A slice of Japanese culture: The Northern California Japanese Sword Club

A selection of sword blades from 1250 to 1850. RIGHT: Thomas Helm, president of the Northern California Japanese Sword Society. photos courtesy of Thomas Helm

More than just studying the blade, the Northern California Japanese Sword Club is a gathering of people interested in all aspects of the Japanese sword. The club, founded by Nisei John Yumoto, continues to thrive today, and hosts the San Francisco To-Ken Taikai, the largest Japanese sword show outside of Japan.

Thomas Helm, who has been involved in sword collecting for 30 years, said Yumoto had passed on by the time he had joined the club in the 1990s, but the Nisei founder laid the groundwork for sword appreciators across the country.

According to the group’s history, the club originated from a predominantly Japanese American group studying martial arts in San Francisco in the 1920s. Several members, including Yumoto, involved in the pre-war group recognized the need for English-language resources after the war and convened the Japanese Sword Society of the United States in Berkeley, Calif. in 1955 and the Northern California Japanese Sword Club in 1964 out of Yumoto’s home.

“At the end of WWII many GIs, returning from the Pacific, brought Japanese swords home with them. At the time, there was virtually no Japanese sword (nihonto) related material available in English. John Yumoto recognized this need, and was instrumental in providing basic information about nihonto to these non Japanese-speaking sword collectors,” the club’s history page said.

Thomas Helm, president of the Northern California Japanese Sword Society. photo courtesy of Thomas Helm

While Japanese American members have become fewer in number, Helm said the hobby has become much more accessible and diverse. He said there were no women participating in the club when he first joined in 1993 and that only six or seven books were available in English to learn about swords, requiring any American interested in learning more to learn Japanese. Helm himself spent around five years in Japan studying Japanese culture and swords.

“Nowadays, there are dozens. And really, really good information from original Japanese sources is being translated competently by people working at the Met in New York and in the sword clubs in Japan. There are foreign members living in Japan that are putting out really good material in English,” Helm said. “You can study and learn quite a lot by being an English only student of the Japanese sword.”

Helm added that members collect and focus on a myriad of things pertaining to the sword. The club’s president said he first became inspired to study Japanese culture and Japanese martial arts beginning with the antiques his grandfather had brought home from Japan while serving in the occupation. For others, it could be an interest in forging blades or the study of Japanese art and history.

“You see a lot of crossover from Japanese textiles, calligraphy, landscape painting, you name it. Any expression of Japanese art over the last thousand years is reflected in the accoutrement that goes along with the sword,” Helm said. “Some people are attracted to the history, so they like swords that have verifiable provenance to a particular family or a particular event, or a particular period in history. For many people, it’s when you come to appreciate the blade, it’s the art itself.

We call them art in steel, and when you understand the qualities of a sword, you can stare at one all day long, as much as you could a painting by one of the great masters.”

Helm said some club members collect and focus on only blades, while others might collect sword guards and other accessories. Still others might have interest in the lacquer used in the scabbards.

“There are collectors who’s only interested in blades. A well-made blade in a simple plain wooden scabbard is all that they need to be happy,” Helm said. “Other people are more interested in the outfit that a sword wears. When you put it in your belt and you go to town, you go to a party, you go on a sankin-kotai trip from Edo back to wherever your home province is, and so that comprises of scabbard, handle and sword guard … And because we’re talking about a thousand years of history, there is something, really, for every taste.”

For collectors across the country, the Northern California Japanese Sword Club plays a vital role in the hobby as hosts for the annual San Francisco To-Ken Taikai in Burlingame, Calif. Helm said the event attracts 80 to 90 dealers from all over North America and Japan to sell their wares.

“It’s three days of buying, selling, trading, hanging out with like-minded individuals, but we also have educational programs. So there are sword groups that come and present swords or fittings for people to study,” Helm said. “Over the years, we’ve had some really terrific opportunities to study some special swords at the Taikai.”

Helm said he had managed to find and acquire sword guards made by the late-Keith Nobuhira Austin, the first accredited American to undergo a full apprenticeship in sword smithing in Japan in the 1960s at last year’s convention.

Aside from the Taikai, Helm said the organization meets every month at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown and has been presenting their collections annually at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival since its inaugural year. The club’s president said meetings are free to attend and encouraged people to drop by.

“The meetings themselves are open to anybody,” he said. “So anybody who’s in Japantown on the third Sunday of the month, who has an interest, is welcome to stop by. You don’t have to know anything about swords. We will take you through it and give you a hands-on experience. And you can attend as many meetings as you like without becoming a member, there’s no pressure.”

For more information on the Northern California Japanese Sword Club, visit http://www.ncjsc.org.

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