On vacation

Ok, we are leaving for Italy tomorrow May 8 and I will be back in office on May 23. I will be able to reply to emails of course but I would kindly ask you to wait until the 23rd or 24th to send me translation/research work (a quick NBTHK or NTHK paper is always possible of course 😉 ). Thank you!

Also, as 2018 is a BIG anniversary year for me (20 years of studying Japanese, 10 years of running my business, and 5 years of running this blog), some changes will come in the weeks and months after our trip. That is, I will do a little rebranding and restructuring of my services, mostly shifting my focus to one side and downsizing at the other. But I will explain in more detail when the time has come and everything is ready (still have to wrap my head around the one or other issue).

In this sense, I am looking forward to some great Italian food and wine and will enjoy la dolce vita for the next couple of weeks!


Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜)

Time for another portrait of an important figure in the sword world, Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜). Kōson was born on April 29 of Meiji twelve (明治, 1879) as Kawaguchi Teikichi (川口定吉), son of Kawaguchi Magotarō (川口孫太郎), in Maebashi (前橋), Gunma Prefecture. Before the Meiji restoration and the abolishment of the feudal system, his father had been a sword polisher of the Maebashi fief of the same name, located what was then Kōzuke province and ruled by the Matsudaira (松平) family. It is said that Magotarō, who also went by the name Kinmei (欽明, also read Yoshiaki), later became a physician, or that he was a physician for the fief who polished swords at the side. When Teikichi was twelve years old, i.e. in 1890, his father moved to Tōkyō and Teikichi entered an apprenticeship as sword polisher with Hon’ami Ringa (本阿弥琳雅, 1859-1927). This is how his remarkable career started.


Hon’ami Ringa


Ringa was the 16th generation of the Kō’i (光意) lineage of the Honami which had branched off from the 7th Hon’ami main line generation in the Momoyama era. Ringa had been adopted into the Hon’ami family as had been basically all his Kō’i predecessors since the 5th generation of that lineage. I assume that Ringa was recognizing Kōson’s great talent because he managed it to get him married to a daughter of a relative of Hon’ami Mitsuyoshi/Kōga’s (本阿弥光賀, ?-1887) widow. Mitsuyoshi/Kōga was from the Kōmi (光味) lineage of the Hon’ami and as he was working (from Edo) for the Mito-Tokugawa, he is referred to as Mito-Hon’ami (水戸本阿弥). Henceforth, I will refer to Mitsuyoshi/Kōga just as Mitsuyoshi in order to avoid confusion with the earlier Hon’ami master Kōga of the same name from the early 1700s.


Kōson polishing the famous sword Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro (山姥切国広).


Now at the of time of Teikichi’s adoption into the Kōmi-Hon’ami family, taking the name Kōson, sword-related craftsmen were struggling since the abolishment of the samurai class and the 1876 ban on wearing swords in public. Mitsuyoshi for example had also worked as an architect and gardener. His widow, who had been a geisha before Mitsuyoshi married her, and his adopted daughter both committed suicide later by jumping one after another into the Sumida River. One of the then polishing students of the Hon’ami Kōmi lineage who was supposed to marry Mitsuyoshi’s adoptive daughter, Wada Shūsen (和田秋詮, ?-1929), behaved erratically after his master’s death and was kicked out of the workshop. Of course also his marriage arrangement was cancelled but that didn’t stop Wada touring the country as official Hon’ami sword appraiser under his master’s name Hon’ami Mitsuyoshi. However, it didn’t go so well for Wada as he died later, in July of 1929, at a sword meeting from a stroke.

Just another anecdote of those “crazy” times. The previous head of the Kōmi lineage, Hon’ami Tadataka (本阿弥忠敬, ?-1897), worked very hard to live up to the famous Hon’ami name and was quite often approached by sword collectors, for example asking him to authenticate their blades, but as a member of a Hon’ami side line, he was not allowed to issue Hon’ami appraisals. What he did was buying the official Hon’ami copper seal that was stamped on the back of origami from an impoverished member of the main line, who was working as a farmer at that time, and went ahead and just issued Hon’ami origami on his own. Well, Tadataka was a heavy drinker and also died from a stroke.

Among all that stuff going on, there was also a momentum for the Hon’ami. For example, Tadataka’s successor Tenrai (本阿弥天籟, ?-1938) was one of the first to grasp the changing times and the idea to make some of the family secrets public. In 1904 for example, he published the Japanese style-bound ten-volume work Kokon Tōken Kantei Hiketsu (古今刀剣鑑定秘訣), a treatise on the workmanship of kotō and shintō blades. The whole project was quite risky because of the relatively small number of potential buyers, but it was a matter of great personal concern to Tenrai because he tried to bring in fresh air to the then sword world. Besides that, he was a passionate drawer of oshigata, not only of masterworks and meibutsu but also of ordinary “everyday” blades. To the side of his oshigata he wrote comments in the style of the Hon’ami family, the way it had been practiced for centuries. So it was both something new and something traditional.


Kōson posing with the famous yari Otegine (御手杵).


I might digress but I just wanted to give you an idea of the times Kōson found himself becoming an independent swoerd polisher in Meiji 40 (1907). Three years earlier the Russo-Japanese War had broken out and it was one of the first incidents that brought the actual “use” of Japanese swords back on the table. So things improved a little for people in the sword craft. Kōson worked very hard to make the Japanese sword more accessible to the general public. Just a couple of decades ago namely, a commoner was not supposed to know anything about swords or even be interested in them. It was a “samurai thing” so to speak. But Kōson published a magazine called Nihontō Kenkyu (刀剣研究, “Sword Studies”), and among others in 1914 and 1924 the books Nihontō (日本刀, “The Japanese Sword”) and Tōken Kantei Kōwa (刀剣鑑定講話, “Lectures on Sword Appraisal”) respectively. He even founded a sword club, the Nihontō Kenkyū Kai (日本刀研究会). Also, as some of you might know, it was Kōson who introduced the system of the gokaden.


Kōson (sitting to the right) and Kurihara Akihide (栗原昭秀) (sitting to the left) preparing in May 1937 a sword exhibition in Manschuria.


So from about 1910 onwards, it was Kōson and Tenrai who were the go-to-guys for everything Hon’ami, i.e. polishing and appraisal-related as it was them who were able to continue the traditional Hon’ami business. The main namely line wasn’t quite able to make it. For example, their 19th head Kōchū (本阿弥光仲, ?-1869) was a dandy and had to pawn the official copper seal that had been granted to the family for their appraisals by Hideyoshi, plus some calligraphies by his ancestor Kōtoku (本阿弥光徳, 1556-1619) and eventually even his house. After he had died, it was his successor Tadamichi (忠道) who sold Mitsuyoshi the Hon’ami copper seal because as you know, the Hon’ami worked for the Tokugawa and when the Shogunte was abolished, they all ended up without a job. The situation improved a little bit when Tadamichi was employed, together with other Hon´ami members, by the Imperial Household Agency (Kunai-shō, 宮内省) for the newly founded section for swords. However, the sword section was shortly closed afterwards in the fourth year of Meiji (1871). When he realised that the situation was helpless , he “fled” from his debts and became a farmer as mentioned. Well, he returned later to Tōkyō when everything had “cooled down” where he henceforth ran a ryokan hotel and dealt with antiques. His successor Michitarō (道太郎, ?-1895), the last head of the Hon’ami main line, ended up as a shoe maker…


Kōson watching Prime Minister Saitō Makoto (斎藤実, 1858-1936) examining a kabuto.


As shown in the picture above and below, Kōson was very active before and during WWII. In 1936, he put all the oshigata he had taken so far from former daimyō and high-ranking collections and combined them to a neat set of twelve scrolls, each measuring 15 m when rolled out. In 1942, he published his Nihontō Taikan (日本刀大観, “Broad Overview of the Japanese Sword”). After the war, he became an advisor and trustee and a shinsa member of the newly founded NBTHK. With his 70th birthday in 1948. he took on the pen name Kaishi’an Sōho (芥子庵宗甫).


Kōson showing an ōdachi made by Kurihara Akihide to Minister of War Araki Sadao (荒木貞夫, 1877-1966).


The last project he was working on was the Nihontō no Okite to Tokuchō (日本刀の掟と特徴, “Guidelines and Characteristic Features of Japanese Swords). He was already 77 years old at that time and fighting with lung cancer, from which he died just one month after the publication of the book, on July 26, 1955. Kōson’s legacy was not only to contribute greatly to the post-WWII sword momentum, he also trained three great polishers and experts, his immediate successor Hon’ami Mitsuhiro/Kōhaku (本阿弥光博, 1918-1979),  ningen-kokuhō Ono Kōkei (小野光敬, 1913-1994), and ningen-kokuhō Nagayama Kōkan (永山光幹, 1920-2010).

Kōson’s two kaō.


Last but not least and for the sake of completeness, I want to mention the other Hon’ami lineage that went strong after the decline of the main line, and that is the most important Hon’ami group today. I am talking about Ringa’s successor Nisshū (本阿弥日洲, 1908-1966). Nisshū was the son of Ringa’s polishing student Hirai Chiba (平井千葉). He later became ningen-kokuhō, as did his son Hon’ami Kōshū (本阿弥光洲, 1939- ).


From left to right: Ono Kōkei, Nagayama Kōkan, Hirai Chiba, Hon’ami Nisshū.

Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage

Ok, I am leaving for the Chicago Sword Show tomorrow morning and am looking forward to see you guys there. So this is just gonna be a very short post but I thought it might nevertheless be of interest. A client asked me yesterday to explain the differences between a so-called Tenshō-suriage (天正磨上げ) and a Keichō-suriage (慶長磨上げ) as these terms are actually not explained in my Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords.

Before I deal with these kinds of suriage, a very brief historic outline of what we are talking about. By the end of the Muromachi period, a what I call a “civilian samurai uniform” started to emerge because now, shugo-daimyō and their higher-ranking vassals were no longer just protecting someone else’s land, they were ruling and administering it. As you don’t do this daily duty in full armor of course, the sword became the visible symbol of rank and authorative power. This was when these shugo-daimyō (the forerunners of the later daimyō) and their higher-ranking vassals needed a sword form, that could be easily thrusted through the sash of the new daily worn “uniform” and that did not have to be complicatedly suspended with cords like the tachi. For a more detail info on the changes in warrior dress code please look here. Again, we are talking about the upper ranks here, not what an average retainer had to his disposal.

Now Oda Nobunaga (織田信長, 1534-1582) came into power and he had, among others, a preference for Nanbokuchō-period Sōshū masterworks. If it was him who started it all of if there was already a momentum of reviving those works is a topic for another time but we know that his preference was continued by his “successor” Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1537-1598) and then basically by the entire upper warrior class. As Nanbokuchō-period Sōshū (and other, e.g. Sōden-Bizen) blades were long, wide, and heavy, Nobunaga and his peers had them shorted so that they can wear them with their civilian uniform. This was the start of the trend we are talking about here.

To be clear, Japanese swords have been shortened all the time. It was not like that the people at Oda Nobunaga’s time suddenly realized: “Hey, there is a nick or a crack at the base, but instead of throwing out the blade and have a complete new one made, let’s just cut off the end of the blade to the extent where the issue is and work the remaining part below of that into a new tang.” No, suriage and ō-suriage are as old as sword making is because steel was expensive and it is way easier and cheaper to shorten an otherwise completely functional blade and re-use it as a, well, shorter sword than have a new one made from scratch.

Back to the difference between Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage, which are by the way sometimes also just referred to as Tenshō-age and Keichō-age. Before I address the possible reasons for the differences, I want to outline them. As you can see in the shortened blade in picture 1, which comes under the category of a Tenshō-suriage, the tang tapers noticeably and the newly formed end is neatly shaped into a kengyō-jiri.

Picture 1: Tenshō-suriage

At the blade in picture 2, the tang does not taper that much (in the very case, the difference is actually not that obvious) and the newly formed end is just a straight kirijiri. So in short, the differences are: A Tenshō-suriage tapers more noticeably and has a more or less elaborately finished nakago-jiri whereas a Keichō-suriage does not taper much and ends in a straightly cut off kirijiri. There are no period set in stone rules that define a Tenshō and a Keichō-suriage, that is, these are relatively recent terms which were introduced to refer to certain kinds of ō-suriage tang finishes and I described them according to what I have been told (or more like overheard) in Japan. In other words, this post is not a very scientific treatise but states the issue as how I understand it and as how I explained it to my client who asked me this question.

Picture 2. Keichō-suriage

Now some thoughts about the reasons for these two different tang finishes of shortened blades. First of all, at the time Nobunaga came along, the highest circles were kind of looking down on shortened blades, in particular when it comes to presenting someone a fine sword. At the same time, it can be assumed that many of the extra long and wide Nanbokuchō blades with a nagasa of way more than 80 cm had already by shortened by then. But Nobunaga liked Sōshū and I think that he ordered his finest craftsmen to turn some of these Nanbokuchō works into blades that can be comfortably been worn as uchigatana/katana. This was so to speak stage one of this development, which took place during the Tenshō era (1573-1592), and the craftsmen shaped the newly created tang of a shortened sword into how a tang would have been initially finished by a swordsmith. Hence the taper and the sophisticated jiri. Or in other words, they were breaking new grounds and everyone was testing out the waters to see what was accepted and what not. So, you shorten a blade and make it look like as “original” as possible.

Jump to the Keichō era (1596-1615). Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had died (well, the latter not at the beginning but relatively quickly into Keichō era) but Nanbokuchō blades, in particular those of the Sōshū and Sōden-Bizen masters, were still very much first choice. Now by then, roughly twenty to thirty years after that entire trend had started, I guess that a shift had taken place. That is, by now, shortened blades have become socially acceptable so to speak. With that, there was no more need to “hold back” and do the balancing act of having a blade clearly shortened but make it look like as original as possible, in terms of tang finish. So, shortening a blade and leave it look like a shortened blade has always looked like (i.e. just the end cut off and filed the tang into a shape that can be fit into a new hilt) was no longer a taboo.

This is my take on this issue because even in Keichō times, we are talking about very fine blades. By way of explanation, it is like as if you are a master mechanic running the greatest workshop in the country (i.e. Hon’ami-Umetada collaboration): You just don’t have to cut corners when working on a Maybach or a Bugatti, that is, you have all the time and means in the world and don’t have to cut off a nakago in a straight kirjiri because you drown in work and just can’t shape it into a neat kenyō-jiri. Therefore, I rather think a shift in conception has taken place by the Keichō era and that this is the reason why shortened tangs were now finished differently than twenty to thirty years earlier and why we now refer to those different finishes as Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage.

I hope you can follow my train of thoughts and I will be back shortly with the next chapter of the Kantei series.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #36 – Heianjō (平安城) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 3

As mentioned at the very beginning of this Heianjō and Go-Sanjō chapter, it appears that the Heianjō lineage is older than that of the Go-Sanjō. According to tradition, the Heianjō lineage was founded by a smith named Nagamitsu (長光) who was succeeded by Mitsunaga (光長) and Yoshinaga (吉長) until the first Heianjō master with the famous name Nagayoshi (長吉) appears on the scene. No worries, I will provide a genealogy later in this article as usual.

Now I will talk about Mitsunaga very shortly because it appears that he is the earliest Heianjō master of whom blades are extant but want to share some thoughts on his predecessor, the school’s ancestor Nagamitsu. First of all, there are no blades of Nagamitsu extant. The Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen says that he was active around Bun’ō (文応, 1260-1261) and the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi dates him around Gen’ō (元応, 1319-1321) and says that he came originally from northern Ōshū, implying that he was a Mōgusa smith, bore the name Saburō (三郎), and moved to Kyōto where he joined the Hasebe School whereupon he with “Hasebe Nagamitsu.” Another theory says that Nagamitsu was a descendant of the Yamato Senju’in smith who was active around Tenpuku (天福, 1233-1234). As indicated, no blade that would suggest any of those traditions is extant.

Back to Mitsunaga. According to the Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen, was born in Kenchō one (建長, 1249) and died in Genkō three (元亨, 1323) at the age of 75. This would match with the source saying that his father was active around Bun’ō (文応, 1260-1261) but also matches the tradition that his father was a descendant of the Yamato Senju’in Nagamitsu from Tenpuku (天福, 1233-1234). Fortunately, there is a dated blade of Mitsunaga extant, namely the jūyō-bijutsuhin tantō introduced in picture 1 which is from Genkō two (1322) and which is owned by the Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures. This blade has an interesting shape. Its omote side is in hira-zukuri and its ura side in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri. It has a mitsu-mune, some uchizori, and is otherwise of normal dimensions for that time. The kitae is a somewhat standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare that is mixed with sunagashi, kinsuji, and hotsure. The bōshi is midare-komi with a rather pointed kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. Gomabashi are engraved on the omote side and the ura side shows a koshibi. The nakago is ubu, has a kirijiri, and features a relatively finely chiseled mei.


Picture 1: jūyo-bunkazai, tantō, mei: “Heianjō-jū Mitsunaga – Genkō ninen nigatsu hi” (平安城住光長・元亨二年二月日, “on a day in the second month of Genkō two (1322)”), nagasa 24.8 cm, uchizori, motohaba 2.2 cm


Such kanmuri-otoshi shapes were very typical for Yamato blades of that time so the theory that his and his father’s roots were in Yamato sound plausible. Even the NBTHK states that this Genkō two blade reminds them in terms of tsukurikomi and interpretation of the jiba of the Yamato tradition. However, there are also Mitsunaga works extant which feature a nie-utsuri and so also another theory is possible, one that says that he was actually either an Awataguchi or a Rai smith. One of them is shown in picture 2. It is an unsigned tantō but which has a similar shape as the jūyō-bijutsuhin and which is attributed by the NBTHK to Heianjō Mitsunaga. This blade is in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri (on both sides this time), has an iori-mune, a relatively narrow mihaba, an uchizori, a thick kasane, and only little fukura. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame that tends to nagare in places and that features ji-nie, fine chikei, and a faint nie-utsuri. The hamon is a narrow and shallow ko-nieladen notare-chō with a wide and bright nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-gunome and plenty of kinsuji. the bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. There is a koshi-bi wie soebi on both sides which run as kaki-nagashi into the tang and the nakago is almost ubu (it is slightly machi-okuri), has a shallow kurijiri, and katte-sagari yasurime.


Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mumei: Den Heianjō Mitsunaga (伝平安城光長), nagasa 24.3 cm, uchizori, motohaba 1.95 cm


Whilst the first two blades were more on the Yamato side, blade number 3 shown below rather tends towards the Rai School. It is a small hira-zukuri tanto with a nagasa of 21.1 cm, uchizori, and a relatively slender mihaba. its kitae is a dense ko-itame with ji-nie and a nie-utsuri and its hamon is a nie-laden hoso-suguha-chō that is mixed with ko-gunome, notsure, and sunagashi. The bōshi is only slightly undulating, featuring a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake that runs back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi. The tang is a little bit suriage, has a shallow kurijiri, and katte-sagari-yasurime.


Picture 3: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Heianjō-jū Mitsunaga” (平安城住光長), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 21.1 cm, uchizori, mihaba 1.75 cm


At this point, I want to give you an idea of how complicated and interwoven the topic of these old smiths is. The Ōseki Shō from the early 1500s says for example that Mitsunaga’s was Konyū (虎熊) and the genealogy of the shintō-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni smiths (compiled in 1601) states that the second generation Nobukuni, one of their ancestors, used that too. This is interesting but could also just be a coincidence. The Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen and Tsuneishi however say that his was Chonyū/Inyū (猪熊). Those who follow my blog very closely might remember these characters. Read in the Japanese way, Inokuma, we arrive at the place where the Hasebe School had settled in Kyōto (more info here). Very interesting, isn’t it, as one tradition says that Mitsunaga’s father was a Hasebe smith. But there is more. As mentioned in the linked article from 2013, there is the theory that the founder of the Hasebe School himself, Kunishige (国重), was a Yamato Senju’in smith who settled in Kyōto via a stopover in Kamakura where he learned the Sōshū tradition. Now this theory is of course not settled and we will probably never now for sure what was really going on 700 years ago but I take the liberty to throw out some possible scenarios now and then.

In this context, let’s take a look at the signature of the Heianjō smiths. As stated above, they signed with the prefix “Heianjō-jū.” This by itself is nothing special as it just means “resident of Kyōto,” that is, although uncommon for these schools, it would have been theoretically possible that even an Awataguchi or a Rai smith had signed with “Heianjō-jū.” However, the term Heianjō (平安城) comes with some contextual baggage so to speak. It was introduced, with Heiankyō (平安京), to distinguish the new Kyōto capital from the old one in Nara, which was Heijōkyō (平城京). Well, that move of the capital had been taken place 500 years before the Heianjō School emerged but taking into consideration (often deliberate) subtleties in Japanese language, it is possible that signing with this prefix was a way for former Yamato smiths to proudly state that they were now working in Kyōto, an issue that Sanjō, Gojō, Awataguchi and Rai smiths didn’t have to worry about as they were old-established Kyōto smiths. Incidentally, there is the old tradition that some Yamato smiths had their origins within the Iruka group (入鹿) of Kii province which in turn is said to have been founded by Mōgusa smiths in 10th century. So from that point of view, the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi is not totally off stating that the ancestor of the Heianjō lineage has northern Mōgusa roots in the wider sense.

Below I want to present the genealogy of the Heianjō School as I see it today.

Genealogy Heianjo


The Nagayoshi lineage will be the subject of the next chapter. Somewhat odd is that it appears that there are no blades of Mitsunaga’s son and the first generation Nagayoshi’s father Yoshinaga extant. At least I wasn’t able to find one… The Kokon Mei Zukushi might provide a hint for why Yoshinaga blades are virtually non-existent. In their genealogy namely his place is left blank and filled with the information “daughter of Mitsunaga.” This would mean that Yoshinaga was Mitsunaga’s son-in-law, what leads to a range of possible scenarios. Maybe Mitsunaga’s first born child was a girl and he waited in vain for being blessed with a male heir and as time went on and on, he eventually married his daughter to Yoshinaga to pass on his profession as a swordsmith. So maybe Yoshinaga came to the family relatively late. Well, there was according to tradition also the son Sadaie (定家) (see genealogy) but it is possible that after marrying his daughter to Yoshinaga, Mitsunaga’s wife did give birth to a boy eventually. Or Sadaie was adopted as another possible candidate to take over the lineage. It is interesting that the Kokon Mei Zukushi lists a Nagayoshi after Sadaie and one after the Mitsunaga’s daughter. Possible that there was some confusion going on after Mitsunaga died and it was decided that both Yoshinaga and Sadaie’s sons were allowed to continue with the Nagayoshi name, like as it was the case later with the two Echizen Yasutsugu lineages.

Anyway, that’s just some thoughts on the early Heianjō smiths and the Nagayoshi lineage will be dealt with in the next chapter.

Easter eBook Super Sale IV


I just started, like last three years before, an Easter eBook Super Sale where ALL of my eBooks are reduced by 50%! This offer will be valid for until April 6 so you have enough time to decide what you want. So fill up all your tablets (or PC´s) with all the important Nihonto and Tosogu reference material you need four your studies!

Once again, it 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, by check, or by 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 laptops/tablets/phones with all references you need.

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

Thoughts on the Gokaden

In the very same source I addressed here, I found another very interesting entry, an entry that kind of predicts the well-known concept of the so-called gokaden (五箇伝), the “Five Traditions”.

At the beginning of the Yamashiro part of my Kantei series I have stated that it is generally assumed that the system of the gokaden (五ヶ伝・五箇伝), lit. “The Five Traditions,” was introduced by Hon´ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜, 1879-1955). “His” five traditions were:

  • Yamashiro tradition (Yamashiro-den, 山城伝)
  • Yamato tradition (Yamato-den, 大和伝)
  • Bizen tradition (Bizen-den, 備前伝)
  • Sōshū tradition (Sōshū-den, 相州伝)
  • Mino tradition (Mino-den, 美濃伝)

Before his time, swords, in particular kotō swords, were mostly classified according to their production site, that is the province they were made in. For example, blades made in Bizen were called Bizen-mono (備前物), and such made in Yamato were called Yamato-mono (大和物). But this classification via mono (物, lit. “thing” or rather “work” in this context) and the province a blade was made in is inflexible and does not make clear any stylistic connections. That is, you can’t see at a glance that for example an Enju blade is, via the Yamashiro tradition, actually stylistically connected to the Kyōto-based Rai school when it is just listed as Kyūshū-mono. So Kōson’s approach via den (traditions) makes sense but the interesting find I made recently shows that he did not come up with that gokaden system out of the blue.



So the section in question is basically about the basics of kantei and it is written in a somewhat esoteric manner. Lets begin with the overview that caught my attention. As seen above, we are provided with five basic classifications, very similar to Kōson’s gokaden. These classifications are:

Spring: Bizen – steel like wood
Summer: Yamashiro – steel like fire
Late Summer: Kyūshū – steel like earth
Fall: Sagami – steel like metal
Winter: Yamato – steel like water

As you probably realize right away, we are dealing here with the concept of the Five Elements or Five Phases (五行, Chinese Wǔ Xíng, Japanese gogyō). Before the mid-Edo period, this concept was very much in use in Japan and, to keep it simple here, it was only given up because of the nationalistic push applied by the Tokugawa bakufu. The book in question was written in the early Edo period and so it still follows the Five Elements approach that was prevailing in earlier periods. It is interesting to see that Mino is not in that list, although by the time the book was written, it had been a major sword production site for more than one hundred years. This suggests that earlier wisdom was copied here which had not yet adopted the Mino tradition into its curriculum (although Mino is still introduced, as part of the Sōshū tradition, see below).

Now the supplement of “steel like wood” for example does not have any direct meaning, neither does “spring” for Bizen province, and it seems that the Five Elements system was applied to swords as a memory aid so to speak. Like an easy to remember way of summing up the five major sword production sites by the manageable number of five which was anyway used by everyone because to the Five Elements concept. But there is more. This list of five is then expanded on the following pages of the book and each province/region is listed with its major schools. Although there are some associations which are hard to follow in terms of workmanship, this expansion of the list of five is actually doing what Kōson was doing later, and that is listing schools and/or smiths in each group which are stylistically connected. The first section is expanded as:

Spring: Bizen – Wood
jōsaku Ichimonji (一文字)
jōsaku Osafune Mitsutada (長船光忠)
jōsaku Hatakeda Moriie (畠田守家)
Ukai Unji (鵜飼雲次)
chūsaku Yoshioka-Ichimonji Sukemitsu (吉岡一文字助光)
gesaku Yoshii Naganori (吉井永則)
gege-saku Kozori Yoshikage (小反吉景)
chūsaku Tajima Hōjōji Kunimitsu (但馬法成寺国光)
chūsaku Bitchū Aoe Moritsugu (備中守次)
chūsaku Bingo Mihara Masaie (備後三原正家)
gesaku Suō Niō Kiyotsuna (周防二王清綱)
jōsaku Hōki Ōhara Sanemori (伯耆大原真守)

As you can see, there is already a qualitative classification via the jōsaku, chūsaku etc. system and for some reason, this school of knowledge thought that Niō Kiyotsuna and Ōhara Sanemori somehow belonged to Bizen. For the sake of completeness, I want to quote the remaining four expansions in the following, and associations have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Summer: Yamashiro – Fire
jōsaku Sanjō Munechika (三条宗近)
chū-no-chū Rai Kuniyoshi (来国吉)
jōsaku Raitarō Kuniyuki (来太郎国行)
jōsaku Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊)
jōsaku Niji-Kunitoshi (二字国俊)
chū-no-ge Ryōkai (了戒)
jōsaku Chūdō-Rai Mitsukane (中堂来光包)
betsujō Awataguchi Tōmanosuke Norikune (粟田口藤馬之丞則国)
gesaku Settsu Nakajima-Rai Kuninaga (摂津中島来国長)
gesaku Rai Tomokuni (来倫国)
gesaku Rai Kuninao (来国直)
chūsaku Higo Kikuji Enju Kunimura (肥後菊地延寿国村)
gesaku Heianjō Mitsunaga (平安城光長)
gesaku Inaba Kokaji Kagenaga (因幡小鍛冶景長)
gesaku Nobukuni 3rd generation (信国三代)

Late Summer: Kyūshū – Earth
betsujō Bungo Kishindayū Yukihira (豊後紀信太夫行平)
jōsaku Ki no Masatsune (紀正恒)
chūsaku Sō Sadahide (僧定秀)
gesaku Jitsu’a (実阿)
gege-saku Satsuma Naminohira Yukiyasu (薩摩浪平行安)
chū-no-ge Chikugo Miike Motozane (筑後三池元真)
gesaku Ōshū Mōgusa Takeyasu (奥州舞草雄安)
gesaku Chikuzen Kongōbyōe Moritaka (筑前金剛兵衛盛高)
gesaku Bungo Takada Tomoyuki (豊後高田友行)
jōsaku Etchū no Kuni Matsukura-jū Yoshihiro (越中国松倉住義弘)
jōsaku Etchū ni Kuni Gofukuyama Norishige (越中国御服山則重)

Fall: Sagami – Metal
jōsaku Bizen Saburō Kunimune (備前三郎国宗)
jōsaku Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光)
jōsaku Kamakura-Rai Kunitsugu (鎌倉来国次)
jōsaku Tōroku Sakon Kunitsuna (藤六左近国綱)
jōsaku Tōsaburō Yukimitsu (藤三郎行光)
mujō Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗)
betsujō Hikoshirō Sadamune (彦四郎貞宗)
chūsaku Kurōjirō Hiromitsu (九郎次郎広光)
chūsaku Akihiro (秋広)
chū-no-jō Tōgenji Sukezane (藤源次助真)
gesaku Kyō Hasebe Kunishige (京長谷部国重)
jōsaku Mino no Kuni Kaneuji (美濃国兼氏)
gesaku Mino no Kuni Kinjū (美濃国金重)
Chikuzen no Kuni Sa (筑前国左)
chūsaku Bizen no Kuni Chōgi (備前国長義)
jōsaku Bizen no Kuni Kanemitsu (備前国兼光)
chūsaku Bizen no Kuni Motoshige (備前国元重)
gesaku Iwami no Kuni Izuha-jū Naotsuna (石見国出羽住直綱)
gesaku Owari Yamada-Seki Kunitsugu (尾州山田関国次) (via Mino)
gesaku Hachiya-jū Daruma (蜂谷住達磨) (via Mino)
gesaku Etchū Uda Kunimitsu (越中宇多国光)
gesaku Kaga Fujishima Tomoshige (加賀藤島友重)
gesaku Izumo Dōei Naganori (出雲道永永則)
gesaku Awa Kaifu Yasuyoshi (阿波海部泰吉)
gesaku Echizen Chiyozuru Kuniyasu (越前千代鶴国安)

Winter: Yamato – Water
chūsaku Senju’in Shigehiro (千手院重弘)
betsu Taima Kuniyuki (当麻国行)
jōsaku Tegai Kanenaga (手掻包永)
chūsaku Shikkake Norinaga (尻懸則長)
chūsaku Hoshō Gorō (保昌五郎)
gesaku Suruga Shimada Yoshisuke (駿河島田義助)
gesaku Mikawa Heianjō Nagayoshi (三河平安城長吉)
gesaku Ise Kuwana Muramasa (伊勢桑名村正)
gesaku Wakasa Fuyuhiro (若狭冬広)


So it appears to me, as indicated, that the Five Elements approach was nothing more than a vehicle to learn by heart and remember these smiths and their qualitative evaluation. Imagine you are the son of a high-ranking samurai who is sent to learn kantei with a Hon’ami or a Takeya sensei of that time and after a while the teacher would ask you: “What are the smiths for fall and what evaluation do they have?” or “What are the earth steel smiths?” You probably got beaten with a bokutō if you don’t remember correctly 😉

Next in the book follow the major kantei points, distributed into the “Five Elements of Shape” (gotai, 五体) and the “Ten Characteristics” (jūsei, 十性). The Five Elements of Shape are: tsukurikomi, kissaki, mune, shinogi, and overall shape. And the Ten Characteristics are: bōshi, kaeri, nie, nioi, course of hamon, hada, color of the steel (which is again divided into five colors: blue, red, yellow, white, and black), shine, ji, and kitae.

In conclusion I want to say that I am of the opinion that although this all sounds esoteric at first glance, we should not pay too much attention to that, or rather don’t go down that rabbit hole too deeply. Like here, I get more the impression that the concept of splitting up information into five bullet points was an easy way to make such lists as everyone know the Five Elements concept. It is very interesting to see some pre-Kōson gokaden system and that is why I thought I should share this with my readers.



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.