Late Edo period nyûsatsu-kantei

One opportunity to refine your skills in judging a Japanese sword in a playful or competitive manner is nyûsatsu-kantei (入札鑑定), lit. “bidding kantei,” where you submit your answers to a designated judge who acts as head of the session. According to your bid, the judge gives you a certain and today standardized response by which you should be able to narrow down your bid and nail down the smith in the ideal case. A detailed list of these replies can be found for example at the end of Kokan Nagayama’s standard work The Connoisseur’s Book of Japanese Swords. Well, we don’t know exactly when nyûsatsu-kantei were held for the first time. Fukunaga Suiken says in his Nihontô Kantei Hikkei (日本刀鑑定必携, 1985) that they were quite in fashion during the Edo period and suggested by the Hon’ami family as good kantei practice. Hon’ami Mitsuhiro (本阿弥光博) writes in his Nihontô Kantei Hô (日本刀鑑定法, 1973) that evidence of nyûsatsu-kantei goes at least back to the bakumatsu era, although he states at the same time that the practice is definitely older. And Satô Kanzan wrote in his Nihontô Kikô (日本刀紀行, 1976) that nyûsatsu-kantei has a long tradition which even predates the Edo period. Anyway, references are limited but alone on the basis of the large number of relevant publications like simple kantei guides, meikan, and mei-zukushi released in the late Edo period we can conclude that nyûsatsu-kantei were popular all over Japan at that time.

This time I want to introduce one of the rare extant written records of late Edo period nyûsatsu-kantei. We are talking about several documents found among the records of the Furugaki family (古垣). The Furugaki were retainers of the Miyakonojô branch (都城) of the Shimazu family (formerly Hongô family, 北郷) who ruled the Miyakonojô territory of the same name which was located in Hyûga province and which was one of the semi-autonomous sub-territories of the large Satsuma fief. Incidentally, the Miyakonojô-Shimazu were pretty well off as their lands were nominated with an annual income of 36,000 koku. The kantei documents in question go back to a certain member of the Furugaki family, to Furugaki Genjûrô Toshiaki (古垣源十郎俊彰, 1839-1877), who belonged initially to the cavalry corps of the Miyakonojô-Shimazu holding the fifth of ten of the local samurai rank. Toshiaki was trained in the Tenshin-ryû (天真流) of swordsmanship (which he later mastered) and became in Ansei two (安政, 1855), aged 17, a page of the then Miyakonojô lord Shimazu Hisanaga (島津久静, 1832-1862). Later he was promoted to the rank of bettô (別当), serving at the machi-bugyô office, and after that he was able to get the post of bugashira (武頭) which means that he was the head of the various local samurai kumi units. When he became an escort of Hisanaga’s successor Hisahiro (島津久寛, 1859-1884), he was able to often visit the capital Kagoshima where he refined his fencing and riding skills. He participated in the Anlo-Satsuma War which took place in 1863 and fought in the course of the Boshin War at several places in the northern Ôshû region, that means on the opposite end of Japan. When the Satsuma Rebellion broke out in 1877, Toshiaki was appointed second lieutenant of the government troops and fouht thus against the army of Saigô Takamori. During this campaign, a bullet pierced his chest and killed him. This was on the 16th day of the sixth month Meiji ten (1877). He was only 39 years old.


Picture 1: Furugaki Genjûrô Toshiaki.

So far the resume of Furugaki Toshiaki’s short but eventful life. As for the kantei-related documents extant from his possessions, we are talking about five writings, namely two nyûsatsu-kantei lists titled Tôken Nyûsatsu Kantei Ichiranhyô (刀剣入札鑑定一覧表), notes to the kantei sessions titled Katana Mekiki Ichijô Oboetome (刀目利一条覚留), a dôzen list titled Tôken Nyûsatsu Kantei Dôzen Chô (刀剣入札鑑定同然帳), an abbreviated version of the sword publication Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen titled Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen Nukishô (古刀銘尽大全抜集), and a mnemonic song on kantei titled Katana Mekiki Kuniwake no Uta (刀目利国分之歌). The latter consists of 29 verses on how to memorize the characteristic of different provinces and was written down by a member of the Ano family (阿野) from southern Satsuma province.


Picture 2: The Katana Mekiki Kuniwake no Uta.

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Picture 3: The two extant Tôken Nyûsatsu Kantei Ichiranhyô lists (click to enlarge).

We learn from the kantei notes that the first mentioned lists are two out of nine nyûsatsu-kantei sessions. One list is dated with the 22nd day of the sixth month Bunkyû one (文久, 1861) and shows the inscrpition “Furugaki-shi kai” (古垣氏会) which means “meeting at Furugakis’.” It is assumed that these lists were kept by the person who held the kantei session at his house, i.e. in our case by Furugaki Toshiaki. As mentioned, the one sheet is undated but we find in Toshiaki’s kantei notes a matching entry for the names of the smiths which is dated Man’en one (万延, 1860). And as the second sheet was preserved with the first one, it is safe to assume that this kantei session was also held at Furugakis’. Also we learn from the kantei notes that judges at the two sessions in questions were a certain Iguro (伊黒) and a certain Ôkawara (大河原). The third name we find in the documents pointing out a judge at a kantei is Yamada (山田). So these three “guys” were replying on a rotating basis to the participants of the nine nyûsatsu-kantei sessions. Incidentally, Iguro must had been a kind of teacher or mentor to Toshiaki as we read in the “imprint” to his handwritten abbreviated version of tghe Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen that the original was a loan from Iguro. Well, we don’t find given names to any of these three judges so we can’t say for sure who they were but at least we find all three family names in the list of retainers of the Miyakonojô-Shimazu family. But back to the actual lists. When you take a look at the boxes (see picture 4) you will find one to four names of swordsmiths which shows us that there were rounds at the nyûsatsu-kantei. The boxes at the bottom of each column show the names of the bidders, that means at the session held in Man’ en one there were four blades and four participants and at the session held in Bunkyû one there were five blades and six participants. The first column to the very right shows what blades were presented for the kantei. To give you a feel for how close the participants were, I want to paraphrase the two kantei lists in the following:


Picture 4: Detail of one of the lists. Box 1 contains the names Kanemitsu (兼光) and Nagamitsu (長光) and box 2 the names Mihara-mono (三原物), Shizu (志津), and Yamato-mono (大和物).

Session from Man’en one (1860):

1st kantei blade: Norimitsu (則光). Jôzaburô (城三郎) bade subsequently on Yoshiie (吉家), Norimune (則宗), and Motoshige (元重). Hachirô’emon (八郎右衛門) bade on Sa (左), Ko-Bizen (古備前), Kagemitsu (景光), and Norimitsu, i.e. got eventually an atari. Genjûrô (i.e. Furugaki Toshiaki) bade on Chôgi (長義) and on Sukesada (祐定). And Shinnosuke (新之丞) bade on Nagamitsu, on Sukesada but which was crossed-out and changed to Tomomitsu (倫光), and to Sukesada again.

2nd kantei blade: Tegai Kanenaga (包永) [written on the list with the wrong characters 兼永]. Jôzaburô bade on Mihara-mono, Shizu, and on Yamato-mono. Hachirô’emon bade on Ko-Seki (古関) and on Masaie (正家). Genjûrô bade on Kunihiro (国広), Nagamitsu, and Ko-Seki. And Shinnosuke bade on Katsumitsu (勝光) and on Kanenaga which was atari. Please note that in the box of the bids, Shinnojôs bid on Kanenaga is noted with the correct characters for the smith.

3rd kantei blade: Sukesada (祐定) [written on the list with the wrong characters 助定]. Jôsaburô bade on Kanemitsu and Nagamitsu. Hachirô’emon on Katsumitsu. Genjûrô on Iesuke (家助) and atari on Sukesada. And Shinnosuke bade on Kanesada (兼定) and atari on Sukesada. Please note that here too, the atari bids of Genjûrô and Shinnosuke were noted with the correct characters for the smith.

4th kantei blade: Takada Nagamori (高田長盛). Jôsaburô bade on Masafusa (正房), Kanesada (兼定), Ko-Seki, and finally on Takada. Hachirô’emon bade on Gokaji (五鍛冶, what refers to the five Kyôto-based smiths Tanba no Kami Yoshimichi, Ômi no Kami Hisamichi, Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Iga no Kami Rai Kinmichi, and Shinano no Kami Nobuyoshi), on Sukesada, and on Sadamune (貞宗). Genjûrô bade on Shizu, Sue-Sôshû, and on Yukihira (行平). And Shinnosuke bade on Tadatsuna (忠綱), Mihara, and on Kyô-mono.


Picture 5: Detail of one of the lists. Box 1 shows the character da(su) and box 2 the character son(jiru).

Session from Bunkyû one (1861):

1st kantei blade: Kôshû (Ômi) Tsuguhiro (江州次弘). Genjûrô bade on “Mitsu/Kô-rui” (光類), Ko-Tamiyama (古谷山), and Ko-Seki. “Mitsu/Kô-rui” means “one of the Mitsu” and in Genjûrô’s dôzen list we find a corresponding entry which lists under the title “Mitsu/Kôrui” about 40 smiths like for example Sukemitsu (祐光), Norimitsu (則光), Katsumitsu (勝光), and Kiyomitsu (清光). No Ôei-Bizen or Kozori name like Morimitsu (盛光), Yasumitsu (康光), Moromitsu (師光), Shigemitsu (重光), or Toshimitsu (利光) appears in this list and so it refers to Sue-Bizen only. And the term “Ko-Taniyama” refers to the production site of the Naminohira school of the same name, i.e. Taniyama. Thus this entry is equivalent to “Ko-Naminohira.” The next participant Naokurô (直九郎) bade on Kiyomitsu and on Ko-Seki. Hachirô’emon did not bid on this one as he was the owner of the blade, marked with da(su) (出) which can be translated as “submitter” (see picture 5). Shinnosuke bade on Ichimonji, Aoe, and Yamato-mono. Hikoji (彦次) on Sukesada (祐定) and Norimitsu (則光), and Jôsaburô on Yamato-mono, Ko-Taniya, and on Heianjô (平安城). It is not sure which Tsuguhiro was submitted because there is no such smith using these characgters found working in kotô-times in Ômi province. There were Tsuguhiro (次弘) working in Bizen, Bitchû, and Iwami and it is also possible that this entry actually refers to a Tsuguhiro who wrote his name with the characters (次広), although no such smith is found for Ômi province either. But in Genjûrô’s kantei notes he had pointed out that the blade lacks nie, has a thick kasane, is of high quality, and shows a ko-midare which is similar to Biyen-mono. So his bid on “Mitsu/Kô-rui” is understandable.

2nd kantei blade: Motohira (元平). Genjûrô bade on the Oku school (奥), which should actually be atari, but continued bidding on Heianjô and on Mizuta-mono (水田物). Naokurô did not bid this time because he was the owner of the blade. Hachirô’emon bade on Sôshû-mono, Masayoshi (正幸), Yoshitake (吉武), and finally atari on Motohira. Shinnosuke bade on Gokaji, on o-kuni-mono (御国物, local Satsuma-shintô or shinshintô smiths), and on Banshû-mono (播州物, Harima-province work). Hikoji bade on Masayoshi (正幸) and atari on Motohira. And Jôsaburô bade on Yoshitake (吉武), Hirokuni (広国), and on Gokaji.

3rd kantei blade: Tsuguhiro (継広). Genjûrô bade again on Mitsu/Kô-rui, on the Oku school, and on Seki. Naokurô bade on Echizen-mono and on Mitsu/Kô-rui. Hachirô’emon bade atari on Tsughiro but continued to bid, for whatever reason, to o-kuni-mono, Kunihiro (国広), and on Ôsaka-uchi (大坂打, i.e. an Ôsaka-made blade). Shinnosuke did not participate as he already knew the blade, marked with the character son(jiru) (存) in the corresponding box. Also Hikoji did not bid as he was the owner and Jôsaburô bade on Seki, Sôshû-mono, and on Masahiro (正広).

4th kantei blade: Bizen Ômiya Kunimori (大宮国盛). Genjûrô bade on Echizen-mono, Taniyama, and Gokaji. Naokurô did not bid as he already knew the blade. Hachirô’emon bade on 2nd generation Shizu, on Senju’in, and on Naminohira. Shinnosuke bade on Naminohira, Echizen, and on Seki. Hikoji bade only once and on Sôshû-mono. And Jôsaburô bade on Niô (二王), Yukihira (行平), and on Kotetsu.

5th kantei blade: unsigned Echizen-mono. Genjûrô bade on Echizen-Seki, Taniyama, and Gokaji. Naokurô bade on Shimosaka (下坂) and on Hôjôji (法城寺). Hachirô’emon bade on Ôsaka-uchi, Shimosaka, and Takada. Shinnosuke did not bid as he was the owner of the blade. Hikoji bade on Echizen-Seki. And Jôsaburô bade on Masahiro (正広), Seki, and on Ôsaka-uchi.

Also interesting to observe on these two lists are the numerical remarks in red ink. For example we find the character for “ten” (, 十) written over Hachirô’emon’s first-bid atari on Tsuguhiro at the Bunkyû one nyûsatsu-kantei session. So an atari at the first bid counted ten points. The number eight (hachi, 八) is found over Genjûrô’s Oku bid on Motohira and on Hikoji’s second atari bid on Motohira. That means a dôzen at the first bid and an atari at the second bid counted both eight points. Four points were given for example to Shinnosuke when he bade at the second round on o-kuni-mono for Motohira. Also four points were given to Hachirô’emon when he got atari for Motohira at the fourth round and to Jôsaburô for his Yamato-mono bid after the third round for the Kanenaga blade. However, what we don’t know is why some kept bidding even after receiving atari and why on three occasions four rounds were allowed when the maximum number of bids is in all other cases three. Maybe if you were close with your last bid you got a final chance but as all these three cases are only seen at Hachirô’emon, it is also possible that he was a beginner and got thus by default four bids. Another questionable point is why the character da(su) was written over Genjûrô’s bid box for the Ômiya Kunimori blade. If it was his blade, why did he bid three times not even close to atari? So maybe this da(su) must had been some kind of mistake. Or the blade was signed “Kunimori” and Genjûrô did not know which Kunimori and submitted it therefore to see the opinion of the other participants or of the judge. Anyway, Shinnosuke was the winner of the Man’en one nyûsatsu-kantei session. His final score of 20 points (弐拾) is written on top of his column. Well, the Bunkyû one session did not show any winner. Maybe because it was thought that this session was kind of unbalanced as it consisted largely of submitters and of participants who already knew the certain blades.

Let us go over to Genjûrô Toshiaki’s Katana Mekiki Ichijô Oboetome notes. We find therein 53 blades and it is interesting to see that most emphasis was laid on the hamon and bôshi. That means measurements, sugata, nakago finish, and hataraki are not addressed at all. Also the jihada is hardly mentioned, just four times we read masame-hada and matsukawa-hada. But we find for example several times the entries nuritô (ぬりとふ) and jiiro-migoto (地色見事, lit. “steel color magnificent”). It is assumed that, written with the kanji (塗砥), the first term refers to a simple Edo-period way of finishing, namely by applying hazuya over both ha and ji after the blade was polished to the uchigumori step. Incidentally, hazuya is usually used for the ha only. So at nurito (which means literally “greased/greasy/smeared/blurred polish”) not too much attention was paid to the appearance of the blade, but we learn that also such pieces were submitted to nyûsatsu-kantei, causing problems for the participants in properly judging the blade in question. What Toshiaki also noted in his Katana Mekiki Ichijô Oboetome was, on 29 occasions, the name of the owner of the blade and which ones he owned himself and submitted to one of the nine nyûsatsu-kantei sessions (eleven pieces). So he practically provided at least one blade per session and sometimes even two. Some of the 29 recorded names appear in the retainer list of the Miyakonojô-Shimazu family and were rather high-ranking samurai. This shows us how much Furugaki Toshiaki was trusted to loan him precious blades for his kantei sessions. When it comes to the balance of the sessions, we arrive at an about 50:50 ratio of kotô to shintô, although the majority of the kotô blades are Muromachi and only a handful dates back to Kamakura or Nanbokuchô times. For example and apart from the aforementioned Tegai Kanenaga and Ômiya Kunimori, we find in Toshiaki’s kantei notes for Kamakura and Nanbokuchô a Senju’in katana, an Akihiro tantô, a Hiromitsu wakizashi, a Sa wakizashi (mumei, attributed), a Sadamune katana (mumei, attributed), and a Shizu katana (also mumei and attributed). As for shintô, we find names like Dewa no Daijô Kunimichi, Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Ômi no Kami Hisamichi, or Hizen Yukihiro, but no blades of local smiths like Izu no Kami Masafusa, Mondo no Shô Masakiyo, or Ippei Yasuyo. Instead we find relative many blades of smiths from the Oku school, like Tadashige (忠重), Tadakane (忠金), Kunihira (国平), and the aforementioned Motohira. Also no local Naminohira blades are found, neither for kotô nor for shintô, even if some of the participants were bidding on them on several occasions. Maybe the famous award winning smiths Mondo no Shô Masakiyo and Ippei Yasuyo were just too high-priced for local samurai. And except for the few Kamakura and Nanbokuchô-era smiths, there are hardly any big names found in Toshiaki’s notes what tells us apart from the borrowed blades about the average quality of rural late Edo period nyûsatsu-kantei sessions. In other words, there were just no large numbers of “daimyô quality” blades available but it was obviously tried hard to display the best of what was going round among middle and lower-ranking samurai.


Picture 6: Example page from the Katana Mekiki Ichijô Oboetome.


Picture 7: The Tôken Nyûsatsu Kantei Dôzen Chô.

Toshiaki’s dôzen list is dated Ansei three (安政, 1856), that means he copied or compiled the list for his own use when he was just 18 years old. The way it is bound and folded shows us that it was designed for single-handed use. So we can assume that Toshiaki used it as a quick reference browsing through it with the left hand whilst holding the sword in the right. It does not only contain a simple dôzen list but also presents smiths sorted according to certain features like “shallow hi,” “thick kasane,” “unokubi-zukuri interpretation,” “high shinogi,” or “koshiba or midareba from the center of the blade upwards,” and it is easy to understand how much effort Toshiaki put into this document to make it an as useful as possible reference. As for the abbreviated copy of the Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen Nukishô, we learn that he basically copied volumes 1 and 4 of the Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen which contain the chapters “Basics of Sword Judgement,” “Step-by-step How to Judge a Sword,” “Differentiation of kotô and shintô,” “Superior Smiths from all Provinces”, and “Average and Inferior Smiths.” He diligently copied the pictures and paid much attention to the accurate reproduction of the hamon and bôshi.


Picture 8: Cover and sample page of Toshiaki’s Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen Nukishô.


In conclusion it can be said that although the data seems to be quite limited at a glance, i.e. just a few sheets and booklets written by a rural lower-ranking Satsuma-samurai, it gives us nevertheless quite an insight into late Edo period kantei sessions. We learned that blades were borrowed from higher-ranking, mostly local samurai, that it was tried that each session was balanced and that at least a minimum of high-quality blades was presented, that points were awarded and a winner was selected, that some of the participants made minute notes of the kantei blades, and that the sessions were held at irregular intervals but several times a year (in Toshiaki’s kantei notes we find the dates fall Man’en one, and first month, fourth, sixth month, and seventh month of Bunkyû one) and at different locations with different persons acting as judge. So apart from the private aspect of holding the meetings in the house of the organizer, these nyûsatsu-kantei sessions were held pretty much the same way as we do it today. So if you are attending a meeting of one of the sword associations or local sword clubs and listen to the discussions about how to get grasp of high-quality blades and who can bring what for the next kantei, bear in mind that it had always been that way and that also Edo-period samurai put on their pants/hakama one leg at a time.

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