New guy questions


I'm a new member to the group, but have long been a fan of Japanese culture. By day I'm a Jr. High History/Science teacher and coach, in Southern IL area. I'm about as new to Nihonto as it gets though. I ordered two books on Ebay to start off with.

The Connoisseurs Book of Japanese Swords Hardcover
by Kokan Nagayama

I was thinking about getting Swords of Imperial Japan , 1868 - 1945 by Jim Dawson. I was going to get it as a reference on traditionally made blades. The Pre WW2 blades and what not. Have any of you guys read the book and think its worth it, or will my previous 2 cover the material?

Also, would any of you know where there are reputable dealers with swords for sale in this neck of the woods or museums with traditional blades? I already told my wife we are going to the show this spring in Chicago. She wants to go shopping, so it was an easy sell lol.

Any tips or websites with great new guy info would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for your time,


books and stuff

Hi Jason,
I'm glad you're a history/science teacher - two of my favorite subjects!
I don't have the Dawson book. But I would suggest that the 1868-1945 period is a "specialty" area of Nihonto. There are relatively few traditional blades made in that time period, because Japan was busy trying to catch up with the West. Most blades in that period are factory-made for the military. They're great as "militaria", but not comparable to the true Nihonto. An exception would be the blades made at Yasukuni Jinja in the 1930's and early 40's - they're 100% traditional, and high quality.
Yumoto's book is certainly a "classic", but it doesn't actually have a great deal of info in it. A lot of folks recommend it as a great beginner's book, but I don't really understand why...
The Nagayama book is excellent overall. It is the book I recommend to folks who want "one good book in English" on the subject.
Many other books are either very specialized, or not in English.

With a quick Google search, I suggest starting at this site:
Follow the links to see if there is a collector's club that meets in your area (called a "Token Kai"). Also look for contact info for the organizers of clubs and shows, and try to strike up a relationship with the folks.
Ideally, you do this: Do a quick read of the Nagayama book, to familiarize yourself with concepts and terminology. Then get yourself invited to visit a collector, or a club meeting. You can learn more good stuff in a couple of hours than from reading dozens of books. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for handling various blades, and having someone point out the good and bad features of each one.


Books etc.

Hi Jason.

Nagayama's book (that you bought) is easily the best value* comprehensive desk reference for basic academic study of nihonto, but it lacks photos and is a bit dry. (*There are actually much more encyclopedic volumes with actual nakago tracings etc., but they usually are very expensive and often untranslated.) It covers virtually all the fundamental terminology, historical changes, forms, reference tables, etc. that you would be expected to know as a student of the subject. An excellent book that nobody interested in the subject should be without.

On top of that, I would strongly encourage you to pick up either "The Craft of the Japanese Sword" or its recent update "The Art of the Japanese Sword" by Yoshindo Yoshihara and Leon & Hiroki Kapp. This book goes into detail about how the sword is actually made, the metallurgy behind it, the aspects of the art that are actually viewed and assessed, how to view these aspects and care for the sword, the importance of the polish, the basics of koshirae (mountings, including habaki and saya) etc. – stuff that is more immediately important for a beginner. Nagayama's book doesn't go into a lot of these ancillary (yet crucial) topics, as it is more like a desk reference than a guided introduction.

In addition, Sato Kanzan's book (I forget the title offhand, I think it's just "The Japanese Sword") offers an excellent historical overview, as does Gregory Irvine's book (The Japanese Sword: Soul of the Samurai) and Clive Sinclaire's book (Samurai Swords: A Collector's Guide). However, all three of these will have a lot of overlap, so do not feel compelled to purchase all three at once. Still, get at least one of them, because you'll get a much broader variety of photos than either Nagayama's book (with zero photos) or Yoshihara's book (with photos, but mostly of Yoshihara-san's work).

You have to understand that swords of 1868-1945 are mostly not actual nihonto, so Jim Dawson's book is therefore an overview of specifically NON-traditional swords. The whole point of the book is to cover that subject which is not well-covered by Japanese sources, because such swords are not legal in Japan. It is a good book and I do recommend you eventually get it so as to be able to understand this important sub-topic, but it is not my first recommendation for a beginner.

Yumoto's book was historically important as it was many collectors' first English source on the subject following WWII. However by now it is a bit outdated in terms of its romaji, it's not very comprehensive (though it is small and convenient), etc. It does however have one REALLY useful section on handwritten kanji found in mei (signatures), so you can see all the loose variations for a given character. Still, if that's all you want from it, a FAR more thorough source is the book "Japanese Art Signatures" by James Self and Nobuko Hirose. Learning how to translate mei (you don't need to know actual Japanese for this!) is a good way to practice your skills and force yourself to research specific smiths, but it is maybe a little bit beyond the absolute beginner; so don't be too concerned with this right away.

There are many other books and to be honest I recommend you become a collector of ALL related printed material. The above is just a few comments to help you prioritize your early purchases. But as Peter has already said, the more important thing is that you join a club / group, or at least make it to a show or two and start building a relationship with collectors in your area who can answer questions and show you actual blades in hand.

Finally, I very sincerely implore you to NOT SPEND ANY MONEY on blades until you have studied the subject carefully for a decent amount of time (say, at least a year). At that point you will make a far more informed decision, and not end up with something you regret or sell at a loss down the road.




Thank you for the replies! I took your advice and sent an email to a guy in Chicago about some local IL clubs or museums. Hopefully something will turn up on that. Thank you also for the book suggestions.

It is amazing how much people can try to mislead a consumer to make a bad purchase. From the little research(about a month) that I have done, I am already seeing some fakes. Also, I found out that a sword can be hand made but not traditionally. Lots to learn, but I am a history junky so thanks for the tips! I recently got married last spring. So about the time I've read some books for a year, will be about the same time I can convince her this is a good purchase lol.