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March 10, 2017

Wartime Japanese Swords

By Ryan F. Sullivan

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Wartime Japanese Swords

From the perspective of the modern wartime Japanese sword collector of vintage Japanese swords, the words “very fine” don’t often belong in the same sentence as “wartime Japanese swords.” This is not just opinion or snobbery, but a hard-coded element of Japanese law, as established during the Occupation era. According to legend, General MacArthur was prepared to ban all ownership of Japanese swords, traditional or otherwise, as part of the post-War disarmament before a group of leading experts convinced him that with proper training and preparation, an inspector could tell the difference between traditional and non-traditional swords; in essence, that a line separated “art” from “weapon” when it came to swords. Anything above that line was a treasure worthy of preservation (language still seen on certification paperwork even today), and anything below was a mistake to be forgotten.

After the forced introduction of Japan to Western trade, the market for a traditional Japanese sword took a nose dive; as a weapon, it was surpassed by the rifle, and as a cultural symbol it was suppressed by the government. Embracing the techniques of foreign military advisors, Western-style swords and sword manufacturing techniques were the order of the day for the early Imperial Japanese Army. With time, the classic forms would reassert themselves, but there was a problem with the classic techniques; unlike a Western blade, which could be made at a very high rate of speed with machine assistance, traditional Japanese swords were the product of dedicated craftsmen using age-old materials and techniques. With a massive number of regulation swords needed, compromises were required, some as rough as just slamming out a curved stainless steel blade with a machine press, acid etching a false temper line, and sending it to the quartermaster. But not all Imperial swords of the post-Perry years were a compromise; the art of the Japanese sword wasn’t forgotten, and it certainly wasn’t gone.

Example 1
Example 2

The rarest and in many ways most desirable solution was the refit of an already extant blade to a new regulation hilt. The samurai, while marginalized and suppressed, were far from gone, and many families still had an old, well cared for traditional Japanese sword to send to war with their sons.  Examples 1 and 2 are fine specimens of antique blades refitted with “kyu-gunto” pattern mounts, a physical demonstration of the “Wakon-yosai” (Japanese spirit, Western techniques) philosophy that emerged in the 1800s and 1900s. Constructed for a traditional two-handed Japanese grip and outfitted with a guard assembly that wouldn’t look out of place on an American staff and field sword (aside from the length of the knuckle guard), the furniture of this sword would blend in with any other on the line, until you had a chance to inspect the blade.

Examples 3 – 7, top to bottom

Not every military man had the advantage of a fine martial lineage and inheritance, but some had the good fortune to get their hands on a Japanese sword freshly made in the traditional manner. As a matter of both nationalist pride and logistic necessity, the Japanese military took an active interest in getting Japan’s traditional smiths back to work especially in the days of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. Though restricted by available supplies of traditional tamahagane steel, these smiths did their best to keep up with demand. Examples 3 – 7 all show the wartime art of the Japanese sword, as fitted in the “shin gunto” (Army) and “kai gunto” (Navy) World War II regulation styles. Like examples 1 and 2, their bearers wouldn’t stick out in formation, but the mundanity of the weapon only goes skin deep in these blades. Example 4, in particular, is far more than meets the eye, having been furnished in the very late war “Type 98” pattern; even compared to other wartime swords the Type 98 looks rough, with any number of corners cut. One would be forgiven for presuming that the blade inside was equally rushed and compromised, but they would be dead wrong. Examples 8 and 9 are also of interest, attributed as showa-era production but lacking both signatures and non-traditional markings, suggesting traditional blades by fully trained but less experienced smiths. While all show the kind of “mileage” you would expect from war-issued military equipment, they also show a lot of character.

Example 8
Example 9

Last, but far from least, are the upper tiers of the “non-traditional” wartime Japanese sword production. While the most infamous and prominent examples of “non-traditional” blades are as bad as the stamped stainless blades mentioned in the second paragraph, it didn’t take much to earn the branding; any deviation from traditional technique or material was enough, regardless of the outcome. Examples 10 & 11 both bear the small showa/arsenal stamps often associated with non-traditional blades, while also bearing the signatures of the smiths responsible for their creation. Many smiths, especially ones in the direct employ of the military (such as the ones at the Seki Arsenal, where Ex. 11 is stamped) made both traditional and non-traditional swords, and while there is a certain stigma attached to them (especially in Japan, where they are sometimes regarded as synonymous with non-traditional production) they don’t constitute a terminal symptom on their own; stamped blades still are worthy of individual consideration, and fine demonstrations of the blade arts can be found among their number.

Examples 10 (top) & 11

Rounding out the grouping are a few more traditionally furnished Japanese swords. As an interesting contrast with the first two swords in this story, Example 12 features a stamped and signed Seki Arsenal blade combined with well-aged traditional fittings, while Example 13 is unsigned, but shows the right aging on the tang for an antique blade. Example 14 has both the age and the signature for an antique blade, as well as evidence that it may have been shortened or adjusted in its lifespan, a common sight on older blades that were adjusted to match changes in tactics and fashion over the ages.

Example 12
Example 13
Example 14

All of the Japanese swords in this group will be available in our 2017 May Premiere Firearms Auction and are fine examples of their place and time in history. Each would make an excellent addition to a collection of wartime Japanese swords or wartime artifacts.

Japanese swords are more than just katanas and samurais. Made in a variety of lengths for different tasks, these revered blades have a place of honor in the very foundation of Japan. They remain symbols of strength, poise, beauty, and savage combat.

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