Nihonto in numbers

Posted on 18th December 2018

After posting the statistics regarding “Oriental” weapons I’ve decided to do a similar study on Japanese swords, i.e. combining the results of sales I monitored for the past 10 years. As before, in quite a few cases those had to be extrapolated (hence the round numbers) since some months were simply missing in the database. Even more so than before the data provided should be taken as an approximate estimate – especially with top notch pieces much of trading occurs outside the internet and thus cannot be accounted for with any reliability. But here we go!

The results provided here are bound to be more controversial than the ones in the previous article and thus require more explaining. First, Japanese sites accounted for more than 90% of sales. Unlike the international market, NTHK papers are somewhat uncommon there (around 5-10% of the total), so I excluded them from the table. Unlike high end professional shops such as (obviously) Sokendo, Aoi, Ginza Choshuya, if the total statistics is provided, very large portion of the blades are unpapered. Many of those are in poor condition, or gendaito, or various “martial arts grade” Shinto and Shinshinto pieces. There are many blades with “green papers”, though modern papers do appear to be more common at the present time.

The total number of sales (50,000) excludes instances identified as a resale of the same blade, though the technique used to do that is not fail-proof by far.

From this we can try to estimate the total number of traditional Japanese blades. Most purchased blades do get resold within 10 years, what is very hard to determine is which portion is retained for much longer periods of time. Assuming the internet captures only third of Juyo market, it means still only 10% of all Juyo were sold within a decade. On the other hand, Juyo pieces are typically retained for life, i.e. 20 years on average, since most people start buying them in their 40s – compared with 5 years of ownership on average by a typical active collector of a typical blade.

So in general the ratio of items sold within a decade to the total should be substantially below 1:10, and likely comparable to 1:2. The total number of traditional blades in existence is then likely between 100 and 300 thousands (the estimates of millions account for numbers of Japanese NCO issued swords during the WW2 and are not relevant), of which about half is papered, including a third (30-100,000) with “modern” NBTHK papers. No surprise here in terms of numbers quoted, and when it comes to edged weapons Japanese collecting community is by far the most active and numerous one.

When it comes however to high quality blades the numbers drop drastically, becoming comparable to common or mid-rare segments of non-Japanese collectible blades market. If you are looking for top quality, excellent condition works, the distance from 300,000 total is staggering – you are basically looking at about 100+ blades sold per decade in total.

When it comes to individual attributions, Kaneuji school clearly stands out as anything but the work of a single (or couple of) smith. Its numbers are comparable to the entire Kozori school. One can make a conclusion that Kaneuji today is not so much a historical person, but rather a bucket for attributing anything that lies between Yamato and Soshu proper.

A much greater surprise for me was how common are blades attributed to Norishige compared to any of his contemporaries. It does show that Norishige’s school must have been large and quite well appreciated in his lifetime. By comparison, while there are quite a few Sadamune (the great one rather than “later” “generation”) pieces in museums, his works are exceedingly seldom offered for sale – about the same as “Masamune”, but less often than Sa or even Shintogo Kunemitsu or other famous Masters of the day. By comparison Hasebe, Nobukuni, even various Rai Masters, quite a few names actually, are large schools that produced quite a few blades. Yet high quality Hasebe in good condition is exceedingly rare.

In all cases it appears that 5-7 blades per decade is a reasonable offer rate for a top class individual Koto smith, with (obviously) more to be expected from Shinto or Shinshinto one. Anything substantially above that raises a question of this name being a large school attributed to a single person, which is however seldom a true problem.

Finally I included one item which underscores that in some cases transition from green to modern papers did involve substantial adjustment or judgement criteria. The case of Muramasa is a good example – attributions to this smith (in all likeness a collective of smiths) were common in green paper days but today’s shinsa is much more allergic to the name.

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