Attribution is Everything, and when it’s not it almost is

Q: What is the difference between an inferior work of Norishige and a masterpiece of the Uda school?

A: Norishige has a reputation as a great master, one of the best. Uda has a reputation as a second or third tier school. Even the best work of a third tier school will not compare to the worst work of a grand master. And even if it does, the top makers will gain attributions of master works and the lesser works will be attributed to lesser makers. Quality is the first step of attribution.

This is a recurring subject in my posts at Nihonto Messageboard, and a fundamental misunderstanding that most new (and veteran) collectors have. From a western standpoint we are expecting authorities to give us answers to mysteries. This is simply not possible given the number of signed examples that exist for old blades from the 1300s and earlier. We don’t have the time machine, and when collectors are left scratching their heads over why they can’t get a clear answer they are not understanding that sometimes no clear answer exists.

Attribution is primarily a form of classifying quality, and style. We are trying to use those two elements to pigeonhole a reasonable answer to the question: who made this sword?

The first first path is style: being that signed examples, even when rare, set a template that we can use to match unsigned examples against and so obtain a best fit for an attribution by saying this one looks like that one in form and construction (to grossly oversimplify it). This is of course, extremely important. If a work is attributed to a smith not known at all for this style, it’s going to be wrong. But, you can get honorable mention for getting the quality judgment right by naming a grand master smith to a grand master work.

This path is based on both the signed examples, and the historical reputation handed down of great masters to set a quality guideline for unsigned work to meet in order to obtain an attribution to a smith known for the quality represented in the sword. Especially when signed examples are rare, or non-existent, all we have is written examples or drawings and we need to piece the picture together based on this and reputation.

That is, for a sword to get an attribution to a grand master smith like Soshu Sadamune or Go Yoshihiro it both needs to match the structure and expected form from the time period and schools of these smiths, but it needs also to excel tremendously in quality. These smiths were known as some of the very best: therefore a sword being attributed to them also needs to be among the very best.

If the quality does not meet the highest standard, then the expert will look for associated smiths related to these grand masters. In the case of Go Yoshihiro, if it looks like Go but the quality is not absolutely top level it will get an attribution to Tametsugu most likely, a smith thought to be his son. In the case of Sadamune, the attribution will be to Takagi Sadamune, again thought to be a son or student. Think in your mind: close, but no cigar. Maybe a cigarette.

This does not make the sword a bad sword: both of those swordsmiths named above are extremely talented, they are just say, 8.5 out of 10 rather than 10 out of 10 in skill. As well, a judge may issue this kind of attribution because he is being conservative. It is easier for a future judgment to elevate a Tametsugu or a Kashu Sanekage to Go Yoshihiro or Norishige than it is do downgrade one of the great masters to a lesser master.

Regardless, it is important to take note of the reputation of these smiths, because a grand master’s work is flagged primarily through giving it an attribution to a grand master. Lazy students who only recognize the four levels of NBTHK papers (Hozon, Tokubetsu Hozon, Juyo and Tokuju) will not understand that any work of a smith like Go Yoshihiro regardless of the level of its papers will almost always be more precious than a work of a lesser master even if that lesser master has successfully papered to the top level. More on that in the future.

The point to take home here is that it is important to know the top schools and top smiths and not get them crossed up with 2nd and 3rd tier schools. There are maybe 100 or so names to recognize, and these smiths are the crown jewels of Japanese sword craft. As with any art, study of the top masters is more important than the peripheral and unskilled workers that are always in the vast majority.

Those workers at the bottom of the quality ladder, their work is fungible. That is, one can be exchanged for another with no harm done. The student that does not understand the skill level of the smith used for the attribution may think that two experts offering different opinions on who made the blade means that one must be wrong. It’s not considered wrong for them to issue these differing opinions as long as the skill level is correct and the attribution is reasonable.

If I ask two 1st graders to draw you a picture of a flower, their work will be fungible. We are not expecting that one child of five or six years old will be a master craftsman that will rise head and shoulders above their peers. So if I answer to you that Billy made this flower or Jane made this flower, the answer is reasonable and acceptable either way provided both are first graders. Who made it may forever be a mystery if we mix up the flowers in a box before they go home to the parents. Nobody will know the difference unless the artist speaks up.

However, if I tell you Rembrandt made that flower or Van Gogh made it, then I am wading into different territory.

Where no art expert will reliably be able to sort out the work of first graders, they should be able to tell you if a work belongs to Rembrandt or Van Gogh, as the works are packed with signature elements which make the artists famous. Even a student with only passing study should at least be able to recognize very high level painting: in this way to say Rembrandt when looking at a Van Gogh painting is a correct answer. At least, you are saying that you understand you are in the presence of true greatness.

This is true of sword and tosogu and all art forms: music, sculpture, movies, cuisine, poetry and novels… everything.

Understanding when you are in the presence of greatness and when you are in the presence of mediocrity is the first step to truly understanding swords (or any of the aforementioned arts).  And, sad to say, the flip side of that coin is that mediocrity, especially at the most base level, retains this fungibility and we need to accept that these attributions can be somewhat loose. If you ask me which McDonald’s in the USA made a particular Big Mac I am eating, I doubt I will be able to cite delicate differences in the flavor and trace it back to the craftsman who made the delicious burger. If I can tell you: it’s fast food, I gave a good answer and if I can tell you it’s McDonald’s, then good enough. Which establishment in which region in the USA that produced it, no good answer can come and if you mix them up, so be it.

Journeyman work is what it is: often times there are just not enough signature elements to be able to determine which guy made it, if it’s just not good enough to rise above its peers. It’s important when you look at two papers that disagree, to determine then how they disagree. If the quality is about the same of the makers, then it is honest disagreement and one is as good as the other. If there is a large quality disparity, then you need to understand why. Does one upgrade the other, or is one just dishonest? For this, you need to study hard (as Musashi would say).