JSSUS Newsletter Volume 9, no.1, 1971

The articles on this page originally appeared in JSSUS newsletter Volume 9, no.1, 1971. Page 13  

by Randolph B. Caldwell


by Randolph B. Caldwell

It is almost impossible for the average westerner to fully appreciate the reverential awe with which the Japanese regard the Katana. There is nothing comparable to the adulation in our western culture. The Colt .45 came close to being such an ethnic weapon, but it's life-span of functional importance lasted only fifty years; whereas, the sword was of absolute functional importance for over one thousand years. For these ten centuries and more, the "soul of the Samurai" ruled supreme in the history of Japan.

The early economy of Japan was built upon wet rice culture. To understand the history of Japan one must appreciate who controlled the production of rice, and most importantly, who controlled its distribution. Eighty-four per cent of the population was engaged in the production of agricultural products, primarily rice; seven per cent of the population, the Samurai, controlled the distribution of this rice. The instrument of this control was the Sword. Other weapons had their place, such as the bow and arrow, the naginata, the yari and even the gun, but the Sword remained supreme and was always Japan's primary fighting weapon. As we know it, it became the most efficient and beautiful personal weapon ever developed on this planet.

The development of the Sword and it's appreciation was one long upturn from the Nara to the middle Edo period. The Sword was the ruling classes' protection, authority, and symbol of power; it literally ruled Japan. Historians usually mark the end of the feudal period around Genroku, or approximately 1600. During this general time Japan entered the mercantile era and left the feudal agricultural society. The haughty Samurai swaggering down the streets of Edo assumed a second rate importance to the rice merchant of Osaka, or the sake distributor of Kyoto, and the money-changer of Edo became more powerful than the Diamyo who gradually became more and more in debt to him. The symbol of the warrior classes' authority, the Sword, became less important as the Tokugawa period of peace increased. In time the wearing of the Sword became more decorative instead of functional. The rice merchant of Osaka could pay more and more for the wakizashi that the law allowed him to wear, and the impoverishie Samurai could no longer afford to get his katana polished. The death-knell of the Samurai and the end of the feudal Japan came when the bankrupt Tokugawa abdicated authority to the Emperor and Japan entered the modern world. This, of course, was the time of Meiji, or 1868.

The first great diaspora of swords occurred during Meiji around the turn of the century. The first occidentals to appreciate the artistic value of the Japanese sword and it's fittings were the English, Many important collectors journeyed to Japan and bought heavily of the surplus swords and their accounterments. As always, the English did things properly; they hired the best quailfied experts in Japan and readily paid top sums of the then most important currency in the world the pound sterling. Some of these purchases have never regained the value that they were bought for at that time. This, of course, is due to the continued erosion ot the purchasing power of the pound since then. Many of the finest collections, such as the Tompkinson, the Milward, the Berhens, the Mosle, and others have been broken up, many have not and still remain intact.

During the last part of the 19th. century, there were also some very good collections put together by Americans, primarily from Boston and Philadelphia. These collections are still there, i.e., the Bigelow collection, now in the Boston Museum. This era was the first great diapora of the Japanese sword from its native shore. As the Melji era progressed then the Samurai class entered commerce and learned to earn a living without the threat of the Sword; they slowly let go of these heirlooms. There are many accounts of tourists in Japan who saw piles and piles of swords upon the docks of Yokohama and Osaka that had been sold to various Asian countries, such as Siam, Burma, China, etc. These swords were trans- shipped to these Asian countries and some have recently come in the form of badly battered and abused swords.

After Japan defeated Russia in one of the most important naval battles of history, Japan came into it's own in the modern age, and there slowly began another resurgence of Japanese militarism and subsequent demand for swords, Japan had a new class of warrior; it was the modern trained soldier, a technician who now fired a naval gun many miles instead of wielding the Samurai sword. As his importance grew in modern Japan he also demanded the old Katana to carry by his side and heightened tension increased until it reached its fever pitch in 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The next great diaspora of Japanese swords from their native soil was the direct result of the capitulation of Japan and the rape of it's weapons by U.S. serviceman. Again the docks of Yokohama were piled high with some of the finest art treasures the world has ever seen and transported by barge to the middle of the bay and dumped unceremoniously into the ocean, Countless more were carried home by returning servicemen in their personal effects, and as a result it has been estimated that by the begining of the 1950s there were more Japanese sword blades in the United States than there were in Japan, This possibly may be a slight exaggeration but on the other hand it may be so. One fact is certain, the very fine art swords, or at least a majority of them, stayed in Japan in hiding, the second and third rate blades were the ones turned over to the military authorities for disposal. This does not mean to say there were not pleanty of good to fine blades looted from homes, museums and temples which found their way into this country. list of the national treasures and important cultural objects We all have seen the that are still missing and must be somewhere in the attic of middle-America, waiting to be discovered. These two major exodus of swords gave rise to a basic imbalance. The Japanese families who had given up their blades because of military demands undoubtedly kept their fine fittings, tsuba, etc. These were not confiscated or disposed of by the military authorities. As a result, the fittings stayed in Japan, but by far the majority of blades left Japan. Now when the world once again awakens to the beauty and desirability of the Japanese sword as an art object we find the following situation, i.e.: the finest fittings and the greatest number of fittings are in Japan. Secondly, the next finest selection of fittings and high quality swords are probably in England, with secondary amounts on the Continent. Thirdly, the greatest number of sword blades by far is the United States. The best market now to buy good fittings is England; the best market to sell fittings is the United States.

There have been articles recently in the Japanese sword journals commenting on the fact that all of the fine Katana that went into hiding after the war have slowly filtered back into the market and have been digested and restored to their rightful places. There are not many new discoveries being made. The frontier for discovery of lost swords has now changed to the United States that's why we are seeing an - increasing number of Japanese nationals coming over here looking for swords and bidding in our own and English auctions for these swords and fittings. The search has definitely passed into the West. We will see a lot more interest from Japanese citizens in our sword activities from now on.

It took an artist around the turn of the century in Paris perhaps fifty hours to paint a French impressionist painting; that painting may now be worth fifty to five hundred thousand dollars and has a ready market in any auction throughout the world. It may have taken the various artisans of Japan a thousand to two thousand man-hours to make a blade, tsuba, kodogu, lacquer work, and all the various accouterments of the Japanese sword during the Koto or early Yedo times. Into the making of this sword and it's Koshirae was lavished the very best creative efforts of an entire nation and it's civilization. There has never been a more perfectly developed weapon than the Japanese Katana. It is widely recognized by metallurgists as the finest developed; therefore, it does seem a bit out of proportion that these truly fine works of art have not been recognized throughout the art world. They are like signed paintings of the late century; there are no more being made. It is easier to fake a painting than it is to fake a Koto blade! Already we are seeing some of our national museums beginning to purchase good Japanese swords in auctions at what would have been considered exorbitant prices a few years ago. These swords will become more scarce as time goes on and higher recognition should be paid them. Private collectors always lead in the purchase of new art forms, but museums set the final prices and general public acceptance. This is undoubtedly the phase that we are in at the present time. Most of the major works are in the hands of private collectors and only now our museums are becoming interested to the point of buying with their aquisition money.

If you are fortunate enough to have a good collection of Japanese swords sit back, relax and enjoy them, but don't give up the chase yet, continue to accumulate good examples. We are just beginning to enter the era where they will be recognized and appreciated as the truly great works of art they are. As Japan's affluence as a nation increases, we will see the Japanese as individuals becoming more aggressive in buying and returning to their homeland the swords that mean so much to their cultural heritage. Militarism will again be heard throughout the land and this trend will intensify. If you then possess and have preserved "the soul of the Samurai" for future generations, you will indeed be fortunate...