by Robert E. Haynes (1994)

The compound kanji, BIJUTSU is often found preceding the compound TOKEN or KODOGU, as it is used in the title of this paper. What relationship does the term BIJUTSU have to the study of swords and fittings? (1) As a student or collector, have you ever, on drawing a blade from the scabbard, or a tsuba from its box, exclaimed: "This is the most beautiful sword (tsuba) I have ever seen!".(2) That feeling is what the word BIJUTSU means. It would not be surprising if you had never made such an exclamation, for the study of the beauty of the sword and its fittings is not a conception that was propounded by most sensei during the last fifty years, or is it to be found in any of their publications. The reason for this is the perception that the blade and its fittings are NOT an aesthetic art form, to be appreciated, but are objects to be analyzed, defined, and categorized, as a science. But the word that precedes TOKEN or KODOGU is not science (KAGAKU), but BIJUTSU, i.e. A FINE ART. To turn the study of the sword and its fittings from the various schools of KANTEI to the study of aesthetics is no easy matter. Today identification is considered the supreme art form, and the beauty of the object, if it is considered at all, is an after thought. To state that the beauty and aesthetics of the blade should be of prime importance seems to be heretical today. How did this come about?

There was a time, a hundred years ago or more, when the sword, and its fittings, were appreciated for the pure beauty of the objects themselves. How has kantei come to usurp the rightful position of the sword as a fine art?

To answer these questions we shall have to go back to the history of the blade and its fittings through its long and eventful past. During the thousand years or more that the sword was worn as a badge of rank, honor, and authority, it had many incarnations within its status of beauty and excellence. For more than 800 years of this time KANTEI was not even mentioned in regard to the fine points of the blade.(3) It was not until the Momoyama period that there was a need for a monetary valuation, instead of an aesthetic valuation, to determine the properties of the blade. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), the Taiko, did not really care about the beauty of the blade, but he did care a great deal about its efficiency and its value. After his ill-fated Korean campaign (1592-98), and the battles at home, he was running out of swords to give to those loyal retainers who had supported him. So katana-gari (sword hunts) had to be conducted in 1588,(4) to find new sources of swords that could be used to reward those who had won battles on his behalf. Beautiful blades were not a prime consideration in his eyes. Being a very pragmatic man he used all the means at hand, plus his considerable authority, to solve this problem. He had many of the "rounded-up" blades given a fine kantei by the Honami and others, to ascertain their value, as a proper reward. Naturally those who performed these kantei were not about to displease Hideyoshi, so signatures were altered or added and remounting would allow them to pass to their unsuspecting new owners, where they became family treasures! All of this was done in the name of politics and expediency, since Hideyoshi would need these loyal retainers for future service. Thus was born kantei, as we know it today. I shall not go any deeper into the kantei vs. aesthetics of the blade.

The problem of kantei vs. the aesthetics of the fittings of the sword came up not much later. The Goto family were pressed in the early Edo period to certify examples of the work of passed masters of the family. In most respects this form of kantei was both honest and respectful of the work of the great artists of the Muromachi and Momoyama periods. For in early Edo there were still enough authentic examples to go around. When various Goto masters went to work for the Maeda family, in Kaga Province, they became the retainers of that great daimyo clan, working at Daishoji, the ancestral castle of the clan. At the request of Toshitsune (1593-1658) and his descendants, The Goto family formed mitokoro sets of fittings that were as complete as possible, and added examples with each succeeding generation. This grand set of the mitokoro of the 17 Shirobei masters is even now in the collection of the Maeda treasures. But even this set has various pieces that are replacements made by later generations to fill missing or lost examples within the whole. Those examples attributed to the early generations have in some cases been misattributed by inscription or by certificate. So one can see that kantei by the very masters of the origin of the work in question can be flawed. Well this sorry state of kantei was to continue, and degenerate, for the next 300 years. By the time of the Haitorei edict of 1876, all thought of the aesthetic value of sword fittings had been given up. This lamentable situation was saved by one man, Akiyama Kyusaku Sensei. He was concerned with the study of fittings from a pure aesthetic point of view for over 75 years.(5) This aesthetic bent was carried on by only one student of Akiyama, namely, Dr. Kazutaro Torigoye, and even he was to use the kantei method in the examination of the various schools.(6) The leading exponent of the kantei method for sword fittings was Kuwabara Yojiro. In this respect see the new translation of the Nihon To Koza, by Harry Afu Watson. In the first of the two volume fittings section (#6), starting on page 349, we have "FOUR BROAD CLASSIFICATIONS OF KINKO KANTEI METHODS". In brief they are, number one, "Authenticity (Shingi)", number two, "Naming (Shibei)", number three, "Maker determination (Saku Kiwame)", and the fourth, "Quality (Yuretsu)" kantei method. I shall not go into the first three methods, as you can read this for yourself. The fourth method is very important. On page 353 the title is given as, YURETSU KANTEI HO (Excellent or Inferior Kantei Method). YURETSU is defined as, "superiority or inferiority, relative merits, quality, difference". I doubt than many in the West have ever heard of this kantei method. Keep in mind that Kuwabara wrote this material ca. 1930, based on the ideas that were popular from 1900 to that time. I might add that they were not the ideas of Akiyama Kyusaku but those of the generation after the Haitorei edict.

Since this method of kantei is directly aimed at those outside of Japan it is important that we examine it closely. To quote from Mr. Watson's translation of Kuwabara. "That which is referred to as the YURETSU kantei method is the one that is mainly employed by 0-BEIJIN (Europeans and Americans). It has as its single objective the appraising of the excellence or inferiority (quality) of the item itself, and is one in which an attempt is made to deduce the question of authenticity with its quality as a basis, and they do not make a precise inquiry in regard to the similarities and differences in the type of work and the authenticity of the mei." From this you can see how the Japanese authorities were much more concerned with the artist's signature than with the work itself. Also nothing is said about the judgment of the UNSIGNED examples. To quote again. "To put it another way, as one result of this kantei method, for example, even if the maker of the item is of low rank, if the item is excellent, it is highly admired, and even if the item is the work of someone with an extremely high ranking, if the quality and style of the work is poor, this is not given a second glance,...THEREFORE, IN THIS TYPE OF A KANTEI METHOD, THERE IS NO DANGER OF MISTAKING THE QUALITY OF AN IMPORTANT ITEM, SUCH AS WE JAPANESE ARE WONT TO DO BY STRICTLY ADHERING TO THE RANKING OF THE MAKER AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TEACHER AND THE PUPIL." So there it is in one statement. Why do we not see the application of this kantei method in Japan? Here are the very aesthetic ideas that we all should make our primary objective. The last quote should be of great interest to the blade collectors. "There are no small number of instances when a swordsmith whom we have ignored has also been listed due to this method, his strong points are brought out, his peculiar skills are clarified and that swordsmith is newly aligned with the famous names." Kuwabara then goes on to tell of the abuses of this method of kantei. You should read this section for yourself and decide if it is relevant to you collecting or your studies.(7) Is all this just a question of reaching the same objective by different means? I do not think so because the use of kantei will hopefully tell you the authenticity and the pertinent facts of the piece in question but STILL will not be a judgment of the aesthetics of the work. If we are to be at all concerned with the study of swords and sword fittings as FINE ART, then we must make the beauty of the piece be the paramount objective of our studies and the guiding theme of our collecting.

(1) The compound BIJUTSU is defined by Spahn and Hadamitzky Japanese Character Dictionary, p.405, 2o7.4-11, as art, fine arts. Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, p.850 art, fine arts, polite arts, beaux-arts. Nelson, Japanese-English Character Dictionary, p.721, 123-3, gives BI as: beauty, grace, charm, lovely, fine, good looking, noble, pure, and BIJUTSU, as art, fine arts. So, these and most other works define BIJUTSU as FINE ART.

(2) I have not had this wonderful experience very often, but the one time that I shall never forget was when I first held the famous KASUGA-NO tsuba, the deer at Kasuga Shrine, signed by Joshu (Daishodai) Kaneie. A more beautiful tsuba I have never seen to this day, and that was 35 years ago.

(3) The history and derivation of the term KANTEI is made up of the compound kanji, KAN, model, paragon, example, or mirror, KAGAMI, and the kanji TEI definite, fixed, constant, regular, determine, decide etc. So one can see that the term leaves no room for aesthetics or value as an art object.

(4) Barry, Mary Elizabeth; HIDEYOSHI (Harvard University Press 1989), page 102-106, 260n7.

(5) These thoughts and his feelings on aesthetics are contained in his articles written for the TOKEN KAI-SHI periodical.

(6) See: Robert E. Haynes Ltd. HIGHLY IMPORTANT JAPANESE SWORDS AND KODOGU, December 6, 1981, Introduction to Tsuba, Intrinsic value of tsuba, by Dr. Kazutaro Torigoye, 1962. In this introduction Dr. Torigoye explains both his and Akiyama's feelings on the full range of aesthetics within the field of sword fittings.

(7) The underlined parts and the capital letter emphasis is my own and not that of the translator, Mr. Harry Afu Watson. For the passages quoted see: NIHON TO KOZA, volume VI, Kodogu Part 1, published by AFU Research Enterprises, Inc., 1993. These quotes appear on page 353 of the above work.


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