Daisho and Daishoisn’t

I’ve written about daisho a few times in the past 10 years. It may bear some repeating. 

Daisho most properly refers to the fittings that contain a pair of swords. This was hammered into me by Cary Condell. The reason for this is that any pair of swords can be put together by a user for his preferences. You can have a katana and a tanto mounted together for instance. Or katana and wakizashi. Or you could mount those in handachi koshirae. The makers of the swords don’t matter, the assumption is that the user is picking two swords he liked and trusted and fit his needs or style of fighting. 

If you were buying a Hugo Boss suit you would not necessarily buy a Hugo Boss shirt to go with it, you might have an Armani shirt. Or, you could have a black gap T-shirt under the suit jacket. Whatever your needs are. However, you could match the suit and shirt if you wanted.

Daisho Token

In these rare cases we get daisho token, which are swords intended by the maker to be a mated pair. They are very rare, there are 24 that passed Juyo, and a large percentage of these are works of Koyama Munetsugu. The matched daisho swords we have today are both because it seems to have become a trendy order in the Shinshinto period (wealth has gone up, need to fight has gone down), and because time separates all sets of things. 

Daisho token of koto blades are invariably put together by a dealer or a collector because the daisho does not come into fashion in matched fittings until the late Muromachi period. There are cases of this happening in the Edo period, that is, say two swords by Sadamune could be put together as a daisho by mounting them in matching koshirae. But, there seems to have been no particular worry or thought that the swords should be by the same makers or the same era at all. The fifth Shogun used a daisho with a Sadamune katana and a Bizen Osafune Morimitsu wakizashi for instance. It just was not a thought that the swords should have to match each other by maker. Though, it can happen as I once encountered an Edo matched set of blades both by Kagemitsu, the wakizashi being a naginata naoshi and the katana being a suriage tachi. 

When dealers these days sell these assembled sets, it’s easy to verify what is going on using the following tests:

  1. Are both swords on one paper: if so, you have a real daisho token set, if not you don’t.
  2. If both swords are papered on the same day with sequential numbers in the papers, you can see that someone attempted to get daisho token for them and these were rejected. The end result is that the swords were processed one after the other and given two different papers. The swords may look like a pair, but that’s why someone tried to get daisho token papers for them. They are not anything other than a collector or dealer assembled set of nice blades.
  3. If the swords papered on different days or years, it shows also that a collector or dealer assembled the set most likely. Especially if the papers are in the names of different collectors, this is just someone assembling items for a hobby case somewhere down the line well after they were papered. In this case as well, you need to consult the fittings and realize that the fittings are most likely not historic since the swords seem to have no history together. In these cases it’s relatively easy to make modern saya and build out with tosogu or to try to retrofit to existing saya. 
  4. Pay attention to tosogu quality because high class swords in fake class tosogu is a sign of a dealer assembled set rather than a collector assembled set. Collectors tend to want to fit out their chosen babies as well as they can. Dealers goal is to keep the price down. So in those cases you will see unverified big names or questionable looking quality on the fittings used. The reason is: they can be bought cheap, they can deck out a daisho, because dealers know that sword collectors are reluctant to shell out the premium required to buy a set that has both high class fittings and high class swords. Sword collector will just say “But I saw this same maker at a price 40% less.” You say well did it have a Juyo tsuba on its koshirae? The answer will be “It had no koshirae. But I want you to match the price.” You say you can’t because your set has a Juyo tsuba on it. The collector refuses to buy in most cases then. He can only see the thing he is fixated on and if he’s a sword collector, 90% of the time it’s just the sword. So that is what drives dealers to match great swords with inferior koshirae. Because that same collector demands SOME kind of koshirae in order for the sword to be “complete.” As such, tosogu quality can tip you off as to the reasons for mounting such a daisho.
  5. As mentioned above, no swords before the middle Muromachi can really ever be said to be a true daisho token pair because the makers were not making them intended as pairs. However in the Edo period, same as now, daimyo and samurai were able to assemble daisho that had matched makers from time to time. These should have been handed down with matching antique koshirae. When they get to the modern period or even in the end of the Edo period the swords would have been transferred to shirasaya at the same time since they were a pair. As such, the shirasaya condition and style of manufacture should be identical as they would be work of the same craftsman for a pair of swords given to him as a pair. If the shirasaya are completely different in some way or all ways, it is another sign that it is a modern commercial-period assembly of swords as a set for either love or money. 

There is nothing wrong with a modern assembled daisho. The only thing that is required is that you understand the difference between antique daisho of any sort and modern daisho. In the case of modern daisho, that is a complete set of swords and mounts, it is preferable if at least the tosogu are true daisho and complete to the highest extent (i.e. issaku, made by the same hand, and intended as a matching set).

We can see then that there are levels of rarity and historicity that we can rank:

  1. Completely matched high class pair of swords and koshirae from the historical period of Japan (almost does not exist). Some lesser items interestingly do though the quality may not be high.
  2. Collector or dealer matched swords in complete issaku daisho tosogu, while the pairing is modern, the tosogu were made with the intention of it being a full daisho 
  3. Completely matched subset pairs of anything, daisho token, or daisho tsuba, or full daisho koshirae, but independent of something that would be needed to have a wearable set, as these too will be set up from the historical period of Japan. These we can find but are rare and the more items are there in the set (i.e. the more complete), then the more rare and more precious.
  4. Collector or dealer paired items in mismatched tosogu of good quality, down to those of poor quality, these are basically hobby pieces and nice for display only but don’t really mean anything outside of the integrity of the individual pieces. Again these can be tipped off by mismatching papers, or some items are not papered and others are, or say even the menuki have papers but they were not mounted while being papered. Things that were intended as a set and historically a set can be papered as a set, and in the case of tosogu and koshirae, sometimes the works of various hands come together to make a full historical set. These will all paper together on one paper if they belong together historically.

Of course in this world, items in class (4) are often desired to be shown in a way that they imply class (1). Sometimes it is said so on purpose in order to confuse and defraud someone. Sometimes it is left unsaid in order to let the greedy and foolish trip over their own shoelaces (which is still fraud by non-disclosure of critical information, but happens all the time in collecting communities where people feel a need to make newbies “pay their dues.”

So you just need to carefully analyze what you are looking at and make sure you have your brain shifted out of park, and understand the differences between historical and modern and what percentage of the entire set falls into what categories.

In the case where you get yourself a completely historically unassociated set: the swords papered under different names, at different times, with different shirasaya, different sayagaki, the tosogu have fake names on them and so forth… it’s something you can consider disassembling and removing parts that are fake and replacing them with better parts. Or just disassembling them and if you like one sword better than the other you can sell that one sword off. You are only undoing the work of a marketing agent likely from the current decade or close to it so there is no sin in that.