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Sansei Japanese Sword Appraiser Mike Yamasaki – Part 1: Turning a Manzanar Dagger Into a Family Heirloom

I met with Mike one day around 10:00 am at a Japanese café in Little Tokyo. He had an appointment with a client in the morning and more meetings again that afternoon. His job? Appraiser of Japanese swords.

Mike is a sansei (third-generation Japanese) and is married to Mayumi, who was born in Japan. While I was exchanging email with Mayumi about “Toyo’s Camera”, a documentary about internment camp experiences, she wrote that “my husband has a dagger made at the Manzanar internment camp.” I immediately wanted to see the dagger and meet Mike.

We’ll discuss how he showed me that dagger a little later, but first here’s what Mike told me about why he, as someone born in America, would become an appraiser of Japanese swords. His grandparents on his father’s side came from Wakayama Prefecture. His grandparents on his mother’s side came from Shizuoka and Fukushima Prefectures and made their way to America. During the war, his mother, grandmother and uncle were relocated to Manzanar.

Feeling a strong connection with his grandmother, Mike’s job from childhood was to repair the daggers she brought from Japan. Perhaps it was by continually polishing those daggers that the Japanese soul grew within Mike.

Soon finding himself wanting to work in a field related to Japanese traditional culture, Mike took a path that led to him becoming an appraiser of Japanese swords. Invited by an appraiser he had met at a Japanese sword exhibition in Texas, he headed for Japan.

Getting a chance to work with the official Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozonkai (NBTHK, Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Art Sword), Mike went back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, developing an eye for Japanese swords. In 1998, at the NBTHK’s 40th Anniversary National Sword Convention, he took 5th place out of over 200 participants at the “kantei-kai” (sword identification challenge). And at the monthly convention in September 2001, he became the first-ever non-Japanese national to win.

Understanding Japanese swords means understanding the background of hundreds of years of samurai history. Even as a Nikkei, an American-born, Mike clearly has a more detailed knowledge of Japanese history than this writer born in Japan. Regarding second-generation Japanese Americans and Japanese people, Mike makes the following comment:

“Nikkei immigrants came to America before the war. Japanese people in Japan experienced the war and post-war period, and that dramatically changed their values. However, Japanese Americans held on to the old values from the Meiji and Taisho eras. It was a value system that said you had to be honest and hard working. For a Sansei like me, too, according to my own self-analysis, I’m more Japanese than the Japanese.

A surprising thing (surprising for this writer only because I was ignorant of it) was the fact that there are countless fine swords that were reluctantly given up by Japanese people that were brought to America and remain here today.

“In Japan, there were many excellent swords passed down from generation to generation. However, after World War II, the occupying American army saw Japanese swords as weapons, so MacArthur ordered the swords to be rounded up. At first, they were burned and thrown away, but due to the petition of volunteers on the Japanese side who said, “We want to preserve these historic swords,” they later escaped destruction. After that, some of the swords that had been gathered up became souvenirs for Occupation soldiers and were brought to the U.S.” Some swords made their way to Australia, England and other victorious nations, but most went to America.

The tragedy is that few people fully understand the value of these swords. One time, a client who asked for an appraisal led Mike into his garden. In the field, stuck in the ground and wound by the vines of a bean plant was a Japanese sword. There was also an American who embedded a sword handle in concrete as a decorative touch since the pattern was so beautiful. He didn’t know the handle was worth as much as $80,000 or $90,000. Then there was a Caucasian woman who was using a Japanese sword to carve a turkey, saying “This sword is great for slicing meat, you know.” Such a waste.

On the other hand, there are more than a few Americans who take great care in preserving the Japanese swords passed down to them by their parents as a family heirloom.

“You might think Americans in general don’t have much appreciation for history, but as descendants of people who came over from Europe, there are many people who show reverence and respect for antiques.”

Next, it is time at last for Mike to show the Manzanar dagger he has been keeping as a family heirloom.

Part 2 >>

© 2009 Keiko Fukuda

appraiser sansei sword