Some Observations on Sword Scholarship and Collecting

by Tony Pfeiffer
The oldest man was once nineteen years old, and full of wisdom. Then he studied swords...

-- attributed to O-Sensei John Yumoto, JSSUS News.

Robinson wrote (1961:8), in a classic example of British understatement, "The subject of the Japanese sword, with its continuous history of some 1,500 years, is a vast one." Even more humbling, perhaps, is O-Sensei's remark: "After10 years of sword study, you have read the first chapter (JSSUS News)."

According to Yamanaka (1968, V.l, #8:28), the study of kantei, a formalized variant of sword scholarship, started with Masamune (1264-1343), founder of the Soshu school of swordsmithing. Soshu was one of the five great smithing traditions in Japan prior to 1596. Emperor Gotoba, however, who gathered many smiths together (1207-1211) to share ideas and who was an accomplished maker himself, could be credited with being an early pioneer. After all, crossing regional and other barriers to exchange information is what scholarship is all about.

Caldwell (1972:37) describes Hideyoshi (d.1582) as the first great sword collector. According to Tilley (1992:57), Hideyoshi once set out 100 different swords before a visitor who drew them from their scabbards and, without looking at signatures, identified eack without a single mistake. Hideyoshi was amazed at this rare feat.

Someone once wrote that collectors create their own categories of value. Certainly great and powerful collectors are able to go still further and impose their values on others. Hideyoshi, for example, was so fond of Soshu school works that he single-handedly fashioned large demand for them, a market which lasted generations as well as elevated Masamune (ahead of at least two others) to the level of preeminent smith of all time (see Watson 1994:294).

If having an Emperor redefine standards of excellence in sword manufacture was radical, an even more startling revolution occurred in the aftermath of World War Two when, to preserve swords, collecting was virtually transformed from weapons appreciation to arts enthusiasm. This process actually started in the early seventeenth century when the sword, no longer used much in combat, started to be called the "soul of the Samurai" (Yamanaka 1969: V.2, #4:31). Yamanaka (ibid) declares bluntly: "We are certain that no swordsmith made or forged swords with the intention of turning out a great work of 'art'....".

The schism between people who see swords solely as art and those who see it as a utilitarian object is now so complete, they have almost nothing to say to each other. The former write highly technical appraisals of individual swords or construct elaborate genealogies of smiths, while the latter tend to be practitioners of iaido, iaijutsu, kendo, or kenjutsu -- martial artists. Few people are linking the aesthetic qualities of edged weapons with practical considerations such as cutting ability, handling characteristics, and the like.

The aspiring sword scholar outside of Japan is at a huge disadvantage. Yumoto (1958:169) noted that there were "well over" 500 books on swords, mountings, and smiths written in Japanese, some dating from 1312 -- all completed before 1868! Hawley (1981: 1), however, once boasted a library of over 600 sword books, "...more than any Japanese library." As to swords, Robinson (1961 :7) observed "... authenticated works of many of the greatest swordsmiths and schools, especially of the earlier periods - they simply do not exist outside Japan." This situation inspires Hartley to declare baldly, "There are no Gaijin experts... And therefore none qualified to issue an absolute opinion."

The ardor to collect runs rampant nonetheless, approaching, as one prominent Houston area collector observed ruefully, addictive proportions. Perhaps he can find some solace in that this is not a new phenomenon. As Hakusui (1948: vi) noted: "Samurai are known to have sold all of their possessions and sent their families out into the country to live in order to possess a certain blade." In this same vein, Joly and Higitaro (1962) wrote about the life of Hakuseki who in1698 took the money he'd gotten to buy a house and bought a helmet and suit of armour instead. The aforementioned Houston area collector has not gone this far, yet, we hope.

Caldwell, R.B. 1972, Rice, Gold, and the Sword, pgs. 9-45 in Caldwell, R.B. (ed.) 1972, The Book of the Sword, Token Kenkyu Kai, Dallas, Tx.

Hakusui, Inami 1948 (ns), Nippon-to, The Japanese Sword, Cosmo Publishing Co., Tokyo.

Hartley, Dean S. 1991 Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Collecting Japanese Swords... in JSS/US Newsletter, Vol. 23, No. 3, 17-19.

Hawley, W.M., 1981, Japanese Swordsmiths Revised, Hawley Pub., Ca. Joly, H.L. and Hogitaro, I. 1962, The Sword and The Same, Holland Press, London (the sword part is a translation of work by Arai Hakuseki originally published in 1737).

JSSUS News, Japanese Sword Society of The United States Newsletter, Vol. 23, No. 2: 35 and Vol. 22, No. 3: 16, Dr. T.C. Ford (ed.) Breckenridge, Tx.

Robinson, B.W. 1961, The Arts of the Japanese Sword, Faber and Faber, London.

Tilley, William 1992, The Sword as a Work of Art in Izzard (ed.) One Hundred Masterpieces from the Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton, Christie, Manson, and Woods Int., N.Y.

Watson, Harry (Trans.) 1994, Nihon To Koza: Vol. 2, Koto, Part 1, AFU Research Enterprises Inc., New Mexico.

Yamanaka, A. 1968-1972, Nihonto Newsletter (Volumes 1 through 5)

Yumoto, J.M., 1958, The Samurai Sword: A Handbook, Charles E. Tuttle, Vt.