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The Index of Japanese Sword Literature

Many of the books I sell are included in something called “The Index of Japanese Sword Literature”.  If you don’t know about this index, you should.

Years ago when I was beginning my affair with Nihonto and starting to build my library, I thought it would be handy to have my books indexed in English and all in the same index.  Not all of my books had their own indexes, and those that did could be indexed by one of 2 alphabetizations in use in Japan, or by time period, or by road, or by who knows what (not me; my ability to read Japanese has always been feeble).

So I started to build my index.  Whenever I acquired a new book I’d add it.  Eventually it grew large enough to be useful to others, so I gave it to the Japanese Sword Society of the United States (JSS/US) who published it in their Newsletter.  Now the index has grown to include 74 references (books and periodicals) and is available free to all as a searchable database on the JSS/US website.

It is 3 indexes, actually: Swordsmiths (3,561 listings currently), Sword fittings artists (704), and articles about the sword (318).  If you have a sword signed Masamune (don’t we all), with the index you can learn where in those 74 references to look for oshigata and/or information about that smith.  Want to learn more about tamahagane?  The index of articles will point you in the right direction.

You’ll find the index by going to jssus.org and clicking on JSL Index on the top bar.  You’ll find it also in my links section.

 On Polishing the Japanese Sword

In order to see all of the activity in the sword’s hamon and hada (temper and grain), the sword has to be in polish.  Unlike with most collectibles, it isn’t wrong to have a Japanese sword polished.  In this respect, they are more like fine old oil paintings which get cleaned and repaired, than they are like fine old furniture on which the original surface is valued.

However, every time a sword is polished, some of the sword is lost to the polishing stones.  Eventually, with enough polishes, the skin steel will be gone, the less refined and coarser core steel will show through, and the sword’s artistic, historic, and monetary values will suffer.  For this reason, only a properly trained polisher should ever polish a Japanese sword.  Proper training takes years of study, almost always in Japan; no one can learn to polish Japanese swords by reading books and watching videos.  Amateur polishers remove too much of the skin and leave the sword with improper geometry, color, and finish, which will need to be redone properly, which will remove even more of the sword's skin.  There are many, many horror stories of once important and valuable swords that have suffered irreparable damage at the hands of idiots with stones.  If you own a sword you want polished, DO NOT try to do the job yourself (burning your money accomplishes the same end and requires less effort).  Have the polish done only by someone with proper training who has been recommended by someone you trust.

By the way, Japanese swords don’t have to be polished; there is nothing about the polish that protects the blade from corrosion.  If you own a sword in reasonably OK old polish, there is nothing wrong with enjoying it as is.  If you are new to Nihonto you would be smart to resist the urge to have your 1st sword polished.  With study and experience you'll know better how to care for a polished sword, and you'll likely be glad you didn't spend all that money to polish a sword you have grown out of.


On having koshirae (mounts) made for your sword

This is a common goal of beginning collectors; seems like all new collectors want to buy a sword, have it polished and papered, and have Samurai koshirae made for it if it is in military mounts or shira-saya.  This is something that experienced collectors rarely take on, and there is a good reason why.

Add up the cost: 3 or 4 hundred for the tsuba, 2 or 4 hundred for the fuchi/kashira, 2 or 3 hundred for the menuki, more hundreds to have the saya and tsuka made.  Upon completion you could easily have $2,000 or more in the project.  Some day you will want to sell this sword.  You will be lucky to recoup half what you spent assembling the mounts; the collector you sell it to will want original Samurai koshirae, not the koshirae you put together.

If nice koshirae are important to you, buy a sword with koshirae you like.


Which sword should you buy?

I get asked this question often: someone writes to ask what I think of a particular sale on ebay or elsewhere.  I almost always give the same answer: Don’t buy swords; buy books.  With good books that you read carefully at least once, and by taking advantage of every opportunity to examine quality swords in hand and asking questions, you'll gain knowledge and experience, and you'll know the answer to your question.

By the way, ebay is a snake pit for beginners to Nihonto.  90 some % of the old Japanese swords for sale today on ebay were made tomorrow in China.  A large chunk of the rest have serious problems that the seller either doesn’t understand or chooses not to disclose.  The very few quality pieces left to look for almost always sell for more than fair market value.  Once in a blue moon someone finds an incredible bargain on ebay; he was either very knowledgeable or very lucky.  You may be lucky, and if you’re asking me which sword you should buy, luck is your only hope.

How to Open a New Book for the 1st Time

The 1st time ever a book is opened has to be done right; otherwise the spine can be broken badly.  Here’s how it should be done.

Place the unopened book upright and spine down on a table, as you would for normal opening.  Open the front cover only and let it down to the table.  Do the same with the back cover.  Grab 10 or 20 pages from the front of the book, lower them down on top of the front cover, and gently press on the pages at the spine.  Do the same with 10 or 20 pages from the back of the book.  Repeat these steps, alternating between the front and back of the book, until all pages are open.  That’s it.  Your new book has been properly broken in.

By the way, if you care about your books, never place them open and upside down on a table.  Doing so puts too much stress on the binding.  Use a bookmark instead.  If you have a book with a slipcase, store it with the book's spine towards the wall or back of the bookcase.  This way the sun won't fade the book's spine.

Grey Doffin - Dealer in Nihonto Art

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