On Swords and Treasures and Due Diligence

(pictured for reference: the signature on the tang of a katana)

Once, an eon ago, I worked at the University of Pittsburgh East Asian Library’s Japan Information Service. I had to mind the desk and field calls and emails from the public about Japan and East Asia in general.

So one day, this older gentleman calls. He says that he wants a Japanese to English dictionary so he can translate the “pictograms” (kanji) he found on the tang of a sword.

“What sword is this, sir?” I ask him.

“So my mother in law was a Women’s Army Corps soldier on General MacArthur’s staff and brought a sword back from the Occupation of Japan. We stripped the handle and there are these pictograms.”

I, a grad student in Edo period history, and well acquainted with the stories of lost National Treasure swords from the Occupation, had to stifle a gasp.

I explained to him that if it was kanji, it was probably a maker’s or appraiser’s signature, and thus a proper noun, and that he couldn’t translate a proper noun any more than it would make sense for a Japanese person to translate his signature or mine. I explained my credentials, pleaded with him to send me a photo, knowing that you don’t strip a Japanese sword to the tang without knowing how to put it back together, and that it takes the proper tools to do so. I told him that there are many National Treasure status swords that vanished during the Occupation, and that we really ought to ascertain who made this blade, because it could be a credit to him and a boon to all humanity.

To translate the Japanese expression, I wanted to see that sword so badly that “it was like a hand came out of my throat.”

The man was not interested, and said goodbye.

I think about that sword sometimes, and my heart breaks.

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