By W. M. Hawley

Japanese Sword Club of Southern California – Talk #37 – Nov. 13, 1970

It is one thing to read the characters on a sword tang and something else again to say for sure who made it!  As we all know, 90% of all big name signatures are fakes, as well as a good percentage of lesser smiths. Often they are very superior blades compared to those make by average smiths, but lacking verification of a signature, their origin may be doubtful.  Then, of course, there are the out and out fakes and copies imitating the style but seldom the quality of those of the great masters. So, the problem is to be able to recognize a fake signature. Signatures cut with a chisel exhibit as may or more characteristics than those written with a pen or brush. The variables are as follows:

  1. The chisel.  Each smith had his own favorite chisel for cutting a signature.  Now-what shape point?  Was it V shaped or U shaped and what angle V or how wide a U?  A wide angle V point held at a low angle to the work could cut a shallow groove the same width as a narrow V shape that was hit harder at a steeper angle, producing a much deeper groove. The depth of the groove would not show up on an oshigata rubbing, only the width.  Neither would the roundness of a U shape of the same width. The difference between a V and a U might be apparent in a photograph but not the depth of the cut.  In badly rusted old tangs you would not be able to see either.  Direct comparison with a genuine blade would be necessary to prove this point.  So here we have a number of characteristics that would not be in hand writing or show up in a rubbing depth and shape of the cut.
  1. At what angle did the smith bold the chisel and how hard did he tap it with what weight hammer?  We don’t have to know these three variables but they would definitely affect the cuts.  How many taps with the hammer did he use to cut a line ½ long?  If the strokes were heavy this might show up on an oshigata, but if light it probably would not magnifying glass on the sword itself would be necessary to reveal this characteristic.
  1. Most important of all, and easy to see is, how did he form the strokes?  Length of strokes, shape and angle of dots, curved to straight lines, shape and angle of the hook on the end of a line, are all just as individual as in brush or pen writing, as are the width and taper the strokes and these are just as hard to imitate even if you could know all the points covered in 1 and 2 above.  Also, these were a matter of unconscious habit and were not affected by his age or changing chisels. These all show up in oshigata and are ample to show up all but the cleverest forgeries.  For this part we do not have to have actual genuine blades to compare with as pictures of oshigata in the books will serve.  Such works as the Juyos, the various Taikans, and the two volumes of Fujishiro’s Nihon Toko Jiten are available even if you don’t own them.  The more pictures you can find the better knowledge you will have of the peculiarities of a man’s signature so that irregularities should be easy to spot.  Natural variations will show up but the shape of the strokes will remain pretty much the same.  For the kind of changes that occur in a man’s signature over a period of years, study part 2 of the Osaka Shinto Zufu which shows year by year progressions of a lot of smiths.

Even clever forgers had their own habits and chisels and a wrong book, curve, or weight of stroke will give them away.  If you have access to the current sword magazines from Japan, note the true and false signatures shown side by side with sometimes very slight discrepancies pointed out.

I would seem that certain men specialized in forging signatures or certain smiths as the forger’s own characteristics may show up in several fakes.  A study of true and false signatures of Kiyomaro and Naotane bear this out.  In the big work “Minamoto Kiyomaro,” huge blow-ups of his signatures show an even swelling or tapering of his horizontal strokes, while all the fakes show bumps at the end of each stroke.  Fake signatures of Naotane are extremely close to the genuine except in the kakihan where the top zigzag lines of the genuine are crowded together but appear much more open on the fakes. In order to research signatures, you need as many examples as possible that can reasonable be genuine, Disagreement among experts is mostly confined to unsigned blades and a few Juyo certifications have been repudiated.  However, some of the very old books, while considered reliable in general, are completely useless when it comes to checking the fine points of strokes.  This is because the oshigata first had to be copied by brush, then carved in wood blocks, then printed, and sometimes re-copied, re-carved, and re-printed for later editions.  It would be impossible to go through all these operations and retain anything like the photographic quality necessary for comparison of chisel strokes.  Such works as the Honcho Kajiko, Honcho Gunkiko, Shinto Meijin, and all the other 16th to 18th century wood block books are useless for this purpose, even assuming that all examples shown were genuine, which would be doubtful.

The modern books give accurate reproductions leaving only the sometimes pertinent question of how expert was the “expert” who said the blade was genuine?  Here again, signatures would have a better chance than mu-mei attributions.

Now, we are back to the problem of source material.  We of the West cannot compete with the big Japanese appraisal groups who have enormous libraries and thousands of genuine blades for direct comparison.  But still, it will help and save the cost of sending swords to Japan for appraisal if we can spot the more obvious fakes.  If you still want to send it, you can state “signature probably false but who did make it?” Which will save your face if it is a phony!

Certainly, we all should want to study, regardless of whether we own an almost “National Treasure” or a Sukesada we can’t pin down because he didn’t add his personal name.  So, the only answer is to acquire as many books as possible that show pictures of tangs.  Some are certainly expensive but there are a lot of inexpensive ones also being turned but in Japan, that are in the $5 to $10 bracket.  Assuming that you have acquired some of these, there is still the problem of finding the picture you want without a knowledge of Japanese, or a whole day of searching.  Indexes are the answer.  An index is being prepared for “Tanto”, but many more are needed.  For those of you owning some volumes of the Juyo Token nado Zufu or the two volumes of the Nihon Toko Jiten, these are indexed in my book “Japanese Sword smiths”.  For myself, I am indexing one, all of my library that contain pictures, and using a code letter for each work, note each picture of a tang, opposite the man’s name in my book.  Anyone who can figure out names and dates well enough to use my book should be able to do this to almost any modern book.  If you want to benefit mankind- make your index available to club members by mimeographing it.

Two good sources are the Koson Oshigata and the Umetada Meikan which reproduce the scrap books of oshigata gathered by those two men who were experts in earlier days.  Both need indexing.

Now back to reading and evaluating inscriptions, We have to remember that there are genuine swords to which the name was added later by someone who recognized the work and added the name with or without trying to imitate the signature, in order to make the blade easier to sell.  Properly, such attributions should have been done in gold by a recognized appraiser and signed with his name and/or kakihan, but many tried to fake the signature.  Certification of these has to ignore the fake signature.  Certification of these has to ignore the fake signature.

Signatures added at a much later date often exhibit a different color of rust in the chisel marks.  Another thing to watch is a hole through a character of a signature.  Generally, new holes were added when a blade was shortened, but a blade with signature and only one hole right through a character is obvious nonsense!  Or even several holes if the lowest one pierces a character.  When blades were shortened, the new holes (always drilled not punched) had to be higher not lower.  When a hole pierces a character, use a glass to see if burrs from the chisel were pushed into the sides of the hole – this is a dead give-away. For the most part, fake signatures were intended to up-grade the value of a blade, so were intended to indicate the most famous men if several generations existed.  However, later generations sometimes thought they were good enough to pass off a blade as that of a famous predecessor and cut an inscription that was only recorded to him.  Generally the blade itself will give this away and a check of signature characteristics will confirm it.  So the wording of an inscription does not always pin it down to the only one listed in the books.  Always check the other generations.

A signature badly incrusted with rust may require some cleaning, but don’t disturb it if it is obviously very, very old.  First lay the tang on a hard wood block.  Lay a piece of thin leather or thick cloth over the inscription and tap lightly with a small hammer.  Not hard enough to distort the metal but enough to break up the layers of rust.  A chisel made of bone or bamboo may help to lift off the layers of rust.  New red rust often indicates a deliberate attempt to make a tang look old.  It won’t stick very tight and usually comes off with a wire brush or coarse steel wool.  After cleaning, oil or wax the tang to prevent further rusting.

One final word – signature is a lot easier to fake than the blade itself, so a thorough study of the blade should precede the research on the signature.  Then, if the school and probable date are comparable with the inscription, it is time to go to work on the signature.

Of course study is the key to understanding swords in general and the same applies to the peculiarities of signatures.  Start with the swords you own and check out every stroke of every character in the whole inscription.  Then read up on the man, making notes on everything pertaining to him, then go on either generations of the line, then to pupils, etc. with special attention to the outstanding points of difference in the signatures.  Sometimes one line or dot will be enough to identify a generation.

Return to Articles