by Jim Kurrasch
from an article started in the October 1996 Nanka Token Kai Newsletter, with additions by Adrian Schlemmer and others
At the end of W.W.II there was a very unfortunate situation which resulted in the loss of quite a few Important Nihontô, as well as the lesser ones. These were both Kokuho (National Treasures) and Jûyô Bijûtsû (Important Cultural Objects). This came about in several ways. Japanese swords were to be rounded up, and destroyed by the Allied Forces. But the Kokuho and Jûyô Bijûtsû were to be spared. However sometimes even they were seized illegally by the military, and other times they were just not returned after the registration. This happened in late 1945 and into the early part of 1946. Another problem was that in some circumstances the swords were taken by either well intentioned or flat out corrupt Japanese Officials. Some of these swords may have never left Japan, but it is well known that others have occasionally surfaced in the US.
In fact many swords were not destroyed but were sent back to various allied countries. And in virtually all countries that were recaptured from Japan all swords were taken upon surrender by the Japanese Forces. So in the Philippines many nihontô were used to cut sugarcane. The Chinese Military kept the swords taken there for military use. The US Occupying Forces destroyed the lesser swords, but frequently gave the better ones to the GI’s. Again the Kokuho and Jûyô Bijûtsû were to be returned to their owners, but in actuality the commanding officer of the area had final say. And some CO’s just sent all of the best confiscated swords back to their homes in the States.
There was also another group of Lost Nihontô. Those were the ones sold during the Muzukashii Jidae = difficult times after W.W.II. Besides the normal hardships associated with losing a major war, some in Japan suffered due to the reforms brought about by the Allied Forces after the war. Prior to W.W.II some of the important feudal families owned vast amounts of land. The allies allowed those who actually farmed the land to continue to own it (many in Northern Japan). But in Central Japan many landowners were forced to sell their holdings. This had been their source of income, so they no longer had that. Nobody had much money, they would not be paid much for the land that they had to sell. Some of these families ended up selling their family treasures. This could be nihontô, kodogu, armor, maps, paintings or what ever. These occasionally would have included former Kokuho, or Jûyô Bijûtsû. And I believe that the Jûyô Bijûtsû Awataguchi Hisakuni Tachi in which is occasionally shown in the U.S. was just one of these. Bob Wainwright (who was stationed in Japan in the early 50’s) says the standard price for everything was around $113. If I recall right the exchange rate was 480 yen to the dollar. So $113 would have been around 50,000 to 60,000 yen.
Anyway since W.W.II there has been a search to recover some of these Important Objects. In the early 1960’s Dr. Homma sent with Mr. Nakajima a set of photographs of some of the missing swords. Copies of these photos were later dispersed to a few collectors outside of Japan. In his Nihontô Newsletter in the early 1970’s Albert Yamanaka published what information he had on these swords (14 Kokuho and 25 Jûyô Bijûtsû). From what I know there has never been a general publication of the photographs. I assume that this was meant to keep many ignorant as to what they had, so that they would not demand top dollar. But I also figure that these swords maybe damaged just for that reason. Let’s face it, after 50 years if these swords have not surfaced they may need help to surface. Admittedly there are still the swords like Jûyô Bijûtsû Tomomura that was sold at a yard sale in Detroit for $60 a several years back. The next time it sold the price was $100,000 and a gold Rolex watch. Just maybe if more had the information more of these swords will be returned. I wish all of the readers luck in their search.
We reached the point in this article, where we moved on to those 14 blades and that were Kokuhô – National Treasures. Remember that they are no longer Kokuhô unless resubmitted after 1953, when all Kokuhô were demoted to Jûyô Bunkasai. Unfortunately finding photographs, or ôshigata of these swords has proven to be extremely hard. In the set of photographs sent by Kanzan Sato with Nakajima, I have only been able to find one of the missing tantô. And that is actually a koshirae that just meets the description basically.
John Garcia lent me a set of Kokuhô Tôken Zufu. This is a set of 163 photographs, and ôshigata of the Kokuhô nihontô, printed in 1939. I absolutely can not believe that none of those missing blades were found there. So at this time I have only a small number of photos of the missing Kokuhô. 25 out of 25 missing Jûyô Bijutsu, and 3 possibles out of the 14 missing Kokuhô.
In 1986 the Japanese publisher Seishôsha published a set of books Collection of Japanese Swords Registered as Important Art Objects by the Government. This set contains photos and available information on 999 nihontô (some include fittings) and 91 more fittings. This was only on the Jûyô Bijûtsû objects and did not include the former Kokuho.
Actually I should explain several things about Kokuho and Jûyô Bijûtsû. With the Meiji Restoration the Japanese Government set up a committee to evaluate and register National Treasures – Kokuho. The reason for this was that some of the Japanese shrines and families were selling off their past, to the foreigners. To prevent the best from being latter exported they could be designated Kokuho. And thus they could not be taken out of Japan without permission from the government.
In 1933 another law allowed the nomination of Jûyô Bijûtsû. These objects had lesser National value than the Kokuho. Neither Kokuho nor Jûyô Bijûtsû had to be produced by Japan, but they had to have important historical significance to Japan. In 1950 a new system was set up. This voided all previous ratings. The prior Kokuho where changed to Jûyô Bunkazai, and the prior Jûyô Bijûtsû became unrated. All objects would have to be resubmitted to retain their former position.
Another important group of objects are those in the Imperial Collection, Gyôbutsu as well as those in the Shosoin (in Nara). These really are all beyond the touch of Kokuho, and Jûyô Bunkazai. Basically what committee would be foolish enough to say that a sword owned by the Emperor is not important enough to be Kokuho? And the mere fact that a item is in the Shosoin means that Japan has stored it for over 1,200 years. Who would say that it is not historically important?
While in Japan several years ago I was fortunate enough to talk with Mr. Tamio Tsuchiko on a couple of occasions. He was working on a book his book Toshô Tanbô. Unfortunately it will be in Japanese, but it will have pictures of these Missing Swords. He has also brought to light many of the ‘Articles’ by the U.S. Forces on the Return of Looted Objects of Art. Mr. Tsuchiko and myself discussed what we knew, and jointly as well as individually prior to our meeting we had decided that it was a shame what happened at the end of W.W.II. But what is important now is making sure that these blades are known about, so they do not suffer from some individuals ignorance. This has happened in the past. It appears that at least one of the missing swords was cut up by the Occupying Forces. As I mentioned one was sold at a yard sale for $60. That one could have very well suffered extreme damage, had it not been recognized for what it was.
Mr. Tsuchiyo has found that there were about 55 swords missing. There were 2 lists of these, and only one has been known about in the U.S. Some of the swords have been returned to Japan. And some of the ‘found’ swords had never left Japan. The various police forces had occasionally intervened, and slipped some swords out of the system. Obviously that was illegal by the system in place at that time. But I feel that it was also very fortunate for all involved.
I have recently been told about a missing sword that had been returned to Japan in the past. The persons who returned it contacted the family, and were told they no longer have a interest in swords = no they would not buy it back. The Japanese Government (Sword Museum?) had no claim to this sword since it was war booty, but felt it would be nice if the finder gave it to a museum (theirs?). Since the finder (a dealer) had a fair amount invested in this sword, he was not about to donate it and loose his investment. So he sold it to a Japanese dealer.
The above story is sad but to be expected. WWII has been over for 50 years. War booty was taken by all sides. Most of those who originally took these swords are probably dead. And if not they had not returned these swords in 50+ years, why should they now? They or their heirs may decide to cash in on these blades. They probably (hopefully) know what they are, and expect a fair amount of money for them. So the next step is for these swords to be sold to a collector, or a dealer. That person must lay out the cash to buy these swords. That may amount to over $100,000 in some cases. Now very few persons in this World can be expected to just eat that kind of loss.
Even if a good person with good character was to buy one of these swords for a price that would not break them if it was given away. Who would they give it to? I know of no museum outside of Japan guaranteed to properly take care of Nihontô. Even the biggest ones have been known to sell some pretty good swords, when a curator changes, or they need some money. Why should such a museum hold what you donate to be more valuable?
Then there are the museums in Japan. The sword museum is a logical choice, but it already has a large number of swords. And many are the absolute top of the line, can not be beat at any price type of sword. Will anyone really benefit from the Sword Museum having another sword, even if it is Kokuho? And one must question placing all of the really great swords in one spot. What would happen if the Sword Museum burnt down? Or was hit by a major earthquake, and then it burnt? Or it could even be robbed, or broken into. What I am saying is that placing all of the eggs in one basket never has made much sense. T
hen there are other major museums in Japan. The National Museums are probably a excellent choice for Jûyô Bunkasai, or Kokuho Swords. Admittedly they probably have little need for any of the lesser swords, that we come across. But the Japanese National Museum appears to be the best chance that a important sword will be treasured, and not be disposed of (sold), when the time is right. And they also appear to not have a over abundance of important swords.
So I have published that information (including photos, and ôshigata) that I have collected on the missing Jûyô Bijûtsû as well as missing Kokuho. I hope that by doing this it helps to recover more of these swords. Even if they are not immediately returned to Japan at least the current owners should take proper care of them.
18) A tachi signed Sagami no kuni Jyûnin Sa – Jûyô Bijûtsû
20) tachi in archaic Phoenix Head mounts (birds head tachi) Kokuho
21) A second similar Phoenix Head tachi was also taken from the Niu Shrine of Kawahara Mura, Naka Gun, Wakayama Prefecture
22) Mumei naginata, the Jûyô Bijûtsû set says attributed to Sukeyoshi, and Yamanaka says attributed to Sukemura – Jûyô Bijûtsû
26) The Missing Jûyô Bunkasai set of 10 matching Umetada yari