Update on Kantei Supplement 2

Just want to inform you that I have collected 175 fine blades for my second Kantei supplement. More than 100 of them are already translated. Introduced will be a rare tachi of Shintôgo Kunimitsu, four Chôgi (including the meibutsu “Yagyû-Chôgi”), three Sôshû Fusamune, three Kanemoto, three Muramasa, a Furuya-uchi of Horikawa Kunihiro dated 1586, five Kotetsu, a rare Hanjô wakizashi (student of Hankei), four Ippei Yasuyo, and many more. That means with the previous Kantei books (see links below), we arrive now at a total of 574 blades! Estimated time of publication: End of September (as usual, there will be a German and an English volume).


Shintô & Shinshintô-kantei

Kantei Supplement 1



A kôgai that has passed through many hands

This time I want to introduce a very famous kôgai of Gotô Yujô (後藤祐乗, 1440-1512), namely the so-called “nuregarasu” (濡烏), which was not always called that way. But one thing at a time. First of all, it is today part of a futatokoromono set with menuki of the same motif which is attributed to the 7th Gotô-generation Kenjô (後藤顕乗, 1586-1663). Originally, the kôgai belonged to a kind of „triple set“ of kôgai owned by Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利義政, 1436-1490, r. 1449-1473) for whom Yûjô worked. Basically we have two slightly differing provenances on this triple set, found namely in the work “Gotô-ke jûnana-dai” (後藤家十七代) and the Maeda chronicles “Kichôhin-mokuroku” (貴重品目録). The information quoted in the former goes back to a document called “Higashiyama-dono gyobutsu-soshi Yûjô-horimono no oboe” (東山殿御物祖師祐乗彫物之覚, about “Memories on Carvings of Yûjô, the Ancestor of [making] Things for Lord Higashiyama [i.e. Ashikaga Yoshimasa]”). Therein we read that Yoshimasa was treasuring three kôgai of Yûjô, one with the kuyô crest (九曜) motif, one with kari (雁, wild geese) motif, and one with crows by the water (mizugarasu, 水烏) motif. He did not part with them and after his death, they became hereditary treasures of the Ashikaga-shôgun family. However, the kuyô-kôgai was later given to Oda Akita Jônosuke Nobutada (織田秋田城之介信忠, 1557-1582) – Nobunaga´s son and heir – but destroyed by fire in Ôgaki Castle (大垣城) in Mino province. The 13th Ashikaga-shôgun Yoshiteru (足利義輝, 1536-1565, r. 1546-1565) placed the kari and the mizugarasu-kôgai in custody at the 4th Gotô-generation Kôjô (後藤光乗, 1529-1620). The Gotô family in turn sold them for 100 ryô to Akechi Mitsuhide (明智光秀, 1467-1568) who presented them to his lord Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga in turn gave them as a gift to Hideyoshi and Hideyoshi presented the mizugarasu-kôgai to Katô Kiyomasa (加藤清正, 1561-1611) to reward him for his achievements in battle. The kari-kôgai was left at the Toyotomi family but destroyed when Ôsaka fell in 1615. Being in the possession of Kiyomasa, the mizugarasu-kôgai was for whatever reason renamed to nuregarasu-kôgai (lit. “wet crow”) and eventually presented to Maeda Toshitsune (前田利常, 1594-1658).

The Maeda chronicles “Kichôhin-mokuroku” however say that all three kôgai in question were passed down within Yûjô´s successors and not within the Ashikaga family and that Gotô Kôjô sold them all to Akechi Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide in turn presented all three to Nobunaga who in turn presented the kuyô and the mizugarasu-kôgai to Hideyoshi. This document says that it was the kari-kôgai which was destroyed in Ôgaki Castle and the kuyô-kôgai which was destroyed at the fall of Ôsaka. And further we read that Hideyoshi did present the mizugarasu-kôgai to Katô Kiyomasa but that it went from him back to the Gotô family which eventually sold it to Maeda Toshitsune.


Picture 1: nuregarasu no zu futatokoromono (濡烏の図二所物), mumei, attributed to Gotô Yûjô, the matching menuki are attributed to Kenjô

It is also speculated that Nobunaga, who had a fondness for tea utensils, paintings and famous masterworks from all over the country, displayed a certain wish to own the famous three Yûjô-kôgai handed down within the Gotô family and that Akechi Mitsuhide, trying to fullfil this, eventually “convinced” Kôjô by offering the incredible sum of 100 ryô. Anyway, it is hard to say which of the transmission is correct as just the nuregarasu-kôgai is extant which is today preserved in the Maeda Ikutokukai (前田育徳会), the foundation established in 1926 for the management and preservation of the cultural heritage of the Maeda clan. As mentioned, it is assumed that the matching menuki are a work of Kenjô and further that the kôgai came into the possessions of the Maeda at Kenjô´s time as he and his cousin Kakujô (後藤覚乗, 1589-1656) worked on a biennial basis alternating between Kyōto, for the bakufu, and Kanazawa (金沢) for the Maeda, receiving a salary from the latter of 150 koku. There are namely many examples known where single famous pieces were completed by later Gotô masters to futatokoro or mitokoromono sets.

That means the nuregarasu-kôgai has passed through the hands of all the key figures of Momoyama and early Edo Japan. What a history-charged piece!


Picture 2 (from left to right): Gotô Yûjô, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Oda Nobutada, Ashikaga Yoshiteru


Picture 3 (from left to right): Akechi Mitsuhide, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Katô Kiyomasa, Maeda Toshitsune

Some thoughts on utsuri

This time I want to sare some thoughts on utsuri. At the end of one of our last sword meetings we had a brief discussion on utsuri in the course of which the most common approaches in explaining this effect were touched. In this article, I want to forward these approaches and expand them by what I was able to find in other sources. To begin with, we all know that utsuri is a synonym for kotô Bizen swords. The common knowledge is also that utsuri „disappeared“ at the end of the kotô period and had to be „rediscovered“ by shintô, shinshintô and even by shinsakutô smiths. Well, to a certain extant, all this is kind of true. Also we know that utsuri is not a superficial thing as it remains even if a blade is polished multiple times. That means it must have a certain depth. Kapp says on p. 91 in his „The Craft of the Japanese Sword“ that „utsuri shows no evidence of containing any martensite“ and this line is what is mostly discussed and opposed when we are talking about utsuri at our sword meetings. Kapp mentions further: „The sides, where utsuri appears, are heated to 750-760°C – at this temperature, the steel is in a transitional phase from pearlite to austenite; it is presumed that utsuri is related to the complex ferrite and pearlite microstructure that obtains in this area, although close scientific analysis has yet to be done.“ Another important note in this section which must not be overlooked is: „Temperature produces other effects as well, depending on the structure of the steel. We have seen how the smith can combine blocks of varying carbon contents before finish forging. Higher carbon layers will produce more martensite steel upon quenching.“ That means not all hardened areas we see on the finished and polished blade are necessarily a result of just how the clay coat is applied. A steel with a carbon content of less than 0,5 % for example does not turn entirely into martensite when hardened. And has the steel a carbon content of less than 0,2 %, it can´t be hardened at all. The kawagane, i.e. the steel on which the utsuri appears, lies between these limitations. Apart from the carbon content, temperature is another factor which defines the resulting metallic structure after the hardening process. Is the temperature to which the blade is heated before quenching too high or too low, too much or not enough martensite is created respectively (depending as mentioned also on the carbon content of the steel). This also explains nie-utsuri, an utsuri consisting of nie particles. So for creating nie-utsuri, the kawagane has to have a high enough carbon content to produce enough martensite, i.e. nie clusters in the ji.

The appearance and lack of nie-utsuri matches also with Bizen-utsuri. That means except some early Ko-Bizen works, Bizen blades usually do not feature nie-utsuri as they are hardened in nioi-deki and feature a kawagane with a lower carbon content. This lower carbon content is usually reflected in desctiptions of polishers that the Bizen steel is „relative soft“. And with this softness, we arrive at the purpose of applying utsuri. Many experts and swordsmiths assume that it was exactly this „softness“ of the Bizen steel that required an additional treatment. Everone knows that if the steel of a blade is too hard, the sword becomes brittle and if the steel it is too soft, the blade is prone to bend. That means adding utsuri, i.e. hard but not too hard areas of steel along the ji, provides a certain torsional rigidity. But it also has to be mentioned that polishers report of Bizen blades with utsuri which were once bent but straightened. So utsuri does not reduce the risk of bending to zero. Nagayama explains utsuri in his „The Connoisseur´s Book of Japanese Swords“ on page 86 as: „The purpose seems to have been to improve the sword´s flexibility to prevent breakage during use. Usually made of steel that is softer than the rest of the blade´s surface.“ So he addresses the same challenge from the other side, i.e. not making a soft steel more rigid but a brittle blade more flexible.

The sword polisher Kurashima Hitoshi (倉島一) forwarded his thoughts on utsuri in the Tôken-Bijutsu No 470 (March 1996). He also brings it in line with steel with lower carbon content whereat he introduces the generic term „namagane“, a not so refined steel with lower carbon content. I.e. he uses namagane as „opposite“ of hagane by not making a distinction between shingane and kawagane. In short, namagane is exactly the aforementioned steel with a carbon content between 0,2 and 0,5%. Well, Kurashima actually does differentiate his namagane, namely by „type A namagane“ and „type B namagane“, terms which correspond virtually to shingane and kawagane respectively. But he goes as far as to say that namagane IS utsuri. That means he assumes that the utsuri we see is the border of the namagane meeting the hagane. In other words, the visible border of the utsuri is created by structures with more martensite than others. According to this approach, a ji with utsuri has basically three degrees of hardness: The „super hard“ ha, the hard antai (暗帯, the dark areas between nioiguchi and border of the utsuri) and the softer rest of the ji which corresponds to the utsuri. So utsuri would be the visible brighter but softer area above the hamon whereas the harder part which adds more torsional rigidity is actually the darker antai directly above the hamon. This again would correspond to Nagayama´s comment „made of steel that is softer than the rest of the blade´s surface.“


Picture 1: The visible effects and steels with different carbon content, according to Kurashima.

Another interesting approach to explain utsuri can be found in the „Kentô-kikigaki“ (見刀聞書) from Tenpô 14 (天保, 1843). Therein we read: „By plunging the heated blade into water, the clay coat contracts. When the blade is now plunged into the water a second time, the now exposed areas cool down faster than the upper areas which are still covered with clay. This produces utsuri.“ I made a sketch (picture 2) to illustrate what the „Kentô-hikigaki“ probably means. According to this approach, also the temperature difference between heated blade and water would not be that high as at the first plunging. Thus not so much martensite is produced and the utsuri area above the hamon would be a „second“, „softer“ hamon. This in turn would match with Edp-period sword publications in which utsuri is circumscribed as „kage-hamon“ (景刃文, lit. „shadow hamon“ or also „second hamon). But on the other hand, this would mean that the dark antai area above the hamon is actually harder than the whitish utsuri area. Apart from that I think that it would be very difficult to produce utsuri that way. That means to coordinate all the factors like the carbon content and desired distribution in the steel and the exact temperature is already difficult enough, i.e. adding also the factor „total control of the clay coat by plunging a heated blade two times into a trough of water“ would make utsuri in my humble opinion merely a product of chance.


Picture 2: Achieving utsuri, according to the „Kentô-kikigaki

So the most common approach to explain utsuri would be by a case hardening or surface hardening. Here, just the surface is hardened but requires infusing additional carbon into the top layer of the to be hardened steel with a lower carbon content. Thus the deeper steel layers remain soft as it is desired with the kawagane and shingane. For adding the carbon just to the steel surface, traditionally a mixture of ground bone and charcoal or a combination of leather, hooves, salt and urine was used. But the temperature must not be that high and stay under the melting point of the iron, and left at that temperature for a length of time. The longer the temperature is held, the deeper the carbon will diffuse into the surface, whereat a typical depth of case hardening with this method is up to 1.5 mm. That means the adding of such supplements under the clay coat still requires an exact heat treatment. Thus explaining utsuri by case hardening also „solves“ the question why the effect remains to be seen even after repeated polishing. Well, at a considerable loss of material, the utsuri gets of course weak and disappears eventually.

So far so much to say on the subject utsuri from my side and I hope I provided some food for thoughts.

When the signature stays in the background

This time I want to introduce a work of the 2nd Nishigaki generation whose signature attracted my attention. Well, the piece is anyway famous as is one of the only two signed works extant by Nishigaki Kanshirô Nagahisa (西垣勘四郎永久). The other one is the jûyô-bijutsuhin with the tagoto no tsuki motif (田毎の月) which I will introduce later. The tsuba is question is of iron, in marugata, and shows the classical so-called „nagekiri“ (投桐) motif which was introduced by the 1st generation Nishigaki Kanshirô. The nagekiri represents two branches with leaves fallen off (nage, 投げ) a Paulownia tree (kiri, 桐). Also the names „odorigiri“ (踊桐, lit. „dancing Paulownia branches“) or „nimaigiri“ (二枚桐, lit. „two Paulownia branches“) are known to be in use for this peculiar motif which was by the way also copied by other tsuba artists. The leaf veins and the small buds are delicately accentuated by kebori carvings and now we come to what fascinated me seeing this tsuba recently in one of my books, namely the fact the signature looks like being part of the leaf vein accentuations at a glance. Nagahisa obviously used the same chisel and force for the mei and the kebori elements. That means the signature does not stand out at all when admiring the piece unmounted.


Picture 1: jûyô-tôsôgu, nagekiri-sukashi tsuba, mei  „Nishigaki Kanshirô – Nagahisa“

Before we come to the famous tagoto no tsuki, I want to point out that there was once a third signed tsuba known by Nagahisa, also showing the nagekiri motif. It was once on display at the 1922 exhibition „Senmai-tankai“ (千枚鐔会) but its whereabouts are unfortunately unknown. All that exists is the entry in the exhibition list with an oshigata rubbing (picture 2 right) and a drawing found in Nagaya Shigena´s (長屋重名) „Higo-kinkô-roku“ (肥後金工録) (picture 2 left) published in 1925.


Picture 2: (left) the drawing from the „Higo-kinkô-roku“, (right) the oshigata rubbing


Picture 3: jûyô-bijutsuhin, tsuba, mei „Nishigaki Nagahisa – nanajûsai kore o saku“


Picture 4: both sides of the tagoto no tsuki tsuba

The tagoto no tsuki tsuba is signed „Nishigaki Nagahisa – nanajûsai kore o saku“ (西垣永久・七十歳作之, „made by Nishigaki Nagahisa at the age of 70“). It is of polished brass, in aori-gata, shows two small ko-sukashi and sukidashi carvings. The motif is that of the moon (tsuki, 月) reflecting in each and every (goto, 毎) rice paddy (ta, 田) whereat the flooded paddies are represented via shakudô and copper zôgan and the reflections of the moon and the rice seedlings via kinzôgan, and the narrow wet footpaths between the paddies are accentuated with silver nunome-zôgan. In principle, a nightly tagoto no tsuki scenery can be seen everywhere in Japan but the most famous view was and is the one in Obasute (姨捨) in Nagano Prefecture. And there are signs that Nagahisa actually depicted that very famous scenery, namely in the context with the other side of the tsuba which shows horsetail (tokusa, 木賊). Well, some might think what have horsetails to do with a tagoto scenery, i.e. with the tagoto scenery at Obasute in particular? Interestingly, both – that means Obasute and Tokusa – are Nô plays taking place in Shinano province and which are assumed to back to the famous playwright Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥元清, 1363-1553). The Obasute play goes back to an old local tradition which can already be found in the 10th century „Yamato-monogatari“ (大和物語) and the 12th century „Konjaku-monogatari“ (今昔物語). It is about poor rural families who, unable of feeding, abandon (suteru, 捨てる) their elder members – first and foremost old women (oba, 姨・姥) – in the mountains. In the play, the ghost of such an old abandoned woman appears to travellers, telling them from the tradition.



Picture 5: The tagoto no tsuki scenery at Obasute as seen by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重, 1797-1858)

At the Tokusa Nô play, a priest is helping a lost boy to find back to his home. On their way, they meet some men cutting horsetail and ask them for directions. The men tell them that they are quite close to where they have to go and also don´t miss to tell them that they cut horstail at Mt. Sonohara (園原), an activity which is obviously celebrated in poems and songs since oldest times. The old men amongst the tokusa cutters tells the priest that he himself has lost his boy and when they spend the night at his house, it turns out that the boy found by the priest and the old man are father and son.

Well, the tagoto no tsuki scenery at Obasute is actually at the very northeastern, and Mt. Sonohara at the very southwestern border of Shinano province. But it is nevertheless assumed that Nagahisa alluded to these two famous spots in Shinano. Otherwise picking the two motifs of moons reflecting in rice paddies and horsetail and combining them on a tsuba would be quite a coincidence and would not make much sense at all, although we can´t ask Nagahisa of course what he really thought when making this fine piece. And when we take into consideration the background of the motif combination as described, we have again a highly sophisticated tsuba which offers just by presenting moon reflections in rice paddies and some horsetail a deep insight into Japanese traditions, from old folk tales and local customs over their adaption as Nô play to motifs on sword fittings.

Finally I want to elaborate a bit on Nagahisa´s career. He was born in the 16th year of Kan´ei 16 (寛永, 1639) when his father, the 1st generation Nishigaki Kanshirô was 26 years old. Only six years later, the great lord and patron Hosokawa Sansai Tadaoki died and with this the Nishigaki workshop was moved from Yatsushiro (八代) to Kumamoto (熊本), the capital of the fief. He took over the school and family after his father´s death in Genroku six (元禄, 1693), being 54 years old and a mature artist. Before he had experienced firsthand the shift in culture, namely gradually away from the strict Momoyama to the more free Genroku culture, when the so-far rather orthodox and warrior inspired arts developed for the first time a tangible civilian counterpart. Nagahisa´s experience was that as accompanying his lord Hosokawa Tsunatoshi (細川綱利, 1643-1714) to Edo where an apprenticeship under the 7th Gotô-generation Kenjô (後藤顕乗, 1586-1663) was arranged. When Kenjô died, Nagahisa was only 24 years old and his training was continued by Kenjô´s adopted son Kanjô (寛乗, 1634-1612), the 1st gen. of the Gotô-Hachirôbei line. It was also Kanjô who granted him the character for “Naga” (永), namely from his civilian name „Mitsunaga“ (光永). That means it is no accident that the 2nd Nishigaki generation´s works are usually described as being more refined than those of his predecessor. Also he experienced the impact of Yokoya Sômin (横谷宗珉, 1670-1733) and his machibori trend, although we can say that Nagahisa still maintained a strong bond to the initial Higo style. Nagahisa died in the second year of Kyôhô (1717) at the age of 79. So when we assume that he started to work independently after Kenjô´s death, he was at least active as an artist for 54 years, and 24 years as head of the Nishigaki family after his father´s death.

The case of Kiyomaro

There was a recent NMB discussion on Kiyomaro which I enjoyed a lot, also rereading the one year old discussion on this smith. Thus I thought I might share the chapter of my 2012 published Legends and Stories around the Japanese Sword 2 dealing with Kiyomaro. Minamoto Kiyomaro (源清麿) was born under the civilian name „Yamaura Kuranosuke“ (山浦内蔵助) on the sixth day of the third month of Bunka ten (文化, 1813) as the son of Masatomo (昌友) in the village of Akaiwa (赤岩) in Shinano´s Komoro fief (小諸藩). Besides „Kuranosuke“ he also bore the first name „Tamaki“ (環) in his younger years. With his older brother Masao (真雄) he entered apprenticeship with the local smith Kawamura Toshitaka (河村寿隆) in Bunsei twelve (文政, 1829) and signed from then on with the names „Ikkansai Masayuki“ (一貫斎正行), „Hidetoshi“ (秀寿), and again with „Masayuki“.

His father Yamaura Ji´emon (山浦治右衛門, ?-1845), besides „Masatomo“, also used the name „Nobukaze“ (信風) and was, according to transmission, the eighth generation village head of Akaiwa. His posthumous Buddhist name „Kai´un-Tessen“ (海雲鉄船) gives rise to the speculation of his main profession. Such names usually try to allude with one or two characters to the person´s life, and as the character „tetsu“ (鉄) for „iron“ was used it is assumed that Masatomo was a swordsmith too.

Kiyomaro´s wife was from the village of Ōishi (大石) which lied about 1,5 km to the east of Komoro. She was the daughter of a certain Nagaoka Kume´emon Masanobu (長岡久米右衛門政信, ?- 1816) and was born in the seventh year of Bunka (1810), i.e. she was three years older than Kiyomaro. It is said that it was a love marriage, then why did he leave his wife and kid shortly later, as his gravestone bears an inscription that says that he left the Nagaoka family in the second year of Tenpō (天保, 1831) at the young age of 19?

Some assume it was „just“ an arranged marriage from which he tried to escape. Others say that the young Tamaki was a pretty boy and that he wasn´t able to settle down. And others speculate that he left the house because of a dispute with his mother-in-law who was against the marriage because she feared he couldn´t feed the family as a swordsmith in those years. What is certain is that there are no official documents extant where he is listed with the family name „Nagaoka“ nor which mention that the young couple were actually divorced. But the Yamaura family was also not satisfied with the lifestyle of the young Kiyomaro and disinherited him so it was impossible for him return to Akaiwa anyway. For reasons unknown today he first visited Shinano´s castle town of Matsushiro (松代). This can be proved by extant blades, for example a tantō signed „Yamaura Masayuki – Kaizu-jō ni oite – Tenpō sannen hachigatsu-hi“ (山浦正行・於海津城造之・天保三年八月日, „made by Yamaura Masayuki on a day of the eighth month of Tenpō three [1832] in Kaizu Castle“). Incidentally, „Kaizu“ was the old name of Matsushiro Castle. It is assumed that he might have visited his friend Tsuge Kahei (拓植嘉兵衛) who was a master nagamaki fencer of the Matsushiro fief.

Anyway, two extant blades from the fifth year of Tenpō (1834) are signed with the name „Hidetoshi“ (秀寿). As mentioned above, it is transmitted that he had studied with his older brother for about five years under Kawamura Toshitaka. But this apprenticeship is doubted by some experts because of the name „Hidetoshi“. If he was the student of Toshitaka, his master would surely have not granted him the smith name „Hidetoshi“ because it is composed of the characters „Hide“ (秀) and „toshi“ (寿) which means in this combination „the one who surpasses the Toshi“. The same experts assume that he was „just“ a student of his older brother who signed back then with „Toshimasa“ (寿昌). And when the latter recognized the great talent of Kiyomaro, it was him who gave him the name „Hidetoshi“ (i.e. „better than Toshi[taka]“). Another theory says that Kiyomaro was taught by the great master Taikei Naotane because the latter visited the daimyō of the Matsushiro fief, the castle town of the same same, on invitation of the Sanada family (真田) in Tenpō four (1833). So, at least from a chronological point of view, this master-student relationship can´t be ruled out.

However, in winter of Tenpō five (1834) Kiyomaro arrived at Edo. A transmission suggests that he first made a small detour to Ōishi to visit his wife and his son Umesaku (梅作) but he was turned away by his wife´s family which made his new start in Edo easier. There, on recommendation of Tsuge Kahei, he visited Kubota Sugane (窪田清音, 1791-1866) who gave him some advice in sword forging and instructed him in martial arts. Besides the Nakajima-ryū (中島流) of shooting, the Yamaga-ryū (山鹿流) of strategy and tactics, and the Tamiya-ryū (田宮流) of iaidō, Sugane was well versed in ten more styles. Later he became one of the instructors at the kōbusho (講武所), a military training facility of the bakufu founded in 1854 where the sons of hatamoto and other high-ranking officials were trained. Kubota Sugane was not a swordsmith and so his „advices“ lie somewhat in the dark, but from documents of Kiyomaro´s student Saitō Kiyondo (斎藤清人) we learn that his advice consisted mainly on supplying famous blades which served Kiyomaro as models and study objects. It is said that Sugane motivated Kiyomaro with the words: „Take as much time and raw material as you need and forge as long as you like until you are satisfied with the result.“

Another anecdote – which has surely nothing to do with the art of forging or metallurgy – is about how Kiyomaro was able to reproduce utsuri (映り). Utsuri (lit. „reflection“) is a more or less visible temper effect on a blade which appears above the hamon and which can reach the shinogi ridge (or even go beyond it). Not every blade shows utsuri and first and foremost it was a characteristic feature of Bizen blades from the Kamakura to the early Muromachi period. Successive smiths of the shintō era (新刀), i.e. from the Edo period onwards, had serious problems reproducing utsuri and the „secret technique“ had almost fallen into oblivion by the time of Kiyomaro. He went to great lengths, day and night, but without success. So he asked Sugane: „Master, I need your advice again. How am I able to reproduce utsuri?“ He told him of all the attempts he had tried so far until Sugane interrupted him: „That is actually the problem. You want it too much. Forge your blades without forging in mind, like the old Bizen masters did. Then you will be able to reproduce utsuri.“ And the anecdote says that his mentor was right and soon he was able to apply a controlled utsuri.

With the support of Sugane and his older brother – who, from the eighth to the tenth year of Tenpō (1837-1839), was in Edo too – Kiyomaro was eventually able around 1839 to go into business by himself. His forge, which was at close quarters from Iga-machi (伊賀町) in Edo´s Yotsuya district (四谷), was called according to transmission „Yamashiro´ya“ (山城屋). It is said that a certain dealer called „Bizen´ya Kihei“ (備前屋喜兵衛) made him the offer to pay his start-up capital if he arranged for Sugane to teach him martial arts. But the latter refused and instead paid the start-up sum. To advertise the up and coming Kiyomaro, and to earn some money, Sugane initiated in the same year a kind of „lottery“ called „Buki-kō“ (武器講). From total of 100 participants 3 ryō (両) were collected frome each one and once a month the finished blades were divided up among the drawn winners.

The very first Buki-kō blade is still extant. It is a katana measuring 71,2 cm, designated jūyō-bijutsuhin, bearing the following signature: „Yamaura Tamaki Masayuki – Tenpō jūnen hachigatsu-hi – Buki-kō ichihyaku no ichi“ (山浦環正行・天保十年八月日・武器講一百 之一, „a day in the eighth month of Tenpō ten [1839], one blade of one hundred of the Buki-kō“). Whilst Kiyomaro was working to capacity – he forged three to four blades a month – Sugane praised him in his „Tanki-yoron“ (鍛記余論), published in Tenpō twelve (1841), with the following words: „at the moment there is none who ranks above him.“ But something went wrong and Kiyomaro fled to Nagato province. This escape took place somewhere in the first half of the 13th year of Tenpō (1842) because a dated blade of the eighth month of that years is extant which bears the supplement „Hagi-jō ni oite“ (於萩城, „at Hagi Castle“) in the mei. This means that in the summer of that year he was already working at the western end of Honshū (see picture 1). Sugane was of course facing a huge problem now because was becoming more and more behind with his Buki-kō.


Picture 1: katana, mei „Hagi-jō ni oite Yamaura Masayuki kore o tsukuru – Tenpō jūsannen hachigatsu-hi“ (於萩城山浦正行造之・天保十三年八月日, „made by Yamaura Masayuki in Hagi Castle on a day in the eighth month of Tenpō 13 [1843]“), nagasa 81,8 cm, sori 2,1 cm

There are several theories on Kiyomaro´s escape to Nagato. One says that he was just overstrained with the project and others assume that he was offended as an artist to mass produce blades. But there are also some voices which think that this was just a marketing trick of Sugane who tried to increase Kiyomaro´s market value by constructing a kind of „enfant terrible“ repute for his artist. Three ryō for a blade was then quite favourable. Suishinshi Masahide for example took 7 ½ ryō, Taikei Naotane 5 ryō, and Kiyomaro in his later years even took 10 ryō from a hatamoto for a katana. There are also different theories on this pricing. One was, as mentioned, that Sugane simply tried to boost the business. Another speculates that he tried to keep Kiyomaro tight so that he wasn´t able to waste all the money on drinking. Another possibility is that the whole thing was in the end just unprofitable for both of them and so the plan was born to sweep it under the carpet by the „escape“ of the smith.

A historical context is also assumed. At about the same time, the so-called „Tenpō Reform“ (Tenpō no kaikaku, 天保の改革) took place which goes largely back to the bakufu elder Mizuno Tadakuni (水野忠邦, 1794-1851). This radical reform tried to tackle all the defects in the economy, the army, agriculture and even religious institutions. The bakufu appealed to the warrior class to remind them of the old samurai virtue of bunbu-ryōdō (文武両道), i.e. the literary and military arts. This resulted in a higher demand for swords and higher prices. But when the bakufu was also confronted with the newly introduced celebrations and the acquisition of swords for presents and armours for parades and the like a decree was issued on the 27th day of the third month of Tenpō 13 (1842) which set a fixed lower price for weapons and military equipment. As a countermeasure draconian penalties were threatened and so it is possible that Sugane feared that the works of his smith might remain unprofitable, even in the future, and so both made the plan of the escape before the financial situation became more than they could handle.

Because Kiyomaro also made in Nagato some blades for important local royalists, a royalist background for his escape is also assumed. For example, there are blades extant made on order of the painter, writer and emperor-sympathizer Hazama Seigai (礀西涯, 1811-1878) or of the agitator Tamura Seifū (田村清風) which nourish this assumption. But Nagato´s royalist boom took place when Kiyomaro was already long back in Edo or dead respectively. Anyway, the last blade he made in Nagato is a nagamaki from the 14th year of Tenpō (1843). He didn´t return to the capital straightaway but visited his home village before. A blade from the eighth month of Tenpō 15 (1844) namely bears the following signature „Shin Komoro-jō sei Minamoto Masayuki“ (信小諸城製・ 源正行, „made by Minamoto Masayuki in Shin[ano´s] Komoro Castle“). The genealogy of the Yamaura family says that he stayed there until the twelfth month of that year. His older brother Masao was also in Komoro at that time and so we can assume that he stayed in his house and that both forged together. Incidentally, after the 15th year of Tenpō, Masao worked more and more in the style of Kiyomaro. We can speculate that he was so impressed by his younger brother´s improvement at this meeting that he adopted his forging techniques. Shortly later, on the 29th day of the third month of Kōka two (弘化, 1845), their father died and some months later Masao went to Edo where he worked from the residence of the Komoro fief. Kiyomaro accompanied him and did not return to his old forge. Some say that he went to Edo too to apologize to Sugane and that he had chosen to stay with Masao at the Komoro residence because he feared reprisals from the disappointed Buki-kō participants. From that time there exists a very carefully made sword that he made especially for Kubota Sugane (see picture 2). Maybe this was a kind of „compensation work“. It is, by the way, the earliest extant blade which bears his smith name „Kiyomaro“. Experts assume that this name goes back to a reverence for his friend the scholar Saitō Masamaro (斎藤昌麿, 1802-1866) – for whom he forged several blades – and Sugane (音), as the first character (清) can be read, among others, as “Kiyo” and “Suga” in names.


Picture 2 jūyō-bijutsuhin, tachi, mei „Kubota Sugane-kun no tame – Yamaura Tamaki Minamoto Kiyomaro sei – Kōka hinoe-umadoshi hachigatsu-hi“ (為窪田清音君・山浦環源清麿製・ 弘化丙午年八月日, „made by Yamaura Tamaki Minamoto Kiyomaro for Kubota Sugane on a day in the eighth month of the year of the horse of the Kōka era [1846]“).

Kiyomaro committed suicide on the 14th day of the eleventh month of Kaei seven (嘉永, 1854). Here, too, several theories and transmissions exist of which I would like to eleminate those which can be ruled out for historical reasons. One of them says that he sympathized with scattered survivors of the revolt of Ōshio Heihachirō (大塩平八郎, 1793-1837). So he fell under suspicion of the bakufu and killed himself out of fear of punishment. Ōshio was a low-ranking samurai, Neo-Confucianist and bitter opponent of the Tokugawa. He and his men were able to burn down almost one fifth of Ōsaka in 1837. But this was seven years before Kiyomaro´s suicide, which means he would have been interrogated and – if ever – punished by the bakufu much earlier. So we can dismiss this transmission that he killed himself out of fear of the bakufu troops.

Others assume that he was involved in Takasugi Shinsaku’s (高杉晋作, 1839-1867) arson of the British embassy in Edo´s Shinagawa district (品川). Shinsaku was indeed a militant royalist from Nagato but he set the building on fire in the second year of Bunkyū (文久, 1863), i.e. nine years after the death of Kiyomaro. A connection with Shinsaku can also be ruled out because the latter was only four years old when the swordsmith left Nagato.

Saitō Kiyondo´s son Eishirō (永四郎) forwarded a transmission which is connected with Dewa´s Shōnai fief (庄内藩). Shortly before the end of the Edo period the samurai of this fief were so worried that they constantly sharpened their blades in fear of an imminent seppuku. This lead to a kind of contest of who had the sharpest blade. The poorer samurai were jealous because they were not able to keep up with fancy swords but Kiyomaro had compassion for them and forged them durable and sharp blades for a cheap price. Of course they were no art swords and because this was a secret he had to leave them unsigned. One of the „customers“ was Kiyokawa Hachirō (清河八郎, 1830-1863, see picture 3), a very patriotic samurai, student of the old classics, and master of the Hakushin-Ittō-ryū (北辰一刀流) of swordsmanship. Kiyokawa was a sword lover too and was not very fond of having a „cutter“ so he asked Kiyomaro to forge him a slightly superior blade than for the others. In addition, he asked him to sign the tang at least with red lacquer so that his sword stood out from the others. Well, the efforts of Kiyomaro were not approved by the fief and so the bakufu ordered the then Shōnai-daimyō Sakai Tadayoshi (酒井忠良, 1831-1884) to take legal action. But Kiyomaro had luck because Kiyokawa was in Edo at that time and informed the smith of what was going on. Eishirō reported further that, from that day onwards, Kiyomaro always had a drawn blade by his side when he was working in his forge. According to this transmission, he was caught by a group of Shōnai retainers on the 14th day of the eleventh month of Kaei seven (1854) whereupon he committed seppuku right on the spot.


Picture 3: Kiyokawa Hachirō

And the speculations continue. Some say that Kiyomaro´s seppuku was an apology to Sugane who had lost face when he ran away from the Buki-kō program. Rather puzzling is the fact that Kubota Sugane´s name does not appear in any of the documents of Kiyomaro´s student Saitō Kiyondo. This namely indicates that both did not have any more personal contact from the time Kiyomaro returned to Edo. That means the former „partners“ parted ways.

Let us now turn to the more likely explanations of his suicide. Yamaura Torao (山浦虎男), the grandson of Kanetora (兼虎, 1825-1895) – who was in turn the son of Masao – once wrote: „My grand-father didn´t like to talk about the death of Kiyomaro.“ But if Kiyomaro died as a faithful royalist or because of his royalist convictions, this would not have been kept quiet during the Meiji era and the stronger Imperial power. But as we have read, the sonnō-jōi movement was still in its infancy when Kiyomaro died so he would be one of the first who sacrificed himself for the matter. The adoptive daughter of Kurihara Nobuhide (栗原信秀, 1815-1867), one of the best students of Kiyomaro, said later that the master was suffering from chronic pain in his chest.

If you take the symptoms and think about the time Kiyomaro lived, then tuberculosis would be a possibility. But it is unknown if any tuberculosis patient had so much pain that he committed seppuku. And Nobuhide wrote that his master damaged his health by his excessive consumption of alcohol. Often he was unable to wield the hammer and when he received advance payments for blades, he spent it on sake. Two years before his death it was particularly bad when he suffered symptoms of paralysis like after a stroke. He was working on orders from Shinano´s Ueda fief (上田藩) back then and said: „I have a mountain of work and debt. Maybe it is better if I die…“ So it was said by Masao´s great-grandson Yamaura Kōji (山浦貢治). Nobuhide wrote that in the end his master cut open his belly on the lavatory in seppuku style on the 14th day of the eleventh month of Kaei seven because he reached a point in life where he didn´t have a clue what to do. Kiyondo said later that he had to forge 30 blades just to pay off Kiyomaro’s debts which were 300 ryō in the form of advance payments for ordered swords.

Nihon-koto-shi: New English Version

I just finished a minor project I was asked for several times over the last months and years. As most of you know, the NBTHK provides an English translation of Dr. Honma´s Nihon-koto-shi on their website, but just the plain translation without any pics here.

Non-members of the NBTHK and younger members which don´t have all the back issues of the Token-Bijutsu asked me frequently where to get the pictures or if I am willing to sort them out. Now I fulfilled this request and compiled a paperback version (and an eBook version) of the Nihon-koto-shi with all the pics, but not only that, I added also a lot of pics mentioned in the text but not shown in the Token-Bijutsu reprint. The result is a 320 pages 408 b/w pictures book (7.44 wide x 9.68 tall) available as a personal reference. Once again, this version will not be available in public so if you are interested in a copy, please contact me for further details via “markus.sesko@gmail.com”. The price is $60.00 + $10.00 flat shipping rate and determined by the printing costs and the compilation work involved.

The eBook version can be downloaded here:



PS: I have taken the liberty to adjust the format to my previously published Nihon-shinto-shi, so that it will be a decent set with the upcoming Nihon-shinshinto-shi 😉

Kannai Norimune

Whilst compiling my two-volume set Index of Japanese Swordsmiths, I often came across the smith Kannai Norimune (関内徳宗) because he obviously trained a lot of local smiths. But information on him is quite sparse and thus I try to deal with him in more detail in this article. We know that his civilian name was „Kannai Kôzaemon“ (関内幸左衛門) and that he was born in Kansei seven (寛政, 1795) as son of Kannai Jihei Norimasa (関内治兵衛徳政) in the village of Yatsu (谷津) in the Ibaraki district (茨城郡) of Hitachi province which is just about 12 km to the northwest of Mito. Norimune eventually went to Mito, the capital of the fief of the same name, and entered an apprenticeship under the great local master Ichige Norichika (住毛徳鄰, 1777-1835). By the way, Norichika came originally from Hirakue (開江) which is exactly half way en route from Yatsu to Mito. Norichika was working for the Mito fief from Bunka six (文化, 1809) onwards. Norimune was actually a rather low-ranking smith working for the Mito fief since Tenpô twelve (天保, 1841), but he was able to get closer to the 9th Mito-daimyô Tokugawa Nariaki (徳川斉昭, 1800-1860) by assisting him in sword forging as the latter was a passionate swordsmith himself. But for the time being, he worked just as every other „run of the mill“ smiths fulfilling his orders from the fief and the local samurai.

Things changed considerably when Commodore Perry landed in Kaei six (嘉永, 1853) in Uraga. The bakufu had to react immediately and one of their numerous measures was to appoint their resolute relative Nariaki with coastal defence. Nariaki proposed a xenophobic policy and further presented the bakufu 74 cannons to defend Edo and one year later the Western-style sail warship Asahi-Maru (旭日丸) but which should not be finished until Ansei three (安政, 1856). One year before, i.e. in Ansei two (1855), the bakufu entrusted Nariaki also with a military reform. But Nariaki was not only involved in bakufu issues and had also to take care of his own fief. Soon he was openly opposed by the tairô Ii Naosuke (井伊直弼, 1815-1860) who was pro an opening of the country. All the signs were that war was coming and so Nariaki ordered the erection of a new arms and armour production centre on the eastern outskirts of Mito Castle. And this was the time of Kannai Norimune who was namely order to work from the new attached forge and train from there as many swordsmiths as possible. The Kannai family is in the possession of Norimune´s disciple records called „Kannai Norimune nyûmon-chô“ (関内徳宗入門帳) which features a lot of names, even famous ones like the 1st generation Katsumura Norikatsu (勝村徳勝). Other students were for example Tani Masatsune (谷弥政常), Hida Masayoshi (肥田政好), Komatsu Morinori (小松盛徳), Muneshige (宗重), Yamamoto Nobuyoshi (山本信義), Sugiyama Noriie (杉山徳家), Norikane (徳包), Norikane (徳包), Koibuchi Norimitsu (鯉淵徳光), Kannai Norimitsu (関内徳光), his nephew Kannai Norisada (徳貞), Naitô Norishige (内藤徳重), Asano Noriyuki (浅野徳行), Takagi Shigegana (高木重長), Aibara Shigetsuna (相原重綱), Shimizu Terutaka (清水輝高), Ôhara Toshitsugu (大原利次) and Koyama Munetsugu´s second son Koyama Yoshitsugu (固山義次) who worked for the Kuwana fief (桑名藩). But he also had the honour to instruct Tokugawa Nariaki´s son Yoshiatsu (徳川慶篤, 1832-1868) who forged blades as a pastime whose smith and priest name was Junkô (順公). Norimune died on the fifth day of the fifth month Meiji six (明治, 1873) and was succeeded by his eldest son Norikane (徳兼, 1829-1903), civilian name „Kannai Asanosuke“ (関内朝之助) and later „Kannai Hikoshirô“ (関内彦四郎) who in turn had also refined his craft under Koyama Munetsugu (固山宗次).

Well, unfortunately not much works are going round of him and also most of the oshigata collections do not feature him. But a yari of Norimune can be seen here and an unsigned tantô attributed to him here.