done in the hopes that a Shinsa Board will attribute the blade to a more important (and more valuable) smith. The products of some late highly skilled smiths like Taike Naotane have virtually disappeared for this reason. They have been stripped of their signatures and promoted to forgeries of earlier more famous smiths.

If you really want a formal evaluation of that sword, your best bet is to take it to one of the formal Japanese "Shinsa" boards which visit this country about once or twice a year, and submit it to one of them. They are more tolerant of us "Hakujin", knowing that most of us are trying to find out if a sword is worth submitting to the polishing process or not. They will also issue papers for the sword. Costs are usually in the $75 region for a flat rejection and $150 to $250 for a paper on a good sword. Note that these papers only tell you whether it is genuine or not, not how good it is or how old. Your best bet for that kind of information is one or more of the veteran collectors in the area. Be careful of these, however, as many of them are self anointed "Experts" who pretend to knowledge that they don't have. They can sound like they do to a novice, however.

Plating is destructive to these swords and should never be done as it masks the characteristics beneath it, without which no judgment can be made. Special treatment for the hamon is necessary because of the great differences in hardness between skin steel and the edge steel. Running the sword over the last stones produces a finish which is fine for one, but totally wrong for the other, and which must be compensated for. Polishing is a very tricky business which takes years to learn.

28 Aug

Sword Student: The dealer had said that the papers for my sword were going to cost $1200. I take it that he, having seen the sword in person, thinks that it would be judged at least an important sword.

Old Timer: Probably correct. He would not have bothered with it otherwise. He would have just told you to forget about it.

Sword Student: What worries me is shipping my sword and letting it out of my sight. I would much rather save the money and go to Japan myself.

Old Timer: A very valid concern. Swords must be essentially hand carried by someone in whom you have implicit trust. Swords are very frequently stolen in the mails. I had a very nasty experience that way a few years ago when, without authorization, a polisher in Japan mailed a valuable sword uninsured back from Japan after polishing. It was stolen in the customs Office in Oakland on its way back. The polisher then died before anything further could be done about it. I am out the value of the sword and the cost of the polish (total well in excess of $10,000) and there is not a damn thing I can do about it. The U.S. Postal and Customs authorities were no help whatsoever.

Sword Student: I would much rather go there myself – but how long would the process take?

Old Timer: Hard to say. It would have to go through customs both ways and be vetted by some agency before submission and then coordinated with the Shinsa boards which do not meet on any prearranged schedule. Then the process would have to be repeated with the next level board, if it passes and you want to pursue it further. This is why these actions are usually turned over to agents to handle them.

Sword Student: Yes, I began to realize after looking and researching that the rest of the signature was missing. I know that this could provide some debate over the true maker.

Old Timer: True. There are Japanese records and books which can be helpful in this search (I have some of them), but it is a long tedious process which can be narrowed by an evaluation of blade characteristics, but only if it is an important signature.

Sword Student: It had to belong to someone high ranking both because of the quality and age but also because of the style of sword guard. In its mounting it resembles many of the swords I have seen the high command wearing in pictures and never the lower officers.

Old Timer: None of this means a thing. When the wearing of swords was outlawed in 1866, many Samurai families had large family arsenals with dozens even thousands of swords which could no longer be worn and had become nearly worthless. Swords were sold to sea captains on the Nagasaki docks in the late 19th Century for a penny a barrel-full. This is why there are so many in the West today.

Many of these families were impoverished when their jobs as working Samurai ceased to exist; but many of them retained their best swords. Later when the new Japanese military got underway many of those old swords were pulled out, remounted as military swords and taken off to war by new generations of those families as they went into the army or navy. Many of these were very fine swords and are avidly sought by collectors. Many are also near junk.

Sword Student: If this is true [the assumption from his previous statement] I know that the Japanese government has records of these swords that had disappeared after the war.

Old Timer: Also not true. The National Museum Groups have records of swords which were designated as historical artifacts or national treasure class blades - which incidentally are legally not allowed to leave Japan. These Groups are not affiliated with the National Government.

Sword Student: Also would it be wise to take pictures of it in its current state before I have it polished to prove it authenticity. I would give anything to find out the original owner of the sword and to uncover its history.

Old Timer: Not only wise, but vitally necessary. Also, not of much use if the sword is stolen over there. Was there a cloth tag tied to the scabbard or the hilt? Unless it is a national treasure class sword, such a tag is virtually the only way to establish its prior ownership.

Sword Student: Also I hope you did not think that I thought the sword was plated.

Old Timer: I knew that.

29 Aug

Sword Student: I know you must still be terribly made about the sword lost at customs, I know I would be. As for the scabbard I know my grandfather had said that it was always missing the tip at the end. Also my grandfather removed all of the wrapping on the handle when gold prices soared in the 70's and he still doesn't know what he did with it. I know my grandfather is not as cultured as you or I and in fact he feels terrible about destroying it.

I know it was a stretch to assume that the sword had to belong to some high ranking officer. It is only that I have looked at hundreds of pictures of officers in WWII and my sword seems to resemble many of the short swords that the high officers wore. I may be completely wrong, it is only an observation but the officer’s long sword could be very ornate but the short swords that they wore were very often plain black and had a very elegant but simplistic look. Many of the lower officers seemed to have more mass production style swords and many had a brownish color both on the scabbard and the handle. I guess black wasn't the best color in the jungle.

Also the tsuba is from what I have read a wire cut design and far more valuable then many of the other styles both for its elegance and difficulty in creating. Do you recognize the design at all, I think it is one of the most beautiful I have seen.

Sword fittings: fuchi (kashira missing), menuki, and tsuba - and closeup.

Also I think I am beginning to get bit by the samurai sword bug. You know in this throw-away society it is wonderful to see something made exceptionally well and able to last hundreds of years. I really respect that level of perfection and dedication to a craft. I would also love to see your collection as I have seen so many beautiful swords only as pictures on a computer screen. That is only if you feel comfortable showing someone your collection. I know the relationship you can form with these swords and that is why I don't want to let this one out of my sight. Again thank you for you great knowledge.

Old Timer: When judging a Japanese sword, the only things that count are the characteristics in the blade itself and to a lesser extent, condition. All else follows from that evaluation.

There are two standard patterns for Japanese military swords. One is a brown one with usually a metal scabbard which was used by the Army, and a black one which was the Navy pattern. There is also a greenish one occasionally seen which was used by the Marines. These are known by the generic name of "Guntos." Also seen are the earlier ""D" guard handle with at Nickel plated scabbard and old samurai mounts fitted with or without an Army style hilt and a leather sleeve over the original wooden lacquered scabbard. Any kind of blade may be found in any of these combinations, including new made swords and blades cut from bar stock.

Is there a small silver emblem on the metal parts of the hilt of your sword? These can be old Samurai Clan symbols which can carry some information.

What do you mean by "ornate" swords and "wire cut designs"? I know of nothing like that. The Tsuba themselves as well as the other fittings can be very valuable also. They can also be worthless castings or stampings. Yours would seem to be a good one.

Be careful about getting bit by the "Sword bug." It can be a very expensive fascination. I can show you some swords, but I am very reticent about the general public as I was hit hard by burglars years ago who stole swords and damaged others. I am frankly paranoid.

One of the great fascinations about the swords is that they are absolutely unique. They are the embodiment of trial and error development over more than a thousand years and the work of individual smiths and groups of smiths can be readily (but not easily) identified. It is also interesting that those old smiths never saw much of what we are looking at. The current polishing process was not developed until the 19th century for use by professional appraisers.

4 Nov

Sword Student: I now know some of my questions to you must have seemed rather foolish, such as who would have had the sword in WWII.

Old Timer: Hardly foolish. They are just questions that are typically those asked by those new to the subject. Of much more interest are people of historic importance who may have owned the sword. There are many records of these. Some are found with an inscription like "An Heirloom of the Date Clan" inscribed on the saya (wooden storage scabbard). I have one which has the name of the sword and its owner's name inscribed in gold on the nakago.

Sword Student: I have studied the Kane signature in detail and have found it to have some similarities with a few different ancient signatures.

Old Timer: It is very much like handwriting. No two people did it exactly the same way or the same way each time. Many smiths changed their signatures quite drastically as a result of changes in their life styles and living conditions. There are other complications as well. Many of the early smiths in particular were illiterate and employed professional carvers to sign their blades for them with the result that there is a great variation of genuine signatures among some smiths who used different carvers at different times, as well as great similarities among different smiths who used the same signature carvers. This problem is especially prevalent among the late koto Bizen Smiths. Added to that is that many of these were hereditary smiths who often ran to ten generations or more – the Sukesada in Bizen for instance. (If you don't have it, I strongly recommend John Yumoto's book The Samurai Sword. It is a good book for beginners and it is available in the bookstores at about $17.00.) Added to that is that in almost every case, only the signatures of the master smiths are usually represented in the record books. The later generations as well as uncles, cousins, and other relatives often used the same names. There is a story about Yozosaymon Sukesada, who physically attacked another smith in a neighboring forge whom he accused of copying his mei (signature). When asked how he knew that, Sukesada responded, "You used too many strokes in the mei" – probably a true story. Later forgers became virtually perfect at faking signatures, and unfortunately, they still are.

This is why so much emphasis is placed on matching blade characteristics to the signatures. This is a tough job which can take years on an important blade. It is also why the certification process is so expensive and often involves a great deal of controversy even among experts.

Sword Student: I then took those names that had the most similarities and found examples of their swords from museums such as the Tokyo History Museum and then compared temper lines. I told you the temper line on my sword was flowing but on closer inspection holding it up to different light sources to extract the reflection, it is much more irregular and nonetheless beautiful for not being a repeated pattern. The temper seems to have a similar pattern as Kanenaga or Kanemitsu – a sort of irregular wave, some sections longer and smoother and others shorter and sharper.

Old Timer: See the above paragraph. That pattern is called "Midare" or "Mixed," a standard type.

Sword Student: Also another worry of mine is the blade has some very small dings in the blade which a polisher said would not be a problem to grind away. And my question is do you think he is skilled enough to remove these dings. I say this because the angle of the blade is absolutely flawless and to grind down a section, if it were not perfectly matched along the whole blade, the quality of the blade would then be compromised.

Old Timer: He knows his business. He has been trained by experts and I trust his judgment. He was here yesterday.

Sword Student: I know someone could grind it but they must be quite skilled to maintain this angle.

Old Timer: Absolutely right. It is however, not quite an angle. An angled edge does not cut well and is easily chipped. That edge is very slightly convex which is called "niku" or "meat". Many fine swords have been badly damaged by amateur polishers unaware of its existence, grinding it away. It has to be there and once gone, a lot of metal must be removed to put it back - often leading to the destruction of the edge and/or skin breakthroughs, and consequently loss of the sword. I have one good sword which was virtually ruined by some clown who did just that. The effects were disastrous. Learning about all of this kind of thing for a polisher is a brutal, labor intensive six year apprenticeship, a job I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. It is also why polishing is so #$%$$#$ expensive.

Sword Student: All this is quite interesting for me and I now know that with a temper match and all the variations in the Kane signature and different things on the blade such as the two grooves and steel grain it can be matched to its original maker. I guess that is the real search, who made it?

Old Timer: Right on all counts. Now you have a handle on it and understand why it is such a fascinating subject. Most especially for myself who spent a working lifetime in Inspection and Quality Control. I hope you stay with it. Almost everyone in it is superannuated, myself most definitely included, and there are very few new collectors coming into the field. The difficulty of learning the ropes, the complexity and the difficulty of getting a handle on it stops most people coming into it cold and they bail out a soon as they realize it.

It is however, a fascinating field and a richly rewarding study. It is also one where on rare occasions it is possible to make a find of rare and valuable piece, virtually out of the woodwork, as you appear to have done with this one. John Yumoto estimated that something on the order of 200,000 Swords came into this country from Japan as war souvenirs at the end of WWII. Only a small fraction of these have been located.

13 Nov

Sword Student: Thank you for recommending the John Yumoto book. I read it in one sitting.

Old Timer: There are several other books recently out on the subject which I can also recommend if you are interested.

Sword Student: Having read it there are some things which I find interesting, one being that Yumoto states that unokubi-zukuri swords are short swords or tantos.

Old Timer: I believe that he is right on that point. There are other terms for long swords with similar configurations. An unokubi configuration is not well suited for a battle configuration, and would be highly susceptible to damage. A long sword would more likely be a nagamaki or a naginata "naoshi" (a halberd converted into a sword by reshaping the point area).

Sword Student: Also he states that there are very few quality swords in the wakizashi length.

Old Timer: I do not remember that statement, but it is patently false. Wakizashi are often as well made or even better than long swords by the same maker because they are easier to make and there are other reasons as well. In the post koto period for instance, there was not much need for samurai and most of them were broke anyway. Not much demand for swords from that quarter. That however, was a time when prosperous merchants were forbidden to wear the katana. They were however allowed to have wakizashi. These men then became a primary source of customers for the smiths and led to the proliferation of high quality often flamboyant wakizashi which were common in this time frame.

I have often recommended to new collectors that they look carefully at wakizashi. The reason being that many are of superb workmanship and occasionally available at significantly less cost than an equivalent long sword would be. For my money, a fine Wakizashi is a far better investment than a mediocre katana.

Sword Student: These two things are maybe what you were referring to when you said that the sword was rare. All the wakizashis I have looked up or seen in books seem to be of a poorer quality than the daito.

Old Timer: This is where book learning breaks down. You cannot judge a blade by its photograph with any accuracy at all. You have to have them in your hand.

Sword Student: Whereas mine matches the level of quality of a fine daito. I took the sword to a dealer to inquire some more about the polishing process and to see his opinion of the Kane signature. Only after I mentioned your name and he asked whether you had seen pictures of it was he willing to answer my questions.

Old Timer: We all hope for something like that, but it rarely happens. You also have to remember that a dealer is in business and has business expenses and utilities, taxes to pay and other expenses to meet. Consequently, he is not apt to pay as much as the collectors he sells to might.

Sword Student: The dealer showed me some of the swords in his shop and I must say the temper line on those swords was not so beautiful. The line between the two steels was too subtle and blurred, on my sword there is a clear distinction between the hamon and the softer steel.

Old Timer: At this stage, you are not sufficiently experienced to make value judgments on a temper line. This requires a year or two of study and handling quite a few swords. You must also realize that these effects are also somewhat at the mercy of the polisher. This can make a huge difference in what you are looking at.

Sword Student: We looked at a few books of Kane signed swords and the triangular direction of the two top characters was going in a different direction than all the other signatures. The dealer said that the sword was made somewhere in the 1300s and that is was probably made by Kanemoto or Kanesada. He also stated that the back of the blade above the groove and up from the tang had a feature that rather puzzled him – he said resembled Masamune's style. This seems like a sword that the Japanese might still be looking for. I would still like you to look at the sword because you are the only person who has been honest and not began by telling me it’s a tarnished nothing.

Old Timer: From what little that I know about the sword from those pictures, I would say that the dealer’s impression is probably pretty accurate. Do not think about "What the Japanese are looking for". It is an international market and there is not a dime’s worth of difference between collectors in Japan, America, Europe, Russia or anywhere else. We are all searching. Hard.

Postscript

Sword Student: I think I have been bitten by the sword bug. I just need to save up a small fortune and I can put together a decent collection, ha. At least I have a good start on the collection.


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