eBook Summer Super Sale

Upon increased request recently, I am happy to do another 50% off eBook Super Sale. As usual, it works directly via me. I provide a list of all my eBooks below, showing the regular and the reduced prices. I also linked them so that you can check what the description says but again, DO NOT buy over there at Lulu.com this time. Get in touch with me via “markus.sesko@gmail.com” and pay me directly, either by PayPal using the very same email address or by check or credit card (using the donate button at the very bottom of this page) and I’m going to send you over the eBook. And anyway, if you gave a question, just drop me a mail.

So, grab this chance to fill up your tablets/phones with all references you need. The eBook Super Sale will be up until the end of May.

Thank you for your attention!

Akasaka Tanko Roku ….. $8.90 – $4.50
Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords ….. $24.90 – $12.50
Geneaogies and Schools of Japanese Swordsmiths ….. $19.90 – $10
Genealogies of Japanese Toso Kinko Artists ….. $19,90 – $10
Identifying Japanese Cursive Script ….. $14.90 – $7.50
Identifying Japanese Seal Script ….. $14.90 – $7.50
Japan’s Most Important Sword Fittings ….. $14.90 – $7.50
Jukken ….. $14.90 – $7.50
Kano Natsuo I ….. $59.90 – $30
Kano Natsuo II ….. $59.90 – $30
Kantei Reference Book – Hamon & Boshi ….. $19.90 – $10
Koshirae – Japanese Sword Mountings ….. $19.90 – $10
Koshirae Taikan ….. $59.90 – $30
Koto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90 – $45
Koto Meikan ….. $39.90 – $20
Legends and Stories Around the Japanese Sword ….. $9.90 – $5
Legends and Stories Around the Japanese Sword 2 ….. $9.90 – $5
Masamune ….. $29.90 – $15
Masters of Keicho Shinto ….. $19.90 – $10
Nihon-koto-shi ….. $29.90 – $15
Nihon-shinto-shi ….. $29.90 – $15
Nihon-shinshinto-shi ….. $29.90 – $15
Shinshinto Meikan ….. $29.90 – $15
Shinto Meikan ….. $29.90 – $15
Shinto Shinshinto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90 – $45
Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists ….. $89.90 – $45
Soken Kinko Zufu ….. $9.90 – $5
Swordsmiths of Japan ….. $89.90 – $45
Tameshigiri ….. $29.90 – $15
The Honami Family ….. $19.90 – $10
The Japanese Toso Kinko Schools ….. $24.90 – $12.50

German Titles:

Die Honami Familie ….. $19.90 – $10
Geschichten rund ums japanische Schwert ….. $9.90 – $5
Geschichten rund ums japanische Schwert 2 ….. $9.90 – $5
Koto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90 – $45
Nihon-shinto-shi ….. $29.90 – $15
Nihon-shinshinto-shi ….. $29.90 – $15
Shinto Shinshinto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90 – $45

Tiger & Dragon Tadakuni

Quick post. Wanted to share something I came across a while ago whilst looking up a blade in Satō Kanzan’s Shintō Oshigata. The book features a blade by Hizen Tadakuni (肥前忠国), which shows a hardening pattern in the form of the Kanji characters for “tiger” (虎) and “dragon” (龍), plus the shape of a dragon as well. Just thought you might find this interesting, as I did.




Honma’s Appraisal Diary Volume 3

Continuing from the previous post, we have now reached Volume 3 of Honma Junji’s Appraisal Diary.Volume 3 covers the year 1974 and introduces in about 350 pages roughly 255 blades. Total for Volume 3 is $99, which includes shipping.

With Volume 3, we have arrived at about 1,200 pages of text and almost 1,000 blades! Please let me know if you have any questions.

Honma’s Appraisal Diary

For the advanced Kantei participants, and for those who just love to read about all sorts of sword stuff, I am offering the first five years of Honma ‘Kunzan’ Junji’s Appraisal Diary (Kantō Hibi Shō), which was published in the Tōken Bijutsu magazine of the NBTHK between 1969 and 1983. The translations provide a very valuable insight into the mind of one of the greatest sword scholars of the 20th century, and unlike in “official” blade descriptions, Honma is occasionally quite frank about period attributions and what he thinks about a certain blade.

In about 480 (letter format, paperback) pages, Volume 1, which covers the years from 1969 to 1971, introduces roughly 400 blades, of which many are accompanied by oshigata drawings. Price for Volume 1 arrives at $129.00, which includes shipping.

Volume 2, which covers the years 1972 and 1973, introduces in about 370 pages roughy 300 blades and arrives at $99.00, again, with shipping included.

If you are interested in acquiring a copy or both, please reach out to me via markus.sesko@gmail.com. Thank you!

Reading another kozuka motif

Whilst I was looking for somthing else, I came across a note in my database that said: “43.120.151 – Check signature.” The background for this entry is one of the first projects I tackled after joining The Met in 2018, which was to decipher and translate all the signatures seen on sword fittings and put that into a database. To give you an idea about the scope of this venture: Of about 3,500 sword fittings in the collection of The Met, about 2,500 are signed.

So, the object in question, which has the accession number 43.120.151, is a humble kozuka that bears an inscription and a difficult to decipher signature. The piece itself is of shibuichi and depicts a tree and two eldery men in low relief, whose walking sticks are highlighted via gold iroe. Thus, my first thought was, the motif is probably a reference to some famous Chinese subject, like Taoist immortals or hermits, etc. In any case, I was more interested in the inscription as I always see them as a challenge and good opportunity to learn something.

Luckily, the inscription is not interpreted in crusive script and is therefore relatively easily to decipher as:


Sōsha-kage o namame ni shite shunsha san-su,
kaka suijin o tasuke-ete kaeru.

I will deliver the translation shortly, but I want to walk you through the “solving process” so to speak. Just googling this inscription, which has been revealed as being a poem, yields fairly many results, and after some research, I was able to find what I think was the very inspiration for this kozuka. That is, a double-page in the Waka Meiga En (和漢名画苑, lit. “A Garden of Celebrated Japanese and Chinese Paintings”) that was published by Ōoka Shunboku (大岡春卜, 1680–1763) in Kan’en three (寛延, 1750). Fortunately, The Met is also in the possession of a copy Shunboku’s six-volume publication, so you can find some information on this publication here.

The aforementioned double-page is titled: Gan Ki hitsu (顔輝筆, “Painting by Yán Huī [early 14th century]”) and Yotte Kika Zu (酔歸家圖, “Drunks Going Home”). This title is then followed by the very poem we see on the kozuka, and the double-page can be seen below.

As you can see, we have some adults and the eldery with walking sticks depicted, plus trees and some kind of pathway between foothills of mountains which are referenced on the kozuka as well. And now we come to the translation of the poem, that is, what is this motif all about?

“When the shadows of the mulberry trees lengthen and the Spring Festival breaks up, all families return and support those who are drunk.”

So, the double-page and the kozuka depict just that, i.e., ordinary people returning to the village after having enjoyed a festive day somewhere outside, with some of them overdoing it with the sake and now need help to make it back home safely. I can imagine this evening scene very well😇

But, it wouldn’t be fun without a little mystery, right? The mystery in this case being the actual signature of the piece. For the sake of completeness, the copper seal at the very top right of the kozuka reads “Kyōto seal” (京印). Now, the mei (some shots that show the mei and inscription a little better are shown below) starts with Shiryū (紫龍), which is one of the many art names () of Ōtsuki Mitsuoki (大月光興, 1766–1834), and the last two characters are dōjin (道人). The character in between is a bit difficult to read, but I think it is Mitsu (光). That is, it does not appear as (堂) to me, which Mitsuoki used as suffix for the previously mentioned art name in the form of Shiryūdō (紫龍堂), and it does not appear to be Kyoku (髷) either, which Mitsuoki used as a prefix for dōjin to create yet another art name, Kyoku-dōjin (髷道人). In short, the signature could either be “Shiryūdō-dōjin” (紫龍堂道人), or “Shiryū Kyoku-dōjin” (紫龍髷道人), but as mentioned, I don’t think that this is the case. We know that Mitsuoki very often abbreviated his family name Ōtsuki (大月) to just as Tsuki (月). So, there is the remote possibility that he abbreviated his name Mitsuoki to just as Mitsu here, although I have to admit, I have never seen any other work of his signed this way, i.e., “Shiryū Mitsu dōjin” (紫龍光道人)…

Lastly, I would like to mention that the kozuka came to The Met as part of the large collection of sword fittings the brothers Herman A. E. and Paul C. Jaehne gifted to the museum in 1943. Some of their records and notes are still with certain pieces, and the kozuka introduced here comes with the cryptic description: “Unsigned? After the old painting by Masayuki, by Horyusai Mitsukyo.”

Oda-Samonji (織田左文字)

This time, I would like to introduce a meibutsu (名物, renowned sword with a nickname) that has been rehardened (saiha, 再刃), and that sword is the Oda-Samonji (織田左文字).

The Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō (享保名物帳) introduces the sword as follows (notes in square brackets added by me for reasons of clarification):

Oda-Samonji, suriage, 2 shaku 2 sun 4 bu (~ 67.9 cm), value 100 gold coins, [in the possession of] Lord Ii Kamon no Kami [Naomasa] (井伊掃部頭, 1561–1602).
Owned by Lord Nobunaga (信長, 1534–1582) who gave it to his second son Nobukatsu (信雄, 1558–1630). Afterwards, through whichever transmission, owned by Lord Kamon no Kami. Appraised in Keichō four (慶長, 1599).

The Oda-Samonji.


Right away, we have here the origins for the nickname of the blade, i.e., the blade is called Oda-Samonji because it was once owned by Oda Nobunaga. Prior owners are unknown. Journalist and sword scholar Takase Ukō (高瀬羽皐, 1853–1924) writes in his 1919 publication Shōchū Tōken Meibutsu Chō (詳註刀剣名物帳,), which is an annotated version of the Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō, that he was unable to find any reference to how the sword came into the possession of Ii Naomasa. In Volume 1 of his Nihontō Daihyakka Jiten (日本刀大百科辞典, 1993), Fukunaga Suiken (福永酔剣) speculates that the blade may have come into the possession of Naomasa as a reward for defeating Nobukatsu’s retainer Maeda Yojūrō (前田与十郎) after Maeda had switched sides and supported Hideyoshi in 1584.

Takase Ukō (高瀬羽皐, 1853–1924).


So, be that as it may, the sword remained henceforth in the possession of the Ii family, who were the Daimyō of the Hikone fief (彦根藩) in Ōmi province. It is unclear if an origami was issued at the time of the Keichō four appraisal. The current origami that exists for the blade goes back to Hon’ami Kō’on (本阿弥光温, 1603–1667) and was issued in Keian four (慶安, 1651). It remains with the attribution to the early to mid-14th century smith Samonji (左文字) and with the evaluation of 100 gold coins.

Towards the end of the Edo period, when Ii Naoaki (井伊直亮, 1794–1850), the twelfth head of the Ii family after Naomasa, was in possession of the sword, he had a new koshirae made for it. The copper tsuba (see picture below) features the characters “Oda-Sa” (お多左) as sukashi design, which is based on a calligraphy of said characters written by Ii Naoaki himself. This fact is recorded on the tsuba via the inscription: Tō no Chūjō Naoaki kore o sho-shita + kaō (藤中将直亮書之「花押」, “Written by Tō no Chūjō [a title] Naoaki + monogram”).

Oda-Sa tsuba (privately owned).


Ii Naoaki (井伊直亮, 1794–1850).


Then in 1923 unfortunately, the blade was damaged in the devastating fire that followed the Great Kantō earthquake as the Ii main residence in Tōkyō was one of the countless buildings that did not survive. At some later point, the blade was rehardened, but it is unclear when this took place and who carried it out. The blade is now in the possession of the Hikone Castle Museum by the way, which houses the huge collection of the former Ii Daimyō family.


Page from the Imamura Oshigata.


Imamura ‘Chōga’ Nagayoshi (今村長賀, 1837–1910).


We do have, however, an oshigata of the blade that was made before the fire damage and rehardening (see picture above, right). It is featured in Volume 2 of the posthumously published oshigata collection of sword expert Imamura ‘Chōga’ Nagayoshi (今村長賀, 1837–1910) titled Imamura Oshigata (今村押形・古刀第二巻, 1927). Therein, Imamura refers to the blade as being in the possession of “Count Ii.” There were two heads of the Ii family bearing that title, Ii Naonori (井伊直憲, 1848–1902), the son of Naoaki’s successor Naosuke (井伊直弼, 1815–1860), and Naonori’s son Naotada (井伊直忠, 1881–1947). The oshigata is not dated and Imamura passed away in 1910, so it is possible that he had studied the blade either when it was with Naonori or with Naotada. Interestingly, Imamura also made a rubbing of the tsuba (see picture above, left). Incidentally, Naotada was the head of the Ii main line when the Great Kantō earthquake took place. Naotada was known for being a connoisseur of Japanese art, in particular of the Nō drama. It is therefore conceivable that it was him who commissioned the rehardening of that family heirloom sword.


Ii Naonori (井伊直憲, 1848–1902) (left), Ii Naotada (井伊直忠, 1881–1947) (right).


Coming back to the pre-saiha oshigata. Takase writes in said publication that he remembers Imamura mentioning that the omote side shows a midare with saka-ashi that resembles the style of Bizen Motoshige (元重) and that the ura side is truly interpreted in the typical style of Samonji. Fukushi states the same and adds that the hamon on the ura side (which was originally the omote side when the blade was still a tachi) is a large-dimensioned midareba and that the bōshi of the ura side is pointed and interpreted in kaen style. Fukushi also quotes from the Meibutsu Hikae (名物扣), a Hon’ami internal draft for the later Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō if you will, in which it is stated that there are traces of a soebi, that there is a kizu (flaw) above of the hamon at about 1.2 cm below of the kissaki on the omote side, and that there is also a ha-kobore (chip) in the monouchi area. I can not detect these soebi traces and that kizu on the photograph shown above, which is from the Sano Museum catalog to its 2009 special exhibition Reborn (p. 45). Also, I can not see any chipping in the monouchi in this photograph, but we can assume that any minor chip has been polished out since the Meibutsu Hikae was compiled in the early 18th century, and that the traces of the soebi disappeared that way as well.

Interestingly, Watanabe Taeko (渡邊妙子), the director of the Sano Museum, writes in the exhibition catalog entry to this blade that on the basis of the hamon seen in Imamura’s oshigata, it appears that the blade is a work of Samonji’s son Yasuyoshi (安吉). I would agree in terms of sugata and the bōshi, but in my humble opinion, I am associating a relatively narrow ko-notare-based hamon with Yasuyoshi that is mixed with a more or less pronounced amount of gunome and togariba, or connected sections of such. I do not recollect coming across a long sword by Yasuyoshi that has such a wide and clearly slanting midareba. In any case, Watanabe further writes that in its current condition, the blade displays a faintly visible itame that makes the jigane tend to muji, that the hamon is a nie-based connected gunome, and that nie activities are also extending into the ji.



Juxtaposing the photo of the blade with Imamura’s oshigata (see above), it appears that the latter may not have been consulted for the rehardening job as I see a greater tendency to gunome in the new hamon. However, it is difficult to tell from this photo alone, so this is just an impression and the new hamon may actually do slant more than it looks. That said, the Oda-Samonji is an interesting case of a named blade that was handed down within the same family for 300+ years, and it was so much treasured that even a Daimyō took it on himself to provide the calligraphy for the tsuba design of a koshirae project that he had initiated.

Not your usual hataraki

This will be a brief post. Background: I came across a blade with interesting activities above the hamon.

We all know that by the shintō era, swordsmiths became increasingly concerned with the appearance of the hamon. In a nutshell, we see a shift from the aesthetics that result from form follows function towards seeing the surface of a blade as a canvas that can be adorned with a hamon at will. Accordingly, we see hamon that deliberately try to evoke pictures of plunging or surging waves, cloud banks, a mountain range, etc., and then with the shinshintō era truly picturesque hardening patterns, e.g., kikusui (chrysanthemum floating on water) and Fuji-mi Saigyō (poet Saigyō looking at Mt. Fuji) emerged.

The sword in question is a work by the second generation Tango no Kami Kanemichi (丹後守兼道) from the Mishina (三品) School. Kanemichi, real name Mishina Kiheiji (三品喜平次), was the son and heir of the first generation Tango no Kami Kanemichi (丹後守兼道 , 1603–1672). His father was the second son of the Kyōto-based master Tanba no Kami Yoshimichi (丹波守吉道) and had relocated to Ōsaka during the Kan’ei era (寛永, 1624–1644).

We are dealing with a wakizashi with a nice Genroku-shintō-sugata (deeper curve than seen with the preceding Kanbun-shintō-sugata) that displays a calm and gently undulating notare in ko-nie-deki. Striking, and that is the point of this post, are the five prominent tobiyaki in the upper section of the blade. Smaller tobiyaki over notare billows can represent spray, or a single larger one the sun or the moon, but five such big ones? And they are clearly no mistake as they appear on the ura side as well (also five).

So, what are they? As we are dealing with five circular tobiyaki, one might think of the gosei (五星). Gosei are the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which were regarded as major planets and which are visible to the naked eye. These planets are the basis for the conceptual scheme of the Five Phases or Five Elements (gogyō, 五行), i.e., fire, water, wood, metal, and earth/soil and are thus very important for astronomy, the calendar, the horoscope, and much more.

More likely, however, the tobiyaki represent the upper part of the asterism of the Big Dipper. There was a blade with very similar features for sale at the Samurai Museum Shop (link), although here, we have seven tobiyaki and thus all the starts of the Big Dipper represented. Interestingly, this blade is also the work of a Mishina School smith, Echizen no Kami Minamoto Rai Nobuyoshi (越前守源来信吉). The website also elaborates a bit on the religious meaning of the Big Dipper and you can find more and very detailed information on Mark Schumacher’s outstanding website here.

It is likely that the owner of the sword was involved in some of these beliefs, but I am too busy right now to speculate about how exactly swords can be linked to Big Dipper worship, apart from the fact that Myōken (妙見), the Buddhist deification of the North Star and/or the Big Dipper, is often depicted with holding a sword over his head (see picture below). My aim with this very brief post was to make readers aware of that when seeing a shintō or later blade with an unusual hamon and/or hataraki, one should assume that it was not done at random.

Forgotten Masters – Haruakira (治剣)

Sometimes you come across a wonderful work by an obscure maker who has either fallen through the cracks of historic swordsmith recording (such an unrecorded smith is referred to as meikan-more, 銘鑑漏れ), or who appears to have been a one-hit wonder. Of course, the earlier the maker, the more difficult it is to make assumptions on his output and on how many of his works have been lost over time.

This time, we are talking about a work by a smith with the name Haruakira (治剣), which likely many of you have never heard of. To begin with, I would like to introduce one of his extremely rare works, a wakizashi, which has passed Jūyō in 1997.

Wakizashi signed: Chōshū Haruakira saku – Ōan yonen sangatsu hi (長州治剣作・応安二二年三月日) – “Made by Haruakira from Nagato on a day in the third month of Ōan four (1371).”

The blade is in hira-zukuri, has a mitsu-mune, a wide mihaba of 3.05 cm, a nagasa of 35.0 cm, and a hint of sori. Thus, we have here a typical hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi from the mid-Nanbokuchō period. The kitae is a prominently standing-out itame that is mixed with mokume and towards the mune with nagare-masame and that features ji-nie and much chikei. The hamon is a gently undulating notare-chō in nie-deki that is mixed with gunome, togariba, kinsuji, sunagashi, and many ashi. The elements of the ha are relatively small dimensioned and the nioiguchi is rather subdued. The bōshi is midare-komi and displays a Jizō-style kaeri on the omote, and a pointed kaeri on the ura side. Kinsuji and hakikake appear on both sides in the bōshi and the kaeri connects with the muneyaki, which runs all the way down to the mune-machi. The nakago is ubu, has a ha-agari kurijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, and bears anaga-mei and date.

In the write-up of the Jūyō paper, the NBTHK mentions that the workmanship bears strong resemblance to the style of the Sa (左) School, but showing more rustic hataraki in the jiba, although being overall of a bold make and of an excellent deki. Now, the similarities to the Sa School is logical for geographic reasons, i.e., Nagato, the westernmost province of Honshū and present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, was only separated from Chikuzen province (present-day Fukuoka Prefecture) by the narrow Strait of Shimonoseki (and a little bit of Buzen province). In addition, several Sa School smiths had migrated to Nagato over time. The vertically compressed signature, i.e., cramped looking signature, however, also bears some resemblance to the mei of the Hasebe (長谷部) Scool. Whilst we are talking about the signature, please note that Haruakira signed the second character of his name, akira (剣), in the variant (剱).

Kōzan Oshigata

Well, this Jūyō blade was the only work by Haruakira that I was able to find in my references. Interestingly, it is featured in the Kōzan Oshigata (光山押形), which was compiled in the late 17th to early 18th century. Since the time that source was compiled, the second mekugi-ana had been enlarged. Please note that although the signature is fairly faithfully copied, the Kōzan Oshigata got the date wrong. That is, one stroke for the month was overlooked by Hon’ami Kōzan (本阿弥光山, 1634–1714) and therefore the second (二月) instead of the third month (三月) was written into the oshigata. Compared to the rest of the signature, which is fairly faithfully copied as mentioned, the entire part of the month and day is noticeably off. Maybe Kōzan did not pay much attention to the lesser important parts of the date here?

So, Haruakira was a swordsmith from the middle to somewhat later Nanbokuchō period based in Nagato province who was likely related to the Sa School. This is as much as we can say about this maker. When we look into the meikan, we find two more Nagato smiths with this name: A Haruakira who was active around Eishō (永正, 1504–1521), and another one who was active around Keian (慶安, 1648–1652). It therefore appears that local swordsmiths revived that name, in both cases roughly 150 years after their predecessor.

I was not able to find works by any of the later two Haruakira either, but one blade of the Eishō-era smith is featured in the Tsuchiya Oshigata (土屋押形), which was compiled from existing oshigata taken by Tsuchiya Harunao (土屋温直, 1782–1851). The blade appears to be a katateuchi-style uchigatana, which became increasingly popular around the time that Haruakira was active, and features tobiyaki and very prominent muneyaki. The yobiyaki, however, look a bit “disorganized,” and if you zoom in on the habuchi, it looks like that the ha is nie-laden. Interestingly, this Haruakira used the character (釼) instead of (剱) for the character akira (the difference is in the left-hand radical).


I would like to conclude by reflecting on the local historical context. With the exception of the influx of Sa School smiths around the mid-Nanbokuchō period and of Niō (二王) School smiths migrating from neighboring Suō province throughout the 15th century, Nagato province never had been a notable production center for swords. It is interesting to observe that the meikan do not list any Nagato smiths before the Nanbokuchō period. This is insofar odd as the Kamakura Shōgunate installed a local commissioner in Nagato (Nagato Tandai, 長門探題) in 1276 to oversee coastal defense after the Mongols had invaded two years prior. Seems as if this did not have any impact on local sword production, meaning that the troops employed there were likely sourcing their swords from other provinces (or merely brought them with them).

That spike in Nagato sword production around the mid-Nanbokuchō period is very likely linked to the Ashikaga campaign against Kyūshū that took place at that time, and that increase in recorded Nagato-based smiths throughout the 15th century likely to the then expansion of one of the local rulers, the Ōuchi (大内) family. The low number of recorded Nagato smiths throughout the subsequent Sengoku period suggests that local samurai were sourcing their swords once again from elsewhere.

Now, the continued lack of significant numbers of Nagato swordsmiths during the Edo period might be explained by the background of its rulers, the Mōri (毛利) family. Due to their allegiance to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu transferred them from their lands in Aki province to Nagato once he had won Sekigahara, which came with a significant decrease of annual income. In a nutshell, the Tokugawa remained suspicious about the Mōri, ranking them tozama daimyō (外様大名, lit. “outside daimyō), and the Mōri held a grudge against the Tokugawa until the end of the Edo period. Accordingly, and despite the fact that military infrastructure already greatly suffered in Nagato due to the decreased income, it is safe to assume that the Tokugawa did not want to see a major weapons production site operating down there. However, the Mōri boosted local tsuba production, resulting in a myriad of makers and works, referred to as Chōshū-tsuba (長州鐔, named after the Chōshū fief that the Mōri were ruling) that reached every nook and cranny of Japan.

I hope I did not go off too much on a historical tangent and I want to continue this “Forgotten Masters” series whenever I come across such in course of my research.

Naotane’s odd aging habit

The famous shinshintō master Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778–1857) needs little introduction, but I would like to briefly recap his career before I come to the actual topic of this post.

Born in An’ei seven (安永, 1778) (some sources say An’ei eight) in Yamagata (山形) in Dewa province (present-day Yamagata Prefecture) into a family of blacksmiths that produced agricultural tools, Naotane, his real name was Shōji Minobei (荘司箕兵衛・庄司美濃兵衛), felt destined for greater things. Accordingly, some time towards the end of the Kansei era (寛政, 1789–1801), he left his home town for Edo to study with the arguably most famous swordsmith at that time, Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀, 1750–1825). We do not know who or if someone arranged this apprenticeship, but maybe it had helped that Masahide was originally from Dewa province as well.

Portrait of Naotane he had commissioned with a certain Takada Enshū (高田円洲) at the age of 72. It had remained with the Shōji family until it was unfortunately destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.

Naotane learned fast as he had entered his teacher’s forge with existing skills from his upbringing as a blacksmith, and so he was able to become independent in Kansei 13 (1801) at the young age of 23. Naotane married the daughter of a charcoal wholesaler, how practical, and moved several times (one time he lost his house due to a fire that had ravaged the Kanda district).

In Bunka nine (文化, 1812), and through the agency of his former teacher Masahide, Naotane was employed by the Akimoto (秋元) family, which ruled, until 1845, the Yamagata fief in Dewa province, and then the Tatebayashi fief in Kōzuke province. For the time being, Naotane worked from Edo, receiving the honorary titles of Chikuzen Daijō (筑前大掾) around Bunsei four or five (文政, 1821~1822), and that of Mino no Suke (美濃介) in Kaei one (嘉永, 1848), when he proceeded to Kyōto to present the aristocratic Takatsukasa family (鷹司) with a tachi.

Naotane’s fame grew and his outstanding skill allowed him to produces blades in any style, although his main artistic focus were the Bizen and Sōshū traditions. Naotane not only trained almost as many students as his teacher Masahide, he travelled extensively all over Japan and instructed local smiths in many of his temporary working locations. Naotane married his daughter to his best student Jirō Tarō Naokatsu (次郎太郎直勝, 1805–1858), who had been sent to train with him by the Tatebayashi fief and who later took over the workshop as Naotane’s official successor. Naotane died in the fourth year of Ansei ( 安政, 1857) at the age of 79. He is buried at the Honnen-ji (本然寺) in the Asakusa district of Edo/Tōkyō.


Now to the actual topic. As surely most of you know, some swordsmiths and sword fitting makers inscribed certain works with the age they were when producing it. This practice is known as gyōnen-mei (行年銘). Naotane was one of these swordsmiths, and he started to add gyōnen-mei to some works from the age of 50 onwards.

In many cases, inscribing one’s age was often linked to an auspicious occasion, for example, turning 61 being celebrated as Kanreki (還暦), turning 70 as Koki (古希), turning 80 as Sanju (傘寿), and, very auspicious, turning 88 as Beiju (米寿). There are even more special birthdays after the age of 90, but such ages were rarely reached in post-modern times. Thus, such “milestone birthdays” if you will were seen as a starting point to inscribe one’s age to a work on a regular basis, although we also know fairly many cases where artists inscribed gyōnen-mei in their late teens, twenties, thirties, etc.

Another issue that we have to take into consideration is the different way age was counted in Japan. That is, up to some time after WWII (in practice; rendered obsolete by law in 1902), the Japanese used a method referred to as kazoedoshi (数え年), which started with the age of 1 when being born and which incremented on New Year’s Day. For example, if you were born, let’s say on October 12, 1818, you were 1 year old and turned 2 “suddenly” on Jan 1, 1819 (using the Gregorian calendar here for demonstration purposes). This way of counting then continued for the rest of your life, i.e., you turned 3 in this case on Jan 1, 1820, and not on your actual birthday October 12.

Back to Naotane. As mentioned, he started to inscribe gyōnen-mei at the age of 50. When he was 74, however, something happened as all of a sudden, he upped his age by one year. That is, in Kaei five (嘉永, 1852), when he was 74 kazoedoshi years old, he inscribed certain blades with “made at the age of 75.” He continued to do so throughout Kaei six, seven, and Ansei two (安政, 1855), but in the very same year of Ansei two, when he was actually 78 kazoedoshi years old, he occasionally upped his age by two years even, inscribing certain blades with “made at the age of 80.”

Left: Wakizashi dated Ansei two and inscribed “made at the age of 79” and right a wakizashi dated Ansei two and inscribed “made at the age of 80.” Both blades are Tokubetsu-Hozon.

This oddity is referred to as kirō-heki (喜老癖). I am not 100% sure about the reading, so I chose a standard Sino-Japanese reading for the term, which may best be translated as “habit of greatfully accepting one’s old age,” or “habit of being delighted about one’s old age.” Incidentally, I was only able to find this term in connection with swords and sword fittings, not Japanese art in general, but want to do more research in the future. Also, I am not sure if this term was coined in reference to Tang dynasty Chinese poet Bái Jūyì (白居易, 772–846) as Jūyì left a poem with the title Lǎnjìng Xǐlǎo (覧鏡喜老, Japanese: Rankyō Kirō). In this poem, 64-years-old Jūyì looks into the mirror and is delighted about having avoided premature death and having become that old.

Anyway, once again back to Naotane. Now why did he do this kirō-heki thing? Well, we do not know for sure, but there are several hypotheses. One speculates that something must have happened at age 74 when he used kirō-heki for the first time. That is, maybe he got sick and worried that he won’t life to 76, the age his teacher Masahide died, whom he greatly admired, but whom he also tried to surpass. Another one puts forward that Naotane may have tried to leave a legacy through his works of living a long life, which may also explain the “double jump” to 79 when he was 77 years old. In other words, when people will come across such a work in the future, and not knowing when he was actually born, they might admire that the smith had enjoyed a particularly long life. Or it is nothing more than a playful wish of, or encouragement for the artist to reach these ages when inscribing them on certain works (Occam’s razor may favor this approach). By the way, there exists a blade which is dated “on a spring day in the year of the snake of the Ansei era (1857).” This blade is inscribed with the kirō-heki “made at the age of 80,” so only a one year jump again. Naotane died on the 27th day of the fifth month that very year, so this blade can be considered as one as his last works.

Blade dated with a spring day in the year of the snake of the Ansei era and inscribed “made at the age of 80.” The blade is Jūyō.

Wrapping up this post, I would like to point out that Naotane was not the only artist who used kirō-heki (I had mentioned sword fittings earlier). There exists a tsuba by the first generation Niwa Norisuke (丹羽則亮, 1781–1852) which is inscribed “made at the age of 72” when the artist had actually died at the age of 71. In addition, there exists a tsuba by Tsuchiya Kunichika (土屋国親, 1788–1852), which is dated Kaei three (嘉永, 1850) and which is inscribed “made at the age of 66.” In Kaei three, Kunichika was actually 63 years old, so we are facing here a considerable kirō-heki jump of three years. Kunichika seems to have used that (at least) three-year-jump several times as the Kinkō Jiten (金工事典) mentions that works inscribed “made with the age of 68” even if the artist had died at the age of 65.

Tsuba by Tsuchiya Kunichika dated Kaei three and inscribed “made at the age of 66.”


Why? Trying to connect the dots…

As some of you know, identifying obscure motifs and solving demanding inscription puzzles is one my fortes. Sometimes, however, you have to throw the towel, or put the issue on the back burner for a while. I would like to introduce such a case here.

Tsuba, signed: Shihō Hōen isshi horu (紫峰芳園作逸士鐫) – “Carved by the hermit Shihō Hōen.” Gift of Mrs. George A. Crocker (Elizabeth Masten), 1937 (38.25.48).


To be clear, it is not about the motif of the object in question, which you will see is relatively easily identified. It is about the inscription. Now, we are talking about a tsuba in the collection of The Met. It is a work of Ōkawa Teikan (大川貞幹, born 1828) and depicts the elderly couple of the auspicious Nō play Takasago (高砂). With broom and rake, the couple (seen in a print below) sweeps the area under a pine which is referred to as Takasago Pine, after the town of the same name located in present-day Hyōgo Prefecture. This pine is paired with the Suminoe Pine growing in distant Suminoe (住之江), present-day Ōsaka, and together the two trees are called Aioi-no-matsu (相生の松 , Wedded Pines or Paired Pines).

Except for little more than an indicated shore line, the reverse of the tsuba is undecorated. However, it bears the following inscription, which I have difficulties with bringing in line with the depicted motif:

Taezu Hōōzan no shimoji sude ni, shūfū wa musai, kaiha wa samui. [Reading uncertain, corrections welcome.]
“The shadowy road under the Phoenix Mountain, where the autumn winds are endless and the sea waves are cold.”

This inscription is actually a poem, which goes back to the hand of Chinese poet Yuán Hàowèn (元好問, 1190–1257). And this is where the mystery starts. How is this old poem connected to the Nō play Takasago? Is it at all? Why is it inscribed on this tsuba?

Yuán Hàowèn (元好問, 1190–1257)

Now, the above mentioned poem is actually half of one of two couplets in which Yuán Hàowèn references, in his own words, to a humble painting of pines in the wind. Maybe that’s it, i.e., Ōkawa Teikan using Yuán Hàowèn’s half couplet referring to pines as a reference to the Paired Pines in the Takasago play? I do feel, however, that this explanation attempt might be too far-fetched. That is, although references and allusions are highly sophisticated in Japanese art, I think that Taikan using that half couplet, which does not even have pines in it, as starting point for you to connect the dots and arrive at Yuán Hàowèn preface, and this being the reference to pines is just one step too much if you know what I mean. Also, although Yuán Hàowèn’s poems were fairly popular during the late Edo period, the two couplets in questions are buried in an anthology of Hàowèn’s works that consists of 45 volumes, the volume in question alone containing more than 200 poems. So, we are not talking about THE lines that Hàowèn is most famous for. In addition, there are far more famous poems by Hàowèn that reference pines.

Another approach of explaining this conundrum would be to see if Yuán Hàowèn is known for a long and loving marriage, or being separated from his wife as that is the major theme of the Takasago play. Well, Hàowèn had an eventful life, but again, he is not THE symbol of long-standing marriage or of a husband being separated from his wife. However, practicing due diligence, I want to do more research in this direction.

The next approach would be talking the poem literally, that is, is the play Takasago known for a shadowy road, fierce autumn winds, and/or cold waves? Not really, I would argue. Well, in the play, a priest does travel by sea from Takasago to Suminoe (see map), but there is no mention of rough seas or of particularly cold temperatures. In the opposite, the play is set in pleasant spring weather. So, I would rould out this approach for the time being.

Last approach, for now: Maybe the artist, Ōkawa Teikan, just had a fondness for Yuán Hàowèn and was well familiar with his poetry? Or, his client was, and had Teikan engrave that very poem on the tsuba? Well, we will very likely never be able to confirm any of that, if it is the case at all.

This is where it stops, for now, and if I ever find out what the context here is, I will post a follow-up of course.