You can’t teach speed

Deion Sanders ran a 4.27 in 1989. Bo Jackson holds the mythical record of 4.12 from 1986, though debate continues on whether that was an accurate time. Different evaluators and clubs place varying importance on the 40, but the old axiom remains true.

You can’t teach speed.

— Jonathan Jones, Sports Illustrated

Everyone who ever followed the NFL draft hears this when their team picks up a speedy corner. NBA has its own version if you draft a 7 foot tall center, in that you can’t teach height.

This is all true.

As usual, we can find take home wisdom from anywhere and apply it to collecting artifacts of any sort.

What these sports analysts are getting at is that there are two sets of attributes to any athlete you are considering adding to your team. One set of attributes is innate. The other set is learned.

Innate attributes are those that you are born with. One of these is speed. As the researchers found when they studied the problem, every world class sprinter had a past history that went back to them always being the fastest kid in the neighborhood. Sprinters took an average of five years from first learning to refine their natural speed via learned technique to become dominant sprinters. However, no amount of learned technique can turn you into a fast runner. All it can do. The conventional wisdom of you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear bears out in practice.

Learned attributes include decision making, technique, leadership, and so forth. All of these can improve the value of a prospect and make them a useful addition to a team. 

But when it comes down to it, certain attributes that cannot be taught will always be valuable and in fact essential to success. In these cases, you are born with it, or you aren’t. 

If you’re born with it, what you do with that gift is up to you as you can easily waste it.

The application to swords is that some items have special properties that come along with the sword that cannot be replaced by anything you can do. Any sword can be enhanced with a good polish, but even the best polish on a weak sword will achieve weak results.

When looking at old blades, the presence of a signature may be very rare and is the equivalent of unteachable speed. Though that blade may have problems elsewhere, there is no replacement attribute for the maker’s signature on the piece. People who evaluate entirely based on cosmetic features are missing one of the most essential factors in such a blade. 

Those signed items for old smiths with very little signed work left are the reference works that form the body of scholarship that is used to determine attributions for remaining unsigned works. They are the hub of the universe. When you own such a piece, you own something that everything else revolves around and that by its nature makes them fascinating and important.

I asked one of the top Japanese dealers once this question some years ago… I said, “I can often find excellent quality Ichimonji blades but they are always unsigned. Whenever I find a signed one, the condition is not so good. Why is this?”

His response was simple.

“Signed. Good condition. Jubi.”

For old swords there are more left in good condition but missing the signature than there are those left with the signature intact. The reason for this is that in the Edo period, there was a desire to mount these blades into koshirae that could be used on foot and the blades were made too long for easy use. So the solution was to remove the bottom part of the blade, the nakago (tang) where the signature is, and so shorten the blade from the bottom. When this was done, most of the time the signature was lost if actions were not taken to remove and remount the signature into the new nakago made by shortening. 

Good blades lost their signatures, but were still good blades and family treasures so were further preserved in this manner. The very fact that they were selected, shortened, and remounted is generally an indicator that the blade itself was fantastic. So fantastic that someone wanted to be able to proudly wear it. 

Some of those fantastic blades were determined by the family head to be untouchable.

This is a tachi by [Ko-Bizen] Masatsune and has a distinguished history. It must be handed down to posterity as a family treasure. I do not allow my family to wear this tachi in daily life. 

— Hidemasa, daimyo of the Ogasawara clan (1569–1615)

Hidemasa obviously was a visionary. He stepped in, singled out an important signed tachi, forbid any family members from ever using it and so this blade got locked into its state of preservation before the Edo period began.

But mostly, the better a blade was, the more desire someone would have to use it and the more likely it would be selected for shortening. 

Unless someone wise and forward thinking like Hidemasa stepped in and said, no, never. 

So for this, the blades left over with signature end up having random properties for condition. But each one had someone intercede at some point in its life to protect it. Just when that happened, before or after overuse, before or after shortening, before or after being left to rust, this part is random.

The only part that is not random is seeing a fantastic thing and saying, “I am going to use that.” Pride is the constant, and why we see some selection bias in action causing great swords to get this treatment of having their signatures removed.

What the Japanese dealer above was indicating is that given the two sets, A, the set of all old swords (Nanbokucho and earlier) in good condition and B, the set of all old swords retaining their signature, that the intersection set between these was very small. So small that those blades tended to end up with papers so high they would be illegal to export from Japan. So small that now, they almost do not exist. 

That kind of blade though, in good condition retaining its signature, can sometimes be found and if you get a real miracle, it can be completely unaltered (ubu) retaining its original nakago and signature and shape. Such a blade, one needs to be very forgiving of minor defects because the chances that it could have made it through time like this are next to zero.

It needs to have been cared for its whole life and every owner must have had the wisdom of Hidemasa above. It just takes one jackass to flip the table and ruin everything. 

If you want to understand the rarity, consider that such a blade made 700 years ago may conservatively have had a new owner every 30 years if it was handed down through a family. In reality probably more frequently. From the day of making until now, this is 23 owners (it sounds small, but it isn’t).

If each owner is faced with a decision to shorten it, use it, or otherwise abuse it, vs. carefully preserve it, we can see what chance that blade has to come to today intact.

Let’s assign an 75% chance that each owner will decide to preserve it and do nothing except take care of it. 25% of the time then someone will use it, abuse it, leave it to rust after which it will need repairing, shorten and remount it, whatever. Personally I think this is a lot to ask that out of four people, you will find three preservation minded saints and one prideful idiot. But let’s use that as the presumption. 

The math to calculate the chances then is straight forward. It’s 75% raised to the power 23, that any particular blade would come down from 700 years in past intact to today. 

0.7523 = 0.0013 = 0.1%

So out of 1000 made, only one would survive intact to the present day with this kind of (I think) generous ratio of caregivers to users and abusers.

Mind you, this is not even factoring in the case of sweeping wars which caused blades to be used and destroyed, or the deliberate destruction of blades by the US military during the occupation of Japan, or the fact that the last two generations of owners of blades taken out of Japan to the USA didn’t have any knowledge of these as important antiques so that 80% number fell down to more like 1% for those blades lost.

This is particularly why we need to be forgiving of cosmetic issues on any old sword… because by the mathematics of the situation, it is a miracle that it survived at all. Remember… these things are made of steel. Look at the average condition of a car made in 1975. They are rust heaps. Now consider we are looking at a time span that is 20 times longer and what the reasonable expectation should be for these artifacts and their condition given all of this time.

Remember: it only takes one jackass to flip the table. 

A blade that survived with intact shape… that is an incredible miracle, and that the market prices those anywhere close to unsigned blades is an unusually strange lack of efficiency in this marketplace. 

Whenever you encounter unusually good condition, or a signature, or an ubu nakago on any of these very old blades (pre 1400), you are encountering this rare situation where the blade has something that you can’t give to it. 

A rusty blade you can polish and improve. If there is no koshirae, you can build one. It is not a substitute for an original one but it is still an improvement. If there is no history, sometimes you can study and search and discover little bits and pieces to its story. 

But you can’t ever add great condition back to a blade. Condition is a one way death spiral. Every polish removes some steel and the blade deteriorates though there is a temporary cosmetic improvement. Once the signature is gone, it is gone forever. 

Be forgiving of small defects, and cherish those rare ones that still have something that can’t be added to them. These blades have something going for them that means that small issues should be taken in stride.

Innate attributes of a sword that are rare and unusual, are the key elements that make it collectible and separate it from its peers as something noteworthy and desirable. 

You can’t teach speed.

Also, as a side note, don’t be that guy who flips the table. Some people change the horimono because they don’t like them. Sometimes a signature is aggressively removed when it should stay in place for study. Historical koshirae are disassembled for their parts and sold off piecemeal. I saw this happen to a sword that had its koshirae with it from the day it was made, as far as I could tell. That day was in 1570. The koshirae were disassembled and parted out in 2015. 

Each one of these actions is something that can’t be undone, so try to avoid them.