Reflections on the Sword as a work of Art.
Professor Otto Kümmel, who is well known to all collectors of Japanese Art and Applied Arts, wrote thus in his book "Das Kunstgewerbe in Japan" [ 1911 ; page 70 ] :
"The essential element of the Japanese sword is naturally the blade, and this is the part upon which the Japanese concentrate their attention. However the characteristics of a Japanese blade lie so deep beneath the surface, and consist so little in its most readily distinguishable superficial traits, that for a European it is almost impossible to draw even the most basic of distinctions. To a European all Japanese blades above a certain very minimal standard can appear initially to be almost incredibly perfect, and the grades of quality which seem obvious at first sight to any Japanese with some training in the Sword can seem to him almost unrecognisable. The sort of training to which the Japanese are exposed would probably teach the European to see those differences too. But even in Japan nothing is more difficult than to study intensively a large number of good blades, and this kind of blade hardly ever came to Europe since the Japanese never ceased to hold them in the highest esteem."
Today hardly anything has changed regarding this statement. The only change in the conditions Professor Kümmel described, would concern his last sentence. This might be revised to the extent that since his time an interested person now has a number of possibilities in Japan to study really first class blades. This we owe mainly to the Japanese Society for the Preservation and Study of Art Swords :
"NIPPON BIJUTSU TOKEN HOZON KYOKAI"
who have not only given us the opportunity to study through their first class publications, but every year offer us the chance to handle genuine National Treasures for study purposes.
The society [ the N.B.T.H.K. ] even went so far as to offer non-Japanese-speakers an English version of their periodical publication, which appeared quarterly for fifteen years, and is to this day one of the best sources in non-Japanese literature on the subject.
Westerners do therefore have the possibility to study the essentials of the Japanese sword, although there remains a certain truth still in Professor Kümmel's theory, that all Japanese blades above a certain standard appear to the foreigner so perfect that they cannot detect even evident degrees of quality.
In order to make the incomprehensible more understandable, and in order to show that some blades of high quality have made their way to Europe, we have undertaken to put together the present exhibition and publish this catalogue. In doing so we did not wish merely to republish in detail all those charts, compilations and introductory explanations eg., about the procedure of forging, which can easily be found in readily available English and German books. We intended to demonstrate, by means of examples from our own branch of the N.B.T.H.K., how one may learn to judge degrees of quality.
First it is important to explain what we mean by those degrees and grades of quality. Maybe the translation of the name of the Japanese society makes this clear.
"N.B.T.H.K." means not only Society for the Preservation of the Japanese "Sword" as such but of the "ART-Sword", clearly implying the preservation not merely of a weapon but of an art object. This is important with regard to differences of quality. We should not ignore the fact that in the sword, art and utility coincide, so that it can happen — although it is not inevitable — that a blade which is better >from an artistic point of view is also better with regard to its function. For this reason we exhibit only swords which comply with the following three conditions :
1. The sword has to be important with regard to its artistic and historical value, i.e. it has to be excellently manufactured and to represent truly a given period in the history of the Japanese sword.
2. It has to have its own unique and extraordinary characteristics, in its form, quality and technical detail.
3. It has to be representative of a particular artist, a school, a time or place where it was produced.
To convey these criteria we try to demonstrate what a Japanese sword is, in its historical context and with a chronological summary of the changes in styles of warfare which influenced the style and form of the sword itself. These criteria of the Japanese sword can be recognised and studied since they can be shown and explained. This knowledge has nothing to do with sentiment or with "Spiritual" studies, Zen-Buddhism, enlightenment, or Kendo-training. It is a question merely of the study of an ART. The methodologies of architecture and archaeology, painting, sculpture or music can be applied to the sword. It can be dated or allotted to a school, province etc., according to stylistic criteria. One might even say that a sword offers more criteria for such determination. We always have to bear in mind that the Japanese sword is not merely a weapon but is also a work of art.
The unaccustomed spectator may overlook the fact that it is art, just as a visitor to Paris, who escapes from the rain under the roof of Notre Dame, forgets that it is a work of art, which protects him against rain. But who would say - that Notre Dame is nothing but an enormous umbrella?
Technical details and assumptions
Although the interested person can find all the detailed information in books it is nevertheless necessary to say a few words about the unique procedure of manufacturing such an "art-sword"
The steel for the sword is made from reduced iron sand, heated at low temperature on a charcoal-fire to 800 degrees centigrade. It is folded and hammered several times, achieving a maximum of hardness and stability in the way the hard and the softer parts are welded together. In any case, it is very important that all impurities disappear and each layer has to be properly welded, since all imperfections will show on the surface of the finished sword. The manner in which the material has been folded produces the most varied and beautifui patterns in the steel, such as MASAME-, ITAME- or MOKUME-HADA. But this is the case only if the smith has right from the beginning designed a beautiful HADA. If the work is executed in a slovenly manner the HADA will not come up, and it looks unclean or flat, unclear and unartistic.
Some of this material is put aside, and the remainder is again folded again, up to 21 times. The less intensively-worked part makes up the "core" of the blade, enclosed within the better "cheek" steel, and they are then jointly forged. Of course the shape of the two together has to be beautiful, since this determines whether the blade will be artistic, and aesthetically beautiful or ugly. Furthermore it is very important to keep the cheek steel of even thickness, otherwise the core risks protruding. This would ruin the HADA and affect the strength of the blade, which derives its flexibility from this kind of construction.
Next the sword is covered with a mixture of clay, fine abrasive powder, charcoal etc., thinner along the edge, thicker along the body. This is the moment for the design of the HAMON, which may be non-descript, or highiy artistic. The abstract art of designing the HAMON or "badge" of the sword marks out the great smith. Now the edge will be heated redhot and then chilled in water, thus producing the tempered line, which is nothing but the line deviding the pearlitic steel of the body from the crystalline martensite of the edge. The edge being less protected by the clay cools off faster and becomes very hard, whereas the body stays comparatively soft due to the clay coating, which only allows a certain degree of tempering. This procedure keeps the edge sharp but protected against breakage by the mild steel of the body. The broader the dividing line between the hard and soft part, the better the energy produced by a blow can be transmitted to the body — and a broad HAMON is also more beautifuil. This perfect combination of hard and soft, of mild and tensile steel, uniquely characterizes the Japanese sword as an extremely sharp and durable weapon. It is very important to control this procedure, since the tensions which arise during tempering may ruin the blade totally.
The procedure just described makes clear that a blade consists of four components, i.e.
SHAPE, STEEL quality, HADA and HAMON. Only if all four components are satisfactory >from the artistic point of view will the sword be of high quality. The better those components are, the better the blade. In order to judge this, it is necessary to see only good blades — for bad ones only irritate the eye — but using every chance to look at good blades, one gradually realizes that those which possess only good features are generally those made, and often signed, by the great masters. It is understandable that such swords have a peculiar beauty according to the period and school from which they derive. For example an ICHIMONJI-blade is completely different to a KOTETSU-blade in all its features, just as a painting by van Gogh differs from one by Rembrandt ; but both blades will be the expression of a strong artistic personality.
In order to appreciate the different types of beauty one should be equipped with as much knowledge as possible and a seeing eye regarding a good blade. Therefore it is useful to memorize the characteristics of the different schools, provinces and masters, so that when looking at a blade one knows where, when and by whom it might have been made. This is the only basis on which to attain a judgement about the differences in quality.
The typical shape of a Japanese sword, with a subtle curvature, a single edge, and a central ridge [ the shinogi ] evolved to meet specific functional needs at given times. This shape, SHINOGI-ZUKURI, is extremely useful, since it allows a quick blow, and makes the blade light. The unique cross-section and a convex curvature of the cutting face result in a highly efficient cutting instrument.
To summarize the main characteristics of a Japanese blade, these are:
All these features are to be found in a good blade, but they only become obvious and are recognizable when brought to light by a skillful polisher. In order to bring out the characteristics intended by the smith, the polisher needs to know how the blade was originally designed, since each style requires a slightly different technique. A poor polisher can either destroy or at best change the character of a blade so that a good old KOTO blade looks like an unimportant SHINTO- or SHIN-SHINTO sword. A very good polisher might make an unimportant blade look momentarily like a better one. It takes a lot of knowledge and much experience to evaluate these criteria.
;I would like to repeat that restoring and polishing has nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment, Zen-Buddhism etc. but only with knowledge and experience. One should not attempt to polish a blade without knowing whether it is by KOTETSU or KANEMITSU. For decades the N.B.T.H.K. has been training polishers in order to maintain the old art of polishing and to ensure that blades are treated with the appropriate polishing technique. Amateurish experiments with wet stones, sand-paper, acids, or wet-paste will damage a Japanese sword and can ruin it for ever since the structure and hardness may be changed.
A good polish is achieved only by a careful, time-consuming grinding by hand with a series of wet-stones of different consistence and hardness. The necessary expertise can only be acquired by long apprenticeship. During this procedure, a beautiful blue-ish surface pattern (KITAE-HADA), and the various tempering-patterns will be revealed. If the tempering was done at high temperature, the martensite grains or NIE appear like brillant tiny mirrors whereas a low temperature produces NIOI looking like clouds during sun-rise or sun-set. One can easily compare this HAMON "painting" to brush-painting with ink. A master-painter is able to produce a whole colour-scale ranging from light grey to dark black on paper. This is much more difficult when the background, as in our case, is made of hard and soft steel. The elegant and beautiful curvature of the blade is an aesthetic delight in itself comparable to a Chinese painting of the SUNG-dynasty, whose beauty derives from the contrasts between strong and very fine brush-strokes.
The form of the Japanese blade is another essential criterion in judging the artistic value of the sword. The crystal structure of the tempering line, the beauty of the steel and the forging-layers must be analysed as well as the beauty of the tang. The tang reveals a number of features such as age and colour of the rust, the filing-marks, the peg holes and if there is one, the style and type of inscription. The latter should be judged by the same criteris as calligraphy written with ink.
All these features together indicate the period and identity of the artist and can be used as important hints for the appreciation and judgment of the Japanese sword.
The History, Study and Appreciation of the Japanese Sword
During the whole history of Japan up to the MEJI-restoration in 1868 swords naturally were used in battle. A Samurai would strive to obtain a good sword, since it was the weapon he might have to fight with the next day in order kill or be killed. Swords were often exchanged between friends, or given by a warlord as a reward to a particularly brave man. For a general or a retainer of a feudal lord, the highest honour was to be endowed with a famous sword by the lord, and this was esteemed above land, gold or silver, paintings or other pieces of art. Such swords became the most important treasures of a SAMURAI or a family
The following episode shows how far this could go, and also illustrates that high quality swords or MEI-TO acquired their own names. The DAIMYO of TOSA, whose family owned a sword by KANEMITSU, refused to give it to the SHOGUN who had hoped to acquire it, saying : ". . . even if I had to part with the whole of TOSA, I would never give this sword to anybody." From this story the sword got its name "IKKOKU KANEMITSU" (IKKOKU means one province), and today it is listed as BUNKAZAI (Important Cultural Property).
Since it was extremely difficult to obtain an authentic sword by a famous smith, a large number of swords were already being produced in ancient times with fake signatures. This was done even by swordsmiths who themselves later became famous by virtue of their own products. There are some smiths, such as KOTETSU and SHINKAI for whom one might see 100 pieces bearing their signatures without ever seeing an authentic one.
So there only can be one conclusion : Since there are so many Japanese swords around which either have fake signatures or are of minor quality, it is very important to study swords carefully and to learn to judge them. The juding procedures are known as KANTEI.
In order to distinguish the quality of a sword it is advisable to proceed as follows :
SHAPE - Try to determine the period of manufacture by means of the overall shape both of blade and tang.
HAMON - The study of the pattern of the tempering can confirm the period detected before and perhaps even the school or the smith who forged it.
HADA and JITETSU - With careful inspection of the surface of the blade one can confirm the period of manufacture [KOTO, SHINTO or SHIN-SHINTO] and even find clues to the school or the master.
BOSHI - The BOSHI as well as the whole point [KISSAKI] offer further clues to the artist who forged the blade.
TANG - Finally you examine the TANG or its characteristics and maybe read the signature. One should bear in mind, that the signature of the master already is to be seen in the blade itself, and in an ideal case the inscription on the tang is only a confirmation. If these "wo signatures" match, the chances are good that the sword is authentic, but if one of the signatures is strange, one has to study it further. In this case however the chance is great that the blade is a fake, particularly if the inscription on the tang is not what was to be expected after seeing the "signature" in the blade.
The Forms of the Japanese sword.
During the history of the Japanese sword its forms and styles reflect historical events closely, particularly in the numerous variations of curvature, breadth, overall size and the treatment of the point. Once we know which characteristics are typical for which period, we are in many cases already in a position to define the era in which the sword was produced. We can get further information from the HAMON, the HADA, the JITETSU and the BOSHI, so that by means of this variety of characteristics we may at least identify the school to which the respective sword belongs. After the next step, which is clarify the quality of the sword in question, it is not too difficult to find out the individual smith, at least in those cases where the quality is above a certain level. You should try to do all this without reading the signature, even if there is one.
It is very important to study the form of the sword intensively in relation to Japanese history.
1. JOKOTO-period. (Excavated and Prehistoric swords, around the 4th to the 10th century)
The first iron swords found in Japan were probably imported from Korea and China, but very shortly afterwards they were reproduced by native smiths. Many of these swords are excavated from burial mounds in many parts of Japan. They are all straight, and one- or two-edged. The one-edged blades are built up in KIRE-BA-ZUKURI form, whereas the two-edged blades are either built up in KIRE-BA-ZUKURI, too (on both sides) or have a central ridge. These JOKOTO-swords were more often used by foot soldiers for thrusting than by horse-guards for sabre-like cutting strokes.
During the late 9th century fighting on horseback became more popular in Japan, and riders expected greater things of the blades. For that reason the swordsmiths developed a sword which was more or less curved close to the handle, putting the KIRE-BA closer to the back of the blade to enable a sabre-stroke.
During further developmenst the whole sword received a slight curvature, though still more accentuated close to the handle. This made the blade more suitable for horseguards, but more and more unsuitable for thrusting. It should be mentioned that this weapon resembled a straight sword and not a sabre, since the characteristic "sabre-handle" which is formed against the curvature, is missing.
2. Mid-HEIAN to early KAMAKURA-period (around the late 10th to early 13th century)
After the 10th century, when the Japanese were no longer figting against the native AINU, conflicts arose amongst the new inhabitants of Japan themselves. The demand was now for a type of sword suitable for fighting between mounted warriors as well as for riders fighting against infantry. The swords developed for this task measure about 80 cms [as conventionally measured from the point to the beginning of the tang] and have a deep curvature in that part of the blade that is dose to the tang, whereas curvature towards the point is almost totally missing, thus making the sword suitable for thrusting, too. Points were very small at that time and the swords themselves slim, getting even narrower towards the point, so that it can happen that swords from that period have blades which are twice as broad at the tang than at the point.
These blades were TACHI, worn hanging at the girdle with the edge downwards. There were daggers in this period, too, but very few of these have been preserved until today.
3. Mid-KAMAKURA-period (around the early to late 13th century)
After the establishment of a new military power centre based in KAMAKURA, the rather spoilt and effeminate but artistically creative HEIAN-culture was succeeded by a tough, masculine and powerful warrior caste. The politics of power and strength, influenced by an ascetic ZEN Buddhism, dominated the spirit of the age.
These influences had their effect on the sword. The deepest point of their curvature was still close to the tang, but the blade broadened towards the point by comparison with the preceding period. The point itself also became longer and stronger. CHU-KISSAKI and IKUBI-KISSAKI became the dominating elements.
The pattern of the HAMON was also changing. Quiet SUGUHA turned into CHOJI-MIDARE patterns of exuberant force and beauty. The swords of this period are powerful and masculine, with a rough beauty but sharp enough to cut through the strong armour of an enemy with one single stroke.
Lots of daggers are passed on from that time, they are about 24 cm long and have either a slight reverse curvature towards the cutting edge, or no curvature at all.
4. Late Kamakura-period (around the late 13th to early 14th century)
In 1274 and 1281 the Mongolians twice tried to conquer Japan, but they were stopped by the untiring and desperate fighting morale of the Japanese. On both occasions a typhoon destroyed the Mongolian fleet [KAMI-KAZE] and the Japanese took advantage of this to overcome the intruders.
On these occasions the Japanese came in contact with completely novel Mongolian fighting tactics and armour, such as the leather- or padded armour which was not so easily cut by the swords of that time.
During battles fought after the Mongolian invasions one can see how the Japanese had learned from those engagements, since they put more emphasis on infantry in a disciplined order of battle than on the heroics of individual horsemen, as in the past. The ornate heavy armour or O-YOROI was gradually replaced by the lighter DOMARU, not only for the infantry but also for warriors of higher rank.
The TACHI of this period have a curvature which is no longer so deep and has shifted to the middle of the blade (TORI-ZORI). The blades become thinner, the cutting surface is less convex (HIRANIKU) and the point becomes longer.
There are many daggers [ TANTO ] from this period. They are slightly longer than before, and in most cases have no curvature at all (MU-SORI).
The NAMBOKUCHO-period (early to late 14th century)
This period was marked by the establishment of two imperial houses that fought for predominance for 60 years, and these battles were finally won by the Northern house of ASHIKAGA TAKAUJI.
Since fighting mainly took place in mountainous areas at this time there were almost no cavalry battles but most fighting was between foot soldiers using the TACHI and NAGINATA.
he TACHI were very long (about 150 cm), with long points, and were more suitable for a sweeping horizontal stroke all around than for a downwar stroke. To reduce the weight of such a long weapon the blades had a relatively thin KASANE and a broad MIHABA. In addition a great variety of BO-HI are to be found on the blades, which helped to reduce the weight.
The greater number of these long swords was shortened later on so that they could be used as KATANA. Unfortunately in course of this many of them lost their signatures.
The armour of the period [ the DOMARU and the HARAMAKI ] was made lighter in order to guarantee the mobility of the foot-soldier, whereas the heavy armour (O-YOROI lost importance on account of its greater weight.
The TANTO of the period were longer and broader than the earlier ones. It is remarkable that these daggers have three peculiarities which facilitate their identification. They are curved, they are longer than daggers usually are, and they have a relatively thin KASANE. MITSU-MUNE is not uncommon. Sometimes they were even longer than one SHAKU (30,3 cm) so that formally speaking these tanto might be classified as WAKIZASHI, so that the "Invention" of the WAKIZASHI may be dated in this period. Although there were blades between 1 and 2 SHAKU long before this period, these were the so-called KO-TACHI which were worn like TACHI, and they can not be functionally associated with the WAKIZASHI.
6. The Early MUROMACHI-period (from the late 14th until the late 15th century)
The TACHI style of early Muromachi, from the OH-EI-period onwards, is again rather different to previously. The blades loose their great breadth (MIHABA) and their extremely long points and become shorter.
It is remarkable that in the swords of this time the curvature shifts towards the point, and in some extreme cases blades give the impression of having two central foci of curvature.
A really important innovation during this period is the "Invention" of the KATANA, attesting to a change in the way of in which swords were worn. Instead hanging from the girdle with the edge down, it was inserted in the girdle with the edge upwards. This change happened because there was more and more fighting involving footsoldiers, for whom the sword is much more conveniently and quickly drawn from the girdle with its edge up, given that there is no horse's head in front. At the same time the blade had to be shortened, since otherwise the arms would not be long enough to draw it, while the introduction of stronger curvature towards the point [ SAKI-ZORI ] had the same effect. The standard length of the swords of the time is about 68 — 70 cm. The WAKIZASHI became more and more popular, now being produced in HIRA- as well as SHINOGI-ZUKURI form, and it was increasingly favoured as "auxiliary sword".
The daggers of the time are again rather shorter again (about 27 cm) and begin to resemble the daggers of the late KAMAKURA-period.
7. Late MUROMACHI-period (around late 15th to late 16th century)
The time is marked by continual fighting between different parties all over the country and the almost total breakdown of central power. Battles were fought by units in fixed battle array, and there was nothing left of the knightly fights, one individual against another of equal rank, as in former centuries. The main weapons were spears and matchlock muskets. Only in the toughest hand-to-hand fighting were swords used, and these were mass-production items made of bad iron — mere weapons and no longer works of art. Of course there are exceptions, for example if a high class smith worked to special order, or if two smiths collaborated to produced a blade together ; but such blades are rare, which can be said of good blades anyway. In response to necessity another type of armour was also developed, which had to be bullet-proof, and this later led to the development of the YUKINOSHITA-DO.
There are two types of swords from this period, the short KATANA of about 64 cms., with a short tang, which is designed for one-handed use, and a longer KATANA of about 75 cm length with a longer tang for two-handed use.
WAKIZASHI were slightly longer than during the previous period, at about 50 — 55 cm, and were worn together with the KATANA. It became fashionable to have them both mounted identically, and in this way the DAI-SHO was "Invented".
The daggers of this time,may be divided into four types:
8. MOMOYAMA-period (late 16th to early 17th century)
The KOTO-period ends with the beginning of the KEICHO-era, and a completely new type of sword is developed, thes-called SHINTO-sword. It is characteristic that from the MOMOYAMA-period onwards swords are merely reproductions or recreations of former styles. The form of the typical SHINTO sword, which is rather straight and tapers only slightly towards the tip, has its origins in the Mid-KAMAKURA- period.
Swords of the MOMOYAMA-period imitate KATANA of NAMBOKUCHO times which were shortened during the MUROMACHI-period, and these imitations of course do not touch the original style. The fact that the KASANE is again made slightly thicker does not add aesthetic refinement to the blade, in other words the dignified and powerful elegance of former times was no longer achieved.
The same can be said about the steel which was being used. Smith were no longer producing their own steel but they bought it in from special manufacturers, as well as using imported steel or iron. This steel of different quality permitted other methods of treatment, so that the HADA and HAMON also changed, and a "new" sword came into being. It was certainly not more beautiful than the masterpieces of the KAMAKURA-period,but the best masters of the SHINTO-period were able to produce excellent swords. These were still functional, since although the age of battles was ending, swords were largely used in duels between swordsmen in civilian clothes. Other things came to be expected from the sword. It had no longer to cut iron or leather armour but a silk KIMONO. Artistic taste also changed, and "realistic" or illustrative variations of the HAMON were developed, again changing the character of the sword.
The GOKKADEN or five major traditions of KOTO-sword manufacture were now scarcely to be found. Peace and prosperity allowed a smith from BIZEN-province to travel to SATSUMA and learn his craft from a master who worked in the YAMATO-tradition, and then to travel on to SENDAI to forge there in the MINO-tradition. From now on we can only invoke the five old schools in exceptional cases. New schools are formed or being named after masters or cities up until today.
The majority of SHINTO daggers and WAKIZASHI remind us in their length, breadth and form of their NAMBOKUCHO-period models, with one exception : the KASANE is now thicker than it was in the original.
9. Early to mid-EDO-period (about mid 17th to late 18th century)
By an easily understandable paradox the peace of the TOKUGAWA-period caused a proliferation of martial ideologies. BUSHIDO formulated the ethical principles of the SAMURAI caste, different fencing schools were established, and new kinds of sword-fencing came up in which the crucial emphasis was on the thrust instead of the stroke. In response to this, swords became straighter and lighter towards the point, i.e., smaller and therefore quicker. The length was reduced to about 69 cms., unlike the swords of the KEICHO-period which measured about 74 cms.
After 1652 SAMURAI had to wear two swords, the long and short DAI-SHO. In consequence we find hardly any tanto after this date, mainly the stock of old blades which not been reduced by war. If tanto were forged during this period their form resembles those of the KAMAKURA-period.
Around the 1680's trade and economy prospered so that a time of luxury began. Rich merchants, who were only allowed to wear WAKIZASHI, could commission the most famous smiths to produce them, so that we find absolute masterpieces by these smiths during that time.
10. Late EDO-period (late 18th to late 19th century)
With the end of the 18th century a favourable re-appraisal of earlier values took place in Japan, and this also had an impact on the swordsmiths. As a result they began to produce copies of swords from all early periods, all of which were again rather longer and tenser. Copies of NAMBOKUCHO- and late KAMAKURA-blades became very popular again, and the smiths also turned back to earlier forging methods. As a result we can find blades which have extremely prominent HADA, and the same applies to TANTO.
It must be said that despite this revival of early forging methods, the quality of the swords leaves much to be desired. The most impressive illustration of this is the fact that we can identify about 70 top class smiths working during the KOTO-period, and about 15 during the SHINTO-period. By contrast only four masters working during the SHIN-SHINTO-period, which begins around 1800, can really be called smiths of the first rank.
11. Modern times (about late 19th century until today)
1876 was a sad year for the art of the swordsmith, for this was when a prohibition on the of wearing swords came into force. Demand shrunk abruptly to zero. Swordsmiths barely managed to exist and were driven into production of low-class items for export, or household and even agriculture articles. Nevertheless we owe it to Emperor MEIJI himself that the ART of forging the sword was not lost. He supported swordsmiths who might otherwise have had to become farriers, either through the Imperial Household Agency or by commissioning direct orders.
Two Living National Treasures, MIYAIRI SHOHEI and TAKAHASHI SADATSUGU, carried on the tradition of forging the Japanese sword, not in order to produce a weapon, but to create art in the form of a weapon.. They were followed in this by GASSAN SADAKATSU and SUMITANI MASAMINE.
The swordsmiths OSUMI TOSHIHIRA and AMADA AKITSUGU were nominated in 1977 and 1978 respectively as "Living Prefectural Treasures"
This tradition continues to this day. On 25th May 1997 the Commission on Cultural Assets nominated eleven NINGEN KOKUHO, or Living National Treasures, creating artists for example in the spheres of porcelain and textiles, and including metalworking artists.
In this connection the art of restoring and polishing swords should not be forgotton. The polishers FUJISHIRO MATSUO and NAGAYAMA KOKAN had been nominated too as NINGEN KOKUHO.
Even today there are still 200 to 300 smiths producing art swords.
To open our eyes
This could be a somewhat provocative summary of this article, but nevertheless it is highly recommended.
It is undoubtedly possible to define the period, the school, and the smith of a sword by analysing its style and form in the manner we have outlined above. First-hand nowledge of representative blades is naturally very valuable for this. But it must be remembered that there are always and everywhere exceptions from such rules, and nowhere more so than with the Japanese sword. It is quite essential to to look at as many good blades as possible, and to study their classification and learn the special expressions used in sword terminology. It absolutely does not help to look at lots of Japanese cold steel,which may be badly polished or not polished at all, and to think that seeing quantities of such swords can teach one the essentials of the Japanese sword.
An unpolished blade reveals none of the criteria that define a good sword, except perhaps the overall form. If it is not in good polish, the form is almost the only thing that discriminates between an art blade, and a machine-produced military sword which has nothing to do with art but is a mere weapon.
This is the first difficulty to overcome. The second is that there is an abundance of swords which have been polished, but without meriting that compliment. The reason they have been polished is only that somebody told the owner that swords should be polished. This is the point where the difficulties start, as Professor Kümmel mentioned in the beginning.
There are people who study a sword which has been expensively polished for hours. Unfortunately its origins lie between the two World Wars, in an armaments factory of the old Japanese Empire. It shows absolutely nothing ; no FORM, no HADA, no HAMON, and they only do this since they do not know the criteria which separate a weapon from an "ART-SWORD"
The same can be said about blades from the MUROMACHI-period. These are highly esteemed by many European collectors, simply because they originate in the KOTO-period. Many of them are nothing but "mass-production" arms for the lowest foot soldiers, and they do not reveal any traits which could be called good. These blades rank somewhere below what you might call "very low level".
Another unfortunate element in many European collections is blades made by unimportant masters, riddled with forging faults, nondescript in FORM, HADA and HAMON, or just plain boring. This is because "weapons of Japanese origin" have been collected regardless, or in desperation, instead of "ART-SWORDS" again for the reasons which Professor Kümmel described.
Swords at these lowest levels can of course not be classified or rated, since any of the defining features of school, time, province or smith are wholly absent. It is true that many such blades [ if only by way of auto-suggestion ] seem to display a kind of FORM, HADA, HAMON or JITETSU. In examining the blade intensively it may even be possible to discern a detail here or there which can be labelled beautiful, or "incredibly perfect". Nevertheless if one is truly interested in the "ART-SWORD" it is advisable not to invest time and effort in low level blades. If there is a real interest in the Japanese sword, there are only two ways to train the eyes and increase one's knowledge :
First, look at good swords under good guidance ; and secondly study the literature intensively.