Identifying Japanese Cursive Script

This latest publication is for all “decipherers” out there which need a guide and reference when struggling with Japanese cursive script (sôsho). When you are facing a character written in cursive script, identification by the number of strokes cannot be applied any longer as the abbreviated writing style omits certain strokes. So the only effective way of identification is by its radical. What makes identifying cursive script so difficult is that the radicals of course are also written in an abbreviated manner and that several radicals look quite the same in their abbreviated form. For that, this dictionary offers a RADICAL SECTION which provides several examples of how each radical appears in its cursive writing. A match with the supposed radical of the cursive character takes you to the page which lists characters grouped under that radical. This dictionary contains approximately 5.300 characters, but is not meant as a cursive script dictionary with different handwritings of each cursive character, as the aim is to provide a basic guide and reference for identifying them.

6 wide x 9 tall, 472 b/w pages, price $ 44.90

There is a paperback, a hardcover, and an eBook version available.




Some thoughts on Sue-Bizen horimono

Whilst working on a longer article on Japanese sword exports to China during the Muromachi era, I found an interesting line in Táng Shùnzhi´s (唐順之, 1507-1560) Ode to the Japanese Sword (nihontô no uta, 日本刀歌) which lead me to further studies as I am waiting for a book to arrive from Japan to confirm certain parts of the article in question. Incidentally, we know several of such Odes to the Japanese Sword by Chinese authors, and the earliest is said to go back to the Song Dynasty Ōuyáng Xiū (欧陽脩, 1007-1072). Anyway, the line which attracted my attention was:


shinjô no ryûmon wa sôkô ni majiwaru
“The dragon engraving on the blade is embedded in seaweed.”

We know that Japan exported many swords to Ming China at the time of Táng Shùnzhi and most of them were made in the manufacturies of Osafune, and so I started to do some research on horimono from that time and region. First of all it has to be pointed out that contemporary records on swords made for export or the infamous „bundle swords“ hardly ever mention horimono, so most of the data we have goes back to actually extant pieces and some oshigata. The next thing that strikes is that elaborate and complex horimono on Osafune swords, i.e. not suken or bonji and the like, are very rarely found before the Meiô era (明応, 1492-1501) and concentrate on sword dated with the Bunki (文亀, 1501-1504) and Eishô eras (永正, 1504-1521). Just to recollect, the official and regulated trade (kangô-bôeki, 勘合貿易) with Ming China started in Ôei eleven (応永, 1404) and lasted in the mid 16th century when the system collapsed by independent contacts and trades of rich traders with Ming China and the Asian mainland as well as by the appearance of European competitors inthe East Asian waters. Also we observe that horimono in general and elaborate horimono like kurikara-ryû in particular are mostly found on Osafune blades which don´t mention the first name (zokumyô, 俗名) like „Yosôzaemon“ (与三左衛門), „Hikobei“ (彦兵衛) or „Genbei“ (源兵衛) and the like in their signatures. Of course there are some exceptions but experts agree that Osafune blades which mention the zokumyô in their signature are chûmon-uchi (注文打), i.e. made according to an order, whereat those just signed „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune“ (備前国住長船) followed by just the name of the smith, e.g. Sukesada (祐定), Kiyomitsu (清光), Tadamitsu (忠光), Katsumitsu (勝光) or Munemitsu (宗光), are by tendency rather kazuuchi-mono (数打物), mass produced swords, or so-called „tabagatana“ (束刀), „bundle swords“. One of the aforementioned exceptions for example is a blade by Yosôzaemon no Jô Sukesada dated Eishô 18 (永正, 1521) which shows a shin no kurikara on the omote and the characters „Kasuga Daimyôjin“ on the ura side (see picture 1).


Picture 1: katana, mei: „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune Yosôzaemon no Jô Sukesada saku“ (備前国住長船与三左衛門尉祐定作) – „Eishô jûhachinen hachigatsu kichijitsu“ (永正十八年八月吉日, „on a lucky deay of the eighth month Eishô 18 [1521]“)

Let us stay with these names of deities for a while. I was able to find an article of Yokota Takao (横田孝雄) published in „Tôken-Bijutsu“ 493 (February 1998) in which he provides a quantitative survey on engraved names of deity on Sue-Bizen swords which goes as follows:

  • Amaterasu Ômikami (天照皇大神): Katsumitsu, Munemitsu, Sukesada – The goddess of the sun and universe, the ancestor of all Japanese emperors, and the major deity in shintô.
  • Hachiman Daibosatsu (八幡大菩薩): Katsumitsu, Munemitsu, Tadamitsu, Sukesada, Nagamitsu (永光) – The god of archery and war incorporating both elements from shintô and Buddhism.
  • Namu Hachiman Daibosatsu (南無八幡大菩薩): Sukesada – Hail to Hachiman, the god of archery and war.
  • Kasuga Daimyôjin (春日大明神): Sukesada – The numinous unit of the associated kami and buddhas/bodhisattvas of the Kasuga-Kôfukuji multiplex, Nara.
  • Sumiyoshi Daimyôjin (住吉大明神): Katsumitsu, Sukesada – The collective of the four deities of the Sumiyoshi-jinja, Ôsaka, which were Sokotsutsu no Onomikoto (底筒男命), Nakatsutsu no Onomikoto (中筒男命), Uwatsutsu no Onomikoto (表筒男命) Okinagatarashihime no Mikoto (息長帯日).
  • Kizuki Daimyôjin (杵築大明神): Sukesada – The collective of the deities worshipped in the Izumo-taisha (出雲大社), Izumo.
  • Yaegaki Daimyôjin (八重垣大明神): Sukesada – The collective of the deities worshipped in the Yaegaki-jinja (八重垣神社), Izumo.
  • Katte Daimyôjin (勝手大明神): Harumitsu (治光) – The collective of the deities worshipped in the Katte-jinja (勝手神社), Nara.
  • Marishi Sonten (摩利支尊天): Katsumitsu, Munemitsu, Sukesada – Marici, the Deva or Bodhisattva associated with light and the sun, also supporting meditative practice to achieve a more heightened spiritual level. Bushi invoked Marishiten to achieve victory since Marici means „light“ or „mirage“, the female deity was invoked to escape the notice of one’s enemies.
  • Marishiten no mikoto (摩利支天尊): Katsumitsu – A variant of Marici.
  • Marishiten Bosatsu (摩利支天菩薩): Sukesada – Marici as Bodhisattva.
  • Fudô Myôô (不動明王): Sukesada – Acala, a fierce guardian deity with a sword in the right hand which represents widsom and cutting through ignorance, and a lariat in the left hand with which he catches and binds up demons.

So with the mentioned observance in mind we can assume that elaborate horimono like dragons and the like were by tendency more applied to mass produced Osafune blades and that wealthy clients had, if at all, by tendency more simple horimono and/or the names of deities engraved. Unfortunately we hardly know any names of horimono-shi before the transition to the shintô era and the great carving masters coming from the school of Umetada Myôju (埋忠明寿). But we know a single name connected to Sue-Bizen horimono, namely those of „Matashirô“ (又四郎), the younger brother of Hei´emon no Jô Tadamitsu (平右衛門尉忠光) who was active around Eishô (永正, 1504-1521). This info goes back to a katana with the nagasa of 63,4 cm which is listed in my Index of Japanese Swordsmiths N-Z, p. 211, and which can be seen in picture 2. The mei reads: „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune Tadamitsu no ko Hei´emon no Jô kore o saku horimono otôto Matashirô saku“ (備前国住長船忠光子平右衛門尉作之彫物弟又四郎作, „work of Hei´emon no Jô son of Bizen Osafune Tadamitsu, horimono carved by his younger brother Matashirô“). The blade is dated „Eishô gannen hachigatsu-hi“ (永正元年八月日, „a day in the eighth month Eishô one [1504]“). Apart from this blade, the name of Matashirô only appears at one more blade (picture 3) which is signed: „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune Hei´emon no Jô Fujiwara Tadamitsu dô Matashirô kore o saku“ (備前国住長船平右衛門藤原忠光同又四郎作, „made by Hei´emon no Jô Fujiwara Tadamitsu and Matashirô from Osafune in Bizen province“), dated „Bunki ninen mizunoe-inu nigatsu kokonoka“ (文亀二年壬戌二月九日, „ninth day of the second month Bunki two [1502], year of the dog“). Well, it is assumed that this blade is not a joint work (gassaku, 合作) in the strict sense in terms of sword forging as we don´t know any (signed) blade made by a Matashirô Tadamitsu alone. So it is very likely that the blade in question is insofar a joint work as Hei´emon no Jô Tadamitsu forged it and his younger brother Matashirô engraved the horimono.


Picture 2: katana, mei: „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune Tadamitsu no ko Hei´emon no Jô kore o saku horimono otôto Matashirô saku“ (備前国住長船忠光子平右衛門尉作之彫物弟又四郎作) – „Eishô gannen hachigatsu-hi“ (永正元年八月日).


Picture 3: katana, mei: „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune Hei´emon no Jô Fujiwara Tadamitsu dô Matashirô kore o saku“ (備前国住長船平右衛門藤原忠光同又四郎作) – „Bunki ninen mizunoe-inu nigatsu kokonoka“ (文亀二年壬戌二月九日)


Picture 4: katana, mei: „Bizen no Kuni-jû Osafune Jirôzaemon no Jô Fujiwara Katsumitsu“ (備前国住長船次郎左衛門尉藤原勝光) – „Asakaze“ (朝風, „morning wind“, the nickname of the blade) – „Matsushita Masatoshi shoji“ (松下昌俊所持, „owned by Matsushita Masatoshi“)

Than there is a blade from the very same year and month, i.e. eighth month Eishô one, made by Jirôzaemon no Jô Katsumitsu (次郎左衛門尉勝光) (see picture 4) which shows almost identical horimono. Thus it is assumed that they too were engraved by Matashirô. And then there is a very similar kurikara-ryû found on a blade by Hei´emon Tadamitsu from the eight month Eishô one, but which was made when he stayed in Innoshô (院庄) in Mimasaka province as it is mentioned on the tang. Even when we take into consideration that the eight month might not point out the month the blade was actually made (as stated in one of my previous articles), it is still rather unlikely that Matashirô accompanied his brother to Mimasaka province and engraved at the same time horimono to blades of Jirôzaemon no Jô Katsumitsu. Because modern horimono-shi also say that even if you take into consideration the working conditions of that time, it still took probably a month or so to engrave such an elaborate kenmaki-ryû. So it is likely that Matashirô was the head of a specialized workshop which just did horimono and maybe various hi. And the craftsmen under his command surely used the sketches of the master and engraved them as faithfully as possible onto blades for which horimono were ordered.

So far this little excursus to the world of Sue-Bizen horimono and a lengthy article on the Japanese sword exports to Ming China will follow after receiving reference material from Japan.

From the Meiji-era sword world

Yesterday we had another very interesting meeting of our Nihonto Club Deutschland which was founded in 2008 and I would like to take this occasion to present a brief article on a sword club from 125 years before.

Around June 2012, Arai Shigehiro (新井重凞), the former president of the Kyôto branch and former board member of the NBTHK, presented the association with a rare document (33,3 x 24,2 cm, 26 pages), namely the articles of the kantei club Hôryûsha (宝隆社) founded in Meiji 16 (1883). This document is insofar also very interesting as it shows us that such clubs were founded just six years after the ban on swords. Article 1 also shows us that by then, sword experts were fully aware of where the journey has to go, namely to swords being regarded as national treasures and art works. The club was located in Kyôto and the document lists three founding members, namely Nose Kakuemon (能勢角右衛門), Kishimoto Gensuke (岸本源助) and Tsujimoto Shigeyuki (辻本繁之). Kishimoto Gensuke and his son Shônosuke (岸本正之助, might also read „Masanosuke“), who is found in the Hôryûsha member´s list, runned the sword shop Kusanaginoya (草薙廼舎) which was famous as being purveyor of the imperial family in terms of swords since the end of the Edo period. By the way, Satô Kanzan published in 1973 the book „Kusanaginoya-oshigata“ (草薙廼舎押形) which bases on the vast oshigata collection of Kishimoto Kannosuke (岸本貫之助), Gensuke´s adopted son. Kannsouke was also a member of the executive board in the early days of the NBTHK. Well, the Hôryûsha was eventually dissolved and basically continued by the sword clubs Kurotani Tokenkai (黒谷刀剣会) and Gosho-Hachiman Tokenkai (御所八幡刀剣会), and with the establishment of the NBTHK, it finally merged into its Kyôto branch. In the following I want to share the articles of association of the Hôryûsha kantei club:

Articles of Association

1. Swords are treasures of our nation. Apart from the fact that they must be treated with utmost care, discussions on the quality of a smith and his work shall be carried out with a quiet voice.

2. The mutual replies to a bid on a smith might be corrected by Hon´ami Nagane (本阿弥長根).

3. Mumei blades without any of the three Hon´ami certifications origami, soejô or sagefuda shall not be presented for kantei. But mumei blades with ubu-nakago can be brought to the meeting to get an external opinion.

4. Each member is encouraged to bring one blade to the meeting. The kantei blades are presented regardless of their quality.

5. Legendary meibutsu or famous swords from certain families are presented separately at a meeting. But owners who are uncertain of their authenticity can present them as kantei swords to get an external opinion.

6. For the moment, there are six meetings per year. Each year two members are responsible for holding a meeting, taking turns every other second month.

7. Alcohol is prohibited until the end of the meeting.

8. Members should not leave until the meeting has ended.

9. The fee for a meeting which is charged at the very day of a meeting for both members and guests is at the moment 50 sen. [Today about 20 USD]

10. In the event of a „no-show“ or if the member does not cancel his attendance one day prior to the meeting by notifying the member in charge of holding the meeting, the association will charge the aforementioned fee. This rule does not apply in case of emergency or accidents.

11. If a regular meeting is delayed or has to be cancelled because of a member without any particular reason, half of the amount of all the fees of the meeting in question must be paid by this mamber..

12. The participation of guests is with the usual reserve. This does not apply to guests known to members and/or guests announcing their arrival one day prior to the meeting.

13. Swords of guests which should be presented to kantei must be discussed in advance with the member holding the meeting and are accepted with reservation.

14. Entering the association comes with a membership fee of 15 Yen  [today about  600 USD]. But the full amount is immediately returned after holding a meeting or if the person has to leave the association due to extraordinary circumstances.

15. If a member is not able to hold a meeting before he leaves the association, half of the amount of a meeting´s fee is charged. The half of a meeting fee is about 5 to 10 Yen [today about 200 to 400 USD]. Anyway, the final amount might be determined by the founding members and other members.

16. Each member has to follow the articles of association. Otherwise the founding members and other members reserve the right to exclude a member from the association.

17.  For the maintainance of the association, the articles may be changed but each change needs to be discussed by the members in a special session.

Ninth month Meiji 16 (1883), year of the sheep, Hôryûsha


Out now, my “Nihon-shinshinto-shi”, the history of the shinshinto era of Japanese swords, which completes Dr. Honma Junji´s standard work „Nihon-koto-shi“ and my follow-up the „Nihon-shinto-shi“, starting from Suishinshi Masahide´s initiation of a new trend around An´ei (1772-1781) to the ban on swords issued by the Meiji government in 1876. As with the „Nihon-koto-shi“ and the „Nihon-shinto-shi“, the reader should be able to grasp a coherent picture of the backgrounds and scholastic activities around the Japanese sword at the end of the feudal era. The shinshinto era requires a slightly different approach than the shinto era, just like between shinto and koto. We have namely a combination of the trend towards old traditions initiated by the aforementioned Masahide on the one hand, and on the other hand the local trends which were established after certain students had returned to their home lands where they founded their own schools. Finally, the time scale must not be overlooked: The „Nihon-koto-shi“ had to deal with roughly 800 years, from the Nara to the end of the Muromachi period, and the „Nihon-shinto-shi“ comprised „just“ about 200 years, whereas the shinshinto era lasted only about a century. In this sense I hope that the „Nihon-shinshinto-shi“ serves, like the „Nihon-koto-shi“ and my own publication the „Nihon-shinoto-shi“, as a standard or at least as a reference work for this era of the Japanese sword.

Paperback, 7.44 wide x 9.68 tall, 296 pages, b/w pictures – $ 65.00

It can be purchased here or shortly also on amazon.

And the eBook version for $ 30.00 is available here.

And as a special introductory offer for those who haven´t got any of the books yet, I will sell the entire set of three volumes, i.e. „Nihon-koto-shi“, „Nihon-shinoto-shi“ and „Nihon-shinshinto-shi“ on request for $ 150 instead of $ 200. If you are interested, do not hesitate to contact me (email address can be found on the section Imprint on top of this blog).



Era name changes in signatures

Well, nengô (年号), the Japanese era names, are well known to every sword enthusiast. And most of you probably also know basically what they were about. But interesting for me was and is how fast the information of a newly proclaimed nengô made the rounds and arrived eventually in the forges of swordsmiths far away from the capital Kyôto. Fortunately there are minute records of when exactly each era was changed in Japanese history and but before I come to my actual examination I briefly want to introduce the practice of nengô, or gengô (元号) how they are also called. As so often, the Japanese nengô system has its origins in China where everything started with the Kengen era (建元, Chinese Jiànyuán ) in the year 140 BC when Emperor Wu of Han (漢武帝) ascended the throne. In Japan, the nengô system was adopted in the course of the Taika Reform in 645 but interrupted a decade later and once again re-adopted in 701 which became the first year of Taihô (大宝, 701). So far, so good. A nengô was basically connected to the ascension of a new emperor but was sometimes also changed due to other felicitous events or natural disasters. The emperor and his court officials now decided what motto the new era should have, picked the appropriate characters, and picked on which day it should come into effect. That means in earlier years, the change in nengô took not automatically place when a new emperor ascended the throne. So the first year of the new nengô (gannen, 元年) continues until the next lunar new year, which is understood to be the start of the nengô´s second year. To give an example: The Bunmei era (文明) came into effect on the 28th day of the fourth month Ônin three (応仁, 1469). Thus 1469 was both Ônin three and Bunmei one. And the other way round, the first year of Bunmei lacks accordingly a first, second and third month as these months lied in the previous Ônin era.

Bureaucracy had always been elaborate in Japan and so the news of the death of an emperor and the proclamation of the start of a new nengô – sometimes even up to two years after the ascension of the next emperor – reached the most distant provinces surely within weeks, or in some cases maybe months. And signatures on swords are also a good way to proof the speed of an era change. To do so, we have to focus of course on the first year of a nengô, the gannen. But also we have to be careful about the custom to date swords by default with the second and eighth month regardless in what month they have actually been made. This „second month eighth month thing“ is said to go back to the auspicious change in season, i.e. from winter to spring in the case of the second month and from summer to fall in the eighth month. At the same time it is said that the water and the air are especially apt for the sword forging process in these months. Others assume that as both the characters for the numbers „two“ (二) and „eight“ (八) have quasi two halves and that these halves allude to the sharpness of a sword which cuts things in half. However, it is interesting to note that the custom of using the second and eighth month regardless of when the sword was forged started about with the Kanshô era (寛正, 1460-1466). That means a trend towards these two months can not be confirmed in Kamakura and Nanbokuchô era date signatures. In short, pre-Ôei (応永, 1394-1428) date signatures show about equally all twelve months.

A good example for the speed the change in nengô made the rounds is a tantô of Osafune Norimitsu (則光) which is dated „Ônin gannen sangatsu-hi“ (応仁元年三月日, „a day in the third month Ôei one [1467]“). According to transmission, the Ônin era was proclaimed by emperor Go-Tsuchimikado (後土御門天皇, 1442-1500) and his court because of repeated severe calamities, namely to come into effect on the fifth day of the third month of the second year of the previous Bunshô era (文正). So as the tantô of Norimitsu is dated with the third month, we learn that the information of the era changed had reached Bizen in the very same month. To remember, Osafune is about 170 km from Kyôto. But the same works also for the way north. For example there exists a katana of Uda Kunimune (宇多国宗) which is dated with the 16th day of the eighth month Chôkyô one (長享, 1487). The Chôkyô era was proclaimed by the same emperor Go-Tsuchimikado for the 20th day of the seventh month Bunmei 19 (文明, 1487) because of the ongoing turmoils initiated by the Ônin War and an epidemic. So Kunimune knew about the change in nengô at the latest after 27 days after it started. His production site was about 250 km from Kyôto. Another example for blades of a smiths around the border between two nengô. There are a katana and a tantô extant by Osafune Sukesada (祐定) of which the katana is dated with the second month Bunki four (文亀, 1504) and the tantô with the second month Eishô one (永正, 1504). The Bunki era was changed by emperor Go-Kashiwabara (後柏原天皇, 1464-1526) to the Eishô era on the 30th day of the second month of its fourth year because the sexagenary circle changed. The latter was namely also a reason to change a nengô because the year it happened was considered as inauspicious. Quasi better have a new era name to counteract the inauspicious cosmological signs. It was namely belieced that one could, in fact, change fortune by changing the motto of an era. Anyway, the two blades show that the katana was made right before, and the tantô right after the change of the nengô.

But sometimes the smiths missed a change in nengô. For example there exists a wakizashi by Osafune Katsumitsu (勝光) which is dated with a day in the sixth month Meiô ten (明応, 1501). But the Meiô era had already been changed by the aforementioned emperor Go-Kashiwabara on the 29th day of the its second month to Bunki (文亀). So Katsumitsu was four months behind with his date signature in question. Of course we also know even „worse“ examples like a wakizashi by Osafune Yukimitsu (幸光) dated with the 15th day of the second month Eiroku 16 (永禄, 1573). But Eiroku had changed to Genki (元亀) about three years before, i.e. in Eiroku 13 (1570). Rare on swords but still existing are the so-called „shi-nengô“ (私年号), unofficial era names popping out here and there throughout Japanese history. They were used locally and by certain institutions like temples and shrines and represent a denial of the ear name established by the emperor, thus they concentrate in periods of political and social unrest. In many cases, just a certain shi-nengô year appears in a text and so we don´t know of most of them how long they actually lasted. One such shi-nengô can be found in a 32-plate suji-kabuto helmet bowl of Myôchin Nobuie (明珍信家) depicted in Matsumiya Kanzan´s (松宮観山, 1686-1780) „Meikô-zukan – zokushû“ (名甲図鑑続集). It is described in the latter publication as bearing the date Hôju ninen kinue-uma shôgatsu-hi“ (宝寿二年甲午正月日, „a day in the first month of the second year Hôju, year of the horse“). The Hôju era seems to have been in use in and around Kai province. It lasted two years and Hôju two was equivalent to Tenbun three (天文, 1534). I wasn´t able to find an oshigata with a shi-nengô on a sword blade yet but I would be very pleased if somebody could provide me with one.


Now available, the German version of the “Nihon-shinshinto-shi”, the history of the shinshinto era of Japanese swords. I would take to liberty and quote from the German blurb:

Als Abschluss meiner Erweiterung Dr. Honma Junjis Standardwerk „Nihon-koto-shi“ folgt nun nach dem „Nihon-shinto-shi“ das „Nihon-shinshinto-shi“, also die Geschichte der shinshinto-Schwertperiode von ihrem Gründer Suishinshi Masahide bis zum während der Meiji-Zeit verhängten Schwerttrageverbot des Jahres 1876. Gleich der „Nihon-koto-shi“ und der „Nihon-shinto-shi“ soll auch hier der Leser wieder ein schlüssiges Bild über die Hintergründe und schulischen Aktivitäten vom Ende des japanischen Schwertes in seinem feudalen Kontext bekommen. Wie schon mit der zunehmenden Urbanisierung der Edo-Zeit erfolgte die Aufarbeitung der shinshinto-Zeit in ähnlicher Weise wie dies schon im Vorgängerwerk „Nihon-shinto-shi“ der Fall war, und zwar beginnend mit den großen Zentren und im konkreten Fall mit der Wiederbelebung der Schwertschmiedekunst durch Suishinshi Masahide, gefolgt von den einzelnen Provinzen, die wieder anhand ihrer „Signifikanz“ für die Schwertwelt als auch im Kontext zu einander abgehandelt werden.

ISBN: 9781291584202, paperback, 296 pages, 205 b/w pictures, price: €59,90

It can be ordered here or in a few weeks at (and of course directly through me).

And the eBook version is available here for €25,00.


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