Everything You Wanted to Know About Collecting Japanese Swords

by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.

Many of you, perhaps most of you, when attending a lecture (talk) at a sword show expect perhaps some inside information to help detect a Juyo Yamato blade, or an obscure genuine Masamune, or how to recognize Ko-Mino fittings or Ko-Goto menuki. These would be really good things to know, but it may come as a surprise to you to learn that, right now, there is an untapped mine of this information in English. In addition, more and more is coming out monthly, written by Japanese experts and translated, or assembled by some serious and competent Gaijin sword scholars, and published. Oh, I guarantee you that there are serious occidental scholars, and that they are doing their best to bring to you this information and, no, there is not a conspiracy to hold all this close so the "old boys" can benefit from it. Quite the contrary, and not all of it is new. There are good articles on how to determine a fake Tadahiro. There are lists of the many ways Naotane signed his name, or who were the scores of students of Masahide. There are articles on forging swords by a real swordsmith, Keith Austin, or how a blade is tempered, by an eyewitness (me). Mr. Yazu Kizu presented detailed papers on schools, titles, individual and group swordsmiths.

Not all is immediately available to you, but it can be had. Nanka Token Kai, the JSSUS, the Northern California Sword Club, the Token Society of Great Britain, individual collectors and scholars, all are republishing this information and adding more. NBTHK and NTHK are sending out English translations. The only thing is that it's not like opening your read and pouring it in. If you want to know, you've got to work for it! ask for it! It's there! And that's not even what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about you! The "you" I'm talking to includes everyone who has an interest in swords, fittings, armor, mythology, history, or what have you. If you identify yourself, even partially in one of the following, not to worry. Presently you may see yourself in another category, and another. They are not mutually exclusive but then neither is human nature. First, lets talk about some "titles" or basic types. Lets start off with:

  1. Expert. He is a man (or woman) who has looked at literally tens of thousands of swords. He has been instructed by a master, using only genuine, high quality blades (or other objects), so that he can compare any new object to what his mind already recognizes as real and fine. There are no Gai-Jin "Experts". Therefore, there are no Gai-Jin qualified to issue an absolute opinion;
  2. Student/Scholar. A person with the ability to look objectively at a blade, to study by examining as many genuine and otherwise blades as possible or by reading available literature, by listening to someone with more knowledge and experience; in short, by putting in long, hard, tiring hours doing research;
  3. Collector. One who ventures out into the world, takes his chances, looks, listens, handles, talks and eventually starts to acquire things. He may be interested in blades in shirasaya, koto blades, shinto blades, fittings or armor. It is immaterial which. But he will inevitably "pay his dues". He will use his own interpretations of what he has learned, pit his level of understanding and bargaining ability against another person. In short, he will give something of value (money, opals, another sword, whatever). Just as surely, from time to time, he will be wrong. I can promise you that that will continue for as long as he keeps collecting. No one is immune. Pay your dues... don't cry!
  4. Tengu. Now here we have a problem. He doesn't need any help, has read a book has seen a video, and has no problem making up his mind. In fact, he resents and fears any outside suggestion because "somebody is trying to cheat him". "No one is to be trusted". This, for those who do not know, is a description of the mythological "half man/half bird" of Japan, a bright creature, but lacking a soul. That's Japanese mythology, not my idea.
  5. Novice. An absolute beginner. He has heard stories, read some books, seen some "Samurai Swords". He is (perhaps as he should be...I was) overwhelmed by the mystique of Nippon-To. He absorbs it through his pores and revels in it (I wish I could recapture some of that, it is such a soul satisfying feeling). He wants to learn, seeks help, listens and is vulnerable. Do not abuse him! He is not yet fair game for sharp dealing; and
  6. Gentleman. There's no rule that says you have to be a shyster, hustler, hack, cheater, liar. Try being a gentleman, it couldn't hurt.

Now with those ideas in mind, lets move to some behavioral traits which should help you out either on the active or passive side. So, for:


  1. If the sword is "for sale", say so. Do not flog the blade around for cheap pricing bids. If you are pricing, say so. Some people charge for appraisals and would be justified in sending you a bill if that is your purpose. If you are just looking for information, say so and ask;
  2. If a sword is "for sale", do not hide flaws. It's your reputation that is at stake. Offer any "history" that is asked for, but in dealing with qualified buyer, you are, of course, not required to "give away the store";
  3. If you promise to hold or promise a price, it is best to set a time factor because you will be expected to hold to that for time specified regardless of temptation or higher offer. Offer of a price to one person (for your own reasons) is not a general offer. You may ask more or less from another; and
  4. If you promise "first refusal" (not a good idea incidentally), you must hold to it. Write it down together with time/condition limitations.


  1. If you look at a "table sword", observe all courtesies of handling. Before you pick it up, observe how the owner placed it, and place it back as you found it. When in doubt, ASK!
  2. If you have examined the blade/fitting carefully (which you certainly should do before buying) and you pay without further questions, you now own it unless there is a purposeful false representation as to quality, condition, authenticity, etc. Don't cry!
  3. What the owner paid is none of your business and is not a valid part of bargaining. Bargaining (certainly legal and appropriate) starts at the asked price.
  4. Never expect any of us non-experts (see description of expert above) to guarantee any level of papers. If one feels so positive as to include a dollar for dollar refund if a certain level is not reached, that is a personal decision

#2 in line

  1. You aren't even in the deal until #l puts the blade down and walks away;
  2. Never make gratuitous "up" or "down" remarks when you are not in the deal unless specifically invited to do so; and
  3. Never say "there's nothing worthwhile here!" And please avoid the "dog in the manger" syndrome. Never volunteer to somone that his blade is either "worthless!" or "A treasure!" unless you have reason to do so, and some grounds upon which to base your statement. You are not an expert. Once again..."Butt out!"

Some short exposition of various traits you may recognize in yourself or more likely in others:

  1. Secretiveness. "Don't tell anybody what you have or think you have." He may think you're stupid if you're wrong. Of course, then you'll never know;
  2. Inflexibility. "Never change your mind". Once a decision is made (as to authenticity, quality, whatever) hang on to both the item and the idea. Never learn;
  3. Play down "Papers". After all, who do those so called experts think they are. Besides, they hate all Gai-jin;
  4. Affection Everybody does have a right to "fall in love" with a piece, thereby giving it an aura of greater value. All of us do- just recognize it;
  5. One Upmanship. All of us have it to some degree. So let the little gloat slip out but keep it under control;
  6. Paranoia and Greed. "He'll rob me!" "He's trying to sell me his junk!" "He knows something I don't." "He only paid $200.00 for it." "How can I edge him out and make the profit myself"; and
  7. Accumulata Grandiosa. Embodies many of the above. More money than time to study, buys big names or what he's told is good (but doesn't know it himself). May eventually become a collector.
Some suggestions:
  1. Forget the "adversarial" context as a block to trading. Jump in;
  2. Trust and use your own judgement;
  3. Remember, if I actually cheat you, I'll be around at the next show and everybody will know it, and vice versa;
  4. Forget how much he paid q.v.; If a quoted price seems horrendous, try a counter offer. It might work. Sometimes cash or trade or whatever. Prices are in your mind;
  5. It's perfectly o.k. to trade off your "mistake/surplus/duplicate/outgrown". Just don't lie. It's nice to get back what you have in something but not always possible;
  6. I can almost guarantee you that you will not come out ahead by secret deals in your room, except exceptional item or a high rolling deal. That's o.k.;
  7. Give your colleagues a shot at good stuff. You might be surprised; and
  8. Don't look for treasures. Just be prepared recognize them when they drift by. I can personally think of ten Juyo that came just that way and I'm not kidding.

Now, in general, sword collectors are traders. By extension, to some degree, traders are dealers. Some do it to improve their collections, some to pay for polish and shinsa, some to make a living. On the other side of the coin, sword collectors are students, some more, some less. If one is successful, you'd better be damned sure that he paid his dues, he took his losses, he worked hard, he built his reputation and he survives by that reputation. Until you have put in the hours, the dollars, the mental effort, don't knock those who have.

The real ones are still touched by the mystique as they should be. They are not unwilling to help new collectors, but you have to ask and listen.

Finally, I come back to that archaic word... gentleman, again, "Try it... you'll like it!"