A very brief history of the dissemination of sword knowledge (and my humble place therein)

For many centuries, writing about swords was strongly determined by someones social and educational background. That means one just did not sit down on his veranda and start to write about swords, at least not when he had a textbook or something like that in mind. As stated in the introductory chapter to my book Genealogies and Schools of Japanese Swordsmiths, it all started with subjective reports that circulated based on (a warriors) personal experience of the sharpness and durability of a blade, accompanied by stories about auspicious or unfortunate incidents or moments one had with a certain sword. This laid the foundations, back then very superstitious in character, for a first kind of sword “appraisal.” As the sword was soon elevated to the symbol of the Japanese warrior, it is only natural that texts were written on it quasi “right away,” but another important factor is that the Japanese sword already reached technical perfection in the early 13th century, i.e. in the early to mid-Kamakura period. That means we are facing here an interplay of the factors of a perfect weapon and an aesthetically pleasing object that created an environment which was ideal for the highest-ranking scholars and most influental persons of their time to pull out their brush and write a line or two on swords. At the beginning, the transmission of sword knowledge was linked to certain individuals and depended very much on where their literary estate went after their death. Later, the ruling class employed, on a hereditary basis as it was obligatory back then, sword experts and appraisers but what brought along a sphere of secrecy. That means it is of course only natural that a family tried to keep its knowledge secret and protect it from getting into the hands of outsiders and potential competitors.

Apart from the more and more systematization of sword knowledge, this situation prevailed rather unchangedly until the Edo period, or to be precise, until the mid-Edo period. That means, the first tentative sword publications were low in circulation numbers – of course also due to the fact that copies were basically handwritten – and not meant to be handed out to everyone. So when you were not somehow acquainted with one of the then experts or had other connections, e.g. being ordered to get involved with swords by your lord or master, there was no way to accumulate sword knowledge on a broad scale and on your own. Things changed a little with the Momoyama-era boom of book publishing using woodblock printing and experimenting with printing techniques that came from the Korean mainland and the Christian missionaries. With the peaceful Edo period, the upper bushi class had now time to devote themselves to the study of sword blades and many proved their knowledge in kantei contests. I said “upper” bushi class because collecting swords was from a financial point of view practically impossible for a lower ranking samurai. But with the transition to the 18th century, something like “sword as a hobby” had become rooted in both bushi and educated (and of course richer) bourgeoise. This demand in sword literature had the effect that some of the handed-down knowledge of the experts was made accessible to a greater but selected audience and the woodblock printing was now at a point where individuals could afford to open their own presses. But still, sword literature was very much traditional and the majority of all Edo-period publications consisted more or less of copying over and over again the same content that had been systematically compiled for the first time in the Momoyama period.

A major change took place with the social transformation of the Meiji Restoration. Quasi at one blow, the feudal aspect of the sword vanished. Well, the sword was still very much associated with the former warrior class and the subject was a highly traditional one but now, the sword was made available to the general public, for example through the first sword exhibitions. Up to that time, John Q. Public has not been able to see a Rai Kunitoshi, a Nagamitsu, or an Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, just to drop a few prominent names. This was also the time when the first sword clubs were founded and the first “civil and independent” sword experts emerged (although as a matter of course trained by the former warrior class-employed experts). This all, i.e. a better than ever overview of the entire sword world, entailed that now some of the old classics were questioned and had to be revised and as more of the family secrets were disclosed to the public, experts were now able to tackle the subject in an objective, systematic, and scientific approach. That in turn brought along on the one hand a certain “disillusionment” (for example some of the old attributions had to be revoked and traditional active periods of smiths had to be dated much later than thought), but on the other hand also very fruitful discussions among experts. At the same time, we are talking about the bakumatsu and subsequent Meiji era, Japan opened the ports of Nagasaki, Hakodate and Yokohama to foreign traders who soon arrived in great numbers. Swords and sword fittings and Japanese art in general were exported on a large scale and objects of all levels of quality reached Western collections, thus nihontô enthusiasm got ignited among connoisseurs abroad and the first tentative books on Japanese swords (and sword fittings) were published in Europe and the USA.

Big jump over several decades and wars to Workd War II. One of the side-effects of Japan loosing WWII was that thousands of Japanese swords were taken back home by US soldiers which formed the basis of many of the future non-Japanese collections. As all swords were considered as weapons by the occupying forces and thus in danger of being destroyed, something had to be done to preserve this unique national heirloom. Most of the then Japanese experts agreed that this “something” was best achieved by raising the Japanese sword to the status of art work, what many works of the great masters definitely are anyway. This brought along a re-evaluation of the Japanese sword, both in Japan and abroad, and the prospering decades after WWII brought another social change, namely insofar that everyone who had a halfway decent job was now able to take up the one or other hobby, and some chose collecting Japanese swords and/or sword fittings. Also travelling, both domestic and abroad, was now pretty much an option for the middle class and so sword enthusiasts and upcoming experts visited Japan to deepen their knowledge and to learn first-hand more about what they have. Soon the second wave of sword publications since the time Japan had opened its borders reached Western readers.

This phase lasted rather unchangedly until about the Japanese economic bubble collapsed in the early 1990s and the advent of the Internet somewhat later in the very same decade. Collectors all over the world were now facing an equalization and “investors” a certain disenchantment. What meant the wind out of the sails of many dealers who had been thriving over the last three or four decades meant a new momentum for collectors as now, i.e. with the Internet, the Japanese sword market was virtually open to everyone and without intermediaries. As the economy was still thriving in the West, it was bought to a fare-thee-well and that again gave fresh impetus to non-Japanese sword publications. Well, Japan had experienced a collapsing bubble but all standard works on sword and sword fittings had been written decades before. So except from the one or other now down-to-eath dealer and collector who was sitting on a pile of objects unsellable to the price he had puchased them just a few years ago, not much had happened in Japan from a scholastic point of view.

I was very much a child of that time, i.e. being part of, and growing with, a flourishing new Internet nihontô community. So I only briefly witnessed the last stages of so-to-speak “classical sword collecting” in the West. When I had bought my first sword in the mid-1990s at the age of 18, I made a decision that should later change my career path, and that was to study Japanese (starting only two years after my first sword purchase).  In the following ten years or so a feeling had grown in myself, but which had been there right at the beginning, that was a dissatisfaction with the available non-Japanese study material. Of course many excellent treatises and articles had been written by both Western collectors and experts but hardly any of them made it into easily accessible, all-embracing publications. For comparison, each time I went into a well sorted Japanese bookstore, there was almost always half of a shelf or so just about nihontô and related books. This alone was already pretty awesome but when visiting antiquarian or second hand, or better, specialized bookshops, it was like being in a researchers heaven. All you ever wanted to know and much more was just sitting there, waiting to be read (and translated). And now my studying of the Japanese language began to pay off. Sooner or later it became obvious to provide assistance with translating descriptions and papers and things like that, first only sporadically but pretty soon on a broad scale, what subsequently incorporated longer and longer texts and in the end even books.

Now a little more than a decade has passed since that time (and about two decades after I have started my Japanese studies), what brought along en route going into business for myself. Parallel to this, the internet has left behind infancy and things are getting serious and another significant change in society is happening right in front of our eyes. As far as the Japanese sword is concerned, the aforementioned process of equalization is abating. Almost every collector now knows how to buy, and almost every dealer now knows how to sell over the net. And whilst the wild worldwide buying and selling across all levels of quality is still going on and information is shared freely, this information is kind of spread in a shotgun approach and mostly linked to the objects sold. My initial aim was to make information available on a broad basis and in general, i.e. not linked to a certain object or artist. That meant quasi an “unbiased” provision to non-Japanese readers of what had been available in Japan for a long period of time. In other words, working on equality from the point of view of reference material. Looking back, I have accomplished a bit of that but looking forward, there is still so much out there that needs to be translated to get even close to something like the just mentioned equality of reference material. Apart from that I have also realized that all work done so far was only kind of a first phase because this “unbiased” approach in providing reference material in turn leaves the task of working on certain details like inconsistencies and contradictions that I did not recognize as such in the first place due to the sheer amount of information. And this is where nihontô 2.0 comes into play: We in general and as nihontô community in particular find ourselves for the very first time in the position to point out and work on things spot on, together, and virtually with no delay. This nihontô 2.0 thing is both exciting and a great opportunity we should not miss and it is what I my made the motto of my second working phase.

Well, there is no way back from the point we have reached now and I am convinced that “real” books will become obsolete in the future (although I like “real” books very much myself). Also translation programs are getting better and better so probably what I do will become obsolete in the near future too. But I think this will not happen right away so there is still work for me out there 😉 Now the Japanese sword is a highly traditional thing but that does not automatically mean that access to it has to remain totally traditional too. Not talking about handling and things like that, just access to information. So – and at this point big hint over the ocean – the faster we all accept and embrace the new technology (which is irreversible anyway) the better. And the faster we can get over this changeover, the faster we can focus again on the subject itself. So where is the journey going? As indicated, with the Meiji-era educational reform and the establishment of universities, a thorough systematic and scientific approach towards the Japanese sword had started and over the subsequent century, almost all references (both historic documents and publications as well as swords that serve as a reference for a smith or school) have been “unearthed” and I doubt that any more groundbreaking discoveries will be made in this respect. In other words, the golden age of new discoveries (the aforementioned century from about 1870 to 1970) that had lead to so many fruitful discussions and certain rewritings of sword history is probably over. That means, the questions we can’t answer today will probably remain unanswered. For example, it is rather unlikely that a blade pops up where Rai Kunitoshi states in the signature that the smith who signs with a niji-mei, i.e. Niji-Kunitoshi, is a different guy. Or a signed and sealed late Kamakura period documents that tells us who Masamune really was. Sure there will be some slight adjustments in the future but I guess that’s it.

As for my part, I will now go over to elaborate on individual aspects and on individual artists but after that is done I guess there has to be another encompassing phase, that means with the then undoubtedly very much superior digital possibilities, all that stuff that has been written by others and my humble self in the meanwhile has to be united into a large, cohesive whole that leaves as few questions as possible unanswered or no reference/source out. Imagine a 3D database that contains tons of blades and fittings with an interface that feels very much like looking at the real thing, combined with on the spot answers to your questions. Well, that’s all still up in the air. The next imminent phases in the dissemination of sword knowledge are surely exciting ones and this is all comming pretty fast compared to all the relative “slow” historic decades from the Kamakura to the Meiji era. Finally, I should like to say that I am both pround and happy to be a part of this thing, the “new age of nihontô knowledge,” and I hope that one day I am able to raise from a mere provider to a real scholar…

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6 thoughts on “A very brief history of the dissemination of sword knowledge (and my humble place therein)

  1. Dear Markus,
    I leave you this message in order to ask you for the permission to translate (in french) and publish some of your articles in my own blog, and particularly this one. It is dedicated to martial arts in general and, as the nihontô is one of the very strong picture of Japanese (martial) culture, your work appears to be of strong interest for me.
    Let me know if these translations could be done.

    Faithfully yours,

    P.S. : I already published translations of chosen posts from kendoinfo.net (a blog about kendô) and from AcmeBugei. Of course, I always mentioned the original post and author on each translation.

  2. Pingback: Une très brève histoire de la dissémination de la connaissance du sabre (et de mon humble contribution) | Paresse martiale – 怠惰武道

  3. Hi Markus, it is done and published. Thanks again : a quite long job for a non-professional like me, but it was very interesting !

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