Japanamerica contributor, Danica Davidson, on Japanese sword-love in the US.
The Japanese sword is unique in the world for its creation, durability and aesthetics. There is no sharper sword in existence, but they are not simply weapons: their detail and craftsmanship also make them works of art. While the sword is a significant cultural icon in Japan, interest in it is also alive and well in America.
Each year hundreds of people travel to America’s main Japanese sword shows in Chicago, San Francisco and Tampa. This past year the Chicago show, known as Midwest Token Kai (“Sword Group” or “Sword Club”) was put on by Mark Jones and Marc Porpora. Roughly 70 vendors were there selling swords, sword fittings, and various pieces of Japanese artwork.
Japanese swords came to America after World War II as spoils of war. Many swords were eventually returned to Japan, but an American interest in Japanese blades had started. Looking over the crowds at Token Kai, less than 10 percent of the vendors or guests were Japanese or of Japanese descent. Many people there were interested in other forms of Japanese culture, from the language to movies. A past that involved war has moved aside to an appreciation for the Japanese swords themselves.
Many people who aren’t interested in Japanese swords view shows like Token Kai as being about weapons, but Porpora said that couldn’t be further from the truth. “We think of them [the swords] as art,” he said. “Other people think of them as weapons.” Some swordmakers in Japan have reached international fame, so buying a sword made by Muramasa would be akin to, say, buying a Rembrandt.
Besides the artistic value, there is historical value. Porpora, for instance, owns a blade that was made in Japan in 1275. Token Kai had swords from the Heian Period all the way up to contemporary blades.
When speaking to different people at the show about how they first got interested in Japanese swords, there were two predominant explanations. Nearly everyone had started out in an interest in martial arts or an interest in Japanese culture. These things eventually led to an interest in the swords.
Mark Jones, who put on the show with Porpora, said that he had inherited a Japanese sword through his family. This led to learning more about Japanese swords in general, which in turn led to a fascination with them. Fred Weissberg, who has led the sword show in San Francisco for 20 years, was also in attendance, and listed such things as an interest in samurai movies or Japanese culture as a pathway to Japanese swords. For his own story, he started studying judo in high school, which led to an interest in Japanese culture, which led to studying the language.
Mike Yamasaki, an expert on Japanese swords who trained in Japan under Tanobe-sensei, the chief research judge of the Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo, said he has loved swords since he was ten. He’s done consulting work on Japanese swords for the History Channel, A&E, and Travel Channel. Looking over the vendor’s room after giving a lecture on how to spot fakes, he remarked, “Rich people, poor people, people from all walks of life become friends over swords. Culture to me is something that has lasted, and from culture we have roots, and from roots we have foundation. We do what we do because we love it. I do more of what I do because I want young people to learn about Japanese swords."