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The Sword Appraisal System

by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.

Lecture series - Talk #11

Japanese Sword Club of Southern California (Nanka Token Kai)


The following notes on sword appraisal and certification were based on interviews with Fujimura Kunitoshi, a swordsmith of Iwakuni, Japan, on notes taken during a conversation with Dr. Homma and from various other sources, notably Mr. Yasu Kizu of our membership, and the Ides of Okayama, Japan. They do not profess to be authoritative but are, I believe, accurate.

There are basically two ways, or systems, of obtaining appraisal and certification (kantei) of Japanese swords. The first and oldest is the personal appraisal by a recognized and authorized appraiser. This system was basically intuitive (although, of course, guide lines and check lists were compiled and utilized). This type of appraisal and its "secrets" were normally passed down in a family line. The second, and more modern type of kantei, is becoming more generally accepted, and may be classed as a more scientific procedure. Appraisals under this system are performed by a committee of recognized experts who have demonstrated their skill (without "family" connections), and who employ every advance that accumulated knowledge of style, metallurgical procedures, and codified information can provide. they are particularly aided by a much more correct history and chronology of sword making than was formerly available. I shall now enlarge upon each of these systems somewhat.

Probably the first appraisers were the lords themselves, assisted by polishers and caretakers. This is most reasonable because, by their position, they had access to and knowledge of many more swords of all grades than did other individuals. We are all familiar with the family line of the Honnami, who have maintained an eminence in this field from 1334 to current times. The first Honnami was really Kyohon Amidabutsu, which name his successors shortened and combined into Honnami. This family seems to have preempted the field of sword appraisal, and over the years became more and more important -- almost all-powerful in fact. Everyone issued certificates either individually or in concert. From around 1600 to 1750, there were thirteen Honnami families, who met once a month to issue certificates. These certificates - the formal origami - were, and still are, of standardized form, regardless of the issuer. Those of the Honnami of this period bore the great seal of the main line, which was given by Toyotomi Hideyoshi for that purpose, and was only employed when all the assembled family experts concurred.

In this period, the Origami had impressive integrity, and even the Ko-fuda, or "little papers" issued by individual members of the family were to be trusted implicitly. This was not always the case, however, because over the years various powerful lords (and shoguns) brought pressures to bear to "up-grade" blades they were planning to bestow as gifts.

In this regard, many of the very elaborate origami are actually "re-issues" from older, simpler appraisals as kept in the Honnami family files, with fascinating "histories" added, made out of whole cloth! Frequently even a long sequence of "letters" showing various presentations to and by famous personages would be made at the same time. In other instances, the ethics of various experts were "stretched" to say the best for them, for the same purpose. The great seal now belongs to Honnami Munekage (Sokei) and is not found on later origami except those issued by him.

Origami and Sayagaki (shirasaya certification) are still being issued by the Honnami. There are three blades in the Naval War College bearing both Origami and Sayagaki by a Honnami, and issued in 1936. These are on three blades, one forged in 1935, one made in 1550, and one on a famous tanto made by Chogi around 1360. This last belonged to Takeshi Inukai, who, as Premier of Japan, was assassinated around 1934, I believe. Mr. Inukai himself was a very famous collector of swords and a recognized authority. It also appears he was a bit of a joker besides, apparently certifying the blade concerned. Careful study of what he wrote, however, brought to light the full import - that the blade was not genuine!

Although the Honnami were very famous, there were several other families who were recognized. For example, I have a copy of a book entitled "The Secret Book of the Family of Hasegawa Chuzaemon" in which Chuzaemon is described as "...a Samurai connoisseur on a plane with the Honnami family at the beginning of the Tokugawa period (1603)..." It describes "...secret theories of judging swords...," and indicates the basically intuitive type of examination. I have several other original books that date from 1680 to 1710 which also set forth "secrets" of appraisal.

There are now four or five recognized Honnami appraisers and a few scattered individuals not connected with families who appraise by the old methods. Mr. Inami Hakusui in Tokyo still issues origami and I believe both Mr. Albert Yamanaka of Tokyo and Mr. John Yumoto of San Mateo are authorized to issue origami, although I know of no instance in which either did. Mr. Nakajima, the polisher with the San Francisco group is also said to be an authorized appraiser, and has recently undertaken to issue origami and sayagaki. Also, Dr. Torigoye is a recognized expert in the field of sword appraisal, although he specializes in fittings.

Any of these individuals gain their status as recognized and authorized experts only after years of the most careful and intensive study of forging, polishing and mounting, as well as categorization by school, period, location, and even smith. This expertise is so dearly won that the integrity of the certificates is most jealously guarded, since any issuance of dubious documents seriously impairs the stature of the issuer.

The individual appraisal discussed above has almost wholly given way to the more modern method, which is now the most generally accepted. It constitutes a series of appraisals (and grades) issued by the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (or similar organizations) with headquarters presently in the Tokyo Museum. Currently the two foremost living authorities on Japanese swords are at the Museum. These are Dr. Junji Homma, president of the NBTHK, and Dr. Kanzan Sato. One or both of these gentlemen sit on each committee set up to judge swords, assisted, when in local areas (Okayama, Hiroshima, etc.) by local experts. The procedures followed are generally more scientific and less intuitive, although both fact and intuition are necessary in each context. Appraisals are made under two sets of circumstances -- the previously mentioned "field committees," and the meeting of the home committee at the Tokyo Museum. Usually twice a year the NBTHK publishes an itinerary schedule, designating locations at which appraisals will be held. The headquarters teams consist of Dr. Homma, Dr. Sato, and two or three others, usually with Dr. Homma on one team and Dr. Sato on another. For particularly important locations, both may be present. The branch of the NBTHK at each location makes all necessary arrangements, and include provision for Police registration. The police registration, incidentally, has no appraisal value. I have obtained swords registered as "mumei" but actually having a faint but readable signature. In other instances a &127 on the certificate indicated an unreadable character which I was able to read after some study. I have two examples of the above "mumei" registrations. At these local doings the wives provide refreshments, the local chapter provides workers and when available, qualified experts to assist the main team. The field teams issue two ratings: Kicho - highly valuable, and Tokubetsu Kicho or especially precious, etc.

Three other ratings are possible, but are only issued by NBTHK headquarters at the Museum, I believe. These are, in ascending rank:

Qualifications for these ratings, according to Mr. Fujimura, are:

The next three, accomplished only in Tokyo, are:

Each of the above steps takes from six months to much longer to complete. All blades examined by the committee and given a rating are registered and a copy of the oshigata and full description are maintained in the files of NBTHK. Registrations are to specific owners, and should be changed when blades are sold or change hands. It is possible but rare for a blade to by-pass one or more of these steps to a higher rating. This would naturally occur when there was a firm indication that such action was warranted, either by the known history of the sword, or by unofficial observation by someone sufficiently qualified as to convince Dr. Homma of the validity of such action. These ratings do not include a "Pieces of Gold" evaluation as is customary with the older and some modern origami.

Whatever the method used, the value of the blade is increased by these appraisals as is its interest to its owner. Although the money value should not be paramount to a true collector, it is always good to know you have a good investment. To me the discovery of a fine and beautiful blade is the reward for many disappointments and great satisfaction accrues from preservation of another bit of true art. Knowing, through true appraisals that you have something truly important is the most satisfying aspect of collecting. I think it is what we are all looking for.

Dean Hartley


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