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Sansei Japanese Sword Appraiser Mike Yamasaki – Part 2: It’s the Treasures of the Past That Make for a Bright Future

>> Part 1

Having repaired his grandmother’s swords since he was a boy, sansei Mike Yamasaki became an appraiser and connoisseur of Japanese swords. He carefully holds a “treasure” you couldn’t put a price on. Engraved with kanji for the word “Manzanar”, it is the dagger made at the Manzanar internment camp.

He encountered this dagger for the first time 8 years ago. A Caucasian man asked Mike for an appraisal. “For something made by an experienced craftsman, it was extremely rough. But that was because it was made in an environment without sufficient tools. When you consider the circumstances, it’s actually quite well made.”

Mike’s mother’s family was interned at Manzanar during World War II. When he laid his eyes on that rough-hewn dagger, it linked his family history with his chosen profession as a Japanese sword appraiser. Feeling something akin to a solemn duty, he thought, “Whatever it takes, I need to acquire that dagger.”

During the war, the Japanese and their second-generation children who were sent to internment camps by the American government were separated from the land they had become accustomed to, and the assets they had worked so hard to acquire were confiscated. There were some among them who had Caucasian acquaintances or policemen take care of the swords that had been passed down to them over the generations, but they were few and far between.

According to later investigation, the creator of the sword was proven to be Kyuhan Kageyama. Having inherited his sword-making skills from his father, Kageyama made the sword Mike now owns while he was living in Manzanar in 1944. After the war, he moved to West Los Angeles and worked at a nursery cultivating plants. He was also a member of the Southern California Sword Society.

After coming into the possession of an American soldier working as a guard at the internment camp, Kageyama’s Manzanar dagger was sold to a sword collector. Later, a different collector who had purchased the sword with the intent of selling it to the Manzanar museum turned out to be the person Mike met for an appraisal.

Mike passionately persuaded him, saying “My family lived at the Manzanar internment camp, so please let me buy it from you.”

How much did he pay for the dagger? Mike’s purchase price was $1,000. But was it really worth that much?

“It would have been about $100 if it hadn’t been made at Manzanar. The man who sold it to me didn’t tell me what he paid for it. But being made at Manzanar gives it a different meaning. I want to pass it on to one of my three sons. Even if someone came along and asked to buy it, I wouldn’t sell. But I might loan it to the (Japanese American National) Museum for a limited time.”

As Mike says, that dagger has precious value because it has history. And it’s only someone who knows history who can understand that value.

The value of things inherited by children isn’t limited to financial worth. In fact, monetary value is secondary. You can only think that, being so caught up in material things, today’s Japanese people have lost sight of the importance of family history and the treasure it holds. I feel like Mike, a third-generation Japanese, has reminded me once again of my Japanese soul and family roots.

Finally, I asked him about his future goals. “I want to go on teaching many people, including Japanese-Americans, about Japanese swords, including their history and cultural value. That’s because I believe that, while people are always focused on the future, it’s through these beautiful treasures born in the past that an even brighter future can be made.”


© 2009 Keiko Fukuda

appraiser manzanar sansei sword World War II