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.
You probably heard about people who can pass themselves as pilots, lawyers, doctors, CEOs over substantial periods of time without either experience or training. How do they do it? Well, it looks like the very top class professionals of this kind are for some reason all in our field of arms, armor and archaeology. So let me share 7 simple techniques that are proven to ensure unlimited success.
- Proclaim yourself an expert, i.e. “I have been collecting/doing this/curating for 40 years…”. The weakest and most basic technique of them all. Stronger version – have a buddy to proclaim “he has been recognized as an expert for 40 years”!
- Refer to an expert. “The greatest expert on the subject told me in confidence that …”. “No one present is qualified to challenge my mentor John, who by the way said …”. Most commonly used, and comprises 90% of current scholarship.
- Risky, but far reaching. Invent your own language. When handed a blade gasp “Ba, this is a real mutan-butan”. Or after “carefully” examining it “well, I see nagamishi, so it’s not all bad”. When there is existing terminology – double down. If people say mokume, use true mokume versus, say, nagiri mokume. Widely employ little known, useless, but formally sounding names from early publications. Its best if they are not accompanied by pictures – they can mean anything!
- It always pays off to go for quiet, strong and unapprochiable type. Short and vague appraisals, most importantly never (!) divulge any underlining reasoning. People respect what they can’t see.
- Never apologize, if pushed – double down and shift tactics. Some shifts are more natural – If confronted while doing (4), change to (1). From (3) one typically jumps to (2), but not to (4).
- Always have buddies to cover for you! Every argument can be won, if there are three guys willing to start yelling at crucial point “how can such things be asked to a person of such caliber”. Hint: drink more beer with pals. Said pals can be acquired in mutual admiration groups. There are plenty of entities like Collector’s Club for Academic Research (previously known as West London Organic Farming society) or West London Token-kai (much worse).
- The ultimate secret technique – Black Dragon, Blue Fire. Become a Museum Curator. The essential nature of all these methods is to shift the argument from evidence, pros and cons to postulating one’s opinion as that of “a recognized expert”. Having official position of an expert is obviously the best card to play in this case.
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.
Much of controversy regarding the early Mongol weaponry to the West of Urals is due to the fact that it is separately researched by those specializing in texts (Kuleshov?), miniatures (Gorelik) and archaeological finds (myself).
The case of miniatures is especially interesting and important. They do present Mongols as exceptionally well armored force, with an emphasis on swordfighting. They also, at least the earliest, 14th century examples, do show evidence of some East Asian influence (helmets with protruding “ribs” which would normally identify lamellar plates, from which almost all East Asian helmets are assembled).
The question that does not escape any kind of collecting is that of Masters and Masterpieces. What kind of work is recognized as a Masterpiece, who were the Masters who created it, and whether their other creations can be readily identified, are the kind of subjects that get revisited every generation or so, with often conflicting answers. But studying how these are/were resolved in different parts of the World and in different times can be by itself very revealing.
Every student of Arms and Armor sooner or later recognizes one strange thing – it is not considered appropriate to study soft metal (gold, silver, copper) fittings.
After finishing my new work “A Study of the Eastern Sword” I realized that the subject of difference between the organization of East Asian (say, Japanese) and European (which in Arms and Armor tends to mean German or North Italian) manufacturing requires further elaboration. While it can easily evolve into a book of its own, one point needs to be clarified in particular, regarding why in Japanese scholarship transmission of craft is assumed to be strictly from father to son, with no other option given serious consideration.
Gun parts need to be oiled from time to time, which in the XIXth century was often done with grease (animal, usually cow fat), also used to grease paper cartridges. Because of this, many chose to carry a small box containing supply of fat; in Caucasus it would be hanging, together with the rest of similar equipment, on the warrior’s belt. Most of these boxes were strictly utilitarian, made from low grade silver, covered with crude niello or engravings – and very few of them actually survived. High class boxes, such as the ones shown here, are even more rare. Very few were made in the first place, and from those even fewer survived. They are almost never encountered by collectors, and even major museums do not have them: they are small and in the XIXth century collectors preferred to go after larger items. Even is such a piece were to be donated to a museum, it is unlikely to be as strongly appreciated as similarly decorated long sword or dagger – despite tremendous rarity of these objects. So here we have four high end “fat” boxes, as they are often called, courtesy of one of the most important private Collections. It would be interesting to demonstrate how these can be appraised by using the method proposed by us in Arms and Armor of Caucasus.
A sample Chapter from my book, Arms and Armor of Caucasus:
…. I could have combined this chapter with the previous one, on kindjals of Western Caucasus, especially as I already included a few Circassian examples there (Figs. 172–173). As I will show, Circassians used essentially the same blades as in Western Georgia, except for Dagestani exports (Figs. 174–175), which were never as popular in Megrelia or Imerethia. However, keeping in mind the profound importance of the Circassian tradition, and that Circassian kindjals evolved in a very different way than those of Megrelia, dedicating a separate chapter to them is appropriate…