Identifying Japanese Seal Script

This is for all trying to identify seals on paintings or elsewhere.

The purpose of this publication is to provide a basic guide and reference for identifying Japanese seal script. The most effective way of identifying a seal script is by its radical, a graphical component under which the character is traditionally listed in a dictionary. The radicals used here are the Japanese version of the 214 Chinese Kangxi radicals.The first thing to do is to identify the radical under which the character is most likely to have been indexed.To begin with, this dictionary offers a RADICAL SECTION. If you think you found a match with the supposed radical for the seal character in question, then go to the page which lists the characters grouped under that radical. This dictionary contains approximately 4,000 characters. As mentioned, the purpose of this publication is to provide a basic guide and reference. It is not meant as a comprehensive seal script dictionary offering different interpretations of each seal character.

6 wide x 9 tall, 362 b/w pages, price $ 39.90 / 32,24 € (for the paperback)

As at the previous publication Identifying Japanese Cursive Script, there is a paperback, a hardcover, and an eBook version available.

Please click at Preview under the cover at any of the links provided above to see some sample pages of the book.


Tameshigiri update

Dear readers,

Let me give you a short update on the tameshigiri project. First of all, I would like to thank you all for your great feedback! Based on this feedback, it seems that this publication was long overdue and much sought after. My particular thanks go to those who provide(d) me with reference material on cutting tests! This is the first time so far that I get references before the book is published and I am very happy about that because the publication should become a standard work and contain as much information on the subject as possible.

As for the progress, the historical part is finished now. It offers, as the name suggests, the historical background of the practice of sword tests, may it be for testing a sword blade or the cutting ability of a swordsman. This is followed by a detailed description on the shaping of systematic tameshigiri which contains information on the early systematic sword testers and their genealogy. This chapter is so to speak the prelude to the famous Yamano family of sword testers.

The next section deals with Edo-period criminal punishment, i.e. it explains when tameshigiri were performed and what was exactly the context of cutting tests, decapitation, and criminal punishment. The section also explains how the judicial system of the Edo period worked and narrates the course of events from being arrested to being beheaded.

This section is followed by a description of tameshigiri during mid-Edo times, accompanied by an introduction of the Yamada Aasaemon family which held the o-tameshi-goyô monopoly (sword testers to the bakufu). The section comes with a genealogy and an overview of the publications of the Yamada family like the famous Kaihô-kenjaku and its list of wazamono.

The next big chapter is on the testing of swords itself, i.e. testing on living persons, dead bodies, and solid targets. This chapter introduces via pictures and descriptions all the cuts (on multiple torsos for example) and preparations (of the dotan, the blade, and the like) necessary for performing valid and repeatable cutting tests.

Next will be an overview on the practice of tameshi-mei (setsudan-mei). And the end of the book will consist of a list of known sword testers accompanied by pictures and oshigata of their meshi-mei, followed by the wazamono list, sword nicknames with reference to the cutting ability of swords (like seen here), and things like that.

As I am asked about a pre-order option, I would like to use this opportunity to gratefully accomodate that wish. That means everyone who wants to place a pre-order can transfer/paypal me the amount for the book + shipping (the about 300+ pages harcover book will be 59.90 USD / 45 € and shipping flat rate 10 USD / 8 € to everywhere in the world). The plus for those pre-ordering is that they receive in return a signed copy (as soon as I have them here). The expected date for publishing will be end of June. For more details please get in touch with me via “markus.sesko[at]”.

In this sense, once again thank you all for the feedback! Much appreciated.

On a probably fake kinzôgan tameshi-mei

Whilst working on my next publication on tameshigiri, I stumbled over an interesting gold-inlayed test result of a cutting test which requires caution. After finishing the chapter on the famous Yamano family (山野) of sword testers whose succession was Ka´emon Nagahisa (加右衛門永久), Kanjûrô Hisahide (勘十郎久英), and Kichizaemon Hisatoyo (吉左衛門久豊), I also tried to find some more members of the Yamano family and found a certain Kantarô Nagatsugu (勘太郎永継) on a wakizashi of Kotetsu. This Nagatsugu does neither appear in any of the publications on tameshigiri nor have I found his name inlayed on any other sword tang so far but the blade got jûyô in 2004. And looking for Yamano Kantarô Nagatsugu, I learned that my blogger-colleague Itô Sanpei had addressed the very same wakizashi back in 2006. His article can be found here.

Itô found out that there is a wakizashi depicted in the Kotetsu-taikan (虎徹大鑑) whose tameshi-mei reads: “Kanbun gonen jûnigatsu nijûgonichi – futatsu-dô setsudan – Yamano Kantarô Nagatsugu + kaô” (寛文五年十二月二十五日・貳ツ胴截断・山野勘太郎永継, “Yamano Kantarô Nagatsugu cut through two bodies on the 25th day of the twelfth month Kanbun five [1665]”). In Itô´s blog, the picture on the far left is the one from the Kotetsu-taikan. Itô was now informed that the date of the tameshi-mei was later altered from Kanbun five to Kanbun ten (1670) and that we are facing the very same wakizashi. However, the jûyô paper does quote the mei as “Kanbun jûnen jûnigatsu nijûgonichi…” but does not mention any possibility of an alteration. Incidentally, the very same wakizashi was also introduced in Aitô magazine (愛刀) No. 355 (December 2005) and Itô presents the oshigata of the nakago on the far right on his blog. By the way, the picture in the middle is from the jûyô-zufu which I will show in addition below.


The Kotetsu-taikan says that on the basis of the signature syntax and style, the wakizashi in question can be dated to Kanbun twelve (1672) and adds that according to the Kajihei-oshigata (鍛冶平押形), the kinzôgan-mei was added later by the famous forger Kajihei. Well, if the mei dates the blade to Kanbun twelve, why did Kajihei add a tameshi-mei from Kanbun five (1665)? I.e. a blade tested about seven years before it was even made?! This might be explained by that back in Kajihei´s times, studies on Kotetsu were still in their infancy. That means Kajihei just assumed that the blade was made around Kanbun five. The Kajihei-oshigata in turn does not depict an oshigata of the nakago but just a drawn copy with the mei written with the brush. This might explain the minor differences in the tameshi-mei and its kaô. Also the measurements of the Kotetsu-taikan entry and the jûyô-zufu differ a little but one does not have to worry about such small divergencies as they are quite common and go either back to imprecise measurings or to conversions from the Japanese shaku to the Western cm measurements. So these minor differences in measurements are no reason to say that these are not the same blades. Itô´s friend who pointed out to him the whole issue is convinced that it is the same wakizashi and Itô is of the same opinion although he remarks that he had never seen the blade in person. Reasons for him thinking that it is the same blade but with an altered tameshi-mei are on the one hand that the date matches entirely except for the year and that this is the one and only blade known bearing a tameshi-mei of Yamano Kantarô Nagatsugu who does not appear in any records as mentioned and who might therefore be a creation of Kajihei. Incidentally, for the approach that Nagatsugu was a creation of Kajihei speaks also the fact that the Yamano family inherited the character for “hisa”.

But against the view that we are facing the same wakizashi speaks the different year of the tameshi-mei. So even if Kajihei added later a supposed cutting test by Yamano Nagatsugu, why should he alter the date from Kanbun five to Kanbun ten later? Also possible is that another person altered the year when the improving studies on Kotetsu revealed that the mei of the smith can not match the date of the cutting test. Well, the Kotetsu-taikan was published for the first time in 1955 and a revised version was published in 1974. So maybe by the time shortly before the Kotetsu-taikan was published, new studies on Kotetsu made it possible to narrow down the mei of the smith to at least around Kanbun twn plus minus two years. In other words, it is also possible that Kajihei´s tameshi-mei was altered in the early fifties of last century. But why, and this question is also asked by Itô, the shinsa team did not check the Kotetsu-taikan in 2004? Everybody knows that the name Kotetsu causes the alarm bells to ring. And by checking the Kotetsu-taikan, the tameshi-mei in question would have given rise to suspicion (i.e. almost identical date and very rare name of cutting tester). So maybe the Kotetsu-taikan was just not consulted, maybe because the shinsa teams has other references or worksheets. Also possible is that the shinsa team found out all that and just did not mention it explicitly in the jûyô paper as the mei of the smith is authentic anyway. From my experience in translating numerous jûyô papers over the last years I know that it is rather the rule than the exception that a cutting test or the name of a former owner of the blade (added via kiritsuke-mei) is not addressed in the jûyô paper at all. But this is no wonder because the shinsa standards of the NBTHK do not address tameshi-mei or kiritsuke-mei at all. But I don´t know if the knowledge that the tameshi-mei was altered in the last century would have changed the outcome of the jûyô-shinsa. Of course the tameshi-mei does not change anything for the blade or the authenticity of the mei of the smith and maybe this was the approach of the shinsa team. But maybe it was anyway thought that the alteration of the year goes back to Meiji times and is so quasi a “historic forgery” which can be negleted in the same way the tameshi-mei itself is neglected (for jûyô considerations concerning the authenticity of the blade and mei of the smith). Itô suggests the NBTHK should withdraw the jûyô paper and change the description accordingly as this would contribute much to the credibility of the organization. I know that such sophisticated considerations can not be applied at hozon or tokubetsu-hozon level and that the shinsa standards in neglecting tameshi-mei or kiritsuke-mei work very well for papers of this category. But jûyô is in my opinion a different story and adding some additional information, or at least adding everything that was found out during the shinsa, would be a great thing.

Support for next project

Now it´s official, I started to write my next publication, working title Tameshigiri – The History of Japanese Sword Testing. This is going to be an extensive source of information on everything historic tameshigiri related, i.e. from the history of sword testing in general, on the sword testers, the criminal punishment during the Edo period, the use of executed felons as medium for sword tests, over the actual cutting tests themselves to the inlay of test results on sword tangs via a setsudan/saidan-mei. But the publication will be in size and price somewhere between my Legends and Stories around the Japanese Sword and the Nihon-shinto or Nihon-shinshinto-shi, so not as expensive as for example the recently published Natsuo and Kantei-zenshu volumes or the Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artist. But as I have two other projects running at the moment (one of them private), I would be very grateful for a little support to finish the Tameshigiri project smoothly (please see donate link at the bottom of this blog). Well, I am not going to start any crowdfunding as there are other very worthy projects out there to support, see here for example, and as mine is IMHO to small for that anyway but as mentioned, any support will be received with sincere gratitude. Thanks a lot for your attention!


A rare motif on a rare work

Back from my short Easter break, I want to start with the description of a fine tsuba which was on display at the this years January NBTHK-EB meeting in Bonn, Germany. The special aspect of this tsuba is on the one hand and apart from the excellent workmanship, that it shows a very rare motif for sword fittings, namely an elephant, and on the other hand that works of this artist are in general very rare. Thus, and although I repeat myself, this tsuba might best be described as true rarity. Before I go into detail on the motif, I want to introduce the artist, Minayama Ôki (皆山応起). His civilian name was Minayama Naoichi (皆山直市) and he was an outstanding student of Ôtsuki Mitsuoki (大月光興, 1766-1834). He runned a shop or studio called Hishi´ya (菱屋) which was located at the intersection Nijô (二条) and Ogawa (小川) (present-day Nishidaikoku-chô, 西大黒町). During his studies with Mitsuoki, to whom he was also a preparer, he used the characters (応興) for Ôki and it has to be mentioned that he signed the first character (応) in the old and unsimplified variant (應). And his kaô seems to be composed of a simplified variant of this character for “Ô”. Another thing to mention is that he used not only the common radical (比) for the top part of the character “Mina” (皆) but sometimes also the, for that caracter otherwise unused, radical (此). Unfortunately, his date of birth and death are unknown but we know that he also used the pseudonyms Chikuhô (竹鳳) and Reibokudô (麗墨堂) and the name Mitsuhisa (光久). Anyway, taking into consideration his master´s active period, we can assume that Ôki was basically active from around Bunsei (文政, 1818-1830) into bakumatsu times.


Picture 1: tsuba signed “Minayama Ôki” + seal “Ôki”.

And now we come to the motif. The elephant was rather early known in Japan although not as living animal but in the context of Buddhism. In Buddhism, Maya (摩耶), the mother of Siddharta Gautama and the later Buddha, dreamed of a white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk, appeared and went round her three times, entering her womb through her right side. Finally the elephant disappeared and Maya awoke, knowing she had been delivered an important message, as the elephant is a symbol of greatness in India. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha-to-be was residing as a Bodhisattva in the so-called Tuṣita heaven, and decided to take the shape of a white elephant to be reborn on Earth for the last time. Apart from that, the Bodhisattva Fugen (普賢菩薩, Sanskrit Samantabhadra) is usually depicted riding on an elephant of which some believe it refers to the same elephant Maya that appeared in Maya´s dream. One of the first written mentions of an elephant in Japanese texts dates back to the second year of Eikan (永観, 984) and is found in the Sanbô-ekotoba (三宝絵詞), a collection of Buddhist tales compiled by Minamoto no Tamenori (源為憲, ?-1011). So here again we have a Buddhist context in which the elephant appears. But at the latest by the 12th century some Japanese must had known how an elephant looks like because we can find a pretty realistic depiction in the famous Chôjû-jinbutsu-giga (鳥獣人物戯画) scroll (see picture 2).


Picture 2: Two elephants as seen in the Chôjû-jinbutsu-giga.

Incidentally, the elephant, (象), was also called kisa (岐佐) in early times. The character in turn is said to be based on the actual appearance of an elephant and is known in hieroglyphic form from archaic characters of early China where the animal once existed. The first recorded appearance of a living elephant in Japan dates back to the 15th year of Ôei (応永, 1408). It arrived from Southeast Asia in Obama (小浜) in Wakasa province, namely on orders of a not specified Southeast Asian emperor via a ship that came from Arabia and meant as a gift to the then shôgun Ashikaga Yoshimochi (足利義持, 1386-1428). The animal is mentioned in the record of the presents as: “One Indian elephant, two pairs of peacocks, and two pairs of parrots.” The ship landed at Obama on the 22nd day of the sixth month and the elephant about a month later in Kyôto. Three years later, i.e. in Ôei 18 (1411), Yoshimochi decided to send the elephant as gift-in-return to King Taejong (太宗, 1367-1422) of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea from whom he had received before a complete Sutra collection. In chronicles on Taejon we read that this gift-in-return was also the first chance for Koreans to see a living elephant and that the king took good care of the animal. It got 4 to 5 to (72~90 l) of beans every day but when it trampled to death some people who came to see it, the elephant was isolated until its death.

The second arrival of a living elephant in Japan was in Tenshô three (天正, 1575), namely at Usuki (臼杵) in Bugo province via a Ming ship and as present for Ôtomo Sôrin (大友宗麟, 1530-1587), the local daimyô. In Keichô two (慶長, 1597), the Spanish governor-general of Luzon of the Phillipines, Don Luis de Navarrete Fajardo, presented an elephant to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This elephant had a name, Don Pedro, and was trained to trumpet on command. It is recorded that Hideyoshi had a great joy with the animal and fed it melons and peaches. And from the Cochinchina region of present-day Vietnam, an elephant was presented in Keichô 7 (1602) together with a tiger and a peacock to Tokugawa Ieyasu.

A famous arrival of two elephants, a male and a female one and the first time general public was able to see elephants, took place in the sixth month of Kyôhô 13 (享保, 1728), meant as present by Quang-nam (広南, present-day central Vietnam) to the then shôgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751). Well, the female elephant died only three months after their arrival in Nagasaki. The “Elephant Chronicle” (Zôshi, 象志) published for the first time in Kyôhô 14 (1729) says that they fed it too much pastries what caused a tumor on its tongue and that everything was done to cure it and present it to the shôgun. Anyway, the Japanese did not have strong enough ships back then to safely transport the male to Edo, or at least they did not dare to put it on one of the existing ships, so they decided to walk! with it overland to the capital making 16~20 km a day. The transport crew had a great responsibility to bring the surviving animal to the shôgun so even pointy stones and pebbles on the roads were removed and straw mats were laid, bridges were reinforced, it was ensured that no dogs and cats were around to scare the elephant, and buckets were prepared at certain distances to give it water. The Zôshi also says that large crowds were gathering along the road where the elephant was walking. On the way they stopped in Kyôto so that emperor Nakamikado (中御門天皇) can see the fascinating animal. A funny side note, it required a court rank to meet the emperor and so the male elephant was given the lower fourth court rank. After showing the elephant to Yoshimune in Edo Castle it was brought to the Hama-goten (浜御殿), the residence of the shôgun at the mouth of the Sumida River. But the feed and maintenance costs of the elephant were too high for the bakufu and so they sold it in the fourth month Kanpô one (寛保, 1741) to a farmer from the village of Nakano (中野村, present-day Nakano ward of Tôkyô) named Gensuke (源助). However, the animal died in the twelfth month of the following year of illness. Parts of the tusks of this elephant are still preserved in Nakano´s Hôsenji (宝仙寺). Well, the elephant was of course a big attraction for the Edo people at that time and it was described as “animal with a long nose, slow walk, and charming eyes.”

After the death of Yoshimune, no more large animal gifts were received in Japan but another male elephant arrived in Japan in Bunka ten (文化, 1813) in Nagasaki. When the British had occupied Dutch possessions in East Asia at that time and were now in the position to trade with Japan, they tried to impress the shôgn with this elephant but the present was declined. So three months after its arrival, the elephant was again put on a ship and left Japan. So the Kyôhô 13 (1728) elephant gift was as mentioned actually the one and only chance for the general Japanese public to see such an animal. The first to apply an elephant as motif on a sword fitting (see picture 3) was Yasuchika (安親, 1670-1744) who was in Edo at that time and so it is safe to assume that he had seen it with his own eyes. He must have been quite impressed as he also made a pair of elephant menuki (see picture 4).


Picture 3: Yasuchika´s iron elephant tsuba (jûyô-bunkazai).


Picture 4: Yasuchika´s elephant menuki.

Our artist, Minayama Ôki, approached the elephant in a different way as Yasuchika. His interpretation pays attention to detail and shows all the gear with which the animal was equipped. Also the tsuba is done in katachibori-gata, i.e. the motif itself forms its outline what in turn is a measure to give a feeling of the large size and majestic appearance of the animal, although represented by such a rather small piece like a tsuba. Well, Ôki was of course not alive when the Kyôhô elephant walked through the streets of Edo so he had to rely on depictions. Looking for Edo-period elephant depictions I think I was able to find his inspiration. It is a depiction by Nakamura Heigo (中村平五, 1671-1741) presented in the Zô no mitsuki (象のみつき, “Elephants as Tributes”) published in Kyôhô 14 (1729) showing an elephant in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和門), back then called Fengtianmen (奉天門), the second major gate encountered when entering the Forbidden City from the south. It shows the very same gear and the same flaming gem as headgear. For example also the three brushtip-like ornaments dangling from the rear leather gear are identical. Ôki also copied the dragon, the symbol of the Chinese emperor, as seen on the cloth covering the back of the elephant.


Picture 5: Elephant from the Zô no mitsuki.


Picture 6: Detail of the elephant as seen in the Zô no mitsuki and to the right Ôki´s interpretation.

And last but not least I want to mention that this elephant tsuba by Minayama Ôki was considered worth by Mitsumura Toshimo to make it in his fancy tôsôgu two-volume set Tagane no hana (鏨廼花, lit. “Flowers of the Chisel”) published in 1904. Picture 7 shows the corresponding page of this book. More details on Mitsumura can be found here and here. At this point also a big thank you to the owner of the tsuba for giving us the opportunity to study the piece hands-on at our NBTHK-EB meeting!


Picture 7: The page in question of the Tagane no hana.