Beneath, what, you might ask? In this case it is metal, made dull and uncommunicative through time and poor handling.
Collecting and appreciating Japanese swords (nihonto) is a hobby of mine, though more of an aspiration-hobby than one I consistently pursue. More than two years ago I posted on a sword I had bought on eBay, where I described getting the sword fitted with new koshirae – scabbard, hilts, etc.
Now, I had this work done because I had liked this sword. It seemed “healthy” – with a lot of original metal, few nicks or other damage – and I liked the feel of it. The next step in bringing this sword back to what it was like when first made would be to have it “polished”. Now, “polishing” sounds like a jeweler’s term and in fact many unknowing people attempt to improve Japanese swords using buffing wheels and jeweler’s rouge. This is in fact one of the worst possible things that can be done to a sword.
The proper thing is to take the sword to a togishi, a traditional sword polisher. The sense of what a togishi actually does I would say is closer to “sharpener” or “shaper” than polisher. Many people know that Japanese swords are constructed using folded steel, similar in some ways to Damascus steel, but refined and molded by the needs and conventions of Japanese warfare – for example Damascus swords do not have the differentially tempered edge of a nihonto. But in additional to the raw construction, a Japanese sword gets its famous cutting ability from its cross-section. The sides of the blade are convex, not concave like a hollow-ground Western knife. This makes the sword stronger in battle, it can receive the strike of another blade with much less chance of severe damage. And when cutting, the bowed sides force aside the material being cut; without this the sword would get, well, stuck in its target. To get this shape, and the proper edge, you need a togishi, who will work by hand using stones of varying fineness to remove metal, shape the blade, and create the edge.
It has of course been 100s of years since these swords were used primarily for battle. But even in ancient times the utilitarian aspect of the togishi’s work was complemented by an aesthetic one. A side-effect of this work is that the grain of the metal – the hada – and the extent of the temper line – the hamon – become visible and throughout history warriors and connoisseurs both have had appreciation of a properly polished weapon.
My sword was much in need of this treatment. Whoever had it before me clearly had used mechanical tools to buff the steel to matte finish. It looked like a sword, but any details of temper line or grain were almost entirely obscured. I oftentimes would stare it, trying to angle the light in different ways, searching for a temper line. This sword has a signature on the tang and my amateur’s judgment was it was made in the late 19th century, but it could well have been a 20th century sword, many 1000s of which were made by hand in WW2, though using inferior steel and methods. Such swords are generally much less interesting than those from earlier eras. The only way to find out what was really there was to enlist a togishi and ask their help.
Nowadays on the web it is easy to find lots of people advertising this service. Anyone thinking of having a sword worked on should be aware there are many weak practitioners out there, and also some out and out dishonest ones. The togishi I quickly settled upon was David Hofhine (http://www.swordpolisher.com/, https://www.facebook.com/swordpolish). His website had impressive examples of his work and when I inquired via email about my sword he gave very knowledgeable and thoughtful responses. Be prepared, if you have a sword to be worked on, the waiting time will be long, two years or more. Beware the togishi who says he can take your sword right away! In all likelihood it means they are not very good, or are using artificial methods to quickly treat swords.
Enough of the background. I got on David’s list in 2012 and when I returned from India in 2014 my turn had come. When I sent the sword in July and David received it, he was skeptical, thinking there was in fact a chance the sword was a low-quality 20th century blade. He offered to do an “exploration” – meaning he would work on some small part of the blade to see what was there. This was an example of David’s professionalism, which I much appreciate – polishing a sword is not cheap and David wanted to give me a chance to see if that investment would be worth it.
The exploration returned good news – this was a “real” folded blade with grain and temper line. I asked David to do a “foundation polish”, roughly comparable to what a working samurai would have done to his sword. A further step, at additional cost, is a “finish polish”, but that is really only appropriate for more valuable swords, or swords where there’s expectation of special aesthetic features.
The result in you can see in the headline photo and in the shots below:
For now the terminology is beside the point. Just having this artifact, in the condition much like it was in when first made, is very satisfying for me.
What is next for the sword? I can only say: tameshigiri or no tameshigiri, that is the question …
Few weeks back I posted some basics on buying Japanese swords – nihonto. I closed that by citing both dangers and opportunities for prospective collectors who buy on eBay. Well, I have bought a few swords on eBay and made a new purchase earlier this month. Here’s my experience in the hopes it will provide some guideposts for others.
All told I’ve bought 6 swords on eBay. Here’s the summary list:
|2||2008||Shin-Shinto katana, “Kaneyoshi”. nagasa 27”, seller: fastcashpawnshop||$500|
|3||2011||Shin-Shinto katana, mumei, slight kizu near tip, seller: sewingtammy1976||$350|
|4||2012||Koto wakizashi, signed (smith unknown) nagasa 18”. 1 bid auction. seller: awesome-japan||$455|
|5||2012||Koto katana, “Bishu Osafune Sukesada”, nagasa 26” 22 bid auction. seller: hoanhvu||$1,275|
|6||2013||Shinto katana, “Tsunamune”, nagasa 27.4” 32 bid auction. seller: komonjo||$2,325|
The Chinese fake is good quality (for a fake) that I use as an iaito. The main thing this list shows – aside from my tastes getting more expensive over time – is the difference in prices from sellers. The sellers for swords 4 – 6 are dealers in nihonto and Japanese antiques. They are very well monitored on eBay and their auctions tend to get a lot of action. I’m not sure why no one but me bid on sword #4. The quality and condition were good. This just may be an example of a listing getting missed.
Swords #2 and #3 are examples you want to emulate if you can. These came from sellers that are mostly inactive in selling swords; fastcashpawnshop is exactly that, it sells anything people bring in on consignment, while sewingtammy1976 sells sword-related stuff but at a very low rate. Sellers like these often don’t know how to list their items and may set reserves that are low. Sword #2, that I posted about here, in particular was a great buy. If you can find listings like these, and you’re satisfied with what you see, go for it.
Sword #5 illustrates one of the dangers you have to contend with doing this kind of purchase. Here’s the description from the original listing:
SIGNED *KOTO* WW2 Officer’s Samurai Sword in Samurai Mounts – 500 years old
A very old ancestral blade (~500 years old) was remounted and taken to war. The nakago is in great condition with a very nice patina. The mei reads “Bishu Osafune Sukesada.” This sword smith was very prolific and was active in around 1492, according to HAWLEY. The blade has minor nicks but is still very, very sharp.There is one hair kizu typical of blades of this age. … The blade appears to be ubu (original shape) and shows a graceful Koto suguta (shape) with a deep curvature. Overall, the blade is in *EXCELLENT* condition, as are the mountings.
“Koto” means “old sword” – a sword that was made before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1600. That and the other terminology indicate the seller knows something about nihonto. Together with his admission of the kizu – flaw – we’re expected to have confidence in this listing. He doesn’t really tell all you might want to know about Sukesada, though. “Very prolific” means he was a mass-producing smith of the time; there were many Sukesadas active in the late Koto period and their ratings are mostly not very high. Anyway here’s one of the listing pictures:
I really liked the curvature of this sword, which is typical for koto blades, and I wanted to own a sword of this period. So I went ahead and won a 22 bid auction. Receiving the sword, however, I found what “very, very sharp” actually meant: This blade has been ground on the very edge. The hamon is still there and the ground area is very thin – a few mms – but this is not how a nihonto should be maintained. I believe someone wanted to see how well this sword could cut, so they “helped” it by updating the edge.
Now, I don’t think the damage is fatal. A togishi – a sword-polisher – should be able to restore it. However these older swords can be “tired” – not having much outer metal left – and can only be polished so many times.
So, live and learn. I still very much like this sword. The heft and dynamics of it are extremely different from my later period swords, and I’m not doing this to make money.
I think the most helpful thing for folks may be to hear about auctions I didn’t win. For every sword in the list above I have bid on easily 5 or more others. Here’s some examples:
Japanese sword in mountings, shinshinto "Hizen Masahiro" 27+1/8" v-5
Bidding started 27 Feb at $100 and ended 6 March at $2,035. On around 2 March I bid $900, but even then I knew it would go higher. This was a very nice blade, but I already have 2 swords of this period. There were 24 bids altogether; here’s the final action:
The final bid was entered 4 secs. before the auction ended, by a buyer who had not bid at all up to that point. Almost all the auctions, the majority of the price happens in the final day; it’s easy to be top-bidder early on, like I was with my measly $900.
Japanese Samurai Sword: Bizen Osafune Munemitsu Koto Katana
This was a nice koto sword. The auction went from 12 Feb to 17 Feb. I bid early but did not follow-up; I expected the price would go out of my range. And it did: the winning bid was $3,300 which, oddly, was set some 8 hrs before the auction ended, again by someone who had not bid at all before. There were only 3 bidders active in the end-game, and I suppose they lost desire/interest to bid more.
When you look at these bidders you will see most bid on nothing but swords, or on Oriental collectibles in general. Like anything on eBay, it is hard to tell if they are real bidders or shills.
Japanese Samurai Sword: Gendaito Shoda Masafusa 77.5 cm
This was a 20th century sword, forged in 1975 by a smith who had been active in WW II. Its length – the cutting edge, or nagasa, was over 30” – made this a more attractive blade.
The auction here went 13 Feb to 18 Feb. I got in first for $675 on 14 Feb, and upped to $1,400 on 17 Feb. this was literally a ”brand new” sword, an example of modern day technique where blades are made only incidentally for their cutting function and almost entirely for aesthetic achievement. There were 31 bids on this one, with 10-12 separate bidders. Winning bid was $1,925, made in the closing seconds, again by someone who had not bid before.
Ok, now here’s the sword I just won:
Japanese Samurai Sword: Tsunamune Katana 69.7 CM
This is a sword from the Shinto period – roughly 1600 to 1764. I liked what I saw in the photos; this is a “healthy” sword of good length and solid proportions. Winning bid was $2,325, which I – like several of the cases above – entered in final 2 secs. My opponent in this auction seemed to be German; in any event in their bid history they had a lot of activity on “Kleidung & Accessoires > Schuhe für Jungen”, which Google Translate tells me is “Apparel & Accessories> Boys Shoes”. (What kind of shoes do you wear in Germany when wielding your Japanese sword, I wonder?)
Would I have gone higher? Looking at the sword and the history, I had set my mental limit of $2,500. Had my Teutonic counterpart exceeded that, right now he or she would be writing this blog.
So ends the long saga of my eBay nihonto adventures. If you wish to buy, my advice to you comes down to this:
Start by bidding low on a lot of auctions and then follow them to the end, so you get a sense of the prices in the market.
Know what you want. Don’t bid on any sword; pick an era, a type, a smith, and try to pursue that.
Know your price and stick to it. There are many sword-fish in the proverbial sword-sea; don’t get too attached to winning any particular one.
Do lots of searches. Obvious keywords are “katana”, “samurai”, “japan” and “sword”. Use the advanced option that let’s you choose items located in a particular country; eliminate items that come from China. Every once in a while do searches outside “Antiques > Asian Antiques > Japan > Swords”, you may hit that rare listing from a seller who doesn’t normally deal in swords.
DO NOT EXPECT MIRACLES. The whole point of these swords is that each one is unique, a tool that someone made long ago for a deadly purpose that nowadays we appreciate for their craftsmanship and for their ability to “open a window”, as it were, to a time, place and a people. Don’t expect to get rich or to find a treasure sword. The best you can hope for is to find a sword you yourself can connect with.
Till next time …
If you are interested in nihonto – Japanese swords – you of course wonder where you can actually get blades. The first place is, rather obviously, from a dealer. Many can be found on the web, like Nihontocraft.com or Nihonto Antiques. The advantages of going to a dealer is you will be – or should be – dealing with a person who is knowledgeable and shares your interest in the subject; as I’ll describe below there are numerous pitfalls awaiting the novice buyer and going to a reputable dealer will protect you from being, well, swindled.
The downside of going to a dealer tends to be cost. As much as they love and appreciate swords, these people are not charities. They buy and sell unique and high-quality items, mostly for collectors. As you might expect dealers tend to emphasize high-end pieces because they generate the biggest returns. The prestige items for the dealers are swords rated juyo token – “important work” or “important sword”. This rating was established by the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK) which is the leading Japanese body which ranks and certifies swords. Juyo token typically sell for $75,000 and up. Dealers will have some less expensive items but it’s rare to see a dealer offering a good quality katana-length blade for less than $5,000.
Part of the cost is the “papering” – the NBTHK certification – that is done for most of these swords. Collectors very much want blades with paper. This process takes time – months – and carries costs in $1000s for fees and for travel to the sword-judging venues. And after all that, your sword may not be awarded a paper.
So, if you want to start collecting but don’t have $5000-$10,000 to get a blade from a collector, where do you go? Gun shows – euphemistically called “arms collector” shows – often feature swords. These shows happen all over the US – here’s a link to some in the northeast. While these shows are mostly about guns they tend to also have war memorabilia: German daggers and pistols, Japanese flags, and Japanese swords. The swords are invariably described as “bring backs” – i.e. a G.I. got the sword somehow and brought it back to the US. The cliché hope for sword aficionados is that Grandpa Frank found a national treasure sword on the battlefield, didn’t know what it was, and it’s been sitting in his attic ever since; now the grandkids are selling off his stuff and they give the sword – which in their younger days they may or may not have tried out on tree branches and the like – to a gun seller on consignment.
I haven’t been to a gun show in decades, but I did buy several blades at shows in Maryland way back when. One was an average quality gendaito – 20th century hand-made sword – that I used in Iaido practice for many years. Another was a better quality gendaito that I gave someone as a gift. Finally I purchased a few other “project” blades, of low or unknown quality, that maybe someday I’ll have restored. Back at this time – the 1980s – swords at gun shows were going for $100 – $500. Of course an advantage is you can see and feel the swords, and may even be able to do a little bargaining. The sellers at these shows tend not to be experts, though they may have a kind of rough-and-ready awareness of value for different pieces.
Nowadays, my impression is that pickings at these shows are slim. In decades past, the US buying public was not very large nor well educated. There were good quality swords out there and there was little awareness on part of the sellers how valuable they could be. Today there are sword societies in most major US cities and awareness of at least the basics is very widespread. I suggest that the novice visit such shows for nothing else other than building some market awareness, but don’t expect much more that low-quality gunto – machine-made army swords.
I’ve left the most treacherous for last: eBay. You might think that Japanese swords are the perfect item to sell on eBay: high value, with a distinctive set of attributes and a rich body of lore, but with a worldwide, very distributed audience. Surely it’s here where one can find access to the greatest variety, and to the best deals?
Well, yes and no. There is tremendous variety, but also tremendous risk. Here’s an example listing:
Collectable Antiques Handmade Japanese Military Katana/Sword tiger Signed
Starting bid: US $9.99
Japanese Katana were widely used in Japanese Army during the Second World War because of its Cutting Ability, Thrusting Ability, Guarding Capacity, Technical Versatility and so on.As Japanese Katana’s good performance …
Read more here if you like: Handmade-Japanese-Military-Katana-Sword-tiger-Signed
This item presents itself as an antique but it is not. It is newly manufactured junk, created in China. Here’s one of the pictures from the listing:
Notice the bizarre, ornate scabbard in the background? Whatever one might say about the Japanese military of WW II, their taste was not so atrociously garish. Also, look at the blade. Everyone knows that Japanese swords have a folded construction and that they display “grain” similar to that of damascus steel. The vendor wants you to see the grain in the blade and conclude, this must be the real thing. And only 10 bucks! This guy don’t know what he’s got …
What he’s hoping to get is a sucker. Here are some guides that will help the novice not fall for junk like this:
Now, things are not as bad as all that. Yes, the fakes are abundant, but, if you have a little experience with real nihonto, the fakes are instantly detectable. Here’s a photo of the real thing:
If you look closely you can detect some grain in this blade, but it is far finer than the crude grain in the fake. More importantly, the blade shows the hamon, or temper line, the cloudy area of hard steel on the edge of the blade that is the distinctive feature of the nihonto. The hamon is also something that can be faked – for example by acid etching or by selective wire-brushing – but something very hard to simulate is the “activity” in the hamon, the areas of different density or texture.
This example is also from eBay. My impression is dealers are using eBay more and more to offer stock of less interest to pure collectors, but that are still authentic nihonto and worthy of study and appreciation. Maybe if one could meet up with these vendors, you would have the best of both worlds. But if not, I think there is still reasonable opportunity to get good blades at reasonable prices.
Of this I have some direct experience. Next post: My blades lost, and won, on eBay.
Between work and school haven’t had much time for blogging. Now as school comes to a close for me (more in a future post) time is free for important stuff – like swords. I own several Japanese swords and recently had my favorite refurbished. In the belief/hope some readers might be interested in the process, here’s a capsule of what was done.
This particular sword I bought in ‘08 or so, on eBay for $500. It was in guntō (or army sword) mounts and saya (scabbard). The saya was a common metal type, like this:
Guntō were mass-produced items, though they did come in various grades, stamped and machine forged for NCOs, with progressively better quality for officers of higher rank.
However I could see from the listing that the blade was not a gunto blade. It was common that officers replaced their gunto blade with a better blade, and sometimes a much older one. When I bought this sword I wasn’t sure what type of blade it had, but I could tell it was not the standard issue. It was fairly straight, something that is a common type for swords from the shinshintō period (1761 to 1876) of Japanese swordmaking. Here’s the whole blade:
The tang has a mei, or signature:
(The second image is a rubbing of the tang, with the mei highlighted.) The rust on the tang is blackish-grey and the carving of the mei is somewhat faded. I’ve seen a number of sword tangs made in the 1940’s and this was not like those.
Feeling this was a pretty good sword, I wanted it to have better furnishings. Years and years ago I thought I would just make a new scabbard, handle and the rest myself. Now I see that is not practical – maybe if I had 5 years (which I don’t have right now) to learn and practice I could make a passable saya, and then that would only be a portion of what I need.
Fortunately there are people in the US who do this stuff. I found and contacted the Fred Lohman Co., of Portland, OR. The good people there were able to create a complete set of furnishings, which is mainly the tsuka, or handle, and the saya, plus putting everything together. The sword was mounted with an Edo-period tsuba (guard) which I got (where else) on eBay. Here’s the result:
The saya is black lacquer, with a black steel kojiri, or end-cap. The tsuka is wrapped with a material called tsunami; this is a synthetic suede, it feels great on the hands, is tightly wrapped and feels like it will last a good, long time. Here’s a close-up of the handle and the tsuba:
Now this blade is outfitted close to the way that it was 150 or more years ago in the Edo period (I’m sure synthetic suede would have been more than welcome, if they had it). The main thing that remains is the polish. Japanese swords are famous for grained patterns in the steel, which come from folding of the metal during construction, and for the hamon, or “temper line”, the cloudy zone of hard steel that composes the edge of the sword. These can only be seen and appreciated when the sword has been polished – the surface burnished using grinding stones of increasing fineness. My sword, like many that have been in circulation, has been “cleaned”, perhaps with steel wool or something worse, and its polish is completely gone – the surface is hazy with fine scratches.
Like making the saya, tsuka and the rest, polishing is not to be undertaken buy the amateur. I’ve contacted a reputable polisher and put my sword on his list – the wait is 2 years. Meanwhile the sword waits in its place on the mantle. Rarely does a day go by where I do not take it out, practice a few cuts, then put it back.
Finally, if anyone was wondering on the title of this post, it’s from John Webster and The Duchess of Malfi, where quasi-narrator Delio tells his comrades he will not fail the mission he is undertaking:
Sir, fare you well:
I wish you all the joys of a bless’d father;
And, for my faith, lay this unto your breast,—
Old friends, like old swords, still are trusted best.