For what reasons should one take an interest in the fittings of the Japanese sword? A simple answer is not the obvious appeal of the surface beauty or the more complex aesthetic and scholarly aspects. Each person who has found an interest in the fittings of the Japanese sword has done so for reasons and motives that are different from those of their fellow collectors. Some acquire pieces for the simple outward beauty of the objects. Others gather solely by mass acquisition for the sake of numbers of any type, or of one type, to collect signatures, subjects, one school, one type, one province, by age, for the antiquarian value, study pieces, or for the monetary value and future gain. After the initial interest has been formed what direction does the acquirer turn? Some do not turn at all but simply follow their initial interest ever after. Others discover that the first reason for collecting was superficial and more knowledge is needed to broaden ones interest.
The novice collector should see at first hand as many examples of fittings as possible and also carefully study all the available reproductions and photographs he can come upon. After a careful study of several thousand examples, both good and bad, a basis for excellence will begin to emerge. When the collector has set the standards for the basic quality he wishes to collect then only those pieces which qualify should be acquired. Naturally, this is true for any collection, but with Japanese art in particular, the basic standards of excellence seem to be put aside or ignored in preference to standards based on the design subjects, the cuteness, quaintness, or prettiness for the sole reason that they are different from Western subjects and with complete disregard for the quality of the execution of the individual piece. One should try to turn away from such blinding stereotypes found in most early acquisitions and then the real enjoyment in collecting fittings will become apparent.
It seems it is easier to go back to the beginning than on to the future, because Akiyama Kyasaku is ALL that we have, past or present. We did have those who carried on the ideas and theories of Akiyama, his last student Dr. Kazutaro Torigoye who studied from 1925 to 1935, and Sasano Masayuki, but they have past, in fact all those who questioned or thought for themselves have past, with the exception of R.E. Haynes, and they are repealed and censored by those “experts” of today. Why is this happening? Is it because free thinking, to ask questions, to question authority, to even think for yourself, are areas which cannot be controlled, and therefore are illicit. The only way to overcome this is to become an nonconformist, a polemicist (as Robert Haynes). In no area is this more notable than that of kantei, a form of scholarship where you have the answers BEFORE the questions have been asked. In fact, in the study of kantei, the answers determine the questions.
The first hurtle to this awakening is the style of the Japanese language (kanji). If the new collector stops short of learning the fundamentals of reading this language his knowledge and further growth will stop also. This is fine for many; for a cursory appreciation completes the interest many possess and there is no further need to go any deeper into the subject. Those who do wish to delve into the maze of this study will need to learn about one hundred basic characters and the vocal sounds that accompany them. If this can be mastered there are really no limits to the future study or the areas of acquisition which lay ahead.
If one is bent on learning what one can about a growing collection it is necessary to read all the available material in print on the subject. This will give much basic terminology and the language used in the arrangement and study of the pieces in one's possession. Further help will be had in the communication with other collectors and the access to material as yet unpublished. After a thorough study has been made and one is conversant with all the available material, the definitions, characteristics, rules, regulations and terminology, the real study is just beginning. The acquiring of the available knowledge may take months or years depending on how readily available it is to the student and the help he receives with its assimilation. It is essential that this vast amount of recorded information be learned thoroughly despite its being a mass of inaccuracy, innuendo, bias, personal preference, general lack of research, the historical and scientific aspects are ignored, the theories are unfounded, proof is non existent and logic is not even attempted. Unfortunately it is all we have and despite its groundless foundations it must be understood before the much needed interpolation can begin.
It is customary for the Western collector to gain his early knowledge through such books as Japanese Sword Mounts by Helen C. Gunsaulus, TSUBA, An Aesthetic Study by Dr. Kazutaro Torigoye and Robert E. Haynes, Tsuba Kanshoki by Dr. Kazutaro Torigoye, all of Masayuki Sasano's books, or one or another of the more readily available collection or auction catalogues. From this beginning it is necessary to form as complete a library as is possible for ready reference, study and observation of the large number of pieces reproduced in most publications. It should be stated that the printed text or other identification accompanying the illustrations may in many cases be wholly or partially inaccurate and that what one sees in the illustration is of more benefit than the printed description. It will be noticed that the various types of pieces illustrated in the European books differ from those types illustrated in the publications from Japan. This difference stems from the two basic approaches to collecting. Today we have at hand more printed information published during the last twenty years than was previously produced during the last fifty years. Unfortunately many of these new publications are little better than those of two hundred years ago, but very slowly a decent number of reference and research works are being published though their number is but a fraction of what is needed in all languages. Thus it is not surprising that we are in the infancy of this study. Much of the basic information is erroneous or has not been recorded or assembled as yet. This is a new field of study that will require more research and reappraisal in the future than has been accomplished in the past. It is a virgin field of discovery and the need for students and scholars to take an interest is vital if we are ever going to accomplish the tasks before us.
Where will the new information so vitally needed be found? Much of it will be obtained through a thorough rational and logical study of the fittings extant and from those pieces which will turn up in the future. At present there are two basic problems to the proper study of this subject. The first is a lack of an accurate dating and chronological arrangement for the history of fittings. There are far too many gaps in the chronological history and too many pieces are assigned to catch all periods of history such as the ever present "mid—Muromachi period". The second great deficiency is the present use of a muddled nomenclature for the origins of many schools, periods and types of fittings. Names have been devised that are applied to almost any fitting in existence. The only problem with these names is that the pieces are made to fit the definitions whether in truth they do so or not. It would be far better if it was said that they did not have the vaguest idea who really made most early types rather than assigning them names that may very well apply to a few examples but certainly do not apply to all examples. The names for types such as sword—smith—maker (tosho), armour—smith—maker (katchushi), tachi—fitting¬maker (tachikanagushi), old—decorative—fittings—maker (kokinko), and Ko—Shoami, Ko—Umetada, or Ko anything (meaning old or early) is applying a name to fit a few objects and subsequently making all objects found fit the name. In reality the pieces assigned to these names are the work of professional tsuba makers whose sole occupation was the making of fittings for the sword. They were not the by—products of artists when they were not making swords, armour, or other objects. All that can be said for certain is that a vast number of pieces were made by persons unknown and that even their dates are open to serious question. To say a certain man started a school may be true in a few cases but for the most part they were men who broke away (or were taken away by a Daimyo) from an existing school and either began to sign their work or in other ways made their work identifiable. They did not spring forth one day and proceed to create masterpieces as would seem to be the case from their recorded history. What is urgently needed is an accurate HISTORY of sword fittings. If even a reasonably accurate history could be written based on facts, analysis, research and observation, a new approach to this study would be founded that will do away with much of the mass of misinformation that now passes for fact. It no doubt will be years before a true history emerges, but one day the missing sections in the chain of evolution of the history and chronology of fittings will become known. Each new piece of information found adds immeasurably to what little accurate information is now at hand.
The foregoing critique should not discourage or dishearten the new collector or student but should in fact be a challenge to his interest in pursuing the many facets of this study. So one can see that the student has to be both very careful in his studies to know the origin of his source material and to relate that material to what advancement he can hope for in his own knowledge. There will not be a growth or an advancement in the available knowledge unless those students of today find the truth in the sources of their information and add to it from their own knowledge and studies.
To those students and scholars long familiar with this field of study it is hoped the future will bring a true exchange of all theories, new ideas, and valid research in order that one and all may benefit from each new piece of information. One day this will form a true and accurate understanding for the appreciation of the fittings for the Japanese sword.
REFERENCE: Robert E. Haynes Articles dating from 1965 to 2012.
Elliott D. Long
Shibui Swords and Tsuba