Collector Interview #1

“Today we will be talking to John Egger of White Tiger Military about how he first established an interest in collecting Japanese military relics of the World War Two period. Over the years, John has acquired an enormous amount of knowledge in the area of Japanese headgear and is often the go-to-guy when it comes to many of the questions that collectors have with regard to field caps, helmets and the like. In addition, his familiarity with Japanese World War Two militaria in general is also quite broad.” (*Note: John’s new website is currently under construction, however, his old site continues to have a number of fascinating vintage photographs, articles, links and other valuable contacts listed there. You can find him at: http://whitetigermilitary.com/index.php)

FOWM: Hello John. It’s a pleasure to sit down and talk to you about our favorite area of interest: Japanese militaria. Thank you for joining us in doing this article.

JE: Thank you for the invitation and opportunity to take part in your project.

FOWM: You are one of those personalities in the hobby, that many people seem to know. Why do you think that is?

JE: I’m a “personality”, wow! If I am viewed that way it might be because of my “longevity” in the hobby. I started out collecting WWII items in the 1950’s and have been collecting Japanese militaria since the 1970’s. I’ve been fortunate enough to have gotten to know and learn from some really great collectors who were in this long before me, particularly: Shelton Yokomizo and Bob Rolfe, along with others. I still attend a number of shows around the country and I really enjoy meeting and talking to people. If you do anything long enough, you become a familiar face that hopefully, people feel they can approach. Besides, the field of collecting Japanese militaria is a small community in comparison to other areas like: German or American Civil War collectibles, both of which have a larger following and longer history.

FOWM: Why do you think that people collect Japanese militaria?

JE: Why do people collect anything? That’s a question that we may never have a complete answer to. I think for some people, collecting is in their DNA , they only need to latch onto something that appeals to them. For me, it just happened to be Japanese [militaria]. I have always been a curious person in general and had a desire to learn about many things. Once I began to hear stories about the war as a child, the subject grew to become a big part of my life. I never get tired of talking about the history and events of the war, collecting or even seeing someone else’s collection; it’s all interesting.

FOWM: How and when did you first become interested in Japanese military items from World War Two? What were the first pieces that you collected? How did you acquire them? And, Do you remember how much you had to pay for them?

JE: I’m a first generation, “Baby Boomer. I grew up on a healthy diet of John Wayne movies and listening to family and friends sitting around and telling their tales about the war. In those days as a kid, if you showed an interest, the adults would share with you. Along with that, the war relics that they had brought back, were often given away. Of course, the veteran’s wives were more than happy to have me take boxes of “war junk” out of their home and put it in mine. By the time I was in high school, my room was full of flags, helmets, and swords; mostly German [war souvenirs]. I did have an uncle who fought in the Pacific Theater and he gave me a Japanese rifle and bayonet, as well as some Japanese navy post cards that he brought home from Japan. I remember looking at the postcards and being fascinated with how artistic the writing was; I was desperate to know what they said, but in those days, we didn’t know anyone Japanese or someone who could read what was written on them. Sometime around 1960, my class studied Japan in school and a classmate brought in a signed Japanese “yoshigaki” flag that his dad brought back from the War. When I saw that flag, I was totally hooked on collecting Japanese [military] items. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, that I became aware of “gun shows” and that you could buy war souvenirs at these venues.

FOWM: You have said before that as a kid, you had a large German helmet collection; that must have been some collection!

JE: To be honest, the only reason that I had so many German helmets was because I had never seen a Japanese helmet. They were so much harder to find; no one wanted them at the time. Later, as fate would have it, when I returned home from Viet Nam, my mom had tossed everything out….she hated it all! So, I had to start all over again.

FOWM: Your flag experience as a school boy mirrors my own in a few ways: I can certainly understand what you mean by how artistic the Japanese signed good luck flags appear visually. The combination of red sun, on the white field, along with numerous lines of black kanji characters, is quite appealing to the eye. I’m sure that is why so many servicemen brought them home from the War.

FOWM: What would you say is your favorite one or two categories of Japanese militaria to collect today? And, Why do you collect them?

JE: My two areas of collecting interest are: Pearl Harbor memorabilia and Japanese military headgear. Because of its historical significance, the attack on Pearl Harbor has always been interesting to me. As for Japanese headgear, I think that every collection starts with at least one really good helmet. When I began collecting, I wanted everything I could get my hands on, but I soon realized that without unlimited resources, I had to specialize and focus on a specific area of interest. The real challenge with collecting Japanese headgear at that time was that there was little, to no information available on the subject. You had to accept what people told you about the items and you had to work very hard to find bits and pieces of information to add to what you had learned. What is common knowledge today, was priceless and rare back then.

FOWM: How do you respond when you hear people call someone in our field, “an expert”? What does it take for someone to become a real “authority”?

JE: Being considered an “expert” or an “authority” by your peers is an honor that comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I think that those terms should not only describe a person by what he knows but in addition to, how he uses the knowledge that he has. Unshared knowledge is nothing more than a form of hoarding. As an expert, you also need to listen to what others think and be willing to engage in a civil exchange of ideas. If you withhold or only parcel out information like breadcrumbs so others will follow you, then I’m not sure there is any value in being an expert or authority.

FOWM: What is the most fun aspect of our hobby to you?

JE: That’s easy: attending military shows, as well as the competition between friends, all of whom are looking for the same thing. There is the thrill of the hunt and the reward of finding something rare, even when it’s not you who finds it. Years ago, I was part of a group of collectors that would go to dinner after the last day of the Great Western [Gun and Military Antiques in Pomona, CA] Show. We sat and talked about the event overall, and reveled in the stories about who had found the best item or had made the best buy at the show. Everyone shared in a friend’s good fortune. Of course, that was quickly followed by planning ways to try and trade him something for it, in order to add it to your own collection!

FOWM: Do you see many reproduction items in your area of interest? And, How difficult are they to identify?

JE: There have always been reproductions in collecting; where there is money involved, there is greed. By the artistic application of a little dirt for aging, a greedy person can turn reproduction helmets or caps into, “…pieces my late uncle Bob brought back from the top of Mt. Suribachi just after the flag raising”. Thankfully for Japanese militaria collectors, the number and quality of the reproductions came a little later, rather than sooner. They are, however, still a part of our hobby. If you don’t believe that, then go on eBay and scan each page of World War Two Japanese militaria items listed for sale. You will see an item on almost every page that is either a reproduction being sold as the real thing, or an out-and-out fake; those are becoming better and harder to recognize. You MUST learn not to “look” at things but rather to “see” them for what they are. You can only do that through experience and knowledge. The next thing that you need to know are the names of the sellers that have built a reputation for selling bad items. Long before eBay, we would walk into a military show and saunter by certain tables, not stopping, because we knew who the questionable dealer was and what he sold. As someone in the hobby, you just learn to deal with it. The only way we can protect ourselves is to become knowledgeable collectors! When you pick up an item at a show (or anywhere), you should have enough basic knowledge to know if it’s a good piece or a bad one. Standing there with money in your pocket and an item in your hands is not the time to be asking, “What is this?”. The added pressure of walking away from a “rare” addition to your collection, will often cause you to make a mistake. There is no one in this hobby that hasn’t purchased a bad piece at one time or another; I’m one of them! If you have been “taken”, don’t give up on the hobby. Use that experience to learn from your mistake…single mistake, not plural, I hope. It will be a lesson well learned and money well spent.

FOWM: What advice would you offer to a new collector today? And, Why?

JE: My advice has always been the same: “Buy the book before you buy the coin.” Today, there is a lot of information available in books and the internet that was not available some years ago. Unfortunately, so many new collectors jump right into the frying pan and buy when they should be investing in a reference library, asking questions and educating themselves. “Learn first and buy second”: Isn’t that what you always say Mike? Listen to what other collectors tell you and then go out and prove whether if what they said was right or wrong.

FOWM: Some areas of militaria collecting in general have become quite expensive. Can someone new to the subject of Japanese World War Two militaria, still find affordable items to collect?

JE: Yes, it can be done, but probably not on the same scale that you and I have experienced over the years. I would say, however, that if you’re passionate about what you collect and patient, then you can build a good collection over time. Mike, you and I grew up in the “Golden Age” of collecting World War Two militaria, when pieces were plentiful. At that time, we just didn’t have the money to buy them all! Today, the supply of WW II items is dwindling. Adding to that, collecting, like any other business (and it is a business, not a hobby to some), is about “supply and demand”. As the supply goes down, the price goes up… I don’t know but perhaps the price is always up! Whatever it is, the collector must decide whether the item is worth what the seller is asking?

FOWM: What do you see today as challenges, if any, to the collecting of Japanese World War Two militaria?

JE: An early challenge is for each individual to find his or her own area of collecting interest. Another thing that I have noticed is a change in the age of the people attending military shows. The dealers and the collectors are getting older and we are not being replaced by as many younger people as we saw years ago. While World War Two items may always be “hot” items, I’m not sure that they will have the same popularity in the future as they do now. On the other hand, if we live long enough, maybe even our own collecting passions could change. While collecting is in our DNA, our interests in what we collect might evolve. If we remain open to new ideas and new information, then perhaps we will discover newer areas of interest. ….And hasn’t that already happened? Both you and I started out collecting something totally different than what we do now.

FOWM: Yes, that is absolutely true, John. I had 2 early areas of collecting interest: the first was with patches of the United States military. My grandfather was a World War One veteran, who left much of his wartime militaria, including patches and insignia to me. Following World War Two, my dad gifted me all of the patches and insignia that he had gathered over the years. My second area of collector interest at the time was in American Civil War/Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) pieces. For a kid, these were great things to collect as they spurred a historic study of the various Wars and military campaigns, while at the same time, they allowed me to collect related artifacts.

FOWM: Thank you again, John, for taking the time to answer our questions and for sharing some of your collector experience and insights with us. I look forward to seeing you at the MAX Show in just a few weeks………

JE: You are welcome- it’s been my pleasure. I’ll see you in Monroeville.

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