The Japanese Sword Part 2
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- Last updated: 21/12/2016
Last month we looked at dates and periods and considered WW2 blades, which are a cost effective place to start collecting, now lets have a look at some smith made blades from a prolific period.
The Edo Period (1600-1867)
The next way to get your first blade is with an Edo period weapon. The Edo period was long and a time of peace within Japan, but there was a lot of nostalgia, especially amongst the Samurai, (who no longer had battles to test themselves in), for the past and the more glorious days of combat and honour. This lead to a good level of sword production, some of which is very fancy looking. Swords from this period can represent weapons from five hundred years earlier and some are extremely well fitted. Tanto from this period are a good place to start. Actually, tanto in general are a good place to start. Probably because people other than just Samurai could own them, there are a good number of well made tanto about from all eras right back to Kamakura. I have promised myself a tanto from the Nambokucho or Muromachi period, to go with my Muromachi katana, but I have a specific style in mind, and that is important.
With blades made before WW2, you will be dealing with a hand made blade, produced by a smith and that can mean signatures. Signatures are also found on blades made during and after WW2 and certainly every blade made since WW2 is made and signed under quite strict controls, but we will come back to that.
Unlike many swords, most Japanese blades can be disassembled and examined. I am not going to go into detail here, as there is plenty written elsewhere on the subject. Once the tsuka (handle) is taken off, you will be able to look at the nakago (tang) of the blade and very often this will carry a signature. The signature can be very short, with just two characters telling you the smiths name, Sukesada for instance. Or it might have details of where the blade was made; Norimitsu, Osafune, Bizen - with Norimitsu being the smith, Osafune the town and Bizen the region - and on the other side may be the date, which will use the Japanese calendar periods, referred to last month.
It is worth saying that many fine blades have no signature, they are mumei. This does not mean it is not a good blade. It may have been a duplicate of a blade a smith was making, he would often make two blades, the best going to the commissioning client, the second sold on the open market. Thousands of blades have been shortened over the years and the name lost off the end of the nakago. Another tell tale sign is that the holes for the peg which secures the handle, called mekugi-ana, will be too far up the nakago to be of use and a second or even third ana (hole) will have been made.
Mumei blades tend to cost less, unless they are very fine blades, which the smith failed to sign because he thought his work spoke for itself. With or without a signature, you are looking at the same things. How is the shape of the blade? Is there a visible hada (the grain like effect seen as a result of folding the steel over and over during the construction of the blade)? Is the polish good? Does it have a good visible hamon (temper line - the pattern made during the differential hardening of the cutting edge)? Does it show the artistic talent and engineering skill of the smith? Most important, do you like the blade as a whole? Look at the nakago, even if you can’t read the signature, does it look well cut? Did the smith carve it with confidence? Look at the file marks, on the nakago; these have a deliberate art to them as well, some showing a complex flow between each directional cut.
You will find Edo blades at fairs, at dealers and on the net. You can find very robust and well made blades, not the prettiest or best made, but good solid weapons, sometimes actually sold especially to Martial Arts practitioners, more often practitioners of Iaido. These are well priced and can be very good blades to start a collection with. For many years I had a WW2 Gendai blade for Iai. I paid very little for it at an antiques fair and it was perfect for practice as it also had a groove cut into the top section of the blade. These are called Bo Hi or in European sword terminology a fuller. They are NOT blood grooves, so please, as a favour to me, don’t call them that. They are cut into the blade, after it is made and often by a senior apprentice, to lighten the blade, or for pure decoration. My WW2 Gendai had them, which made the balance perfect of Iaido.
I have concentrated very much so far on blades, as that is the heart of the sword, be it katana, wakazashi or tanto. But the fittings are also important and can add or detract both visually and financially. There are three major parts to the fitting set or koshirae of a sword. The scabbard (saya) the guard (tsuba, pronounced sooba) and the handle / pommel (tsuka, pronounced sooka).
Gunto fittings are military, many with metal sleeved saya. Edo fittings will be more decorative, with fancy finishes to the saya and silk wraps on the tsuka. You will come across good blades in tatty fittings. There are a tiny handful of craftsmen in the UK who can restore these, or, with a bit of reading, you can acquire the materials and try yourself.
As I said at the start of my first article, this is a huge world of discovery and to help, here is another book and a couple more web sites to visit;
www.northerntokensociety.co.uk The web site of the Northern Token Society, dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of Japanese swords.
www.to-ken.com The To-ken Society of Great Britain
The Japanese Sword. By Kanzan Sato. Published by Kodansha Int. ISBN 0870115626
This is a ‘must have’ book!
Next month, in the final part of this introduction to Japanese swords, we will have a look at the more modern blades made in the Shinsakuto or current period.
Terminology of Sword Parts
Note that some of these terms may be spelt slightly differently, depending on the source
Bo-Hi – Fuller (groove for lightening the blade)
Boshi – tempered point section
Fuchi – handle collar
Ha – cutting edge
Habaki – blade collar and scabbard wedge
Hada – steel grain
Ha-Machi – edge notch (separating blade from tang)
Hamon – tempering line
Hira – swaged ‘meat’ of the blade between ridge and edge
Horimono – engraving (sometimes found on blade)
Ito – braid wrapping on handle
Kashiri – butt cap or pommel
Kissaki – point
Koiguchi – scabbard mouth
Kojiri – scabbard tip
Koshirae – sword mountings or fittings (everything other than the blade and tang)
Kurigata – fixture on scabbard for attaching cord (sageo)
Ji – sword surface between the shinogi and the hamon
Mekugi – small bamboo peg for fitting the handle to the blade
Mekugi-Ana – rivet (peg) hole
Mei – signature (usually on tang)
Menuki – ornaments (on handle)
Mune – back edge (spine)
Mune-Machi – back notch (separating blade from tang)
Nagasa – blade length (from tip of kissaki to mune-machi)
Nakago – tang (part of sword covered by handle)
Nakagojiri – tip of tang
Sageo – cord used for tying the (saya) scabbard to the wearer’s belt (obi)
Sama – rayskin covering of handle
Saya – scabbard
Seppa – spacers (on scabbard throat)
Shinogi – blade ridge
Shinogi-ji – blade flat
To - sword
Tsuba – handle guard
Tsuka – handle
Yakiba – hardened portion of blade (hamon to ha)
Yasuri-Me – file marks (sometimes found on tang)
Yokote – separating line between point section and rest of blade
Zukuri - sword