Surprisingly, despite a relatively large number of surviving examples, strong collecting community, well funded government institutions and tremendous wealth of publications, navigating the world of nihonto permanent and temporary exhibits can be rather difficult. The main issue is that in Japan collections are maintained/exhibited in a slightly different fashion compared to Louvre or MET, and also polishing and display level varies greatly, something that is not nearly as much an issue with non-Japanese swords.
So in this article we will quickly discuss the collections exhibited in various Japanese museums, and try to identifying strong points of each of them.
As we just mentioned, the latter requires identifying the polishing level. Typically, there are three possibilities: either fresh, modern polish, pre war polish, often called “sashikomi” style, or out of polish (i.e. old, likely mid or early Edo polish). There are also differences in how well the items are being displayed. The worst case is when swords are exhibited in oiled condition – generally then only the top quality (Sadamune/Norishige+) works will have reasonably visible hamon structure, hada most likely will be barely observable. Similar situation is when the objects are poorly lit, which is, unfortunately, a common ocurance as the “standard” museum spot lights and “standard” museum stands are usually not designed for swords specifically and do not provide for the optimal viewing angle.
In general, during the Edo period and even to a large extent until the WWII most quality Japanese swords were stored either in shrines (as offerings) or in a few large Daimyo collections. Both back then and now, a shrine does not exhibit each and every sword it owns. Instead, there is a small (1-2 rooms maybe 50 square meters each) display section with some of the artifacts. The selection can be renewed on a regular basis, sometimes every half a year, sometimes every 5 years or so. A smaller shrine will have only 1-3 swords, and those can be exhibited permanently. However, they are typically completely out of polish. Compared to other collections, Shrines own disproportionate number of old (between Asuka and Momoyama) swords, and some are famous for their unique, Heian or earlier, pieces. There are not that many major shrines that would put post Kambun swords on display. Some have gigantic, up to a few meters long examples, specifically made as shrine offering, but these are uncommon. A few shrines (Katsuga in Nara) are known for their small but important armor collection. Fittings on the other hand are very seldom exhibited, though there are some very important early iron examples that are known to be stored there.
Probably ranking first (as subjective any ranking can be in this case) among the displayed shrine collections, it is unfortunately located away from the major routes on an island in the inner sea between Shikoku and Honshu islands. A “pirate” shrine with heavily military-themed collection, including many important Heian and Kamakura pieces. Condition of the swords – varies.
The most important collection of early (post Kofun, pre Heian) swords. Located in Nara, it is however displayed (and even then partially) only once every (few) decades. The last such event occurred in 2015, so it will be a while before this selection of swords is shown to the public again. Another opportunity to see them in public would be at some large government organized exhibit centered around the history of Japanese swords, as those always tend to burrow a few examples from this collection. The swords are in full polish, pre war or modern.
Located in Nagoya, a visit to this easily accessible shrine is bound to be rewarding for any nihonto enthusiast. Display room is somewhat small, collection is more skewed towards Muromachi period with some Nambokucho-Kamakura examples. In full modern polish. A Tenno’s sword Kusanagi is not on display.
A famous shrine that owns a few very important Heian period swords and armors. Unfortunately, they are quite often not on display. Armor is relatively well preserved, physical condition of swords varies.
Japanese museums hold collections which are a combination of gifts from Daimyo and contemporary private collectors, as well as transfers from some (especially currently defunct) shrines and temples.
Tokyo National Museum.
Owns a large and encyclopedically representative collection, but only a small part is displayed at any given time. There is a semi-permanent display, which is rotated every decade(?) or so, containing a few quality swords, armor and fittings, and typically every year or two some other items are pulled on view as part of temporary, topical selections. The items are typically in very good condition and full modern polish.
Kyoto National Museum.
While it owns a few famous pieces and has overall very representative collection of swords, fittings and armor, its exhibiting style is known for being completely unpredictable. The whole sections are updated on schedule which is at times pre-announced and strictly adhered to, but then it is followed by multi-year “abnormalities”, and then the updates suddenly stop. Each rotation does not just replace the items on display, but affects the whole departments – swords might be gone altogether for a year or two, fittings pulled out from a single dedicated room into 5 rooms that are now each subject specific (say, one – animals, another – samurai etc.) and include everything from pottery and kimono to fittings and photographs. Taking in mind, that there are not many artifacts on view at any given time (the two rather impressive buildings are traditionally under-utilized), this museum is probably not the best choice if one wants just to see swords or fittings specifically.
Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya.
Among the Daimyo Collections of Edo period, the three branches of Tokugawa family inherited a significant portion of swords assembled under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (though quite a few items were burned at Osaka castle), and added to them a lot more. The Nagoya collection mostly represents the items from the Owari branch. Tokugawa collections also include items held privately by members of Tokugawa and Matsudaira families, as well as various artifacts scattered around – not a surprise taking in mind how large these collections used to be.
The Tokugawa museum has on a permanent display a number of legendary pieces, including hocho Masamune, as well as small, but interesting selection of higher quality fittings and other items.
Right now (2017) there is a traveling exhibition of Tokugawa Iyeyasu’s items, in part from the Nagoya collection, in part from other places – and it is a must see since it includes very famous blades as well as other military-related items.
Unfortunately, quite a few items in the Nagoya/Tokugawa collections are in Edo period polish, and the display lighting also can be somewhat awkward.
Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures.
Very seldom exhibited as a whole, but at any given time some part of this collection is usually available on view either at the permanent location of the Institute, close to Osaka, or as a stand alone traveling exhibit.
This is definitely one of the most impressive collections. Its sword part is composed from top level items, including a few legendary ones, such as Fushimi Sadamune tanto. An important distinction from Tokyo National Museum and others, is that the emphasis here is on artistic merit. So there are not that many important Heian pieces, where the original structure of the sword is almost gone, or Juyo that merited such rank by means of bearing a rare complete signature of an important smith, despite having really nothing visible in a hamon.
The swords in this collection are in as good condition as possible for the given smith, all in high quality modern polish, which makes it one of the most important venues to actually learn about the aesthetics of Japanese swords. Sochu, Yamashiro and Bizen Ichimonji schools dominate, shinto and shinshinto are represented by just a few big names.
The fittings portion of the collection similarly includes the works of quite a few important makers, but the overall impression it leaves is less of an awe when compared to swords portion. It is less encyclopedic, strong in some areas, but noticeably weak in others. Despite having, for example, the famous Yasuchika tsuba, the artifacts are often “typical” work of the artists, rather than their best and most famous pieces. Nevertheless, it is still a great collection.
Both swords and fittings were published as 2 volume catalogue, but the quality of sword photography is unfortunately not as good as it would be done by the best professionals today. The catalogues of smaller exhibitions (often with better shots) are also available.
Mori Collection – Shusui Museum in Toyama.
The most recent of privately owned collections to be put on display, it leaves a mixed impression. On the one hand, there are plenty of really good pieces, impressive Masamune, Sadamune, Norishige, together with a whole number of Ichimonji. Modern polish, thoughtfully arranged display, and definitely a place to visit for every sword enthusiast who makes it to Japan.
On the other hand, unlike Kurokawa or Tokugawa collection, these are not “can’t buy for any money” pieces, an inaccessible selection of the very best and legendary works of Japanese aesthetics. Rather it is a collection of top level things one can purchase at the yearly Dai Token Ichi event. It is a very important, and relatively large display of swords (which is rotated from time to time), but at the same time each of the artifacts is something one can buy today, though most will set you back many tens, and some – hundreds of thousands of USD.
Sannenzaka Musem in Kyoto.
The museum specializes in Japanese art, in particularly metalwork in precious metals, of the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods. The display space is rather limited, but the collection is rotated almost every year, plus there is a yearly or bi-yearly topical exhibit, which however tends to utilize museum own pieces. It has an overall very strong own collection, which includes multiple top notch works by Goto Ichijo, Kano Natsuo and others, with a further emphasis on Japanese artists who contributed to the aesthetics of European art nouveau movement.
NBTHK Sword Museum.
Unless the museum is closed, there are generally going to be some swords and maybe fittings on display, such as the last year’s Juyo pieces. Often, there are also topical exhibitions.
Overall the level is typically below the other venues cited above, nor is there an expectation that if there is a major traveling sword exhibit in Japan, it will at some point be held here. Sano, Hayashibara and a few other museums are probably better known to host a top level events of the kind.
While strictly speaking a shrine museum, Yasukuni is de facto what in other countries would be called an armed forces museum, its functionality as a shrine being largely separate from the exposition itself. With a few exceptions, it covers Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods, so there is not much in terms of swords, but now and then it hosts an exhibit where swords or armor play an important role. In this way, it is more similar to museums like Ryozen in Kyoto and other historical museums, whose own collection of swords and samurai gear tends to be rather small, but there do host interesting exhibits now and then.
There are quite a few castles in Japan (though none substantially predating the Momoyama period), so it might be tempting to assume that those would have interesting collections of arms and armor. This is however far from the reality.
Following the Meiji restoration those Daimyo still in power together with their collections relocated from castles to large, often western styled, lodgings. Many of the remaining castles were entirely burned during the civil war, others were destroyed during the WWII. More importantly, save the Inuyama castle, the ownership was more or less immediately transferred to the state, as for Daimyo the cost of maintaining castle was no longer offset by any tangible benefits. Per Meiji period, the State had comparatively little interest in preserving them, and no significant stately collection of artifacts to be potentially relocated there. Quite a few were at the time located in hard to reach, remote provinces, and fell into complete disrepair or were even sold for lumber. With but a few exceptions, others lost all buildings, save the main tower and a few isolated turrets – too little and too small to be even today a good candidate for hosting a large samurai culture exhibit.
So, while there are couple of family armors in Inuyama castle and similar small displays of weapons everywhere else, overall none of them is particularly impressive.
Samurai family houses and collections.
Another common expectation is to find substantial displays in existing samurai lodgings or collections. But while these museums are definitely worth a visit, the artifacts there simply accurately reflect the position that Samurai occupied in Edo hierarchy.
While even a Daimyo of million koku income after maintenance and retainer salaries were dealt with had only a small portion of that available for non-essential expenditure, a dependent retainer never even remotely approached this level. A high level executive of Daimyo family, descending from the clan that did not have substantial personal holdings during the Muromachi period, for example – a mid level “officer” that reasonably distinguished himself during the last Tokugawa campaigns, would typically not held an income much higher than 1000 Koku. 100-500 Koku was already considered a very substantial stipend, and 50-100 level was “normal” for a mid-level samurai administrator.
In addition, if during the late Muromachi period samurai were encouraged to exhibit ambition in their posessions, Edo period saw substantial efforts expanded in legally curtailing the items that could be owned by the Samurai and even lower level (sub 100,000 koku) Daimyo. Samurai were in general banned from owning items made from gold, or with any substantial use of makie. A lower level Daimyo was expected to mark his personal items with a mon executed in maki-e, but not to include any other elements in either makie or gold leaf. Around 100,000 koku the limitations were lifted, except that gold (and thus such derivatives as maki-e and gold leaf), as all strategic materials, was handled by the government monopoly, though a supply could typically be acquired for an auspicious event, such as preparing a dowry for an upcoming wedding. The situation became substantially more flexible in the mid 18th century, in particular reducing the standing of Goto family, which had a substantial role in the “official” handling of gold. However, this flexibility was far more often exploited by the merchant rather than samurai class, as the latter was experiencing a steady decline in its relative financial standing.
In practice it means that most things we think of today as “samurai collectibles” were out of reach for these families, by means of funds, tradition or even direct law. The early Goto masters, especially up until and including Goto Teijo and Kakujo, solid gold fittings or even lacquered saya, save simple black or red patterns without much makie, were not considered compatible with the customary standing of retainer families. From time to time one sees in their collections Koto period blades, but not particularly big names, Muromachi rather than Kamakura period, and longer swords rather than tanto. Signed, quality Shinto pieces were however quite common, something like Mishina school or sandai Yasutsugu. Bigger contemporary names, like Sukehiro or shodai Yasutsugu, still typically made it to a different clientele. Among the Samurai, katana and wakizashi tend to dominate, tanto are somewhat uncommon, and spear points tend to be on a shorter and simpler side, rather than half a meter examples of the type that could be carried in a Daimyo procession.
This would be the weapons with which (whatever little) the fighting with swords prior to the Meiji period would be commenced, including various performance tests (tameshigiri; it is worthwhile to note here that as many other elements of samurai culture this was largely an Edo-centered phenomenon, the manner of execution with sword in earlier times being essentially prohibitative to be employed as a metric of sword’s potential). At the same time, Daimyo collections not only assembled essentially all available “collectible” (i.e. Heian to Nambokucho period) blades, but survived the civil war period in much better order than meager properties of samurai, as the latter class was essentially starved out and physically destroyed during the early Meiji period. It is exceptionally rare for a modern Japanese to have confirmed samurai ancestry, despite a reasonably large relative proportion of samurai class during the Edo period.
And so, very few “real Samurai” collections exist or on display today. Some among those, such as that of Kaga Honda family, are essentially Daimyo collections (50 thousand koku income of this family clearly putting it there), despite Honda’s subservient status to Maeda. Without them, what remains is probably half a dozen examples in the whole Japan.
Collections not on display.
There are quite a few important collections in Japan that are not on display. Some (Suwaguchi, most of Mori) are large, relatively recently acquired ones, but there are also a few that remain from the Edo period. Among those, Tenno Collection is by far the most well known. Its swords are polished, however there is no public listing of the collection’s context and individual descriptions employed are usually those inherited from the Edo period without an adjustment to account for a more novel learning. There are indications that it is not as impressive as one would think, as the role of Tenno family in Japan was and is very different from the image created in the West during the WWII of omni-potent and dictatorial power. In particular, their holdings were substantially affected in a negative way during the early Muromachi period.
Japanese exhibits do differ substantially in many ways from those in most other countries. There is overall a higher frequency of temporary exhibits, but the amount of material on display at any given time can be meager, often in a sharp contrast to the grandeur of the museum building itself. The tags can have English translations, but the printed catalogue is likely to be in Japanese only. The quality of exhibits ranges basically as much as that of public tea services – sometimes one suddenly gets to see a performance by a main line expert, and another, just as well known tea house, will have student temps conducting it. With swords, an event entitled “secrets of Hideyoshi” might have two dozens of his personal things on display, or just a bunch of modern cardboard cutouts depicting scenes from his lifetime.
Photography is usually forbidden. It can be allowed if the museum hosting exhibit is known for “liberal” views on photography (TNM, sometimes Yasukuni etc.), but those are usually exceptions. Again, something well familiar to most, and probably less painful then experience of residing in a monastery complex, where some temples believe photography to be utter sacrilege and others being quite ok with it.