Questions and Answers

by Jim Kurrasch 1996 (edited and re-formated by Adrian Schlemmer )

This is not going to be FAQ, but questions that have been asked, of me or in the Nihontô list. Some of the questions are interesting, and worth while, but would not be thought of by the average collector. Others are in the FAQ (frequently asked questions). I have tended to leave the first names of the person asking in these questions. This is due to my respect for them. It is frequently harder to ask a good question than it is to give a good answer. And nobody says that all of my answers are good. I will also admit some of the answers here are not exactely like I had answered them prior. Here I have had more time to study the question as well as respond to some of the critism towards my prior answers.

Sensei – Teachers

Question “Sensei Yumoto, and Kizu San. They both knew a great deal about swords, and neither had a student worthy of them. Some could have been but they did not then have the time.” Both were from before my time (in the sword world), unfortunately. I have thought about what it would require to really take advantage of that kind of study opportunity, though. Not very many people simultaneously have the time and the aptitude required to do a great teacher justice. I’d like to believe that I would be willing to make that level of commitment, but I don’t know that I really would. I also am a bit concerned about who IS out there to pick up the torch, sometimes. A lot of the best have passed on or are getting way up in years. I guess the answer is to grab the moment and learn what we can while we can. No use sitting around complaining that someone else should do it! My idle musings of the moment, Jim
AnswerYou are absolutely right. I came into collecting when Kizu San was getting too old. So I barely knew him. He was always willing to help, but those around him did not want him to be stressed. He had learned about swords by himself and books. About the only really good swords he saw were those of others.

Yumoto Sensei was US born but sent back to study in Japan for awhile in his youth. So about 1929 his father hired a nihontô sensei to teach him. He was also a reconized tsuba-ko. So he had the background and training. I went with him on 2 of his sword study trips to Japan. But due to my work I really did not have the time or energy to study as I needed. He also lived 300 miles away so that did not help.

As you say no use sitting around and complaining. We are the only ones that can make us better. And that will happen with or without a Good Sensei. But I will also tell you that Sensei Yumoto opened quite a few doors for us that would have been closed otherwise. And that made a World of difference. Too bad I was not ready!

Shinza – Authentication of Nihontô

Question What is a shinsa ?
Answer This I can talk about. a shinsa is where a group of experts – Judges get together to evaluate blades. Normally those Judges are from Japan, and well recognised in the sword field. The group is paid a fee to do this. It will give out papers, declaring the ranking of the blade. Just the fact that a paper is given out usually means the signature is held to be authentic. Usually the lead Judge gives a “opinion”. It is the job of the lesser Judges to come up with reasons why the first opinion is wrong. The Shinsa evaluate both the condition and authenticity of the blade. A “forgery” is not papered nor is a blade in poor condition. The level of paper given depends on both condition, and quality of the blade. Occasionally rarity can also come into account a bit. This is versus a kantei which is done by one Judge, usually for a fee. It obviously with only one person, has a larger error factor.

Question I understand what a shinsa is or at least what the objective is – but – what are the fees involved?
Answer This depends usually upon the rate of exchange with the dollar, and the individual Shinza (more expensive is not necessarily better). Next years expected NTHK Shinza (~October in Los Angeles, and Chicago). should be about $40 for submission, and another $40 if it passes (60 points and above). The first $40 will go to the local group, and pays for general expenses (rent, accomodations, photographs, airfair, and meals for the judges). The next $40, goes to the NTHK in Japan for doing the Papers.

Question How often are they held and where?
Answer This depends. In Los Angeles we have held NTHK Shinsas in 84, 89, and 93. I recall that Chicago also held NTHK Shinsas in 84, and 89. And New York in 89? The NBTHK no longer does Shinsas outside of their main branch. There are other groups that occasionally hold Shinzas, and Kantei’s. On this a Shinza is with a group of Judges. A Kantei is with a single judge. We have recently been offered a Kantei by one Expert for all expenses, and $125 a blade (pay more for less).

Question Are there rules or limitations as to how many submissions they do or how many blades an individual can submit?
Answer This depends on how much money you have. I have seen some people bring in armsful of blades. This is the approach of dealers who do not know what they are doing and want the Judges to tell them which are National Treasure’s. The condition of these blade, frequently does not allow the judges to see much, and thus the points given, are forced lower.

Question Is the blade owner present during the event?
Answer Not normally near the Judges Chambers. They wait outside, and receive their items back (kodogu is also judged) at the check-in station. Some items are passed or rejected fairly quickly. Unusual items for the makers, may take longer do to the Judge wanting to pass it but being Very Careful as to not be burnt. Also one of the benefits to doing these is that the Judge can occasionally sit, smile, and enjoy the 1 or 2 really good – great pieces that come through the door.

Normally the owner, can have no effect upon the Judges. But one time one Dealer brought in armsfull of junk. He then loudly complained about his blades failing. So the rest of his blades all passed, with the evaluation that they were junk, and he got to pay the 2nd. fee on each blade. [:^)

Question What are the diffenent decisions or papers that can result?
Answer With the NTHK; below 60 points is failing. 60 to 69 is Shinteisho, This means that the signature is good, and it is a fairly good blade, but not in good condition. It maybe out of polish, or have a defect like a a opening in the forging, be tired, or have a Ha-giri. To be papered with a major flaw like a Ha-giri it has to be a very good blade. 70 to 83 points is Kanteisho – this means the signature is good and it is a above average blade, in good condition. Above 83 points is only given at the Home Branch in Japan. And to be eligible for that jugment, the blade must have received above 80 points at a prior Shinza.

For the most part the NTHK is the only well respected organization that holds Shinza outside of Japan. They are very strict but very fair. If the Judges do not know the answers they give a very conservative answer. BUT if you are going to buy a blade with a NTHK Kanteisho paper, you do not have to worry about the signature, or the condition. They ARE good. It is completely understandable, but really too bad that the NBTHK is no longer able to do Shinsas outside of their Home Branch. But that is the facts of life, they had too many problems in the past with local Judges. And their only available correction was to stop their outside Shinsas.

Question What is the difference between the NBTHK and NTHK?
Answer NBTHK stands for the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai. It is the Society that was started about 1948, and runs the National Sword Museum in Yoyogi. It also puts out the Juyo designation. Their judging now is only done in Tokyo. NTHK stands for Nihon Token Hozon Kai. It is a older Society was begun in MEIJI 44, 1912, and is pretty much ran by Yoshikawa Sensei. It is the organization that has most of the Shinzas in the US – outside of Japan. These 2 clubs are the most respected in the Sword World. They are where today the true knowledge lies (E.N. The NTHK has since broken into two gruops, the second group being the NTHK – NPO )

Question I get dunned as a shinza sympathizer when I say this, but it is entirely possible that there are “correct” gimei put on blades. I know this is frustrating as hell for the owner, who feels manipulated and cheated. But signatures do sell, and some earlier owner could have properly identified the maker, or at least school, of a mumei and then had a signature put on to bolster the resale value and/or his own ego. Then again, maybe the shinza team is just jerking us all around?
AnswerHaving worked 4 Shinzas now I am definetly a Shinza sympathizer. Unfortunately I seldom have time to enjoy much, but on later reflection, and discussion with other workers I can figure more out.

Actually as correct Gimei go, I know that occasionally there are blades that were signed by the smith, and later someone screwed with the signature, and thus they are now Gimei. The Shinza teams really do little jerking us around. They try to be extremely fair, but extremely correct. The good thing is that you learn just how much you can learn to trust their opinion. I do not even pretend to know the exact numbers, but maybe 1/2 of the genuine signed blades NTHK says are Gimei are in fact genuine. They may pass at a later Shinza with the same judges. That is just a matter of high standards, and I do not think that is bad as long as they are fairly applied. Remember the Japan Home Branch gets no money for saying a genuine blade is Gimie. But they do get around $40 to say a Gimei blade is genuine. So the fact that they are not going for the easy money has to raise the opinion of them.

As for earlier owners, there are several things that were just facts of life in Ancient Japan. All Daimyo were expected to have blades by certain smiths. And those smiths had never made enough of them in their life to fill that need. The Daimyo were no better than our collectors. So they bought what they could get.

I suggest that you make plans to help us with the October 1997 Shinsa in LA. It is really a very enjoyable learning experience. Working the Judges room is actually a major bitch with little time to enjoy the blades and Kodogu. But the submission room is the best place to see the action.

Uchiko and oiling the blade

Question I think Jim has proven that he is by far the best UCHIKOer in the world! …And, by the way, I am aware, and although he has not made a point of it, Jim DOES NOT use a back and forth technique of UCHIKO-ing. (This is good)
Answer On this point Bob is absolutely 100% right. And to be trueful it just never came into my mind that one would use a back and forth motion. Follow your motion out to the end of your stroke. And then reapply the cloth – tissue.

Question Regardless of how “shinny” it gets, there is a real question about the actual results these different UCHIKO-ing techniques have to the blade surface.
Answer I am going to combine some of the things here to keep my track. When Uchikoing, you should never get to shiny (or is it shinny? [:^). That means that you have gone way too far, way too fast. So that is another point that I forgot to mention. What one wants to do is bring out the Beauty in the steel. As Bob said I take a long time in Uchikoing. I do not have the money to buy the blades that I want when they are in good polish. So I tend to buy blades out of polish. This means that if my Uchikoing does not work the next step is a full polish. And a polish will remove more steel as well as more of my money.

As to lenght of time that it takes. It takes me 2 weeks to start to see what has been obscured by time. 3 to 6 months to start to see faint Utsuri. Strong Utsuri is considerably faster. In one year most aspects can be seen. And it will take 5 to 10 years to bring the blade to almost full beauty. Actually I have been working on blades longer than that where I know there is more to be seen if I am patient. Patience is something that I sometimes have and frequently do not.

I’d like to suggest THAT, regardless of our long and comfortable habit and regardless of how much fun it is, “UCHIKO-ing” with certain particular technique, may be incorrect, technically and possibly bad or injurious for the surface. I do not think that Uchikoing can be considered fun, but it can be relaxing. I look at it as being a type of “Tea Ceremony” for those of us who are not inclined towards patience. But to improve the blade patience is needed. We’re talking about propounding an UCHIKO policy where people might be grabbing swords and whizzing back and forth to “polish up” that surface. The best thing about whizzing back and forth is that it will only be a matter of time befor there is a cut finger, or hand to remind us to slow down. It did not happen during Uchikoing but slight carelessness caused me to cut one finger very deeply. 15 stiches, in 3 layers, and 8 years later my finger tip still feels funny, and is only partly usable.

Here’s what struck me as insightful: Therefore, with a little open minded pondering, I have decided that back and forth motion ruins an UCHIKO’s effectiveness for this purpose of preserving the surface. And that’s what this is all about, surface preservation. Preservation of Japanese swords is the one area where personal wishes take the back seat. And again on this Bob is absolutely right. This discussion shows that neither of our opinions was / is 100% right or wrong. But by discussion we will learn, and come closer to the “Truth”.

Question Hi again Randell and all,
Bruce Kowalski (a director of the JSS, writer of some of the Art & the Sword books) told me that unscented, uncolored kleenex are fine; use once and discard. You might want to stick to a well-known brand. They’re available in any store. That’s what he uses on his _seriously_ nice blades.
Answer Plain tissue is fine to use once. And then thrown away. Actually on this we are considerably touchier than many old Japanese Collectors. The traditional Japanese way, was to use a special silk cloth, = Fukura, over and over and over. The first time I saw this I was shocked. The person who took it out was a very well respected and World known Old Japanese Expert. The closest thing that I could compare the cloth he pulled out to, was the rags used by gas station attendants to wipe the oil dip stick. I thought “He’s going to touch my blade with THAT!” But I toughed it out, and did not scream “No!”

Another thing that bothers me is at the Japanese viewing of blades. Some of the organizations demand one uses white gloves, to avoid the acids and oils from the hands. And some of the gloves I have seem use to be white, but were far from it when I saw them.

OK – Reality Check. This is not aimed at anyone or any comment, just at comments in general. I can not help to think that many of the old time serious collectors out there are smiling at us if not laughing out loud.

First let’s remember just what the paper does. It is just a medium to move the Uchiko. What is the Uchiko = a fine abrasive. The Uchiko contains the powder found at the bottom of the water container that the swords are polished above. And thus this powder contains, all sizes of grit. Almost any paper in the world is much less abrasive than Uchiko. Newspaper is less abrasive than Uchiko, but it contains newsprint. It is all fine and well to use tissue, or cloth or what ever is better than what is required. Basically you are raising the standards. But it is not necessary, and within reason no harm will come to the blade using something else. One can use paper, cloth, chamois or what ever. Just make sure it is clean, and contains no harmful chemicals.

Back to uchiko. Now some like to pretend that there is something special about the white uchiko puffs. There is not. It is just the color of the cloth. In Japan one can go into a sword shop and buy 5 pound bags of uchiko powder (very cheap) and make your own uchiko puffs. As I mentioned above all uchiko powder contains (or at least should contain) the powder from the bottom of the polisher’s water tank. They do not use one tank for the fine stones and another for the coarse ones. Several of the stones use the same tank. Therefore all of the powder is going to have some coarse grit it it. The uchiko puff is made of 2 folds of cloth surrounding a ball of cotton, adn powder on a stick. It is the cloth’s job to remove the coarser grit. Thus the important thing is to use a fine cloth. The color is not important, it can be red, white, or from your girlfriend fine silk panties with hearts. The important thing again is the ability to keep the coarse grit away from the blade. When buying uchiko do not look at the color of the cloth, unless you feel like giving the Old collectors a smile. Look at the weave of the cloth. There use to be some uchiko around that used coarse red cloth. Perhaps that is why red is thought about as low quality. But before that there was also some uchiko around using coarse white cloth.

Question Hi Mike,
There is a brown line on my monouchi! It is very faint, does not distrub the surface (if looked at an angle against light) and looks like a brown magic marker line. It is about half an inch long and very very thin.
Answer I have seen such before. You probably do not have too worry too much. They take a while to remove but they eventially go away with much uchiko and care. They may be from much rubbing against the inside of the saya . Some of the WWII saya I have seen seem to have a cardboard liner of about the same color as these lines. Anyway do not freak out, just maintain your sword properly. Since you have disassembled your saya it is probably not from that, but yours could be a replacement saya.

One further point you would have been much safer not to use a wet cloth to clean the inside of the saya. That use may start rusting so just, watch out for it. Again nothing to get overly excited about.

Question Hi Mike, and all,
Will uchikoing remove the scuffs on the burnished ji-hada? Is there any way to accelerate this process? In certain lighting conditions the scuff is quite prominent, though in others it is invisible.
Answer Yes uchiko will remove it. But it may take quite awhile. Here be careful, they may not be scuff marks, but mune yaki (tempered areas in the mune).

I was talking to Bob last night (live), and he made me realize that some did / do not understand my method of uchikoing. My method is very slow. I probably do something like 5 stroke per minute. These are full strokes from just above the habaki to the boshi. I may do 20 to 50 strokes per sitting. 1 or 2 times per week at first and changing to once per month as it progresses. Do not make the blade shiny. If you see it start to shine back off, untill it has started to dull again.

Question Also, if uchikoing doesn’t do it, can I have only one small part of the ji-hada burnished? How much would it cost? From what I understand burnishing is not as involved as polishing. Are any people in the US that are qualified to repair a Japanese burnishing?
Answer I am probably going to risk more hate by some, but you are right. Burnishing can be done, and probably by you. But do not do this until you have had much more experience. Remember that you are still kicking yourself in the butt for some of your past sword mistakes (or should be). There is no great hurry on that aspect, as long as rust is not forming, and burnishing would not help that anyway.

Question Hi John and all,
Do you perform that many strokes(20 – 50) after a single application of uchiko or do you re-dust the blade at intervals?
Answer I play it by ear. Sometimes I re-uchiko once or twice, sometimes not. I do find on the 50 stroke days that the tissue suffers considerably, so I change it. It may take 2 or more tissue at one setting. If I change the tissue, I also re-uchiko the blade. Nothing very fast or hard. Think of it as kind of a Zen Thing. Clear your mind. Think peaceful thoughts, and relax as you uchiko. Make it a pleasurable experience, and occassionally view the blade. Put it at all angles to the light. Use different light sources. Most of the time a dim light source will allow you to see the most. Remember the Ancient Samurai used a light from a candle to view the blade. So at least try that. It may help you understand why they gave some of their strange names.

Yes there is some confusion. Part of that is that Bob and I do not use the same methods. I figure to belabor the point is no good, since what works for him works for him. And what works for me works for me.

Question Having read this, I thought I understood what both you and Robert were driving at, ie. by using the same tissue (or whatever) for repeated strokes then there is built up a fairly solid line of uchiko *on the tissue*; it is this that is being used on each stroke to “polish” the blade? Then, however, I read Robert’s subsequent and this just confused things. He advocates what I’ve generally done and that’s to uchiko once, stroke once. (Though I give it at least one additional pass to make sure all uchiko is removed.)
Answer What I tend to do is use the same tissue for multiple strokes. As long as there is Uchiko, and not grit in that tissue it will help. I change the tissue when it wears through. I re-Uchiko sometimes, and others not (mostly not). Remember the traditional way was to use one silk rag, for your intire collecting career. Just shake it out when you go to a another sword. Also remember that you are dealing with steel. And just tissue and uchik o is not going to harm it. But if at any time grit gets involved the damage comes quick and hard.

Question You mentioned that you do about twenty strokes, in a slow, methodical fashion. I have the following questions: Do you use the same tissue? Answer Normally, but I will change the tissue if / when it gets cut up. The Japanese traditionally use a silk cloth = Fukura. This they keep for years, and they can look quite dirty. So we are probably being somewhat fanatical in our demand for new tissue.

Question Do you reaply uchiko?
Answer Sometimes. I play this by ear. On a blade that I just purchased, and is somewhat ratty looking, I may reapply several times. On a blade that I have had for several years, and have cleaned up fairly well, once is usually enough.

Question Do you do it with both hands to get an even spread?
Answer Normally I hold the blade with my left hand, and have it pointing up towards my right. I have the tissue folded to about 1 1/2 X 4 inches (quarters). I then put my thumb and forefinger on opposite sides of the blade, about 2 inches above the habaki. Apply slight pressure, and make one long clean stroke to the tip.

Question Which do you pay more attention to, the ji or the shinogi-ji ?
Answer The way I described tends to clean the ji much more than anything else. The shinogi-ji I do not do much with since it, is burnished, and not too viewable under the best conditions.

Question Do you the whitened area on the hamon?
Answer No, that kind of stuff is best left to the professionals polishers. However it is a somewhat artificial method (the kesho polish). Many of the really knowledgable persons perfer the Sashikomi method because it is more natural, and brings out the natural beauty of the blade. So I would advise to you send a blade for polish, and if you really want to learn the most, have Sashikomi done.

Question Also, are there supposed to be faint scratches on a burnished surface? Or is it supposed to be completely smooth? If I look at it in a really strong light, I can see little tiny scratches.
Answer This is a point that is absolutely right. And it shows that you are looking and more importantly noting mentally. Remember a polish is really a grinding with a series of finer and finer stones. And how much time, and talent the polisher spent shows in how many scratches. Even the best blades in the best polish have scratches. At first Uchikoing will bring these out, and make them look ugly. Keep on Uchikoing past this point (over the next several months). They again will fade into the background as the blade comes out. So do not spend too much time worrying about scratches. The Samurai would not have.

As some may remember I do not oil my blades frequently. But I also state that one has to be Very careful with this approach. As I live in Southern California (a desert by deffinition), it is normally dry and there tends to be very few problems. Just yesterday, I was reminded of one problem.

A couple of months ago I had a blade polished. And it is normally recommended to change the oil montly for about 6 months after that. Less than 2 weeks ago I send the blade out for some more work, to a well known well respected Sword Expert. He knows quite a bit more than me so he must be a Expert, right! [:^) Anyway when I received the blade back there was a bit of red rust forming on the Mune of the blade.

With a bit of luck, oil, Uchiko and time I removed the offending rust. But this just proves my point. It really does not matter what was the root cause of this rust. If I or the worker did something, that set it off. It was really a combination of several things; 1; a freshly polished blade. 2; no oil on the blade. 3; a extremely moist condition in Southern California. 4; a drop of moisture, or a fingerprint on the blade. All of these things worked together to start the rust. And it is my responsibility to be observant to detect it as soon as possible.

This blade was out of my hands for less than 2 weeks. It did not have rust on it when it left, but did when it returned. What would have happened if it was away for 6 months or a year? Or if I had put it away without examination for 6 months, a year or more? This rust would have gone full blown, Big Time Bad. And all in all it was MY fault and no one elses. When sending a blade out for work it should have been well oiled. That would have slowed the deterioration down considerably. Now I just hope that it did not start a speck of rust in the New Saya.

I just remembered something that I forgot to mention in past notes on Uchikoing of the blade. And that is blades that are oiled. Frequently I will use one clean tissue just for removing most of the oil and then throw it away. Then I will go about the normal Uchikoing of the blade. But if there is a quick build up of crap, I will throw that away and re-Uchiko. Of course using a new tissue for that also. If ever there is any doubt in your mind, choose that which you know is right, and not the shortcut. Tissue is cheap. Uchiko use to be cheap, and considering it’s job is still not expensive. A polish is Never Cheap. Even if the cost is free, it still removes more metal from the blade.

QuestionI have three more questions, if you don’t mind:

Firstly, is uchiko really that abraisive? What I mean is, if I do something silly, like uchikoing from the yakiba to the mune (just hypothecially!) instead of along the blade, how long before I would see the difference in the polish?
Answer One of the real advantages of Good Uchiko is that it is so fine, that it takes a very long time to do any damage.

Question Also, should I uchiko the shinogi-ji at all? Will that destroy the burnish?
Answer I do not try to Uchiko the Shinogi-ji, but I do not try to avoid it either. It is just there, and will be touched, but will not cause any problems.

Question About the silk cloth: Do I have to clean it off in any way before using it again? Shake it off maybe? What about possible bits of nasty scratchy stuff that might get caught in it?
Answer Cleaning it occassionaly is the perferred way. Something like a mild detergent and plenty of rinse water. Normally they would just shake it off. Absolutely do not use anything with nasty scratchy stuff, of any kind. You are better off to throw the cloth away, than to scratch a fine sword.

Question It seems that the more I learn the less I know, and the more I want to learn. Life can be funny that way, I guess. Answer Yes it is funny, but also shows that you are capable of learning, and in fact are learning. I think that it was Mark Twain that said something along the line of; “When I was 19 I though my father was about the dumbest man alive. By the time I reached 26 I was absolutely amazed how much he had learned in 7 years”. [:^) To be ignorant is not so bad. We all are at one time or another. But to not try to learn is. And it is amazing when many of the collectors are in their teens and twenties, they think they know it all. By the time they reach 40 they have been burned so many times by their ignorance, that they do not want to speak anymore. But then by the time they are 70 they realize that they are coming to the end and they really know more than anybody else who is talking. It becomes important for them to speak out, and tell the World the truth as they know it.

Question Hi Bob and all,
As some may remember I do not oil my blades frequently. (edit) A large mustachioed man with a noticeably demonstrative personality and less than demure way of letting everyone know his collection was unrivaled, finally consented to see my puny swords for a possible trade. When I got home, two hours later, I unshheathed my sword and here on the flat face of the blade was his palm print standing 1/8th inch high, in bright red/orange rust. My hard efforts and repeated UCHIKO only allowed it to go black, a feature of the blade until my house fire, some 10 years later. Some people’s body chemistry is like that. Just two hours. I coulld handle a blade directly, without oil and no maintainence, and not worry about rust (ALTHOUGH I DON’T HANDLE BLADES WITH SUCH CARELESSNESS). It just happens to be the fact. So there are different body chemistries.
Answer Some persons hands are much more reactive than others. This may have to do with what they eat, what they work with (chemicals), or who knows what. And who knows when was the last time that they washed their hands. There use to be a person around the LA area who’s body chemistry reacted well with soft metal fittings. All he had to do was rub them, and you could see the color improve.

Question Thinking about this, I have noticed that the gloves that are required at auction viewings actually cause the persperatioon of the hand to be trapped by the weave of the cotton, if cotton they be. You can see the persperation dancing on the steel where it rests against the gloved hand of a viewer. Although well intentioned, it might actually be potentially destuctive to have the public handling swords with these gloves.
Answer The Japanese Shows all use to demand these gloves, but some stopped for handeling blades since too many swords were dropped due to them. But persons handeling fittings were still required to wear them the last that I heard. As to the persperation, one thing is for certain, anything that gets to the article being held through gloves, would have got there without the gloves, and much more of it.

Question Hi Jim,
Jim, I just had an epiphany while doing the choji/uchiko routine on an out of polish wakizashi with a Mizuta Kunishige signature. Certainly the mechanical process materially aides the visibility of the blade. I realized though, that the time spent vaguely gazing at the blade while engaged in the mechanical routine results in the formation of a perceptual filter and integrator. I suspect that my eyes/brain were able to filter out the scratches and black spots while integrating the hada and hamon. Maybe sort of like the phenomenon of looking at one of those magic 3D poster things. I realized that I was seeing the blade more clearly than I had even though I had looked plenty hard at it before, and that the physical condition was not significantly improved. Have you noticed anything along these lines?
Answer Ah yes! You have found another level of awareness! Neat isn’t it! And you did not even have to use mind altering drugs. Something better is after you have gone throught this several times you will be able to see the Kinsuji, Inazuma, and Chikei sooner and sooner and sooner. In one way I figure that I should protect this secret, so others will not find it. But those that listened and actually did it, kind of deserve to know. Think kind thoughts of me occasionally.

Another thing that happens is the harder metals like Kinsuji, and Chikei are the first to take a polish so they stand out, from the rest of the blade. Then the rest of the blade comes up, and obscures them slightly. Then you back off on the Uchikoing and let the background retarnish, as the Chikei et al are kept polished. It will take a long time (5 to 10 years) but it finally will all come together, and look very beautiful. Some people will never see these even though they work hard, because their blade does not have it in them.

Sword makers

Question Hi Randell and all,
Another thing to note is that old koto blades may in fact have been more tempered and not as hard as later blades, perhaps to improve longevity on the battlefield. The one micro-comparison I’ve seen had the koto blade with a tempered martensite edge, which was noticably softer than the untempered martensite edge of the shinto (shinshinto?) blade. Careful: one example does not make a trend….
Answer What you have seen was not a abberation. They did tend to be softer. And you can see it in the Hamon. It looks soft. On the other hand a harder blade probably had a much smaller chance of surviving 500+ years. But one tends to see the real signs of high tempered blades after Koto. Things like Ara Nie or Mura (very coarse – large Nie) are mostly found after that time. Nioi Deki or Ko-Nie tends to be Koto characteritics. On the other hand the most common – battle worthy blades of Koto were Bizen, and Mino. And they were Nioi Deki – softer tempered – tempered at lower temperature.

Question Hi Mike and all,
I like balance most, but heavy and solid second. If it is heavy and solid with bad balance, it wasn’t made properly. If the smith cannot balance a blade, what else can’t he do? If it has good balance, and it is heavy and solid, then I like it!
Answer Remember here that frequently / normally the blade has been seriously altered from the way the smith made it. This really comes into effect on the older blades. Many have been greatly shortened, but even a poor polish can screw up things such as balance. So newer blades may also have changed considerably from what the swordsmith made.

Question Hi Richard and all,

I was wondering which smiths throughout history would be considered as the top ten makers of Nihonto? Are all the “great ones” Koto smiths or are there equally good Shinto and Shinshinto era smiths?
Answer Not all of the “great ones” were Koto. I feel that potentially the best was Umetada. He started the reversal of a long downhill slide in sword making. But he could only re-invent so much. If he had lived along side of Masamune there would have been a real run for the money.

Question With all the various rankings available from a variety of sources, both Japanese and non-Japanese, such as Fujishiro, Token Yoran, Hawley, etc, has there ever been agreement on who actually made the best swords?
Answer These sources are questionable as to the top makers. As there values are determined by the monetary values placed upon these smiths. And that is determined by many people (buyers) that really do not know anything about Nihonto.

Question Masamune is always mentioned in the top group. I couldn’t say, as I’ve never seen a Masamune blade. I’ve heard others say his work was over rated. IMHO, I would put Nagamitsu, Muramasa, Kotetsu in my list. I’m still thinking about others.
Answer Now comes another question. Just what points were considered most important? Masamune was important, but his stablemate Norishige was just as good. Masamune was better at tempering, and Norishige was better at forging. Which was more important? Prior to the Mongol Invasions of 1274 and 1281, the Samurai was Noble born, and went into battle with 2 retainers. The Titles and lineage of these Samurai would be called out upon the Battlefield. Proper pairs were matched off, and they would battle. This did not work with the Mongol Invaders. About the time the Samurai was yelling out his Titles he became a pin-cushion for chinese arrows. So the foot soldier was developed. And their family history varied. Most were not of Noble Lines. So the reserved, noble swords fell into disfavor, as the gaudier Soshu styles were more to the likings of the lesser bred Samurai.

As to Muramasa, he made very sharp swords, but they were not great works of art. If the Tokugawa had not hated them so they would just be considered good sharp swords, but diffinitely not great ones.

Kotetsu? He was a extremely talented smith. He made armor, fittings, and swords. He was diffenitely one of the best of all time metalworkers. But his swords were not super great, other than the fact that he was considered Saijo O Wazamono.

There was So-Den Bizen Kanemitsu. Now here was a man that started making Bizen style, and changed to the Soshu shape. If you were a Japanese General in 1350, and had your choice of any blades. You probably picked Kanemitsu.

If you were a Noble person and needed a sword for Court during this time period, you would choose Bizen, Aoe Bitchu, Rai, or Awataguchi. When Emperor Gotoba choose smiths to teach him (1208), look at which groups were chosen. Of the 1st 12 smiths all were Bizen, Bitchu, or Yamashiro. Of the next 30 all again were Bizen, Bitchu or Yamashiro, with the exception of 5 flingers. That says quite a bit. And the most beautiful steel was made by the Ichimonji.

If you were a high ranking Samurai of 1700, what would you use when going into battle. A Good Shinto blade. It was not that the Shinto blade was better compared to a Koto blade in the same condition. But no Koto blades were in the same condition. They were all somewhat worn and very valuable. When back in Court you would wear your Koto blades, so they would not stand as much chance of damage.

So which maker was the best? Choosing a blade for extreme beauty and servicability. If we could have Ubu – mint condition blades, we would have to almost exclusively go Kamakura, or Nambokucho. But they would be million dollar + blades.

Now if we drop beauty then we should look at serviceability, and the best measurment would be sharpness. So let’s look at the Saijo O-Wazamono smiths.



Kanemoto – Shodai

Kanemoto – Nidai

Sendai Kunikane – Shodai

Soboro Sukehiro

Tadayoshi – Shodai

Mutsu Tadayoshi

Tatara Nagayuki

Miyoshi Nagamichi – Shodai

Osafune Hidemitsu

Mihara Masaie

Osafune Motoshige.

Now these smiths were all Mid Koto or Shinto, with the exception of Motoshige. And no one can figure out why somebody tested such a valuable blade. But during his life time his friend down the street Kanemitsu was known to be sharper. So that also tends to point back to Late Kamakura or Nambokucho. Basically 1300 to 1375 or so (maybe 1275 to 1400). Could you imagine where Kanemitsu, Sadamune, Masamune, Norishige would have been if a fair comparision could have been made. There would have to be a spot above Saijo O-Wazamono.

Actually after Kamakura it was all downhill. But for another 50 or 60 years they were still good enough to beat the later best. And that downhill trend continued until today, with a big bump up for Shinto – thanks to Umetada. There was also a smaller bump up for Shinshinto. And currently there is a fairly good size rise in the ability of some, but much of it is due to the depression caused by the banning of wearing swords.

Obtaining blades

Question I collect knifes and enjoy the tanto shape … and found out about a katana sword … I would like to buy one … but I would like a usable one … not like the sword available from the highlander … I enjoy learning new things … so would like to study up before I spend money … also I do not have the amount of money some of you guys are talking about …
Answer The money is always a major problem to just about everybody that I know. The other way is to hunt. One idea is to put ads in your local advertiser. The best maybe something that will run cheap ads to many people. Like a local throw away.

Question What would you think would be a sum of money to spend to get a sword to study and learn more about what you all are talking about …
Answer Price can be fairly low. I have seen nice blades come out of garage sales for $5 each. I have a friend that has a very nice collection, and has never spent over $1,500 on a sword. Many he has picked up for $50 to $200. The price tends to be lowered as you are willing to spend more time hunting.

I know you asked someplace about books. The best begginers book is still John Yumoto’s “The Samurai Sword”. After you are confortable with that maybe go to “The Samurai Sword” by Kansan Sato, or “The Crafts of the Japanese Sword” by Kapp, Kapp, and Yoshihara.

Question I am looking for a place to buy a katana in Canada, could you give me an address please. Thank You Answer Since I am not a dealer I really do not know who is in your area. And that causes a real problem because there is a very large number of unethical sword dealers around. I do not know whether they have gun shows in Canada. They often are a good source, but again becareful. If you are walking into this with little or no prior knowledge about Japanese Swords, do not pay very much. Like $200 or $300 at the most. If there are no gun shows up there you can probably go to one in the U.S. with few problems. The other thing that you can do is to buy from a auction house. The last sword I bought almost 1 year ago, I purchased through Christie’s in New York. Southeby’s is also very reputable. These can give some very good deals. And in fact they are were many of the dealers buy their blades. So if you pay slightly more than a dealer is willing, it will still be much cheaper than that dealer would have sold it to you.

What to collect

Question What about collecting gendaito? AnswerHi Bill and all, I personally can see no real reason to not collect Gendai. And as you pointed out there are many benefits ” relatively good value / cost” and frequently that is “Excellent value / cost”. Chris and several other of my friends collect Gendai. I collect mostly Koto. But with me it is a matter of being lazy. I buy what is available when I have the money to buy. So I would be very happy to improve my collection with a good Gendai blade. One of the things that I tend to think of when I buy a blade is “Is it something I like enough to lose the total cost, if I screw up?”, and can I afford it? So if a particular blade strikes your fancy, and you can afford to buy it. Buy it! To worry about it being Gendai is to worry about nothing important. And if I was rich I would diffinitely order a custom blade or two by one of the Yoshiharas, and maybe by other modern smiths also. I keep things like that in mind just in case I win big in a lottery (I can dream can’t I?) [:^)

Question It is only as I considered buying this blade I went through this investigation myself. Any comments?
AnswerHi Wah and all,
Back in the 1970 my dealer friend was collecting Gendaitos and every established collectors thought he was nut, yet he was raving on about how good the Yasukuni blades are while others dismiss his ideas as total rubbish. 10 years ago he was saying how WW2 Gendaito would rocket in value and again japanese buyers say they are worthless but would give him what its worth. Today he was looking at a Gendaito with a “star” stamp and I can tell in his eyes he really liked it and pay to have it polish and shirasayed yet all those other Koto, Shinto and Shinshinto, some with long signed mei, which displayed along side it did not get the same treatment and worth a lot less. Does he really know something we dont? (E.N. Hmmm…I guess he did!)
There is nothing “Wrong” with collecting what one collects as long as it is not illegal. Similar to guns. Some people collect BIG guns. Others full automatics, such as Machineguns (you mean that is illegal in most places other than the US?). Others single shot rifles, or shotguns, or .22’s, or target rifles, or air rifles, or BB guns, or cap guns, or pop guns. Is by definition a cap gun collection less than a machinegun collection. I think not. They are only different. And in fact the Cap gun collection can have some serious benefits. Machineguns must be registered and selling them is a bitch. But if one had a good collection of Mint Cap guns from the 50’s, with their packages, some of those would go for thousands of dollars. Just yesterday I was talking to my Dentist who recently purchased a “Major Matt something” doll from the late 60’s. Mint it cost him $50. If it had been “Mint in the Box” it would have cost him $300. Is his collection less of a collection. No, it is just different, and does not belong on this list.

So what your friend colects is what he collects. What we collect is what we collect. A $1,000 Gunto is just as valuable as a $1,000 Koto blade. And a $10,000 Gunto collection is just as valuable as a $10,000 collection of Koto blades. But what belongs on this list? I think there is some room for mention of even machine made blades. At one time each and every one of us could not tell a machine made blade from a Koto blade. Now hopefully most of us at least have a idea. We must occasionally talk about them, to teach the Newbies about them. Unless of course someone has 300 machine made blades that he wants to get out the door at the best price possible. [:^)

Fittings – Kodogu

Question Hi Jim,
It is funny how appreciation of iron tsuba is much different from swords. At least for me, tsuba are much more personal and intimate. Answer I think one of the things about Tsuba is that they are less abstract in their beauty. To really enjoy a sword as something other than a weapon, takes a certain kind of mind. To enjoy the sword it helps to have a really good sword, in really good condition, and plenty of time to study it.

Question I am participating in an embryonic sword club here in ??? of about 6-8 members. I’m working hard on bringing something of value to the group. Any advice you may have based on your experiences with your club would be most welcome.
Answer Good luck. What really makes or breaks a club is the members. If they are all dealers it can be a real drag. The So. Cal. Club has been around since the early 60’s. I believe the JSSUS is the only older one in the US, and that is only by a year or two. We are extremely fortunate in that we are rich in attending members who have gone on Sensei Yumoto’s trips. 6 of those attend almost every meeting. Several more are in the area, and can be used as references. This type of person also tends to have some better than average examples, of swords and fittings.

The next problem is recruting new members that are worthy of anything. 95+% of sword collectors just seem to want to learn what it takes to make lots of money very easy. They think that they should be able to learn by osmosis. And their experinces tend to be quite a bit of BS, lightly sprinkeled with fact. So when I find someone who appears to want to learn, I try to nuture them as much as possible.

Ideas and Opinions

Question Hi Wah, and all,
I think the man can speak for himself….no one is above criticism. Maybe I was a bit hasty and I do apologise to whoever believe I was a bit harsh to old Jim. Everybody has certain knowledge and experience that does not mean we can’t question when they have opinions we rather doubt.
Answer Yes I can both speak for myself, and readily admit that I can and do error at times. Nobody is always correct, and few are always incorrect. True knowledge is not formed from the opinions of one man. But by taking the opinions of many and sifting out the truths as we see them. So I thank Alan for protecting me. But if I can not stand alone maybe I should be sitting. So no apology necessary, and in fact as I have said before, I frequently need a wack across the nose with a rolled up newspaper (please not the Sunday LA Times). Whip me beat me make it hurt so good. [:^) Actually the last line was just a bit of sick humor thrown in.

Gimei Blades – Forgeries

Question Hi Richard and all,
I was wondering about the practice that I’ve seen at some shinsa were someone who had a blade labeled gimei then filed off the mei. Is this prudent? Isn’t the signature, even false, part of the history of the blade? While the shinsa teams are experts in the field, a shinsa is still an opinion. I have heard of folks resubmitting blades to different shinsa and having the blade pronounced as being made by an entirely different smith. Suppose the filed off mei was indeed an authentic signature – ouch!! Wouldn’t it be more prudent and serve to better protect the history of the blade to use a lacquer signature stating the carved mei is probably gimei rather than destroying forever the nakago of the blade?
Answer No, if the blade is infact Gimei it is best to remove the signature. However if you are going to sell the blade it will probably get more money with even a Gimei signature. As to removing the signature, unless it is obviously Gimei, such as a Soshu Masamune signature, on a much later blade, send it to more than 1 Shinsa prior to removing the signature. And remember before removing a Masamune signature, there was more than 1 legitimate smith that used that name (there were about 25 that did). I remember the 1st Shinsa I worked. One of my friends submitted a blade, and it was called Gimei. He also was working that Shinsa. So he was sitting in the lunch room looking at the blade. One of the Japanese workers came in and asked him the problem, which he stated. The Japanese took the blade to his work station and pounded down the signature. It was resubmitted at no charge. And it was again bounced as Gimei since part of it was somewhat readable. So it was 1st chiseled over and then pounded down, obliterating all evidence of that signature. So it was submitted for the 3rd. time. This time it received a good paper attributing it to the smith who’s name was on the blade. And my friend was shell shocked.

Another friend showed me a Tanto recently that he attributes to Tosa Yoshimitsu. One can still read the obliterated signature “Yoshimitsu”. Some one removed that signature thinking it was not right for Bizen Yoshimitsu or Yamashiro Yoshimitsu – which it is not. Oh well.

There is a old Japanese saying “Do not remove the signature until it has been turned down by 3 Shinsas. And on that another friend had a very nice blade turned down as Gimei, but noted as being the correct time and school of the the signature. Knowing one of the Judges he asked. That Judge felt it was correct. I think that blade shoulded be rejected by about 5 Shinsa’s prior to removal of the signature.

So when do you remove a signature? I removed one as soon as I got it home after buying it. I have another that was passed by one Shinsa and rejected by another. The Lead Judge who passed it also did a full lenght Oshigata of the blade, and published it about 2 months later. Who is right? Well I obviously side with the Shinsa that passed it. When should one remove the signature? That depends. As many things in the sword world, it is all a shade of grey (or is that gray?)