A blade with no signature is mumei … I was asked to make a posting on this so will throw some thoughts down. Mumei is a basic thing but it has some important ramifications on collections and valuation of a sword.

How it came to be

There are four ways a sword can end up unsigned:

  1. It was made like this.
  2. It had a signature but it was lost when the blade was shortened.
  3. The signature eroded away.
  4. It had a signature and someone removed it purposefully.

Let’s walk through the cases.

It was made like this

Swords are signed traditionally because of some dusty regulation going way, way, way back in time. But there was a time when no swords were signed. What we see from the periods prior to Heian is no signatures at all on any swords.

During Heian some signatures start appearing, then as we get closer and closer to modern times the percentage of signed pieces increases until it hits 100% of legitimate blades.

Swordsmiths of old may have been illiterate and needed a priest to teach them their name in order to sign it on swords. As such some of these older blades have very rustic and inexperienced looking scrawls for signatures. Japanese experts love how these look because there is a great deal of honesty and character in them. Some of the old smiths developed beautiful signing habits though and two in particular, Yoshimitsu and Samonji have signatures that are compared to fine calligraphy. Still, this type is considered honest and full of soul, rather than mechanical but excellent production of strokes.

Anyway, the point here is that a lot of work from these older periods never bore a signature and the reasons for that are not entirely certain now. One of the thoughts is that implements made by commoners for nobility or warrior lords might make the maker seem a bit too proud if he boldly slapped his signature on.

In the case of Masamune, old books from the late 1300s already say he didn’t sign his name because he was the best smith in Japan. There are a lot of unsigned Soshu pieces. Some authors take this as a reason to criticize the authenticity of these works, but those same guys usually didn’t have any of them in their hands or study them at length. The truth remains that there was a reason that these were fabricated with no signature, and at the time of the rise of Soshu, the high valued antiques of the time that you would want to preserve were mostly Bizen, and Soshu were good killing swords. Soshu swords were made to do that and only in hindsight did they seem to adjust their policies and start signing things consistently (around the mid 1300s).

We encounter purpose-made blades from other periods with no signature, and explaining those becomes harder with the blade getting younger. Sometimes we think they are alternates from a set of swords made for a special order. In this case the buyer picks the one of the set he likes best and the others go out the back of the shop unsigned as rejects. Or so it’s thought.

It was made signed, and then shortened

This is more common, in that long blades from the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods were made in lengths of 80 cm and 90 cm frequently. During the Edo period this was an uncomfortable length, and no smiths of the time could produce this same quality of blade. Those that could get close, we figure were pretty expensive. There was a need for high level people to be using these old blades, as they carried status with them, and to use them as a gift they had to be ready to wear it seems.

As a result, those grand old blades that were too long for practical use got routinely cut down from the bottom up. Signatures got cut off in this process. They could be retained in the sword by folding the signature back into the new nakago, a process called orikaeshimei, or they could be wholesale lifted and inset higher, something called gakumei. A third approach would be for the person executing the shortening to testify to what sees with his eyes, in this case he will say there is a signature of so-and-so on this blade, and then sign his own name. Or a Honami judge could write an attestation on the blade that would be filled in with gold. The Umetada and Yoshioka families performed such services, and probably others. 

Because of this, an incredible amount of information was lost to us. Sometimes those signatures were also recorded in books, but mostly we just lost the example work. 

Eroded signature

In the case of old or abused blades, the signature can be lost simply by the nakago rusting out. It is common to see partially lost signatures in this way on old swords, and many are completely lost. These are annotated as being fumei, I think taking the meaning as “illegible signature” is the best way to think of this.

Purposefully removed signatures

There are a few reasons to purposefully remove a signature. One is that you have determined it is fake and you’re restoring the blade to how it looked before the fraudster dummied it up. Another is that it is Muramasa and you are scared about the consequences of owning it. You don’t have to worry about this today, but you did in the Edo period. 

Another reason is that you are a fraudster and you are purposefully wiping out information to hide a crime or deceive the next buyer or recipient that the blade is something more than what it is. 

There is a Juyo Bijutsuhin Hiromitsu that was signed and dated, and this blade was stolen in the 1900s. When it was recovered, the signature had already been removed, as the thief tried to disconnect the blade with its history in order to avoid being caught when he sold the famous piece. Since we know the story, it seems not to have worked out too well. This is particularly tragic as the blade is in mint condition and is the best possible quality for Hiromitsu.

On the left, the blade retains its original signature, on the right, the signature has been erased. However, the old Jubi paper was used to  recreate the signature and place it back into the blade. Since this signature is recreated from observing the old paper, it has been filled with gold to indicate it’s not an attempt at forgery.

Context is essential

Given those cases, when we examine any particular blade with no signature, first we want to try to come up with an idea of why it has no signature.

We try to fit it into one of those scenarios above.

Blades that come before the early Muromachi period, say about 1400 is the cutoff time, these today have good reasons to have no signature. Those good reasons include our predecessors in the Edo period cutting off anything they felt was too long. That was not a good reason to destroy these things, don’t get me wrong. But it happened and as such, is a historical fact we deal with now. 

And furthermore many of the old blades were made unsigned with that state not being considered a negative, and possibly being a positive (that it was being made for someone of high status).

As such for Nanbokucho and earlier blades, a signature is a nice bonus item because so few are signed. A smith like Norishige has many signed tanto but only four signed tachi exist now. This is in contrast to about 50 known unsigned katana that lost signatures due to shortening or that he didn’t sign them at all.

In the NBTHK Juyo Token the Ichimonji school has 228 unsigned katana vs 212 signed tachi and another 12 katana that have saved signatures via gakumei and orikaeshi mei. Another 42 blades lost so much that the signature is gone and they are of wakizashi length. 

So these things, this condition of being unsigned is tolerable and agreeable as it is a basic fact of life and we know the conditions under which this happened.

For blades of the Muromachi period it starts being undesirable. By habit at this time smiths are almost all signing their blades regularly. And the blades were made a lot shorter in general than previous periods. As such, there is no solid reason for them to be in unsigned state now. So, an unsigned one of these is an oddball and becomes less valued. There is an exception for Muramasa as his signatures were sometimes actively erased or altered. So there is a reason for those to be unsigned now, but even so, an unsigned or altered Muramasa is the ugly sister beside a signed one that nobody messed around with. Remember that.

Mumei Shinto and Shinshinto

As these blades get younger, the lack of a signature becomes more and more of a problem and harder to explain. 

In some cases a smith like Kiyondo, his work is close enough to his master Kiyomaro that someone in the 1930s might erase his signature and add a fake Kiyomaro in its place in order to rip someone off. When the fraud is detected and the signature removed, we now have a devalued Kiyondo on our hands.

If the smith never signed it in the first place, we are really left scratching our heads trying to figure out why. 

There is no good reason to shorten a Shinto or Shinshinto blade: most were made at length for use during the time they were made. Sometimes someone adjusted one after the fact by moving the machi up. Sometimes they did get clipped. But, this becomes an unusual condition for them and when you consider these for purchase they are major valuation decreases. 

That is, the vast majority are properly signed with intact nakago and no messing around with it. So if you are taking the one out of 100 that has been altered or unsigned, you are, by definition, shopping for the bottom 1% of blades. 

That has a huge devaluation in price as a result. If 1% carry a major disfigurement and 99% don’t, there is no shortage of good items for a buyer to choose from. So you need a major incentive in order to get them to pick the disfigured one.

In modern parlance, this is the scratch-n-dent special. Ever buy a floor model from a store of a fridge, stove or amplifier? I have. I don’t care about the scratches and I am happy to save 50% because of those scratches. 

But that shows you the imperfect ones when the vast majority are perfect have a huge valuation decrease. If we are just talking about tools and implements for which these imperfections carry no functionality downgrades then that’s just money in the bank if you don’t care about the aesthetic issue.

However, art objects are entirely aesthetic things.

So if you single one blade out and give it problems that its peers generally do not have, this is how you wipe most of the value out of them.

For a koto blade, that may be having no boshi or say suriage down to 20 cm long or to be the horrifying satsuma-age.

This Kagemitsu was a kodachi at one point in its life and it developed a hagire or was otherwise broken in half. If this happens with a larger blade the top can be preserved as a wakizashi, and then the bottom you can make this ugly thing out of it. It kind of works. If someone stabbed you in the eye with that you would die. But it sure isn’t pretty. 

Anyway this condition severely devalues this Kagemitsu, even though the smith is great, it retains a signature and a date and horimono… all of those nice things, someone tried to preserve in a functional weapon after. But in the marketplace, the value plummets. This piece is even Juyo, but even so, this will have almost no value because of the horrifyingly ugly situation.

For a Shinto or Shinshinto, any modification to the nakago, whether it getting rusted out past the normal situation for its age, or getting the mei altered or removed, or never being there in the first place, or being machi-okuri or suriage, all of those are considered disfigurements. The older the blade is in the Shinto period and the higher the level of the smith, the more we can grudgingly accept that. 

Horikawa Kunihiro can get away with a bit of machi-okuri on a blade that would not be tolerable for a Taikei Naotane, because Kunihiro is working around 1600 and Naotane around 1830. So what is acceptable for one is not for the other.

I have used the phrase bottom of the bucket to describe unsigned Shinto and Shinshinto, or suriage on these types of blades. You need to have this phrase in mind if you are going to buy one. 

As long as the price corresponds to bottom of the bucket it may be OK to buy one of these. I would tell you to save your money and buy a signed one rather than an unsigned one. But if you have almost no money and you like the sword and are being charged bottom of the bucket, well buy the one you like. 

As long as you are informed and understand what you’re doing, everything is permissible. It’s just that people jump in and buy an unsigned one without ever knowing that what is acceptable for a 700 year old sword is not considered acceptable for a 300 year old sword. Those are the guys who get burned. 

Take this rule though as a general rule and apply it to other areas.

As blades get older, the range of condition issues that are acceptable increase. In some cases, you have no options but to accept condition issues without question if you want to care about blades of a certain age. Because: they are many centuries old, they shouldn’t even exist now, let alone be in a functional state.

Still, any condition that makes the blade bottom of the bucket … compared to its peers … will devalue the blade. The peers part is the important part to grasp. 

Some swords have no peers.

The Mikazuki Munechika is in bad condition but the world is not exactly drowning in works of Sanjo Munechika. As such, though it is worn down somewhat, that it has been preserved with an intact sugata is a miracle and there are extremely few intact tachi from this period let alone this smith. As such the blade is a miracle that nobody has a right to criticize. Well, an informed right at least. Everyone has a right to say something ignorant. But if you fail to understand that centuries old artifacts have a right to exist in imperfect state now, and it is something we need to learn to accept, then you will fail to understand swords.

To say such a blade is in bad condition is not criticism. It’s noting a fact.

To say the blade is no good because of the condition, that’s where you end up in the wrong place. Or to not like it because it’s a bit rough now. All of those miss the mark that this is an important artifact that has things to teach and still has preserved beauty to it. 

We do not say we don’t like this statue because it’s broken. If you can understand that, then you will understand swords.

Venus di Milo, photograph by Wikipedia user Livioandronico2013