A topic that frequently comes up among collectors of Nihontô is polishing, and especially the difference between the finishes Sashikomi and Hadôri (also called Kanahada {iron oxide} or Keshô {cosmetic}). There are often very emotional remarks promoting Sashikomi as the only "true" way of polishing.

A polish consists of two stages: Shitaji (lower polish), and Shiage (final polish); detailed information about the different stones and tools used in the respective stages, as well as the differences between Sashikomi and Hadôri, can be found in Jon Bowhay's excellent articles on polishing.

During the mid 10'th Century the basis for the traditional sword polishing we see today was developed (except for the Kaisei stone, a rather recent addition). Honami Kôtoku introduced burnishing around 1600 AD. However, a polish beyond the Shitaji stage only brings out the artistic qualities and doesn't contribute much to the "cutting ability" of the sword. It can be safely assumed that most swords never saw the Shiage stages, which meant additional work, and therefore additional time and cost. Only during the peaceful Edo period became this kind of refined polish more or less the standard.

In the Momoyama period the Honami family was retained by the Tokugawa as polishers and appraisers, and from then on they started to monopolize this part of the sword market. During the Edo period they had eleven branches, and everybody who could afford it had their swords polished by them.

A common misconception is that all swords polished until the early Meiji period were done in Sashikomi, where the actual outline of the Hamon is followed as closely as possible with the finger stones, and that Hadôri was developed after the electric light bulb was introduced to Japan. This is only partially true.

Although Sashikomi is indeed the earlier form of (final) polishing, Hadôri was used at least from the mid-Edo period on according to old records, and possibly even earlier. However, the care that is exercised in doing Hadôri as we know it now, and the level of whitening of the Hamon / Hataraki (activities) and the degree of darkening of the Jihada trough Nugui is something that came with the advent of the light bulb. Electricity didn't only enable the polisher to work with a constant, bright source of light, but makes it easier to see the various Hataraki clearly, and the Honami family responded to the strong call of connoisseurs to refine their techniques in accordance with the improved conditions of appreciating swords.

Sashikomi works fine with a very tight Nioiguchi / Habuchi (transition from the hardened edge to the softer body), but doesn't help to make the secondary Nie and Nioi show and, in the worst case, even obscures them. Hadôri can enhance or subdue the contrast between Hada and Hamon, and gives the Hataraki more brilliance.

I would like to comment at this point that an average sword takes about 120 hours of concentrated work by a skilled polisher; this should help to answer the often-asked question why a Togishi charges what he does.

Since making visible Nie and Nioi and the Hataraki they form are the main reason for doing the final stages of the polish, I think a short explanation might be helpful:

The martensite particles that form the Habuchi are called Nioi if they are small, misty and diffuse, and Nie if they are big enough to form individual, discernible, shiny spots. Actually every Habuchi consists of Nioi, and the occurrence of Nie depends on the carbon content of the steel as well as the temperature to which the blade is heated prior to Yakiire.

If the Hamon only - or mostly - has Nioi, it is called Nioi-deki, and if the Nie particles cover up most of the Nioi it's called Nie-deki. Nie can form clusters, large Ara-nie and small Ko-nie etc. Most Hataraki (like Kinsuji, Chikei and Inazuma) are certain patterns of Nie.

Nie appeared already on blades of the Jôkotô period, but I don't know if by incident or with deliberation. Be that as it may, I think we can safely assume that in the Kotô period smiths were able to produce controlled Nie, and that it was a matter of preference, tradition, fashion and - to a lesser extent - material whether they did or not.

I dare to say that in 9 out of 10 swords Hadôri will help to appreciate the finer details of the sword. This is also the point where the Togishi changes from a mere craftsman to an artist who "interprets" a certain sword, much like a conductor of classical music. Why then prefer some collectors, especially non-Japanese, Sashikomi? This is a very complex issue, and, IMO, has a variety of reasons.

One obvious reason is simply taste – some like the appearance of Sashikomi better than Hadôri. The outline of the Hamon is more easily visible, even from a distance. One is immediately able to tell that the Hamon is Chôji, not, for instance, Notare as the white, misty Hadôri might suggest.

And as I mentioned earlier, Hadôri is also called Keshô, cosmetic. Some argue that the "natural beauty" is to be preferred to "make-up". Women use make-up to show the appealing features of their face in the best light, while covering up the less desirable ones. The same is true for swords. Some like a woman's face without make-up the best, some are attracted to bright, red lips.

I even heard that Sashikomi is better because it preceded Hadôri and therefore is the most traditional method – but then we should only collect swords "in the white", i.e. Shitaji, because that's even more traditional. We should not forget that certain methods were developed to help us appreciate the artistic features of the sword, and it would be foolish to disregard them.

Another reason for believing Sashikomi is more "traditional" is actually a misunderstanding: many swords outside Japan lost their polish and may appear as if done in Sashikomi. A polish lasts only so long, and after years and years of using Uchiko - which is powdered polishing stone - Hadôri tends to fade.

I'm not sure how much different views of what is considered beautiful and what not divides the Japanese and non-Japanese collectors in regard to polishes and Nihontô in general. A Westerner at a Geisha party will probably find that their white colored faces make the ladies look artificial, and is surprised to learn that his Japanese counterpart finds the line of the neck much more erotic than the décolleté (which is the reason why women's Kimono are tightly closed at the throat, but stand stiffly away from the back of the neck). Although I think that cultural differences are too often over-emphasized, it would be naive to assume that people all over the world look at the same thing the same way.

And of course there are master polishers and mediocre ones. Lacking the proper technique and taste, a Togishi can do more harm then good with his polish. This is true for both Sashikomi and Hadôri, but the latter is more prone to artistic misinterpretation, and can ruin the entire appearance, while with Sashikomi the manual skill is the most important factor.

Sashikomi could never do the bright, Milky Way like Suguba of a Tadayoshi blade justice. It would make a very active Sôshű Midareba look too ragged, and ignores Hataraki in the Jihada. Hadôri is not a polish that makes the beauty of the blade accessible at first glance – one has to look "into" the blade in order to see all its activities. It takes more time to discover all its features, but ultimately makes visible things that Sashikomi isn't able to bring out. If the polisher is an expert, he'll lead the way for you in appreciating the best the blade has to offer – if you're willing to invest a little time and an open mind. I'm sure I said the following already a couple of times somewhere else: looking at WWII Guntô and Kazuuchimono/Shiiremono ("mass produced" swords made during times of high demand) doesn't help to gain an understanding of the artistic nature of Nihontô, eventually it'll even ruin your eyes.

One can only learn art from art swords. Looking at a paint-by-numbers "painting" of a bugling elk doesn't make one an art expert, studying up close works by the old and new masters will. All those important swords that have a Hadôri polish do so for a very simple reason: it reveals their beauty to their best advantage. It has nothing (well, at least not that much) to do with fashion or an ominous conspiracy by the NBTHK.

If a blade is in a bad or old polish, flaws might not be visible. It takes a very trained eye to judge an unpolished blade, and even then it might hold some unpleasant surprises after being put to the stones. Call me a coward, but I don't trust myself enough to buy a blade where I can't see the Hada and Hamon clearly. I yet have to see that rusted "sleeper" at a blade show that turns out to be a national treasure. Forget those "study pieces": if it's worth being bought, it should be worth being properly polished and preserved. What's there to be "studied" - rust in different stages of eating up the blade? It should at least have enough of a polish left in order to see its artistic possibilities. If not, get an expert's opinion. Don't "buy a signature" when it's not confirmed by the blade itself.

And after you bought the sword, give it to a qualified polisher. Ask around, look at examples of polishes, talk to the man, ask for references and decide for yourself if you can trust him, because that's an important factor if you're about to part with a substantial amount of money for his services. And for Pete's sake, don't tell him how to do his work! If you see him wrinkling his brow when you say "this Sudareba should look great in Sashikomi", take it as a warning sign. Depending on the personality (and sometimes the current financial situation) of the individual Togishi, he might comply with your wishes. More often than not he won't accept the work.

Let him decide how to polish – after all, he studied this craft and knows what he's doing. This has nothing to do with blind trust, but with relying on his taste and especially his experience. Believe me, there are a gazillion of fine points we – who don't spend countless hours bend over the stones in an awkward body position, handling swords of different periods and makers on a daily basis – simply don't see.

I recently had a Wakizashi polished, and when I picked it up at the polisher's place I was very pleasantly surprised how "different" (i.e. beautiful) it looked. He had done a marvelous job in bringing out the clusters of large, shiny Nie. I first didn't understand when he said that he was quite happy with how his re-defining the lines of the blade had turned out. And then it hit me: the Wakizashi didn't only look much, much better than before because I was able to see the Hamon and Hataraki clearly now, but because he had "adjusted" the taper and Shinogi-ji to get it back to its original, intended shape after a couple of bad polishes it had received in its past. This had done as much – if not more – for the "new improved look" of the sword as had his tasteful Hadôri polish. The lines were crisp again, and the Yokote was placed where it belonged, and not just somewhere in the tip section.

But to end my ramblings now: my point is that few people are better qualified to catch the essence of a blade than an expert polisher. And that's what it's all about: to do whatever it takes to reveal to us the splendor and beauty the smith embedded into the sword a couple of centuries ago (or only yesterday). Sashikomi – why not? But only if it suits the sword, not as a matter of principle.

Edited and amended on July 16, 2004.