Sending Swords to Japan for Papers and Polishing: Myths and Reality

I was a resident of Japan for 14+ years; during this time I had the opportunity to both send and receive blades from the U.S., as well as several other countries, for papers, polishing, and other restorative work. As the creator and administrator of an Internet Japanese sword discussion group, I routinely receive inquiries from people around the globe regarding papers and polishing, as well as the import and export procedures involved when swords are sent to Japan. It is clear to me, based on the frequent comments that I receive, that there is a dearth of information on this topic, and myth, half-truths, as well as out and out deception is the norm. I thought it would be informative to briefly go over the basics of sending swords to Japan for papers, polishing, etc., in an effort to clear up some of these misconceptions.

Sending swords to Japan is fundamentally a simple procedure. All one needs to do is pack well, include an invoice which lists the contents-signature and length are sufficient, as well as a statement to the effect that the blade is being sent for restoration purposes only and will be returned when the such work is complete. If sending a gendaito, be sure to include a statement that the blade is valued at less than $1400US or there will be lots of red tape and hassles with customs. Wrap using bubble wrap, and ship from the U.S. post office using either regular air mail or EMS (Express Mail Service). In my experience, EMS is preferred for several reasons: first, it is possible to insure blades for up to $5,000US. Secondly, customers are provided with a tracking number which allows the sender to keep tabs on the parcel. Third, it is fast (usually 3 days to Japan), and extremely reliable. I have never had a package lost using EMS in 15 years. One needs to fill out a label, and my advice is to list the contents as "Nihon-to". Dishonest opportunists on the U.S. side are not likely to understand this, while the Japanese surely will. DO NOT use any of the private express carriers-FedEx, etc. They are not capable of importing swords and it will cause the bureaucratic machine to implode.

Once the parcel has arrived in Japan, it is stored by customs in an International Post Office. Each International Post Office has a monthly licensing shinsa for all blades gathered that month. When the blade arrives in Japan, a notification post card is sent to the recipient, informing he/she of receipt by the post office. Upon receipt of this post card, the recipient faxes a number from the post card to their Prefectural Board of Education, requesting licensing at the next monthly shinsa. The shinsa at the post office is a rather unique opportunity to watch government employees from three different ministries try to work together: post office, customs, police, and members of the Ministry of Education all in one place, with none of them fully aware of the responsibilities of each other...In any case, depending upon how many blades have been sent that particular month, it usually takes a few hours to unpack your package, have it inspected (to make sure guns aren廠 being smuggled it-it has happened), show the blades to a member of the shinsa team, and receive the license. The blades are repacked and shipped out to the addressee the next day, arriving a day or two later in most cases. Licenses cost roughly $65US depending on exchange rate. If a blade is less than 100 years old, i.e., a gendaito, and you haven't included a statement that the blade is worth less than $1400US, there is a fairly high probability that customs people will require special documentation, which is a real hassle.看 There are ways around this, but if they decide to follow the letter of the law, you will have a world of misery ahead of you. Blades that are stamped with a Seki or Showa stamp are double trouble: they are less than 100 years old, and they are not considered "art swords". These blades are usually rejected at shinsa and it is up to the addressee what happens next. They can be sent back to the point of origin, or turned over to the police to be destroyed.看 Most dealers get around this by grinding of the stamps, and then sandpapering the blade to hide the lack of jigane. Most of the shinsa people seem to look the other way for dealers. Once a license is issued, it must stay with the sword at all times while it is in Japan. The recipient is free to take the blade anywhere from that point on.

Another way to get blades into Japan is by airplane. When flying into Japan, you are allowed to bring up to 3 blades into the country. The blades must be declared at customs. After notifying the customs official that you have Japanese swords, you will be escorted to a police office and asked to wait for an inspector to come. After a short time, a police inspector will come, look at the blades, and make a temporary permit for import purposes.看 You will be asked why you are bring the blades into Japan (restoration-polish-is the best answer), and where the blades will be polished. Have the name and address of a polisher handy, or you will have problems. Once you receive this document, you will be required to take it to the licensing shinsa in the Prefecture you list as your residence, for their monthly licensing shinsa. Each Prefecture has their own monthly licensing shinsa. You will need to contact them and inform them of your desire to receive a license at the next shinsa. You will be told when and where it will be held. Again, the cost is $65US. If the blade is less than 100 years old, it is usually no problem because the police don't care-only customs cares. At the Prefectural shinsa, you may have problems because some of them simply don't like to license gendaito, out of ignorance. The prefecture where I lived, Shizuoka, is a good example. I brought a gendaito by a top smith. The Ministry of Education employee running the shinsa took one look at the nakago and said, "no license". I asked why, and he told me it had a Showa date, so it was a Showa-to! As it turns out, the law dictates that only the shinsa judges can make this decision, so I basically told him it wasn't up to him, and that the law states that this is the decision of the shinsa judges. The men hired to do the actual shinsa are usually the heads of the local NBTHK chapters, and are suppose to be the Prefectural sword experts...Alas, they know little about gendaito, and they said that rather than take any chances that the blade might be made with western steel, they simply refused to give any WWII blade a license. I pulled out my copy of the Ju-To-Ho (firearm-sword-law statute book), and politely pointed out the passages which stated that a blade is to be evaluated on its quality irrespective of the time of manufacture. They were shocked that someone actually had the nerve to question them. Now I get gendaito licensed without any hassles.

Once you have obtained the license, you can send it for polish, habaki, shirasaya, and then papers.

Usually, a blade is polished up to a point, then the polisher sends the blade out for habaki. It is then sent to the shirasaya maker. When the work is finished, it goes back to the togi, who then finishes the work. It is then returned. The turn around time can vary greatly; in my experience, it usually takes about 6 months for all of the work to be finished. Sometimes the artisans are extra busy-just before the Shinsakuto contest in Spring, for example, and it may take a little longer. If you are using the big name polishers, expect to wait up to three years.

There are many excellent polishers in Japan who charge $3000-$3500US for a juyo level polish; most people in the U.S. are familiar with only 3 or 4 of the big names; these people do wonderful work, but expect to pay dearly (maybe 25-30% more) and wait and wait and wait.

The same is true of habaki and shirasaya.

Papers can add another 2 months or so to the process. There are currently three groups and three private individuals issuing papers in Japan (there are others, but they are not well-known and not as respected). The three groups are: The Nihon Bijustsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK), NTHK- (NPO), and the NTHK-Yoshikawa ( a for-profit group run by an off-shoot of the older NTHK). Each of these groups issues papers every month. They all have a three-tiered system: a low level kantei sho, a medium level, and a top level. The "Juyo Token" is well-known in the West; this is the upper rank issued by the NBTHK. "Yushu Saku" is the comparable rank from the NTHK-(NPO). The shinsa for these top ranks are only held once a year. Blades must be in top-quality polish, and it is usually necessary for them to have previously obtained the lower rank first. It is expensive; while the cost for the lower level papers averages about $200US, the price for submission to the top level is close to $1000US on average.

Each of these groups have their own submission system; they all take about 6 weeks.

My own opinion is that it is always best to have the judgement of a group, rather than a single individual. I rarely submit anything to private individuals.

Sayagaki are another service often asked about. There are several people doing these, usually charging around $400.

I often hear people worry, "my blade is so good, I am afraid the Japanese will keep it!", or something similar. Forget about it. All blades are licensed out in the open, and once you receive the license, it is yours to do what you want with. Unscrupulous agents and dealers have pulled this scam on naive collectors in the U.S., but if you send the blade only through someone you trust, you have nothing to fear from the Japanese government workers.

When it comes time to return the blade, there are two methods; first, legally, all blades for export must be submitted to the Ministry of Education. It is illegal to export blades classified by the government as National Treasures (Kokuho) or Important Cultural Properties (Juyo Bunkazai) without permission from the Ministry of Education. Blades classified before the war don't count, so if you have a pre-war kokuho, there is no problem. The Ministry of Education takes the license and issues an export permit. This takes a few weeks.

Another method, which many people use, is to simply pack the blade and send it back to the owner via EMS from any Japanese post office. From Japan, it is possible to get insurance up to $20,000US. While this method is illegal, it seems to be popular. It usually takes 3 days to arrive in the U.S.

Many collectors send blades to the NBTHK for polish and papers. I would recommend caution when choosing this approach. First of all, the NBTHK uses an agent to take the blades through customs and licensing. They pay him well for his time. The NBTHK then sends the blade to a polisher of their choice; you don't know who is actually polishing your blade-is it the famous polisher, one of his students, or someone else? The same goes for the habaki and shirasaya. There are several middle men in the process, all of whom are paid. This tends to do two things: first, it adds considerably to the cost in the best Japanese tradition. Additionally, it adds a considerable amount of time. Figure at least a year and a half to two years. It also makes it difficult to ascertain responsibility when something goes wrong-it's his fault-no, it's his! Dealing with bureaucracy is the same everywhere.

I hope this has perhaps dispelled a few myths and helped to make the process of sending blades to Japan a bit more transparent. With only 2 professionally trained polishers in the U.S., and 8 year waiting lists, I would encourage the serious collector to consider sending blades to Japan. There are reasonable and talented polishers available who can save you considerable time and money. 看