Nihonto studies – challenges and opportunities

I would begin with making a disclaimer that often, especially in the West, obvious difficulties with nihonto research are attributed to mysterious “Confucianism” or the heritage or early Showa (pre WWII) nationalism. In my opinion it is not true, as very similar issues exist or existed in other regions as well. Some of them are more accented in Japan and some are less, and my understanding of the reasons is provided below.

  1. First and main issue is that Nihonto was studied for much longer than similar subjects in other Asian countries or Europe. One would normally assume this to be a great advantage, but it comes with a number of issues. There was extensive research done during the Edo period, but it was constrained by limited availability of objects to study (restricted access to main collections, no photography, limited ability to publish, outright political influence and censure). This means that for hundreds of years certain definitions and explanations were copied from one book to another, without anyone asking a question – what are they really based upon? As a result, the boundary between facts and theories is tremendously diluted and concealed. For example, when one reads a typical statement “there were three generations of X”, this is usually does not come from contemporary archival records (as a rule, they either don’t exist, or are not that useful), but deduced, for example, based on either of the following observations:
    a. Identical signature is used for somewhat less than 100 years, so there were probably 3 consecutive masters using it.
    b. There are swords or fittings of similar style and somewhat similar quality, but with three drastically different signatures.
    c. There is a 17th century publication, or a typical 19th century “genealogy” (such were produced by most of the important craftsmen families) mentioning that “the first generation X was succeeded by second and third generations bearing the same name”. Often there is no supporting physical evidence, but it the statement is accepted as plausible given a large number of swords produced under this name.
    d. There are objects with more or less the same signature, but with substantial variations in style and quality, which can be grouped roughly into 3 types.
    As one can see, these 4 scenarios are not identical per se, but the difference is lost in almost all publications, since they are just going to say “three generations”.Similarly, the statement “Y was a son of X” usually means that Y worked in a similar style as X, but somewhat later. Father-son relationship is always assumed in such cases. This becomes especially evident (and bizarre) with early Soshu, where re-constructed “ties” between different generations and craftsmen have very awkward appearance.
  2. Nihonto is studied as an isolated, self-sufficient phenomenon. Until 11th century or so, it clearly does not function as such, but rather is a subclass of greater East Asian culture. As a result a lot of early history is based on assumption, for example Korean attribution (Korea is geographically closest, so it must be it!) of things, which are rather obviously not Korean. Even the greatest scholars in Nihonto world typically do not have substantial knowledge of “animal style” or other pan-Asian phenomena, and many of them have only high school formal education, and I would argue there are no decent general permanent exhibits of Chinese or Korean swords, or even material culture overall, in Japan.
  3. Each material culture community has various “schools” competing for the “intellectual dominance” in the field – archaeologists, museum curators, history professors, dealers, collectors etc.. Each comes with its own approach and assumptions. Nihonto is 100% controlled by dealers, and that was the case for a very long time. Dealers in a broad definition of the word, including all those with commercial interest in the subject,  from polishers to pawn shop owners. This is reflected by most publications, as they typically strive to teach appraisal, rather than concentrate on aesthetics or relationship between schools and regions. Appraisal is also often limited to assigning a name to a given class of swords based on certain specific rules, and then accessing valuation based on this name. Whether the name is historically correct (going back to the question of generations etc.) is not as important. It is especially prominent in tsuba studies, where ko-Tosho, Katchushi, ko-Mino and much of other terminology related to pre-Edo fittings is a convention rather than an  established fact.
  4. For a nihonto specialist, Kamakura-Nambokucho period swords produced by the likes of Norishige or Ichimonji school, are perfect, infinitely superior to any other swords, and produced by geniuses without reproach. Thus any technology used back then also has to serve deeper purpose, be perfect and superior. If it was abandoned in Japan 200 years later, it is because raw supplies ran out, or people got less skilled. If a later sword performs better in cutting, it is because the cutter does not know how to use Kamakura blades. If Kamakura blade cracks, it is because of climate changing compared to Kamakura times. If the technology was abandoned on the Continent 500 years ago, it is not addressed at all since the point made earlier – nihonto community does not study other traditions.

So if one wants to make serious contribution to the studies of nihonto, I would suggest running exactly orthogonal to these trends. Concentrate on pre 10th century pan-Asian developments. Try to realize what separates mastery from imitation, rather than mechanically assign a generation number based on the signature.

Other than this, nihonto is probably the most well researched arms and armor subject in the world (blades, not tosogu or armor). A significant contribution, especially without the mastery of Japanese and existing literature would be difficult at best.