I started with a flowchart, but that made this harder to understand than it should.
People traditionally have problems in this area. When observing phenomena that occur together, people often assign them a causal relationship in error.
To illustrate this, consider that I am born into a prehistoric tribe, and the tribe’s shaman every day does a sunrise dance. I am born into this society, and I am told that the sunrise dance is required to please the sun god, and the sun god reacts to this by rising above the horizon and giving us light and warmth and all good things. Through my life every day the shaman does this dance, and I am in fact trained to replace him so that on the day he dies, the next morning I do the sunrise dance and bring the sun up. Nobody is interested in testing this belief out because it will be disaster to not have the sun come up.
Thus, every day I believe:
I do the dance [cause] ==> The sun comes up [effect]
The reality of it of course is that there is no causal relationship between my dance and the sunrise. Rather they are correlated phenomena that have to do with the time of day which is itself based on the rotation of the earth relative to the sun.
morning ==> sunrise dance
morning ==> sunrise
We see this kind of failure to sort out cause and effect consistently in buying behavior among collectors.
Don’t worry about it being Juyo
The simplest error that people make is usually working along this chain of implications:
- Sword is attributed to a maker.
- A maker carries a certain reputation.
- Those of high reputation make Juyo or Tokubetsu Juyo.
- Juyo or Tokubetsu Juyo makes the price go up.
Thus, I got a request once for a middle Kamakura blade, in good health, with ikubi kissaki, with intense flamboyant activity in the hamon, of at least 70 cm. But, I was told, don’t worry about it being Juyo.
What the smart buyer was trying to do, is to avoid the 4th step of the paper making the price go up. In this way he felt he could obtain a sword with all of these nice properties but avoid paying the big price for Juyo. There is probably a followup thought that he will be the smart one and submit to Juyo then increase the value while he owned it.
This is a failure to understand cause and effect.
However this is the simplified version of what really happens:
- A sword has certain style and quality properties.
- If these match the right style, and high quality, it will be attributed to the best matching master smith.
- If there are no problems holding such a work back, it will pass Juyo or Tokubetsu Juyo.
Where the price comes in is at every level. If the sword is sufficiently good enough, the price follows immediately. All of the rest: attribution to a master smith, passing Juyo and Tokuju, all follow from the style and quality of the piece.
Going back to the sunrise dance, all three of these phenomena are related to each other but are not simple cause and effect. Rather they are all results that derive directly from the quality and style of the blade in question.
Juyo and Tokuju need to be understood as independent opinions on the quality and style of a blade. As such, they eliminate confusion about where a blade lies for quality only for those who cannot understand quality evaluation themselves.
During a buying trip in Japan I have been presented with swords that had low papers or no papers and the price has been high (20 million to 50 million yen in these examples). Many collectors will balk and say the price is too high for the Hozon paper if it just has Hozon. The correct response is that the Hozon paper is not what is being sold, the blade is what is being sold.
A paper is a convenient crutch and also it is a form of shorthand that cuts down the discussion between buyer and seller about the relative merits of an item. Papers are in and of themselves desirable because they tend to settle this matter.
So, it’s essential to remember that papers do not bring new information into the discussion. Something does not become expensive because it is Tokubetsu Juyo. However, the presence of Tokubetsu Juyo settles the question of whether or not something is elite by eliminating possibilities that the blade is not elite. As such, lower prices are eliminated from the discussion.
Again: the difference is not new information, but elimination of possibilities, and that is the job that papers perform.
This blade discussed above with all of the perfect features of the middle Kamakura period, the potential buyer has not found a way to beat the system. Rather, any knowledgeable seller will understand that a sword with all of those features and surviving intact and healthy from the middle 1200s is at the peak of quality, importance, and desirability on the chart. It passing Juyo or higher is a given, if you have the knowledge to understand this. As such, it is presented and priced for what it is rather than what paper accompanies it.
In the case where the papers are a surprise, it can in fact elevate something as long as knowledgeable sellers didn’t think that was a possibility. For a maker who has no Tokubetsu Juyo works, one of them passing through Tokubetsu Juyo is on its own new information that experts are willing to accept this smith’s work among the most elite of the most elite.
Because of that, it may mean that the smith has been undervalued and certainly this particular item will be more valuable than others made by this smith.
There is another issue herein where people will overly rely on Fujishiro’s rating system. People will demand to buy a Sai-jo saku blade because they want something made by one of the top rated makers. Without properly understanding the rating system, this means that they could fall into an inferior blade.
For instance, the Muromachi period is near the bottom of quality in general for sword craft. There are some standout smiths in the Muromachi and they have ranked Jo-saku through Sai-jo saku. Examples of Sai-jo smiths of the Muromachi period are Muramasa (two generations surely recognized), Yosozaemon Sukesada, and Jirozaemon Katsumitsu.
So since these are all Sai-jo smiths, we would expect a lot of Tokubetsu Juyo by them, right?
There are only 4 Sai-jo saku Muromachi works that have passed Tokubetsu Juyo. There are however 11 Jo-saku works.
Now, that on its face appears to defy logic: how are the best smiths of the Muromachi period passing far fewer works than smiths “only” ranked at Jo-saku?
The reasons are several.
- Fujishiro’s ranking system is one man’s opinion.
- Fujishiro’s ranking system is relative to time period and school.
In this case, the early Muromachi smiths are as talented or more talented than the middle and late Muromachi smiths. However, they are very close in time to the Nanbokucho smiths which are better than all of the Muromachi smiths.
Thus, Yasumitsu rating at Jo-saku is every bit as talented as Yosozaemon Sukesada who has a Sai-jo saku rating. And, he is a better swordsmith than Muramasa who also has a Sai-jo rating. And it only works out this way because Yasumitsu is living in the time period shadow of Kanemitsu and Chogi.
What the buyer is trying to say when he asks for a Sai-jo sword is that he wants one of the very best works. But he’s getting the cause and effect messed up. He is going to discard Yasumitsu because of a Jo-saku rating, when Yasumitsu passed four Tokubetsu Juyo works, more than any Sai-jo saku Muromachi smith.
So really the buyer should be folding in multiple observations to come to his conclusion about who the best maker is. Fujishiro’s opinion is heavy, but it needs to be taken in context and as well needs to be measured up against modern performance at shinsa which shows with the benefit of all the information we have in the modern era, about how a smith stacks up against his competition.
Sai-jo doesn’t come before the work, and the desirability of the work, but it comes after the work and is a reflection of the desirability of the work. If a smith is consistently placing blades at Tokubetsu Juyo, then it means de-facto that that smith is a grand master and that is what the buyer is really after. He’s just getting lost in the labels.
We see this tremendously in the Aoe school. Aoe smiths are extremely talented and this school accounts for about 7% of all Tokubetsu Juyo works. This places Aoe with other top schools like Awataguchi, Ichimonji, Rai and core Soshu.
Because Aoe is focused on a time period between Kamakura and Nanbokucho, there are a great many master smiths that exist. As well, almost all the tachi lost their signatures and became katana. So we have a couple of problems for Fujishiro to give their smiths Sai-jo rankings. It’s hard to find any signed long works at all with which to make a judgment, and there are a great many grand masters about. So, a lot of Aoe smiths got Jo-saku to Jo-jo saku rankings.
Similar problems are found in Ichimonji, where Yoshifusa who has 5 Kokuho works is “only” ranked at Jo-jo saku.
This is a big deal, because that slight change in description from Fujishiro can make a buyer walk away.
Where really we need to look at Yoshifusa and that there are 5 Kokuho by this smith, and work backwards to the fact that he is a great grand master. He’s not a great grand master because he has Kokuho blades, rather we are working backwards from the effect of the 5 Kokuho blades to find the reason behind it, which is the cause. And the cause in this case is his high level of skill.
It’s really important to get the cause and the effect lined up right. These Jo-saku smiths getting Tokuju and Jo-jo saku smiths getting Kokuho means that these labels are very highly context dependent. A Jo-jo saku smith in the Kamakura period is going to be better than Sai-jo saku in any other period. And what exactly Fujishiro was thinking when he made any particular rating is difficult to know as he combined both historical reputation with his subjective point of view from what he could see and touch.
He could not see and touch everything, so we always need to know he’s just one guy. He is possibly the best guy but he is still one guy and we need to factor in a lot of information when we want to try to classify the desirability of the work of a smith.
Because when you get the cause and effect wrong, you start chasing a Sai-jo smith because he has the Sai-jo label. You start acting as if the desirability is based on being Sai-jo. Rather, being Sai-jo is an effect, the cause of which is a great historical reputation and Fujishiro evaluating blades highly.
If you don’t have Sai-jo though, it doesn’t mean you’re not a grandmaster. It just means Fujishiro didn’t hand out that label for whatever reason.
Fujishiro’s opinion and your opinion should mostly be in harmony. They should be like helium balloons being held by strings. Where those strings are clutched in the hand of a child, that part is the truth. Those balloons float around the same level, bump into each other and move about and are mostly in the same place though they are somewhat different.
They are both reflections though of a single truth that is further back, which is how good one of these smiths really was. That is the part that needs to be focused on as that is the part that drives desirability and value, rather than looking to Fujishiro’s opinion and then finding someone who has a label that you like and making that drive value and importance for you.