There are two main types of sword polish available currently. It’s likely the case that neither are the original style of polishing a sword nor is that even something that we should be thinking about.
The goal of polishing is primarily functional: remove rust and chips, and make the edge fine. The more you used your sword to fight the more frequently you would have to polish it as a result. The concept of artistic polishing that enhances the beauty of the sword is something that comes with the goal of preserving the sword and appreciating it for something more than a simple tool of war.
When I started collecting a long time ago now, there were people who fervently supported the idea of sashikomi polish in all cases in the mistaken idea that it is somehow more authentic or better for appreciating swords. As with many things, taking an imbalanced viewpoint can bring you to the wrong conclusion.
People buy into their ideas more strongly than these ideas deserve their fervent belief. This kind of thing is a self-reinforcing process of religious indoctrination. Once you have committed to an idea, any attacks on that idea become attacks on you. You seek out like minded individuals and together you make an echo chamber in which the decisions of the church cannot be challenged. To do so brands you as a heretic and all your other ideas need to be thrown out, without merit.
This inhibits learning.
When I started collecting there were some strong argumens that the hadori whitening component of keisho style polishing that is found on the majority of blades these days made it harder to see the activities of the sword. As such, sashikomi was a better choice to see activities and was also a more natural and honest treatment of a sword for its presentation.
I don’t buy this authenticity argument, because sashikomi in its current state is also the product of a long line of evolution of techniques. If we find something better, we should consider using it, as in the substitution of microfiber cloth for uchiko. The argument that one particular technique is more authentic is something that rewards the holder of the opinion.
It used to be that drinking hot sake was the way it’s done, now it’s generally cold. One could hold out for the authentic way of doing it, but that just ruins your sake at this point in time. Sake is a fine beverage, and there’s about as much need to serve it hot as there is to boil your champagne. The originality or authenticity of the hot technique doesn’t mean much, because we’ve moved past that now and have a better way of doing it. So, authenticity by itself is not a strong argument one way or another.
My feeling is that the majority of the polish available in the western world in the 70s and 80s and even today doesn’t match the quality of the highest level polishers in Japan. It’s more likely in the 80s that people were dealing with amateur polishers and many people were experimenting with polishing themselves in a mistaken attempt to “better understand the blade.”
Technique and Equipment
Some amateur polishers today will even tape over the general outline of the hadori on a sword and use a sand blaster to apply it. This leads me to suspect that the overall quality of the application of hadori in the enthusiast’s circles outside of Japan was not done so well and if you were to compare an amateur sashikomi to an amateur keisho polish you’d probably want to side with the sashikomi as well.
High level Japanese polishers not only have better technique than sand blasters, but they have access to old stones which are in short or zero supply now on the open market. It becomes very hard for a polisher who is not connected to get good results without having both the technique and the equipment. Give the best surgeon in the world an pocket knife and a sponge and ask him to remove a tumor, and he can probably do it, it’s just that the patient is not likely to survive the operation. Give someone off the street a state of the art operating theatre and you’ll get the same poor results.
Either way it becomes impossible to judge properly without comparing the best combination of technique and equipment. And I just think that people who made those religious declarations that one form of polish is better than the other in all regards were not able to make this decision based on the proper data in front of them.
This thought that sashikomi is always better, circulating on the internet and in clubs, saw a blade that had been found a couple of years ago made by a good Shinshinto smith head to Japan with the owner’s request of a sashikomi polish. Some polishers will just do what the client wants and then the client is happy. But their name becomes attached to the work, so the highest level polishers prefer to do what they think is appropriate for the blade and it’s the collector who needs to upgrade his knowledge and experience to get up to speed with how things should be done.
This sashikomi on this blade was executed perfectly and the sword was very beautiful. I brought it to Tanobe sensei for the owner and Tanobe sensei took one look at it, then looked at me very harshly, and said “This polish is not appropriate for this blade.”
Now, note specifically the language he’s using.
It’s not a bad polish. It’s not a bad sword. It’s quite a well executed polish. It’s just not the right choice for the sword. And this is not likely the polisher at fault, it’s the prideful choice of someone who’s reading things on the internet and then deciding that they’re going to be authentic and follow through with this sashikomi polish on everything. Or that that’s just how I like it, which again is another bad decision.
Your personal preference is fine if you’re talking about what clothes you want to wear or how you style your hair, but when it comes to a sword you are just one stop on that sword’s lifetime. When you’re gone that sword is going to keep existing and someone down the road is going to have to fix your personal preference, Mr. Homer Simpson. Maybe theirs will be just as bad as well. Hopefully not.
Anyway, when I got the eyes of steel from Tanobe sensei, I put my hands up and said, “Not me, not me! Not my choice!” and I generously pushed the owner under the bus.
So, what should you do?
First, is to get yourself out from the equation. Your preference doesn’t matter, your decisions on authenticity doesn’t matter, pleasing your friends doesn’t matter, being cool doesn’t matter, pushing against the grain from something you read in a book doesn’t matter.
Tanobe sensei gives the key word above in his scolding of me: appropriateness.
When to do it, when not
Keisho is the current state of the art of sword polishing. Some people attack it saying that it is this invention of Honami Koson or Ringa and so-and-so is inauthentic and was made for reasons of enriching them and so forth. Well, I don’t buy that too much. Those guys are dead and we’re here, and this is how we do it, and we’re not all stupidly being lead down the line to slaughter by men who no longer exist.
The broad strokes of when to do it and when not to do it are when the sword itself is done in broad strokes. Nie deki swords or swords without large amounts of fine detail in nioi are those that should be getting keisho treatment and keisho should be the default. The only quesiton is when you should be looking to step aside from this as an exception.
I asked this specifically of Tanobe sensei and he said the swords that respond best to this are nioi deki with large amounts of choji midare. In these, well done sashikomi will provide the best backdrop for this hamon. He offered examples such as Nagamitsu, Saburo Kunimune and Hatakeda Moriie. He didn’t offer any examples outside of Kamakura Bizen so I can’t say for sure nor would I speak for him.
The key word though for people to take home is simply appropriateness. This is a case by case basis for each sword even within the repertoire of one maker. When in doubt, do nothing. Ask the opinion of the polisher, ask the opinion of well experienced dealers in Japan or expert judges. Listen to everything and filter. You can’t go wrong by waiting or delaying a decision.
In the case of a very high level masterpiece work, I wouldn’t get something done without consulting at the very high level master expert level. Just, don’t insert your personal preference into the discussion of how a sword should be appropriately treated.
My personal preference may be sitting around in my pajamas all day long if I can get away with it, it doesn’t make it appropriate to go out on a dinner date wearing pajamas. Unless it’s Hallowe’en … or any other type of exception.
So what’s better?
The answer is simply: neither is better. It is only this case of what is the most appropriate choice for a particular sword, to look at the archetypes named above and try to extend the logic, and ask lots of questions before you do something that can only be fixed with the application of a grinding stone.