As a younger (nearing late thirties) collector and student I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. I own multiple blades, including one Juyo, and I’m a serious martial artist. I may be rare but I am not unique! I’ve also been a member of the NBTHK and the American branch since I bought my first sword. I’m going to share some thoughts here that I have already shared with folks at the AB, lightly edited, because I think they can be generally useful and contribute to the discussion. One caveat though: maintaining (and growing) a niche organization like this is very difficult and requires significant investments of time, attention, and effort. The NBTHK competes with everything else in life, and many if not most of the competitors are also investing massive sums of money in addition to time, attention, and effort (hello, Netflix).
Most people who are going to enter this field nowadays will do so through the “side door.” For example, a few years ago in Japan, the video game Touken Ranbu led to a massive surge in the popularity of nihonto among younger women. There were lines around the block at museums. Here in the states, I think the most likely point of entry for potential NBTHK members, including younger members, is through the martial arts.
To that end, in parallel with an organized social media effort, I think the NBTHK should explore how to better connect with the martial arts community (reputable dojos only, of course). What kind of partnerships might make sense? Can we provide some basic nihonto curriculum to introduce the NBTHK into dojos around the country? Any legitimate dojo teaching the Japanese sword should be or is already teaching some aspects of what we might consider the basic NBTHK curriculum. Many serious dojos already have one member who is the “real” sword guy/gal. In this way, forming relationships with dojos, to include events and programming, could be a good path to generate a steady stream of interest. It also opens up the possibility of collaborating with their social media accounts, and so on.
This is my dojo, which is a good example of the kind of group we could target: https://www.brooklynbattodo.com. You’ll notice a few relevant articles I’ve written for the dojo, one a primer on nihonto overall, and the other a sword buying guide for martial artists.
I have yet to meet a serious martial artist who isn’t utterly amazed when they get to see a nihonto in person. That’s no guarantee they want to expend any more effort, but it’s a start.
Combined with some work on membership tiers and educational materials, this could be something of a shortcut to an interested / invested audience. Many of us have deep connections into kenjutsu dojos across the US, for example, and I don’t think it would be too difficult to organize a series of virtual seminars or lectures for dojos aimed at 1) sharing basic nihonto knowledge that is relevant to practicing a sword art and 2) introducing the NBTHK and the benefits of membership. In this way offering “101 level content”, especially via lectures, can be a lead generation strategy.
Not everyone who loves nihonto/tosogu will become a collector, but I have personally guided multiple people in my dojo to buying their first nihonto or collecting a few tsuba. Having someone to guide you through the process makes it so much easier to spend $2000+ on an antique. On the other hand, it’s been much harder to convince folks to join the New York Token Kai and physically come see more stuff in person once a month. So I recognize there are limits here — but online content has the advantage of being consumable on any schedule one likes, for the most part. Taking most of a Sunday to go into the city, even to see amazing swords, is a lot to ask I guess. Traveling to one of the big shows will always be an activity for the most passionate among us.
Another angle that I think can be very effective is simply that the NBTHK offers authoritative, authentic resources on the Japanese sword and related arts like tosogu. Emphasizing
affiliation with “The Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo” is a good idea. The internet is such a minefield, but with the right framing the NBTHK can be positioned as an antidote to all the crap out there. Essentially the NBTHK can market itself (yes marketing!) as one of the best English language destinations for nihonto-related resources and community. In doing so it should be able to connect with people who are likely to self-select into the right kind of groups (i.e. people with a serious interest for the right reasons).
But NBTHK also needs to create and tailor membership benefits for beginners. Perhaps there is a "102 level" series of lectures they could offer that would build on the “101 level” that could be shared for free to the public (for the purposes of lead generation). Within the NBTHK AB there are some of the foremost nihonto/tosogu experts in the English speaking world. They could create some simple but amazing materials to support newcomers. For example, there could be a “Gokaden Intro Course,” and the NBTHK give anyone who joins at a certain level of membership a copy of Connoisseur’s to go along with it (financially I don’t think this is insane but I could be wrong).
Getting started with nihonto really is the hardest part. If we remove some of the friction and target the right audiences we might see more success in the long term.
But as you can probably tell, to even begin to execute some of this is a part time job at least.
Apologies for the wall of text!