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Who are the greatest modern Japanese sword smiths?(r/SWORDS)
> I have begun my nihonto education though I still have so much further to go before I feel ready to purchase even my first blade and start collecting.
> I have to ask: are there smiths out there making great new swords? …who are the people making the great swords of today and where can I learn more about them, their craft, and their products.
During the US occupation of Japan following WWII, weapons were confiscated. This included civilian-owned swords, regardless of whether they were used in the war. Such swords were freely given to any servicemen who requested them; many of the rest were destroyed (e.g. melted down to make cutlery).
In the midst of this, Sato Kanzan and Honma Kunzan, major figures in nihontō conservation and both government employees, met with Colonel Victor Cadwell at GHQ to discuss the cultural importance of the Japanese sword. As a result of their combined efforts, the seizure and destruction of swords was arrested, largely due to the emphasis of nihontō as objets d’art rather than weapons.
Following this, Sato and Honma founded the Nihon Bijutsu Tōken Hozon Kyōkai 日本美術刀剣保存協会 (Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords), a quasi-governmental agency dedicated to supporting nihontō through appraisal, contests, exhibits etc.
Soon afterwards, a special law, the Ju-Tō-Ho (sword and gun law) was passed which among other stipulations required smiths to be licensed by the Ministry of Culture (following a traditional apprenticeship) and to make no more than two long swords or three short swords a month. It is also the case that no blade of any kind longer than a certain edge measurement with a mekugi-ana (tang peg hole) is legal in Japan, except for registered nihontō (both antiques and shinsakutō, newly-made swords).
THE STATE OF THE ART
This more or less reflects and explains the current system by which swords are made in Japan. Someone desiring to become a smith serves as an apprentice to a licensed master for years (5+). They then create a sword before a panel of smiths as a final exam. Once licensed, they are limited in the number of swords they can make and the materials they can use to make them. Smiths desiring to make a living usually enter their swords into the annual NBTHK contest in hopes of winning prizes and generating recognition. Those with the right reputation, luck, skills, connections, and dedication succeed and make a living as full-time smiths. Others supplement their work with blacksmithing jobs, or eventually give up.
Smiths who win enough prizes are eventually promoted to mukansa status (“without judgement”), and their works are exhibited by default (but cannot receive prizes, except for the uncommon Masamune award). This both bolsters their reputations and makes room for up-and-coming smiths to compete.
Separately, smiths can (very infrequently) be recognized politically by the Japanese government proper and given the title “intangible cultural asset” or ningen kokuho, “living national treasure.” Although it is usually only the very greatest smiths who are awarded such titles, it is a somewhat opaque and arcane process which is thick with political implications, so the reality is a bit complex.
Most smiths also join the Zen Nippon Tōshō Kai 全日本刀匠会 (All Japan Swordsmith Association), which is a professional association that also produces publications, exhibits etc.
The general consensus in the nihontō community is that because of these stringent controls and the strong emphasis on the sword as art object, at least from an artistic standpoint some swords are now being made that are qualitatively equal to many of the finest examples from history.
Some swords are made for martial arts (e.g. tameshigiri) and may cost bare minimum $5000 mounted and with a functional polish. Others are made to be more artistic and can cost $10,000 or more, even in just plain shirasaya. Finally, blades by the most famous mukansa smiths in full art polish with full koshirae (mounts) in turn made by masters can cost tens of thousands of dollars, over $60,000 in some cases.
This barely scratches the surface of the interesting history of gendaitō (modern swords) / shinsakutō (newly-made swords), and I will be giving some book suggestions below if you would like to learn more.
MODERN JAPANESE SWORDS AND SMITHS
Whew! Now that we have established the setting, let’s get to your actual question.
There seem to be a couple hundred or so smiths registered in the All Japan Swordsmith Association. However, it is likely the case that only a minority of those are making a living as full-time swordsmiths.
Some of the mukansa smiths (see above) have established international reputations. Gassan Sadatoshi, heir to the famous Gassan school of smithing and president of the All Japan Swordsmith Association, is probably going to be the next “Living National Treasure.” The works of Yoshihara Yoshindo, co-author of several popular books on nihontō and grandson of one of the greatest smith of the mid-20th century, are highly sought after. Ono Yoshimitsu has become renowned for his pursuit of the complex juka-choji midare hamon; each time he re-creates the heirloom sword Yamatorige, he makes two blades and destroys the lesser one. The Komiya smiths are known both for their martial arts blades and for their art swords, like this copy of a Kiyomaro katana.
Those are just a few examples of course.
If you are interested in this subject, I have two great book recommendations for you: Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths, by Kapp and Yoshihara; and The New Generation of Japanese Swordsmiths, by Tsuchiko and Mishina. The books are complementary but have a lot of overlap; if you buy just one, I’d recommend the former (“Modern…”). Both books feature a gallery of very fine swords.
If you are interested in acquiring modern nihontō, there are two basic methods: buy one already-made from a dealer, or commission one through a middleman. Of course if you can speak Japanese you can communicate directly with the smith, but I am guessing that is not the case here. An advantage to buying secondhand is the price is usually much lower; an advantage to commissioning the sword is, of course, the ability to custom-order it (and even have your name inscribed on the nakago!).
I have previously written about where to acquire Japanese swords (as well as how to learn about them) so I will not go into much more detail here. However, I will happily recommend Paul Martin and Chris Bowen as people who can arrange for swords to be commissioned by modern smiths. The charming Kashima sisters can also order a sword for you with their associated smith, whose name I forget, but Paul and Chris are a bit more diversely connected and speak more fluent English.
Those are just some of your options though! Do your own research and hang around here, the Nihonto Message Board, etc. In short, I applaud your first sentence: learn first, buy later.
RELATED: CUSTOM JAPANESE-STYLE SWORDS
I would be remiss if I did not mention that while this post has focused exclusively on genuine shinsakutō nihontō (newly-made Japanese art swords), there is a strong contingent of smiths working outside of Japan, not licensed and not necessarily working in the stringently traditional methods, but still producing beautiful and masterful works of their own style.
Again, I already gave a list of such smiths in this earlier post. I personally have owned two pieces by Howard Clark (I still have a tantō by him); and though I have not seen his swords in person, I find the photos of Anthony DiCristofano’s work particularly excellent.
Please understand that while the lack of strict traditional controls on these smiths in some senses frees them (they can be more creative, and also produce stronger more modern blades for lower costs), it also means a given blade is not necessarily going to match true nihontō for artistic quality or craftsmanship (although some may do so), and certainly the character is usually distinct. Each smith, and even individual works by the smith, have to be assessed for what they are, and art is ultimately subjective.
Still, as long as someone understands the deeper distinctions at play, I wholeheartedly support this separate “genre” of swordmaking.
Let me know if you have any questions! Cheers,