I toss this word aroundvvery now and then. This I think is a key element to understand, both when learning at the beginning of your studies and if you are able to acquire high quality pieces of any school or maker. These do not necessarily have to be Juyo or higher blades, the concept of archetypes apply everywhere.
A lot of these posts come about starting with emails I’ve sent that answer questions or are just part of an ongoing conversation about swords.
This came up today, which were some thoughts about the kinds of stuff people buy and collect. I grouped them into five categories. Maybe it needs more thinking but I think I’m vaguely correct.
These categories are:
- High Art
An oshigata is a drawing of a sword, focusing on its hamon and shape. They have been used since before the advent of photography to record and document swords for reference. They can also serve as a fingerprint of sorts by focusing on the nakago which is transferred to the paper by rubbing.
A few heads up in this area are worth noting.
That’s too expensive for only Hozon.
There are four levels of NBTHK papers: Hozon, Tokubetsu Hozon, Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo. This four level ranking system unfortunately means that people end up with four slots in their head for placing an object’s importance and desirability.
This mistake takes its lead from the fact that it’s easy to grasp and remember four simple categories than it is to remember the vast and complex web of smiths, time periods, schools, their associations with each other, their place in history, as well as the myriad of individual qualities that make an item desirable.
All of that complexity is often boiled down into the thinking that an item with a particular paper should fall into a defined pricing range based on the paper.
This puts the cart (paper) in front of the horse (item).
My complaints about this mentality were bounced back in my face by Robert Hughes with two words that really grasped the problem well. He just said: Ladder Theory. And that crystallized it all for me.
Bear with me. This is long and rambling.
This may have gotten its start in project management… we have a similar thing in software development that says, On Time, Stable, Cheap, “Pick Two.”
It talks about the necessary tradeoffs when building software. Executive level management pushes down and demands very high quality (bug-free) software, with a full set of features, delivered on time and under budget. This is a virtual impossibility as these constraints are usually chosen as independent variables but they affect each other.
In order for a piece of software to be stable you need an indefinite timeline as finding and solving bugs is not a problem you can put on a calendar and say “at this point we’re finished.” This puts it in conflict with the desire to be on time. You can solve that with a huge investment in testing and bug squashing resources, but that will inflate the budget. So if you want it delivered quickly and cheaply, by necessity it ends up not being very stable.
That’s about what you can get in reality.
This matter of tradeoffs applies to swords and collecting.
Kaneuji is a smith of the Tegai school in Yamato and he was immensely skilled. He moved from Yamato to Kamakura (Soshu) and further honed his skills under Masamune, and came to emulate his style. After this, he moved to Shizu in Mino province and the school he left behind formed the basis for the Mino tradition. Because of his movements and style changes he is addressed by no less than four names which makes for some confusion.
- Kaneuji – 包氏
- Yamato Shizu – 大和志津
- Kaneuji – 兼氏
- Shizu – 志津
So, there’s this thing, you don’t know anything about it but you’re a gambling man and you’re pretty smart. So you buy it. You’re buying it because you’re going to sell it later to someone else who doesn’t want to buy it now at $X, however that guy later will buy it for $X + $Y and that $Y is going to be your profit. This will take six months. You think this is reasonable.
To the bold go the spoils. Don’t worry about studying or knowing what you’re doing. Just jump in.
There are two main types of sword polish available currently. It’s likely the case that neither are the original style of polishing a sword nor is that even something that we should be thinking about.
The goal of polishing is primarily functional: remove rust and chips, and make the edge fine. The more you used your sword to fight the more frequently you would have to polish it as a result. The concept of artistic polishing that enhances the beauty of the sword is something that comes with the goal of preserving the sword and appreciating it for something more than a simple tool of war.
When I started collecting a long time ago now, there were people who fervently supported the idea of sashikomi polish in all cases in the mistaken idea that it is somehow more authentic or better for appreciating swords. As with many things, taking an imbalanced viewpoint can bring you to the wrong conclusion.
I’m doing some research right now for a daisho that I will be listing soon. As part of this, I counted the top ten smiths by simple output of blades ranked Tokuju, Juyo Bijutsuhin, Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho combined.
This is the list as a simple point of interest.
- Osafune Nagamitsu 
- Rai Kunimitsu 
- Osafune Kanemitsu 
- Soshu Masamune 
- Rai Kunitoshi 
- Saeki Norishige 
- Rai Kuniyuki 
- Osafune Kagemitsu 
- Niji Kunitoshi 
- Ko-Bizen Masatsune 
Some notes on this… Niji Kunitoshi and Rai Kunitoshi are the same smith by modern standards. So if we add their output together he places second overall, with 96 total works, and this would move Masatsune into 9th slot and Soshu Sadamune will then slide into 10th spot.
Both Nagamitsu and Rai Kunitoshi benefitted from having large numbers of high level master smiths working under them. Kanemitsu and Kagemitsu also both benefitted from this.
But the interesting thing for me in looking at this list is how it is almost evenly split among Kamakura period Soshu, Rai and Osafune output. It illustrates very well the reverence in which these schools and smiths are held.
Awataguchi Yoshimitsu is one of the finest smiths to have ever lived, and is mostly thought to be the best tanto maker of all time.
I was doing some research lately and found a blade that had more info than I could really understand with my basic Japanese. I talked to Markus Sesko about it and he uncovered a lot of interesting information.
It ended up that this was the blade used by the famous tea master Sen no Rikyo to commit seppuku. Have a read about it on Markus’ blog.
I just want to spend a few minutes to clarify the difference between these terms. There is some confusion out there and as soon as three people repeat the wrong thing it becomes truth.
Meito: This is a sword with a name (a Gō 号). Any sword can have a name. What we primarily care about this though is a historical name, that is, the blade in question had a name during the Edo period. An example here is the Sunnokina Masamune. It is simply a Masamune that came down through the Edo period with a nickname. This term meito is also used to casually indicate swords of great quality and importance, that may in fact have no name (but we imagine they would be worthy of one). There are no legal restrictions on ownership or movement of meito. Sometimes the NBTHK will indicate a name for a sword in the Juyo or Tokuju papers, in other times it can be discovered through other books or often on the sayagaki where an authority has preserved the name. Sometimes the name comes down with no history at all.
Meibutsu: These are special meito that are on the list of the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, the most famous swords in the country in Edo period Japan. These also have no restrictions on ownership. However, many of these also happen to be Juyo Bijutsuhin, Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho and as a result of that kind of status, would be illegal to export from Japan. An example of this would be the Kanze Masamune.
All meibutsu are meito but not all meito are meibutsu.
Utsushi also sometimes take the name of the source blace, for instance Kunihiro coped the Yamanba-giri Chogi, the resulting copy also became famous over the years and so took on a similar name to the original, becoming the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro. Both blades in this situation are meito, but not meibutsu, and both are Juyo Bunkazai making them illegal to export from Japan.
We all dread the fatal flaw.
These tend to be hidden on rusty blades, and revealed by polish.
Depending on who made the blade and when, a fatal flaw will send the value to zero. Sometimes however, the balance of positives in a sword allow it to be appreciated and even paper to the top levels, with a so-called “fatal flaw” present.
It’s necessary to know that different experts from different time periods saw different swords, and those swords that they saw form the basis for their judgments. For instance Soshu Sadamune signatures have been recorded but today we can’t find those blade or some dispute is made over the signatures. Unfortunately we do not have the actual work and cannot comment on it, other than that an old expert thought it was good and included it in their oshigata references. This implies at least that the work was as good as the signature proclaimed it to be.
The problem here is demonstrated by a parable called The Blind Men and the Elephant.
As the sword will be judged differently by men of different interests, you must be very careful in its selection. Some are foolish enough to pass judgment on a sword which they cannot really understand, others will not speak the truth although they see it.
The merchant may speak falsely in order to sell his wares.
If a blade belongs to some nobleman, or if it is appreciated as a family treasure, or if the possessor is very proud of its supposed qualities, the true judgment will often be withheld through courtesy. When you would have any sword truly judged, you must commit it unreservedly to a judge of absolute sincerity.
— The Complete Manual of the Old Sword (ca. 1793)
Nothing has changed.
Bear in mind there are some transcription errors. Since it was translated over 100 years ago there is some Olde Tymey romanization as well. I find these old books fascinating as sometimes they confirm things that took us a long time to get to. For instance, this book relays the story of Niji Kunitoshi changing his name to Rai Kunitoshi at the age of 38 and names him Magotaro.
With the most useful data we have now, the last signed and dated Niji Kunitoshi is indeed at the age of 38 and the first signed and dated Rai Kunitoshi blade appears at age 49. Until Tanobe sensei put the lid down on this theory, there was a lot more belief that these were two separate smiths. Rai Magotaro Saku is also on a blade which is now Kokuho (National Treasure) and attributed to Kunitoshi.
Sometimes the old books have truths in them that were forgotten, and in the meantime people came up with some new fanciful stories. Not everything in an old book is going to be agreeable. They are however important things that fill in the gaps or at least provide some fertile ground for modern analysis.
With some help from Ted Tenold, I’ve put together a nice modern sword care kit to replace the uchiko-based kits-o-death that are commonplace destroyers of swords everywhere.
I’m supplying these for free to first time buyers of high quality swords from my site. So if you were looking for a reason to drop $50,000 on a sword, it has arrived.