Antique Japanese swords

Learn about Japanese sword classification and become an expert in identifying antique swords

Soldiers of today do not use swords as primary weapons, knowing that there are not anymore efficient. They have been replaced by firearms and cannons. Their value is not in their efficiency anymore, but in their symbolism. They have become our reminders of our history.

Ancient Japanese swords classification

Antique Japanese swords are classified according to their places of origin, or to their school of sword-making.

Expert knowledge from curators and historians is necessary to identify the markings of the weapon since this classification is extremely difficult to do as there are over 200 schools of blacksmithing in Japan. There are however five regions that stand out: Soshu, Yamato, Bizen, Yamashiro, and Mino.

Classification by lengths

Ancient collectible swords can be classified according to their length.

• Japanese great swords or odachi are over three feet in length. They were too long for close-combat dueling, but were very effective for cavalrymen. Because of their length, samurai soldiers can hack many enemies on their path. Some old great swords (odachi) were used as gifts to be offered in temples and to the gods; hence, their tangs sometimes bear religious marks.

• Japanese long swords or daito are over two feet in length, but not more than three feet. The famous Japanese samurai weapon, the ancient katana sword, falls under this category. The great sword (odachi) was good for cavalrymen, but the problem was that it was very heavy and its length was useless in close combat. The katana was ideal for horsemen for it was neither too long nor too bulky to carry along.

• Japanese short swords or shoto are over one foot in length, but not more than two feet. The famous wakizashi of Tokugawa Ieyasu, an artifact now in display in a museum in Japan, is a good example. Samurai soldiers used wakizashi and katana in tandem as their weapons after 16th century.

• Japanese daggers or tanto are about half to one foot in length. The tanto and tachi (slightly longer than katana) were the weapons of the samurai before the wakizashi and katana.

Classification by periods

Ancient collectible Japanese swords can be also classified according to the period they were produced (see list below). The oldest Swords from earlier era, such as those found in prehistoric burial sites, are called JOKOTO. They however are not included in this list for the reason that they do not represent Japanese artistry in sword-making (their production was largely influenced by Chinese and Korean traders).

It is of course exceedingly difficult to come up with universally consistent characteristics of Japanese swords across history. This article lists down only those that are deemed to be fundamental.

Old Swords Period (Koto) before 1596

The most prized possessions are called Japanese old swords or koto. Koto are highly revered and precious swords because of the famous geniuses who forged them. The Kamakura period (12th century to 14th century) was the Golden Age of Japanese Swordcraft. The art of creating koto, which was a jealously guarded secret among smiths and their school, was further innovated with the Mongolian invasion in 13th century. The swords were made sturdier, better, shorter, and more stunning in response to the rugged and strong shields of the Mongols.

Koto became a status symbol of the samurai, who bring them anywhere they go.

Koto Sword-makers

All of the famous ancient sword-makers were chronicled and listed in 1805 in a book entitled Good Sword Smiths (WAZAMONO). Among them Goro Nyudo Masamune comes first and seconded by Muramasa Sengo. Muramasa’s weapons, which are vicious, extremely sharp, and violent, are often compared to the superior and refined Masamune swords. Some Masamune weapons in perfect condition are found today in Tokugawa Art Museum of Japan and Truman Presidential Library and Museum. A Muramasa sword on the other hand can be found in The Japanese Sword Museum.

Characteristics of Old Swords (Koto)

Make: Koto is made of folded steel process, contains both highly carbonized and low-carbon iron. Temper lines evolved from wide to simple.
Blade: Long (often more than 14 feet), gracefully curved, arching metal.
Tang: Full, coated, contains the name, province, and the date of the forging of the sword. Different schools came up with their own versions of the sword, with various ornaments found in the hilt, guard, grip, and fuller.

New Sword Period (SHINTO) 1597-1780

Koto-making was lost in the succeeding period, particularly during the disastrous civil wars that engulfed the country in 15th century. Mass production was preferred. Many of the smiths abandoned the traditional schools and crowded the massive production houses of warring political and military clans. The Golden Age of Sword-Making ended abruptly.

Japanese new swords or shinto were in production in 1568, at a time when a more powerful clan emerged and succeeded in unifying all aristocratic households under a central rule. The end of the civil war ushered in peace. Assassinations of the members of the ruling clan were frequent however, and there were many infightings and small battles that raged on.

With the climate of peace prevailing over the land and with small-scale wars to worry about, mass production of swords was halted. Smiths returned to forging swords of aesthetic values, ready to appease the vanity of the ruling clan. The desire to recover the rare lost art of koto-making became the slogan for schools to be established again. Swords of this time reveal the attempts of the smiths to recreate the artistry found in koto.

Shinto Sword-makers

A representative of the Shinto era is a tachi forged by Umetada Myoju, recognized as the Father of Shinto, in display in Kyoto National Museum.

Characteristics of New Swords (Shinto)

Color : As the country was opened to trade with other states, shinto are characterized with their pale color. Iron was imported from European countries such as Holland and Portugal.
Blade : Strength of the blade has weakened, but decorations and ornamentations have become exceedingly freer, with new designs for temper lines.

New Revival Period (SHINSITO) 1781-1876

Japanese new revival sword or shinsito era took place when Tokugawa shogunate united all Japan and ushered in a long period of peace. It is the Renaissance of Japanese sword-making, a time when smiths realized that the shinto were really poor imitations to koto. They busied themselves in creating weapons that would surpass the quality of shinto and attempted to manufacture blades that would come close to or be comparable to koto. Experts now agree that they have succeeded: rare shinsito are superior to shinto, but are still inferior to koto.

Shinsito Sword-makers

Of the Shinsito era, Suishinshi Masahide is the most famous. It was he who started the campaign for reopening the schools of koto-making, and he traveled the country urging like-minded people to relive the golden days of metalworking. One of his swords is on display and indexed in Japanese Swords and Sword Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts – Boston, USA. In the same museum, another Shinsito era sword forged by Minamoto Kiyomaro can also be found.

Characteristics of New Revival Sword (Shinsito)

Swords are revivals of koto; hence the style and characteristics generally bear semblance to the old swords (koto).

Modern Swords (GENDAITO) 1877-1945

Japanese modern swords or gendaito refer to the swords made at a time when Japan was forcibly opened to the world through American intimidation. Samurai soldiers were stripped of their social status, position, and military rank. Wielding, carrying, and making of swords were prohibited. Soldiers and smiths alike lost their job overnight.

To save the tradition the Imperial Family revived sword-making as a cultural industry, not anymore as weaponry, through active sponsorships. Sword-making in Japanese tradition enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor and his family. Majority of rare gendaito are now believed to be under the private collection of the most ancient Japanese aristocratic families.

Sword-makers of Modern Sword Period

Of the Gendaito era, collectors have now agreed on the masterpieces created by Chounsai Emura and Ichihara Nagamitsu as perfect representatives of this period. They are two important modern-day smiths recognized by the Japanese Art Sword Preservation Society, the only organization of its kind allowed to exist by the government. Fascination to their works started in 1980’s, and their swords enjoy brisk trading and continued support and popularity even to this day.

Characteristics of Modern Swords (Gendaito)

The discovery of old techniques from shinsito, and advancements in metallurgy greatly eased the burden of sword production. However some characteristics of tradition universally remained, including: Mei or signature etched on the tang (nakago), the use of folded steel process, and the use of tamahagane, a type of steel with specific carbon content. Smiths created reproductions of famous old swords (koto) using traditional metalworking.

Famous ancient Japanese swords

For collectors, antique sword values of Japanese swords are basically categorized into four: the priceless national treasures (usually koto) found in museums, high-priced artifacts (usually shinto and shinsito) found in private collections, expensive gendaito of modern smiths, and bladewares produced by present-day smiths who are considered living national treasures of Japan recognized by the Japanese Art Sword Preservation Society.

National Treasures (Kokuho)

• The tachi of Ashikaga Yoshiteru, forged by Osafune Nagamitsu
• The tachi of Go Mizuno O Tenno, forged by Ryumon Nobuyoshi
• The tachi of Hosokawa Yusai, forged by Bungo no Kuni Yukihira
• The sword of Kuroda “Jousi” Yoshitaka, forged by Hasebe Kunishige
• The sword of Minamoto Yorimitsu, forged by by Hoki Yasutsuna
• The sword of Oda Nobunaga made by Ichimonji Yoshifusa

Private Collections

Antique sword value of Japanese swords are determined by the market, whether in direct barter or in antique sword auctions. In recent memory, there has been one most memorable auction in this market–the Dr. Walter A. Compton’s collection.

The collection was brought to the market through the auction house Christie’s in March 31, 1992. It contained many of Dr. Compton’s swords, fittings, and antique sword canes collected for over half a century. One of the collection’s items, a 13th century Japanese old sword (koto), was bought for $418,000–the most expensive price paid to an antique Japanese sword.

How to start your collection of antique Japanese swords

The emergence of fiction based on stories of dark fantasy swords and journeys has given the market for antique swords another life. If you want to take advantage of the trend, starting your own collection of ancient samurai swords would make a good investment. Here are the simple tips to follow:

1. Whenever a dealer would offer a sword, judge its condition. Much of the sword’s value depends on the quality of its appearance and condition.

2. Examine the physical features and markings, and initially determine whether they fit the fundamental characteristics of antique Japanese sword.

• Blade – Its curve must be geometrically balanced with its length;
• Metal – It must be not be too thick nor too thin, too heavy nor too light;
• Tip – The tip of the blade must gracefully curve to a rigid point;
• Grip – It must be two-handed; a one-handed samurai sword, the katana, is unheard of;
• Hilt – It must be round, with about three to four holes of different lengths and shapes.

3. Classify the Japanese sword according to its length. See above discussion for details.

4. In order for you to have advanced appraisal skills, read the related article, How to avoid buying fake antique Japanese swords. Here, you will know how to look for more specific and detailed characteristics of ancient samurai swords, so that you can distinguish whether the sword you have in hand is a fake or not.

5. Start joining online forums, auctions, discussion groups, museums shows, and reenactment activities for you to meet like-minded people, more reputable dealers, and good auction sites. They can be great resources for you to grow your antique samurai sword collections in terms of number, quality, and monetary worth.

6. Do not forget to keep a maintenance habit to keep all your collected ancient Japanese swords in top shape all the time. There are shops offering lubricating, polishing, and sharpening oils for katana swords. Remember, the steel from which these swords were made is susceptible to damages from moisture, oxidation, and ageing.

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