Manufacture period and Juyo Sessions

The info has been out there for a long while that the mid 70s Juyo sessions have weaker standards than the others. Every time I mention this I like to mention that this happened by lowering the bottom bar and accepting blades that may not have been accepted in other sessions. It doesn’t mean that all the blades are bad or blades at the top end of the range are bad. It just means that weaker blades got included, so you need to carefully study Juyo swords when you’re dealing with sessions between about 20 to 28.

As the top end is perfectly fine, the best swords in those sessions go on to pass Tokubetsu Juyo normally. At the bottom end there is zero chance of advancing and again if they were just sent in as new items a lot of them would fail today.

For this reason those blades are a target for arbitrage which is where dealers (who buy and sell based on quality) can buy those blades for cheap relative to better blades. They then sell to their customers (who buy and sell based on paper). Because the two groups are using different systems to value the swords, it creates a chance to profit. That is these lower quality swords will trade among people who know better for proper prices. Lower quality = lower price.

Arbitrage

When selling to a customer who cannot on his own assess the quality, that customer looks instead to the paper to guide him. Well the problem is not the guidance, a paper should guide you, but what happens is the customer completely defers to the paper. That breeds the Ladder Fallacy pricing problem. The paper is just one factor in pricing and people who take it as the only factor or one that substantially outweighs all other factors, is making a mistake. Generally the level of paper corresponds to the quality and so then the price of the item in question and a lot of the time it is a useful approximation. You need to bear in mind it is an approximation so you never say something like that sword is too expensive for Tokubetsu Hozon.

Every single sword that passes Tokubetsu Juyo was once Tokubetsu Hozon. If the market is efficient then the price of the sword should not change much as it passes through the levels of papers. It depends though on everyone being educated and knowing all of the ins and outs and details on pricing and that’s never true. As such when a blade has not hit its maximum level of papers then people may not have enough confidence to support a higher price for it. Papers serve a role in being a touchstone that independently speaks for where the sword sits in the entire realm of all swords. As such they eliminate confusion and a sword can rise and sit at the price in the market that it most likely deserves.

Individual collectors buying rusty swords should understand that best though they seem to be the ones who resist it a lot. When you buy something rusty, the final state of that blade is a secret that is held inside a box. You pay $500 on eBay for it, you polish it, you read the signature, you submit to Hozon, Tokubetsu Hozon, Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo in order. Each step of the way is revealing a bit more of the ultimate truth.

And it needs to be thought of that, a process of revealing the truth. When it’s a rustbucket nobody knows what it may be, but there are hints. The better your skill, the better your ability to peer through the mist and see what the ultimate truth is. By the time a sword is fully polished and papers up 4 levels and is published and discussed and analyzed by experts everything is finally revealed.

Anyway back to the arbitrage, these weaker ones swords from the weaker sessions basically are JINO (Juyo In Name Only). They do not fool anyone who understands swords, but for people who only rely on the paper to determine value, they are traps.

The buyers of these swords are usually bargain hunters who have a lot of emotional stake in congratulating themselves on their savvy. The chief way they know how to do this is buy paying less for something than they think it is worth.

As such they are the target market for these arbitrage blades. Because the truth of it is, even with the Juyo paper they are a weak sword that will only command a weak price.

So we have these pricing functions:

dealer_price(sword) is a function of its quality.
casual_collector(sword) is a function of its paper.

Therefore if the two produce different valuations, say the dealer comes up with a $10,000 price for the weakest Juyo, and the casual collector sees only the Juyo paper, you can offer it to the casual collector for $20,000.

That is an expensive price for a weak sword. But the casual collector only sees it as a really cheap price for a Juyo.

That thinking is all over out there. This is the arbitrage possibility and why those weak blades in the 70s change hands frequently and sell to bargain hunters.

I can use another example of a Kanemitsu sword that I bought for myself many years ago. The blade came from the Fittings Museum and I bought at public auction with no papers. I paid a lot more for it than a Juyo Token Kanemitsu would have cost. Since it was open bidding on a well publicized auction we can assume that this was the fair market value for a blade with no reliable attribution (unpapered) but looked good and hinted at being by a great smith.

When I got Hozon papers for it, it confirmed that the blade was by Kanemitsu and the price should go up because one element of uncertainty was removed.

Now, in practice because so many people price by the papers, people would tell me that’s too expensive for Hozon. In their minds, the price went down by confirming the maker was a grand master smith of the Nanbokucho period. That of course makes zero sense and shows that they are using an invalid method of pricing (i.e. Ladder Fallacy).

Given my blade now, at 25% more expensive than another Kanemitsu that was on the market and already Juyo, people would 9 times out of 10 buy the other Kanemitsu. Because they will simply say this one is Juyo and that one is Hozon, and if the Juyo one is cheaper then it’s a better purchase.

And it completely avoids assessing the relative merits of both blades. My Kanemitsu is in mint condition, it is thick and heavy, it is completely flawless with beautiful jigane and a gorgeous hamon and vivid utsuri through the whole blade. The Juyo one was somewhat tired but still showed many aspects of what made it a great sword. The jihada had lost much of its sparkle though and it was a lot thinner (less meat on the bone).

So if you took away the papers and just showed people the two blades they would come to the right conclusion. Add the papers and now 90% of people invert their conclusions. Again, makes no sense and shows that people get led around too much by papers.

Papers only inform, they do not dictate.

So I papered my Kanemitsu to Juyo and the language indicates a lot of praise for the blade. But now that it’s Juyo this group still comes into play and says well now the blades are equal so I’ll buy the cheaper one because that’s smarter.

This is indeed what makes them easy to target by those who are going to arbitrage weak blades based on the paper.

This in itself is one reason why I come back to a real truth which is that Attribution is the First Form of Quality Assessment. Because Juyo by its nature needs to cover a lot of territory (almost all schools), but the greatest swords were made by the greatest smiths, and you do not attribute pedestrian work to a great smith. Similarly you do not attribute great work to a pedestrian smith. Thus the attribution needs to be used over and above the simple level of the paper if you want to read the mind of the judge.

By this method I can tell you offhand that any Hozon Norishige you are likely to get your hands on is going to be a better and more important blade than a Juyo Mihara. No guff intended toward the Mihara, but Norishige is after all, Norishige.

Ball don’t lie.

— Rasheed Wallace

So that said, getting back to some visualizations, I’ll include a chart here which shows all Juyo works. The right axis is the actual or estimated year of production, and the left axis is the Juyo volume. The trends are again obvious and confirm previous opinions I have put in place.

So looking at this in terms of trends we can see very clearly that the focus in the early Juyo sessions is right on Kamakura blades. There are also Momoyama and then some Kanbun era shinto blades. The Kanbun-ish era we can expect to be the usual suspects: 2nd and 3rd gen Tadayoshi, Kotetsu, Sukehiro, Shinkai. Momoyama, the same usual suspects, Umetada, Kunihiro, 1st Tadayoshi, etc. There are very few Muromachi blades present though.

As the volume count gets higher we can see the Shinto zone getting thicker as the bar is lowered and lesser skilled Shinto smiths get in. Similarly more Muromachi blades start showing up. Shinshinto which was almost not existing in Juyo session 10 and lower has a sudden surge and becomes common between session 10 and 30 then backs off.

So this weak zone of the mid and early 20s, where the counts of Juyo swords went so high, can be attributed to this lowering of the bar which brought in various later period blades and Muromachi blades.

We can see the spike in volume with a bar chart:

Volume counts start to peel back around session 27 and in general reduce over time from there.

When we look back at the scatter chart we can see what was removed to make that happen. The clear culprits are Muromachi blades, Shinto and Shinshinto. But what is really happening is that the sessions are tightening up by increasing the lower bar for getting in. A lot of those blades don’t make the grade, but there are also blades from Nanbokucho and some earlier blades that are getting cut out too. Because Kamakura and Nanbokucho are so thick in the chart it can be a bit hard to see that.

So it’s just the weaker schools and smiths that are being reduced: only the best examples of their output are being accepted now.

Going back to the scatter chart you can see the thick Kamakura line is almost unaffected through every Juyo session until you get to 57.

At session 57 everything is effected because the NBTHK in this year really pared back how many blades in total passed Juyo as we can see on the bar chart.

So I will mark up this chart for what I see. Excuse the writing, trying to write with a finger pressing down on the touchpad of my computer and it ain’t pretty.

Anyway the conclusion for you is:

  1. to beware of the JINO blades
  2. just because a blade is from a weak session does not mean the blade itself is weak, so don’t get carried away
  3. the best sessions are the earliest and current ones for standards
  4. there is no such thing as cheap for a Juyo and too expensive for Tokubetsu Hozon unless you first adjust for the attribution to the maker

 

Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy….

OK so all of that is observations. There are some good questions about why all of this got to be how it is. There are a few reasons that you should be aware of.

Ebb and Flow

It is simply human nature that over time some standards tend to get lowered. People have a desire to push to get certifications like Juyo, this is in all fields, in all realms. Even things like getting an Oscar, sooner or later someone would get one just because they kept getting nominated but never won. That is a weakening standard over time.

The response to that was things like livetime achievement awards. That allowed the always-runner-up to have a place to be designated, that would not end up screwing someone else who possibly very much deserved an award that year in place of someone who just got voted in because people started feeling bad about them never winning.

Standards weaken, then actions need to be taken to firm them up, then they weaken again.

You can see it as well with the EPA in the USA, first there were no standards, then standards, then standards got strong, now a new administration is weakening them. Things ebb and flow because of human nature pushing back against rules or just getting lazy over time the way my office gets messy over time until I go in and deal with the clutter.

Tokubetsu Juyo

This I believe was a big factor in the weakening of standards in the 1970s. When Tokuju was created it became a place for the best-of-the-best swords to get designated. This had a corollary which was that Juyo was no longer the best-of-the-best and that simple internally known fact probably contributed to them letting weaker blades in.

Basically the idea of Juyo was downgraded from the topmost consideration and that downgrading of the idea opened the floodgates.

After a lot of weaker stuff got in, after some years there looks to have been a conscious effort to tidy it up like with the clutter in my office. Standards were tightened and the clutter removed.

But you can’t Un-Juyo a Juyo, so that damage was done. The change in idea though that just because we have Tokuju for the best pieces now doesn’t mean we should let Juyo rot out from the bottom saved Juyo and let it be a meaningful standard for very high quality pieces going forward.

Scandal Era

The 1970s had a scandal at the NBTHK where lower ranked blades being processed at regional offices both got weakly sponsored decisions (attributions and acceptance of fake signatures) and some deliberate corruption where the yakuza pushed through fakes in order to increase the value now that they were “certified”.

Though this 1970s era dip in Juyo quality aligns with these scandal years, I think that they didn’t affect each other. That is, I don’t think fakes got into Juyo or bad mei. Simply swords that really represented top end of Tokubetsu Hozon (which didn’t exist at the time) and should have stayed at that level became Juyo and should not have.

The problem about these weaker judgments were affected by: the ability to corrupt a judge in the regions was a lot higher than it was in the central office of Tokyo; Juyo swords get published and so if you let a fake through everyone would know, where a lower level paper is private between you and the buyer; and the NBTHK originally took a flexible stance on questionable blades.

This is important to recognize (it applies to tosogu too), that the NBTHK is and was primarily an organization dedicated to preservation. They wanted to issue papers for items so that people would take care of them and value them instead of considering them just Edo period junk of no consequence. As such, questionable blades in the regions were accepted in order to give people a sense of understanding that they were holding an object with cultural significance and should do their part in preserving it.

The ramifications of that down the line, that questionable items would be presented as absolutely authentic because of these papers and used for purposes of fraud (which continues to today) was a side effect of that good intention and generous stance to make sure the items were preserved.

Juyo being a central designation with the best judges presiding was final decision in terms of sorting out the best and surely authentic from the worthy-of-preservation blades.

So I think really in the end it is two separate domains and the scandal aspect affecting the green and lower papers was not a factor in the lowering of Juyo standards in the 1970s.

 

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