Token Society

History of collecting and studying japanese swords (from a gaikokujin's perspective)

During the Meiji period, when Japan decided to adopt Western military and economic models, Japanese swords fittings and armour were rejected as being out-dated and inferior to Western weapons. This had been decisively demonstrated with the abortive revolution by Saigo Takamori and his Satsuma samurai, who were suppressed by a conscript army that were armed with modern weapons. The spirit of the samurai was not enough to overcome this advanced technology and their old weapons were largely rejected.

Western countries had forced trading treaties onto Japan and "opened" the country in spite of the shogunate policy of isolation that had been in place since the early Tokugawa or Edo period. As part of this move, they had demanded the opening of certain free ports such as Yokohama and Kobe. In these ports, known as concession ports, Japanese law was suspended and that of the countries concerned replaced it. Such manifestly unfair laws
were greatly resented by the Japanese government and added to the social unrest in the country. However, many Europeans and Americans came into direct contact with both the samurai and their formidable swords, sometimes with deadly consequences, but now they were considered as outdated weapons.

Japanese swords and fittings were crated up and sent to the docks for export. A brisk trade in these curios soon meant that many items were being sent abroad by the foreigners. Old blades were re-mounted into ornate lacquered saya (hama-mono) especially for export and taken to the docks.

In Europe especially, the arts of Japan became very fashionable, and important artistic movements such as the French Impressionist painting school were directly inspired by the wood block prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, even though these were only used as packing in crates! It was at this time in the Meiji period that many of the large collections were put together in the West as gentlemen collectors bought these "exotic weapons" from this "quaint little backward country". Some of these collections became huge, as the buyers only needed to pay a fraction of the true value.

Many years ago I was acquainted with an old gentleman who was in his nineties at the time who recounted the story of a day spent in his youth at the East India Docks in the east of London. Here he was watching a ship unload crates from the orient using massive high cranes to do the job. One crate slipped and fell and its contents were spilled over the dockside. This was not an uncommon occurrence as it was considered by the dockers to be one of the perks of the job if they were able help themselves to a few choice items. On this occasion, however, they were not interested, as the entire crate contained only "Chinese belt-buckles". Of course, these were actually tsuba and my acquaintance managed that day to begin, what was to become quite a sizeable tsuba collection!

It has been speculated that the type of items collected at this time closely reflected the national characteristics of the collectors. For instance the Italians collected very ornate and decorative objects and the Germans bought specific schools that they could efficiently classify into groups, whilst the Americans bought everything, reflecting the multi-racial
make up of that country.

The knowledge of the sword was not generally very high but these collectors often had a good eye for quality as they were normally surrounded by good quality objects in their every day lives. Some, however, managed to learn a lot about the subject, often from swordsmiths who were still active or at least alive at the time. Many of these more < educated gentlemen wrote papers and gave lectures, which are still around today and through the early part of the twentieth century there was a considerable amount of translation from Japanese sources on the subject of swords and armour.

For obvious reasons, World War 2 and its aftermath caused an immediate decline in the popularity of Japanese swords in the West, but at the same time many swords came to the West as surrendered trophies. Most of these went to America or Great Britain but all of the Allied powers received some swords from homecoming troops. Indeed it is said that many now reside in the sea off the disembarkation ports such as Liverpool as the troops feared they were illegally trying to bring home unauthorised weapons! However, many swords found their way onto the walls of the veteran's homes or into regimental museums.

America was especially lucky in this respect, as they were also the occupation forces in Japan. As such, when the laws prohibiting the ownership and making of swords was enacted there, many were able to acquire good old swords rather than just Gunto. This meant that after the war, there were vast numbers of Japanese swords in America. Both there and in Europe, for the few that were still interested in the arts of the Japanese sword, it was again possible to form good collections at very reasonable prices, largely due to the anti-Japanese feeling prevailing immediately after the war.

As Japan recovered economically from the war and became a rich manufacturing country, there seems to have been a desire for Japan to buy back its cultural assets that had been so widely dispersed over the previous hundred years or so. This applied especially to Japanese swords and armour and during the 1970's and 1980's many sword dealers descended on Europe, America and Australia. They were able to offer what appeared to be extremely high prices for swords and as they were plentiful, many Western dealers did good business with them and made healthy profits. From a Western perspective, this meant that many important swords were lost to us as they returned home to Japan as most of the large collections that were formed in the 19th century were broken up and dispersed through the auction rooms of London and New York.

This heightened interest in the Japanese sword meant that many study clubs were formed or that existing ones became more popular. The To-ken Society of Great Britain, having been formed in the early 1960's is the oldest in Europe, whilst the national club, The Japan Sword Society of the US is similarly, the largest in the U.S.A.. These organisations attempt to educate the members on the subject as well as hold seminars and sword taikai. The luckiest have had authoritative Japanese experts as their teachers, such as John Yumoto in the US and Mishina Kenji in the UK. These clubs thrived and are still very active.

When Japan's "bubble economy" burst in 1989 the dealers from Japan stayed away from the sales and business obviously became more difficult for the Western dealers that had entirely based their business on supplying the Japanese market. It soon became obvious that they needed to adapt to the change in circumstances or cease trading in Japanese swords, fittings and armour. It was necessary for them to pay far greater attention to their domestic markets and the needs of the domestic collectors, which were not necessarily the same as those required by their Japanese clientele. The average Western collector needs to understand Japanese swords fully before he is likely to become a customer for the dealer. Once having gained some knowledge then he can buy with a degree of confidence. Many opportunities to see and handle swords are to be had at the large shows devoted to the subject, both in America and Europe. Annual shows at San Francisco, Tampa and Chicago are good examples of this both from a social and educational standpoint.

It has always been difficult for the non-Japanese reader to access the invaluable information to be found in many books in Japan. The few English language books available are all rather basic, although invaluable in the earlier stages of collecting or studying the subject. Therefore, the translation of books such as Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords by Nagayama Kokan and others, has been an amazing leap forward and raised standards to new heights of understanding. Add to this the access to top quality swords available to all, at events such as the annual NBTHK conventions, it may be seen that the study and understanding of Japanese swords by Westerners is in a healthy state. New technology has been quickly utilised with Internet web sites and discussion groups devoted to the subject of Japanese swords. There is even a reasonably healthy trade in swords on Internet based auctions.

With a better understanding of swords, the necessity for preservation immediately becomes apparent. With fewer possibilities these days of making an overnight fortune on swords, the emphasis may have shifted towards proper restoration by Japanese artisans whether living in Japan or abroad. Primarily this means the polishing of swords but also includes koshirae repairs, habaki making and shira-saya making. Although these services have been available for many years, now much of the secrecy and mystery has been removed as artisans, including important swordsmiths themselves, visit foreign countries and form friendly relationships with interested parties.

Today there is considerable interest in shinsakuto which are seen as very healthy swords and the quest to discover the secrets of the old masters of swordmaking is watched with great interest in the West. Several well attended exhibitions and displays of shinsakuto, often accompanied by the makers, have been held in both Europe and the U.S.A. The key to all this is mutual understanding and communication that can be best served by the free flow of information, whether it is in the translation of more books, internet sites or whatever the future holds. The Japanese sword society in the West is in a healthy state to progress into the 21st century but still thirsts for knowledge and information from Japan.

Clive Sinclaire
Published March 2001 edition - Token Shunju Press, Tokyo, Japan

"The sword is the soul of the warrior. If any forget or lose it he will not be excused."

- Tokugawa Ieyasu