About kakikudashi-mei

When I was compiling my recently published KOTO-MEIKAN, I had to go through my entire sword archive, or at least through the folders which contain the koto blades. In this sense, I came once again across the rare signature form where all information – e.g. name of the smith, place of residence, and date – is chiselled onto the same side of the tang. This signature form is called kakikudashi-mei (書下し銘) and in most of the cases all information is presented in one line, i.e. name of smith and date below or vice versa, and in some cases the smith left a little space between his name and the date. So whilst preparing the files for the book, I asked myself what prompted a smith to sign this way and I checked the relevant literature but did not find any explanation. But what I was able to find is an article by Yokota Takao (横田孝雄) in Tôken-Bijutsu #536 on the subject. Well, right away in his introductory words Yokota writes that he too was unable to find any explanations so I was kind of relieved that there is no commonly accepted and well-known theory which I just overlooked. The interesting thing about Yokota’s article is that he provides a quantitative overview of kakikudashi-mei, sorted chronologically and according to production site. So with his research – he presents 84 examples of koto-era kakikudashi-mei which can be considered as pretty representative as I doubt that that many more can be found which would throw over quantitative observations – we have at least a decent starting point.

On the basis of the 84 koto-era kakikudashi-mei he found, the following table can be created:

Province Heian Kamakura Nanbokuchô Muromachi Total
Bitchû 4 18 22
Bizen 13 4 17
Yamato 6 8 2 16
Yamashiro 12 12
Chikuzen 2 2 4
Ôshû 2 2
Etchû 2 2
Suô 2 2
Bingo 1 1
Ômi 1 1
Tosa 1 1
Hizen 1 1
Higo 1 1
Satsuma 1 1
Sagami 1 1
Total 1 43 38 2 84

According to the table, the majority of all kakikudashi-mei is found on Bitchû swords, i.e. on swords from the Aoe school, followed by Bizen, Yamato, and Yamashiro. That means we can see first of all an obvious concentration on the Kinai area and on the two koto-era Kibi-area sword centers Bizen and Bitchû. Also we learn right away that kakikudashi-mei were basically in use during the Kamakura and Nanbokuchô eras. There is no gradual increase from the Heian to the Kamakura and no gradual decrease from the Nanbokuchô to the Muromachi period. So the phenomenon kakikudashi-mei seemed to have popped up in Kamakura times and disappeared again, rather abruptly, when the empire was unified again by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1358-1408), or in other words with the transition to the Muromachi period. We learn further that Yamashiro and Bizen smiths were the first to sign with a kakikudashi-mei, that the Aoe smiths used this signature variant mainly in the Nanbokuchô era, and that in Yamato blades were signed on just one side about uniformly throughout the Kamakura and Nanbokuchô era. But it must be mentioned that in Yamato, kakikudashi-mei are mostly found on tantô and ken, what is uncommon, because the vast majority of all other schools and smiths applied such a signature to long swords and naginata only.

Next, let us take a look at the kakikudashi-mei by smiths outside of Bitchû, Bizen, Yamashiro, and Yamato. The four from Chikuzen are all found on blades by Jitsu’a (実阿). Accoding to tradition, Jitsu’a was the son of Sairen (西蓮) and the last of the Chikuzen masters who worked in the traditional and classical Ko-Kyûshû style which has as we know much in common with the Yamato tradition. The two Ôshû kakikudashi-mei are found on Hôju (宝寿) blades and these smiths also had a certain connection to Yamato. The two from Etchû go back to Norishige (則重) who has no Yamato connections. The two Suô blades are from Kiyotsuna (清綱) and Kiyohisa (清久), both Ko-Niô smiths, a school which also is stylistically connected to the Yamato tradition. The one from Bingo goes back to Kokubunji Sukekuni (国分寺助国). The Kokubunji temple where Sukekuni worked had strong bonds to the Tôdaiji in Nara, Yamato province. The kakikudashi-mei from Ômi is found on a tachi by Akimitsu (顕光) and one theory about his supposed master Kanro Toshinaga (甘呂俊長) says that Toshinaga was related to a certain Taima Toshinaga (当麻俊長). This Taima Toshinaga is not found in the meikan records but Toshinaga’s blades do show Yamato characteristics. The Tosa blade is from Tosa Yoshimitsu (吉光) and his roots are said to go back to Yamato too (to be more precise either in the Senju’in or in the Tegai school). As for Hizen, the kakikudashi-mei is from a blade by the 1st generation Suesada (末貞) whose master Norisue (則末) came according to tradition from the Naminohira school which, again, has certain connections to the Yamato tradition. The Higo blade is from Enju Kunitoki (延寿国時) and the scholastic roots of the Enju school are said to be found in both the Rai and the Senju’in school. The example from Sagtsuma is the only one from Heian times, i.e. from Heiji one (平治, 1159), found on a blade by Ko-Naminohira Yukimasa (行正) and the oldest extant date signature on a nihontô at all. As mentioned, the Ko-Naminohira school had connections to the Yamato tradition. And last but not least the blade from Sagami, found on a blade by Mitsufusa (光房) who is said to have been a student of Sôhû Yukimitsu (行光). The kakikudashi-mei of Mitsufusa is from Kôan three (弘安, 1280) and is the oldest known date signature on a Sôshû work. So except for Norishige and Mitsufusa, we can draw to all above mentioned smiths some Yamato connections and Enju Kunitoki might have inherited the kakikudashi-mei “habit” either from his Yamato or his Yamashiro roots, if we assume that this signature form has something to do with scholastic tradition.

When it comes to the mei itself, we learn that the majority of those Yamato smiths who applied kakikudashi-mei did so by starting with the date and chiselling their name at the bottom. The Yamashiro smiths usually started with the name and had the date follow, except for Ryôkai (了戒) who also did it the “Yamato way.” The same applies to Bizen whose smiths usually also started their mei with the name and place of residence if present. Exceptions here are Yoshioka-Ichimonji Sukeyoshi (助吉), Tsunemitsu (恒光), and Nakahara Kunimune (中原国宗) who also signed in Yamato-manner with the name last. Except for one naginata by Naotsugu (直次), all Aoe smiths started with the name and place of residence. Jitsu’a, Suesada, Enju Kunitoki, Tosa Yoshimitsu, Suô Kiyotsuna, Kokubunji Sukekuni, Norishige, Hôju, and Kanro Akimitsu signed their kakikudashi-mei in the Yamato way. Only Niô Kiyohisa, Naminohira Yukimasa, and Sôshû Mitsufusa did it the other way with the name last. Please bear in mind that these observations base only on the 84 blades collected by Yokota. Another peculiarity is that eight of the 18 Nanbokuchô-era Aoe blades with kakikudashi-ei are from the relative short Jôwa era (貞和, 1345-1350) which lasted only six years.

 kakikudashiRai                                            kakikudashiYamato

Picture 1 (left), kakikudashi-mei of Rai Kunitoshi, dated Genkô one (元亨, 1321)

Picture 2 (right), kakikudashi-mei of Tegai Kanetsugu, dated Genkô three (元弘, 1333)

My very own conclusion is that it is obvious that kakikudashi-mei were mostly in fashion among the Kamakura-era Rai and the mid-Nanbokuchô Aoe school. For Bizen, we can’t see any specific acculumation at a certain school or smith but for Yamato, a kakikudashi-mei was most common for the Tegai school. Also quite obvious for me is the Yamato connection of the “rural” smiths who signed occasionally in kakikudashi-mei although this connection might be rather weak in places where the Yamato roots were lying too far back. In other words, it is hard for me to imagine that for example Kanro Akimitsu suddenly reminded himself of his master Toshinaga’s (supposed) Yamato roots and decided to sign some blades in kakikudashi-mei just because some earlier Yamato smiths did. So there might had been another reason. As for Aoe, I can imagine that the custom of signing tachi in kakikudashi-mei during the Nanbokuchô era might be connected to another custom, namely that their Kamakura-era Ko-Aoe predecessors signed their tachi in katana-mei, i.e. with the signature on the inside of the tang, facing the wearer’s body when the sword is suspended from the belt edge down. So maybe it was now “decided” to better leave blank the side facing the wearer where their predecessors used to sign? When it comes to Yamato, I have mentioned that a great number of their kakikudashi-mei is found on tantô and ken and with their temple connection it is conceivable that leaving one side of the tang completely blank and signing also the date on the other side, even if space is limited at a tantô-nakago, might have had some religious reason in the beginning. As for the Rai school, their kakikudashi-mei focus around Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊), the latter half of his active period, and his sons/students from that time (i.e. Kunimitsu and Ryôkai). Back to the reason why to sign all information on just one side of the tang. As we talking, except for the Yamato smiths, basically of Kamakura and Nanbokuchô period tachi, maybe certain smiths thought that it was kind of repectful to leave the side of the tang empty which faces the wearer? And as we are talking here of master swords – the majority of the 84 examples collected by Yokota are by very high ranking smiths and classified as jûyô, tokubetsu-jûyô, jûyô-bijutsuhin, jûyô-bunkazai, and even kokuhô – the custom of kakikudashi-mei might go back to considerations of leaving one side of the tang blank so that the owner or his successors can record their glorious merits they achieved with the swords. On the other hand, no blade signed in kakikudashi-mei is known where the other side of the tang bears acually any description. Interesting, but maybe this has nothing to say at all, the oldest date signature of the Ko-Naminohira Yukimasa blade comes in kakikudashi-mei and its ura side actually bears an inscription, namely the name “Kuniyasu” (国安), which is thought to be the name of the owner of the sword. So maybe it started all with leaving one side of special blades empty so that the name of the owner can be perpetuated on the other side? Anyway, we might never get an answer to this question unless an old official, maybe local administrative documents are discovered in which swordsmiths are required or encouraged to sign in kakikudashi-mei. If anyone has another interesting theory, I would love to hear it. So please don’t hesitate to use the comment function. 😉


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