The humble wakizashi

You may have gotten advice when you started out to buy a wakizashi as your first item. I am not 100% sure yet if this is completely out-dated bullshit advice (like uchiko improving a polish), or if it is meant well and properly. I want to poke at that idea a bit and see if something comes out of it. 

There is certainly a bias in the market against wakizashi. This has some merit, and this in other regards lacks merit. Basically, a wakizashi is a case by case thing. Who made it, why they made it, when they made it, all of this factors into how you should be thinking about them.

The bullshit

Some of the stuff I grew up on as a sword collector were formed as conclusions by prior era American collectors. Some of this homespun wisdom holds water, some doesn’t.

American collectors of prior generations were able to participate in a massive treasure hunt as it came to light about the value of some of these rusty old swords sitting around in veteran’s families possessions. A large number of these got rounded up by the bucketload and shipped back to Japan as people got paid by sword to find anything and everything to come back. 

Some were carefully analyzed, kept and polished, and some absolutely and truely remarkable pieces were found in the USA and remain there today. 

The entire spectrum of swords from the worst to the first have been found there and they have gone all over the world since. 

One thing that has never been in shortage is the wakizashi. This short blade has never been the favorite of collectors, as it … literally falls short of expectations vs. a katana due to length. The wakizashi is simply a smaller sword and as such, people do not like it compared to a katana.

So, lacking infinite dollars, people tend to choose what they want, and as a result we see desire for long blades and it drops off quite rapidly as you get to shorter blades.

Tanto themselves have a bias against them, as there are very few exclusive tanto collectors and very many exclusive long blade collectors, and then a few who can appreciate the beauty of both. My own opinion (which is reflected in the Juyo records) is that a good koto tanto in the Edo period is a daimyo blade and we should take our lead from what the daimyo wanted and did. This is a battle for another day, as this post is not about tanto.

But wakizashi suffer the same bias but from different origins. 

The potentially-bullshit advice of “buy a wakizashi as your first blade”, I tend to think is based on a need for more establish collectors to dump their junk on the noobs. It is advice that creates a market for things that may otherwise lack a market: we don’t see established collectors running around buying wakizashi in any quantity, yet the establish collectors are the ones telling the noobs that this is the blade they should buy. 

I tend to believe that your first purchase should follow the same advice as that for an established collector: buy to your interest, and buy the best blade within your budget. Do not go low quality / high quantity, but find a balance so that you retain quality while keeping quantity manageable. 

If a wakizashi is something that the established collectors turn their nose up at, if you buy a wakizashi as your first blade, you actually have a built in need right off the bat to sell the first thing you bought. That makes little sense, except if other people have these and want to get rid of them, there is only one direction for them to be passed. Established guys won’t take them, so that means… sell them to the noobs.

Because the noobs don’t know any better and think any advice they get is good advice. 

There is another viewpoint here though that keeps it as useful advice: because they are not fashionable among collectors, if you just want to get your feet wet and keep your costs down, a wakizashi can be a good purchase. This protects you from spending a lot on day one if you’re not sure you’re going to go anywhere with this hobby.

However, if you want to exit the hobby you have a difficult sale to make from the one that you did buy. So from that point of view, the advice to just buy the best sword available that you like still makes the best sense. The more rare and collectible that thing is, the easier it will be to sell or the more it will preserve its value or possibly even increase in value. 

Furthermore, if you buy an average Shinto wakizashi, you are generally buying into commercial grade junk. This will not help you love swords more. This will not help you learn about anything, unless your desire is to study commercial grade junk, in which case you could become an expert in the field of commercial grade junk. The better and more interesting sword that you buy, and this may mean forking over more money, is going to pay off in that sword having more upside to teach you about and become attached to this hobby.

However, avoiding the wakizashi is not recommended

There are some important counterpoints in this. I’ll try to run through what’s off the top of my head. 

Shinto wakizashi should not be treated like koto wakizashi to begin with. The Edo period regulations about who could use swords of what length, meant that there was a market for wakizashi amongst people not in the warrior class. Some of those, many of those, will be simple commercial grade defensive weaponry. Not high art, not best quality, but sufficient to do it’s job. 

The minivan of swords.

Those are generally where the anti-wakizashi sentiment is focused, at least where it should be focused. 

Shinto wakizashi: bad, great or greatest?

Within the body of shinto work though, there are those that were aimed at well heeled merchants that couldn’t use a katana and wanted top quality. So we will see these items from smiths like Shinkai, Kotetsu, Sukehiro, etc. where the smith has clearly given everything he can give into a blade. The work on these will be outstanding and the length fairly close to legal limits.

These however are not the kinds of blade the average first timer has access to, or will be considering, as a first sword purchase. They are something to keep in mind as an advanced collector, that a wakizashi example by one of these smiths could actually be an example of the smith working at 100% skill levels. The best of the best of their work. Determining if it is commercial grade or greatest work, is going to be something where you will have to apply your skill and determine directly. We can assume those that pass Juyo represent this kind of blade. 

Though daisho are common, they are generally not composed of two blades from the same maker. So we don’t often see a great wakizashi that went with a great katana and together into mounts, from the same maker. Matched blades at all are quite rare and probably all of them are special orders. So when we do see them as a matched set you can also assume that the smith is doing their finest work in both of the blades. Unless they are a test run or work of a student or some other strange reason (I once found daisho token, very rare, but unsigned and quality rather mediocre so it needs explaining how that can happen in a custom order environment).

Your default stance on a Shinto wakizashi needs to be: prove it. Take it as commercial grade unless there is significant reason to believe otherwise. The commercial grade stuff is what is going to decay in value over time, as there is no end to supply of that kind of thing in Japan. This is another reason why established collectors tend to avoid them. 

If it is top quality, know that always there will be a valuation bias against them. But they can be very nice things to buy and own, and really need to take each one by itself and make an individual decision about the price and how much you like the blade. They can’t be dismissed out of hand.

Suriage wakizashi

You can get to a wakizashi length by shortening a koto tachi. Why cut a tachi down to wakizashi length? A few reasons:

  1. Hagire: if the sword develops a crack in the edge, then it is a problem sword. If you try to cut something with it the sword might break in half and you might die or someone you don’t intend on dying gets dead. So hagire is considered a fatal flaw, not because the sword is no longer beautiful but because it is dangerous and more likely to fail than not. One way of dealing with a hagire low on the blade is to make the blade suriage and cut out the offending area. This may drastically shorten a blade to wakizashi length. 
  2. Damage: similarly if you chip a blade severely in the monouchi so that the hamon is compromised and polish would be too deep to take it out, the blade is dead. But if you chip it down near the machi, you can make the blade suriage to cut out the damaged area. You can end up with katana or wakizashi length, similar to above from this if the sword is long.
  3. Use rules: if the blade came a little bit into katana length and you were a merchant, and really wanted to use this blade, you could trim it back a bit to make it legal length for you to use. 

Koto blades cut down to wakizashi length have a bias against them at passing to higher levels like Juyo Token. The basic reason is that much of the dignity of the original blade is lost. The more you cut it down, the more it’s effected. This though could make it an attractive purchase as the valuation drops quite a bit.

In some cases as well, the work is outstanding and the form is unusual, so in spite of suriage in the koto period, the blade itself may be a great purchase due to its rarity. There could be few or no other examples like this, and I have had some of those pass through my hands. As such you need to put your thinking cap on and abandon your biases when you examine a blade like this as you could pass over something special.

The alternative result is that you could be entering a dead end. So you need to really know the differences between a suriage wakizashi that is worthwhile, and one that is not worthwhile, and a big part of that is going to be the price. 

I know of a suriage wakizashi Masamune that sold for 80 million yen, so at the upper end they can be expensive as anything you can think of. The trick is only to evaluate each one to determine where it fits into the bigger picture. That same Masamune if that work were in a katana, the price would be double for adding only 10% to the length of the blade. So depending on where you are with the price and the quality, you can put together a picture of whether or not it is worthwhile to pursue. 

Koto shinogi-zukuri wakizashi

These blades may have been made as katate-uchi (one handed swords) in the Muromachi period, or may have come from the nacent era of the daisho where they were intended as the smaller blade of a pair. In some cases they are just basically small katana but we call them wakizashi now as the length makes them wakizashi by definition. These need to be evaluated on a case by case basis for workmanship. They were not intended for merchants specifically as the length prohibition didn’t exist then. Still there will always be a pricing bias against these, where if you can add 10cm to a sword it can easily double in value as it progresses from being a wakizashi to being a katana.

There are uchigatana from the Kamakura period which are wakizashi length and are signed on the katana side. They fill a different role than that of simple kodachi, which would be a wakizashi length tachi. If we take the signature as a guide they seem to have been intended for wear edge up the same way katana were worn in the Edo period. These items are quite rare and unusual and should have no bias against them at all.

Koto hirazukuri wakizashi

Lacking a shinogi line, these blades have use profiles that depend on the length and period. Some are simply tanto that got a little bit bigger than the modern length measurement definition (30 cm). These are basically tanto in form and function. Just big tanto. 

As you get longer than this and more curved, in the Nanbokucho period and Muromachi period, these blades are filling a middle role between tachi and tanto and could be backup weapons to a polearm for instance or to a field sword (nodachi/odachi). 

Tanto should be primarily a stabbing weapon but these hirazukuri wakizashi are slashing weapons. 

There should be no bias against these at all, and in fact as weapons made for only a short period of time and some smiths not having many long examples available (Hasebe, Hiromitsu, Akihiro are typical examples of this) they may be all you can get. The shape and form of these blades I think is very beautiful and someone turning their nose up at them because they are wakizashi is applying some bias to the situation that was not deserved. 

Trying to make sense of it

So I think this advice about buying a wakizashi as your first blade, is to be avoided. Most wakizashi can be avoided based on the period of manufacture, but the old ones need to be carefully looked at and in some cases I think actively collected. 

A first time buyer should set the price level where they are comfortable to spend, then just get the best blade. If that best blade you can get is a Shinto wakizashi, so be it. If it is a Juyo katana, then all the better for you as you will have a blade you can keep forever for sure. And it will teach you more about swords and become more interesting with time, instead of less interesting, to the point of being a guaranteed sale.

Buying that wakizashi as your first purchase is the opposite: if you exit swords, it’s a guaranteed sale. If you become an experienced collector, you will want to ditch it as well. 

The exceptions as a quick list where you have some safety in purchasing:

  1. Many koto wakizashi, especially hirazukuri or examples of good work of top smiths should be pursued by people at all levels.
  2. Custom made Shinto work that was the smith’s best skill being demonstrated.
  3. If you are trying to match a katana to make a daisho for your own collecting goals.
  4. If you love it and can’t live without it.

The last reason of course should factor into all your decisions. 

Basically, don’t just buy a wakizashi because it’s your first sword. And don’t ignore wakizashi just because they are wakizashi. Make sure you know what you are dealing with, before deciding if you should pass it over or not.