Book – Katana Kantei: Facts and Fundamentals

A refreshing look at Japanese sword appraisal

Review of a new book published by Kodansha, originally authored by Nakahara Nobuo and translated by Paul Martin

Originally published in Japanese as Katana no kanshō — Kihon to Jissen 刀の鑑賞 基本と実践 (Sword Appraisal — Theory and Practice) as a semi-private venture, the book has been released to the rest of the world after nihontō Paul Martin put great effort translating it into English and its adaptation for the Western world.

Its original author, Nakahara Nobuo, was trained as a professional appraiser under Murakami Kōsuke, a student of the famed Hon’ami Kōson. The interest here lies with a lineage that is different from those of most japanese sword study material ever publised in English, even more so in recent times. The NBTHK, founded only after the Second World War by individuals of various backgrounds, has effectively been the Vatican of all things japanese swords in the last 60 years. But the Hon’ami tradition had evolved over 400 years of direct contact with the finest blades by appointment from the Shōgun, and this book offers an interesting insight into the teachings of the Hon’ami tradition. Although both Hon’ami Kōson and Murakami Kōsuke were involved with the NBTHK in its early years, they had soon broken away, leaving but only bits of the Hon’ami influence for the NBTHK legacy.

– Ever thought that some swords might have been stripped of their signature on purpose?
– Ever wondered if our perception of the sword shapes in relation to periods was correct?
– Ever preoccupied yourself with the implications of suriage, the shortening of a blade?
– Ever doubt that the common approach of the Gokaden, the Five Great Traditions, might be just one way to look at the whole of sword knowledge, among many others?

Other topics covered will include…
The sword as a weapon・Science and the swords・The origins of the Gokaden 五ヶ伝 approach (the Five Traditions of Yamashiro, Yamato, Bizen Sōshū and Minō)・Thoughts on appreciation of the shape and overall architecture of swords・Perspectives on mumei and suriage・The study of actual samples with accompanying sword pictures and illustrations・And a lot more…

Read the following excerpt for a foretaste of this refreshing, enlightening book on japanese sword appraisal and study.


On mumei [1] blades and appraisal

[1] Mumei 無銘 means “no signature”; Swords that are not signed
Excerpt provided by Paul Martin, reproduced here with permission


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*Translator’s note: In the previous section Nakahara sensei stated that he does not acknowledge mumei blades. To clarify his reasoning, he was saying that signatures are removed from blades in order to increase their potential worth. However, he later noted that there are occasions when he would even recommend mumei blades. The thrust of his opinion is directed at mumei blades that are attributed to famous smiths. Although this may initially seem like an extreme opinion, it does deserve some further consideration. The reasoning is solid: take a blade by a lesser-known smith that resembles the workmanship of a famous smith, remove the signature and the chances of it being considered the work of the well-known smith increase. I am sure that this practice has probably taken place more often than we would like to think.

However, there are many other plausible reasons given for the occurrence of mumei blades. One that is frequently stated concerns the majority of long blades from the Nanbokucho period that have had osuriage performed on them. This was apparently done in order to make them more easily wieldable in later more tumultuous periods. However, this kind of practice does beg the question, particularly when applied to the works of well-known masters of the craft: Why wasn’t the signature preserved using one of the known techniques of orikaeshi-mei or gaku-mei? However, also to be taken into account is that during the extended periods of civil warfare in Japan, sword appreciation was not paramount. Swords of those periods were primarily weapons and were not in art polish; they were utilitarian objects and the craftsmen given the job to shorten the blade may have done just that without regard to preserving the mei. I personally feel that high-level suriage craftsmanship like that of the Umetada school (under the patronage of the Hon’ami school) did not appear until the Early Edo period when the function of swords had changed somewhat. At that time of prevailing peace, the use of swords declined and they became a status symbol of the samurai; thus fine gold, kinpun and shumei attributions (along with decorative fittings) gained in popularity. In addition, the rising merchant classes could also afford such luxuries and in many cases were able to commission more extravagant work than their samurai contemporaries.

There are various opinions as to why swordsmiths would at times not sign swords. One commonly known reason is that when swords were made as offerings to shrines, swordsmiths would not sign the work out of respect to the gods. This also applied to swords being presented to one’s social superior. A sword would be presented to a daimyo unsigned, then he would request that the smith sign it. Many Yamato den works are unsigned—possibly because the smiths were in the employ of the shrines. In addition to this many shrines possessed large amounts of swords which would be loaned out during times of conflict. Many would not be returned or were lost or broken in battle, or another sword would be returned in its place. As one would expect, daimyo would also have their own armories filled with swords for such occasions. It has also been expressed that these amassed, stored swords made by the retained swordsmiths would also include either unsigned examples made as a matter of course, or left unsigned because of their lower quality (kazu-uchi mono). However, in keeping with Nakahara sensei’s theory there are many extant kazu-uchi mono that are signed. In the late Edo period, a substantial number of blades were made to accommodate the tourist boom. As the workmanship was typically poor, there are consequently many unsigned (or gimei) examples.

Since the inception of the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyōkai (NBTHK) and the sword collecting boom of the post-war period, the issuance of kantei-sho (authenticating papers) became widespread to the general public. Whereas swords with false inscriptions are not awarded kantei-sho, the allegedly spurious inscriptions of many blades have been removed in order to obtain an attribution. In some cases, the attribution of the kantei-sho was in accordance with the inscribed name that was removed from the nakago. Such occurrences actually support Nakahara sensei’s theory on the subject: the blade already had a spurious signature to enhance its worth, but now that it has become mumei its credibility is higher than one with a questionable signature. The fundamental problem is that authenticating papers are based solely on opinion. Unless one was there at the time of an unsigned blade’s manufacture, there is no guarantee of an attribution being absolutely correct. There are many instances of unsigned blades receiving different attributions depending upon when or to which scholarly group it is submitted. This is not a surprising matter as the workmanship of swords is very subjective to the viewer. The variables involved in the blade’s history (number and quality of polishes, the polisher, shade of nugui, shape changes, damage) can alter a sword beyond normal recognition. In addition, there have been occasions when living smiths have been handed their own work and asked if it was theirs, and they answered, “probably”.

Even today in Japan there are occasions when blades may require attributing inscriptions due to unusual circumstances. Swordsmiths usually have a stock of blades in various degrees of completion. I have heard of instances in modern times when a swordsmith has passed away, and the remaining blades have been given to friends as gifts. Occasionally, the owner may get another smith to quench it, and if it is unsigned, have a kinzogan attribution added to the nakago.
This kind of debate on mumei blades is not limited to the ones submitted to hozon or tokubetsu-hozon. The questions raised by mumei blades are debated right up to National Treasure level. Until the technology is invented to conclusively appraise mumei blades (or questionable mei for that matter), this kind of problem is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

*Translator’s note: In the previous chapter Nakahara sensei requested that sword enthusiasts study harder to reduce the necessity of kantei-sho, therefore limiting the opportunity for unscrupulous persons to manipulate market prices or fool anyone into thinking a sword is any better than it actually is. This applies to all blades, but particularly mumei blades.

Most collectors want to identify what they have and whether it is genuine. However, for many people (Japanese and non-Japanese alike) the amount of study required for this level of skill is more than they are willing (or able) to invest for what most regard as a hobby. For people not living in Japan this is pretty much impossible, as access to the quality and depth of examples of all schools, periods and makers (let alone a range of one person’s workmanship) is not readily available. Ultimately, the majority of sword enthusiasts have no option but to rely on the opinion of those who they regard as authorities on Japanese swords. This translates into modern kantei-sho.

I used the word ‘opinion’ specifically, as the world of sword appraisal is full of pitfalls. Given the difficulty of the subject, and the subjectivity of appraising blades, an appraisal is ultimately that person’s or group’s opinion. Consider Masamune. To some he is seen as the greatest smith to have ever lived. However, this fame is not without some controversy. Many examples of Masamune’s work are unsigned and even among the top scholars there is disagreement on several of his attributed works. For example some scholars feel that one of the Hocho Masamune is actually the work of (Rin) Tomomitsu. The sori does not correspond with the timeframe within which Masamune was active, and the blade displays utsuri. In addition to this, it is claimed by some that definitive examples of meito by various smith illustrated in several taikan are in fact gimei. Again, these claims cannot actually be proved or disproved as they are subject to opinion, and opinions can change from one generation of scholars to another.

Given the amount of smiths who have been active in the last 800 or so years, it is likely that a large number of them still remain unrecorded. However, the thrust of Nakahara sensei’s point is not that you have to become a master of kantei, but that if you master the fundamentals of swords you can distinguish a good sword from one that is not quite what it is trying to appear to be.

To compound the problem of kantei-sho, there are also many forgeries in existence. Some of these are very good. The only way to be truly sure that a kantei-sho is genuine is to check the serial number with the issuing authority. Also, please thoroughly inspect the kantei-sho and the blade and ensure that they belong together.
All kantei-sho are the opinion expressed by that group, and even if a blade has a kantei-sho it is the responsibility of the interested party to thoroughly investigate it and the blade’s authenticity before a transaction commences.
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