JAPANESE SWORD FAQ
Frequently Asked Questions about Japanese Swords
Q : I have an old sword. I think it is Japanese. Can you tell me about it and what it's worth?
A : Probably not without a lot of information and detailed pictures of the sword and tang with any signatures, etc. What style of sword? Katana, wakizashi, tanto, tachi? What kind of mounts? Buke-zukuri, shingunto, etc? What condition is it in? Any rust or chips or blade flaws? Without detailed information, it is impossible to determine anything about a sword; even then, it is difficult to give specific information without actually seeing and handling the sword. It is impossible to determine value without knowing a lot of information about the sword; its condition (all important); who made it and when, etc. If at all possible it is better to have the sword examined by persons knowledgeable of Japanese swords. There are numerous local Japanese sword clubs where knowledgeable people can perhaps help you determine the value of your sword. Also there are sword shows around the country at various times where you could take your sword to have it examined. Online help, such as this website and various message boards, can be a beginning; but for a proper appraisal the sword needs to examined in-hand.
Q : I want to collect Japanese swords. How do I get started?
A : Richard George has written a fine article giving advice for novice collectors. First read lots of books, go to sword shows and join a sword club. DO NOT buy a sword until you know something about them. DO NOT buy from online auction sites. Most of those sold via this method are modern fakes! Review the sword websites so at least you will have some idea what an authentic Japanese sword looks like.
Q : I have seen swords claiming to be WW II era Japanese swords made by Chinese sword makers. They are claimed to be prison guard swords, swords for Chinese officials during the Japanese occupation and other claims. They have acid etched panels with various Kanji writings or flags on the blade or saya. What are these?
A : From all that has been determined, these are modern Chinese made swords having NOTHING to do with Japanese swords of WW II or any era. They appeared on the market a few years ago, not having been seen previously. IMHO, they are simply modern made swords, aged to look old, designed to separate people from their money. They have no historical evidence to support that these swords were ever produced during the WW II period or have any actual connection to Japanese swords of the period. They are not even "reproductions"; at best they are fantasy swords. See the Reproductions and Fakes page for example.
Q : How do I remove the handle on my sword to see if it is signed?
A : Read the NBTHK sword care page. It gives instructions on removing the handle (tsuka). Be aware that some World War II era swords have two pegs or possibly screws - one near the guard and the other near the end of the handle. Both must be removed. NEVER UNWRAP THE HANDLE. This is not necessary for dis-assembly of the sword. Also, NEVER CLEAN THE TANG. To do so may reduce the value of the sword by half. The type and coloration of the rust on the tang is essential in determining its age and therefore its value. Also see the military swords page and look at the kai-gunto pictures. They depict both the assembled and fully dis-assembled sword, showing how all the parts fit together. Most Japanese swords are assembled in a similar fashion.
Q : How do I translate the writing (signature or mei) on the tang of my sword?
A : Check the basic guides for translating signatures.
Q : I have a sword captured during WW II, how can I return it to its previous owner's family in Japan?
A : Unless you already know the Japanese soldier's family and their address, you probably can't. There are no significant records on who owned what sword during WW II, except for those possessed by shrines, the Emperor, etc. and they have already been accounted for. Also, most WW II period made swords, especially those with arsenal tang stamps (see military swords), can not be returned to Japan as the Japanese government considers them weapons and it is illegal for individuals to import weapons into Japan. Only those swords that are fully traditionally made can be imported back into Japan. It is best to learn about the sword and how to care for it so it can be preserved for future generations. The few, rare cases where swords have been returned to their previous Japanese owners are for those swords given as tokens of respect to US soldiers and occupation officials during the US occupation of Japan in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
Q : I want to buy an antique Japanese sword. Where can I find them online?
A : For antique swords, check the sword links page and go to the commercial sites section. There are numerous sword dealers online offering antique swords in a variety of price ranges. Unless you are very familiar with antique Japanese swords, DO NOT buy them from online auction sites. I estimate that 90+% of those sold on online auction sites are modern fakes! See reproductions and fakes. For swords for martial arts practice go to the martial arts page and look under commercial sites.
Q : I have a sword and want to sell it. How do I find a buyer who will give me a fair price?
A : There are numerous local Japanese sword clubs where knowledgable people can perhaps help you determine the value of your sword. Also there are sword shows around the country at various times where you could take your sword to have it examined. I would suggest getting several quotes before you decide to sell. Various collectors are looking for different types/period/makers and may give widely different prices. There are also numerous online dealers who buy swords on the sword links page
Q : How do I tell if my sword is a real Japanese sword?
A : Check the Is It Real, Is It Old page for things to look for to determine whether your sword is a real Japanese sword or a modern replica/reproduction. Also read the reproductions and fakes page for clues on what to look for in fake swords.
Q : How do I tell if my WW II period sword is traditionally made or a machine made sword?
A : This is a really tough question. See the Gendaito vs Showato page for hints on determining whether your sword is a real antique and/or traditionally made. Also check the military swords pages for styles of Japanese swords used during the WW II period. Certain types were only machine made while others could be machine made, non-traditionally made or completely traditionally made.
Q : How do I sharpen my Japanese sword?
A : You don't ! (unless you want to ruin your sword). Sharpening and polishing are one and the same process for Japanese swords. Improper polishing can ruin the artistic and monetary value of a sword; it is best left to professionals. Please read the sword care and NBTHK care manual pages for advice on the proper care of a Japanese sword. Check the sword links page and look for sites offering sword restoration services by trained and qualified persons.
Q : Are Japanese swords still being made like the old ones?
A : Yes, modern Japanese sword smiths still make swords by traditional methods. They are referred to as "shinsakuto" (modern made swords). Check the links page and look for sites about or selling "shinsakuto".
Q : Where can I get a ninja sword?
A : Ninja swords are Hollywood fictions. There is no historical evidence that ninja used swords any different from those used by samurai or anyone else.
Q : Where can I find a "sakaba or sakabatou" - a katana with the cutting edge on the inside curvature?
A : You can't - cartoon swords are for cartoon characters. Blades similar (called kubikiri) were made in tanto and small wakizashi size, but I've never heard of one in katana length. The entire premise that a concave blade is not an offensive or lethal weapon is wrong. Many styles of knives and swords have concave edges. I point to the Nepalese Gurkha and Turkish Yatagan as two of many such weapons. I suspect "sakaba" are purely the product of the cartoon world. A kubikiri tanto is pictured on the unusual tanto webpage of this site.
Q : Should I use an antique sword for martial arts practice?
A : Generally no, they are too valuable and you risk destroying important artistic and historical swords by using them. Some WW II era swords may be suitable to be remounted for use in martial arts. However, they need to be properly remounted by someone who knows what they are doing. Otherwise the blade may come loose and go flying across the room when in use - not a good thing. I recommend the use of a sword designed and made for martial arts. See the martial arts links page for dealers in swords for martial arts.
Q : Where can I find information on a specific sword smith?
A : There are numerous reference books that give details (when known) of specific sword smiths. Hawley's Japanese Swordsmiths, Revised is possibly the most used English language source for dates and locations. The Nihonto Koza series, translated by Harry Watson, is an invaluable resource with detailed information of numerous schools of sword smiths and specific smiths. There are also several indexes on this site for Showa era sword smiths who made swords in the traditional manner (gendaito indexes). Most of the best material is available only in Japanese. You can also post a message to one of the online message boards requesting information.
Q : How do I tie the scabbard (saya) cord (sageo)?
A : Check how to wrap sageo page.
Q : How do I re-wrap the handle (tsuka) of my sword?
A : Check the sword links page for sites on the styles and techniques of tsuka maki.
(NOTE: for quality antique swords, this should be done by a professional.)
Other questions and answers will be added as the need arises. If you don't find what you are looking for here, go to the main index page.
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