Buying a sword in Japan isn’t as hassle-free as bringing home Japanese pottery, authentic kimono, Noren curtains, wasabi snacks, and matcha. One must recognize and appreciate Japan’s dedication to one of its prized symbols, considering it a work of art worthy of preservation.
You can still buy a sword in Japan if you observe the Land of the Rising Sun’s legal requirements for sword exportation. And you’ll learn more about it in this article. Let’s start.
Jutoho: Japan’s Firearms and Sword Law
Japanese weapons control isn’t new. Most folks believe Japan’s strict firearms and sword law (Jutoho) resulted from the country’s defeat by the Allied Forces in World War II. People think the legislation preempts any attempt at future uprisings and to maintain the peace.
While this is partly accurate (the Swords and Firearms Possession Control Law was enacted in 1958), it started in the late 16th-century. Toyotomi Hideyoshi wanted to control uprisings by disarming peasants. The law underwent several revisions until its present-day form.
The Jutoho forbids anyone from owning a Japanese sword classified as a “weapon,” whether newly-made (Shinsaku) or antique (i.e., Koto, Shinto, Shinshinto, and Gendai), unless the owner registers it.
Like other things, Jutoho has exceptions. For example, you can own any Japanese blade shorter than 15 centimeters or 5.9 inches without registering it. So, if you buy a tanto, you must consider its blade length (a tanto can be as short as 15 centimeters to as long as 30 centimeters) to know if you need to register it.
Other exemptions include wooden training swords (bokken), metal training blades with an unsharpened or non sharpenable edge (iaito), and zinc-aluminum alloy decorative swords (mogito).
So, how to buy a sword in Japan? Ensure it complies with Jutoho.
The Torokusho: A Japanese Sword’s Unique Identification Card
Owners must register their swords at the local Kyoiku-inkai or Prefectural Education Board. So, if you buy a sword in Tokyo, you must register it with the Tokyo Education Board.
Unfortunately, timing is crucial because the Education Board will only register swords during a monthly Toroku-shinsa-kaijo or sword evaluation meeting. Miss this window, and you might have to extend your stay in Japan.
Once registered, the Kyoiku-inkai will give you a Juho-token-rui torokusho, your sword’s identification card. Note that the Torokusho doesn’t certify sword ownership nor prove blade authenticity. It only describes the following.
- Blade length
- Sori or blade curvature
- Mei (name inscribed on the blade, regardless of authenticity)
- Mekugi-ana quantity
Obtaining a Torokusho is only possible with authentic Japanese swords or Nihonto. These blades feature tamahagane steel, although Shinto swords with “southern barbarian” steel can also be registered.
A Torokusho sword registration certificate (left) and a translated version (right). Photo by Kissakai on Nihonto Message Board.
Torokusho disallows mass-produced (Showato) and foreign-made blades.
The Torokusho must never stray from the sword. Most Japanese sword owners attach the Torokusho to the Koshirae-bukoro or Shirasaya-bukoro to guarantee the registration certificate stays with the blade every time.
So, if you want to buy a sword in Japan, ensure it has a Torokusho. Otherwise, you have a fake or replica sword and might have issues bringing them out of Japan.
Exportable and Non-Exportable Nihonto
Japan has at least two sword classification systems based on the blade’s cultural and artistic value. One’s the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Bunkazai-hogo-ho and the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai or the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Sword.The Bunkazai-hogo-ho: Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties
This 1950 legislation identifies and classifies Japanese objects, persons, beliefs, and other cultural entities as either a national treasure (Kokuho) or an important cultural property (Juyo-Bunkazai).
The Bunkazai-hogo-ho aims to protect the country’s rich cultural heritage, making it illegal to modify, repair, and export any artifact or system designated as Japanese cultural property. Japanese swords are in this listing.
As of 2022, around 900 Japanese swords are Juyo-Bunkazai and only about 13% (122) are national treasures or Kokuho.
A Kokuho-designated 12th-century Heian Period ceremonial sword mounting from the Tokyo National Museum. Photo on Discuss Japan: Japan Foreign Policy Forum.
You can own a Kokuho or Juyo-Bunkazai-designated Japanese sword. But you cannot bring it outside Japan, lest the authorities arrest you. Owners can sell such “cultural properties,” but the government can buy them unless the government waives its rights.
We must emphasize you can buy a Bunkazai-hogo-ho-classified Japan as long as it stays within the country. Otherwise, it’s an unexportable sword.
Buying a sword in Japan with a Bunkazai-hogo-ho classification doesn’t make sense, especially if you’re a foreigner on a temporary stay. You cannot return to your home country with these swords.
On the other hand, the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK) is a public interest group that doesn’t have the legal right to impose penalties. Moreover, it focuses on swordsmiths through their creations.
The NBTHK classifies “high-value” swords into the following categories (in order of decreasing “artistic” value).
- "Tokubetsu Juyo Token"– An especially important Japanese sword
- Juyo Token – An important Japanese sword
- Tokubetsu Hozon – Japanese swords especially worthy of preservation
- Hozon – Japanese swords worthy of preservation
NBTHK certificates. Image by Unique Japan.
The organization evaluates each sword for its craftsmanship, signs of imperfections, and fidelity to Japanese sword standards. It underscores a swordsmith’s skills.
Only 7% of the 10,000-plus Juyo Token swords deserve the Tokubetsu Juyo Token classification. That’s how stringent the organization’s evaluation system is.
On the bright side, you can buy a sword in Japan with an NBTHK certificate to prove its authenticity and value.
Price Range of Japanese Swords
Authentic Japanese swords with complete documentation and historical-artistic value are expensive, with museum-worthy pieces fetching a staggering price of $700,000. The price range also depends on the production year and swordsmith.Antique swords
The older the Japanese sword, the heftier its price tag (provided other things are equal). Hence, a 17th-century sword will cost less than a 14th-century blade.
However, swordsmith popularity can also be a factor. Antique swords forged by popular swordsmiths can cost at least $10,000, while blades made by lesser-known katana-kaji can start at $3,000.
Shinsaku (newly-made swords) start at around $8,000, especially with less-popular smiths.
However, famous swordsmiths like Masamine Sumitani, Okubo Kazuhia, Akitsugi Amata, and Kenzo Kotani can demand a higher price tag for their creations. You can expect to buy a sword by these katana-kaji for up to $50,000.
You might see other swords for less than these prices. They could still be authentic Japanese blades, provided the swords have the correct documentation. Otherwise, you’re most likely buying a replica or counterfeit sword.How to Buy and Export a Sword from Japan
Buying an authentic katana, kaizashi, tachi, or any other Japanese sword is easy if you’re a resident in Japan. Unfortunately, bringing it out of the country (export) requires adherence to several rules. You can observe the following steps to ensure a hassle-free Japanese sword exportation.1. Prepare the documents.
Exporting any Japanese sword starts with an application for an export permit. It’s a two-week wait. So, timing is crucial. You’ll need the following documents.
2. Apply for an export permit.
You’ll need an export permit when you buy a sword in Japan and hope to bring it home to another country. Experts recommend giving at least a two-week headstart for this because it takes that much time for the government to process and send you the export permit.
Bring your sword’s Torokusho and the other documents to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Art and Craft Section (Bunka-cho-bijutsu-kogei-ka). Alternatively, you can send the application by mail. However, this route is often time-consuming, further lengthening the export permit application.
Wait about two weeks for the export permit (including processing).
Note the export permit has a 30-day validity from the date of issuance, not from the date of its arrival in your place. Hence, the mail transit can shave off a few days from the expiration date.3. Bring the sword to the International Post Office or as a carry-on item at the port.
If you’re ready to return to your home country, you can bring the sword and the export permit to the airport or seaport. Present the sword and the permit to customs officials, who will validate the information on the document by comparing it to the blade.
Unfortunately, the export permit two-week application is too long for most foreign travelers. They might buy a sword in Japan only a few days before departure, making it impossible to secure an export permit.
Hence, the best course of action is to send the sword by parcel. You can bring the export permit and the Japanese sword to the Kokusai Yubinkyoku or International Post Office.
Present the sword and permit to the customs officer, who checks the nakago against the document. If everything checks out, the customs official lets you pack the item and seal the parcel (the customs officer observes, ensuring you don’t put anything else in the package).
You’ll fill up a dispatch form and bring the parcel to your carrier of choice. Most sword collectors pick EMS or Japan Post, although you can also send the parcel via FedEx, UPS, or other couriers.
Experts recommend picking a courier nearest the International Post Office because you’ll return the dispatch form (duly stamped by the parcel service) to the customs office immediately.
Shops to Buy a Sword in Japan
It’s easy to buy a sword in Japan. However, bringing it out of the country can be a hassle. And that’s where an authorized, reputable seller can help. While not all authentic Japanese sword stores in Japan offer export support, most do. You only need to find out which shop offers such a service. You can start with the following.
It might be a newcomer, but Tokyo Nihonto is already gaining attention for its impressive collection of antique and custom Japanese swords, especially katana, wakizashi, and tanto.
Tokyo Nihonto has an authentic Japanese sword store in Shibuya City, Tokyo, allowing tourists and travelers to check out their offerings. Alternatively, aspiring Japanese sword owners can log into the shop’s official website, look for a sword, and order from there.
This Japanese sword shop will take care of everything else.
Located in Tokyo’s Chuo City, Ginza Seikodo is a favorite of Japanese sword collectors worldwide. It’s a recognizable name in the industry, featuring mostly antique blades, with some dating as far back as the 15th century (i.e., Osafune Morimitsu’s Tokubetsu Hozon-classified wakizashi in 1411).
Ginza Seikodo’s extensive collection of rare antique swords drives its prices. But that’s not stopping sword collectors from dropping by because they are confident about the blades’ quality.
This shop can also help you buy and export an authentic Japanese sword.
With three branches in Kanazawa, Shinjuku, Tokyo-based Samurai Museum is one of the best shops to buy a sword in Japan. It is duly-authorized by the government to buy and sell NBTHK and NTHK-certified antique swords.
For example, it has a $14,700 Hosho Sadayoshi katana and a $24,000 Nobuhide-signed Tokubetsu Hozon-certified katana. Its collection is impressive, albeit expensive.
The good news is the Samurai Museum also handles Japanese sword exports, allowing you to bring home an authentic blade hassle-free.
Shibuya City in Tokyo’s cutting-edge district is famous for its trendy youth culture and vibrant nightlife. It’s also home to Aoi Art, one of Japan’s most celebrated authentic Japanese sword shops.
Unfortunately, shopping for a genuine sword in Aoi Art requires a reservation of at least a week. The shop’s popularity among sword collectors doesn’t match its small shop, and they want to provide the best possible sword-buying experience to everyone.
Like the others in this list, Aoi Art can also help you transport an authentic Japanese sword from the store to your home in another country.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to buy a sword in Japan, but taking it out of the country might prove challenging, especially if you’re clueless about Japan’s export regulations. Although you can bring an authentic Japanese sword home as a carry-on item, a better approach would be to use the services of authorized Japanese sword shops.