The NBTHK in Tokyo is the main organization for authenticating Japanese swords. They currently issue papers at four levels, from lowest to highest level, these are: Hozon, Tokubetsu Hozon, Juyo, and Tokubetsu Juyo.
There is not much difference between the first and second papers, but there is a big leap to the third and fourth level papers.
What I want collectors, especially new ones, to understand on this is that obtaining the first two levels of paper basically is a test of the quality and authenticity of a particular item. So when you get this paper on a sword, it is the opinion of the NBTHK that the blade is both authentic and worthy of preservation. In the case of the second paper, the prefix Tokubetsu means it is “especially” worthy. In practice as mentioned, there is not a huge gap between these two. But with both of them, the sword is only being compared against the criteria of authenticity and condition. This is a direct test of the blade.
To pass at any level of NBTHK papers means being accepted at the level previous to it. So to get to the ultimate level of Tokubetsu Juyo means you were accepted at the three levels before it.
There is a fundamental difference when you get to Juyo consideration from previous levels of papers. At Juyo, your blade is now considered important. This means it is more than just a nice or a good sword, but that it contributes to the overall history of the Japanese sword. It must be by a high level school or smith, be in good condition, and show outstanding artistry. If it has a history, or old Honami paperwork, these are contributing factors as well. It is not possible to get journeyman level work through Juyo without extreme amounts of luck. So for the most part Juyo certification is a major indicator of a sword being highly collectable.
What people should take home here is that to pass the first two papers, the sword is proving itself as an antique, and then a good quality antique. Direct tests of the blade. Once you want to pass at the Juyo level you need to compete against other submissions for a limited number of slots, and this competition is once per year.
I have taken to the habit of always saying Juyo competition when I mention submission to try to get this concept to settle in with people. This is a necessary thing to understand because if it were just passing a certain set of tests then a blade will pass or fail and that will be it. When competing, you need to factor in what the other submissions are, if other good quality candidates have been submitted in previous years and are coming in again, and the relative standing of your sword vs. the body of work of the maker of that sword.
It is possible for instance that you submit an unsigned work of good merit and that year you got unlucky and several signed works were submitted. The panel could determine that the signed works take precedence to your submission, and as a matter of balance, accept those and then accept others attributed to other swordsmiths. Your failure this year is not going to be a permanent failure, you can try again next year. There is a rule of thumb that it will take three consecutive submissions in order to rule a candidate out from current era submission (it might be that you can try again in 10 years).
Some blades are just not good candidates at all. Possibly the work is not good enough, the smith is not high enough level, the work is not of sufficient age, or the sword is just not in good enough condition anymore.
If a smith is outstanding enough then multiple works of his will be accepted every year so there can always be room to succeed.
Juyo is very difficult to obtain, currently since the 1960s there are about 13,000 Juyo works passed. We never know each year how many will be accepted into this status, and some years it is a very small number and some years it is larger.
Tokubetsu Juyo is everything that Juyo is, times ten.
Ten times harder, ten times more competition, ten times the bragging rights. There are only about 900 of these in the world and the competition to get accepted as a new one is held every second year. If you submit a sword and it is accepted at this level, crack open a bottle of champagne because this is as elite as it gets. Expect that minor details here will be nitpicked and items refused that may seem otherwise able to qualify for reasons that may be imperceptible.
Candidacy for either of these competitions is something that a lot of dealers like to throw around as a marketing phrase, because people are very interested in both the bragging rights, the fun aspect of submitting and winning at the competition, and of course the valuation upgrade that often accompanies the elevation of a blade to these levels.
Sometimes, the fact that a blade will qualify at higher levels is obvious to anyone looking at it. In this case a dealer may never bother to submit as he will get the same valuation for it anyway and he knows that the collector buying it will enjoy the process. Should he be successful in his submission as well, that collector will turn back to the same dealer as a source of high quality items.
Sometimes the blade stands no chance at all, and both the buyer and the seller are greedy. In this case the seller lies or exaggerates the item’s chances and the buyer’s greed does him in: he wants to buy something that will qualify at a high level but he doesn’t want to pay the price associated with this kind of quality. Some of these “candidates in name only” have gone around and around the collecting circles with various “bargain hunters” taking their shot at high level papers with the blade. Once the blade fails, they liquidate it and return to the hunt.
This of course is not the recommended way in my opinion for collectors to progress, it’s simply treasure hunting and looking for valuation upgrades.
In the 2016 Tokubetsu Juyo shinsa, three swords that I sold and told my clients stood good chances at passing to this level, went on to pass. Two others I suggested as candidates failed. One of these though very rare, two others by that same maker went in with slightly better condition and they passed. So for him, no luck this time, maybe next time.
Other dealers also have good to exceptional records at passing on good items, so I don’t stand alone in this at all.
What I want to point out though is that such a sword that stands good chances rarely comes with a bargain bin price. A top sword will come along with a heavy price regardless of its level of papers, unless the seller is not informed of what they own. If a deal is fair, the seller of the blade has left something on the table for the next buyer in case the blade does not paper to the next level. At the same time, if the deal is fair, the seller has been paid for the high quality of what he has handed over and not sold it for the price of an inferior blade.
You can’t expect to get a legitimately sure candidate for higher papers, while paying the same amount as an item that has no chances at all.
As always, common sense needs to apply for buyers. It is very difficult in life to get something for nothing.