Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Samurai Swords, A Collector's Guide to Japanese Swords

I mentioned a long while back that I was growing interested in Nihontou (Nee-hon-toh) 日本刀, or "Japanese swords", and possibly collecting them as I do kimono.

However (you sword collectors out there can stop laughing! ;) ), my naive enthusiasm was squashed as I soon learned actual antique katana, etc. prices make kimono look cheap!

I knew I wanted to learn more anyway, but haven't had a chance until I recently ran across the 2009 book Samurai Swords: A Collector's Guide to Japanese Swordsat my local Barnes and Noble ($14.99).

Written by Clive Sinclaire, a collector of 40 years, kendo instructor, and a Chairman of the To-ken (Sword) Society of Great Britain, this book is a densely-packed introduction to the world of the Japanese sword. He covers history, construction, preservation, sword etiquette (did you know you are supposed to bow to a sword you're about to examine?), and a variety of interesting facts.

For those of you interested in kimono, I would compare this book with Liza Dalby's seminal work Kimono. It's a ton of information written in a half-casual, half-scholarly style that gives you the basics but also allows you to delve much deeper.

One of the most interesting parts for me wasn't in the text: it was the flipped mirror image photographs of the bare blades (no guards or wrapping) of various antique swords. Beyond making me laugh at my $50 knock-off I take with me to kimono-dressing panels, the swords are gorgeous and intriguing in their simple, deadly beauty. It reminded me of looking at prototypes of cars: all curves, metal and sheen.

Despite this beauty, however, Sinclaire is quick to point out exactly what they were meant for and keeps a fairly neutral, even-handed tone throughout the book, giving more facts than opinion and not sinking into the "Mystical Magical Japan" fluff some Western authors fall prey to.

An unusual example from the history section: To test a newly made Japanese sword several hundred years ago, an official tester used it on either living convicts or the bodies of convicts who had been given the death penalty. The results of the test (for example, how many bodies the sword made it through) were inscribed on the blade as a ranking system of sorts.

On a less gruesome note: if you've ever wondered, like I have after seeing the terms tossed around, what the difference between a katana and a tachi is, that's here too. Generally speaking, a tachi is a longer, lighter sword meant to be worn and used one-handed on horseback, slung with the cutting edge down, and a katana is worn as part of a man's clothing, worn with the scabbard pushed through the side of the obi with the cutting edge uppermost.

(As a note, my copy says "A Collector's Guide" while the ones I'm finding online are "Practical Guide", but the ISBN numbers are the same: ISBN 10 0-7858-2563-0, so I'm guessing it's just different cover runs.)

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