Commercially based sword shows throughout the world get some mixed results. The two most healthy are the San Francisco show in August and the Dai Token Ichi in Tokyo, which is usually in the first couple weeks of November now.
Sword shows serve a few purposes. They are social gatherings, educational opportunities, and then a chance to buy or sell things.
I’m of the opinion that the bell started tolling on sword shows a while back, for many combined reasons and the process is a drawn out death spiral.
Importantly, I don’t want this to be read as criticism for show organizers. Building something, anything, is a complex task and usually people underestimate the effort and stress that goes into these things. I have never organized a sword show and I don’t know the pain and suffering involved, I absolutely do know though that organizing anything involving people on a large scale is like herding cats. Not an easy task.
But I think these shows are mostly on the way out. Here’s what I think is wrong with them, and here is what I think the eventual solution is.
Competition from the Internet
The rise of the internet has been the great leveller in many different fields. Titans of industry have been bankrupted, and the world’s current most valuable companies surfed the internet to their rise to the top of the heap.
In terms of sword collectors, the internet has made available large amounts of information that were previously disseminated on paper only and you would have to receive in the mail or in person.
Before the internet you had no opportunities to get a reasonable visual bearing on a sword. So, sword shows had a stranglehold on quenching people’s thirst for first hand interaction and viewing of swords.
And, if you wanted to buy or sell, this was your one big chance.
The internet has of course wiped that out. It is easier easy to buy a sword from a dealer in Tokyo who doesn’t even speak English than it is to get on a plane and fly to a regional show and sift through the stuff at the shows and then purchase.
A regional sword show cannot match the variety and the immediacy of commercial websites worldwide. If you are reading this you probably looked at a few commercial sites already today.
Every time you looked at a site you took a hit of the nihonto drug and it stopped your jonesing for a little while. That lessens your need to get to a show, which was previously the only way to get your hit.
This is an inevitable change and there is nothing that can be done about it except adapting to the reality that the world lurched sideways the moment Tim Berners-Lee got his NeXT computer and thought he had a good idea about information sharing. Everyone who refused to adapt to this fact already died a humiliating death or else is in the death throes as we speak.
There are a lot of shows. There are a lot of choices. It seems that every day people have a bit less money and more options on how to spend it.
Getting on a plane, going to a hotel, physically spending several days in a different place, all of that has cost. When there are many shows and more interest in organizing new shows, they all compete for that shrinking dollar.
As a result, people choose the best way to spend.
I myself am an example of that. After attending several US shows and then starting to go to Japan frequently, I started viewing the US shows as an expense that limited my ability to get to Japan. So I made the choice of what had better opportunities for me, and it was certainly Japan. This however meant I missed a chance to jump on some interesting discoveries that came out of the woodwork in the USA, and that is certainly a strong reason to attend a regional sword show (you never know what will manifest itself out of nowhere).
But the point remains: a lot of shows, competing for fixed or shrinking budgets for attending them.
The Same Stuff
A lot of horse trading goes on at shows and during my times going to San Francisco I would note swords going around from table to table on various years as collectors bought them and then sold them and others bought them and sold them. It started to me to look like a game of musical chairs.
This of course was not all swords, just particular swords that I would remember and I started to feel after 4 shows or so that there wasn’t a lot of new things coming on (or new to me at least). It reinforced my decision that I would be better off going to Japan than spending money looking at the game of musical chairs.
This problem is enhanced when shows come on the schedule a few months after the previous one. Obviously a dealer who has not sold his things at the previous show is going to bring it to the next show. So if you just went to the previous show you are pretty much guaranteed to be seeing a high percentage of the identical things. If you do not get enough novelty then you have reduced motivation to attend a show.
The Same People
Every year we are all a bit more bald and all a bit more gray. Well that’s inevitable.
But one thing that I felt was an issue with the regional sword shows was the choice of venue. Putting them at airport hotels is very convenient for people who are flying in from somewhere else.
That is, it’s convenient for The Same People who have been to the shows before.
It is not convenient for new blood at all. New people are much less likely to fly in for a sword show at an airport hotel than they are to go to a venue that is in a more interesting location.
Because a new person is not going to want to put all their eggs in one basket. Let’s say we had a New York City sword show. And it was put on at an airport hotel at JFK.
If you are an utter newbie, how likely are you going to want to attend that? If I am going to fly to New York, I am going to take advantage of what else is in New York. I don’t want to hang around at JFK. I’m going to go see a show, I’m going to do stupid tourist things, I’m going to enjoy some restaurants.
It’s my belief that hanging the shows at venues that are only convenient to an in-crowd that gets older and balder every year (no insult intended, I am in that group), by definition is preaching to the choir.
If you want new people to come, you need to think about a sword show like a museum exhibit. How successful would the Met be if they built it at JFK airport? Not very.
One of the reasons that museum is successful is that it is right in the beating heart of many interesting things. This decreases the barrier to entry because it’s very convenient to fold it into an itinerary of other stupid tourist things you may want to do.
Walk in traffic substantially increases when you put the damn thing where people are walking around.
In big cities that have substantial numbers of young professionals with growing wealth, it makes sense to me to tap into a venue that is convenient for those people.
Everyone benefits from that. Yeah you might have to spend $40 each way on a taxi after you arrive at an airport to get to a city center. Yeah your hotel is going to be more expensive now. But if $40 is your major concern then you are not really economically contributing to the sword economy. So, if we care about the sword economy we can’t be making decisions based on people with $40 transportation budgets.
Anyway those increasing costs I think would be more than offset by increased traffic by moving venues to city centers or areas of interest/convenience to people who are not addicted to nihonto.
The previous paragraphs get into one of the solutions, which is to inconvenience the diehards (diehards are going to go anyway) in order to lower the barrier to entry to new people attending shows by moving the venue to locations of general interest and higher foot traffic.
Maybe it makes budgets difficult, but I think that this is a no-brainer idea that should be explored. Otherwise shows will just get the same, grayer, balder, and more dead attendees every year until the show keels over when enough of the usuals stop attending due to age or death.
The solution to saturation is simple: fewer shows. Anyone who is emotionally invested in their regional sword show is not going to want to hear that, especially show organizers.
When I started my software company way back when, and we were on the brink of dying, I took my stock and I cut it in half and I gave it away to my employees. I said at the time: it is better to have a small chunk of something big, than a big chunk of something small, or a big chunk of nothing.
It was the right decision and regional sword show organizers I think need to take the same point of view.
This is not 1975, this is not 1985 and it’s not 1995.
People have information on swords in their phones. They can look at photos of swords any time that are 70% as good as seeing a sword in person. They don’t need to attend lectures if there are lectures on youtube. There is still a desire from older collectors to receive printed newsletters in the physical mail, and this kind of thinking that simply satisfies each of us in the comfortable and outdated mode that we want to be satisfied in ignores the changing world around us.
Even the NBTHK in publishing a printed Token Bijutsu magazine every month is ignoring this sea change and catering to older collectors, who with each passing year contribute less economically to the sword economy.
Also, all of that information provided on paper is like sending it to someone in a lockbox for which they will lose the key. There is no utility to an unindexed stack of 5,000 sheets of paper. That information may as well not exist when it is in there because there is no way to get to it unless you have an amazing memory. And if you have an amazing memory you don’t need to get to it anyway.
Adding more and more to the stacks of paper is building a larger and larger problem of informational black holes.
The solutions to things like this is providing newsletters via email on PDF so people can search for information and reference it. The solutions to things like too many sword shows is simply consolidation.
Most, if not all of them, need to shut down. This is inevitable that they will, because they are relics of an era that don’t exist anymore.
There is still a place for sword shows, and there always will be, but the idea that there needs to be 5-10 per year is what has to be put to bed because that is simply a reality of a changed world. If you don’t adapt to it, the proof is out there every day in the newspapers of the world as old, solid businesses go under because they failed to jump the gap into the new world and by the time some of them got around to trying it, that gap was too big to cross.
Finally, it is very important to recognize this fact:
That if you want someone to eat a meal, you better get them hungry first.
If there are too many shows, people never have a chance to build up any hunger. It’s easy to just pass on this one and think of the next show coming up.
Though the internet does give us information and buying and selling opportunities, as well as communities, shows will always be the only places you can get that hands on element and also to talk to people face to face. To tell some jokes and share a meal is part of being a sword collector.
As part of consolidation of swords shows, people need to realize that the king of them all will always be the Dai Token Ichi in Tokyo.
With more and more westerners going every year, that means the peak of hunger season will be diametrically opposed to that on the calendar.
DTI around November 1st, means that the best time for the World’s Second Biggest Sword Show is going to be May 1st if we are thinking simply about hunger.
So if you made me Shogun, I would piss off a lot of people by cancelling all of the shows and then creating one show, in San Francisco, on May 1st. I would be diametrically opposed to the Dai Token Ichi. I would give people a long enough time of absence from shows to get really enthused about going to this May 1st show.
I would give dealers enough time to turn over inventory so it’s not all the same stuff.
Because there would be fewer shows, people would actually have more budget available to spend on a show. Consider if you’re going to visit 3 or 4 regional shows, if you consolidate all of those expenses into one show now you are going to be spending less on hotels and planes and you are going to be getting more by a better and more varied experience with more people showing up and more and different items to look at.
And then if you put the venue downtown where various young people will be on a routine basis, especially in the biggest tech center in the world, you have something that can stimulate the sword economy.
Every company always faces this problem: how do you reach out to new customers and expand your brand?
And you simply cannot do this by appealing only to people who are not really buying anything anymore, or by spreading the interest out so thin that each show dies individually.
Before they die, a good effort can be made to circle the wagons, consolidate everything, and re-invigorate the idea of sword shows entirely.
May 1st, San Francisco, downtown. Enjoy the rest of the city and publicize it and don’t charge an entry fee, and get new people walking in off the street.
Hey… that looks interesting, let’s pop in and have a look.
I think it can work.
People who will lose their personal fiefdoms in a consolidation effort, I apologize to you. I’m not criticizing your efforts or your shows. The world is simply changing under your feet. You have not done anything wrong and there is not much you can do other than adapt to the reality of it. I just think the writing is on the wall.
We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.
— Benjamin Franklin
Adapt, consolidate, hang together or hang separately. The choice is yours to make.
Anyway that’s just my thoughts and opinion. I could be wrong. I’d just like people to give some of these ideas some thought and debate.