If you ever find yourself in the highly privileged position of attending a Japanese Sword Show, you may want to ensure as far as possible that you do not get thrown out by big Japanese martial artists who know how to shatter your windpipe in fourteen fascinatingly different ways. Whilst the Japanese preoccupation with etiquette and proprietry may seem unnecessary and even silly to members of Western cultures, it is your adherence (or at least acknowledgement) of that etiquette that will get you through the show windpipe intact, and maybe even allow you to have a little fun along the way.
As stated, attendance at a Japanese sword show, or 'Token Kai', is a privilege enjoyed by very few. The expense involved in travelling to Japan and then finding a good show can be prohibitive. However, there is much reward in that you will be able to handle and admire perhaps several hundred high-quality swords in a day, ranging in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Only by handling a nihon-to (traditionally made) Japanese sword can the budding enthusiast really see the difference between the genuine article and the hordes of cheap, mass-produced blades swarming out of Spain and the Philippines. As you might imagine, such a show will be attended not only by newcomers to the field but also by extremely wealthy and experienced collectors. It is essential that you conduct yourself in the manner to which both the bladesmiths and collectors are accustomed to. A lack of etiquette at any point can be seen as at best an irritation, and at worst an offense to the show and it's organisers. Blatant disregard of accepted codes of conduct will almost certainly result in your being ejected from the show, and possibly being banned permanently.
Boring as this may sound to your average 'seen-Highlander-and-thought-it-was-cool' sword fanatic, research into the histories and techniques of Japanese swordsmiths is essential. At the very least, an understanding of the basic anatomy of a sword, which bits are likely to fall off and clatter to the floor etc, is recommended before attending a show. Japanese swords in particular come in a wide variety of shapes, fittings and mountings, and a basic knowledge of the most common will be of immense value. A small taster of the vast body of knowledge out there will probably help to show you just how much most of the people around you probably know, and may help increase your respect for the show somewhat.
Sword shows are almost always divided into tables, each smith or dealer having their own mini-show of their work. Bear in mind when queuing that these people are here to sell their blades, so high visibility is important to them. Try not to block their most prominent displays from view, or you may be asked to leave the table and return at a later time. Stand to the side, never to the centre of the table. When you are able to speak with the table attendant, try not to monopolise their time. There are probably a lot of people behind you, and if some of them are wearing formal black attire and white gloves they are most likely considerably better informed and financed. If you must ask the table attendant a question, make it concise and specific ie, ask about a particular sword, not his opinion on the Eastern vs. Western swordfighting style debate, or if he likes Damascus steel. Also consider that whilst some attendants may be swordsmiths or their apprentices, some of them may simply be dealers or representatives. Their knowledge on the swords will vary considerably based upon their role; a swordsmith will know exactly what temperature he heats his blades to, whereas a dealer probably only knows their Rockwell hardness distribution. The aforementioned study will also come in very handy here if a dealer pegs you as a neophyte and tries to sell you a substandard blade. Although this almost never happens at reputable shows, it has been known for newbies to stagger out of a show several thousand dollars lighter, but laden with perhaps one blade of questionable quality and enough cleaning kits and choji oil to supply him and his progeny for several generations.
Show the proper respect
Always the number one priority is to pay proper respect to the attendant, be he master swordsmith or lowly dealer. Failing to do so can result in your being asked to leave the table. These people are not like shop assistants, they are not there to make you feel good about buying a sword or to take crap from you and smile afterwards. They are there to answer reasonable inquiries, complete sales, and to most importantly ensure the blades are not damaged by careless handlers. If you are disrupting the atmosphere of the table you are discouraging other collectors from visiting the table, which can cost the company or smith tens of thousands of dollars in lost sales. The most important point is that you must always seek permission before handling a blade. Many people stroll over and pick up any sword that catches their eye - this is wrong. Cue the big windpipe-shattering judo experts. Once you have the attendant's permission to handle the sword, the next phase begins:
Handling the Sword
Receiving the Sword
Generally, there are three ways in which the sword will end up in your hand after requesting permission to handle it, based upon the position of the sword and the preference of the attendant.
The attendant may lay the sword onto the table in front of you, usually with the edge facing towards them. They may also simply gesture politely to the sword, indicating that it is ok to pick it up. At this point, just pick it up gently. Stress here is on the gently, because some swords can be far lighter than others depending on the style - too much force in lifting has predictably embarassing and potentially dangerous results. When you are finished inspecting the sword, resheath it and either lay it back on the table or hand it back to the attendant horizontally, holding it in both hands.
The attendant may choose to hand the sword to you, whilst still in it's scabbard. This is customary if you are handling an expensive artistic blade, where the fittings are as much a part of the beauty as the blade itself. If this is the case, the sword is handed to you horizontally, held in both hands. Take care to receive it with both hands, and hold it steady. A small polite nodding bow or simple "thank you" will go a long way towards smoothing your relations with the attendant at this point. Once again, when your inspection is complete resheath the blade and hand it back the same way it was handed to you.
More common with martial arts blades, designed for strength and functionality over wonderful appearance, the sword is unsheathed by the attendant and handed to you naked. This can also be the case with very old and expensive blades, when the attendant simply does not trust you enough to handle such a delicate operation as drawing an ancient sword. The exchange in this case is always handled in precisely the same way, because you are transferring control of a very sharp and dangerous weapon. The attendant will hold the blade vertically, with the edge facing towards them. They will then pass the sword to you, holding the bottom half of the handle. To receive the sword, grasp the top half of the handle, right beneath the tsuba, or guard. To return the sword, rotate it in your hand so the edge faces you, and hand it back the same way, holding the bottom half of the handle.
Drawing the Sword
This operation is a lot harder than it looks to accomplish safely and competently. You can very easily go from getting everything right to slicing an innocent bystander's arm off, all in the flick of a wrist. You draw the sword edge-up, or edge facing towards you. Never draw it edge out, because although they do that in the movies, consider that in the movies they were probably getting ready to fight someone. You on the other hand are there to admire the beauty of the blade. Once drawn, avoid pointing it towards the crowd at all costs - people have actually walked straight into a drawn blade and subsequently died. If you think this is their own dumb fault, hold a kitchen knife at arms length and point it straight at your abdomen. You will notice the blade is practically invisible unless you're looking straight at it, and you know there is a knife there, an advantage not enjoyed by the passer-by. To avoid this, keep the blade over the table at all times, preferably not pointing at the attendant either as they may interpret this as somewhat offensive. They wont challenge you to a sword duel at dawn or anything (and if they do, run), but they may request politely that you return their property and bugger off. If there is a lack of space, hold the sword upwards and pull the scabbard off the sword. Set the scabbard down somewhere, so you can keep two hands on the sword. Also, the aforementioned study can help here. Some swords, particularly World War II gunto blades, have a latch that prevents the sword from being drawn unless a small button is pressed. This is usually located just beneath the tsuba. If you are unsure of how to unsheath the blade, ask the dealer to do it for you.
There is a particular issue surrounding swords kept in shirasaya mountings, or storage scabbards. They are recognisable due to the lack of a guard and are usually undecorated. These are sometimes harder to draw, but are perversely more delicate and easier to break. They are usually simple two halves of wood held together by rice glue, and they can come apart very easily if treated badly. If the sword is remaining firm inside the scabbard, under no circumstances use full force to get it out. You risk serious injury to yourself or the people around you. The proper way to unsheath a shirasaya mounted sword is to grip the scabbard throat and handle throat, and to cross your thumbs over the join. Then, push each away from the other slowly but firmly, removing the blade inch by inch rather than in a broad sweeping motion likely to decapitate someone. It is also a very good idea to make sure the menugi, the small bamboo pegs that hold the handle onto the blade, are present. If they are not, the image of you unsheathing a blade in their general direction may be the last thing someone sees before said blade is protruding from their chest and they lose consciousness.
Inspecting the Sword
Although it is beyond this writeup to discuss how to tell a good sword from a bad one, there are several big no-nos when it comes to handling the blade itself. Any one of these could get you ejected if the attendant is having a bad day.
Do NOT touch the blade. This is the absolute worst sin committed time after time at shows. The oils left by your fingers are caustic, and attack blade steel. This can result in stains which require a professional polish, which can cost up to ten thousand dollars. This is truly the ultimate disrespect to the attendant or smith, and should be avoided at all costs. If you accidentally touch the blade, the attendant will have a soft cloth with which you may carefully remove the stain.
Don't breathe on the blade. For the same reasons as outlined above, this can damage the blade steel. Many serious collectors will place a handkerchief over their faces to prevent moisture collecting on the blade surface. If you are inspecting the blade at close range for nioi or hamon, at the very least hold your breath.
Dont try test cutting on anything without permission. This means not doing the standard knife test of running it over a fingertip or nail to see how sharp it is. Not only will this probably result in injury to yourself (you try holding a 4lb sword that steady with one hand), but most likely will again cause corrosion to the blade steel. If you are thinking of buying the sword, it is then acceptable to request a piece of paper on which to test the edge sharpness. This doesnt mean putting the paper on the table and slamming down on it overhand - you simply draw the paper over the blade and it should cut easily in two. I stress that this should only be done if you are honestly interested in the blade; otherwise it is like asking to try out someone's toothbrush and then wandering off without explanation.
Do not wave the sword around, or re-enact famous movie moments. This is the fastest way to be ejected, banned and otherwise humiliated. Keep the sword steady and under control at all times - if at any time the security staff perceive you to be neglecting this rule you will be removed from the premises.
Returning the sword
The sword should be returned just as it was handed to you. If it was handed edge-up, it should be returned edge-up. If you must resheath the blade, do so by holding it either horizontally or at an angle towards the ceiling. Always place the scabbard onto the blade, not the blade into the scabbard. It is far more preferable for the piece of decorative wood to have more kinetic energy than a four foot long piece of lethally sharp metal. Always keep the edge facing up, doing otherwise can cause damage to the blade surface.
Following these simple guidelines should assist you in enjoying the swords that are on display, and ultimately make you a more educated and appreciative collector. And at the very least, you will be able to open your own ketchup bottles and use a butter knife without suffering horrendous flashbacks to 'the accident'.