With this blog post I would like to start a series on kantei that is both addressed to beginners and to more advanced students and collectors of the Japanese sword. Accordingly – and depending on your knowledge – there might or more likely will be information that you already know but as the series is largely structured chronologically, you can stop by later and focus on the parts that you might find interesting or useful. With structured chronologically, I mean I will stick to the traditional approach in appraising Japanese swords because this approach turned out most effective on the one hand, and because all major publications are structured this way on the other hand, as it doesn’t make much sense to reinvent the wheel and to make things more complicated than they are. And the traditional approach is: 1. Shape (sugata, 姿) → 2. Steel (jigane, 地鉄) → 3. Hardening (hamon, 刃文), exactly in this order as these steps stand basically for: 1. Shape = Identifying the production time → 2. Steel = Identifying the area of production and/or the school → 3. Hardening = Identifying the school and/or smith (the latter of course by also incorporating the bôshi). All scholastic and other explanations, guidelines, tips, and some anecdotes here and there will be embedded into this basic three-step system. I will try to keep the chapter structure as traceable as possible but at a series like this I guess it is just inevitable to end up with chapters like 188.8.131.52 and the like. At the same time, larger chapters will stretch over several blog posts as everybody will understand that e.g. the Bizen tradition can’t be dealt with in a single post. As indicated, there will be a lot of basics along all these chapters but I try as best I can to make each chapter an interesting read. However, I hope that you will not take it amiss if certain sections might be found more or less the same way in well-known publications. Anyway, the series is on kantei and so I will omit for the most part biographical data of smiths and the like. Or in other words, I would like to focus on differences and characteristics in workmanship and I am not going too much into historic detail with all the school as this information is easily found elsewhere, unless it is necessary for the understanding of what I am trying to communicate. And as this series is on kantei in general and not just on nyûsatsu-kantei, I will also deal with tangs.
Before we get started, I would like to write a few lines on kantei, that is to say from a very subjective point of view. I think the greatest challenge in getting a good feel for attributing blades to a certain school or smith is that you need a master plan. This means, it is not just the lack of available study material that holds one back as a lot has been written and published in the meanwhile. An issue of course is the accessibility of higher-quality or at least decent blades, i.e. you can’t avoid that you have to travel a bit to see these swords. Well, you might think that I’ve got it easy because I can read Japanese and because there is a very kind and active nihontô community in central Europe, or to be precise in Germany, that is willing to show and explain their treasured swords to those willing to learn. The master plan is about how to coordinate and combine theoretical and practical studies. Applying what you have learned to what you see on a sword and trying to bring in line what you see with what you have read earlier is harder as it sounds. Maybe some are natural at bringing these things together but it took me quite some years to assimilate that. Looking back on my first sword meetings it was basically as follows: Informed about the upcoming topic, I started to dig into my books and let’s say if the topic was the Rai school, I read and reread all the chapters on this school and studied all the accompanying pics and oshigata. Doing so, I thought I am pretty prepared and that I have a decent knowledge about the Rai school. But then you pick up one blade after the other and you realize that you have absolutely no clue. Put pointedly, somebody could sneak in any blade and you would still try to figure out for which Rai smith to go. And things don’t get better even after looking at the blades a second or third time. But this is how it goes and I am sure that many of you had the same experience at the very beginning, even with “preparing” for a meeting with given subject. The first thing is as mentioned to build up that bridge in your brain between what you read and what you see, and vice versa. This means, if you neglect building and expanding this bridge, you will run the risk of remaining on one side, i.e. on the theoretical side of just acculumating knowledge or on the practical side of just handling and/or accumulating blades without any deeper insight into classifying them. Don’t get me wrong, I am writing this in the context of the upcoming series on kantei. There is absolutely nothing wrong with focussing on one side or the other, how you tackle, or how deep you are delving into the fascinating subject of the nihontô.
A big help in building this bridge are knowledgeable colleagues who are able to recognize your level of knowledge and who give you a helping hand. But this means talking, i.e. you have to ask and the type of question you are asking will tell them pretty exactly where to pick you up. So don’t be shy. Ask someone to show you what a chikei is or how plenty of ji-nie looks compared to a blade with not that much ji-nie. Or how a bright nioiguchi really looks like for example, best in direct comparison with a blade with a subdued nioiguchi. With assimilating these and other points and combining them with your theoretical studies, you will maybe know the next time that you can rule out certain schools when you have a blade with a super bright nioiguchi if we stay with that example. Not asking makes learning so much more difficult and a good teacher with fine blades can save you years compared to learning kantei solely for yourself. But as indicated earlier, it might not be that easy to see fine blades and I am fully aware of the fact that I had it rather easy with being self-employed, flexible, married, no kids, and sitting in realistic reach of fine blades. This means, whenever a sword meeting was announced, my reply was basically: “Let me just get gas and I am on my way.” This brings me to right another factor that must not be overlooked when doing kantei, that is to say the factor of your condition on a particular day. My average trip to a sword meeting was about six or seven hours by car and sometimes I was just too tired to make any sense of what I was seeing. Accordingly, I was wong so many times but this never set me back, for this I had and have too much fun in appreciating these wonderful works of steel. Well, sometimes you wish the ground would open and swallows you for the ridiculously wrong bid you made on a certain sword…
To finish this introduction, I want to say that I hope this series will be of any help for your studies in general and that it will also be a nice supplement for those who got my Kantei volumes in particular which contain all the reference blades. In this sense, let’s go and the first part should follow in a bit.
PS: I will add a separate category for this series which obviously will be titled Kantei (you can find and pick the blog post categories at the very end of this blog).