Identifying "Legitimate" from "Knock-off" Japanese Swords in the Marketplace

Determining blade authenticity can be very difficult, especially online and sight unseen. But first, we should define what we're looking at to begin with in today's marketplace.  Lots of folks make blades with a geometry that we would recognize as Japanese.  The blade is called a katana.  And for this article let's stay on katana and not broaden the discussion to other types of blades.There are so many terms in the marketplace today and for some, confusing and misusing the terms makes it more difficult for the rest of us.  I for example do not believe that a blade that is made outside of Japan should ever be called a shinken or "pure blade".  This is a Japanese word that more than infers that the blade in question is of Japanese origin.  So when the label "shinken" is used in describing a blade that looks like a katana but was forged outside of Japan, and more than likely by used means different than what Japanese smiths use, well it simply makes it more difficult to understand the pedigree of the blade.  I'm not suggesting that only the Japanese by some genetic gift can make a fine blade.  I am saying that if you are looking for a Japanese blade, then something from another maker outside of Japan is not the same thing.Within Japanese language there are many names for the Japanese sword.  Sometimes there are nuanced differences.  When I hear the term "gendaito", I think about early modern construction and to separate these blades from the quality improvements of newer blades, the term "shinsakuto" might be used.  Sometimes words spoken and words written can be slightly different too. And historically speaking, a "gunto", the Japanese blades issued during the war are not even considered Japanese swords, even though the term is Japanese with "gun" meaning military and "to" meaning sword.Under any circumstances, unless you've gotten with a lot of blades and have been studying the subject, it can be difficult to ascertain whether the blade was indeed made in Japan.
  • Try to get the back story.  Who owned it, how did they get it, are all great detective questions.
  • Don't just look at the blade.  Often the fittings and scabbard can generate more questions.  Often a legitimate Japanese blade have had fittings swapped, repairs (hatchet jobs) done, handles rewrapped and pins (mekugi) replaced. Why?
  • Look at the blade.  Often we think that if we see a mei - the engraved signature of the name of the smith and date of construction on the nakago (tang) that the blade must be legitimate.  Sadly, some makers of blades in China, decided to engrave the names of deceased wartime Japanese smiths on their newly minted blades - you know, the ones they just miraculously found.  Still, even if you can read the name, this alone doesn't guarantee authenticity.
  • Let's talk about authenticity for a moment.  Getting some card saying this is a certificate of authenticity doesn't mean diddly. Anyone can create such a card.  The Japanese government requires that every katana made must be licensed.  Every blade then gets a registration card that must travel with the blade.  However, for legitimate export, these registration cards are turned back into the government and the registration numbers retired.
  • Are you looking at a new blade or an antique?  There are so many things to look at and frankly, defy description, short of publishing a book but look at the lines and the balance of the blade overall.  How perfect is the taper?  How defined is the shinogi, that line that parallels the mune or spine?  How well does the habaki (blade collar) fit the blade and the saya's (scabbard) interior?  What is the location of the mekugiana - that hole that should be about 3 and a half finger widths up from where the sword guard would typically sit?  And the list goes on.
  • Work with someone such as a reputable dealer to determine the bona fides of the blade you're interested in.  A good blade isn't inexpensive, so the added precaution is a wise move.
I'm not trying to be difficult when I interject words in Japanese.  We're talking about Japanese sword nomenclature and it is easier to navigate the subject.  I'm not suggesting that one has to learn Japanese to pursue a dream of obtaining a fine Japanese sword blade, but it doesn't hurt and it can enrich the purchase and ownership experience.
There are a lot of Japanese sword appreciation societies that often would love to look at and study a new blade and offer insights about it.  Remember that political sword organizations such as the NBTHK work with antiques, not newly made Japanese swords.
Sadly, the sword market can be like the wild, wild west and "caveat emptor" or "let the buyer beware" applies.
For all that I've just written, I also have to say that often when you place a knockoff next to the genuine article, it is often easy to tell the difference.  Using good detective skills and creating more questions than answers is a good thing in the acquisition of a fine Japanese blade.
Speaking for, I have an absolute rule.  NEVER sell your sword to the people that quoted a value or determined worth as it just creates too much temptation.  We will not purchase a blade that we've appraised.