NTHK Shinsa Team 1997 Visit

Jim Gilbert




Before the start of our Shinsa and Taikai, several of the club officers, members and advisors hosted the NTHK team for sightseeing in the city and on Long Island.  On October 8th, the day before the shinsa, the group visited the Sagamore Hill historic site, once the residence of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Regular readers of this newsletter are already familiar with the Japanese swords at Sagamore Hill and our club’s role in identifying and preserving these important “Presidential” Nihonto.  We are fortunate to have this unique opportunity for Yoshikawa sensei to inspect these swords, tell us about their history and advise us on their future care.


George Precht took charge of driving the NTHK group and our own Ron Bonanno, Masami Kodama, Kunio Izuka, Nobuteru Shimotakahara and Moses Becerra on the tour of historic sites, including visits to a whaling museum and a trout hatchery earlier that day. John Prough, Tadashi Setsu of Sotheby’s, and I drove out from NYC loaded down with all of the luggage, supplies and good cheer that would be needed for the next four days’ shinsa activities.  Our visit to Sagamore Hill included viewing President Roosevelt’s swords, with an informal discussion by Yoshikawa sensei (translated by Kunio Izuka); Sensei’s formal lecture with translation by Mr. Setsu, a guided tour of the residence and a self guided look at the museum collection. 


In an upstairs room of the museum, the National Park Service rangers brought out three swords owned by the former President for examination by Yoshikawa sensei.  At first there was some serious concern over how the swords would be handled, but after a discussion with our club officers, things settled down.  It was good to see that the custodians of these swords take their preservation seriously.  Apparently, the Sagamore Hill staff normally takes a strict “hands off” approach to conservation of the objects in their care.


We were able to enjoy a katana, a wakizashi and a tanto from the collection.  These swords are described at length in earlier editions of this newsletter.  The katana is in fine late Edo tachi mounts.  Yoshikawa sensei pointed out the greater than usual number of kiri mon on the metal fittings and the lacquer saya, and told us that this indicates extra special order work.   The sword was judged to be by the second generation Sanemitsu, made in about 1425-1430.  Sensei mentioned that he remembered having once polished this blade at the request of a foreign minister.  He said that this is a good sword, and is excellent study material for our club members.


The wakizashi is a sue Seki piece by Kanenori.  Yoshikawa sensei pointed out that because of its suguba hamon, this blade would be a difficult one to kantei if it were not signed.  This was mounted in late efu no tachi style koshirae that was good, but not at the level of the Sanemitsu mounts.  We were able to view and discuss both of these swords at length.  One of the rangers remarked with some dismay that she had never seen these swords quite so “taken apart” before.  Of course, to her eventual relief, everything went back together fine.


The tanto is by Hasebe Kuninobu.  I didn't catch too much of the discussion of this sword beyond that there was some difficulty in cleaning the oil from the blade.  This was possibly the best sword of the three, but I was not able to get a good look at it.  The mounting was again of high quality, with a very showy red and gold lacquered saya.  There was some discussion that the tanto may have been a gift from Admiral Togo.  Later in the afternoon, our tour guide mentioned that TR greatly admired Togo, and considered him a military genius.  Also, I believe it was Admiral Togo who once instructed Roosevelt on the proper care and handling of the Japanese sword after he noticed some rust on one of the President’s swords at Sagamore hill.


Yoshikawa sensei was able to research the Imperial records to find mention of the gifts given by the Meiji Emperor to TR.  This was in appreciation of his role in facilitating the negotiations at the end of the Russo-Japanese war, for which Roosevelt was later to be awarded the Nobel peace prize.  There was record of an embroidered screen that we later saw on display in TR's period dining room, a lacquer box, a vase, an armor, etc. that were given.  The armor was described as being particularly valuable.  Unfortunately, the Sagamore Hill staff doesn't seem to know anything about it.  There was speculation that it could be in the White House collection, still in the Roosevelt family, or at the Smithsonian.  I believe that Yoshikawa sensei said that there was no mention made of the swords, although he thought that they might have been associated with the armor.  Later, though, he referred to one of the swords as being mentioned in the Imperial record.  Perhaps the sword was part of the Imperial collection, but its being given to the president was not specifically noted.  The tradition among the keepers of the Sagamore Hill artifacts is that these swords were indeed a gift from the Meiji emperor. Yoshikawa sensei had several handwritten documents, some of which are illustrated along with other photos from the visit on pages 35 and 36 in the 11/97 issue of Token To Rekishi, the NTHK journal (there is also a write up of the shinsa on pages 37 and 38).  Here is part of the record:


The gift to President Theodore Roosevelt from the Meiji Emperor


1906 March, on the date of 31st


Viscount Shuzo Aoki: an ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, Tsunejiro Miyaoka: an embassy councilor, for the USA; Tetsutaro Yoshioka: an engineer of the Minister of Agriculture, for Italy; and Lieutenant Yorikazu Ihara: staff of the battleship Akashi and Suma in the room of Hohoh.   


The Meiji Emperor left Shuzo with a “Hiodoshi” style suit of armor as being a gift to the president Roosevelt. The Meiji Empress left a makie box with a design of chrysanthemum as being a gift to the first lady in the USA.  In return, President Roosevelt sent a letter to the Emperor:


I have received the old Japanese suit of armor through your ambassador.  I would like to thank Emperor for the gift, with which I can see the Japanese ancient chivalry, as well as the Emperor’s kindness.  Mrs. Roosevelt has received the gift from the Empress. Once again, I thank both the Emperor and Empress.               


1906 June 9th

The record of Meiji Emperor

Published by Yoshikawa Kobunkan


                                                                        Translated by Tadashi Setsu

                                                                        Sotheby’s Japanese Department


After viewing the swords, Yoshikawa sensei delivered a formal lecture in an auditorium on the first floor of the museum building.  Most of the audience was made up of club and shinsa team members, with the addition one ranger and a few park visitors.  Sensei prefaced his lecture with remarks about the Sagamore Hill swords.  He said that he was surprised and pleased at the level of interest in Japanese swords outside of Japan and was happy to see the fine preservation of the Sagamore Hill swords, particularly given that they had been stored for many years in the lacquered mounts, rather than in shirasaya.  He urged the Parks department staff to allow the NY club to come out to clean and oil the blades at least yearly.  He further commented that the quality of the swords given by the Meiji emperor showed how highly he valued TR's efforts in negotiating the peace.  Here, Yoshikawa sensei mentioned that the Sanemitsu was given as a gift in 1905 with a stated value of Y850.  (This seems to contradict what I thought I heard earlier regarding no record of swords being given, although again, it may just have been that Roosevelt was not mentioned by name).  I think that Sensei said that at the time, this was a sum sufficient to buy a large house like some of those near Sagamore Hill. 


The following is a transcript of Yoshikawa sensei’s lecture on sword history and his early experiences in caring for important collections in Japan. Translation is by Tadashi Setsu of Sotheby’s Japanese Department.  The comments in brackets are mine, and reflect points where sensei presumably departed from his prepared notes.


Occasional Thoughts of Historical Treasure Sword


There are so many legends and interesting secret stories about the Japanese sword from the old Heian period, prior to 1200, till the present time.  One can know the culture and people who lived in the period, also the ups and downs, joy and sorrow of families in history from those swords.  Most of the existing swords that have names connected to their histories have been handed down to the legitimate child and were treasured in prominent families.


The nobility in the Heian period were proud to have a tachi, which was mounted in gold, silver decorated, and with an inlaid beautiful sheath, as a treasure of the family for special occasions.  In contrast, in military society, soldiers liked to have a sharp blade, with which they were successful in battle for their families. These swords were treasured as symbols, and handed down through the family to someone who was responsible for prosperity of the family.


This tradition came from a history of the treasure sword Kusanagi, which used to be called Murakumo, in the royal family collection or the sword Tsubokiri transmitted from Togu shrine.  Also, strong ancestor worship in military society had a lot of influence on this tradition.  Both the Minamoto and the Taira families, who established the military government, had sword and armor given to their legitimate child.  The sword “Higekiri” and the suit of armor “Ubukinu” had been treasured in the Minamoto family.  Also the sword “Kogarasumaru” and the suit of armor ”Karaginu” had been treasured in the Taira family as being proof that someone has a right to rule the family.


Kogarasumaru had been handed down to former federal lord of old Tsushima clan, the count Muneshige, who is a descendant of the Heike family. Later the sword was presented to the Meiji Emperor who loved collecting swords.  Since then, Kogarasumaru was carefully kept in the royal collection.  [Sensei also pointed out that the Kogarasumaru was currently on display in the special exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum.  He mentioned that the sword would probably not appear in a public exhibition for another 10 to 20 years. JG] The swords in the royal collection are currently stored in one of the warehouses of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The warehouse used to be full of swords in the old royal collection prior to the Edo period. These swords were presented on the occasion of happy royal events in the three generations of Meiji, Taisho and Showa emperors. And consideration for the Allied Forces that too many swords were kept in the royal household and because of preservation trouble, most of the collection was transferred to the national museum in Tokyo, except for a very small number of swords.  The Straight sword, Suiryu, of the emperor Shomu, and Tachi, Koryu Kagemitsu, to be said of Masashige Kusunoki are a few of the swords transferred to the museum.


My father was appointed to be the imperial polisher in 1925 and passed away at the age of 92 in 1988.  In 1974, I was appointed by the Imperial Household Agency to be in charge of the royal sword collection after my father, who was not well in his later years. I have been with the royal sword collection for 70 years. I feel greatly relieved by achieving this honorable task and more than happy to handle these treasure swords


There is one tradition that has never been changed from the pre-war era when handling the swords in the royal collection.  That is that the warehouse should never been opened after a rainy day or the Typhoon, because the swords must not be exposed to the moisture and salt. So the care will be postponed.


There are notes handed down from the Meiji era describing matters to be attended to in the care, such as oil exchange or polishing, of each sword.  Most of the swords have close to one thousand years history and have been polished many times.  There is a treasured Tachi of which a fukure was opened by a master polisher in Meiji era and was perfectly repaired.  The Tachi is accompanied by a note with an illustration that no one must put a grindstone onto that particular part.  Also, there is a strict rule that the swords should be kept as they are, unless it is very necessary to repair, such as polishing, for preservation reason.


Most of the treasure swords, which left prominent families after the beginning of Meiji era, were carefully kept in other families as being a symbol of each family until the end of the war.  My family used to work for the prominent Mori, Shimazu, and other families for conservation and polishing their sword collections before the war.  Treasure swords were carefully and well preserved in each family.


The Maeda family in Toyama province is very impressive in my memory. After my father finished oiling fifty swords in the collection, and was taking a break, the clerk of the family brought out a treasure sword in its wooden (paulownia) box.  It was a custom for the family to keep the sword in the safe house. After confirming that my father had finished cleaning and oiling the treasure sword, the clerk carefully stored the sword back in the box. I loved the way the clerk handled the sword. It was as it was done in the Edo period.  The treasure sword was named Oh-Aoe, which was gifted from Kenshin Uesughi to Maeda Toshiie. Later, the second generation Komatsu Toshitsune sent this sword to his second son, Toshitsugu, to be a symbol when he started a branch family.  [Sensei also mentioned that the Maeda family swords were cleaned and oiled in the spring and fall of each year.  He especially remembers the scenic view of cherry blossoms while oiling the swords in the spring.  JG]


It is shame that most of those treasure swords in prominent families have been dispersed after the war. It is also shame that ancestry worship and strong ties between branches of family, which was the nation’s tradition, have been weakened.  [Sensei ended the talk saying that he was glad that people worldwide appreciate and care for Japanese swords, and that he was glad to be doing the shinsa to judge those swords.  He was surprised that there were so many sword lovers as to bring the expected 1,000 swords over the four days of the shinsa.  JG]


Kentaro Yoshikawa

Sword Polisher

Chief Sword Conservator of the Imperial Household Agency

Representative of Nihon Token Hozonkai (NTHK)



After the lecture, we were able to talk informally for a while, and enjoy the beautiful grounds at Sagamore Hill.  We then took a guided tour of the residence, where our Park Service guide did a good job of recounting historical events and pointing out items of specific interest to our Japanese visitors.  Among the many period furnishings and trophies, a miniature Japanese armor and a large lacquer trunk with gold aoi mon seemed to be the most popular. 


With the opportunity to renew acquaintances with friends from the NTHK, to see and handle good swords and to learn a few things about Theodore Roosevelt and his legacy, it was a perfect afternoon – and proved to be the calm before the storm of processing more than 1,000 submissions over next four long days of the Shinsa.