How to Recognise a Good Sword

Since I started writing a few short essays for B.K.A. News, I have been asked, by one or two members, my opinion on their swords. Sometimes I have been horrified by what I have seen but occasionally I have been pleasantly surprised. However, in both instances it has been apparent that, even if the owner treasured the piece in question, he or she would not know really what they possessed. This has prompted me to jot down these few notes to try and give a few checkpoints when looking at a blade and to help avoid the worst pitfalls when considering acquiring a Japanese sword.

The close study of Japanese swords is a highly time consuming and difficult process (although highly rewarding) and so these brief notes can be no more than a very rough guide to sword appraisal. Further many of the points are highly subjective and it is a great start if you already have a basis of having seen good swords. In other words, if you have seen the best then you have a bench-mark for judging the rest.

There is a reasonably logical procedure for examining a Japanese sword blade and this is used in the practice of Kantei Nyusatsu. In Kantei sessions, a blade is presented to a participant with any inscription there might be on the Nakago covered and the maker's name must then be guessed. If the procedures are followed, this apparently daunting task may be accomplished with less difficulty than might be expected. The procedure for Kantei, is as follows:

1) First the Sugata or shape of the blade must be examined. The shape should appear strong, the curvature natural and the Kissaki should be in proportion to the width and length of the blade. The Mune or back edge's shape and height should also be noted. When examining a blade's Sugata, the blade is best held upright at arm's length.

In fact the Sugata may impart a great deal of information about the age of the blade and sometimes about the area in which it was made. However, if the blade has a good shape and sits comfortably in the hand, there is a fair chance that it has some quality. It is impossible for a good sword to have a bad shape unless it has been altered, damaged or repaired in some way. This frequently happens and so it is important to try and imagine the Ubu (unaltered) shape of the blade.

2) The next area to study is the Hamon. This is often referred to as the 'tempered' edge. This is where the sword has been quenched to provide a high carbon steel area which will hold a sharpened edge. It will be seen in contrast to the body of the sword.

The Hamon may be in an infinite variety of patterns, but appears as a milky white colour on a properly polished blade. The upper edge of the Hamon will be formed from tiny martensite crystals called Nie. Sometimes these are too small to see with the naked eye and are then known as Nioi. It is Me and Nioi that border the Hamon and form the pattern of the Hamon and they should be examined very closely, ideally by holding the blade at eye level, ideally pointed towards a spotlight. The Nioi- guchi (line of the Hamon) should form an unbroken and constant line from the Machi area (bottom of the blade) along its entire length. A break in the Hamon, called Nioi-giri is a serious flaw and should be avoided. It is also important that the Boshi (the area of the Hamon within the Kissaki) does not disappear off the edge. This is also a serious flaw in the blade and is only acceptable on great swords of historical and cultural significance! No compromise should be accepted here.

3) If Sugata and Hamon pass muster, the sword should be OK. However, we need to assure ourselves that it is hand forged and not a cleverly mass-produced piece such as a Showato (mass produced during World War 2). This is ascertained by examining both the Jigane and Jihada. The Jigane is the actual steel from which the sword is made and might show subtle change colour and texture whilst the Jihada is the surface pattern of the Jigane caused by the forging process and emphasised by the polishing. This is mostly visible between the edge of the Hamon and the Shinogi or ridge line. The Jihada, appearing like a wood grain, is described by its type and size (i.e. Ko-mokume small burl) and there are many criteria for judging the quality of the Jihada. However, for the purposes of this essay, I guess that it is sufficient to say that if Jihada is present, then the sword is at least a hand forged blade.

4) Whilst undertaking this detailed examination of a blade, any flaws or faults will become apparent. Some of these may be more acceptable than others, dependent on the age of the blade. In other words, a 12th century blade is entitled to have a few problems that would not be tolerated in a modern sword. However, all faults and flaws obviously detract from both the beauty and value of a sword.

Look for holes or bubbles in the sword which may indicate air or impurities that have been included in the forging process and may be just under the surface of the blade. Also check the Ha-saki (cutting edge) very carefully for hairline vertical cracks running from the Ha-saki into the Hamon. Called Ha-giri, these are very serious flaws as if the sword were used to cut, at the point of Ha-giri it would bend or break. Ha-giri is not acceptable under any circumstance.

5) Finally inspection of the Nakago or tang takes place. The Nakago on a good sword will always be carefully finished. The patination should be a good colour and the rust should not be cleaned off under any circumstances. If there are any inscriptions these will be of interest. A good Mei will be skilfully and confidently written, not untidy, jumbled or hesitant. It almost does not matter whether you can read the inscription (most modern Japanese cannot read the old Kanji in sword inscriptions) so long as it looks confidently executed.

You will understand from the above what I mean by there are many subjective judgements to be made when judging a Japanese sword blade. There are many other subtle details in both Jihada and Hamon (known as Hataraki or activities) which add enormously to the beauty of the Japanese sword, however, detailed explanation of these are not really within the scope of this short essay.

Finally I would make a couple of points which may prevent you making a costly mistake. The most commonly encountered swords in the West are the previously referred to, Showa-to. These blades were made in the Showa period (1926-89) and the vast majority were mass-produced for the Imperial Army and Navy during the Pacific War period. These swords are not considered as true Nihon-to and as they are seen as symbolising Japan's recent militaristic past they are still illegal in Japan. Showa-to are reasonably easy to recognise from their small stamps on the Nakago (usually Seki or Showa) and often they are signed with untidy and loosely carved characters. Often an unsharpened inch or so of blade (known as Ubu-ha) is found just above the Habaki and these heavy and clumsy swords are usually found in Gunto (army) mounts. Mostly they appeal to militaria collectors and I do not think they are suitable for Iai practice or the serious study of Japanese art swords.

Having said this, I would point out that during the Showa period there were some highly talented swordsmiths working producing very fine blades indeed. There are also a minority of blades found in Gunto mountings that are fine old 'family' blades that were traditionally made. Maybe we'll discuss these in a later issue of B.K.A. News.

Meanwhile, should any member have any questions on an aspect of Japanese swords, I would be happy to attempt to answer them.

Clive Sinclaire,
Chairman, Token Society of Great Britain
Reprinted with permission of British Kendo Assoc.