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Sharpening a Collector’s Passion for Japanese Swords

by David Pike (07/13/12).

A Japanese woodblock print by Kuniyoshi of a samurai with sword in hand high above his head during a fight. Worthologist David Pike spoke with Fred Weissberg, who has been collecting and studying Japanese swords for more than 30 years.

Are you a collector or are you in an accumulating phase? I interviewed Fred Weissberg about his collection of antique Japanese edged weapons, including swords that are otherwise known as nihontō.

David Pike: Where and when did you first encounter Nihonto?

Fred Weissberg: In 1976, when I moved back to the San Francisco area after living on the east coast for about six years, a friend of mine told me that since I had an interest in all things Japanese, I really should read a new book by James Clavell called “Shogun.” As silly as it may sound, that book stirred up my dormant interest in Japan and made me think, “I really would like to own a real Japanese samurai sword.” That led to a quest to find my first sword. Since San Francisco had and still has a large Japanese population of Japanese and Japanese-related stores, I began the search.

David Pike: What was your first impression?

Fred Weissberg: Several of the stores I went to that sold all sorts of Japanese items were very disappointing in that I was told that Japanese swords are very rare and impossible to find. The attitude was really kind of “since you are a Caucasian and have no real understanding of Nihonto, we are not going to help you.” They made it sound as if these were forbidden items and I had no business asking about them. Of course, that made me want one even more. Eventually, I found a small store in Japantown that actually dealt in Japanese swords and I was able to buy my first sword.

David Pike: What made you decide to start studying Nihonto seriously?

Fred Weissberg: I have always had a great love of history and Japan’s history is long and extremely interesting. It did not take long to discover how Japanese swords are so closely tied into their history, making me realize that I had stumbled onto a field of study that was as interesting as it was vast. In the field of Japanese swords one quickly realizes that the more you learn, the less you know. If you really want to learn about Japanese swords, you must be serious and prepared to spend a vast amount of time in the quest for knowledge. In short, once you start, be prepared to study for the rest of your life. I have been at it for more than 36 years and still consider myself to be the equivalent of a grade school student.

David Pike: How did you first start studying?

Fred Weissberg: When I first started studying, there were only a few very rudimentary books on the subject in English. I was more fortunate than many others because I had studied the Japanese language in college and had a leg-up, as it were. I bought every book in English that I could find. I also bought books in Japanese that had photos of important Japanese swords, in other words, swords of excellent quality. Looking at good swords is essential to the study of Japanese swords. Books are good, but there is no substitute for viewing swords in person. I was fortunate to make friends with a fellow who had been studying Japanese swords and had some good ones, so I was able to study them that helped advance my studies. Over the years, I took every opportunity to look at swords and also expanded my library. New students do not fully appreciate the amount and quality of books on Japanese swords that are available in English today.

David Pike: How would you characterize Nihonto, relating it to the Japanese character?

This is the tang of a sword, date, 1655. The tang usually has the signature, if there is one.

The handle of a sword made in 1655.

Tip of a katana made in 1655.

Fred Weissberg: Interesting question. Most people today have heard the expression that the Japanese sword is the soul of the Samurai. This may sound like a cliché but it is true. Japanese swords have been revered in Japan almost since their inception during the Nara and Heian Eras. They are weapons but are also more than just a weapon. They are cherished and cared for as in no other society. That is why we have so many excellent examples in wonderful condition today that were made hundreds of years ago. They were cared for and handed down from generation to generation. Unlike European swords that were allowed to rust away or deteriorate to the point that they are mere shells of what they once were, the Japanese sword still holds the beauty and majesty of when it was created.

David Pike: There was great ceremony surrounding the forging of great blades. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Fred Weissberg: This is really an extension of the last question. The indigenous religion of Japan is Shintoism. It is a worship of nature and deities related to nature. The Japanese believe that when an individual attempts to accomplish an important task, it is necessary for him to have a clear, peaceful and clean mind, spirit and body. Since it is believed that the sword smith is infusing his spirit into the Nihonto, he is creating and forging the Nihonto from natural elements and it is essential that he possess these qualities. So we find that even today these Shinto beliefs are an essential part of the forging process.

A menuki made of solid gold. Menuki go in the binding of the handle for helping grip and decoration.

A sword guard, or tsuba, from a sword made in 1655.

This is a habaki from a sword made in1855. The habaki holds the tsuba in place.

David Pike: The people I talk to in Japan usually have visceral reactions to swords. I, too, had a similar reaction the first time I was in the same room with a well-polished, true Nihonto. How do you react to swords?

Fred Weissberg: This is the essence of the love of Nihonto and an indication of the extent of one’s true feelings about Japanese swords. The visceral reaction a true devotee feels exist on many levels. When I first held a true Nihonto and observed its beauty, I was awestruck. Cold shivers went down my spine and a feeling of calmness prevails. This may sound like so much poppycock to someone who does not understand, but it is real. That a thing of such beauty could be viewed as just a weapon was beyond me. On another level, when you hold a Japanese sword that is hundreds of years old and has been possessed by many people, I feel you are in essence shaking hands with those prior owners and experiencing a connection that is difficult to put into words. I would like to note also that those feelings still “hit” me today.

David Pike: Do you remember the first piece you bought?

Fred Weissberg: I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Koto sword from the 1400s that was graceful and elegant. It bore the signature of a very famous smith, Bizen Nagashige. As it turned out, the signature had been added later and was what we call a “gimei” or “false” signature. In other words, Nagashige did not make the sword. This is one of the many pitfalls of Japanese swords; false signatures have been put on swords for hundreds of years for a number of social and economic reasons. This is why we study; to determine what is real and what is not. That being said, it was still a wonderful sword from a historically important period of Japanese history and a treasure in its own right.

David Pike: What do you recommend as a good entry for studying?

Fred Weissberg: Study. Study. Study. Buy books and learn. As I noted, there are some really good books on Japanese swords in English and other languages today that were not available 30 years ago. Join a Japanese sword club, if you are lucky enough to have one in your area. Attend the Japanese sword shows that are held in the different areas of the country. Visit museums that have Japanese swords. Above all, try to look at as many good swords as possible. DO NOT be in a hurry to jump in and buy Japanese swords. Learn first. When you feel that you are ready to make your first purchase, do not try to find a treasure on eBay. You will, in all likelihood, be throwing away your money. There are many reputable sword sites on the Internet. The Japanese sword community of dealers is a relatively small one and, as with all study specific antiques, the good dealers know each other and can make recommendations.

[The San Francisco Token-Kai will be held on Aug. 2-4 and 5, 2012, at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel.]

A fuchi encircles the top of the handle of a sword, where the blade enters. This fuchi is in the design of a plum blossom.

David Pike: Do you have ideas on what to do as a beginning collector?

Fred Weissberg: All of the above. When you are ready to purchase, only buy blades that are polished and papered by one of the two main Japanese sword organizations in Japan. Buy the best blade that you can comfortably afford. In the West we tend to think of collecting as obtaining as many as we can. In Japan the feeling is that one good sword is a collection. I favor the Japanese approach.

David Pike: How about things to avoid.

Fred Weissberg: Rushing out to buy a sword before you have done your homework. Learn first and buy later.

David Pike: How about your most memorable find?

Fred Weissberg: Actually my most memorable finds were some very nice swords I found early on in my collecting. They were not of great value, but just the fact that I was able to find them and purchase them from individuals who had picked them up during and after the Second World War as souvenirs without any knowledge of Nihonto. Being able to “rescue” them, restore them and see that they would be preserved for future generations was memorable and rewarding.

More about Fred Weissberg and Japanese swords, visit his website Nihonto.com.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.

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One Response to “Sharpening a Collector’s Passion for Japanese Swords”

  1. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing.

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