FAQ: Japanese sword laws
In order to legally own a sword in Japan it has to be registered in accordance with the Ju-t˘-h˘ (Japanese Firearms and Sword Law). This applies to both antique and newly made swords (Shinsakut˘). Exempted are blades under 13 cm (5.1 inches) that have no Mekugi-ana (peg hole), and Iait˘ / Mogit˘ (training and decorative swords made from a zinc-aluminum alloy that can't be sharpened).
The certificate / license issued - Juh˘-t˘ken-rui-t˘rokush˘ (in short "T˘rokush˘") - has to stay with the sword at all times. Most collectors attach it to the Shirasaya-bukoro or Koshirae-bukoro (storage bags). It's the blade that is registered, not the owner; however, the Prefectural Education Board (Ky˘iku-inkai) has to be notified within 20 days if there is a change of ownership.
Licensing is done by the Prefectural Education Board during a Shinsa (evaluation). The judges conducting the Shinsa are sword experts contracted by the Education Board, usually senior members of the local NBTHK branch (Nippon Bijutsu T˘ken Hozon Ky˘kai = Society for the preservation of the Japanese Art Sword).
It should be noted that the T˘rokush˘ is not a certificate of authenticity; only the measurements, number of Mekugi-ana etc. and the Mei (name inscribed) are stated, whether it's authentic (Sh˘shin) or false (Gimei).
Only traditionally made Nihont˘ can be licensed, i.e. swords made from Tamahagane (a special kind of steel). This means in effect that it has to be either an antique or made by a contemporary, licensed smith. Mass produced WWII swords (so called Sh˘wat˘) and foreign made swords are not eligible for T˘rokush˘.
Contemporary smiths have to go through an apprenticeship of at least five years and - after they have proven their ability to forge a sword before a panel of judges consisting of senior smiths - become certified by the Cultural Agency (Bunka-ch˘).
Nihont˘ can be freely imported into, and exported from Japan if all procedures are carried out according to the law. However, there is one notable exception:
In 1950 the Bunkzai-hogo-h˘ took effect in which important artwork of exemplary artistic and historic significance can be designated as Jűy˘-bunkazai ("important cultural property") and Kokuh˘ ("national treasure"). At present ca. 900 swords are designated Jűy˘-bunkazai, and out of those 122 are Kokuh˘. Although anybody - including non-Japanese - can own such an item, it has to remain in Japan under penalty of law.
Well established, outstanding master smiths may become Jűy˘-mukei-bunkazai-hojisha (important intangible cultural property holder), commonly called Ningen-kokuh˘ (living national treasure).
Exporting swords from Japan
Swords for export must be submitted to the Bunka-ch˘-bijutsu-k˘gei-ka (Art and Craft Section of the Cultural Agency). The T˘rokush˘ is handed in, and an export permit (Kobijutsuhin-yushutsu-kansa-sh˘mei) is issued in return. This export permit is valid for one month; within that time all customs and export procedures have to be completed or otherwise the permit becomes void.
With this permit it is possible to either send the sword via mail/private carrier abroad, or to personally carry it through customs when leaving Japan. The latter is in most cases not possible for those who just visit Japan since issuing usually takes at least two weeks. In this case the dealer/seller has to apply for the export permit.
Importing swords into Japan
There are two possibilities: sending a sword to Japan or bringing it into the country personally (in the latter case there's a limit of 3 swords per person).
If the sword is sent to Japan the parcel has to include a pro-forma invoice declaring the value of the sword, and that it is being sent for restoration and will be returned to the sender upon completion of the work (otherwise import duties have to be paid by the addressee). The sword is then stored at the International Post Office (Kokusai Yűbinkyoku) and a notification is sent to the recipient, who in turn has to contact the Prefectural Education Board to request licensing. This takes place once a month at the International Post Office; after the T˘rokush˘ is issued, the sword will be forwarded to the addressee.
When personally bringing a sword into Japan, it has to be declared at customs. Customs escort the importer to the port police, which then will issue a temporary import permit (Hikiwatashi-sho). The importer then has to contact the Prefectural Education Board for proper licensing; if he lives in Japan it's that of his prefecture, otherwise the one at the prefecture of the restorer.
If a sword is rejected at the Shinsa, the recipient (or owner if at that time in Japan) has to decide whether it will be sent back to where it came from, or handed over to the police for destruction. Swords brought to Japan personally that are obviously foreign made or Sh˘wat˘ (recognizable by having an arsenal stamp) are held back already at the port police and can be picked up again when leaving Japan.
The above is a summary of the laws and proceedings to the best of my knowledge and based on personal experience. It may sound very complicated and unnecessary to those who are used to much more liberal weapons laws. However, it's the law in Japan and we have to abide by it if buying swords there or sending them to, for instance, a polisher. And I have to warn everybody who entertains the notion of sending a blade to Japan without declaring the parcel's contents, or who wants to smuggle a sword into Japan. A restorer will refuse to conduct work on it since it has no T˘rokush˘ - dealers, polishers etc. are occasionally checked upon by the police in regard to this matter. And having possession of a sword or firearm - and be it only a smallish Tant˘ or a muzzle loader - without the proper registration isn't only a misdemeanor but a criminal offense.
Attached picture: a Juh˘-t˘ken-rui-t˘rokush˘ (registration number partially blackened)