First let us put the Shinken in perspective within the overall Japanese sword history.
Throughout the centuries that the fully developed Japanese sword has been in existence (about 1,000 years), certain swords have been greatly respected and valued as art objects of inestimable value. Such swords, some of which have been preserved to the present day, are seen by sword people as objects of great beauty whilst still retaining their essential practical properties. In other words, it was always considered that swords were far more than simply objects to separate one's enemy from his head. Today, certain swords that have survived from the Kamakura period (13th century), made by such swordsmiths as Rai Kunimitsu from Kyoto, Saburo Kunimune from Bizen and Ichimonji Yoshifusa from Fukuoka are ranked as "National Treasures" by the Japanese government's Cultural Agency and beyond price. Although the aforementioned are obviously amongst the very best quality blades, there are many others which are also highly rated and as such, great efforts are made to preserve these for the appreciation of future generations. After all, such efforts were made by many generations previously so that these swords are here now for our study and appreciation. It cannot be denied that this artistic side of the Japanese sword has been strongly emphasised since the end of World War 2 for political reasons, but nevertheless it was always part of this peculiarly Japanese cultural asset. Such swords are known as Nihon Token Bijutsu or Japanese swords.
Understandably, swords such as those described above would have been the property of wealthy persons of high rank and not for the lowly Ashiguru or foot soldier. During the Sengoku Jidai (the period of the country at war) throughout most of the 15th and 16th centuries, hundreds of thousands were under arms and sword production was at an all time high. The demand for blades led to swords being made virtually on a production line basis and there were relatively few swords of high artistic quality made at this time. Such blades, known West and although old, have little to recommend them artistically. However, it should be remembered that they were made with purely practical considerations in mind and I doubt if an enemy had too much interest in whether or not he was being slain by a Kazu-uichi-mono or a national treasure blade!
The dawning of the Tokugawa Shogunate in about 1600, relieved swordsmiths of the pressures of producing vast numbers of utilitarian blades and allowed them once again to concentrate on making beautiful swords with ornate hamon and intricate carvings on them and although there were undeniably highs and lows in the art, this basically remained the situation up until the Pacific War period of the Showa era. All officers in the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy were required to carry a Japanese sword as part of their uniform. Some, who were maybe of Samurai stock had old family blades that could be mounted into the Shin-gunto or Kai-gunto standard issue mounting. Others, who might be reasonably affluent might be able to buy a sword from one of the highly talented swordsmiths of the day, but the vast majority would have a machine made blade of very low quality, which are now known as Showa-to, named after the period of manufacture. Maybe 90% of the swords found today in the standard issue military mounting are Showa-to, and they are not considered as desirable or collectable by the serious students of Japanese swords. However, once again they were highly effective from a practical point of view.
Since the end of the war, a new generation of swordsmiths are making swords. Some of these are very fine and the swordsmiths enter competitions to attain high status and the high prices for their work that this status attracts. The top 10 or 12 swordsmiths have the rank of Mukansa which is only exceeded by that of Ningen Kokuho (Living National Treasure) of which there are currently only two. These swordsmiths, who are full time professionals, may expect to sell a blade (without Koshirae) for maybe £ 25 £ 30,000 and they may have anything up to a five year waiting list. There are some 250 swordsmiths active at the moment who are members of the Japanese Swordsmith Association and a few amateurs who work on the outside of the organisation. The work of these swordsmiths are generally known as Shinsaku-to (newly made swords) and they are limited by law to only producing 24 swords a year.
Now to Shinken made for Iaido practice. These swords are not likely to be made by Mukansa swordsmiths unless you are paying well in excess of £ 10,000 for the blade alone, but by the lower ranked or amateurs. Let us remember, in the same way that Kazu-uichi-mono and Showa-to were not made as art swords, neither are Shinken. They are made for practical use, not as Kazu-uichi-mono for the civil wars in Japan, or as in the 2nd World War to boost the sense of Bushido in the Army and Naval Officer corps, but nevertheless for practical use in the Dojo. Therefore, the basis for comparison between modern Shinken and Nihon-to Bijutsu (whether modern or old) is seldom valid. They are not usually the same thing at all. Indeed, it could be argued that they should not be the same thing as it could be detrimental to a fine blade to have it constantly handled as is the case in Iaido. It would be a tragedy, for instance, to have a fine old sword that had been around for a couple of hundred years ruined by having its Kissaki broken, an occurrence I have been told that is not unheard of in even the best of Iaido circles.
To summarise, it is probably not a good idea to ask a Japanese sword collector his opinion on most Shinken. You have bought your Shinken, not for its artistic merits such as Hamon, Jihada, Nie etc., but for other considerations entirely such as balance, weight, length etc., which will not necessarily be appreciated by most collectors. It is also unwise to enquire about prices from sword collectors. They will only tell you what they would pay for it as an art-sword and as we have previously discussed, Shinken are seldom art-swords of great quality. I do appreciate how much Shinken cost to buy and have written several insurance valuations for Iaido practitioners that reflect a replacement value. It is, however, not within my remit to say whether these prices represent good value or not, this can only be determined by the prospective purchaser, his requirements and his personal financial situation, but they should not be under the impression, when buying a new or recently made Shinken, that they are buying good quality Japanese art-swords - it is 'only' a sword for Iaido that is being offered.
I hope this clarifies the position of Shinken made for Iaido, in the context of today's Japanese sword world. This is, of course, my personal interpretation only and the above is guilty of many generalisations and omissions. I would be quite happy to discuss the situation further or to attempt to answer any specific questions.
Chairman, Token Society of Great Britain
Reprinted with permission of British Kendo Assoc.