The Paper Armoury: Japanese Swords
An article by Gabriel Lebec
Compiled and edited by Sean A. Flynt

Building a fine, thoughtfully-focused arms and armour library should be as important to the student of these artifacts as building a collection of modern replicas.

Why? Because books and articles:
  • Provide the most convenient and inexpensive means to compare original arms and armour to modern reproductions.
  • Explain the construction and use of arms and armour.
  • Provide the full historical context for the development of arms and armour.
  • Reveal a world of arms and armour dramatically broader in scope and more diverse than that available through reproductions or even through museums or private collections.
Our Paper Armoury series is intended to help readers identify the essential titles for a library on a given subject. For this installment of the series we turn to nihonto—Japanese swords. Nihonto student and collector Gabriel Lebec has recommended nine titles that illuminate the history, form, and function of these beautiful and highly-prized weapons.

The Craft of the Japanese Sword
Leon Kapp, Hiroko Kapp, Yoshido Yoshihara
Kodansha America, 1987

This title serves as an excellent introduction to the physical characteristics and craft techniques behind Japanese arms. It contains a good amount of terminology amply backed by photos and illustrations, all of which are introduced at convenient points during the actual construction of a complete Japanese sword blade, including art polish, habaki (blade collar / scabbard wedge), and shirasaya (storage scabbard). A solid and factual (if perhaps enthusiastically biased) analysis of the metallurgy and its link to the aesthetics of the blade is also given.

This is truly a great book and should be the first purchase of any nihonto enthusiast. It is not valuable as a reference for information on schools/traditions, but invaluable for understanding the sword from the ground up. New details jump out upon each re-read. Highly recommended. Gabriel Lebec

The Japanese Sword: A Comprehensive Guide (Japanese Arts Library)
Kanzan Sato
Kodansha America, 1983

This is an important and venerable introduction to nihonto by a true expert, the very well-respected shinsa judge Kanzan Sato. The format is a bit haphazard, but a section featuring several meito (famous "named swords") is very interesting and unique among similar introductory books. Otherwise, this title gives the standard overview of terminology, technical and aesthetic information and historical background. Still, it's best augmented with several other texts for the best grounding in the subject. Gabriel Lebec

The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords
Kokan Nagayama
Kodansha International, 1998

In some ways, this book marks the distinction between the typical English-language introduction to Japanese swords, and a reference work to begin a true "study" of nihonto. The former should be read first (this book does not replace them–I'd recommend Kapp and Yoshindo's The Craft of the Japanese Sword and Sato's The Japanese Sword as two particularly good examples)–but actually serves as a starter reference of the academic information involved, in providing a complete vocabulary, overviews of lineages, countless dates, names, oshigata, and more. It would be best classified as a desk reference, rather than a full encyclopedia. It isn't comprehensive in the sense that a $1,000 Nihonto Koza is, but for the price it just isn't beatable. Gabriel Lebec

Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths: From 1868 to the Present
Leon Kapp, Hiroko Kapp, Yoshindo Yoshihara
Kodansha International, 2003

Here is a detailed look at the modern age of Japanese swordsmithing, by which the author means the era of heavy interaction with the west. The main text therefore follows the sword through the Meiji era, during and after WWII, at the point of its renaissance as a non-combative cultural art, and finally into its present (with interviews of its finest living maintainers).

This book can be seen as a complement to The New Generation of Japanese Swordsmiths, although it is by a different author. It covers many of the same points in the opening chapters and has a similar overall format, yet focuses not on rising smiths but on smiths already acknowledged as some of the finest of our era. The quality of the blades featured is therefore very fine, and one wishes strongly for more close detail photos as a result (though the photos included are professional indeed).

Overall, a great read with tons of insights and background on the meaning of the modern Japanese sword. Gabriel Lebec

The New Generation of Japanese Swordsmiths
Tamio Tsuchiko
Kodansha International, 2002

Though the works are by different authors, this is a wonderfully laid out book that can be seen as a complement to Modern Japanese Swords and Swordmiths. This title focuses on up-and-coming smiths who may have won some of the annual NBTHK contest awards, but who still have much potential to grow into. As such, this book offers exciting insights into the future of Japanese swordsmithing. It is especially exciting given the beautiful swords featured.

After an initial bit of introductory terminology and history, the book is laid out in interview form with photos of works representative of the smith. A light read, but full of good information and ruminations on the goals and purposes of modern Japanese swordsmiths.Gabriel Lebec

Japanese Sword : Soul Of The Samurai (Victoria & Albert Museum : Far Eastern Series)
Gregory Irvine
Weatherhill, 2000

The prominent English-language introductions to nihonto all have their own character. Gregory Irvine's entry in this field can be seen as the one most concerned with providing a continuous historical overview of the sword. In this respect, it succeeds in breaking down the sword's history by era/period, providing a wealth of anecdotes, dates, notable innovations and developments–in short, a well-written plotline of nihonto. The photos are generally beautiful, the info quite detailed. It serves as a great starter for the particularly historically-minded enthusiast, and a nice book for anyone interested in nihonto. Gabriel Lebec

Lethal Elegance: The Art of Samurai Sword Fittings
Joe Earle
MFA Publications, 2004

Far from a reference, this book is essentially a large-format gallery of the holdings in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Those holdings are, however, fairly good, with a number of particularly excellent later-period pieces, and the accompanying information is pertinent, varied, and interesting, though occasionally inexact. This title gives a light overview of the subject with many photos (all of them large and detailed), and thus serves as an enjoyable look at the art of Japanese sword fittings—especially the tsuba (guard). Gabriel Lebec

Samurai : The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior
Clive Sinclaire
The Lyons Press, 2005

An approachable and engaging overview of the arms and armour of Japan, this volume is conveniently separated by subject and contains some nice photos and basic introductory info. It's an enjoyable piece for those who are interested in but have little prior knowledge of the subject and has some decent photos of good koshirae and blades for anyone who enjoys Japanese weaponry. It is not as in-depth, particularly on the topic of swords, as other introductions to nihonto; but it is decent nonetheless, especially for its broader focus.Gabriel Lebec

Samurai Sword: A Handbook
J. M. Yumoto
Tuttle Publishing, 2005

A favorite descriptor for this book is "venerable." Written in a time (post-WWII) in which anti-Japanese sentiment was high and the American public's understanding of "the samurai sword" was a mix of myth and sinister legend (have things changed much in that respect?), John Yumoto's book was a down-to-earth, hard-fact summary of some basic knowledge necessary to begin academic study of the subject. It has a mix of terminology, history, and reference details that make it a true handbook.

That being said, as an introductory text it has become very dated. The preferred western spelling variants and even specific word choices of the Japanese terms has changed in some cases, the awkward illustrations have been far surpassed by more accurate ones as well as photos, longer histories have been written, and more thorough analyses have been given. Still, Yumoto's work remains respectable, and is one that no nihonto enthusiast should be without—given its own history, if not for the content. Gabriel Lebec

About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.

Each cover image is copyrighted by the respective publisher of the book.

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