KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #35 – Heianjō (平安城) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 2

With the Ōei era (1394-1428) we see a very gentle spike in (extant) Go-Sanjō Yoshinori works. I have hinted at that at the very beginning of the previous chapter, saying that many sources just jump in at this point and brush off the handful of earlier “outliers”. After that brief Ōei spike, that one mid-Muromachi period Yoshinori master is regarded as the most representative Go-Sanjō smith, and this recognition goes back to both quantity and quality, that is, dated works confirm a relatively long active period of more than 35 years (from Bunmei three, 1471, to Eishō four, 1507). According to the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi genealogy that I presented in the previous chapter, that representative mid-Muromachi period Go-Sanjō Yoshinori master was the fifth generation. Another counting, which follows the “dismissal of the earlier outliers” approach, starts with the Ōei era Yoshinori as first master and counts this smith as third generation. And as this master is so much more prominent than all the others, some Meikan follow the approach of just listing this Yoshinori without associating him with a certain generation of the lineage (as THE Go-Sanjō Yoshinori so to speak, and as the counting of generations is unclear anyway).

So what are we dealing with here? In a nutshell, it appears that the Yoshinori lineage emerged at the very end of the Kamakura, beginning of the Nanbokuchō period, produced blades but never rose to the fame of contemporary local schools (e.g. Nobukuni, Hasebe), repositioned itself at the beginning of the Muromachi period, produced one single great master in the mid-Muromachi period, and then fell into oblivion again.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here as I want to save this topic for an extra article but what can be said is that with the shift towards Kamakura, i.e. the emergence and impact of the Sōshū tradition, the old-established Kyōto schools like Awataguchi and Rai phased out at the beginning of the Nanbokuchō period. Then several decades of uncertainty followed, the Nanbokuchō period, and when those Nanbokuchō issues were “solved” and the “warrior experiment” of Kamakura was over, both aristocratic and military government re-united in Kyōto, a move that marks the beginning of the Muromachi period. Some Kyōto schools were able to resume from there, others not.

Back to the Go-Sanjō School. The first blade that I want to introduce in this chapter (see picture 5) is dated by the NBTHK around Kōshō (康正, 1455-1457) which would make it a work of the 4th generation when counting from the Kenmu-era Yoshinori as 1st generation, or of the 2nd generation when you follow the approach that the Ōei-era Yoshinori was actually the 1st generation of the lineage. Be that as it may, we have here a large hira-zukuri wakizashi with a noticeable sakizori and thus a blade which was probably worn as auxiliary sword (sashizoe) to the main sword, the tachi. The blade shows a rather standing-out itame with plenty of ji-nie and is hardened in a nie-laden hitatsura which bases on an ō-gunome-midare that is mixed with chōji, togariba, yahazu, ashi, , sunagashi and kinsuji. The nioiguchi is bright and clear and the bōshi is midare-komi that tends to kuzure and that runs back in a wide manner and continues as muneyaki. The omote side bears a bonji and a suken and the ura side a bonji and gomabashi. The tang is ubu, has a kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, and the yoji-mei is executed with a rather thick chisel. As you can see, the blade looks very much like Sue-Sōshū and the NBTHK says in its jūyō paper that we have here a valuable masterwork whose interpretation in an excellently hardened hitatsura testifies to the wide variety of styles the Go-Sanjō School was actually working in at that time.


Picture 5: jūyō-tōken, wakizashi, mei: “Sanjō Yoshinori” (三条吉則), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 57.4 cm, sori 1.3 cm, motohaba 3.15 cm


The next blade (see picture 6) is of a relatively similar interpretation. The NBTHK does not specifically date this blade but says that it is a Yoshinori masterwork in hitatsura that is of a clear jiba and rich in variety and mentions again, that the similarity to Sue-Shōshū is striking. The blade is a long and wide hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi with a relatively prominent sakizori. Its kitae is an excellently forged itame that shows ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden hitatsura that bases on a widely hardened gunome-midare and that features chōji, many tobiyaki and muneyaki, , and sunagashi. The bōshi is midare-komi and its ō-maru-kaeri connects with the muneyaki.


Picture 6: jūyō-tōken, wakizashi, mei: “Sanjō Yoshinori saku” (三条吉則作), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 37.0 cm, sori 1.0 cm, mihaba 2.95 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Now although the Go-Sanjō School has been able to once again regain ground after the Nanbokuchō period, new difficulties were on the horizon roughly 70 years later, that is the Ōnin War that broke out in 1467 which destroyed most of Kyōto in the ten year it was fought. The Ōnin War marks the transition from the fourth to the fifth generation Yoshinori and signatures of the latter proof that he had to leave the capital and work at different places for some time, for example in the provinces of Izumi, Mikawa, and Echizen. One such example is the blade shown in picture 7. This blade is insofar also very interesting as it tells us Yoshinori’s family name, Fuse (布施). It is signed “Sanjō Fuse Fujiwara Yoshinori Echizen ni oite saku” (三条布施藤原吉則於越前作, “made in Echizen by Sanjō Fuse Fujiwara Yoshinori”). The ura side of the tang bears the name of the client and another inscription. It reads: “Obuse Shirōzaemon no Jō Minamoto Hisayoshi jūdai hitode ni watasubekarazu” (小布施四郎左衛門尉源久慶重代不可渡他手, “for the successive generations of Obuse Shirōzaemon no Jō Minamoto Hisayoshi and shall not leave the family”). So, Obuse Hisayoshi, who was a local resident of Echizen, ordered this sword from Yoshinori to become a treasure sword of his family. The blade is a katana with modest proportions and a sakizori and shows an itame that tends to nagare and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with togariba, ko-chōji, and plenty of ashi. The bōshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri that shows hakikake. On the omote side we see a thin hi along the shinogi and below a sō no kurihara and on the ura side the same hi that meanders into a bonji with below a rendai.


Picture 7: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei see description above, nagasa 67.0 cm, sori 2.3 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, sakihaba 1.9 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


The above blade is from rather moderate dimensions but long swords from the early to mid-Muromachi Yoshinori are often noticeably short and slender, almost kodachi-like if you will. The blade shown in picture 8 is a katana with a nagasa of 61.6 cm and a mihaba of 2.76 cm, featuring a relatively short nakago. The blade shows an itame that tends to nagare and a narrow suguha. The bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken at the base and on the ura a single koshibi.


Picture 8: katana, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則), nagasa 61.6 cm, sori 1.8 cm, motohaba 2.76 cm, sakihaba 1.73 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Another short and slender blade is shown in picture 9. This blade measures under 2 shaku and is thus classified as wakizashi. It shows a dense itame that is mixed with mokume and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a suguha and a bōhi runs on both sides as kakitōshi through the tang.


Picture 9: wakizashi, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則), nagasa 49.3 cm, sori 1.5 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Due to the then changes in warfare, more and more yari appeared on the battlefield, and the Go-Sanjō Yoshinori and the Heianjō Nagayoshi lineages catered to that. Picture 10 shows a hira-sankaku ōmi-yari whose kitae is an itane-nagare that is mixed with masame and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a suguha to hoso-suguha with a rather tight nioiguchi that is mixed with some ko-ashi, ko-gunome and a few hotsure and the bōshi is sugu with a rather wide ko-maru-kaeri. On the flat hira side of the yari we see excellent horimono in the form of a bonji and a kurikara.


Picture 10: jūyō-tōken, ōmiyari, mei: “Heianjō Yoshinori saku” (平安城吉則作), nagasa 37.4 cm, motohaba 2.5 cm, nakago-nagasa (ubu) 37.4 cm


Although not as obvious as seen at the Heianjō Nagayoshi lineage, the Yoshinori lineage did focus on horimono too. The last blade that I want to introduce in this chapter is such an example (see picture 11). It is a hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi with a wide mihaba and some sori that shows a dense itame that is tends to nagare-masame towards the ha and the mune and that features ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-notare with a wide and clear nioiguchi that is mixed with gunome, yubashiri, and sunagashi. The bōshi is notare to midare-komi and has a ko-maru-kaeri. On the omote side we see again a kurikara and on the ura side the name of the deity Marishi-Sonten (摩利支尊天).


Picture 11: jūyō-tōken, wakizashi, mei: “Heianjō Yoshinori saku” (平安城吉則作), nagasa 32.3 cm, sori 0.4 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune




Now I want to conclude this chapter with the difficulties we are facing with the Go-Sanjō Yoshinori lineage. First of all, there are not that many works from that lineage extant and as mentioned several times, the counting of generations is unclear. Therefore, the NBTHK for example, does not attribute Yoshinori blades to a certain generation but just says early Muromachi, around Bunmei (文明, 1469-1487), around Eishō (永正, 1504-1524), not earlier than mid-Muromachi etc. In other words, you have to do some homework and see to which hand a blade might most likely go back to. Also, at least to my knowledge, no comparative study of Yoshinori signatures has been done so this might be a task for the future (e.g. when I decide to make this Kantei series into books). Another difficulty is that with the advance of the Muromachi period, once unique workmanships begin to thin out and schools are approaching each other, what makes it with the low number of extant Yoshinori works even more difficult to kantei a blade. In this sense, I would like to take the liberty and quote Tsuneishi sensei‘s chapter on later generations Yoshinori:

Katana are mostly short and show an elegant toriizori but which often tends to sakizori and with their slender mihaba, these blades look like elongated kodachi and are overall of a weak/delicate sugata. The hardening is usually in nie-deki but we also see chū-suguha with hardly any nie at all, a Bizen-style koshi no hiraita-midare, or a Mino-style gunome-midare, and some blades show some mura-nie. The jihada is a mokume mixed with masame and is generally weak with a tendency to roughness. The steel is blackish but may also show shirake. The bōshi is either ichimai or ko-maru whereas the kaeri often runs back in a Yamashiro-atypical long manner. This trend to slender blades with a nioi-based suguha is particularly seen at later works. These blades usually show a frayed nioiguchi that lacks power and brightness. Wakizashi and tantō may show a vivid yahazu-midare or ō-midare with mura-nie but again, the interpretations overall lack power. Horimono may be present but they are more rare than at the Heianjō Nagayoshi lineage. Some works are very similar (also in terms of overall quality) to the Bizen Yoshii Yoshinori lineage of the same name. However, the sugata is different as the Yoshii Yoshinori works show a koshizori and the Sanjō Yoshinori works a toriizori with a tendency towards sakizori. Although nie of Sanjō Yoshinori works of that time lack nie, they are still there, and more prominent, than at the nioi-deki of Yoshii Yoshinori works. Also the jigane differs. Apart from that, works from both groups are usually signed with a reference to the production site, i.e. “Yoshii-jū Yoshinori” in case of the Bizen smiths and “Sanjō-jū” or “Heianjō-jū Yoshinori” in case of the Kyōto smiths. That is, only the early masters signed in niji-mei.



Challenges of translating period Japanese sword texts

A few weeks ago, one of my dear clients sent me a gift, a thick and old book on Japanese swords, basically with the words: “I got this one but it makes more sense in your hands than in my library. Maybe you can get some valuable information out of it and share them with all of us.” Thank you very much Mr. D.! Now browsing through the book now and then over the last weeks, I found some highly interesting information but first of all, I realized again how tough it actually is to translate period Japanese sword texts. In this article, I want to give you an understanding of my daily struggles and walk with you through the different layers of challenges that I and others are facing doing this kind of stuff. Before we continue, I want to state that I will introduce the title of the book, its contents, and more details about it in the future but suffice it to say, it bases on period sword literature from the Momoyama to early Edo period that goes partially back to the Takeya (竹屋) system of sword knowledge (for some basic info on the Takeya family, see this article here).



Now the very first challenge is of course being actually able to read/decipher the characters of a text like the two above. For this, you need to know how a Japanese/Chinese character, a kanji is written, i.e. the stroke order and how strokes merge and/or are omitted when writing them in semi-cursive or cursive (grass) script. The former, knowing how a kanji is written, is relatively easy to learn but the latter, being able to grasp the semi-cursive and cursive script, takes some years. This is basically the same challenge as it is with handwritten period Western texts from let’s say the 1700 or 1800s. You just have to learn it. Short anecdote: Some years ago I visited an exhibition in Japan that focused on the early Meiji period and there were letters on display written by some Germans working in Japan at that time which I could not read (I am Austrian as most of you know, so German is my mother tongue). But I was able to read the handwritten letters of their Japanese employers…

If you are able to handle challenge one, the reading/deciphering of the kanji, challenge two comes into play which is making a sense out of what you got. For this you have to understand the Japanese writing system, which you probably do when being able to master challenge one, but for those who don’t, I will explain. The Japanese writing system uses Chinese characters, the kanji, and combines them with a pair of syllabaries, hiragana and katakana. In short, a Japanese sentence usually contains a mixture of kanji and hiragana/katakana, the former representing a certain term and the latter supporting the meaning of that term, having grammatical funtions, and representing particles, just to keep it simple here. To quote Wikipedia in this respect: “Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is often considered to be the most complicated in use anywhere in the world.”

But wait, there is more. Kanji can also be kana syllables. Yes, you read that correctly. We are talking here about so-called man’yōgana (万葉仮名), a writing system that employs kanji to represent phonetical syllables in the Japanese language. This approach was by the way the origin of the hiragana and katakana alphabet, that is, Chinese characters used to represent a certain phonetical Japanese syllable were written in more and more cursive ways and ended so up as the simple hiragana and katakana we all know today. Just to give you an example, the picture below demonstrates how the character bi/mi (美), which means “beauty”, became via its cursive style of writing the hiragana syllable mi. In other words, if this character appeares somewhere in a period Japanese text and doesn’t make any sense at all in that context, it might just be there substitutional for the sylable mi. So for example if you come across the characters (黒美) in a period Japanese text, they most likely don’t mean “black beauty” because the second kanji is just there for its reading mi. That is, the word is kuromi (黒み), which means “black tinge”, “blackishness”, etc.

This brings us back to the first picture, the example I am using in this article, and I want to focus on the left four lines of the text on the right. So, if you truly master challenges one and two, you might be able to read/decipher these four lines as follows:


一 志津の事 是ハ正宗可弟子奈連トモ「ヤキバ」ハ

Shizu no koto – Kore wa Masamune ga deshi naredomo yakiba wa
Seki no tekuse o ushinawazu, ashi o soroe, ko-ashi
mata wa notare ni temo, sadamaritaru yō ni te omo
shiroki koto naki mono naredomo, jihada tsumari nie


I want to pick out one word to demonstrate what we just did, the third word in line two, ushinawazu. This word means “is not lost” and would today be written as (失わず), or just with hiragana syllables as (うしなわず). In the period text in question, the syllables na and wa have been replaced with the kanji (奈) and (者) which also read na and wa respectively. Apart from that, you also have to know when a syllable is voiced as those little voicing marks, the dakuten, are usually omitted in period texts. For example here, the last syllable zu is written with the hiragana syllable su (す) and you have to fill in the blank and “make” it into a zu (ず).

If you are still following, this is already pretty difficult so far and to bring that all together smoothly, i.e. being able to recognize, understand, and translate such a text, it takes many many years of studying.

But that is still not all. I picked this text because it contains another nasty little challenge, and that is, it contains so to speak “made up fantasy characters.” Yes, you read that correctly again. The example features three of them which I had to put into Japanese quotation marks 「 」 (and mark them with an asterisk in the picture) because as they are made up as mentioned, they are obviously not available as computer-typeable kanji.



The first one is shown in the picture above. First you would assume some character with the heart radical (忄) to the left, maybe this one (怽). But this character is very uncommon and not in use in the Japanese language. Well, it is used in Chinese but its meaning “a troubled/confused heart” doesn’t really make any sense in this context. Next thing to assume would be that it was used for its phonetical reading, which is or in Chinese but mi or mo don’t make sense either at this place in the sentence. To cut it short: The “character” in question actually consists of the three katakana syllables ya (ヤ) to the left, ki (キ) on top right, and ha/ba (ハ) written around ki. You get it? The term we are looking for is yakiba!

So, making up a character from syllables was totally a possibility back then, even if there exists a just kanji combination for yakiba – (焼刃) – which is not that difficult to remember at all. That is, if you are able to write a book on swords that contains hundreds of other difficult characters, it is not about that you can’t remember the kanji for yakiba and have to make them up. We are just dealing here with customs that were handed down within schools of sword knowledge and we find made up characters like that all the way back in the oldest, pardon, second oldest extant sword document, the Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi.



Back to the second of them (see picture above). Here you see the character (田) to the left and something like (禾) to the right but again, this combination doesn’t exists as a kanji. This time we are facing the combination chi/ji (千) on the left, ha/ba (ハ) written around that at the bottom, and ta/da (田) on the left, at least we had this initially correct… And with filling in the blank and adding the voicing marks in your head, you arrive at the term jihada!



The last one (see picture above) is even more tricky. In this case, the left part of the character is kei (景) which means “scenery” but the part on the right doesn’t even exist as a character by itself. Here you just have to come across some explanation (like I did with the book in question) one day because without that, I guess it is impossible to figure out that the kanji you see above stands for nie, which is usually written with the character (沸). Another way to write nie in this sense of made up characters is combining the two katakana syllables ni (ニ) and e (エ), or ni (ニ) and we (ヱ) (see picture below). On a normal day, you would think of reading e (江) here, as in Edo (江戸), or as the abbreviated character for Gō Yoshihiro’s (郷義弘) (江). Big head scratcher again if you are not aware of the existence of made up characters and how they work.




In conclusion I would like to say that if you want to translate period Japanese sword texts, you have to go very deep into the matter of the language, the subject of the sword, and the historical background. But if you do, it is totally worth it because in my opinion, getting a better and better understanding of the subtleties in another language is the best way to develop a decent understanding of the way of thinking and of the mindsets of the people who wrote these texts in the past. Also with translating poems and understanding their sometimes obvious, sometimes highly sophisticated allusions via not only the language itself but the deliberate use of certain characters, you get a grasp of the entire whole of the nihontō that just learning features in the steel can’t deliver. But this is something you really have to invest time and energy in, and probably need a teacher, so nothing you can just tackle at the side. The icing on the cake after many years of blade studies if you will. I am now studying Japanese for exactly 20 years and translate for about 15 (first as a hobby and 10 years now full time as my job), and it still feels as if I just have pushed open a door, a significant door maybe which makes you aware that the doors you have opened so far were nothing compared to what is still out there…


Volume 2 – Tosogu Classroom

Update on the project:

Volume 2 has just been completed and I am placing orders for members who have prepaid as we speak. That said, if you are going volume by volume, you can get in touch with me at your convenience to order Volume 2. Members of the three associations who organized this project – which are the JSS/US, NTBHK/AB and NBTHK/EB – can order Volume 2 for just the cost of printing and shipping, which is $44 within the US and Canada. If you are not a member, the price is $64 per copy. Slightly different prices apply for outside of the US so please get in touch with me to talk about details. As you can see in the preview below, Volume 2 is with almost 700 pages quite substantial. It is the second volume that deals with artist who worked in iron. Volume 3 and 4, which should follow in the coming months, will deal with the kinkō guys and Volume 5 is the color volume.

Thank you for your attention.

Volume 2 Contents

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #34 – Heianjō (平安城) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 1

With the Heianjō and Go-Sanjō Schools we are facing the well-known problem of historic records going very far back in time but with the exception of a very few “outliers,” on which the experts even have differention opinions on, the extant body of works does not go back farther than the early Muromachi period. Now you could just say it like that and go ahead by introducing these extant works, which is usually done in most of the sources, but if you follow my series you will know that I don’t want to skip these considerations on the origins of certain things as such a habit can give the reader the idea that swordsmiths schools just popped up out of nowhere and nothing is connected with anything.

The Heianjō and Go-Sanjō Schools are insofar also a kind of a special case because we know that they were working closely together in the mid-Muromachi period but we don’t know how far back this relationship goes, or if these smiths were connected to their earlier namesakes at all, but more on this later. Although period sources suggest that the Heianjō lineage is older than the Go-Sanjō lineage, I nevertheless want to start with the latter because it appears that the oldest extant blades signed with the very same name used by the main line, Yoshinori (吉則), are on the Go-Sanjō side.

For some reason, most of the older sword sources don’t deal in detail with the Yoshinori lineage. The Kokon Mei Zukushi Taizen, whose information has to be taken with a grain of salt (for reasons mentioned earlier in this series), briefly says that Yoshinori (吉則) was born in Jōwa five (1349) and died in Ōei eight (1401) at the age of 52. The Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi is to my knowledge the earliest relevant publication that presents a specific genealogy for the Yoshinori lineage in which it dates its first generation to Kenmu (1334-1338) and its second generation to Jōji (1362-1368). If this genealogy is correct, the Kokon Mei Zukushi Taizen is referring to the second generation, an approach by which also Satō Kanzan goes. As a reference, I want to introduce that genealogy of the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi below.


Sanjo Yoshinori Genealogy


At this point, the oldest extant signed Yoshinori blade comes into play. It is a jūyō-bunkazai tachi (see picture 1) preserved in the Sakakiyama-jinja (榊山神社), Gifu Prefecture, which is introduced by the experts as follows: Honma says early Nanbokuchō (corrected his previous Nihon Kotō Shi statement where he had dated the blade to the late Nanbokuchō period); Satō says end of Kamakura and probably a work of the Kenmu-era first generation; Tsuneishi says end of Kamakura too; the jūyō-bunkazai designation says early Nanbokuchō; and the prewar kokuhō designation (that blade had been kokuhō before WWII) from 1928 says end of Kamakura to Nanbokuchō and if the traditional counting of generations is correct (first generation Kenmu and second generation Jōji), somewhere in between those two but with a hint more towards the first master. Incidentally, the designation says that the blade was once a heirloom of the Tōyama (遠山) family, the daimyō of the Naegi fief (苗木藩) of Mino province, and was offered to the Sakakiyama-jinja during the Meiji era by the twelfth and last Naegi daimyō Tōyama Tomoyoshi (遠山友禄, 1819-1894).


Picture 1: jūyō-bunkazai, tachi, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則), nagasa 75.8 cm, sori 2.5 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, sakihaba 1.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, on both sides a bōhi that ends in marudome in the tang


Let us address the workmanship of this blade. It displays an elegant tachi-sugata that fits very well to the given time frame, i.e. end of Kamakura to early Nanbokuchō, and it is assumed that its original nagasa was somewhere close to 90 cm. It has a deep koshizori, tapers noticeably, and ends in a compact ko-kissaki. The jigane is a somewhat standing-out itame that is mixed with mokume and nagare and that displays ji-nie. The hamon is a classical ko-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-chōji and ashi and whose elements are rather densely arranged. The ha gets wider towards the yokote and ends in a nie-laden and wide bōshi with hakikake which almost appears as ichimai. In the preward kokuhō designation we read that the classical interpretation of the jiba does speak for Kyō-mono but that the hamon is somewhat more narrow and the nioiguchi partially somewhat harder than that of contemporary Yamashiro (e.g. Awataguchi, Rai) masterworks, although the blade itself is of course an outstanding masterwork too, just not at Awataguchi or Rai level, and its jiba is kenzen (in perfectly healthy condition).

In conclusion, there is agreement that the blade is in Yamashiro tradition, a Kyō-mono, and Tsuneishi goes so far to place it in the vicinity of the Ryōkai School, what brings us to the origins of the Sanjō Yoshinori lineage. To make it short, nobody knows but it is assumed that there was no connection whatsoever to the early Sanjō School. To keep them apart, the lineage of Yoshinori is also referred to as Go-Sanjō (後三条), “later Sanjō.” The Meikan list a Yoshinori from the early Sanjō School who was supposedly active around Chōkyū (長久, 1040-1044) but this early Yoshinori entry might just be an attempt to connect the Go-Sanjō with the initial Sanjō School. Others suggest that Yoshinori might have been a student of the Awataguchi Yoshimitsu-student Yoshimasa (吉正) who was active around Kōan (1278-1288). Would match in terms of active period and the use of the character Yoshi but that might actually be the only reason for this theory.

There is supposedly a Yoshinori blade extant which is dated Ōei two (1395) and which is the oldest dated work of that lineage but I wasn’t able to find it in my references so the next blade that I want to introduce is a jūyō-bijitsuhin tantō (see picture 2) that is dated to around the same time, that is end of Nanbokuchō to early Muromachi. This blade is also one of the earliest ones that is actually signed with the prefix “Sanjō” and it might be a work of the third generation, possibly second generation. The blade has an uncommon shape, kata-shōbu-zukuri, i.e. one side in hira and the other side in shōbu-zukuri, and sows a relatively narrow suguha-chō that is mixed with ko-gunome and a few sunagashi and kinsuji and that features an undulating bōshi with sunagashi that runs back with a pointy ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 2: jūyō-bijutsuhin, tantō, mei: “Sanjō Yoshinori saku” (三条吉則作), nagasa 29.4 cm, mitsu-mune


Now we arrive at blade three. It is a katana signed “Yoshinori” which Satō dates after the jūyo-bunkazai of the Sakakiyama-jinja but not later than early Muromachi. The blade is shortened and its bōhi ends in marudome in the middle of the tang whereupon it is sometimes confused at first glance with the jūyo-bunkazai but which is a tachi (notice the tachi-mei). Blade number 3 shows a standing-out ko-itame that is mixed with with masame and a ko-midare hamon that is mixed with ko-gunome and that gets wider and features more hataraki along the monouchi, an approach that can also be seen at the previous two blades. The bōshi is midare-komi and runs back with a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake.


Picture 3: katana, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則), nagasa 72.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 4, from left to right: mei of the jūyō-bunkazai, of the Yoshinori katana from picture 3, mei of the jūyō-bijutsuhin, mei of an Ōei dated Yoshinori work.


With this I want to come back to the question of succession of generations and do some signature comparison. Picture 4 shows the mei of the three so far introduced Yoshinori blades plus that of a tantō dated Ōei 26 (1419). As you can see, there are some unique features. At the first blade, the lower (口) radical of the Yoshi character is noticeably angular and the right radical (リ) of the nori (則) character has a vertical and relatively long left stroke. At the second blade, the right edge of the (口) radical ends in a noticeably pronounced manner, similar to how the katakana syllable se (セ) ends its horizontal stroke. At the character for nori, the left stroke of the right radical (リ) is still executed vertically but somewhat shorter. Also, the longer right stroke of that radical starts as a corner (𠃍) whereas at the previous mei, there is some little extension like (丁). At the third blade, the (口) radical does not show that pronounced edge and at the nori character, the left stroke has become a very small dot. At the fourth blade, the (口) radical apprars to remain the same but the left stroke of the (リ) radical is again longer but is executed in a diagonal manner. This all combined, plus other subtle differences like the curve of the long right stroke of the (リ) radical, makes it not too unreasonable to assume that we are facing here four generations, the first four, arranged chronologically.

I want to conclude this chapter by introducing the fourth blade shown in the signature comparison. It is a hira-zukuri sunnobi-tantō whose sugata is typical for the Ōei era. It shows a ko-itame that is mixed with nagare and that features ji-nie and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden suguha-chō that is mixed with some shallow ko-notare, gunome, and some fine kinsuji. The nioiguchi is rather compact but subdued and the bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi. The tang is ubu (just the jiri was cut off a little) and as you can learn from the interpretation of the jiba and sugata, we find some points in common with the contemporary Nobukuni School.


Picture 4: jūyō, sunnobi-tantō, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則) – “Ōei nijūrokunen jūnigatsu hi” (応永廿六年十二月日, “a day in the twelfth month of Ōei 26, 1419).


Next chapter will deal with the Yoshinori generations who were active from the early Muromachi period onwards. So please stay tuned.

Kasuga-taisha Find Update

A brief update to this post from 2016.

Several Japanese news outlets reported today that one of the swords that were discovered during 1939 repair measures of the Kasuga-taisha turned out to be a Ko-Hōki (古伯耆) from the end of the Heian period, possibly a Yasutsuna (安綱), dating back to the birthplace of the nihontō. The blade was polished recently, is ubu I think, and has a nagasa of 82.4 cm. Its kokushitsu-tachi koshirae (黒漆太刀拵) dates to the 14th century and it is assumed that the sword was offered to the shrine some time in the Nanbokuchō or at the latest at the beginning of the Muromachi period. Below are some links with pictures and please also check out the video that the Nara Television Channel put on YouTube.





The “new” oldest extant sword document

On December 18, the Saga Prefectural Government issued a press release on what appears to be a pretty important, or at least highly interesting find for the sword world. That find was made by Yoshihara Hiromichi (吉原弘道), associate professor at the basic education center of Kyûshû Sangyô University. He discovered in the Prefectural Library, which preserves, amongst others, about 130,000 locally transmitted historic documents, a so-called Mei Zukushi (銘尽), the forerunner of the later Meikan (銘鑑), i.e. lists of smiths that contain, depending on the source, more or less information like where and when a smith worked etc.

Now the very Mei Zukushi was found within the archives of the Ryûzôji (龍造寺) family, a powerful clan from Kyûshû. This archive consists of 277 documents and the Mei Zukushi is written on the back of two so-called Môshijô Dodai (申状土代), drafts for official petitions. Paper was relatively valuable at that time, what is also one reason for the text being so cramped together, and it is not uncommon that documents that are of no more use were reused by writing on their back side. The press release states that although the 277 documents of the Ryûzôji archives are designated as a jûyô-bunkazai as a whole, not all back sides have been checked in detail so far.

The Mei Zukushi is dated Kan’ô two (観応, 1351) and as it is part of the Ryûzôji archives as mentioned, it got the working title Ryûzôji Bon Mei Zukushi (龍造寺本銘尽). The so far oldest extant sword publication or rather sword document was the Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi (観智院本銘尽) which I have introduced in this article from 2014. The Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi is believed to be a fair copy of a sword data from 1316 but as the copy itself is from 1423, the Ryûzôji Bon Mei Zukushi beats it as “new” oldest extant sword document. At the moment, it is thought that either Ryûzôji Iemasa (龍造寺家政) or a person close to him had copied a precious sword document that was brought by Ashikaga Tadafuyu (足利直冬, 1327~1387/1400?) or one of his staff to a camp that Iemasa visited that year, Kan’ô two. I will omit historic details at this point but want to state that Tadafuyu was a son of the famous Ashikaga Takauji. So, both he and Iemasa were clearly in the league of high-ranking persons who needed a sword guideline, either for themselves or, more likely, to pick proper presents to reward allies and vassals.

Ashikaga Tadafuyu

The two sheets of the Ryûzôji Bon Mei Zukushi measure about 33 x 48~49 cm each and contain the names of about 280 swordsmiths, even of some which are not listed in the Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi. They will be on display in the Saga Prefectural Museum until February 4, 2018. Also on display will be three swords: A tachi with the shu-mei “Kuniyuki” (国行) (Rai), a tachi with the shu-mei “Rai Kunimitsu” (来国光), both jûyô-bunkazai of Saga Prefecture, and a zaimei tantô by Awataguchi Yoshimitsu (粟田口吉光). Pictures of the sheets and a (Japanese) transcription are provided in the press release but I will provide direct links below:

The Ryûzôji Bon Mei Zukushi

I will go into details on the content of the sheets at some later point in time as I first want to get access to the research report once finished. And yes, Masamune’s name appears in the document 😉

Book Review: The Yonezawa Matchlock

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I was able to finish a highly interesting lecture which I have received a couple of weeks ago but which I didn’t want to read in a rush. What I am talking about is my friend Jan Pettersson’s book The Yonezawa Matchlock – Mighty Gun of the Uesugi Samurai, which deals, nomen est omen, and in a nutshell, with how the Uesugi dealt over the centuries with equipping their men with firearms.

But that’s not it, that is, the book does not only focus on the mere “equipping process” but introduces in incredible detail the approach of Yonezawa, the domain of the Uesugi, to stay on focus, i.e. their teppô, throughout the entire feudal period. In about 250 pages, Jan is not only able to narrate but to take us on a vivid journey through that history, which is in my opinion one of the strong points of the book (you will surely come to recognize Jan’s effort to exactly do so in each chapter).

As addressed by Piers Dowding in the foreword to the book, Jan had the great opportinuty to do on the spot research in Yonezawa, interviewing and inquiring all the local authorities on the field. You can believe me, from my own experience, proceeding with such an undertaking takes a considerable amount of sincerity and will (and I guess some balls too, if you allow my language) to get that all together like Jan did, i.e. receiving this accolade so to speak to tell that history for non-Japanese readers. You also have to bear in mind, it’s not that there is a ton of books in Japanese on that topic, on the contrary, Jan’s book can even be considered a novelty in general, not just outside of Japan.

So in short, if you are only remotely interested in this topic, the book is a must, and it goes without saying that this is particularly true if you are interested in teppô. Also, if you have read Noel Perrin’s Give Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, and enjoyed it, Jan’s book makes a very nice (and not only a specific but also a general) supplement to that topic. As for the book itself, it is hardcover 6×9” and contains 26 b/w illustrations, so focus is obviously on text.

[Disclaimer: I translated a few texts for Jan that went into his book but I am not involved in any sales of the book nor did I receive any payment for this review whatsoever: This review is honestly done from the point of view of a person interested in this topic!] (Non-book pictures courtesy of the author Jan Pettersson.)


This monument is erected on the spot where the first local gun-forge was built in 1604.

eBook Super Sale 2017



As it is now kind of a tradition, I will start another -50% off eBook Super Sale before the DAI TOKEN ICHI that goes directly via me (i.e. I’m not going to manually change all the prices on Lulu.com and then change them back when the sale is over). 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, if you are attending to the DTI. Should be handy to look up artists or backgrounds on the spot. In this sense, the eBook Super Sale will be up until Black Friday, until Nov 24, and the next one will not come until next easter.

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





Email troubles

Last night I painfully learned that due to my computer system change in early August, I overlooked several client emails. Tried to catch up last night but if you were trying to reach me during that time and haven’t heard back from me until now, please drop me another email. Specifically, this concerns emails send between August 1 and 15 that went unanswered. I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience!!


Report: Samurai Art Museum Berlin

A while ago, I promised you dear followers and readers a report on my job at the new Samurai Art Museum in Berlin. After returning from the official opening the other week, I thought this should be a good opportunity to give you a little insight into that venture. First of all, you have to understand that I am only a small cog in the wheel of the superb museum and several other experts (e.g. Dave Thatcher, Zenon van Damme, Thomas Schulze, Ian Bottomley) are involved to make this all happen and I will go ahead with a kind of chronology of events from my very personal perspective.

The initial contact was made by the Japanese sword and armor dealer Thomas Schneider and in April 2016, I got personally in touch with Mr. Peter Janssen, the collector and the owner of the museum, who subsequently commissioned me with a documentation/cataloging of all the objects in his collection. The museum was still in its building phase at that time so the first possible date for me to actually visit the facility was in February 2017. Mr. Janssen had sent me pictures of some of the highlights of his collection in advance but boy was I impressed when I entered the gates of the museum for the very first time: What an impressive place and what a consistently high quality on display! Most of the armor-related objects, i.e. full suits, helmets and face masks, had already been put up in the showcases, that is, the objects had already been moved from Mr. Janssen’s private estate to the museum before I showed up in February. Now I was there for a week so I immediately started to take pictures and notes of all the objects in the showcases and the storage rooms. This task occupied two and a half days and fortunately, my friend Uwe joined me later that week with whom I was going once more through the cabinets to check which items (mostly helmets and masks) are signed.

The remaining two and a half days were then spent on documenting the swords, over 170 in number, most of them in koshirae. The sword part was tough too as (of course) every single sword had to be fetched from the storage shelves, photographed as a whole, photographed drawn and with the hilt off, and photographed in detail, e.g. blade details, signature, tang, hilt, tsuba, saya, etc. All in all, I was taking more than 4,000 pictures that week, not even touching the tôsôgu collection as there was just not enough time at my initial stay back in February. The job was aggravated by a nasty cold that I suffered from and I surely drove the whole team crazy with my coughing fits 😉

Back home I started to work at the documentation/cataloging and I honestly have to admit, I underestimated the job, for example when it comes to determine certain materials like gold/brass or iron/shakudô. Also, I took pictures of the armors already put up in the showcases as mentioned, so sometimes it was difficult back home in my office to judge subtleties about e.g. cuirass constructions. Anyway, aim was first and foremost to record the entire collection as details are being worked out as we speak. I did assessments/documentation/cataloging of collections before but not to that extent (at the time this post is written, we are talking about 700 objects!). So, lesson learned.

That said, I have to refer to Mr. Janssen, Peter, once more. He made sure that all parties involved were lacking nothing when working down in the museum (it is subterranean). Staying at the very facility, we had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and coffee breaks (with delicious cake) throughout the day (as well as movie nights in the in-house movie theater). And fun of course as – and I take the liberty to speak for all of us – we had an excellent time.

Peter and Ian putting the important Katô armor back in the showcase that Dave relaced.

This brings us right to what is going on from here. So, the museum just officially opened on October 5, 2017 and if you want to get some impressions from the opening, please check the Facebook page of the museum here. Before anything else, Mr. Janssen hired Ms. Martyna Lesniewska as a curator who is now working (amongst other things and partly on the basis of my cataloging) on making the museum and its exhibits accessible to the viewer and to convert my humble writings into a curatorial system. It is amazing to see how thoroughly Martyna has thrown herself into the field of Japanese arms and armor and I am sure she will do an excellent job at the museum! Also catalogs are in work although the content and extent has yet to be determined. I will keep you updated. Apart from that, and this is a very important point, Mr. Janssen is eager to make the museum an event venue and hub for international research and activities in this field, beginning with The Gathering 2 in May 2018, although I think that there is a NBTHK-EB meeting taking place before that time. The museum is in my opinion predestined for these events/meeting, for the following reasons: 1) It is a privately run facility, so no government clearances/bureaucracy necessary. 2) It is solely dedicated to the field, i.e. no “also ran” department cramped into for example a local museum. 3) The collection is enormous as mentioned. You can believe me, there is plenty to see and enough stuff available to fill many many focused study meetings in the future. 4) Berlin is kind of central for international visitors, e.g. from the UK, Scandinavia, France, Italy, and Eastern Europe and it goes without saying a location worth visiting by itself. So planning a family trip or elongated weekend around one of the future events kills two birds with one stone. 5) Last but not least, Mr. Janssen is a very generous gentleman and he will make sure that events/lectures will be very worthy to attend.

So, check out the homepage of the museum linked at the beginning, get in touch with me if you have any questions that concern my job at the museum (otherwise I may ask you to contact Ms. Martyna Lesniewska through the museum website and consult the NMB and Facebook here and here for upcoming events). I hope that some of you can visit the place in the future, and hey, take it easy: The museum literally just opened 😉 Final words: I am glad that I was able to see so many of my friends again at the opening!

PS: The pictures are a mix of mine and what I have received from friends. To be honest, I forgot who took which picture so please let me know if one of them is yours and you don’t want to have it online. Thx.