Those of my generation remember that learning to read was of the "Dick and Jane" variety. The learning process in the study of blades and fittings is of the same type and time. Some will say it does not matter how you acquire your knowledge of a subject, and others feel that there are many ways and the shortest is by far the best. So how do we learn about swords and fittings?
The classic method of study for the last seventy years or so has been through what is called KANTEI. I shall not go into this method of study but refer you to NIHON TO KOZA volume VI, KODOGU PART II pages 349 to 354, of the Harry Watson translation which every student should have for this section alone.
Now say one has mastered the KANTEI method. It may be applied to any object one sees, but from what you see, to what this method of study tells you, is not what the eye might see through other methods of study. The old empirical method might be used as well. There is a reference to this method in the NIHON TO KOZA, on page 353, under "Yuretsu Kantei Ho". It is totally misunderstood but is worth reading to understand how far from the western ideal course of study the KANTEI method seems. This is not a war of styles or methods. It should be where the maximum amount of information comes from any source.
What is interesting is that the KANTEI method was not used by ALL authorities in Japan in the past. Some were empiricists a hundred years ago, or even later, say until sixty years ago. The reason is simple. Western thought and methods dominated the life of Japan until the return to Edo period ideals supplanted the Western way about 1930. Thus we have this division between the Meiji and Taisho authorities and those born sixty or seventy years ago. These later generations do not seem to want the empirical method used today and adhere to ways and ideals that embrace only the KANTEI method. What can one do to reach a compromise so the study methods combine the best of both schools of thought? I hope some one who reads this will try to answer this question.
For myself I have found a compromise that allows me to try to go forward even though based in this rigid past. I found this method through talks with John Yumoto during the last few years of his life. I mentioned to him, about 1985, that I felt I was at a total impasse in my study of sword fittings. He said that he had felt the same. I asked him how I could grow in my studies and hopefully contribute information not already "in the method". John said he had gone beyond available knowledge by "starting all over again". I said that was exactly how I felt. So you see once you have mastered the knowledge from past authorities put all that information behind you and start over with thoughts and ideas of your own that you can base on empirical observation. Sounds easy doesn't it, well it is not. For then all the doubts arise, as they should. One sees what may be new to them even if it is found in books published years ago but now studied under a new light, or from objects in your own collections or others seen again as if for the first time. This new information comes from small bits and pieces that nag at you because they are unexplained. Then several bits come together because you have been able to add together what you could not figure out by itself. A larger part of the puzzle begins to take shape. It is very important that you can communicate to friends what puzzle pieces you have found so they can add their pieces and perhaps between you, a blue sky may appear. Unfortunately with the KANTEI method the answers are preordained so very few light bulbs go on when these bits and pieces are added together. That is the great difference between the KANTEI and empirical methods of study. The enjoyment of the study of sword fittings is in finding out all we do not know, with any kind of luck! With KANTEI what we will find out was stated years before the answer appears, not as a flash of brilliance, but as an idea that was inscribed on iron many years before, whether or not the answer be right, wrong, or indifferent. All this verifies the past but we should be looking to the future study of sword fittings.