MEI READING AND OSHIGATA TO DETERMINE THE AUTHENTICITY OF AN ANTIQUE NIHON-TO.*
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
November 8, 2003
I. Introduction: Concerns about authenticity and affordability.
Because Nihon-to is collectible work of art, well-preserved antique blades by reputable smiths are extremely valuable and thus very expensive in their market values. Naturally, there exist numerous counterfeits Nihon-to that are literally "forged" in the criminal sense of the word. With increased number of Nihon-to enthusiasts world wide, two most serious concerns of novice (and even intermediate level) collectors of antique Nihon-to blades are a) the authenticity of the "supposed" antique Nihon-to made by a reputable smith that they are interested in purchasing; and b) affordability of the Nihon-to that they "fell in love with."
Of course, the concern of affordability must be dealt with by the individual collector at a totally different level. However, the concern of the authenticity of the given antique blade can be radically reduced or minimized if the collector is purchasing an antique Nihon-to from a reputable art dealer specialized in Nihon-to. Especially, if the antique Nihon-to is accompanied with a legitimate certificate of authenticity by an established organization such as Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK) [Japan Art Swords Preservation Society], concern about its authenticity is virtually eliminated. However, well-preserved antique Nihon-to, especially one that are "papered," being sold by reputable Nihon-to dealers would be as expensive as brand new higher grade passenger vehicles at authorized car dealers, and not every Nihon-to collector is fortunate to be able to afford that amount of money on just a sword. For those who are with an average American income, local "blade shows" and increasingly popular "internet auctions" are two major places where a decent antique Nihon-to can be found for relatively more affordable price range.
The obvious problem with such markets, however, is the risk of buying a sword with hidden fatal flaws or "supposed" antique sword made by a known smith which is actually a counterfeit made by a mediocre smith. Because the detection of known fatal flaws is actually a separate area of the academic study and appreciation of artistic Nihon-to, the issues concerning the determination of authenticity of the blade will be examined in this article.
The readers must be forewarned that the author of this article is neither an appraiser nor a connoisseur qualified to determine the authenticity of any potentially valuable antique Nihon-to. Therefore, by no means this article is meant to be a practical instruction on authenticating an antique Nihon-to blade. As a scholar and novice Nihon-to collector the author is simply presenting a basic outline of how the initial screening process is normally performed.
II. The Basic Procedure of Authentication.
The basic procedure of determining authenticity of an antique blade involves careful examinations of attributes in several different domains (which are not mutually exclusive in a strict sense). They include at least the following four types of attributes:
1. Structural attributes peculiar to the smith’s work:
a) overall "sugata" (i.e, shape) of the blade.
b) nakago (i.e., tang) shape.
c) tsukuri-komi (i.e., forging/construction method)
d) hada (i.e., surface texture).
2. Metallurgical attributes peculiar to the smith’s work:
c) other subtle activities in steel.
d) hardness/softness of the steel in different areas of the blade.*
[*Note. This only applies to polishers who examined the blade by also polishing it with stones.]
3. Smith’s personal attributes manifested in mei (i.e., signature):
a) mei itself as an "authenticating signature."
b) mei-buri (i.e., how the mei is usually "written," which means how the mei is usually carved with a chisel).
4. Chronological attributes indicative of the time frame in which the smith is known to have been working:
a) the contents of mei (e.g., different art names, honorary titles, residence, etc.).
b) coloration of patina on nakago (especially in comparison to other areas of the blade).
In an ideal situation, where we have a perfectly well preserved antique blade with a clear mei, most of the attributes are still perceivable to the connoisseur to collectively help him or her determine the blade’s authenticity. In reality, however, such a blade is extremely rare because the majority of antique blades either:
a) have been altered somehow in the form of "suri-age" (in case of koto) and/or repeated polish,
b) have somehow lost perceivable attributes due to rusts, pits and/or discolorations as the results of natural aging or neglect, or
c) lack the mei in the first place (i.e., mu-mei blades).
III. Photo Based Two Dimensional Authentication Process.
In the case of "photo based evaluation" of an antique "zai-mei" (= with mei) blade as this one, structural and metallurgical attributes are not available to the connoisseur for obvious reasons. Thus, the main emphasis will be placed on the examinations of "mei-related" attributes by paying particular attention to the contents of the mei, "mei-buri" as well as coloration of patina on the nakago.
Here, it is important to understand that a mei on nakago is not simply a "marking" indicative of the identity of the smith; rather, it is a "signature," "clause," "phrase," or even a "sentence" in some cases that is actually *handwritten* on the nakago (supposed to be) by the smith. In other words, to "read" mei is to also examine the mei-buri (i.e., how the mei is actually "handwritten" on nakago by the smith using a chisel) by comparing "how it is written what is written" on the said nakago with other "handwritings" of (supposed to be) the same smith on his other blades.
Again, if a polished blade to be examined, it will be much easier to tell if the said blade is "sho-shin (i.e., authentic)" or "gi-mei (i.e., counterfeit)" also based on the comparison of the blade’s general characteristics and attributes (with those of other blades supposed to be made by the same smith much like the examination of "mu-mei (i.e., non mei)" blades). However, in case of a neglected "sabi-mi"(i.e., rusty blade) like this one, such a comparison is extremely difficult. Therefore, the initial examination of a "sabi-mi" inevitably focuses more on the "mei reading" and comparison of the content of mei (i.e., what is written) and "mei-buri" with other mei by the same smith. Still, "sabi-mi" always makes it difficult for a connoisseur to not only recognize the characters in the mei but also to see the subtle differences in "mei-buri" on the nakago because of the varying colors of patina and rust camouflaging the mei.
IV. The Benefit and Problem of Oshigata.
The prime benefit of oshigata is that it usually helps you recognize the characters and "read" mei more clearly by converting it into a nice B&W picture with no such camouflaging effects. To a certain extent, oshigata also enables the connoisseur to pay attention to the over all "mei-buri" by simplifying the three dimensional carvings on the nakago into a two dimensional picture.
However, the obvious limitations of an oshigata as a two dimensional B&W picture is that it does not allow you to see a) the color of patina on nakago (which often becomes critical determinants of the age of the blade) and b) other subtle three dimensional characteristics of the carvings. In short, oshigata is only beneficial as a very initial step of a more complex screening process involving careful examinations of diverse attributes, the combinations of which collectively helps an experienced connoisseur determine the authenticity of the blade with some confidence.
If the mei on the said blade clearly differs in "mei-buri" from the mei on other blades confirmed to have been made by the same smith (which can also be seen in a two dimensional B&W picture of oshigata), then one can usually conclude that the said blade is "gi-mei" without going into further examinations others attributes. On the other hand, if the "mei-buri" from the oshigata appears to be very similar to that of other blades made by the same smith, then one should suspect that the blade may be a)"sho-shin" or b) still "gi-mei" but carved very skillfully by a forger/impersonator. In such a case, a connoisseur must proceed further in analysis to visually examine actual the coloration of the nakago (in comparison to the rest of the blade, etc.) and other three dimensional characteristics of the said mei with his own trained eyes in addition to what he can gather by examining other parts of the blade.... Only after all possible attributes have been carefully examined, a connoisseur can determine with confidence whether the blade is "sho-shin" or "gi-mei"....
Anyhow, suppose that the characters in the mei have already been recognized and the content of it (i.e., the smith’s honorary title and his full name) has already been read clearly. Since such things are absolute minimum in the authentication process, an oshigata will definitely help the initial examination of two dimensional attributes of "mei-buri." Again, if the oshigata comparison looks good, then you will proceed further by sending the actual blade to an expert connoisseur: However, if the oshigata comparison does not look good, chances are that the blade is not authentic...
Kogei Shuppan (Ed.). (1992). Nihon-to no kai kata. [How to buy a Nihon-to.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-7694-0057-8.
Shibata, Mitsuo. (1995a). Shibata Mitsuo no Token Handbook. [The Handbook of Japanese Swords by Mitsuo Shibata.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-7694-0094-2.
Shibata, Mitsuo. (1995b). Shumi no Nihon-to. [Nihon-to for hobby.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-639-01026-5.
Tokuno, Kazuo. (1994). Token no midokoro, kandokoro. [Points to see and consider in Nihon-to.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN 4-7694-0049-7.
* Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on old Bugei Sword Forums.
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.