WHY EVEN A "MARTIAL ARTS GRADE" SHINSAKU-TO BY A MEDIOCRE SMITH COSTS SO MUCH?
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
October, 26 2003
Unlike JSA practitioners who are mostly interested in the functional quality of their swords, Nihon-to collectors are willing to spend much money for artistic quality that can only be seen in traditionally made Nihon-to by talented smiths. Of course, the monetary value one sees in artistry is somewhat subjective, but people (be they Nihon-to collectors, JSA practitioners or not) tend to understand that antique Japanese swords that were made 300 years ago would cost several thousand dollars at least and even more. What many including some antique Nihon-to collectors and JSA practitioners may not understand is why so called "martial arts grade" shinsaku-to (i.e., newly made Nihon-to) by a mediocre modern smith in Japan also costs at least several thousand dollars. As a matter of fact gendai-to (i.e., modern made Nihon-to since after the Meiji Restoration) and shinsaku-to do not sell as well as antique Nihon-to in the same price range. However, this does not mean that gendai-to and shinsaku-to are always inferior in their artistic quality to antiques of the same price range.
From a more economical point of view, one of the major reasons why shinsaku-to of even mediocre artistic quality is so expensive is because of the costs of materials such as tamahagane and traditional charcoals. Today, they are becoming increasingly scarce and thus very expensive. Especially the price of good quality traditional charcoals have gone up so much in the last few decades. Still, since only "traditionally made" Nihon-to is legally allowed in Japan, the higher costs of basic materials directly translate into the retail price of the final products.
Similarly, natural stones needed for traditional polishing are also scarce today as they are mined, thus they are very expensive. Moreover, unlike antique blades that already have been polished to shape, shinsaku-to just sent by a smith with simple kaji-oshi (i.e., initial rough shaping done by a sword smith with a very coarse stone) consumes precious polishing stones more quickly because the sword polisher has to go through all stages of togi from shitaji (i.e., foundation polish) to shiage (i.e., finer final level polish). Even with the use of synthetic polishing stones to replace with some natural stones at the shitaji stage, the entire process of togi required for "ara-mi" (= newly forged blades) affects the total costs significantly in terms of labor for polishing.
Moreover, with only two katana limits imposed by the Japanese government, licensed tosho (i.e., sword smith) in Japan are not allowed to make more swords that they could actually make if they were so allowed. And just like anyone else even Japanese tosho must also make living by producing limited amount of Nihon-to within the "two katana sized swords per month" requirement.... When adding the cost of even low grade traditional style koshirae (i.e., sword mounting), it is easy to see why fully mounted shinsaku-to costs so much.
With all these reasons, shinsaku-to today tends to be quite expensive by default, regardless of its artistic quality. When the monetary values of "artistic quality" of the blade, koshirae and kanagu (i.e., metal furniture on mounts such as tsuba, fuchi/kashira, menuki, etc.) are added into the equation, the overall price of a fully mounted shinsaku-to will go up even higher.
Despite all these negative sides (from the consumers’ point of view), many gendai-to enthusiasts, including myself, are still willing to buy a newly made Nihon-to by gendai tosho (and for modern made tsuba by gendai kin-ko/tan-ko). For a Japanese minority like myself, it is a means to support endangered crafts in my cultural heritage. As long as some are still willing pay for all the traditional work, there will always be demand for newly made Nihon-to. Then those in Japan who want to learn the "endangered" crafts of smithing, polishing, and making swords mounts to continue the art and craft of Nihon-to making can become tosho, togi-shi (i.e., sword polisher), or koshirae-shi (i.e., sword mounting maker) and still make living today. Without buyers' support, there will eventually be no Nihon-to (both antique and shinsaku-to) in the future....
* Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on old Bugei Sword Forums.
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.