The difficulties in classifying Kamakura blade shapes

At kantei sessions or sword meetings, it is usually not the biggest problem to identify a blade as a Kamakura blade on the basis of its shape, the sugata (leaving well-made utsushimono out of consideration). We all know more or less the changes in Kamakura-era sugata and are able to tell the basic characteristics of each phase. Just to repeat, blades of the transitional period from Heian to Kamakura get a hint wider, loose their noticeable taper a bit and show a slightly larger kissaki. Half a century later, a period we call mid-Kamakura, the increase in length and width proceeds continuously. That means a mid-Kamakura tachi is noticeably more magnificent than its early Kamakura or late Heian predecessor. Also the sori shifts more from a koshizori to a toriizori and we can see sometimes plenty of hira-niku and a variant, the hamaguriba. But at about the same time a blade shape appears which is even bigger, shows less taper, and ends in a stubby kissaki which we classify as ikubi-kissaki. From the end of the Kamakura period onwards, the length still increases, the kissaki gets larger and the koshizori fades into the background. This trend eventually ends up at the exaggerated Nanbokuchô-sugata which reaches its climax in the eras Enbun (延文, 1356-1361) and Jôji (貞治, 1362-1368).

Let us take a look on the political changes. Towards the late 10th and early 11th century it was about that only the force of arms had the ability to exercise power and thus the officials of the state government gradually started to fill local civil posts with men who professionally carried out military and administrative functions. This was the hour of birth of the bushi (武士). The actual military „aristocracy“, the buke (武家), emerged when members of the kuge (公家) – i.e. from families like the Fujiwara, Minamoto and Taira – began to go on their own initiative into the provinces to solve problems by taking over the supreme command of the bushi. Subsequently, the buke were not only able to maintain peace in the lands away from Kyôto but started to participate in the court power struggles, so to speak as supporters of their „court family members“.It was not long before one of these upcoming new classes had enough power to have a great influence on matters at the imperial court. The first who tried to expand his powers into this direction was Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛, 1118-1181) but his strong military influence policy immediately faced strong opposition from the court aristocracy. The result of this opposition against the Taira was the Genpei War (源平) from the years 1180 to 1185 in which Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199) turned out to be victorious. He made the village of Kamakura (鎌倉), far away from the capital Kyôto, his administrative centre because it had previously served him as military headquarter during the Genpei War. But Yoritomo overlooked to take care of his succession which ended up after his death in a power struggle amongst his earlier retainers of which his widow Masako (政子, 1157-1225) and her family, the Hôjô (北条), won. Masako´s father Hôjô Tokimasa (北条時政, 1138-1215) re-structured his political offices in a way that he was officially allowed to act as regent to the shôgun. By this clever move the Hôjô were the actual rulers of the Shôgunate until the end of the Kamakura period. The buke of that time were members of the military aristocracy, or the gentry if you like, but their life was considerably different from that of their counterparts in Kyôto. Much time and energy was used to defend and administer the lands. Their life was closer to the peasantrys´ and weapon training was a major point on the agenda. But because they actually had the executive power, they decided themselves that their feudal system was the best and only way to rule the country.

Thus the change in sword shape in the transitional period from Heian to Kamakura has also to be seen in the context of the strenghtening and more self-confident upcoming buke class. As they now „did their own thing“ in Kamakura, swords were made after their taste. One of the first tests for the new Hôjô regency was when the retired Emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽天皇, 1180-1239, r. 1184-1198) tried in 1221 to overthrow the bakufu and re-install imperial rule. Fourteen years earlier, Gotoba had then been abdicated for nine years, the ex-emperor invited the greatest master smiths of his time to his residence to work on a project called „goban-kaji“ (御番鍛冶). The majority of the invited smiths came from Bizen, or to be more precise from the Fukuoka-Ichimonji school. Two were from Kyôto and the remaining three from Bitchû. The goban-kaji were quasi hired to produce the best sword possible, also in mind to equip later Gotoba´s army to overthrow the bakufu. But of course also aesthetical approaches played a role, although back then the smiths were rather captive of the method form follows function.

Well, except the incident with Gotoba, the Hôjô were able to maintain a government which provided peace for some decades. Things changed when more than half a century after Gotoba the Mongols invaded in 1274 after some years of political back and forth with Kublai Khan. So the bakufu was not entirely unprepared as repeated envoys had officially declared Kublai´s intention. But although Kyûshû was on alert, the samurai troops did not know how to deal with such a large force, also because of the fact that their last major fighting took place as mentioned one generation earlier. We all know the outcome of the first and second invasion of 1281 and it is assumed that the decrease in niku and kasane and the increase in length of the kissaki of blades made after that time is indirectly connected to the experiences the warriors gained fighting the Mongols. Incidentally, the bakufu had their Kyûshû troops until 1312 on alert to be prepared for another invasion. I said „indirectly“ because the first noticeable increase in kissaki length and decrease in width and niku might only be seen three or four decades later. Somewhat before the first Mongol invasion, the then regent Hôjô Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263) had summoned around Kenchô (建長, 1249-1255) the master smith Awataguchi Kunitsuna (粟田口国綱) from Kyôto and a bit later Saburô Kunimune (三郎国宗) und Ichimonji Sukezane (一文字助真) from Bizen to come to Kamakura to establish a local sword centre for the buke. Their efforts layed the foundation for the development of the Sôshû tradition and the increasing grandeur of later Kamakura-era blades goes also to a certain extant back to their successors.

Half a century after the last Mongol invasion another emperor tried to overthrow the bakufu and restore old imperial power, namely Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇, 1288-1339). But his short and fruitless revolt in 1331 ended with his banishment and a kind of division to a pro and a contra Go-Daigo faction. Hôjô enemies, like the Ashikaga (足利), were on the side of Go-Daigo. Their head, Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358), conquered Kyôto for Go-Daigo whilst his ally Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞, 1301-1338) caused the downfall of Kamakura and destroyed the Hôjô. However, Go-Daigo wanted to restore the old imperial government and reunite it with the military powers of the bakufu. But this was not what the buke wanted and so many of them turned against the emperor. When Go-Daigo granted the title of shôgun to his son, prince Morinaga (護良, 1308-1335), and conferred many military offices to court aristocrats, Takauji took over control in 1336 and recaptured Kyôto from Go-Daigo. In response to this, Go-Daigo and his men took refuge in the mountains of Yoshino (吉野) to the south of Kyôto from where they still laid claim to the throne. The resulting conflicts would last 60 years, a period which went down in history as the Nanbokuchô period. But Go-Daigo´s revolt was not the only reason for the downfall of the Kamakura-Shôgunate because the Hôjô themselves were already heading for their end. When no new land was conquered after the Mongols were defeated, the Hôjô regents were unable to reward the participating warriors. And this anti-Hôjô mood prevailing in the early years of the 14th century eventually played into the hands of Go-Daigo. In the meantime, also temples and shrines demanded rewards from the military government because they claimed that their prayers and Sutra readings were the cause of the „divine assistance“ in the form of the famous kamikaze.

Well, our problem now in differentiating Kamakura-sugata is the lack of extant works. Ubu Kamakura blades, i.e. unshortened blades in their original condition, are rare and most of them we can study today were made by noted smiths and for a high-ranking clientel. This restriction in data cannot be emphasized enough. That means we have to distinguish between war swords (hyôjô no tachi, 兵仗太刀) and ceremonial swords (gijô no tachi, 儀仗太刀) and this differentiation is as important as the realization that we are facing just the tip of the iceberg. To visualize the complexity of the „problem“: Blades from that time can be made to be worn as ceremonial sword by courtiers (kuge), as war sword for courtiers (nodachi, 野太刀, not to be confused with the overlong field swords of the same name), as war sword of the military aristocracy (buke), as treasure sword for both buke or kuge, or as war sword for the common warriors. The blades of all these swords show more or less subtle differences according to their use. Also it is easy to understand that when we are referring to the big names in the then sword world, their works were surely not made for lower ranking warriors. Though I have to say, at the risk of repeating myself, all we have is a small window through which we can peek into the Kamakura-era sword world. In this sense I want to present the reader such a small window, or even a small window seen from the other end of the room. From these pictures (they are as good as possible true to scale) we learn how different a tachi-sugata can be even in the limited time frame of early, mid or late Kamakura period. Note: All these blades are ubu or just a bit suriage.


Picture 1: Late Heian to early Kamakura period (from left to right)

1. Mikazuki-Munechika (三日月宗近), late Heian period, nagasa 80,0 cm

2. Ko-Hôki Aritsuna (有綱), late Heian period, nagasa 83,4 cm

3. Gojô Kuninaga (五条国永), late Heian period, nagasa 78,8 cm

4. Awataguchi Kunitomo (粟田口国友), Kenkyû (建久, 1190-99), nagasa 75,8 cm

5. Ko-Bizen Tomonari (友成), Ninpyô (仁平, 1151-1154), nagsa 80,0 cm

6. Ô-Kanehira (大包平), Genryaku (元暦, 1184-1185), nagasa 89,2 cm

7. Naminohira Yukiyasu (波平行安), Hôgen (保元, 1156-1159), nagasa 73,9 cm

8. Bungo Yukihira (行平), Genkyû (元久, 1204-1206), nagasa 80,1 cm

9. Ko-Aoe Sadatsugu (貞次), Genryaku (元暦, 1184-1185), nagasa 77,1 cm

10. Niô Kiyotsuna (清綱), Genkyû (元久, 1204-1206), nagasa 79,7 cm

11. Ko-Aoe Tametsugu (為次), Jôgen (承元, 1207-1211), nagasa 78,8 cm


Picture 2: Early to mid Kamakura period (from left to right)

1. Ko-Ichimonji Norimune (則宗), Jôgen (承元, 1207-1211), nagasa 78,2 cm

2. Hôju (宝寿), Jôô (貞応, 1222-1224), nagasa 74,8 cm

3. Bizen Yoshifusa (吉房), Jôei (貞永, 1232-1233), nagasa 81,4 cm

4. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Yoshihira (吉平), Kenchô (建長, 1249-56), nagasa 73,8 cm

5. Saburô Kunimune (三郎国宗), Shôgen (正元, 1259-1260), nagasa 72,7 cm

6. Rai Kuniyuki (来国行), Shôgen (正元, 1259-1260), nagasa 69,6 cm

7. Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊), dated Shôwa four (正和, 1315), nagasa 78,2 cm

8. Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊), Kôan (弘安, 1278-1288), nagasa 75,5 cm


Picture 3. Mid to late Kamakura period (from left to right)

1. Nagamitsu (長光), dated Shôô two (正応, 1282), nagasa 75,1 cm

2. Daihannya-Nagamitsu (大般若長光), nagasa 73,6 cm

3. Nyûsai (入西), dated Einin five (永仁, 1297), nagasa 71,5 cm

4. Senjû´in Sukemitsu (助光), Shôan (正安, 1299-1302), nagasa 64,4 cm

5. Senjû´in Yoshimitsu (吉光), dated Shôan two (正安, 1300), nagasa 84,6 cm

6. Unji (雲次), dated Shôwa four (正和, 1315), nagasa 78,8 cm

7. Enju Kunitomo (延寿国友), Shôchû (正中, 1324-1326), nagasa 89,1 cm

8. Bizen Sukemitsu (助光), dated Genkô two (元享, 1322), nagasa 82,1 cm

9. Aoe Yoshitsugu (吉次), dated Gentoku two (元徳, 1330), nagasa 77,3 cm


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