All over the world--and the Internet--sword vendors sell what they advertise as authentic Japanese samurai swords. Unfortunately for the hopeful collector, many of these are fakes. In fact, faking authentic samurai swords is a multimillion dollar industry. Still, there are a few trademark characteristics that you can use to identify a sword either as a clever fake or Nihonto, a genuine samurai sword.
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Consider where you are buying the sword and who is selling it. You are more likely to find a genuine sword in a shop dedicated to Japanese culture or antiquities than at a booth run by a guy selling "samurai swords" alongside replicas of knives from the Rambo movies. Chinese manufacturers do a brisk business mass-producing fakes for these kinds of distributors.
If you are buying a contemporary sword (20th century or newer), ask the seller for information about the swordsmith. There are presently around 250 active members of the Japanese Swordsmith Association, and almost all reputable smiths belong to the Association. Check the smith's name against the Association's membership list. If you can't find it, chances are the sword is a fake.
While there are multiple sizes of samurai swords and types of blades, all of them were (and are still) forged according to a unit called a "shaku" (around 30.3cm). Know the appropriate size for the sword you are looking to buy. A typical "katana" sword, for example, should be 2 shaku or longer (60.6cm or greater).
If you know Japanese and have a background in samurai weaponry, you may be able to tell a sword's legitimacy from the smith's signature (mei), which will be stamped on the blade. While it is nearly impossible for the untrained observer to detect a forged signature, you may find a company logo in place of a smith's signature. Obviously, such swords are mass-produced. If a sword is missing a signature all together, it is almost certainly a fake.
Have the sword evaluated by a professional. Because it is so difficult for laypeople to evaluate swordsmith signatures, Japanese sword study associations such as NBTHK offer evaluation services. For a fee, their experts will evaluate a sword and determine its authenticity. This evaluation (shinsa) usually occurs in Japan and is the most reliable way to determine a sword's authenticity. Once the sword study association has evaluated your sword, it will issue a certificate of authenticity. Make sure to research a sword study association before you pay it--just as there is a thriving business organised around faking samurai swords, there is also a lucrative industry dedicated to authenticating them.
Identifying a Japnese Samurai Sword
Tips and warnings
- Go with your gut - never pay money for a sword if you have doubts about its authenticity or the seller, even if everything seems legitimate.
- Never take the seller on his word, no matter how honest he might seem.
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