The Tokubetsu Juyo competition is underway at the moment and the results should be coming soon. So this is an opportunity to discuss this very prestigious category.
The NBTHK formalized Juyo status in Showa 33 (June of 1958) with the first published results in this category. Ten tachi, ten katana, four wakizashi, one tanto, one naginata, one koshirae, and three tsuba were accepted along with one set of tsuba and fuchigashira.
Juyo means important and this category was set to be the highest standards for artistic integrity, condition and historical importance. Over the period of a decade Juyo shinsa were made twice per year at first, then once per year and the time of year moved aroud somewhat. By the time 1972 rolled around, it appears that there was enough space between the best of the Juyo and the worst of the Juyo that a new higher designation was necessary.
This word tokubetsu (特別) translates as “special” and sometimes you will see or hear Japanese dealers call this level special Juyo or special important or something like this from time to time when talking to westerners. We have generally embraced the term Tokubetsu Juyo and understood it to be specially important without needing it to be translated at this point in time however.
While Juyo is something that happens once per year now on schedule, Tokuju (as it is often called by contracting the name) happens once every two years and usually far fewer items pass than in the average Juyo shinsa.
The idea again is to create a level that exists above Juyo, to satisfy only the highest criteria. The condition of the item needs to correspond to the same levels as Juyo Bunkazai. The quality of the item needs to correspond to the top half of Juyo Bijutsuhin or higher.
People are often mistaken and think that Juyo Bijutsuhin is higher than Tokubetsu Juyo, and it isn’t. They are separate systems but Tokubetsu Juyo has higher criteria to pass, as well as Juyo Bijutshin being a status that is no longer awarded for a long period of time now.
In theory, some blades that are Tokubetsu Juyo rank with Kokuho blades in terms of quality and importance. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who points out which blades do, but I have an idea of a few.
At this point in time there are 1,174 Tokuju items by my count. Breaking it down they are:
- 357 tachi
- 464 katana
- 6 kodachi
- 77 wakizashi
- 130 tanto
- 2 daisho token
- 2 ko-ken
- 5 ken
- 1 yari
- 3 naginata
- 5 naginata naoshi
For a total of 1,044 swords.
- 50 koshirae (11 of which are daisho)
- 40 tsuba
- 1 menuki
- 2 fuchigashira
- 5 kogai
- 5 kozuka
- 19 sets of tosogu
For 130 tosogu items.
So when you sit down and look at the numbers, especially for fittings, and you realize these have been chosen regularly since 1972, that anything that achieves this status falls into an elite group.
By the low number counts, it means any Tokuju submission is most likely to fail when you try it. So it’s nothing to get worried about if something fails.
While Hozon and Tokubetsu Hozon are evaluations of the item in question and its authenticity, condition and merit, the status of Juyo and Tokuju fall into a combination of ranking an item by its qualities and competition with other items.
There are absolute conditions for passing Juyo, for instance, a mumei o-suriage shinto sword, no matter how good, cannot pass Juyo. Tired swords and swords with fatal flaws can pass Juyo only under very special and uncommon circumstances. Such swords will be disqualified from Tokubetsu Juyo entirely.
The base combination of features to pass Tokubetsu Juyo are the artistic integrity of the work, and the condition of the work. Artistic integrity is irrevokably tied to the reputation of the smith who the blade is attributed to.
Nobody will attribute a bad blade to Nagamitsu or Masamune. These smiths carry a deserved reputation for top quality. Thus if a blade is not top quality, it’s one of the ways you can rule out a top smith. People get confused by this because they don’t recognize where their personal favorite “nice sword” ranks overall in the sea of swords and start thinking that it’s just a game of chasing names.
As for condition, for koto pieces of Nanbokucho and earlier especially, preserving a signature on a tachi or preserving the original shape of a tachi are rare occurances and so cause a particular item to rank highly on the condition scale.
Past this, things that beginners overlook, such as the quality of the boshi, are particularly important at Tokuju, as well as nailing all of the textbook line items associated with a school, period or smith.
A wide Fukuoka Ichimonji blade with an ikubi kissaki and flamboyant hamon with strong utsuri, keeping its original nakago and signature… such a blade is obviously a very strong Tokuju contender. As you subtract items of condition by making it suriage or mumei, you decrease its chances to pass this level. If you make it more narrow and decrease the flamboyancy of the hamon, polish down the kissaki so that the boshi is thin, well you may end up taking that same blade, which may remain beautiful otherwise, and saying that it won’t pass Tokuju at all. Instead it is “just” a top line Juyo. I put that in quotes because Juyo is still a very high rank and very difficult to obtain.
When we look at attributed pieces with no signature then, the maker of the sword is almost a rule of thumb for starting the discussion about if it can be submitted to Tokubetsu Juyo. Smiths who have been famous since their time in the Heian and Kamakura period, who begin appearing in old books within years or decades of their deaths, these smiths’ existing work needs always to be thought to contend.
When they are submitted though, they need to compete in several ways. Understand that Tokubetsu Juyo can be thought of as a “masterpiece among masterpieces” and as such, a piece needs to stand out in the body of work of that smith.
- Depending on the reputation of the smith, the blade needs to be artistically in the top half of his work at worst (i.e. for the highest ranking smiths) to actually being the smith’s best remaining work in the case of more modestly ranking smiths. Lower ranking smiths will not be able to obtain Tokubetsu Juyo. If they could, they would be higher ranking smiths to begin with. On average you should want the item to be in the top 10% or top 5% of a smith’s work. The best in ten or best in twenty.
- Condition needs to have no significant issues especially compared to other works of the school and smith, so more forgiveness is given for age in a koto work than in a shinto work which will have to basically be mint condition.
- The higher ranking a smith doesn’t automatically make a blade more likely to pass Tokuju, because it also means it needs to compete with other output by that same smith which are by definition all higher ranking items.
So, an item by Masamune or Mitsutada is not automatically assured Tokuju because of the reputation of those smiths. The blade has to be better than at least 30-50% of other works by the same smith. As well it needs to stand out well vs. the crowd of other blades passing in the same session. In this way, the very finest work of a smith of a modestly ranked smith may pass Tokuju when a Masamune may fail. Because that modestly ranked smith, that item may be his masterpiece work of his lifetime and significantly good enough to pass when compared against the body of his work.
In these ways, there is a lot of context involved in passing Tokubetsu Juyo rather than it being an absolute evaluation of any particular item on a points scale.
Passing and Failing
While passing is a permanent condition, failing is not. In the same way that the olympic silver medalist may run again in four years and win, and now be included in the hall of fame of sprinters forever as a gold medal winner, a blade failing Juyo or Tokuju can be sent in again.
Some luck is required when submitting because you never know if your item has enough quality to pass but someone else just sent in one that was by chance a bit better than yours. As such, yours if it seemed significantly weaker by comparison with the stronger contender, may be held back today but can pass again tomorrow once it is no longer in the shadow of the stronger piece.
Or, your piece may never pass at all in which case future submissions are just an exercise in frustration.
The way the judges break it down is by categorizing submissions into three groups.
Group A: these items are instant-pass items. If you find an intact, beautiful, signed, ubu Sanjo Munechika, then you are going to pass Tokubetsu Juyo without any doubts or questions. If someone ever finds a signed Go Yoshihiro that is not in doubt, it will be an instant pass.
Group C: these items have no chance. You sent in your “pretty nice” shinshinto mumei wakizashi. It’s not going to pass. Not now, not ever. It falls into this group along with anything else similar to it. The problem with most collectors is that their personal attachment to an item being beautiful or precious is confused with its overall ranking in the big picture and they as a result submit these items that cannot pass.
When A and C are removed, the remainder are the B group which are then set down and discussed at length.
B group items are all deserving of Tokuju status, but they are then measured on a relative basis to each other and previously passing items, by smith and school and what else is sent in on that day.
The better part, and there is no set percentage, will pass, and the weaker part will not.
This is where some luck is involved. In case someone sent in something that is a superior rival to yours, it may depend if the superior rival is in this B category or if it’s in the A category. Something in A may shine so brightly it makes others in B that much harder to pass on any given day. If two items in B are very close to each other with no other A level rival, then both of these items in B may pass or fail together. As the number of rivals increases it gets substantially harder to accept all of them because there is some vested interest in some variety over the Tokubetsu Juyo shinsa as well as each item having to stand out as a masterpiece of that smith or school in the body of work.
That is, if 100 great Fukuoka Ichimonji go in, there is no way to accept all 100 of them. The best 4 or 5 at maximum would pass and the rest would be shuttled off to the future for someone to try again.
So the trick for the collector is to refine their sense of where any item stands relative to the rest of the world. Both the whole world of all schools and makers and the world of items by that one school or smith, and then the world of what got submitted on that day is something that we will never know.
A rule of thumb is to try three times then give up. If you try three times and did not get lucky, your item is probably in the C group. For now at least, it’s not going to pass.
However, it could just have been really, really bad luck and you were in B all along but just didn’t get it to fall your way. But probably not and trying to figure this out for yourself is worthwhile as it will refine your abilities.