Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists

It turned out that the formatting did not take that much time and so I was able to finish my just previously announced latest publication Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists.

My motivation for compiling this work was purely a service-oriented one. Over the years I have constantly received inquiries for authenticating signatures on sword fittings, or for advice as to whether a work/signature looks promising enough to be submitted to shinsa, a procedure which we all know needs some background work and takes time and money. Dealing with such inquiries is quite a sensitive task. First of all, you don´t have the item in hand. That means you have to decide on the basis of pictures alone if a signature and quality of a work justifies further research, providing that the pictures you receive are of decent enough quality. If so, you have to compare the signature with your reference, and for this I have compiled over the years a humble database of roughly 5,000 pictures of mei. As this was for my use only, and as I am fortunately able to read Japanese, I just labelled the pictures accordingly, i.e. I did not make any list with the names of the artists or translations of the signatures and the like. With this database as a reference I have so far been able to offer some signature comparisons which have been of much help in making some basic judgements. So, if a signature matches in syntax and the characteristic style is very close to an authentic signature from my database, then sending the piece to Japan for shinsa becomes a possibility. Or, if the inquiry was not about obtaining papers, the inquirer can be reassured that chances are now higher that his item is authentic.

The greatest problem in compiling this publication was due to the quality of the pictures. Although over the years I have always scanned the pictures with the highest possible resolution and with a decent scanner, the main problem remaining was the often bad initial quality. In many cases signatures had been photographed and catalogued only once and then it was decades ago. After some test prints I had to immediately dismiss about a fifth of the pictures in my archive. Apart from that there are some pictures whose quality is really no better than those dismissed but for which I decided that they should remain in the publication. This concerns first and foremost signatures of artists of which hardly any signed works are known. On the other hand I also kept pictures where one is at least able to see the basic style, position, and arrangement; information which might also help sometimes in “judging” a signature.

As for the structure of the book, the information provided for each artist is kept as simple as possible. That means, for reasons of space, all the necessary data is given which allows one to recognize an artist on which detailed information can then be found elsewhere in a next step. I also attached importance to quoting the signature shown, as if I had simply illustrated the pictures this publication would have been a “half-hearted” approach and would not have been that useful in the end. However, and again for reasons of space, only the basic and essential information of lengthy signatures is quoted. Specifically this means that dated signatures are just quoted as “dated 1858” for example, and sometimes the names of places and the like are omitted. In addition, and for the sake of searchability and recognisability, I also attached importance in quoting each name and with both the simplified and the un-simplified characters. Apart from that this publication should be self-explanatory. A list of all the characters from the names used by the featured artists is provided at the end. In this sense I hope that this work will serve the collector, dealer, and sword fittings enthusiast as a source of reference.

The 680-pages hardcover book (format US Letter) is available here:

And the eBook version, ideal for an on-site signature comparison when purchasing signed sword fittings when having it on the tablet, is available here:

Thank you for your attention and once again Happy Easter to everyone!


On vacation

Dear readers,

I am leaving for an Easter vacation on Sunday and will be back on Tuesday, April 29th. Until then, this blog will rest but I will be back after the holiday with renewed vigor. Also the previously announced project, the publication of mei tôsôgu signature archive under the title Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists, should be finished soon. I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel what means in concrete terms about 600 pages and 4,200 signature pictures. In this sense I wish you all Happy Easter and as a little Easter present, I have discounted the two hardcover Zenshu volumes of my Kantei books reduced by 50 %, and the two Kano Natsuo books by 20 %! So please take a look at the link below:

Hankei and his school

At our last NBTHK-EB meeting in Nuremberg in March, our topic was utsushi in the widest sense. One of the blade presented was a jûyô-katana by Hankei (繁慶) (picture 1) and in our discussion on how the term “utsushi” can be defined, it was addressed that Hankei had his very own approach to the Sôshû tradition. At his time, we are talking about the Keichô-shintô era, a focus was again on the great Sôshû masters and katana-size Nanbokuchô-style blades was quasi the ultimate goal, i.e. a wide blade with an elongated kissaki and a shallow sori which emulates an ô-suriage tachi of the heyday of the Nanbokuchô era. Hankei, his civilian name was Noda Zenshirô (野田善四郎), originally came from Mikawa province which was also the home province of Tokugawa Ieyasu. It is assumed that he first moved to Sunpu (駿府) to work there as a gunsmith, the profession he had inherited from his father. Ieyasu had established a gunsmith center in Hachiôji (八王子) in Tenshô 18 (天正, 1590) what was Hankei´s second station. There he learned from the gunsmith Agari Sôhachirô (胝惣八郎) who also came from Mikawa and who already worked for Ieyasu at that time. With his studies under Agari, Hankei signed with the name Kiyotaka (清堯). By the way, there are teppô with the mei Kiyotaka extant which bear date signatures from Keichô 15 to 20 (慶長, 1610-1615). Those made exclusively for the Tokugawa family are signed “Nihon Kiyotaka + kaô” (日本清堯) (picture 2) and it is very interesting that there are even swords extant with the very same signature and kaô (although extremely rare) (picture 3).


Picture 1: katana, mei “Hankei”, nagasa 69.6 cm, sori 1.35 cm


Picture 2: jûyô-bunkazai hinawajû, mei “Nihon Kiyotaka + kaô”, overall length 148.5 cm, dated eleventh month Keichô 16 (1611)


Picture 3: “Nihon Kiyotaka” mei on a sword blade



Picture 4: katana signed “Kiyotaka + kaô” and detail of the mei

So Ieyasu eventually retired to Sunpu in Suruga province in the seventh month Keichô twelve (1607) and as we know, he invited his most trusted swordsmith to accompany him, the 1st generation Yasutsugu (康継) and Nanki Shigekuni (南紀重国). But also Kiyotaka/Hankei accompanied Ieyasu to Sunpu and most experts agree that it was this meeting of his great talent with the specially invided bakufu-employed swordsmiths that brought the decision that he should better switch from gunsmith to swordsmith. Also it is safe to assume that Kiyotaka/Hankei learned the necessary techniques on the spot from the two aforementioned smiths and as he was already a renowned gunsmith and used to work with steel, changing jobs did not take him that long. When we namely assume that he went to Hachiôji at the age of 25, he was around 50 at the time in Sunpu. Well, Ieyasu died shortly later in Genna two (元和, 1616) and Kiyotaka/Hankei returned again to Hachiôji, i.e. to Edo. The name change to “Hankei” took place after his moving to Edo and it is generally assumed that this happened between the fifth year of Genna (1620) and the first year of Kan´ei (寛永, 1624). So when we again take our assumption that he arrived at Hachiôji about the age of 25 as a basis, he was in his late fifties or about to turn sixty at the time he changed his name. “Hankei” by the way is a very auspicious name and means literally about “prospering/flourishing joy.”

So Hankei shared about the same fate as Kotetsu although forty or so years earlier. Also Kotetsu had his origins in a different but kind of related craft, namely the craft of armor making, and he took changed his profession around the age of 50. However, I assume that Kotetsu had slightly different reasons for becoming a swordsmith. At his time, the demand for newly made armour had drastically dropped. As mentioned in an earlier article, Sekigahara happened 40 years earlier, Ôsaka had fallen more than 30 years ago, and the last great armed conflict – the Shimabara Rebellion from 1637 to 1638 – was at its tenth anniversary. Hankei in turn worked still in a sphere that we define today as Momoyama Culture. In other words, ten or fifteen years after Sekigahara nobody knew that the new bakufu would bring a longstanding peace. And with all the relocations of daimyô and the reorganization of the hierarchic feudal structure, wait and see was the order of the day. That means there was no drastic drop in the demand for firearms that would have forced Kiyotaka/Hankei to look for a new job. But we can agree that both smiths, Kotetsu and Hankei, were highly talented and great personalities as otherwise they would have disappeared from the scene and/or their swords would have been classed into the “also ran” category, i.e. as well-eant swords made by a former armorer or gunsmith respectively. But back to the Momoyama Culture. I have already mentioned that the then fashion in swords inspired Hankei to his style. It is namely very interesting to see that Hankei did not just copy the great Sôshû masters as faithful as possible (of course there are als such works) but took what he understood as Norishige style, who is assumed as being his greatest inspiration, and interpreted this style in a way which can only be described as very strong in character. He made blades with an acute mitsu-mune and a rough itame mixed with masame and hada-ware which appears with plenty of ji-nie and thick chikei as so-called hijiki-hada (鹿尾菜肌・羊栖菜肌・ひじき肌) what has to be undertood as reminiscence of Norishige´s also very peculiar matsukawa-hada. His hamon is usually based on a hiro-suguha or notare, is hardened in nie-deki, and is mixed with gunome-ashi. The nie are thick but not that sparkling. Many sunagashi occur which makes the hamon look partially like as if it is entirely composed of sunagashi. The habuchi is unclear, that means it is often hard on Hankei blades to define an exact line between the ha and the ji. This is for example the case at the ura side´s monouchi of the blade shown in picture 1, and at the kantei at Nuremberg, this area reminded me kind of a sudareba at a glance. Also very typical for Hankei are his characteristic tang with the deeply notched machi and the so-called yagen-jiri, and the thickly chiselled signature. We don´t know when Hankei died but it is assumed that he lived at least to about mid Kan´ei (1635~40). As for his signature, we distinguish roughly between two categories, namely the so-called ro-mata (ロ又) from the height of his career, the the so-called ru-mata (ル又) signatures from his later years. The names refer to the interpretation of the right part (攵) of the upper radical (敏) which can be chiselled like the katakana syllable ro (ロ) plus the character mata (又) below, or like the katakana syllable ru (ル) plus the character mata below (see picture 5).


Picture 5, signature comparison: ro-mata left, ru-mata right

Now to Hankei´s students and here too, we have some similarities to Kotetsu. Apart from Kotetsu´s adopted son Okimasa (興正) namely, there are only very few works from both schools extant, what concerns for example Kotetsu´s direct students Okihisa (興久) and Okinao (興直), and Hankei´s direct students Hanjô (繁昌) and Masayoshi (正慶). Thus it is assumed that the personality of the great master was so overwhelming that none of the students had the time and chance or was “brave enough” to work on his own and produce fine blades in larger numbers. But also other factors play a role here. As for Hankei, he was a bakufu-employed swordsmith so after his death, there were maybe some reasons for the Tokugawa to not continue the employment with any of the students what meant practically the end for the school. As for Kotetsu, his students were facing different times and so maybe the decreasing demand for swords did not allow them to continue their school into post Jôkyô and Genroku times who knows. In this sense I would like to use the opportunity to introduce some of the rare Hankei-student works and thus the article´s title “Hankei and his school.” First Hanjô (繁昌) as his blades are closest to Hankei. We know that he came originally fromAnzai (安西) in Suruga province and went to Edo where he entered an apprenticeship with Hankei. As I have pointed out that Hankei had returned to Edo after Ieyasu´s death, it is safe to assume that also Hanjô arrived at Edo after the second year of Genna (1616). Interesting is that Hanjô signed his character for “Han” in the ru-mata manner, that means he continued the signature style of the late Hankei and so the theory was forwarded that Hanjô was actually a late signature of Hankei. But this approach is no longer followed as we can see some slight differences in workmanship, for example that Hanjô did not stick so much to Norishige but more on the great early Sôshû masters in general. However, followers of the one person-theory explain this by stating that Hankei maybe moved away from Norishige again towards the end of his career. Also we must bear in mind that in some sources (Tôkô-taikan, p. 512) we read that some of Hanjô´s works are superior to Hankei and that his interpretations are a bit more calm with lesser hada-ware and hijiki-hada, all indicators for the more mature workmanship of an artist. Anyway, the workmanship of Hankei and Hanjô is as mentioned pretty close and I haven´t handled any Hanjô work yet. But what you can learn from oshigata and descriptions is that Hanjô added a pronounced yakikomi at the hamachi.


Picture 6, signature comparison: ru-mata Hankei left, Hanjô right


Picture 7: tantô, mei “Hanjô”, nagasa 28.2 cm, only very little sori, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Picture 8: tantô, mei “Hanjô”, nagasa 29.7 cm, sori 0.1 cm, motohaba 2.86 cm (measured with the mune), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Picture 9: sunnobi-tantô, mei “Hanjô”, nagasa 33.1 cm, sori 0.4 cm, motohaba 3.42 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

Another Hankei-student we know is Masayoshi (正慶). He is listed as “Masayoshi” but with the Sino-Japanese reading of Hankei´s and Hanjô´s names in mind, his characters might read as “Shôkei.” It is said that Masayoshi came like Hanjô from Anzai in Suruga province. The blade introduced in picture 9 does have plentiful of ji-nie and many thick chikei but the hijiki-hada is not that prominent as at Hankei. The hamon bases on a shallow and early Sôshû-inspired notare and with the sugata and the elongated kissaki, we see again the typical Nanbokuchô or rather Keichô-shintô style. But please note that Masayoshi´s wakizashi comes with an iori-mune instead of a mitsu-mitsu.


Picture 10: wakizashi, mei “Musashi no Kuni-jûnin – Masayoshi”, nagasa 48.2 cm, sori 0.9 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

The horimono-shi Nagasaka Yûhôken

Whilst working Shintô & shinshintô-kantei volume, I came across a wakizashi by Tsuda Echizen no Kami Sukehiro (津田越前守助広) (No. 254.641, detail of the horimono shown in picture 1) with a kurikara horimono on the omote side of which is assumed that it was not cut by Sukehiro himself but by the horimono-shi Nagasaka Yûhôken (長坂遊鵬軒). This assumption inspired me to do some research on Yûhôken as the reasons for this assumption were not explained any further. Soon in turned out that this was one of the cases where not much info is available. As stated in Haynes (H 12357), I was at least able to find out that Yûhôken carved horimono on Ôsaka-shintô blades.


Picture 1: kurukara detail from the blade of Tsuda Echizen no Kami Sukehiro


Picture 2: mei “Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna Nyûdô – Shôtoku gonen nigatsu kichijitsu – horimono Ikkanshi nanajûyon-sai kore o horu – Yûhôken nanajûsan-sai kore o horu” (粟田口一竿子忠綱入道・正徳五年二月吉日・彫物一竿子七十四歳彫之・遊鵬軒七十三歳彫之).

The major reference for Yûhôken´s active period is a blade by Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna (粟田口一竿子忠綱) dated Shôtoku five (正徳, 1715) which states in its mei that Tadatsuna was 74 years old at that time and Yûhôken who engraved the horimono 73 (picture 2). From the differences in signature style and from the syntax it seems that both Ikkanshi Tadatsuna and Yûhôken engraved the horimono at a later point in time to the blade, otherwise Tadatsuna would have recorded his engraving as hori-dôsaku in my opinion. Maybe the owner of the blade or maybe his son or grandson approached Tadatsuna and Yûhôken again years later to add fine horimono to the family heirloom. My theory on the later horimono is based on the fact that we know dated blades from Ikkanshi Tadatsuna to Kyôhô twelve (1727). So if he was already 74 in Shôtoku five (1715), he must had been 86 in Kyôhô twelve. Well, possible but rather unlikely, unless the last known dated blade is a daisaku. However, the blade in question tells us that Ikkanshi Tadatsuna and Nagasaka Yûhôken were of the same age.


Picture 3: wakizashi by Tsuda Sukenao

Now to another blade of an Ôsaka-shintô master with a horimono of Yûhôken. It is a wakizashi from Tsuda Sukenao which is shown in picture 3 and which is signed the following way: “Tsuda Ômi no Kami Sukenao – Jôkyô yonnen hachigatsu – horimono Nagasaka Yûhôken saku – Genroku rokunen yongatsu jûsannichi hitotsu-dô Nagasaka Bunzô setsudan” (津田近江守助直・貞享二二年八月・彫物長坂遊鵬軒作・元禄六年四月十三日一胴長坂分蔵切落), “Tsuda Ômi no Kami Sukenao in the eighth month of the fourth month of Jôkyô (1687), horimono by Nagasaka Yûhôken – Nagasaka Bunzô cut with the blade through one body on the 13th day of the fourth month Genroku six (1693)”. Details of the horimono can be seen in picture 4. The interpretation of the kurikara is pretty detailed and unique. Take a look for example at the roundish, wide open eyes, the thickish toes which remind more of paws than claws, and the way the body of the dragon winds in a very vivid way around the sword. Usually the windings of the dragon go in a more uniform way around the ken. Also the lines of the hatahoko are very fluid and represent the fluttering of the standard in the wind pretty good.


Picture 4: horimono detail from the blade of Sukenao

Another very rare horimono interpretation of Nagasaka Yûhôken can be found in a blade of the Ôsaka-shintô smith Ise no Kami Kuniteru (伊勢守国輝) (picture 5), very rare because it shows a dragon winding around a bamboo and not around a sword! I haven´t seen any other blade with such a horimono yet. Yûhôken states in his signature that he engraved the horimono when he was 70 years old. So we learn that he was well booked in his late years and surely highly respected as great horimono master amongst the local clientel. Speaking of local clientel, we have to become aware of the then differences in Japan´s “metropolises.” I have already mentioned several times that it took some decades after Sekigahara until Edo got off the ground, at least in terms of art and craftsmanship. As we know, the New Sword, the shintô, was born in Kyôto, but rather soon some of the great early shintô masters felt drawn to Ôsaka.Back then, Edo´s produced very little everyday goods so Ôsakaserved first and foremost as a trans-shipment centre for goods collected and produced in Kyôto and shipped to the new capital. With the introduced sankin-kôtai system, soon a constant stream of goods was necessary to entertain the individual fief residences and this forced the establishment of ware and treasure houses. Quite quickly Ôsakabecame the new trade, economy and banking centre of the country. The first highlight of this new style of the Ôsaka-shintô was achieved around Kanbun (寛文, 1661-1673) whereas we can see a noticeable difference in fashion trends. On the one side Edo with the simple and reserved, practically-oriented workmanship, and on the other side the nouveau rich clientele of Ôsaka with their weakness for luxury and ostentation. And this difference in trends is not only reflected in the workmanship but also in the supplements to blades. The Ôsaka merchant-based clientele was tending towards a fine finish with elaborate horimono whereat the mostly warrior-based Edo clientele was much after the results of cuttings tests as we know them in large numbers on blades of Yamato no Kami Yasusada (大和守安定), Izumi no Kami Kaneshige (和泉守兼重), Kazusa no Suke Kaneshige (上総介兼重), or Kotetsu (虎徹). Of course there were also horimono engraved on Edo-shintô blades like by the Shitahara school or cutting tests performed with Ôsaka-shintô blades but the basic trend is obvious.


Picture 5: katana by Ise no Kami Kuniteru


Picture 6: imono detail from the blade of Kuniteru


Picture 5: signature comparison of Nagasaka Yûhôken

All in all I think the luxury of Ôsaka during the Genroku years is best seen in the blades of Ikkanshi Tadatsuna. His predecessor, the 1st generation Tadatsuna, had died in Enpô four (延宝, 1676) and was thus not prone to engraving horimono but Ikkanshi reacted to the demand of his days and proudly mentioned on the tang of his swords via hori-dôsaku (彫同作) and horimono-dôsaku (彫物同作) that he did the horimono himself. And it is this emphasis on horimono what I mean with “luxury of Ôsaka during the Genroku years.” The somewhat earlier Ôsaka-shintô smiths like Kunisada (国貞), his son Inoue Shinkai (井上真改), father and son Kunisuke (国助), and the two generations Sukehiro (助広) placed namely more emphasis on the fineness of the steel and the interplay of nie and nioi rather than on engravings and other “knicknacks.” They all were active when the Ôsaka nouveau rich was still on the rise. But at the time of Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, this top class was already established and thus there was probably a striving for more to express their wealth. I.e. a fine jigane and a perfectly tempered hamon was no longer enough. Elaborate horimono and fancy koshirae were now sought after. But it has always been that way: Sometimes a super sports car is not enough, it needs a super sports car with diamonds all over…