What Knowledge Should I Understand Before Appreciating and Collecting Katanas?

For those who wish to gain some knowledge about swords, the first thing to understand is the allure of the katana. Until the prohibition of swords, the katana had always been the soul of the samurai. After the ban, perhaps feeling a sense of emptiness and directionlessness, many resorted to carrying wooden sticks on their waists as a substitute for swords. This ban was also one of the causes of numerous resentful rebellions among the samurai class. Moreover, there are many terms related to swords that continue to be used in everyday life. The practice of dedicating katanas in temples and shrines is also widespread.

Point 1:The Cultural Significance of the Katana

Until the early Meiji period, the sword deeply influenced Japanese people and was thus given special significance. Particularly because the sword symbolized the samurai (though commoners were allowed to carry tantos for self-defense during travel). However, after the prohibition of swords, they became a rare item.

Currently, there is a question of whether the katana is the strongest close-combat weapon in the world. In World War II, the katana wielded by enemy soldiers demonstrated its power as a weapon for hand-to-hand combat. Consequently, the GHQ (General Headquarters of the Allied Forces) issued a decree to confiscate swords after the war (was it because the power witnessed in combat felt unsafe? Or was it to remove this symbol of spirit?), but regardless, for the user, it undoubtedly remains an excellent weapon.

Point 2:The Aesthetic Value of the Katana

The beauty of the katana is rare even on a global scale. Typically, the various decorations on the exterior are separate from the katana itself, merely serving to adorn the blade. This leads to variations in the blade pattern and the texture of the steel. Techniques like mirror-polishing, footprints, and chaotic patterned jihada are reasonable embellishments given for practical purposes. Everything is aimed at creating an unyielding blade that cuts well, the result of the painstaking efforts of swordsmiths who adapted to the combat methods of their times. Those pieces that were not practical gradually came to be considered vulgar.

The trend of decorating the exterior of katanas largely began in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Before this era, the focus of the katana was on practicality, thus the pieces were basic and robust, and the beauty of sword fittings was a rare concept, limited to attempting to depict a worldview on the relatively small tsuba. It can be said that the katana exists as a rare iron art piece in the world. If one can first appreciate this practical beauty, then they can begin to "appreciate the sword."

Point 3:Determine the Value of a Katana

Now, let's briefly discuss some factors that determine the value of a katana and some flaws in current appraisal standards. The factors are complex and cannot be easily generalized, so when appreciating and collecting katanas, one must not blindly believe.

  1. Whether the blade is intact and without damage.
  2. Whether it belongs to a domestic Japanese school within the range of the Gokaden tradition, or is merely considered a "rib item" local sword.
  3. If it is an inscribed piece, the era of inscription is most desirable. Uninscribed items require further judgment.
  4. Whether it is the work of a famous, first-rate swordsmith known to posterity.
  5. Authentic katanaswill generally come with an appraisal certificate, designated as a national cultural property.
  6. Even with the same author, there are good and bad pieces.
Point 4:The Importance of Inscriptions and Appraisals for Katanas

Unlike other art pieces, katanas were previously used as weapons and are thus consumables. They would wear down from sharpening during battles, and this wear is irreparable after the war, making preservation in intact condition the most crucial factor. This awareness is advantageous only for new swords, but old swords possess a depth that new ones cannot match. Moreover, some damages affect practical use, while others affect aesthetic appreciation, so the impact of damage on value is varied and cannot be generalized.

The Gokaden tradition of Japan has always been highly regarded, indeed, most of the famous swordsmiths belonged to the Gokaden. However, there are also numerous excellent works among local swords, highlighting the strong brand consciousness among the Japanese. The surviving works of Kanesada, the maker of Dojigiri, have been identified as belonging to the "rib item" category of smithing, a term that may seem somewhat disrespectful to the swordsmith.

If there is an inscription, it is ideal. From the inscription, one can generally discern whether it is a custom-made piece or a work from a time when the swordsmith improved their techniques. Moreover, personal appraisal can be an exhilarating and intuitive method. But remember, without a clear basis, one must not speculate about unmarked swords. Some "shadow-impressed items" and "dedicatory items" are also considered rare unmarked pieces, so even unmarked works should not be underestimated, as being unmarked means there is no forgery, a point that requires special attention.

Point 5:The Ranking and Market Value of Katanas

Regarding "ranking," there are many trials and errors by predecessors that can serve as references. Sometimes a sword is appraised with a high ranking but is unfortunately a forgery. Sometimes, there can be a huge difference due to different authors. The problem lies in high rankings leading to higher prices for swords that are not particularly outstanding, which is a significant drawback.

No matter what, if it is not a genuine artifact, it is undoubtedly worthless. Hence, appraisal certificates exist in the industry to reassure all enthusiasts. However, be aware that there are now sophisticated forged appraisal certificates in circulation. Therefore, whether the sword has an old or new appraisal certificate, it must be carefully examined. Once a sword is appraised as a national treasure, its price can skyrocket. Therefore, there have been instances where forgeries were mistakenly appraised and designated as national treasures.

In conclusion, determining the value based on the swordsmith generally does not pose problems. For example, if it is an authentic genuine piece, it can be highly rated regardless. Therefore, judiciously judging based on the blade to determine if it is a "highly renowned and ranked" piece, and then using that as a basis for its price, is more scientific and reasonable.

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