On the simplification of Japanese characters

In common practice, the issue with the simplification of Japanese/Chinese characters is mostly brushed aside as like “taken note of” but it is not that easy, at least not for me as translator. Many people interested in the Japanese sword are aware of the fact that a simplification of characters exist and that older characters with (too) many strokes were at a certain point in time simplified by removing some strokes. The simplification itself is not the main topic of this article as I want to focus more on my problem as translator with dealing with them, but I nevertheless want to start with a general overview of the whole subject of simplification of Japanese/Chinese characters.

In postwar Japan, i.e. in 1946, the Japanese Ministry of Education issued the so-called “list of kanji for general use” (tôyô-kanji-hyô, 当用漢字), a reform of the Chinese characters so far in use in Japanese written language. This was an official thing like the various spelling reforms of the English language which means schools, governmental documents, newspapers and the like had to follow the tôyô-kanji-hyô. The initial list contained 1.850 characters, some of them simplified. The simplification process was basically done in two ways: Either the right-hand radical which indicates the on´yomi (Sino-Japanese reading) was replaced with another character of the same on´yomi with fewer strokes, or an entire complex compound of a character was replaced by a simpler one. But the simplified characters were no complete new creations as many were based on widely used handwritten abbreviations (ryakuji, 略字) of the prewar era. For example the character for hiro(i) (廣, expansive, wide) was replaced by the character (広) but which was already “unofficially” in use in earlier times to abbreviate the relativ large number of strokes. But there was also another way of simplification, namely by orientating on the on´yomi. For example for the old character i (圍, enclose), the inner part (韋) – which determines the on´yomi – was replaced by the radical (井) which doesn´t mean the same as (韋) but which also reads i. So i (圍) became (囲). In 1981, the tôyô-kanji list was replaced by the Ministry of Education by the jôyô-kanji (常用漢字) which are known to everybody who learns Japanese. The initially 1.850 tôyô characters were extended by 95 which in turn were just recently once more extended by 196 in 2010 (also five characters were removed).

So far, so good. The “problem” now is that we mostly dealing with more or less ancient texts and inscriptions and they require a certain sensibility. At the beginning I was talking of common practice and this common practice is to use by default the simplified version of characters. Most of the recent publications, or at least those published since the 1970s, handle it this way. That means, a signature like “Sagami no Kuni Hiromitsu” chiselled with the characters (相模國廣光) is usually quoted as (相模国広光). Also the NBTHK uses the simplified characters when issuing papers even if the blade itself is signed with old unsimplified characters (see picture 1). However, we occasionally also find old kichô papers which make use of the old characters (see picture 2).

  Simpl1 Picture 1: tokubetsu-hozon paper for a Sukehiro which quotes the characters (助広) although the blade is signed (助廣).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPicture 2: tokubetsu-kichô paper from 1972 which quotes the character for “Kuni” (国) in the old way (國).

So is there a “correct” way to deal with these simplifications in translations? Basically yes, because strictly speaking, we must follow the spelling reform. But as we find ourselves in the field of antiques, we are quasi somewhat “special”. That means in a “totally correct” way, the original inscription/signature should be reproduced with the very same characters it shows and it might be extended by a simplified circumscription in parenthesis or as footnote. This is fine for a native reader for whim the thing is more or less clear. He knows that he is facing simplified characters when reading a paper or a book which mentions signatures for examples. Also (of course depending on the experience and depth of study) he basically knows the unsimplified version of the characters and knows thus how the blade is actually signed. So if a native reader reads in a book a line with a reference to the signature “Sagami no Kuni Hiromitsu” (相模国広光), he knows that the blade, as being several hundred years old, should show the characters (相模國廣光). By the way, there are of course exceptions where even medieval craftsmen made use of simplified characters. For a Western reader or collector however, the thing is far more difficult as he might be unable to associate an unsimplified signature with the quote in a publication. Because of that, I am frequently addressed that my translation does not match the signature they have or that I made a mistake. So we are back at what is the best way to handle this issue. Mostly it is namely impractical to add comments or footnotes to each and every quote/translation. Also rather impractical is to add a note to every translation like “be aware of the fact of the simplification of characters”. Well, I did point out the use of simplifaction or rather the presence of unsimplified characters in my previously published Kantei volumes for example to avoid confusion as the presented oshigata right next to the translation shows clearly the old characters. For the future, I must admit that I will follow the spelling reform and use the simpified characters, and that I will point out potentially confusing situations with unsimplified and simplified characters separately.

Below I want to present as a reference a small list of unsimplified characters and their simplified variant which might occur on sword or kodôgu signatures:

(佛) Butsu (仏)

(臺) Dai (台)

(傅) Den (伝)

(藝) Gei (芸)

(刄) Ha (刃)

(濱) Hama (浜)

(邊) Hen (辺)

(榮) Hide, Ei (栄)

(寶) Hô, Takara (宝)

(惠) Kei, E (恵)

(劍・劔・劒・剱・釼) Ken, Tsurugi (剣)

(縣) Ken (県)

(國) Kuni (国)

(舊) Kyû (旧)

(圓) Maru, En, Kazu (円)

(當) Masa (当)

(繩) Nawa, Tsuna (縄)

(應) Ô (応)

(鷗) Ô (鴎)

(來) Rai (来)

(龍) Ryû, Tatsu (竜)

(實) Sane (実)

(眞) Sane (真)

(齋) Sai (斎)

(澤) Sawa (沢)

(聲) Sei (声)

(關) Seki (関)

(對) Tai (対)

(體) Tai, Karada (体)

(瀧) Taki (滝)

(耀) Teru (輝)

(鐡) Tetsu (鉄)

(鐵) Tetsu (鉄)

(壽) Toshi, Ju (寿)

(儔) Tomo (俦)

(豐) Toyo (豊)

(與) Yo, ataeru (与)

(豫) Yo (予)

(餘) Yo (余)

Complete Kantei Volumes

As I am on holiday soon (Nov 17-27) and in the US from Dec 9 to around Jan 12, this is now the time to finish projects and comply with requests of my readers. I got many mails to summarize all the Kantei volumes and the two supplements and the two books introduced in the following are a compliance to this request. That means I compiled a Koto-kantei Zenshu and a Shinto & Shinshinto-kantei Zenshu, containing all previously introduced blades in a sorted manner. On far more than 700 pages, about 600 blades are described in detail and with a kantei in mind and I was told by many of my readers that these books are a must have for any collector and nihonto student. Also the table of contents found at the end of this entry speak for themselves.

As this is going to be a Christmas offer, both new Zenshu volumes are in hardcover and offered for the price of each $ 129.00. That means you even save $ 69.00 compared to getting the four previously published Kantei volumes for $ 327.00. So if you were hesitating so far, this is probably the best chance to get these references. Also please note the Lulu voucher code CORNUCOPIA which gets you 20% off until Nov 15th 23.59, i.e. midnight today!

The Koto-kantei Zenshu (772 pages, 8.25 wide x 10.75 tall) is available here.

The Shinto & Shinshinto-kantei Zenshu (716 pages, ibid.) is available here.




Kano Natsuo – His Sketchbooks II

Due to the huge feedback, I also decided to make available all eight of Natsuo´s non sword fittings-related sketchbooks (Shasei-jô, 写生帖). Seven of them are numbered – Shasei-dai 1-7 (写生第壱・七) – and one sketchbook bears just the title Shasei. The book comes of course in the same layout as the first book on Natsuo.

8.25 wide x 10.75 tall, full color, hardcover, 312 pages – $ 129.00

Available here.

eBook is available here.


Kano Natsuo – His Life, his Art and his Sketchbooks

Out now, the most comprehensive, non-Japanese book on Natsuo. Even though the kinko artist Kano Natsuo is on everyone´s lips when it comes to conversations about late Edo period sword fittings surprisingly little material is available outside of Japan, in neither a comprehensive or in a published form. With this publication I try to provide a remedy by introducing an outline of his career, his personality, his art, his students and his works (34 pieces on more than 50 pages). And, as a reference, I have republished all four of Natsuo’s sketchbooks on sword fittings (Kengu-shitazu-soko). Thus I hope that with this publication I can contribute to the understanding and appreciation of this great artist in the West and that the reader enjoys browsing through Natsuo´s sketches.

8.25 wide x 10.75 tall, full color, hardcover, 250 pages – $ 129.00

Available here.

eBook is available here.



A Natsuo motif on a Kajihei blade

In the first year of Genji (元治, 1864), Natsuo´s firstborn son saw the light of day. The first year of Genji was the year of the “wood rat” (kinoe-ne, kôshi or kasshi, 甲子) which in turn was the very first year of the sexagenarian circle and was thus very auspicious, and so he named his son “Kinekichi” (甲子吉, lit. “lucky one from the year of the wood rat”). Natsuo describes those times in his Tsuisô-roku (追想録, “Records of Recollection”) published in Meiji 15 (明治, 1882) as follows: “The number of orders and of the people (he meant his subcontract workers like, for example, Tomekichi [留吉], Hikota [彦太] and Kakuzô [恪蔵]) increased, and that now with Fuyu and Kinekichi the house became too small and so after five or six years we moved to the second block of Chôjamachi (長者町) in Edo´s Shitaya district (下谷, about 3 km to the north of the old house in Kanda-Sakuma, 神田佐久間町).” Well, Kinekichi was raised and trained to become Natsuo´s successor one day. He used the craftsman´s name “Fuyuo” (冬雄) but did not have time to step out of the shadow of his father as he died in the eleventh month of Meiji 20 (1887) at the young age of 24.


Picture 1: Daikokuten no zu futatokoromono (大黒天の図二所物)

mei, kozuka: Bunkyû kinoe-ne shoshun kore o tatematsuru (文久甲子初春上之, “finished in early spring of the year of the rat of the Bunkyû era [1864]”) – Sohaku Natsuo + kaô (素璞夏雄); mei, menuki:    kinoe-ne haru no hi Natsuo – Tôbu ni oite kore o tsukuru + kaô (甲子春日夏雄・於東武造之, “made in Edo on a spring day in the year of the rat [1864] by Natsuo”); kozuka of shibuichi, polished finish, shakudô suemon, back side in sogetsugi; menuki of pure gold, katachibori, shakudô suemon, silver suemon

In the same year kinoe-ne, Natsuo made a futatokoromono set (see picture 1) consisting of a kozuka and a pair of menuki, depicting Daikokuten (大墨天) and a rat, as it was the year of the rat and as the rat is regarded as messenger of Daikokuten. So maybe Natsuo picked this motif of one of the Seven Lucky Gods as auspicious sign for this happy event of being blessing with a son in that very year. Another fascinating aspect of this motif is that Natsuo even made a Daikokuten painting at the same time which is still extant and mounted as hanging scroll (see picture 2). Also we find in one of his sketchbooks a rubbing of a Daikoku which he had engraved to the kogatana blade of a kozuka (see picture 3). And this Daikoku carving and its signature in turn were engraved by the swordsmith Hosoda Heijirô Naomitsu (細田平次郎直光) onto one of his tantô. Interesting is that Naomitsu – who is better known under his pseudonym “Kajihei” (鍛冶平), the name under which he focused on forgeries of shintô, shinshintô and also of kotô blades after the ban on swords in 1876 – decided for himself to add Natsuo´s kaô under the signature which is not there at the original carving on the kozuka blade.


Picture 2: The hanging scroll.


Picture 3: The rubbing of the Daikoku engraving on a kozuka from one of Natsuo´s sketchbooks (left) and the sketch for the Daikokuten-futokoromono (right).

Well, Naomitsu alias Kajihei was a student of Jirô Tarô Naokatsu (次郎太郎直勝, 1805-1858), the son-in-law and successor of the famous shinshintô swordsmith Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778-1857). There was a certain connection between Natsuo and the Naotane lineage of swordsmiths. One of his students namely, Tsukada Hideaki (塚田秀鏡, 1848-1918), was the adopted son of Hata Naoaki (畑直鏡), who in turn was a student of Jirô Tarô Naokatsu. Also we know from Natsuo´s records that a blade of Naomitsu´s master Naokatsu showed a Daikokuten engraving similar to this one. So it is rather likely that this blade is an hommage to both Naokatsu and Natsuo as it is fully signed by Naomitsu and we can thus probably rule out that it was intended as whatever forgery. This is also supported by the fact that it was made in Keiô two (1866), i.e. ten years before the ban on swords and Naomitsu´s “career” as forger Kajihei. Another interesting allusion to Natsuo´s Daikokuten carvings is Naomitsu´s explicite use of the kinoe-ne day in his signature. The kinoe-de day is an auspicious day every sixty days in accordance with the sexagenary circle. Incidentally, the kinoe-ne day was the eighth day of the ninth month Keiô two.


Picture 4: tantô, mei: “Naokatsu-monjin Naomitsu tsukuru – Keiô ninen kugatsu kinoe-ne no hi – kimibanzai” (直勝門人直光造・慶応二年九月甲子日・君万歳, “made by Naomitsu, a student of Naokatsu, on the kinoe-ne day of the ninth month Keiô two [1866], year of the rat – Long Live the Emperor”), nagasa 23,0 cm, kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri

So this blade gives on the one hand an interesting insight into the career of Naomitsu before he focused on forgeries, and on the other hand also an interesting insight into the time when Natsuo´s first son Fuyuo was born. This futatokoromono and the blade of Naomitsu are featured in my upcoming book Kano Natsuo – His Life, his Art and his Sketchbooks.

Japanese Sword Trade with Ming China

Most of us know that Japan exported swords to China and I also briefly mentioned the official trade (kangô-bôeki, 勘合貿易) between the bakufu and China´s Ming dynasty (明, 1368-1644) in some of my publications. As always, I wanted to get to the bottom of the matter with the sword exports and did some research but it took me a while to bring the results into a comprehensive form, namely this article. We know from the 5th century Book of the Later Han (Gokanjo, 後漢書), a Chinese court document covering the history of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) from 6 to 189 AD, that Japan had contact with China since the first century BC. But it should last until the 6th and 7th century AD and the basic unification of China and Japan, that the Yamato court sent diplomatic embassies to the Chinese court, namely to the then Sui (隋, 581-618) and Tang dynasties (唐, 618-907). The aim of these embassies was basically to learn from China which was back then advanced in virtually all areas. So political systems, administration, technology, science, culture, and not to forget Buddhism was imported. Incidentally, there were altogether six embassies to Sui, and 16 (successful) to Tang China. Well, the diplomatic relations ended rather abruptly with the downfall of the Tang dynasty, but also Japan had not been able to send the last one planned for 894 because of financial reasons. But the official stop of these missions did not mean the end for Japanese and Chinese cultural, technological and religious exchange and of course also not for the increasing trade. All these free relations ended when emperor Hóngwǔ (洪武, 1328-1368) came to power and founded the aforementioned Ming dynasty after ending the Mongol empire. The major reforms undertaken by Hóngwǔ on all levels brought the law that all international contact had to be by officially legitimized tribute missions. Important to note for a better understanding of the latter sword imports of China is that Hóngwǔ imposed a ban on seafaring. Or at least the government must be informed about all things going on on the ocean because the emperor feared that former enemies could organize themselves over sea routes or that people use ships to desert to the enemy. So private trade was prohibited but a solution had to be found not to nip international and maritime trade in the bud. This solution was that foreign contries which wanted to trade with Ming China had to politically submit and to pay tribute. In return, Ming China handed-out official trading licenses to their submissive allies. But when Hóngwǔ learned later in his reign that the foreigners made a lot of profit with these official licenses and of course did not come just to pay tribute to the Ming court, he even tightened his strict rules and prohibited now all foreign trade and contact with foreigners. It is interesting to read that Japan takes up a chapter of its own in Hóngwǔ´s Instructions of the Ancestor of the August Ming (Huáng Míng Zǔ Xùn, 皇明祖訓) where it belongs to those countries which are no specific danger to China as being to far away but being described as „smart but cunning and mendacious when it comes to evading (imperial) rules“.


Picture 1, from left to right: Hóngwǔ, Yǒnglè, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu

Things changed when emperor Yǒnglè (永楽帝, 1360-1424, r. 1402-1424) came to power who was much more open for foreign trade and resumed the diplomatic relations to many countries. However, Yǒnglè continued the policy of prohibited seafaring and the tribute system but he sent out a lot of embassies to show that Ming China is now again more willing to welcome tribute missions. But still each trip abroad and commercial voyage needed imperial permission and private journeys and secret private contact to foreigners, even for officials and soldiers, was forbidden and was punished. A problem for the Ming treasury was that generous gifts were given to the countries which came and paid tribute. To counteract this, the tribute missions were again cut back and the foreign contries were informed that only those goods should be brought as tribute which were of use for Ming China. Also the number of persons attending a tribute mission was regulated as they had to be accomodated at public expense. It was shôgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1358-1408, r. 1368-1394) who accepted the new rules and appointed himself as a tributary vassal of Hóngwǔ´s successor Jiànwén (建文, 1377-1402, r. 1398-1402) in the eighth year of Ôei (応永, 1401). Three years later, he received from Jiànwén´s successor Yǒnglè in return for the will to pay tribute the official trade license (kangô-bôeki, 勘合貿易). It is interesting to note that Ming China saw now the shôgun as “King of Japan”, not the emperor, as vassal and liaison for diplomatic relations. But although the official trade meant considerable profit for Japan, organizing a tribute mission, the prerequisite for this trade, had always been quite a task and took often several years. The organization had to base on three groups in order to be successful: The bakufu as official organizer, the merchants for providing the goods and thus the capital, and certain bakufu-loyal daimyô and monks who acted as officials, administrators and aides.

The basic situation of the trade between Ming China and Japan was put in a nutshell by Zhèng Xîao (鄭暁, 1499-1566) in his Wúxúe bian (吾学編): “The foreigners want to sell, and want to buy by all means the hundred of goods the barbarians have and China cannot do without.” Each tribute mission contained three categories of goods: The tribute goods, the official articles for trade, and the so-called “supplementary articles for trade” brought by those accompanying the missions. We have records, the Zenrin-koku-hôki (善隣国宝記), of the first tribute goods sent by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1401. These were: 10 horses, 1.000 sheets of thin Japan paper, 100 fans, 3 screens, 1 yoroi, 1 dômaru armour, 10 tachi, 1 katana, 1 ink stone, and 1 small desk. The next mission from 1403 contained some different goods, namely: 20 horses, 10.000 pounds sulphur, 32 smaller and bigger agates, 3 gold-decorated screens, 1.000 yari, 100 tachi, 1 boxed armour, 1 boxed ink stone, and 100 fans. So far the tribute goods. Regarding the official articles for trade, we know detailed records from the Boshi-nyûmin-ki (戊子入明記) compiled by the monk and diplomat Sakugen Shûryô (策彦周良, 1501-1579). Interesting is, that Sakugen noted also the investment necessary for each good to be made and transported to Ming China. This information served later for the projections and the profit maximization of the merchants. For example, Sakugen quotes the price of 150 kan for 100 tachi swords and 53 kan 700 mon for two fancy tachi with dragon ornamentation and nashiji lacquer saya. Before we continue it has to be mentioned that the Ashikaga-bakufu did not mint coins but imported Chinese copper coins to be used as national means of payment. It is interesting to observe that Japan had in face numerous copper mines but exported the copper to China and Korea and reimported minted coins. Chinese copper coins were a much sought-after return present for tribute goods as they stimulated the national economy and were mostly accepted throughout Southeast Asia. We even know of records that the bakufu explicitly asked for copper coins as one and only return gift for certain coming tribute mission. So 1 kan (貫), a coin string weighing 3.75 kg, consisted of 1.000 copper coins (mon, 文).

We know that already the first tribute mission to Ming China using the official kangô-bôeki license from Ôei eleven (1404) took swords with them. There are numerous Chinese records of how cherished Japanese swords were, first of all because of their shaprness and cutting ability, but also because of their splendid mountings. With the restrictions initiated by Hóngwǔ, the Ming court had the monopoly on buying and distributing weapons. Some experts assume that the massive import of Japanese sword was to systematically disarm the Japanese pirates (wakô, 倭寇, Chin. wokòu) which were raiding Chinese coasts since the 13th century. Others assume that the court equipped certain soldiers with them but no definite answer can be read out of the extant documents. I deliverately used the term „certain soldiers“ because the Ming court decided – after the Japanese brought too many swords in their first tribute missions – that it will accept and buy not more than 3.000 swords per mission. Theoretically the Ming court could have had as many swords as needed. However, it can be assumed that the aim of this restriction was to maintain an overview on weapons going round in the country. At the beginning of the sword trade, the Japanese were able to sell them for a multiple of the cost of manufacture. From the diary Roku´on-nichiroku (鹿苑日録) we know that at the time of the tribute mission from Eikyô four (永享, 1432), the costs of one tachi were around 800-1.000 mon but was sold for around 10 kan, i.e. 10.000 mon, what meant a considerable profit and an important source of income for the bakufu. Japan did not follow the 3.000 sword limit very strictly and the mission from Kyôtoku two (享徳, 1453) brought 9.968 swords with them. As a counter-reaction and to somehow stop Japanese merchants from bringing to many swords into the country was, after realizing that the official limit was not obeyed, to push down the price. So it was decided that the Ming court pays no longer 10.000 but 5.000 mon per swords. And when the Japanese brought about 30.000, i.e. ten times the allowed number of swords in the course of their Ônin two (応仁, 1468) mission, the price was further pushed down to 2.500 mon. The whole system was then in a downward spiral when the Japanese tried to maintain the same profit by even increasing the number of export swords. This namely resulted in a considerable decline in quality which in turn prompted the Chinese to further push the price. At the time of the Bunmei 15 (文明, 1483) mission, only 600 mon were paid per sword, and at the time of the Eishô eight (永正, 1511) mission, the price had finally dropped to 300 mon. Incidentally, please note that these years might vary depending on how the missions are counted. Some quote the year the official planning began, others the year the mission left Japan, and others in turn the year it arrived at the Chinese authorities. Regarding, the Bunmei 15 mission, there is a report of a Chinese official extant who complained that besides of the 3.610 swords brought as tribute, the Japanese had 38.610 swords on board as their official articles for trade. This was ten times the permitted number, so the then minister Zhou Hóngmó (周洪謨). Also we learn from the chronicles and tribute records that there were each time discussions between the Japanese and the Ming officials on the acceptance of the swords exceeding the 3.000 limit and the price they are bought for. And to bear the expenses of the bakufu, it was decided on Japanese side that the merchants had to pay tax for what they sold abroad. So the merchants were quasi forced to sell as many goods as possible to reach a certain profit margin which makes the missions attractive at all. But we know that even with these difficulties, the overseas trade, including swords, was quite lucrative.

To summarize: The Eikyô four (1432) mission had loaded 3.000 swords, the Eikyô six (1434) mission also 3.000 swords, the Kyôtoku two (1453) mission 9.968 swords, the Ônin two (1468) about 30.000, the Bunmei eight (1476) mission around 7.000, the Bunmei 15 (1483) mission 38.610, the Meiô two (明応, 1493) and Eishô eight (1511) missions each around 7.000, and the Tenbun eight (天文, 1539) mission 24.152 swords. That makes altogether around 128.000 swords, an average of about 12.800 swords per mission. The very last tribute mission was undertaken in Tenbun 16 (1547) before the system collapsed due to the domestic political problems and the appearance of European competitors in the East Asian waters. Incidentally, I wasn´t able to find a list of how many swords were brought in the course of the last mission or if it contained any swords at all. But the aforementioned number of 128.000 swords over about one century gives us nevertheless a general idea of how many swords were exported to China. The Boshi-nyûmin-ki tells us also something about the lead time for a tribute mission. The preparations for the Ônin two (1468) mission started already in the Hôtoku era (宝徳, 1449-1452), i.e. more than 15 years in advance. On the other hand, the preparations for the Bunmei eight mission took only about two years. So when we take here an average of let´s say five years lead time, around 2.560 swords had to be made in that time to arrive at the aforementioned average of 12.800 swords per mission. This means 512 swords a year, thus more than a sword a day. So when the Bunmei eight mission had only a lead time of two years, 6.400 swords must had been made each year what calculates around 17 swords per day! So the smiths involved in the Ming trade system must had been quite busy. According to contemporary records, most of the export swords were made in Nara and Bizen and the production was mainly managed by Kyôto-based sword dealers who in turn were of course in touch with the bakufu. Another factor which should not be overlooked is the fact that the Ôuchi family (大内), which was largely involved in the overseas trade and tribute missions, were shugo military governors of Buzen and Chikuzen province during that time. So the number of smiths settling there in the early Muromachi period was probably also connected to the mass production of export blades. For example, there exists a tachi signed „Nobukuni“ (信国) which bears a Chinese nengô, namely „ninth month Chénghùa two“ (成化二年九月), what corresponds to the first year of Bunshô (文正, 1466) (see picture 2). This is an important reference pieces as it is one of the very few export swords which did not make it abroad for whatever reason. And this Nobukuni blade is also of special interest as it backs up the transmission of the Kyôto-based sword dealers where the origins of the Nobukuni school were, and the founding of the Kyûshû-offshoot the Tsukushi Nobukuni school (筑紫信国).


Picture 2: tachi signed „Nobukuni“ and dated „ninth month Chénghùa two“

Back to the prices of the swords. From an intresting entry in the Boshi-nyûmin-ki we learn that the price the Ming court paid was for the blade and the koshirae. The entry in question deals namely with 300 swords which arrived damaged with the Eishô eight (1511) mission. According to the records, the Ming officials sorted out those swords whose hilts and scabbards were damaged and beyond repair and threw them away. So the blade alone was obviously not worthy purchasing, maybe just because there came anyway 4.000 swords more than allowed with this mission. Also we read that swords were damaged by Chinese port staff during unloading the cargo upon which the Japanese got angry as they were not able to repair them locally and lost so a part of the calculated profit. Apart from that there are several Sue-Bizen swords extant which show the value of the sword on the tang. For example a katana by Osafune Norimitsu (則光) dated Kanshô five (1464) worth 5 kan, a wakizashi by Osafune Katsumitsu (勝光) dated Bunmei nine (1477) worth 20 kan, a wakizashi by Osafune Tadamitsu (忠光) dated Entoku two (延徳, 1490) worth 1.000 hiki (疋 = 10 kan), a tantô by Osafune Katsumitsu dated Eishô three (1506) worth 1 kan 500 mon (see picture 3), or a katana by Osafune Sukesada (祐定) dated Eishô twelve (1515) worth 5 kan.


Picture 3: tantô, mei: „Bishû Osafune Fujiwara Katsumitsu“ (備州長船藤原勝光) – „Eishô sannen nigatsu-hi – dai ikkan gohyaku-mon“ (永正三年二月日・代一貫五百文).

Although it is hard to define inflation and price fluctuation in Muromachi Japan, the prices mentioned on the tangs of these Sue-Bizen blades indicate that they were probably not made for export. As mentioned earlier, the costs for one tachi for the Eikyô four (1432) mission were around 800-1.000 mon, i.e. 0.8-1 kan. The Norimitsu katana from 1464 was worth 5 kan but as we have heard, the Ming court pushed the price for the Ônin two (1468) mission down to 2.500 mon, i.e. 2.5 kan, per blade. So exporting this Norimitsu blade would have meant a loss. And when the Sukesada blade from Eishô twelve (1515) was worth 5 kan, the Japanese swords from the Eishô eight (1511) mission four years early had to be sold for 300 mon, i.e. 0.3 kan. This in turn indicates that the smiths making the export swords really must had been making low-quality kazuuchi-mono that a salling for 0.3 kan still brought some profit! Of course there were surely some fine swords reserved for certain persons but maybe this is a reason why there are not that many swords extant in China which were once bought by the Ming court. We can assume that a sword made for considerably less than 0.3 kan did not survive much fighting action, not to mention repeated battles in the cases handed down within a family. That means the Sengoku-era kazuuchimono extant today must be considered as being of even better quality than the majority of the swords made for export.