A nice to have on everyone’s list… the daisho. The name literally means “big-small” and refers to the pair of swords that only a samurai was authorized to wear.
There are some simple basics about daisho and some misconceptions. The learning curve is shallow but some people skip over the essentials, and it can cause some damage.
The first and most salient point is that daisho are about the koshirae. It does not matter what swords you put into a daisho, but once you have matching koshirae, you have yourself a daisho. The katana might be Kamakura period and the wakizashi might be Shinshinto, with 6 centuries difference in time, but they are still a daisho once they go into matching koshirae.
Lose the koshirae and you have two independent swords again.
Keeping with this thought that daisho are a koshirae thing, you can have daisho tsuba, daisho fuchigashira, daisho menuki and even a full set of daisho tosogu that have all the parts you need to create mounts for two blades.
People have a misconception that daisho were usually swords made as pairs, and this does not bear out when we examine the NBTHK Juyo Token records. Rather we see evidence that these swords were all mixed and matched. The reasons for this are:
- Some lords provided a single sword to their samurai and he was expected to provide the other, so they got sourced from different supply.
- Desirability of a sword for use is highly individual, if you had a katana you really loved you might test several wakizashi to find one that you also really loved, in order to mount together. Love might be synonymous to “this blade feels great in my hand, and I feel good about defending my life with it.” What you may like out of one maker’s katana you may not be interested in with their wakizashi.
- Koto wakizashi from earlier than Muromachi might not be easily accessible as they usually depend on making a tachi suriage (unless you use a hirazukuri wakizashi or a naginata naoshi). So this makes matching a koto katana difficult.
- Some swords were assembled by theme as gifts, such as giving a Yukimitsu wakizashi along with a Masamune katana, to or from the Shogunate. In this case obviously some thought went into this to make the blades both Soshu school and with smiths that had a close relationship. But these seem to have been done like this more frequently than to match both blades together by the same maker.
- You could break one sword and then you’d get a replacement which you could afford, you liked, and you felt could defend your life, and the last item of worry would be matching the “swordsmith brand” of your other unbroken blade.
There are however some swords that were made as a pair. These are very rare.
Everyone tries this at some point, we try to get two matched blades by the same maker, so we can have our own daisho. These blades sometimes have passed their papers at different times, and we take this and construct mounts, find some matching tsuba and fuchigashira and boom, we have a daisho.
It’s not a true daisho.
True daisho were used by samurai in the Edo period. Unless you are a samurai with a time machine, what you just made is not a true daisho. At best, these… are what I call self-assembled daisho. Or an assembly. We can colloquially call them daisho but the important thing is to not mix them up with historical daisho.
They are just expressions of a collector showing some love for his swords and assembling them so that he has something that makes him happy.
Sometimes a collector looks carefully and finds two blades with similar signatures by the same maker, and well matching styles and submits them together to try to get a very rare paper.
This paper is the daisho token paper and it is almost never awarded. Because the NBTHK knows we submit blades we’d like to be daisho in our fantasies, and they examine very carefully these blades and find discrepancies and so pass them on different papers, though they were submitted as daisho.
I got it once on an unusual mumei Shinshinto pair of swords attributed to Ozaki Takashige. This is not a high level smith, and the blades being mumei shinshinto were not high level blades. But they were real daisho token, made at the same time, by the same smith, intended as a pair.
For your reference, this is the paper I got (take note, it’s rare):
You can see both blades are on the same paper. The Japanese heading says:
一大小 (One Daisho) and then under this heading describes the katana and wakizashi as both being unsigned by Ozaki Takashige.
This is an important thing, because a lot of swords are sold as a daisho… and then have two papers. Well, that means it’s not a daisho by any stretch unless they are in matching historical mounts.
True daisho token are hard to get, because they were almost never made in the first place… and those made were damaged, lost, mixed up and so on.
Now 99.99% of the time people try to get a daishi token paper it doesn’t happen and it just comes back with two separate papers. This doesn’t mean that the swords do not belong to a daisho. It just means that the swords themselves are not a daisho.
Daisho tsuba are still daisho tsuba even though you take them off of the mounts, however daisho swords lose their status unless they were made together: all the other tosogu items were made together so they retain their daisho status.
Being a daisho themselves for swords means that the swords need to be made on the same day by the same smith with the intention of being a mated pair. Same as tosogu, it’s just that while it is common for tosogu it is not common for swords, as it wasn’t a requirement.
What matters here is the intent.
On a wakizashi you found on eBay and a katana sold to you by your friend, even if they look like they match, these are not daisho token by the classification that gets them onto one paper. There was no intent of the maker of those blades to mate them together. Hence, they are not daisho token.
In a historical daisho, it doesn’t matter if your sho is a tanto or a naginata naoshi, or your katana is a naginata naoshi and your sho is a shinto wakizashi: if they go into Edo period koshirae and did so in the Edo period, then they are part of an Edo period daisho. The swords are not daisho token but they are part of a daisho.
Burn the daisho koshirae: you are left with two unrelated swords.
Secondarily, if that daisho koshirae is not Edo period, and the assembly itself is not Edo period, then it is not a true daisho. It’s a collector’s hobby project daisho. An assembly.
True daisho koshirae from the Edo period are hard to find, and those of high quality pass Juyo on their own. If the NBTHK accepted them into papers, it means the NBTHK thinks they are Edo period daisho koshirae and not slap togethers from 1978.
Pre-Shinto swords in daisho
Daisho is a concept that begins to be formalized in the Muromachi period with Oda Nobunaga’s conquest of Japan and under the Tokugawa is formalized as a badge of office for samurai.
So, no koto smiths we know of made daisho token explicitly. Samurai did not exist at the time of the koto smiths, nor did this wearing of the sword pair exist as a badge of office, nor was it even a common pattern to wear a katana and wakizashi together both edge up in matching koshirae.
It would be far more likely that a Muromachi bushi would have a yari and small katana or large tanto as a backup. But it’s likely that these warriors armed themselves as the case required it based on what their mission was. So no koto pair of swords today will be accepted onto one paper as daisho token basically because they predate the concept. They can be united later into a daisho by being chosen in the Edo period and mounted in purpose made mounts. Now they are part of a historical daisho.
It’s up to you to use your thinking cap to see what you’re dealing with, as a self-assembled daisho has no particular historical value other than it can be two nice swords and some nice mounts. So, no bonus value for you as a collector other than how you feel about those mounts aesthetically. Whereas a historical daisho is something that is rare and very nice to have as it is a hard to acquire artifact of the Edo period. The more parts in the set = the more rare the set.
Daisho token revisited
When it comes then to who made daisho token the first thing we learn about them is that chiefly they are a Shinshinto thing. The idea of making swords as explicit pairs did exist in the Shinto period but it doesn’t appear to be very common. In the Shinshinto period it seems to have come into vogue then to place orders with one smith for a fully matched pair of blades. Even so, that in itself was not so common when we look at the Juyo results.
By my count there are only 23 daisho token that have passed Juyo, compared to 11,422 swords as of the time of this writing. So, the number immediately must strike you as miniscule.
The earliest daisho token that the NBTHK made Juyo is a Mizuta Kunishige pair of swords.
These swords have identical mei on both sides and from the horimono it’s clear they are a matched pair. When these blades pass Juyo, they pass as a set: this is a Juyo Daisho Token. The katana is Juyo and the Wakizashi is Juyo, but they are together an inalterable set.
This can in rare instances happen with the koshirae intact as well.
The next earliest daisho that passed is a Shodai Tadayoshi work signed under his second name Musashi Daijo Tadahiro. During this time, almost a pre-retirement, he made some interesting special orders and many high quality blades. This daisho is again identically signed, and also dated, as well as having hamon that clearly were made to go together, so the NBTHK accepted them as Juyo Daisho Token. Note the right column, indicating a daisho and then conjoining katana and wakizashi.
If your daisho swords are not coming on one paper like this — they are not daisho swords (daisho token). Again, I note this doesn’t make them not a component of a daisho. As long as they reside in Edo period daisho koshirae, then they are part of a daisho. And, in that case as well, they do not have to even be made by the same maker. Because, this almost never happened and it is how it was.
Daisho token are their own special thing in and above being components of a daisho. This is why they can paper on their own.
If the total of 23 times that this has happened in NBTHK history, that daisho token have passed Juyo, only seven of those belong outright to the Shinto period.
- Mizuta Kunishige
- Hizen Tadayoshi (Musashi Daijo Tadahiro)
- Izumi no Kami Kunisada (nidai, aka Shinkai)
- Tatara Nagauki
- Nobukuni Shigekane
- Tango no Kami Kanemichi (Nidai)
- Tegarayama Masashige
That’s all. There is no doubt that there are more made and their mates lost, or both blades lost to time, and there are more that will come later. But of 11,000 blades passing Juyo so far, you need to understand there are only 7 Juyo Daisho Token from the Shinto period.
Shinshinto daisho token
It’s a lot harder for Shinshinto blades to pass Juyo than it is for Shinto, and Shinto it’s harder than for Koto. Shinshinto is especially difficult (read it as impossible) to pass Tokuju. Only once has a Shinshinto item passed Tokuju and this is a daisho by Kiyomaro. So, if you want to crown one item Shinshinto King, that would be the item you would want to pick.
In spite of this now we see that the majority of daisho passing Juyo belongs to this period. The hardest period to get Juyo. The implication then is that daisho token do not exist from the koto period… and are a rarity in the Shinto period then it becomes an item of interest in the Shinshinto period. We see the following smiths represented:
- Kiymaro (3 sets, one as Masayuki)
- Korekazu (2 sets)
- Suishinshi Masahide (2 sets)
- Hosokawa Masayoshi
- Koyama Munetsugu (4 sets)
- Taikei Naotane (3 sets)
- Ozaki Suketaka
- Sa Yukihide (2 sets)
So, that’s it. Those are all the Juyo daisho token. The only other one I’ve seen papered to daisho token is the Takashige of mine above (he’s a student of Suketaka on this list).
What you need to learn from this
True daisho token are extremely rare. It’s one of the rarest things out there. If you stumble into one of these, they will always be on the same paper, and the paper will make a point of saying it’s a daisho. Acquiring such a thing should be a no-brainer, since so few people can own a matched pair of swords by the same swordsmith intended as a set. I really have to hammer on that point. Without the smith’s intent, those swords are not a true daisho on their own.
This doesn’t mean they are not interesting. This doesn’t mean it’s not fun and interesting to find and put together your own daisho blades. In fact it is highly rewarding to think of reuniting long lost brothers from the same forge, and finding nice tosogu to mount them up.
Especially since so few people will ever get to own daisho token this is something collectors often indulge themselves in and I encourage people to do it.
As a buyer though you need to know the difference between these self-assembled sets and the real things.
Sword and koshirae relationships
When the NBTHK welds a koshirae to a sword as a historical set, the koshirae may or may not be photographed on the same paper, but they are listed on the same paper. Lacking that note, the NBTHK has not stepped in to judge them as a set together. The owner may have omitted the koshirae for submission (often happens, especially if the owner thinks the sword is much higher level than the koshirae) or the NBTHK didn’t accept them at Juyo, or maybe they didn’t exist and are later creations of a collector. We don’t know what the situation was exactly if the koshirae are not on the paper. This is more common than anything that koshirae are not noted.
But we know if the koshirae are on the paper, it means the NBTHK accepted them as a set with the sword. This is more rare, and I call these ensembles.
Daisho fittings exist in much greater quantities than daisho token, because it was clear that swords being made by the same maker was not a key element for samurai of the Edo period, but was possibly a nice gift or a fashionable thing to do at the end of the Edo period. As such, you should concentrate yourself on the fittings.
Individual daisho tosogu we encounter all the time and these paper together all the time as well. An example can be seen here of a daisho fuchigashira from Tomei that I papered.
You can see again the word 大小 (daisho) mentioned in the long column. And all items are photographed on the same paper. If you get two fuchigashira with two different papers, you have a self-assembled set for your daisho.
If you are considering daisho koshirae, they also should be papered on the same papers. There is a weird exception to this which I will get to at another time, which is the case where two koto swords housed in daisho koshirae go into Juyo together and the entire set, all items, all pass Juyo in the same session. In this case you have two Juyo swords, components in a Juyo set of koshirae.
Because the swords are not made together (as above, we don’t see koto daisho made as a set, daisho is an Edo concept)… and since both swords both passed Juyo, they have to go onto different papers. The koshirae that unite the two blades then will be split and placed with each blade. This is so rare though that I know of it happening only one time so far.
If there are no papers for the koshirae, and it is claimed as an antique daisho you really need to do your homework to see what you’re dealing with.
Swords and tosogu that were historical sets should generally:
- match in polish
- match in shirasaya
- be papered at the same time, or at times that make sense
If I have menuki papered in 1978 and clearly not under a tsuka wrap in the photos, and I have tsuba papered in 1985, and a katana with 1969 papers and a wakizashi with 1993 papers, the katana is in an old shirasaya with Honma sensei sayagaki and the wakizashi in a new shirasaya with Tanobe sensei sayagaki and these are all together now under daisho mounts… well you should draw a fair conclusion from what you’re looking at. I hope you can if you read this far.
Common sense counts for a lot. People abandon it too frequently.
This evidence is most reasonably explained by a collector picking up items as he finds them, items he likes, items he thinks can match, and then finally after a long time putting together his daisho.
There is nothing wrong with these at all and they can be very attractive sets. Someone put them together for this reason, out of pride and love. But you as a buyer need always to understand if you’re looking at something historical or something that is a collector’s work.
Daisho koshirae will come on the same paper, and you should look carefully at the photos and descriptions and make sure that nobody swapped parts: kozuka get lost all the time and someone replaces them after they get papered. Now, you buy it and you didn’t look closely, and find out that your kozuka on your set is not the one in the photo. It’s happened to me, and it’s happened on koshirae that was offered to sale to me by other dealers that they swapped the kozuka but didn’t tell me. Just left it for me to check the papers and go over my head or not.
Now, if you end up in this you have a broken set and it’s too late to do anything about that.
When you buy a legitimate papered daisho from the Edo period you are getting a historical artifact. Something that was worn by a samurai or a daimyo. Full matching koshirae are hard to find as many of them just wore out and many were disassembled.
When we reassemble a koshirae usually it ends up being many pieces with their own papers. I do it, others do it, there is nothing wrong with it, it’s what you do to make a koshirae. If you see 4 different papers and 4 different dates, you need to know what you’re looking at and separate it from the historical pieces.
Good daisho koshirae that passed Juyo are also rare: there are 82 daisho koshirae by my count. Some small number of those have fairly inconsequential swords in them.
Buying skepticism vs. owning conservation
If a seller is not making a claim that a set is a historical set, and there is no active reason to look at a set and believe it is a historical set, then you should set your brain accordingly. Be skeptical.
However: you should always give it the benefit of the doubt when you own it.
Don’t start taking them apart and swapping components unless you know for sure that this is OK to do, because you can possibly make a passable situation or a good situation that is just not documented, worse. But your skepticism as a buyer, and an owner, are on different sides of the fence.
I wrote recently: treat every gun as if it’s loaded is good advice for owners of sets of components. You may not have the provenance and none of it is papered, but you should treat it as if it has provenance that is lost. Don’t make a bad situation worse by playing games with the components.
I once had a koshirae that was entirely Mino Goto mounts of nice quality except the tsuba was a Higo tsuba. It was a style mismatch and it meant to me that someone lost the tsuba and just slapped on one that fit. The tsuba was nice. But I bought a Mino Goto tsuba that matched all of the other tosogu in style, and put it on there. That fixed the koshirae and made it match in style. When I sold it, I sold it with two tsuba and the owner has the information and what I did to it, so that he can preserve it according to his information. In this case, I felt good about resolving the style mismatch and I didn’t destroy anything in doing so.
As a buyer, you should remain skeptical about provenance unless there is reason presented to you that pursuades you to believe it. If a set has nothing to say about why it seems historical, just don’t give it any bonus allocation in funding as a buyer. Once you own it, treat it with great respect and don’t break it up because someone said on the internet that you can’t prove it was meant to be together.
If you can prove that the items don’t belong together, that’s another story. At this point you are free to do what you want.
Daisho added to any component, makes everything more rare. Even an assembly in the modern period means someone has brought together some sets of matching tosogu and these can be quite nice to have.
Daisho Token are the holy grail for sword collectors, and daisho koshirae are a wonderful rare item for tosogu collectors, and nobody ever looked down on a daisho tsuba or any other piece of fittings.
Always break down and examine what you’re looking at because at face value you may just assume that all of this is a historical artifact and it is not always the case. So, know what you are dealing with.
This does go true for koshirae and single swords as well. Koshirae got mixed and matched frequently and it can be hard sometimes to know if any one koshirae belongs to a sword forever. We can make educated guesses and we can prove in some cases that a koshirae is a remount by examining it. Sometimes some faith or a balance of probabilities is necessary to judge some of these things.
In which case, it is nice to have an expert opinion in writing. Like on a Juyo paper.