The terms gunto, gendaito and showato are commonly used in reference to Japanese swords of the WW II era; but they used in different ways to convey concepts which are not strictly contained in their definitions.
Gunto - "military sword" (this refers to all swords in military mounts, not to whether the blade is handmade or not.)
Gendaito - "modern sword" (this refers to the sword having been made between 1876 and 1945, not to whether the blade is handmade or not.)
Showato - "Showa era sword" (this term refers to any sword made during the Showa era, 1926 to 1989, not to whether it is handmade or not.)
These are the literal rendering of the terms, but to collectors and students of Japanese swords, these terms carry specific connotations sometimes differing from the literal definitions of the terms. In the arena of Japanese sword commerce, these terms are routinely used interchangeably by those not familiar with their specific usage in sword circles. This leads to great confusion and at times unintentional misrepresentation of the sword in question. Any perspective buyer of a Japanese must know how the seller is using these terms or risk being very disappointed with their purchase.
To Japanese sword collectors the term "gunto" is used to refer to mass produced, mostly machine made or assembly line production, blades of the WW II era. It is a term of derision. "Gunto" are thought of as low class, poorly made swords having no artist value and of interest only as war relics. Even in Japan, this term is used to describe swords of no value. According to current Japanese regulations, "gunto" are not allowed to be imported into the country either for sale or restoration.
The term "gendai or gendaito" on the other hand is used by collectors to refer to traditionally made blades; those which have folded steel and are water tempered. The Japanese require that for a sword to be "gendaito" it must be made of tamehagane or oroshigane even though it is impossible to tell what a sword is made from after the sword is finished and polished. Swords made of forge folded commercial mill steel look the same as those made of tamehagane after they are polished although some collectors feel that swords made of tamehagane are more likely to have active hamon and more prominent hada than those made of folded mill steel.
"Showato" is used by collectors to also refer to non-traditionally made swords of the Showa Era. It also implies a lower grade of blade not usually of interest to Nihonto collectors.
To be a wise purchaser, one must know how to tell the difference between these types of swords regardless of how the seller is using the terms. This is not always an easy task. Two things to look for in distinguishing a true gendaito from a Showato or gunto (using the terms as a collector would) are the presence of visible hada and an active hamon. It must may emphasized that this is NOT an exact science - even advanced collectors will disagree on whether a sword showing these characteristics is truly gendai or not.
There are a few "clues" that can be used to help distinguish gendaito from Showato and gunto blades (that is, between traditionally and non-traditionally made blades).
Tang stamps are reasonably good indicators of whether a blade is gendai or not. Most of the common arsenal stamped blades, including Showa stamps, Seki stamps and others, are indicative of a non-traditionally made sword blade.
There are however a few tang markings which may represent traditionally made swords although this issue is hotly debated.
These are the star stamp and the Minatogawa Kikusui mon .
Blades bearing these markings are considered by some to be gendaito. Some say that all tang stamps are indicative of non-traditional methods or materials used in the blade production. There are no hard and fast rules. Each blade must be judged on its own merits. The star stamp was used to indicate blades made by smiths of the Rikugun Jumei Tosho (Army approved swordsmiths). Similarly, the Minatogawa mon indicates the blade was made at the Minatogawa Shrine. The Minatogawa Shrine forged traditionally made blades, i.e. gendaito, for the Navy. Minatogawa swords are relatively rare as only a few hundred were made and are avidly sought by collectors as are the Yasukuni Shrine blades.
Any blade made at the Yasukuni Shrine forge by a Shrine smith is gendaito. These blades are considered to be among the best quality, traditionally made blades of the WW II era. A list of the swordsmiths working at the Yasukuni Shrine is available in Chris Bowen's Tokyo Kindai Tosho Index. The Yasukuni Shrine forge made blades for the Japanese Army.
Swords of the WW II period which have received origami (authentification papers) from the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kai (NBTHK) or Nihon Token Hozon Kai (NTHK) are also considered gendaito. A partial list of these smiths is also on my website. However, collectors understand that simply because one blade has received origami, does NOT mean that all blades by that smith are gendaito. Smiths not uncommonly made both gendaito and showato during the war. Each blade must be judged on its own merits and not just on the signature of the swordsmith.
Swords of the WW II period represent both a low point (Showato and gunto) and a continuation of the tradition of making finely crafted swords (gendaito). This is an area of active research in which new information is forthcoming with great frequency. There is still disagreement between collectors on this issue. Collectors must decide for themselves what they want to study and acquire for their collections. There are no hard and fast rules in the study of WW II period Japanese swords, but hopefully as more information is learned, the job of distinguishing between traditionally made and non-traditionally made blades will become easier.
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