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Sword Related Presentation

One of the benefits of belonging to a sword society is that enables people at different levels of understanding and study to meet and discuss various aspects of sword manufacture and restoration/preservation. The journey can be extremely long (but also extremely enjoyable) and the reality is that in the West even after a lifetime’s study we are really still at the beginning. At Samurai Art Expo the educational programme focussed on different features of the Japanese sword and the different traditions and schools. This year we would like to move the focus a little. Many of our previous audiences were taking their first tentative steps in to the subject and based on feedback some of the topics discussed were a little mystifying. This year we are attempting to do something a slightly different in the two main sword related presentations.

1.Beginning the journey

For many of us collecting and studying swords started a very long time ago. What inspired us to start is forgotten in the mists of time, but if you were to ask those that do remember there are likely to be as many different answers as there are collectors. The initial trigger could be something profound but equally it could be a trivial occurrence that sparked that initial curiosity and led to a lifetimes study. Over time as our understanding increases we become focussed on the fine detail of a subject and we tend to lose track of the basics. For anyone starting out or with less experience attempting to understand and appreciate technical features can be both confusing and daunting. We thought we could help address this by discussing one person’s experience as they entered the field and progressed with their study.

The presentation will offer a fascinating insight in to a collector’s progress. The presenter will discuss what initially awoke his interest in the subject, how he began the study of a particular blade and what he has learned.  It is important that we should be reminded of the fundamentals. Starting, as most of us did, He bought a sword because he liked it, but without knowing much about it. As with many of us having bought a blade he wanted to understand it better and answer a number of questions:

  • Why was the blade attributed to a specific smith?
  • How does the maker fit in to a particular tradition and school?
  • What was happening in Japan at the time of its creation and what influence did that have on the way it was made?

He will chart and share what he has learned about the sword, tradition, school and smith. He will discuss how he went about the process and share his research.

2. Polishing a sword blade

One of the greatest causes of argument and debate within Society meetings and on various message boards relate to polishing a sword. So often people appear with a piece they have “restored” themselves and wait with obvious pride in their achievement to receive positive feedback. They rarely (actually never) do. Today unqualified polishing is the most common cause of damage inflicted on a sword blade. This is why people become so passionate about the subject and why often beginners find themselves criticised and disappointed. Polishing is a great skill and requires many years of training.

 We are delighted that this year one of the presentations will be on the subject of polishing. It will go in to detail about the process and intricacies involved. This is not a do it yourself guide; it is a clear demonstration of why polishing should only be carried out by a qualified artisan.

We hope by broadening the scope of our sword presentations we will offer something to both novice and experienced collector. There will be time after each presentation for questions and both presenters will be available throughout the fair should you wish to discuss any of the points raised during their presentations.  

Following the presentations we will hold a sword kantei. In the previous event this exercise proved extremely popular and enjoyable. Those who took part (which was the vast majority of attendees) gained a great deal from the experience. I will discuss this in more detail in a separate topic.

Paul Bowman

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Expanding Horizons

Having spent the majority of my adult life studying Nihon-To I am a little ashamed to confess that my focus has been almost exclusively on swords and even more restrictive, to blades made prior to the end of the Nambokucho period. While there is nothing wrong with focus, if we become too single-minded in that pursuit there is a great danger of missing out on some very exciting and interesting areas of study. At Samurai Art Expo the exhibition included not only beautiful swords but also some incredible Koshirae, tsuba and other fittings. The quality seen in these works was outstanding and I had a very rude awakening regarding the opportunities I had missed in the past to study these artefacts.

Having spent the majority of my adult life studying Nihon-To I am a little ashamed to confess that my focus has been almost exclusively on swords and even more restrictive, to blades made prior to the end of the Nambokucho period. While there is nothing wrong with focus, if we become too single-minded in that pursuit there is a great danger of missing out on some very exciting and interesting areas of study. At Samurai Art Expo the exhibition included not only beautiful swords but also some incredible Koshirae, tsuba and other fittings. The quality seen in these works was outstanding and I had a very rude awakening regarding the opportunities I had missed in the past to study these artefacts.


When looking at Nihon-To it is possible, despite the wide variation in styles and design to immediately identify their origin. They share a number of features that make them uniquely Japanese. I think the same is true of armour; a very short study illustrates the incredible diversity in construction and decoration. They display almost infinite variation. But at the same time they include features of construction and design which make them unmistakeably Japanese.  We are very fortunate in this year’s programme to include presentations from members of the Japanese Armour Society which will explore some of the relationships between various components of armour and other art forms.

In addition we will be trying something new. One of the most popular activities in Samurai Art expo was the kantei exercise we held at the end of the programme. We will be doing another sword kantei on Saturday afternoon which we hope will be supported with equal enthusiasm. In addition on Friday afternoon we will hold an armour kantei looking at a number of kabuto and attempting to determine their origins. You do not need to have a great deal of knowledge or experience to take part in either of the kantei. The most important aspect is that it focuses attention and helps the participant look at an artefact in a disciplined way enabling them to gain as much detail as they can from the examination of the piece. Kantei remains the single best learning tool in all aspects of our study and this holds true as much for armour as for swords and fittings. We are very much looking forward to the armour related presentations and kantei. We believe it will prove extremely interesting and greatly add to the visitors overall experience.

As a committed sword person I am looking forward to exploring these different aspects of Japanese art in more detail (I am hoping to get some help in the armour kantei!). While I do not expect to change my focus away from sword steel I think there will be a great deal to be gained from understanding other aspects manufacture, construction and art related to that primary interest.

Please when visiting Japan Art Expo give yourself time to look at all of the different disciplines which will be shown, both in the supporting exhibition and on the dealer’s stands. It is a rare opportunity to have so many great examples together in a single venue. Take full advantage of the occasion.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Paul Bowman

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But is it art?

One of the most difficult concepts to explain to those not familiar with Nihon-To is classifying a sword as “art”. Within the complexities of an English vocabulary, constructed as it is from so many others, there are numerous terms describing the same thing. We have art, craft, artists, crafts- people and artisans. All describing the act of creating something, but over time they have come to mean something different. While an observer can happily accept a swordsmith or fittings maker are craftsmen or even artisans the term artist may be a step too far.

What is art? From a very personal and simplistic view point art is a method of communication. At its simplest it conveys an image, at a deeper level it stimulates the mind and generates an emotional response. Art has an ability to transmit ideas and emotions at a level far beyond a simple explanation.

A Japanese sword like those of any other culture is first and foremost a weapon. However in creating a blade a swordsmith does far more than simply making a cutting tool. The effort and skill involved in creating the beautiful hada and hamon seen in blades goes far beyond functionality. Likewise the incredible skill of the polisher does far more than sharpen the blade, it enhances and highlights all of the complex detail of the swordsmiths composition.  The combination of these skills creates an object of incredible complexity and beauty. It embodies the skill, effort and emotional commitment of those involved in its creation.

The makers of sword furniture and armour take their art far beyond pure functionality. They employ skills, imagination and creativity, taking inspiration from nature, folklore myths and legends. They are also inspired by other art forms such as wood block prints, architecture, ceramics and theatre. The degree of creativity they employ in combining different materials and illustrating complex subjects in such restricted space shows a level of compositional skill unsurpassed in any other field.

Much of the content of the educational programme is aimed at illustrating the links between these various creative disciplines and other art forms and to explore where they drew inspiration.

The exhibition running in parallel with the presentations will have examples of the arts described and will illustrate those elements discussed in the lectures. When looking at the exhibit the level of skill employed in their creation will be clear to see. The use of different materials in composition, the craftsmanship and the incredible control in making such work will be obvious. But then the observer has to decide, is it art?

When looking at the exhibition ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it pleasing to look at?
  2. Is it skillfully made?
  3. Does it generate an emotional response?

That response can be awe, it can be the hair on the back of your neck rising as you look at something staggeringly beautiful, or it can simply make you smile.

If the answer to these questions is yes then it is reasonable to assume that you are looking at art. And it is an art form that includes some of the finest examples of human creativity, craftsmanship and art.

Those giving presentations will be available throughout the event. They will be happy to discuss any of the points raised during the presentations and to answer any questions relating to the exhibition you may have. Japan Art Expo will offer a rare opportunity to see such a diverse range of artifacts together and to see the relationship between the various disciplines employed in creating these unique objects. Enjoy the experience!

Paul Bowman

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Why is Japan Art Expo important or even necessary?

2020 marks the 40th anniversary of when I first became interested in Japanese swords. In that time the world has changed significantly, not least with the introduction of the internet as a general tool for business and personal use and the incredible advance in information technology that has enabled peoples to study and to buy from around the world and from the comfort of their home.

It is possible to sit on your favourite chair in front of a screen for many hours (I know because on occasion I do it) with the world at your fingertips and through diligent application you can learn all you need to know about any given subject. Except it isn’t true, you can’t.

Over the years of interest in the subject I have been involved with a number of sword societies and served in various roles within them. some of the most challenging situations I have had to deal with is when a new member, just starting out in the field, approaches me full of enthusiasm and expectation to show me their first sword (usually purchased on line from a well known auction site). They have spent a lot of time (in some cases but not all) trawling the internet reading what they can and believing they have gained sufficient understanding to identify a national treasure being sold on line for a few hundred Euros. It is extremely difficult to shatter that enthusiastic illusion and no matter how often one does it, does not become easier.

The internet offers an incredible resource for the collector of Japanese, or any other art. However it is not a substitute or replacement for physically holding and looking at an artefact in hand. Nor does it replace personal interaction and discussion with fellow enthusiasts. In recent years I have had the good fortune to attend a number of regional meetings organised by the Token Society of Great Britain. I have also read the reports of Armour Society meetings all of which have been enthusiastically supported and all without exception received very positive feedback.

It may seem counterintuitive in this digital age to organise an event such as Japan Art expo. However, as experienced by those who attended the original Samurai Art Expo in 2018,this show offers an incredible and unique opportunity for the student of various Japanese art forms to meet leading specialist dealers from around the world and to interact with fellow enthusiasts.

The educational programme which runs alongside the commercial event is designed to have something for beginners and experienced students alike. It will cover a broad range of topics and illustrate the inter-relationship of various disciplines. The programme has also been planned to include a number of exercises such as sword and armour kantei which proved so popular in the 2018 meeting.

The exhibition which will run alongside the educational programme will include artefact which will illustrate and support the presentation material. It will offer an opportunity to see items of a quality not normally available outside Japan.

Early June 2020  in Utrecht will offer anyone with an interest in Japanese art and culture an incredible opportunity to see beautiful examples of different art forms, listen to people who have spent a lifetime in the study of their subject and to interact with people from throughout Europe with a shared interest.

Over the coming months this blog will introduce various aspects of the subjects being explored in the educational programme to help visitors to maximise their experience when attending.

We look forward to meeting you in June.

Paul Bowman

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Japan Art Expo

In June 2018 Utrecht in the Netherlands hosted something not seen in Europe for many years (if ever before). Samurai Art Expo brought together specialist sellers from Japan, North America and Europe offering a huge range of high quality Japanese Arms and Armour. Alongside this commercial activity a programme of lectures was delivered on a range of topics by collectors and students from around Europe.  All who attended Samurai art Expo had the opportunity to see swords, armour and tosugu on both the commercial stands and in the exhibition accompanying the lectures, of a quality rarely seen outside Japan. All visitors I spoke to both during and after the event had a very enjoyable and memorable experience. All without fail wanted to do it again.

Samurai Art Expo was not only a successful first event. Its execution and the subsequent positive feedback gave the organisers confidence not only to run the show again in 2020 but to dramatically expand the scope of the event. Renamed and re-branded as Japan Art expo it will now showcase artefacts from many other Japanese creative disciplines.

“My collection has brought to my attention aspects of history, philosophy, religion, folk art, gardening, painting and ceramics that I might not otherwise have seen.”

 Quotation from a catalogue of a sword collector of more than 30 years experience.

Broadening the scope of the exhibition will offer the visitor a much wider view of different aspects of Japanese art and culture. A cursory review of different Japanese art forms would very rapidly reveal common themes in decoration and composition. However within the designs and illustrations seen in different genre there is often a secondary, deeper, meaning or message. In addition many of the techniques and skills seen in one form are mirrored in others. Although totally individual there is a common thread within all the many diverse art forms that make them unmistakeably Japanese.

The educational programme plans to illustrate this diversity, covering a wide range of topics. We will attempt to demonstrate the interaction between different genre and how one discipline influenced others. When one begins to explore a particular Japanese art form it very rapidly becomes apparent how artists in one field drew inspiration from others, how myths or legendary figures illustrated in one form are recreated in another. However this cross fertilisation goes beyond design and composition. Within the programme of lectures we hope to be able to show some of the less obvious interaction between different artists and how the different disciplines learned from each other. We will also explore how artisan gained inspiration from the cultures of neighboring countries.  In many cases composition can go far beyond the decorative and hold a much deeper meaning than initially apparent.

By exploring the different aspects of design, composition and construction within an artifact one is able to obtain a much better understanding and appreciation of not only the piece in hand but the culture from which it evolved.

Japan Art Expo will offer the visitor an unparalleled opportunity to seeing different genre side by side and appreciate the intimate relationship that exists between different disciplines.

As we finalise the educational programme I will attempt to set the scene within these pages and prepare the visitors for what I believe will be an exceptional series of lectures.

Paul Bowman