Your swords: not samurai swords. Daimyo swords!

The title refers to a conversation I had with a top Japanese dealer.

I try hard to focus on quality and to weed the weak out when I select something for my site. I don’t want to get commercial grade items and host them, this to me isn’t interesting, and I don’t want to pretend to fawn over items that were basically utilitarian in their time. 

This spawns some thoughts.

First, most Juyo swords — at least the koto ones — probably had some kind of attachment to daimyo rather than to samurai. 

For those that do not know, daimyo are the feudal lords of Edo and earlier period Japan. The term means “big name” and probably does a lot more to describe what a daimyo was than a few paragraphs.

Samurai as much as we talk about them, are a creation of the Edo period and they do not exist for much of the history of Japan. Their role in earlier periods is filled by bushi who are warriors. This same root gives rise to the terms budo and bushido as the bu refers to war. So a bushi is a warrior.

A samurai is an enfranchized class with rights and responsibilities in the class based society of the Edo period (post 1600 Japan).

That out of the way, we can casually refer to samurai and use that to also refer to bushi… though this is technically wrong and we should do the opposite. Samurai are what we are familiar with from modern culture so samurai is what we use when speaking informally.

Anyway back to the swords. Most of the Juyo quality swords had to have been held and treated with respect to be handed down as far as they made it. 700 and 600 and 900 year old swords do not make it to the modern age capable of fulfilling their primary intention from all this time without some careful care. 

Just try to take a WWII tank that has been lying around unmaintained and fire the main gun. It will probably explode and kill you if it does anything at all. In order to sustain a period of care that extends past centuries you need to basically have some wealth in order for that sword to be oiled, documented, inventoried, used for gifts and received as gifts. Any good swords “found” among the population tended to be bought out, or expected as gifts and so found their way up the feeding chain of daimyo, from less to more powerful.

At the top of the feeding chain were the Tokugawa Shoguns in Edo, and the Owari Tokugawa branch, and the Kishu Tokugawa branch. If a sword went to them and left it was probably a very nice gift to receive.

Edo period society then was a filter for great swords to percolate up. 

Modern day swords, in fact made by some genius smiths, were utility blades. They could be made really well, or be used for a gift (for instance the Nabeshima daimyo contracted Tadayoshi to make gifts for other daimyo. This was smart: his swords were excellent but they also advertised this wonderful product being developed and contributing to the local Hizen economy… one which was overseen by the Nabeshima daimyo). 

However when we view it as a filter we can see the great swords rising up and the greatest blades standing within the possession of the most powerful houses. 

We see semi-great swords still in orbit: being given by their lords to high ranking retainers, being distributed to cousins and such away from the main line, or just hoarded as gifts for future occasions.

When we get a sword now, especially if it was located in the USA as a WWII bringback, the family history is almost always lost. 

A couple of times I have been able to restore ownership, for instance, I was able to use some documentation on a shirasaya of a Juyo Yukimitsu and attach it back to the 5th Shogun who gave it to Bungo no Kami Yorimichi. This information was not documented in the papers but some was in the sayagaki, which Honami Koson had signed off on being authentic and the NBTHK signed off on him being authentic. The information in the sayagaki lead me to the Tokugawa daybook which documents their gifts going in both directions, and from there I pieced the dates together and found the sword. What was in the daybook agreed with the partial information on the shirasaya and so we have a conclusion.

But this is rare. 

If that sword had a new shirasaya made, the information would be lost.

And some Japanese collectors have a habit of believing a sayagaki is a bad thing and disrespectful to the sword so they wipe it off.

Well the thing with papers is that you can lose them — and it happens a lot. A sayagaki you cannot lose without losing the blade. So they have this way of being better than making an origami. 

Anyway the implication you should start with for a koto Juyo blade is that it probably had some association with the daimyo rather than simply being a warrior’s blade.

Shinto blades, probably went right into the warrior class for their use. Daimyo blades are higher level, the best of the blades that went to warriors of past eras. 

We can detect sometimes if a daimyo blade is from a collection by looking at the Japanese sword license, the torokusho. This has the date the blade got licensed and many of the top blades were licensed in 1951 (Showa 26). 

This is the year licensing begins on a small scale and daimyo were approached to get theirs done and set a precedent. The license can be seen on the back of your Juyo paper and if you see a Showa 26 date, congrats, that probably came from a daimyo on a known basis. Which one: info is lost. 

But I think it is fair to extend the logic that most of those, that was what they were doing with those old great koto blades. Preserving them and using them as the equivalent to a stack of gold bars.

Sometimes the sword appears in an old book or register or is famous and in these cases we know that the family received it from the Shogun and they passed it to someone else and so forth. The NBTHK will document this in their blades.

This shows a degree of caring on behalf of the owners as they preserved this history.

I could sell an Ikeda blade earlier that had 300 years of documentation from the family going back to its polish in the first decade of the 1700s. They may have owned it longer than that. Their ownership ended after WWII when the sword went into a market, and got bought and sat on by an Osaka sword dealer, then finally to me.

So, I think even the sword that you have that is high quality koto, you can look at that and say, yeah probably a daimyo family kept this thing alive. Or a high ranking retainer’s family did if it is not itself a high level treasure. 

Shinto blades newly made, what any one went to is hard to say. Sometimes daimyo loved the work and wanted to wear and use it. Mostly to high level samurai with the wealth to afford one. And to merchants as well who had wealth to get them. 

But the pushback I got from the dealer above was that you needed to even separate out the swords as being the best of the best: going to daimyo.

This comes to mind as another dealer called his blade a high ranking daimyo’s sword without any indication that it was indeed such. 

No history.

No provinance.

No Showa 26 licensing date.

No old books.

He said that because he wants you to buy the blade. You may buy the blade because you take him at face value but in this case, think twice. At best, I think you have to think that this is where good swords would end up but we need to differentiate speculation from fact.

If Tanobe sensei writes in a sayagaki a possession of the lords of Nabeshima, this means the damiyo had it. If Dr. Honma writes up a sword in one of his books and says, This is the favorite sword of Count Ito Myoji then it was. If the NBTHK makes a sword Tokuju and says, heirloom of the Echizen Matsudaira that means it was. 

If a sword dealer based on no solid reference says it is a daimyo blade: it’s not. It’s his opinion that the blade is so good that it could be. But he has no facts. 

To that I say yes it could be, but so could all these other Juyo blades and they probably were as well.

If we want to talk about a daimyo blade in the current context, in my opinion you need to look for:

  1. Good author explicitly says it. Dr. Honma saw these collections himself and writes from first hand knowledge. Yamanaka writes from the Honami side of knowledge. 
  2. NBTHK says it. They have extensive research materials and can check registers for matching swords. 
  3. Tanobe sensei says it. He is the researcher that did that research. 
  4. Blade has a daimyo name right in it.

Past that we get into guesswork:

  • Blade has 1951 torokusho = it was likely a daimyo blade at the time. 

One of my readers suggests this and it is a good addition that if the smith was also known to be a retainer of a specific daimyo plus the torokusho, it does strengthen the guesswork.

After that you are in the land of pure speculation of what did or didn’t happen, but that if it was Juyo quality maybe yes is better an answer than no. 

Just, take that as guesswork as that’s all it is. It’s not the same as having an authority backing it up. 

Utilitarian

When Ko-Bizen were ancient treasures of the day, Ichimonji were shinsakuto you could buy to kill people with. When Awataguchi was ancient treasure of the day you could buy Soshu to kill people with. When Soshu was ancient treasure of the day you could buy Mino to kill people with. When Mino was … well Mino never became ancient treasure of the day in the same way. But some few smiths are respected.

Anyway by the time it gets to Shinto, it was their turn to be utilitarian and some of them rose to the level of great art. But the commercial grade blades from Shinto and Shinto were just tools. In all the periods that went by, the tool-grade swords never got preserved. The great ones did and we see more utility type blades from Muromachi and Shinto than we do of periods that come before. 

It’s something to think about that not all art swords are art swords but some were just low level functionary blades or kill swords for lowest level soldiers. They can be loved and preserved now too and each great school that came before was its “Shinto of the time” where the greats of the past were being put away and being preserved and their blades going out to the battlefield to be destroyed.

It’s just in Shinto, we have no battles. And Muromachi, we have so many swords, so together, we see a lot of weak work in these periods as nobody went out and destroyed all the weakest blades in fighting. 

Why do we care about daimyo blades

We do care because the daimyo were a filter for quality, taking and absorbing the best blades and recirculating blades that were worse. 

So knowing where a blade stands is to understand what the perception was of people who were hard core collectors and what was good and interesting and what wasn’t. So we need to care, and care badly.

To close this off, the top collections from looking at Juyo are the Tokugawa Shoguns, Owari Tokugawa, and Kishu Tokugawa. The Uesugi, Mori, Satake, Shimazu and Ikeda were next. We can look at Juyo as sampling the best blades out there to get the histories and these families come up time and time again. 

I’ve sold a couple of blades from the Tokugawa collection and had some from the Mori, Ikeda, Nabeshima and others. 

It’s interesting to consider and something that didn’t trigger with me when I was told this by my friend in the title. 

But basically, when you look at it, those with great dignity, age and quality and high level makers purcolated up. They may have lost some of their history but if they hit all of those criteria, that’s where they went. Daimyo blades.

2 thoughts on “Your swords: not samurai swords. Daimyo swords!”

  1. Darcy, what about the following instance?

    1 Blade has 1951 torokusho.
    2 Smith is direct retainer of a Daimyo or great family.

    Also small typo here, kind of hard to count the paragraphs so this sentence: He said that because he wants you to buy the blade. You may [by] buy the blade because you take him at face value but in this case, think twice.

    Love the blog.

    Axel

    1. I think in that situation you definitely have something that was a daimyo blade. Which family is not clear because I think in cases where a smith was a retainer of a daimyo they were making swords for the needs of the family (i.e. to arm their samurai) but they also did make custom pieces for high ranking people of that family and others too.

      For instance, Shodai Tadayoshi blades that omit “Mutsu no Daijo” after he got this title, those blades are kenjo-mei blades that are meant for presentation to other daimyo from the Nabeshima. As well, the Yasutsugu line blades were often made for Honda Narishige and/or consumption by the Tokugawa house. Not all Yasutsugu have the kiri-mon in the nakago, some do, and some also have the Honda mon, and some have both. This indicates that they were made for different reasons and most likely not for selling in the shop window.

      So we can’t conclude which family it belonged to just from whom the smith was working for. Possibly the location the license was issued, if it lines up with the same daimyo to whom the smith was retained, then you have something that starts to get persuasive.

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