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It is easy for the beginning student to be confused by the many terms that are used to rank swords and swordsmiths. Different organizations and books will use their own terminology and systems, and it is common for collectors to mix and match them in their descriptions, and often times their significance may be lost on newcomers. This section attempts to clarify some of the terminology and explain the significance of each.
The classic text used by Japanese sword lovers everywhere, the Nihon Toko Jiten is often referred to simply by the author's name. This two volume book was written in 1935 by Fujishiro Yoshio1, the older brother of the late Fujishiro Matsuo. The late Fujishiro Matsuo san was the Living National Treasure polisher, and revised this two volume set after his brother's passing. This work features pictures of signatures on swords and sometimes diagrams of sword structures, accompanied by some biographical and style comments on the smiths. Fujishiro's work is in Japanese but an excellent translation by Harry Watson is used by most of us.
Fujishiro rates roughly 1,500 smiths and they are considered to be those representing the higher part of skill. As his rating system starts at "average" and goes up, any smith with a rating is considered to have been capable of making good swords. The terms he uses are:
Fujishiro's system is contextual2, and this is an important thing to keep in mind. He refers a smith's ability to those in his school and time period and tradition. It is a rating of "where he stands", so a smith who (for example) may have a Jo saku (superior) rating and was part of one of the top schools may be of higher skill than a Sai-jo (supreme) smith of a lesser time period and school. Consider it the same way you would a B student at Harvard vs. an A student at the local community college. Knowing the context of these ratings and the average skill of the time periods and schools is important in understanding the significance of the rating given.
When a smith is not rated by Fujishiro (which could be due to a variety of reasons), if he is rated elsewhere by another authority using this same system of terminology, I will use that rating on my website. For instance, Gassan Sadakatsu worked during the period of authorship of the original books, and so although he is listed a rating is withheld. He has been rated elsewhere at Sai-jo Saku, so I will use that rating to describe his skill.
In general, these terms describe the skill of a swordsmith, but a particular sword may be referred to as "displaying Sai-jo skill" meaning that it looks like the work of a higher ranked smith. This should not be mixed up with the NBTHK ratings system, or taken as a guarantee that a work will pass higher papers such as Juyo Token.
The Toko Taikan by the late Dr. Tokuno contains a value system3 based on the Japanese yen. They are given in "man yen", which are increments of 10,000 yen and are considered to represent the value of a "perfect" sword by the smith; one that is ubu and unaltered, signed, in good polish and made at the height of the smith's career. Various changes to the sword are considered to remove percentages of the yen value assigned. I am not entirely sure what to make of these ratings when they are used for a smith like Sadamune who has no signed work, or for a smith like Hiromitsu who has no known ubu daito. What I have found is a more convenient expression for these valuations is that they describe the value of a Juyo Token of high quality. It should be noted that under current practice many highly rated swords of relatively recent manufacture may be considered to be too new to make Juyo Token.
Given that there are drastic differences in quality between two works by any given smith even in cases of similar condition, it can quickly become a difficult rating to use. It may be a better rule of thumb to describe the general opinion of Dr. Tokuno on the importance and skill of a smith in the overall realm of a collector's interest and so help with relative valuation in terms of two bodies of work.
W.M. Hawley published a two volume set with a series of revisions that was one of the first attempts in the English language to catalog swordsmiths and give them ratings. Most of Hawley's research was done by Yasu Kizu. Yasu Kizu translated the Tosho Zenshu4 which was published in 1934 for Hawley. Hawley's work was for the most part done line by line, alternating a sheet of paper between an English typewriter and a Japanese typewriter. This laborious process did introduce some errors, and some smiths are duplicated and some inclusions seem spurious. His rating system roughly corresponds to the Toko Taikan man yen divided by ten. So one would expect that a Hawley rating of 120 would not be a surprise to find in the Toko Taikan at 1,000 man yen, for instance. Otherwise, it is a simple numerical scale with higher numbers representing greater skill and importance. Many smiths, especially of the later years, were given the same number (for instance, many gendai smiths are in the list at 8 or 10 without much comment) so some of these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. It is a very heroic effort though and the list of smiths contained in the index is quite large.
The most basic form of rating would be a division into authentic and false signatures, or an appraisal of a maker. Folded papers traditionally have been written for these swords, a practice going back centuries, and are called "origami."
It is necessary for study and of course for a collector's market to be able to sort works into different categories of quality and importance, and by necessity desirability and value follow these determinations. So it is important for a collector to be familiar with the various ratings systems and papers one may run into in the marketplace. Some additional information on origami can be found at Rich Stein's Japanese sword index, under JAPANESE SWORD AUTHENTICATION PAPERS. As with everything at the index, it is useful information and worth going over, especially the in-depth information on NBTHK and NTHK papers.
The Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai5 is the younger of the two sword organizations most familiar to western collectors. Founded in 1948, it is the "de facto" standard and their papers are most commonly encountered by collectors.
There are two systems they have used, an old one and a new one. The old one consisted of the following ratings and is no longer used in part. They are (from least to greatest):
The first Juyo Token papers were issued in 1951, and these were the highest ratings attainable by a sword until 1972. At this point the NBTHK introduced Tokubetsu Juyo. Initially the shinsa for Tokubetsu Juyo was held every year, now it is held every other year.
In the 1980s, the bottom three papers were done away with and replaced by a two paper system. The new system then reads as such:
The process of obtaining higher ranked papers involves applying for lower ranked papers and then after achieving them, applying for the next one up. Each application must be paid for, and if the application is successful an additional fee is charged. Shinsa for the first two are held monthly and every other month and are commonly awarded. A sword may make Juyo Token without first obtaining the rank of Tokubetsu Hozon. In some cases a sword with Hozon designation that fails Juyo Token may then receive Tokubetsu Hozon. Tokubetsu Hozon is generally considered to mark a sword of higher quality than average, and makes a nice item for a collector to obtain. Do not consider that just because a sword is rated Tokubetsu Hozon that it has failed Juyo Token. It may instead have not been submitted for Juyo shinsa as it is once a year and considerable expense as noted below.
The two ratings of Juyo Token and Tokubetsu Juyo Token carry great prestige, and in particular for the old Juyo and the Tokuju that are considered to be the highest ranked swords by the NBTHK. They are extremely desirable and very expensive. Tanobe sensei of the NBTHK has stated that for a sword to reach Tokubetsu Juyo Token, it must be of the condition and quality to reach Juyo Bunkazai, which is one of the governmental ratings and just one step shy of being National Treasure. So Tokubetsu Juyo is to be considered as extremely important. The process to achieve this level is also time consuming and costly.
Many collectors have not had an opportunity to handle a Juyo blade, let alone have the capacity to buy one. The expense is great and these swords are not so common outside of Japan, and they are most often considered as treasure swords that most would love to have.
If you cannot afford one, you can always submit one of your swords for Juyo. Passing Juyo can cost roughly $1,000 in fees to the NBTHK and passing Tokubetsu Juyo can cost roughly $3,000. Furthermore, the time spent in shinsa is many months, and if a sword passes it can be kept for display at the Sword Museum in Japan. There are fees to pay in shipping and insurance, and for government registration into Japan, de-registration out of Japan, for agents inside Japan to handle the sword and agents outside of Japan to handle the sword. All of these handling fees need to be paid regardless of passage of the sword.
It is not unusual that the planned submission of a sword to Juyo is a years long process, involving special polish and the owner may not see the sword for almost a year at best, or many years at worst. For Tokubetsu Juyo, as only a small number (roughly 30-40) are passed every two years, the competition is intense and only the greatest blades receive this distinction. To date, there are in the rough neighborhood of 8,000 Juyo blades in existence, but only around 700 Tokubetsu Juyo. Tokubetsu Juyo are thought to be the NBTHK's version of Juyo Bunkazai, and considering there are about two million blades registered in Japan, it is a rare honor to have a blade recognized in the cream of the crop like this.
The oldest sword organization, the Nihon Token Hozon Kyokai6 splintered into two groups after the death of Yoshikawa Koen sensei. I am not so familiar with the new groups or the relative merits of either so will decline any comment on the schism. The NTHK rating system is obtained by grading a sword on a points scale, which represents the quality of work overall and within the context of the body of work of a smith. This point total is not disclosed except on the worksheet, but this total is mapped into one of four ratings:
It is said that if the NTHK has any uncertainty in its attribution of a sword being genuine, it will "pink slip" the sword. This does not necessarily mean that the sword is not authentic. It is a rule of inclusion, not exclusion. That is, if a sword has NTHK papers, the NTHK is sure it is genuine. Unsure swords will not receive papers, as well as swords that are clearly and certainly not authentic in their opinion. Information about their decision is available on the worksheet that can be obtained from the submission process. On these the NTHK lists the generation of smith and Nengo, while the NBTHK often does not have this information on its papers.
It is a rare case that any collector outside of Japan would have the chance to own a blade with a Ministry of Education rating, as they are not allowed for export outside of Japan. A foreigner may own one, but they are required to leave it inside the country's borders. These swords are considered to be cultural treasures of the nation of Japan. They are artworks necessary to the identity of the country, and the people. This is the basis of the rule of non-exportation, and other similar works of art follow the same restrictions.
The first level awarded is Juyo Bijutsuhin, "Important Art Object", which was discontinued after the war. Some swords received this rating probably through underhanded means, and so the system was withdrawn. It is still precious to own such a piece, but a judgment call needs to be made to see if the rating was deserved or not. There were several Juyo Bijutsuhin blades auctioned in London in the last few years. The catalogs noted that those blades may not leave Japan. I am reasonably sure that these swords may be exported, but the paperwork needs to be surrendered when the sword leaves Japan, which nullifies much of the importance of the rating. If you're lucky enough to be in the market for one of these blades, I suggest contacting the Ministry of Education and verifying this yourself.
As well as those above, there are perhaps a handful of these items that found their way outside Japan during the aftermath of WWII. I am aware of several that have turned up in the USA, one of which was purchased and returned to Japan by Dr. Compton. Another was found just recently at a garage sale in California, or so the story goes.
When the Juyo Bijutsuhin designation was discontinued, Juyo Bunkazai, "Important Cultural Item" was introduced to replace it. Swords receiving this designation not only should be high quality by important makers, but should be historically significant in some way.
The top rating, and the greatest of them all, is Kokuho, which means "National Treasure." These are only the best and most important, examples include the three Hocho Masamune and the Mikazuki Munechika. They often are swords that have been famed for centuries, appearing in legends and in the possession of famous generals, samurai, and shogun. They are beyond the means and opportunity of all but an esteemed few to own, and even the chance to see one through glass is something that a sword collector will often remember for the rest of his life.
If a collector is blessed with the opportunity to own a blade with old Honami papers, he is a lucky person. They are an extended family of sword polishers, and admired as masters of kantei, though some Honami are held in higher regard than others. In particular, Honami Kotoku is considered to be the greatest of the masters and his origami are especially valued. He worked for Toyotomi Hideyoshi and lived during the koto era at the end of the Muromachi. More recently, Honami Koson worked in the 20th century and often his work can be found in terms of sayagaki, kinzogan and kinpun mei, and origami. Modern polishers such as the Mukansa designated Kenji Mishina directly inherit the teachings of the old masters, and continue the Honami tradition.
Master sword polishers such as these often issue authentication origami on swords they have polished. They are considered a very good indicator of the genuine nature of the sword, or a high ranking opinion on the maker in the case of an unsigned work. They carry a weight in the market commensurate with the esteem in which the polisher is held, so minor sword polisher's opinions would not be so highly regarded as those of Fujishiro or Kajihara.
This is an attribution placed on the nakago of an unsigned sword. The method used is intended to express an opinion on the condition of the sword. Shumei is cinnabar, or red lacquer writing with the name of the swordsmith the work is attributed to, and often the name and kao (seal) of the man performing the attribution. In the case of Shumei, the sword is considered to be unaltered/unshortened (i.e. ubu) but was not signed by the swordsmith. In some cases it is extended to suriage swords, if the opinion of the appraiser is that the piece was never signed to begin with (these attributed mei are sometimes done at the time of shortening, so the appraiser may have solid data about the original state of the nakago).
Kinpun is a gold lacquer signature, and is used similarly to Kinzogan, which is a chiselled signature that has then been filled with solid gold up to the surface of the nakago and filed smooth. These express the opinion of the attributor that the sword has been shortened and the signature lost in this manner. Sometimes one sees zogan signatures done with silver instead of gold.
If the attributor did not sign his work, it is still possible to figure out who it was by the style in which it was signed. In cases where the attribution cannot be determined to a reputable judge, then the attribution should be taken with a grain of salt as there was motivation centuries ago as well as now to pass off a less valuable work as one of greater value!
Often the shirasaya of a sword may have an attribution written on it. Commonly these days we see work by Mr. Tanobe Michihiro (Tanzan) of the NBTHK, and his opinion is held in very high regard by collectors as one of the current high experts in Japanese Swords. Also seen are sayagaki by the late Homma sensei (Kunzan) and the late Dr. Sato (Kanzan) both of the NBTHK. Their opinions are highly regarded. Sometimes old sayagaki can be found from the Honami masters and sometimes by owners of the swords or at other times they are anonymous. Like with polisher origami, the sayagaki is taken with the weight of the reputation of the person writing it. It is interesting to note the similarity in the names Tanzan, Kunzan and Kanzan. All attest to the same lineage. Tanobe sensei taking the name of Tanzan noted that it meant "Research Mountain" and this refers to his dedication and passion of research into Nihonto. Sayagaki by those affiliated with the NBTHK are usually performed after shinsa results are known. A sayagaki without a kakihan or name of person writing the sayagaki should be considered as an "inventory notation" rather than a significant opinion. Some sayagaki are done by the swordsmith himself or by a student. These are usually Gendaito or Shinsakuto.
Of these origami and other systems, one must take into account that they are all based on opinion, and as such the biases of the people involved and their strengths and shortcomings will be reflected in the opinions they give. Great masters give opinions that are more likely to be correct, or at least respected highly. Questioning an attribution of someone like Honami Kotoku is kind of like questioning the Pope. You are probably going to be considered wrong, and sometimes even if you are right, you may be considered wrong and the judgment of the master accepted out of respect. This is because for the most part, we have no absolutely verifiable way of knowing who is correct in the end.
If an argument can be made both ways on an attribution for example between Masamune and Norishige with points on both hands, both could be acceptable judgments in the end. The smiths were of nearly equivalent skill and stature and of overlapping style after all. In this case, even though a modern judgment may lean towards Norishige, if the sword bears a kinzogan mei to Masamune by a master judge of swords, the opinion of the judge will probably be respected. Even the great masters made mistakes, and in the cases sometimes their judgment will be overruled by the modern sword organizations... this is only done with great consideration and care though, it is not frivolous at all.
What is important in modern days is to know that when submitting a sword to shinsa, you are getting an opinion, and even if it comes back as false, or if your friend who is an "expert" says it is false, that sword may not be. It is worth your time and respect to the sword to resubmit to another organization or to the same organization at a later date to be absolutely sure. It is also possible to get different attributions from the two different organizations. None of this means that someone is necessarily wrong or incompetent: it just means that it is important to regard these attributions as opinions. In some cases, they are undeniably correct and to disagree only shows a lack of learning on the part of the person disagreeing. In other cases, it may definitely be arguable.
One rule of thumb is to understand the stakes, and when additional information is available on a judgment to read between the lines to pick up on the subtle nature of what the judge may be trying to express. For swords like Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo, the financial impact to a collector is very high and the swords are also published works, so the high nature of the stakes means that being correct is going to win out more over the respect of an old judge's opinions. What may be acceptable at Tokubetsu Hozon may not be acceptable at Juyo. Sometimes the alternation of an old master's judgment is just slight: Rai Kunitoshi gets changed to Niji Kunitoshi, or perhaps it is a bit greater, where Masamune gets turned into Shizu, but it could be that the sword in the example is the greatest of all Shizu's works and this is why it was recognized as a Masamune in the past. Possibly in this case it is more valuable as the greatest work of Shizu than as a middling work of Masamune. The collector would have to be the judge.
For those who are new, this may seem confusing perhaps, but remember Musashi wrote, "It will seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first" and know that with time and practice it will all become clear!
Barry Hennick, Chris Leung, and Arnold Frenzel of the JSSUS contributed to this article.
... by Chris Leung