Gaigin's Japanese Art Swords
Smith Rating Systems - written by Darcy Brockbank
Barry Hennick, Chris Leung, and Arnold Frenzel of the JSSUS contributed to this article.
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 Token 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:
1. Chu saku - Medium made (i.e. average)
2. Chu-jo saku - Superior medium made (i.e. above average)
3. Jo saku - Superior made (i.e. superior)
4. Jo-jo saku - Superior-superior made (i.e. highly superior)
5. Sai-jo saku - Supreme made (i.e. grand-master)
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.
Sword Rating Systems
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 Kai5 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):
1. Kicho - Authentic Work (these papers are white)
2. Tokubetsu Kicho - Extraordinary Work (light green)
3. Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho - Special Extraordinary Work (light blue)
4. Juyo Token - Important Work (highest rating from 1951 - 1972)
5. Tokubetsu Juyo Token - Extraordinarily Important Work (highest rating from 1972 )
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:
1. Hozon - Worthy of Preservation (light yellow)
2. Tokubetsu Hozon - Extraordinarily Worthy of Preservation (brown)
3. Juyo Token - Important Work
4. Tokubetsu Juyo Token - Extraordinarily Important Work
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.
NBTHK Shinsa Standards - Translation by Danny Massey
The following is a translation of the NBTHK's Shinsa standards. This was published in March of 2006 (issue # 590) in Token Bijutsu, the official publication of the NBTHK. The original document consists of three parts. Token, toso and tosogu. The translation below is of the Token section only.
1) Edo and earlier blades with correct mei, or mumei blades on which the time period, kuni and group can be identified, may receive Hozon paper.
2) Blades that meet the criteria given above can receive Hozon paper even if they are slightly tired or have kizu, as long as those may be permissible in their appreciation.
3) For Nambokucho and earlier zaimei blades by famous smiths, re-temper can be permissible if the blade is valuable as a reference, and if the jiha and nakago are sufficiently well preserved. However, this has to be documented in the paper.
4) Repair on jiha is permissible, unless it significantly impairs the beauty of the blade.
5) Blades made in Meiji and Taisho periods, and those by recently deceased smiths, can receive Hozon paper only when the blade is well made, zaimei and has a ubu-nakago.
6) Blades are put to "reservation" if a decision could not easily be made on the authenticity of the mei. This also applies to mumei blades in which an attribution is difficult to make.
7) Blades with hagiri may not receive Hozon paper.
Tokubetsu Hozon Token
1) Blades with Tokubetsu Kicho, Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho or Hozon papers with good workmanship and state of preservation can receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper, except for the following:
a. Either zaimei or mumei blades may not receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper if they are significantly tired, have kizu or repair which impairs beauty of the blade.
b. Re-tempered blades may not receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper unless they were made by famous smiths and their values are extremely high as a reference.
c. Edo period works by less famous smiths with mid or lower grade workmanship may not receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper.
d. Muromachi and Edo period mumei blades may not receive a Tokubetsu Hozon paper, as a rule. However, if a blade shows good workmanship, attributable to a famous smith, having ubu-nakago, and in good preservation, it may receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper.
e. Suriage cut-mei Edo blades may not receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper.
f. Blades with hagiri may not receive Tokubetsu Hozon paper.
* Among blades that received a Hozon paper in item 5 above, that may be considered the maker's best quality, these may receive a Tokubetsu Hozon paper.
1) Blades made in a period from Heian to Edo, having Tokubetsu Kicho, Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, Hozon or Tokubetsu Hozon papers, of extremely high quality workmanship and state of preservation, and judged as close to Juyo Bijutsuhin, may receive Juyo Token paper.
2) Blades that meet the criteria given above and made in or before Nambokucho may receive Juyo Token paper even if they are