5 Guidelines for the Beginning Collector of Japanese Swords

I am frequently contacted by collectors beginning in this field, who are looking for helpful guidelines that they can safely follow when starting their collection. Compared with the situation when I first started collecting Japanese swords, this is at the same time both a safer and much more dangerous moment to be entering the field. It is safer in the sense that there is enormously more information on this field in the English language than existed 30 years ago. In those early days I lived off a small assortment of articles from Jim Kurrasch until I made the move to Albert Yamanaka’s excellent newsletter series. Now there is a broad landscape of English content to absorb, including hundreds of published references and an international network of collectors who pool their knowledge in social media groups and discussion forums. It is conversely a more dangerous place because there have never been so many fakes, falsely described swords and compromised pieces with skillfully hidden defects as we have now. When dealing with art objects of this relatively high price level, it is critical to have a foundation of knowledge and know clearly what you are buying. Most will not do so though and instead dive in headfirst with both eyes closed. With that said, I thought it would be helpful to write a blog article (and create a supporting video) on recommendations for the beginning collector.

1. Study The first recommendation, as I lead with above, is to put in the legwork to study. Start with a shopping trip to Grey Doffin’s website (https://www.japaneseswordbooksandtsuba.com/) and acquire some of the excellent primers which are available. We each have our personal favorites references, but I most often suggest beginning with ‘The Connoisseurs Book of Japanese Swords’ by Nagayama Kōkan. I would probably suggest graduating from Nagayama to Albert Yamanaka’s newsletter series and then on to the Nihonto Koza (literally, Japanese Sword Encyclopedia) translated by Afu Watson. I would also suggest getting everything that you can buy from Markus Sesko’s excellent body of works consisting of translations and original writings. These can be found at the http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/nihontobooks. Also, I recommend checking back often for new articles on Markus’ blog at https://markussesko.com/. Markus is now working at the Met’s Department of Arts & Armour and is a treasure to our community for all he does to make sword scholarship accessible to us. Once you have acquired the references above, which will keep you busy for a while, I suggest reading and rereading. Each time you will absorb new information. And, as your eyes become trained by seeing more and more swords over the years, you will discover valuable new nuggets of information in later reading of these books. Eventually the impulse to buy a first sword will be too hard to resist, but I recommend trying to go as long as possible focused on pure study before making a big acquisition.

2. NBTHK Become a member of the NBTHK. This continues off my previous comment about study. The NBTHK is the leading organization worldwide in the study and evaluation of Japanese swords and sword fittings. They publish an excellent reference series titled Token Bijutsu, which is a great source of study materials. Also, as a member we are provided access to services offered by the organization both here and in Japan. The NBTHK American branch website can be accessed at: http://nbthk-ab.org.

3. Engage Join a club and engage with the international community. It is difficult to gain knowledge in isolation. If you are fortunate enough to have a Japanese sword study club nearby, I highly recommend joining and meeting other collectors in your area. If you cannot locate one, please reach out and I will see what I can do to find the closest local knowledgeable collectors to connect with. Join some of the online discussion groups such as the Nihonto discussion forum on Facebook and the Nihontomessageboard.com run by Brian Robinson. This will allow you to engage with, and get advise from, individuals who have been studying and developing their eyes for years-to-decades. Again, the focus is in learning from others and on building up a storehouse of knowledge before making that first big purchase.

4. Kantei Participate in kantei exercises where possible. As featured in my previous video on the Gokaden, kantei is the practice of attributing Japanese swords to specific time periods, schools and smiths. The NBTHK’s Token Bijutsu journals include a kantei contest and local study groups will also try to conduct these exercises. This is one of the most valuable ways to develop your eyes and learn to identify the characteristic traits that differentiate Japanese swords over time and location.

5. Language Learn the rudiments of Japanese. I can’t over-emphasize the value of this recommendation, nor can I overstate how much I appreciate Jim Kurrasch’s push to do so. Even with numerous references in English, this is a field focused on the study of a Japanese art form. The majority of references are in Japanese, appraisals (in the form of authentication papers) are written in Japanese, and the swords themselves will often contain Japanese language inscriptions. If as a collector you intend to follow this passion in a serious way, some study of the Japanese is critically important. Begin with flash cards, and for this I will again refer you to Grey’s website for flashcards that focus on some of the more frequently seen kanji

(https://www.japaneseswordbooksandtsuba.com/store/books/kanji-flashcards). Study as many sword inscriptions as you can find and practice translating inscriptions on your own. This will allow your to achieve a much greater depth of appreciation for this art form and to make a jump to the next level of scholarship in this field.