Brief History of Modern Japanese Swords.
A Western and Personal Perspective


On the 6th August 1945, the day of the black rain and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the Japanese sword finally lost all claims to being a decisive weapon of war. A long and glorious history of sword making for practical use on the battlefield, ended in a mushroom cloud. After the Japanese surrender, a ban on sword production was strictly enforced by the occupying forces and Japanese swords were systematically hunted down and destroyed.

Similarly, it was thought that the Hito-rei edict of 1876 (banning the wearing of the Japanese sword by the Samurai) if less dramatically and cruelly, would also effectively finish the manufacturing of the traditional Japanese sword. However, the Japanese sword, in its ever evolving styles, has proved durable in the face of both interfering bureaucracy and thermo-nuclear fission.

Japanese swords of the 20th century have indeed had a chequered history. In the very early years very few swordsmiths could earn a living exclusively forging blades, and the few that did usually made copies of Koto (old swords) for the collectors of the time. Although the Emperor Meiji was a patron of the sword and appointed Gassan Sadakazu (the 1st generation) and Miyamoto Kanenori to the status of 'Teishitsu Gigei' (the equivalent of todays Ningen Kokuho - Living National Treasure) few orders for swords were made until the militarists began to take hold of Japan in the Taisho and Showa period. It was then that the Gunto (army sword) whose dimensions were generally regulated to about 2 Shaku 2 Sun, was popularised. The swords of the Nihon To Tanren Kai of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, together with the swords of the Denshusho and those of Horii Toshihide of Muroran, are among the best and most representative of the pre-Pacific War Showa period i.e. 1926-41. Such traditionally forged and water quenched blades are known as Gendai-to (modern swords).

Also in this period and throughout the Pacific War, poor quality swords were mass-produced as weapons for the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. All officers were required to carry a sword as part of their uniform and to inspire them with a sense of Bushido, but as always in Japanese history, when there had been a massive demand for swords, quality was the first casualty. These swords were often made by hastily recruited blacksmiths who had but a rudimentary knowledge of sword making and who appeared "like the sprouting of bamboo shoots after the rain". Unlike the previously mentioned Gendai-to, such swords have little or no artistic merit. They often carry a stamp with the kanji 'SHO', from Showa, or the kanji 'SEKI' after one of the main production centres. The significance of these stamps seem to be the object of much interest and interminable discussion amongst some Western collectors. Such blades are usually signed in a very loose and unattractive manner and the nakago are generally poorly finished.

On these blades a hamon (hardened edge) may seem to be present. However, on Showa-to it is produced by quenching the blade in oil rather than in the traditional manner, which is in water. The use of oil means that the quenching process may be carried out at a much lower temperature, thus avoiding the risk of flaws such as hagiri (edge cracks) appearing (or, indeed of nie appearing!). The 'hamon' thus produced is not a true or real hamon but only an imitation. With the lack of proper materials and short cuts in the forging process, it is difficult to call these blades, known as Showa-to, true Japanese swords. Such swords are often collected by those whose interest lies in Japanese militaria and the military history of this period.

When the occupying forces came to the Japanese homeland in 1945, the making of Japanese swords as well as the practice of the martial arts was banned in order to democratise Japan and remove the militaristic influences of the recent past. Many outstanding and important swords were either looted by the occupation forces or destroyed at this time. No distinction between those swords with artistic and historical merit and Showa-to were made and so valuable and historic swords were lost forever by ignorance.

It was not until several years later (1949) that there was any easing of this ban. The occasion was a special dedication to the Ise Grand Shrine which takes place every twenty five years and had done so for the preceding one thousand years. For this ceremony about sixty swords by selected smiths were required to be made and permission was granted for this to be done. These swords were not the normal curved sword but of the ancient style known as Kiriha-zukuri Chokuto and some measured from 80 to 96 centimetres in length. It was, of course, a great honour for the swordsmiths who were allowed to resume their craft for this special occasion. They included Miyaguchi Toshihiro, Takahashi Sadatsugu and Miyari Akihira (the latter two were subsequently made 'Living National Treasures') as well as Ishi Akifusa, Nigara Kunitoshi, Endo Mitsuiki and Sakai Shigemasa. Sato Kanzan Sensei stated that the 1949 ceremony was the first important stimulus given to the swordsmiths of Japan in the post-war period.

In 1953, a new law allowed the resumption of sword making and the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (The Japanese Art Sword Preservation Society - known as the NBTHK) was formed in 1960. The crisis had passed and the Japanese sword was saved from complete destruction. Today the NBTHK does much important work, which includes the operation of a smelter, or tatara that produces the raw material (called tamahagane) for forging a sword, the running of the Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo and the organising of the various artisan's annual competitions. It is also considered that another important function of the NBTHK is to foster communication between various artisans of the Japanese sword. This is quite different from earlier times when schools of swordsmiths jealously guarded their manufacturing secrets, but after World War II virtually an entire generation of swordsmiths was lost and the survivors had to communicate with each other in order for the arts to survive. In Showa 30th year (1955) the first post-war competition and exhibition of Shinsaku-to was held. Apparently the quality of pieces submitted was, understandably, not particularly good at this time.

The annual contest that is organised by the NBTHK covers many aspects of the arts of the Japanese sword, including sword making, blade polishing, scabbard making and metalworking. These competitions as well as giving swordsmiths something to strive for, serve to give the Japanese collector or customer for a sword, the confidence of having instant provenance from a recognised and successful artist. This is somewhat different to Western appreciation, where we tend to like an object more for its own sake rather than mainly because the creator has a certain placing in a competition. I think we are more prepared to back our own opinion, with less reliance being placed on certification, as regards style, quality and authentication of a blade, than are many of the Japanese 'investors' in Japanese swords.

When blades are entered for the annual competition they are all ranked from the top to the bottom. This ranking is very important as it gives relative values to each smith's work for the next year. When a swordsmith has consistently ranked in the top few, he is awarded the rank of 'Mukansa'. This means that a Mukansa's work, although entered into the competition is not subject to being judged. Above the rank of Mukansa is the rank of Ningen Kokuho (Living National Treasure). Currently two swordsmiths who were previously Mukansa hold this rank, Gassan Sadakazu and Sumitani Masamine (examples of the latter's work and several Mukansa swordsmiths are in the present exhibition).

As previously stated, now that the nuclear age had dawned, the Japanese sword had lost all its reason as a weapon of war. Consequently its artistic rather than practical properties, which had always been appreciated by the knowledgeable and educated Japanese, now began to be even more emphasised. However, most of the properties of a good sword may be traced back to the sword's traditional role as a weapon. A sword must be of good shape and balance, be made of good steel, have flexibility and a sharp edge, as well as being attractive to look at in detail. The annual competitions, as well as shows put on by various commercial and retail outlets, such as Ohnishi Token, have helped to greatly improve the standard of Shinsaku-to since 1954.

Swordsmiths are licensed by the government and allowed to make no more than two long swords per month. This number was arrived at by observing the swordsmith Akihira Miyari who apparently was a slow and methodical worker who would only produce two good swords per month. Many swordsmiths and artisans that I have spoken to believe that this is a very low figure and many present day swordsmiths would be quite capable of producing more than two swords per month. This rule is also designed to prevent the manufacture of cheap weapons with no artistic value. The rules, which are still in effect are:

1 ) Only a licensed swordsmith can produce a Japanese sword (any cutting instrument with a blade over 6 inches, a hamon, and a rivet hole in the tang. Edged weapons less that 6 inches in length and lacking a rivet hole are considered knives, or ko-gatana, and are not subject to regulation). A licence may be obtained only by serving an apprenticeship under a licensed swordsmith for a minimum of five years.

2) A licensed swordsmith may produce a maximum of two long swords (over 2 feet) or three short swords (under 2 feet) per month.

3) All swords must be registered with the Agency of Cultural Affairs.

Today, most newly made swords (Shinaskuto) are sent straight to the polisher, habaki maker and shira-saya maker, although some are mounted in modern koshirae. Many swords are now made in the Bizen style which is popular with the Japanese collectors. Members will remember seeing Sumitani Masamine's Ichimonji-utsushi in London a couple of years ago. This sword had a very flamboyant choji midare hamon in the style of the Kamakura period Fukuoka Ichimonji school and it may be that this 'National Treasure' swordsmith's skill in Bizen Den has influenced many other younger swordsmiths. When looking at such swords we may search for and sometimes actually see utsuri. It seems that in the challenge to equal the swords of bygone days, the quest to reproduce utsuri is very important. Although a kind of utsuri may sometimes be found, to me this resembles the shirake utsuri of Muromachi period Kaga or Sue Seki blades and I have not seen a convincing Bizen midare utsuri, for instance. There is much work still to be done!

This post war period has been compared to the renaissance of Japanese swords that heralded the advent of the Shinshinto period in the late 18th century. There are I guess, some valid comparisons. Both periods followed a decline in Japanese sword production and both periods seek to recapture past glorious ages of the Japanese sword as well as innovating great changes in production methods. I think the current changes in sword making are at least as drastic as these earlier changes and possibly more significant. I hope they will not be accompanied by the same eventual decline and that today's artists manage to train sufficiently skilful students who are able to preserve and continue the arts.

I believe that the Japanese sword establishment is still a very conservative body. I think that many of the older generation believe it is impossible for foreigners to really appreciate the Japanese sword, as it is a peculiarly Japanese cultural asset. When I started collecting swords in the mid 1960's very little information was available to non-Japanese reading foreigners. There was also a feeling that those few who had any knowledge would jealously guard it and not pass it on. I have never been sure of whether this was because they were never really sure of their facts and did not wish to tee 'exposed', or whether it was considered commercially sensitive information. Either way, it was an unhealthy and secretive attitude that pervaded.

Fortunately today, within the younger generation of sword people from Japan, many of whom have travelled abroad and been exposed to Western collectors, there is a far less conservative attitude, as well as a great deal of information available through useful and informative translations. The present exhibition is an example of genuine Japanese friends co-operating with foreigners to bring the beauty of the Japanese sword to a wider audience.

I wonder how Western interest in Japanese swords may eventually effect their production. At least one Westerner has already become a qualified swordsmith after a Japanese apprenticeship and I am sure that it cannot be too long before some Gaikokujin is entering the annual sword-making competitions. A foreigner who becomes a Mukansa swordsmith is no more far fetched than one becoming a Yokozuna in another very conservative and traditional Japanese area - Sumo. It would certainly be most interesting to be around in 100 years time to see how today's Shinsaku-to are regarded and the place they have found within the global history of the Japanese sword.

I personally find it amazing that the Japanese sword provides such inspiration to so many non-Japanese. Apart from those collectors and students of the Japanese sword in Japan, I believe there must now be thousands outside of the country. When it is considered that nowadays as well as non-Japanese collectors there are English artisans submitting tsuba to the annual competitions in Japan, that there are thriving polishing businesses both in Europe and USA, that expert lacquer work may also be done in Europe, as well as Habaki making, shirasaya making and tsukamaki and not to mention the number of sword dealers and Kendo/Iai dojo that abound, the amount of people involved with the Japanese sword is staggering. It is a truly amazing thing and I know of no art form that is also an effective and awesome weapon, that transcends so many cultural barriers and effects so many different people in this manner, providing them with such sustained personal motivation.

Finally, a word about so-called Shin-ken. These are the modern swords that are made for lai practice and are sold complete with koshirae. As I have pointed out above, a swordsmith must be registered and is only allowed to make two swords per month. Such a limited production level means that blades by the top swordsmiths (Mukansa level and above) are in limited supply and high demand and consequently very expensive, easily costing in excess of 20,000 for a blade (koshirae extra). Of the few Shinken that I have seen, most are not particularly attractive from a visual point of view as they tend to be crudely forged by semi-professionals or amateurs. They have poor ji-hada and the nie (martinsite crystals which make up the hamon) are coarse, dark and untidy and often the configuration of the hamon lacks form and control, whilst any activities seem to be unnatural or forced. The koshirae have poor quality metal mounts and often cheap cast tsuba, whilst the saya are seldom properly lacquered. Having said that, they are perfectly adequate for the purpose for which they were bought, but it would be unwise to consider them as art swords. In Iai-do, with the blade being constantly handled and at risk from damage, there is no requirement to have a good and expensive blade, but I would have my doubts for their survival should any actual cutting be attempted. Please remember that in the international Japanese sword market, 3,000 - 4,000 is a cheap price (although a lot of money for us mere mortals) to pay for a fully mounted katana with a modern forged blade and you can only expect to get what you pay for.

(This essay was originally written as part of the To-ken Society of Great Britain's 'Challenge of Shinsaku-to Exhibition and Token Taikai '93' catalogue. It was adapted for the B.K.A. News in Sept. '95.)

Clive Sinclaire
Secretary, The To-Ken Society of Great Britain
Reprinted with permission of the British Kendo Assoc.


BACK