The Japanese sword is both a functional weapon of armed combat and also an object of great aesthetic beauty. It displays qualities of artistry and craftsmanship that can be understood and appreciated by those who would normally declare no actual interest in swords. This is what makes it unique in many respects when compared with swords produced purely as tools of war.
The origin of the Japanese sword can be traced back to nearly two millenia. Very early swords (c.300AD) have been found in Japanese burial mounds. They show signs of being heavily influenced by Japan’s near neighbours, Korea and China. Blades were long and single-edged, with simple tsuba mounts. Warriors at this time were predominantly horsemen and needed a long-bladed sword that could be used effectively at the gallop. Many of the swords carried by these Japanese clansmen were imported and not manufactured in Japan. The development of home-based sword making came later.
As we move into the early Middle Ages, the classical samurai sword style became more recognisable. This was augmented by the gradual change of the blade from straight to slightly curved. During the Heian Period (795-1185), Japanese swordsmiths began to mark their own work on the blade tang, so enabling the collector to identify date of manufacture, and also name and province of the maker. The appearance of a more varied hamon or pattern to the blade is also seen during this period.
Heian blades are regarded as some of the most perfect ever produced. Consequently, they have acquired an almost mythical status, with most surviving examples far beyond the reach of most collectors. Other important periods of sword manufacture include the Kamakura Period (1185-1392), Yoshino or Namboku Cho Period (1333-1393), Muromachi Period (1392-1477), Edo Period (1603-1867) and Showa Period (1926-1989). The carrying of samurai swords in public was outlawed in 1867, resulting in a rapid decline in the number of working swordsmiths.
With the revival of Japanese nationalism during the Showa Period, a parallel revival in sword making was witnessed. This came to an abupt end with the defeat of Japan in 1945, but Japanese sword making has revived again in recent years with a great demand for particular swordsmiths.
After the demise of the samurai class in the late-nineteenth century, Japan entered into an unprecedented period of contact with the West. This was reflected in dramatic changes in sword design for regular army forces. Although the traditional samurai sword was still being made during this period (albeit in small numbers), military swords from the 1870’s-1900’s were heavily influenced by European designs, most notably those carried by the French military. Some officers’ swords were virtual copies of French swords. This is evident when viewing hilt styles.
One of the most common Japanese sword styles is the kyu-gunto pattern. It retains the long grip associated with the samurai sword, but has a knucklebow and pommel of European design. There are many variations of this pattern, with a version for both officers and ncos. From the 1920’s, many officers reverted back to the classic samurai sword form or new shin-gunto pattern. Most examples in the market date from this period. Blades were either machine-made, hand-forged or earlier family or ancestral blades attached to new hilts. They were carried by all branches of the Imperial Army.
Large numbers were destroyed at the end of WW2, but significant quantities were also brought home as souvenirs and are common at arms shows.
COLLECTING JAPANESE SWORDS
It is often remarked that a new collector must try to read as much as possible about their chosen subject before making any kind of major purchase. This fact is absolutely essential when considering the purchase of a Japanese samurai sword. This is a specialised field of collecting and can be quite complicated, with many levels of price, quality, age and category. It is advisable to study the subject in reasonable depth in order that you have a basic idea of what you want.
The internet has spawned many collectors’ clubs and forums. These can be invaluable when asking important questions and can also save you making some basic errors. It is also vital that you know how to handle and care for a samurai sword. If a blade is not treated with care, it can seriously deteriorate, as can any inherent value. This is the same for delicate hilt and scabbard fittings. Do not attempt any kind of restoration if you do not have the necessary skills.
Polishing a samurai sword is best left to the professionals. It takes years of training and special skills to do this job. If you are making a first purchase, it might be best to acquire your sword from a reputable dealer or auction house. You might possibly have to pay a little bit more but you can at least be comforted in the knowledge that you will be buying from a source that has a reputation in the market to protect. You will also receive an official invoice that provides a safeguard if you have any problems in the future. Try to avoid buying online, unless you value the seller’s reputation.
Japanese blades are notoriously difficult to photograph well and you might find that problems only become apparent when the sword has already been sold.
Many first-time sword collectors with surplus funds tend to go on an initial spending spree. There is no denying that this can be great fun and you might also believe that you have got some great bargains. In reality, this “blunderbus” approach can leave you stock rich but quality poor. In the case of Japanese swords, one needs to collect with great care and discernment. It is far better to have a small collection of fine pieces than a ragbag of average swords.
Japanese swords have always been a target of the faker and this trend has grown considerably in recent years. Most of the fakes are now being produced in China and sold via internet auction sites. The quantities are huge and the market has been saturated. To the experienced collector they are laughably poor, but to the first-timer they are tempting because of their very low price. This fact should always raise alarm bells. The quality of these swords is very bad, with crude attempts to age and distress the sword. The sight of red rust normally indicates that a sword has been left out in the rain for a few weeks to enhance the ageing process. Sellers of these swords will always declare that they are genuine, have been in China for many years and were formerly carried by Japanese forces in WW2. Their auctions are nearly always private (another warning bell), so prospective buyers cannot access the no doubt poor feedback lodged by previously disgruntled purchasers. Profit is gained by charging extortionate amounts for shipping. The sword itself probably costs only a few pounds to manufacture. The best “rule of thumb” is to never buy a sword that is being sold out of China and especially so if it is a private auction. It will definitely be a fake.
© Collecting Japanese Swords article by Harvey Withers – www.harveywithers.co.uk