Always Was and Still Is

First entry in a while… it’s been too busy for me for the last long while.

Anyway this thought has come up a few times recently and is worth noting and talking about.

When it comes to certain blades with attributions to Masamune, Sadamune, Go Yoshihiro, and other top Soshu makers or makers of similar reputation like the Awataguchi makers… there are some various differences in context based on the age of the attribution and how many layers of attribution we’re considering.

Sometimes the fact that a blade has kinzogan mei can affect how we interpret such a blade in the modern period as well.

I classify these blades as such:

  1. Is
  2. Used To Be
  3. Always Was and Still Is

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Innovations in exhibitions

If you have not heard the name yet, Dr. Kiyoshi Sawaguchi is a formidable collector in Japan with an outstanding collection that comprises well over 10,000 items, placing him in the first rank. Of these a large number are ranked Juyo Token and higher, all the way through Kokuho.

He has been making parts of his collection available on an ongoing basis through various exhibitions that are staged throughout Japan. Ryuta Murakami has designed some very interesting new appliances for exhibiting swords that you will I think be relieved to see.

One of the common complaints we have about seeing swords “through glass” is that the lighting is bad, and the angles don’t let us see the highlights of the hamon of a great sword. And of course people who don’t know anything about swords can’t get a real appreciation when viewing them in standard museum exhibits. What’s more, they are not even aware that they are not getting a proper view of a sword.

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Ichijo and precision

Goto Ichijo is a well known giant in the field of tosogu. Recently one of my clients purchased a kozuka of what appears to be simple design, but under magnification all kinds of brilliant details come out. When you magnify weaker work it looks sloppy and melted. When you magnify Ichijo’s work it reveals more things to enjoy.

Rather than focus on the artwork on the front, what I would like to have a closer look at, is his signature and the treatment of the back of this kozuka.

(Note, ironically I had a measurement error in this post previously, I’ve updated the post with corrected measurements.)

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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.

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Another way of looking at things…

Another long day here. Finishing work at 5am. Again.

So, a chart for your perusal. I won’t walk you through it this time but leave you to think about it.

The difference here is an important concept.

Every Tokuju item is already something that passed Juyo. Every Kokuho item is already something that was ranked Juyo Bunkazai previously.

In this chart those papers have been plotted at the time of publication of the original sword’s papers.

So going along this chart left to right it goes up in time with all the Juyo. Now say a Juyo in session 10 passed Tokuju later, that item has been colored in as a Tokuju. So basically (this is important that you understand what the chart represents), it’s like someone laid out all of the Juyo swords in order from end to end and plotted them.

Then, you go back and flag the original Juyo as a different color to show it went on to pass Tokuju.

So there are clear trends here which agree to things I’ve routinely said on my sword listings and elsewhere.


All of it

This is every sword plotted by length, with a high level confirmation… with the limit of a few o-dachi over 135cm. Just over 15,000.

Only about 10 years of work to get to that.

You can see various trends in here, the higher level papers show a clear ramp up in upper length (more ubu tachi present). The upper limit of wakizashi length shows clustering and we can see the longer wakizashi fall off the map when it gets to higher papers. Overall the strong visual signal for long swords shows that there is a clear preference for use in this range, and swords longer than about 78cm exist almost in a desert, they are so rare compared to the strongly defined standard length range.

Honami Origami and Valuations

Some time ago I had a Fukuoka Ichimonji katana with a Honami Kochu origami that stated a value of 100 gold pieces for the blade. I did not think too heavily about it. A dealer from Japan happened to see the blade and pointed out the paper and he said “That valuation is very unusual, I never saw one like that.”

I thought for some years he was referring to the fact that it had a value on it at all, as I was mostly familiar with later Honami origami that didn’t have any value on them. Recently I encountered another one like this, and so I decided to look at whatever records I could find about Honami valuations and try to dig more deeply into the subject.

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Denrai: chicken or the egg?

Denrai are heirloom items that belonged to well known clans from the feudal era of Japan.

Some of these were very powerful regional clans and have famous warlords in their lineages, and many of them played significant roles in the history of Japan. These are clans like the Uesugi, Shimazu, Mori, and so forth. 

There are also minor clans without significant power bases. On top of this all we add the Tokugawa Shogun and the Mito, Kishu and Owari branches of the Tokugawa family who stand apart from the other daimyo. 

There are some reasons why denrai status is important, outside of the historical interest and coolness factor to have a sword that belonged to one of the major clans.

When we look at the NBTHK Juyo zufu there are about 453 out of almost 12,000 swords that went Juyo and higher that have preserved information about what clan handed them down. This is a surprisingly small number of only 3 percent and points out that it is quite rare to have one of these blades.

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Best In Show

Back from Japan. A real agonizing grind due to the excessive heat and too many things on the list to do.

I got to view the Tokuju exhibit. Everyone if they can should try to get out and see this exhibit and the Juyo when they are on. It is the best way of setting your eyes to the best work.

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One or Two Generations

After the Tokugawa made the final steps of unifying Japan, swordsmiths adopted more clear traditions of signing swords and dating them became much more common. The information they left behind and the fact that we’re dealing with “near history” makes it easier to understand swordsmith lineages. 

When it gets into the Muromachi period and earlier, things get a bit more murky. Many signatures were lost, dates are few and far between, and period specific references can contradict each other. 

In the modern period, with swords accessible to everyone and importantly with the work of the NBTHK passing Juyo blades and publishing them, the picture has become more clear. We owe a lot to Fujishiro Yoshio who’s work in the early 1900s on reference materials is more often right than wrong. So I’ll start this discussion with some of his general thoughts on this matter of one or two generations.

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When studying Aikido classes often start with ikkyo, which is the first technique. Beginners and experts practice together, and it is thought that you can continue to improve your performance no matter how far along you are in study, by continuing to study the very basics. 

For swords the topic is sugata, and there are some problems with how books address it.

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Naginata and Naginata Naoshi

A naginata polearm can be shortened like a tachi, via suriage and reshaped into a katana. There is a subtype of naginata called a nagamaki which can only be truly identified when it is with its koshirae. The name actually reflects on the wrap of the tsuka of this type of polearm. Basically, how the blade is mounted and used ends up giving it purpose, and so its name.

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Yamatorige… Sanchomo… Sanshomo?

This is a famous sword owned by Uesugi Kenshin and the blade is now Kokuho. It is an Ichimonji sword and has an extremely flamboyant hamon. 

The blade is often called Yamatorige or Yamadorige which is one reading of the characters of its name 


These characters can also be read as Sanchōmō though and it’s generally felt that this is the more correct name of the sword.

Continue reading Yamatorige… Sanchomo… Sanshomo?