1.4 Mihaba and taper
After you have checked out the more overall features of a blade, i.e. length and curvature, it is time to go into details regarding a blade’s shape. There is no rule what detail to focus on first or in which order you check a blade but to save time, for example at a nyûsatsu-kantei where others are waiting in line and where usually an accustic signal tells you when to put down the blade, I follow a bottom to top approach. Well, you usally don’t judge a mihaba (身幅) by itself but see it in context with the sakihaba (先幅), i.e. the width of the blade at the yokote. And so you automatically arrive at the taper. I will introduce all the typical sugata for each time in one of the next posts so in this section it is only important to point out that for example if a blade is long, strongly tapering, and deeply curved, it is likely a tachi of pre-Nanbokuchô times or a later tachi that follows a classical shape. Is it long, wide, shallowly curved, and does not taper much, chances are high to have a mid-Nanbokuchô, Keichô-shintô, or shinshintô blade. And a strong taper in combination with a very shallow sori and a compact chû-kissaki is very typical for a Kanbun-shintô. As mentioned, these are just examples and you have to study the characteristics in sugata that will be explained in one of the next posts.
Another feature which belongs to this category is funbari (踏張り). The term funbari is only applied to a blade that starts wide at the base and then tapers significantly over the first 4~5 cm (1.5~2 inches). That means just a wide blade which tapers noticeably but uniformly towards the tip does not have funbari. So if funbari is present you can assume that the blade is unshortened and has its original sugata. Sidenote: To recognize that a blade is in its original sugata is quite important as it puts into context features like nagasa, mihaba and tapering. In other words, if you have a blade in its original condition, you don’t have to speculate about the degree of shortening and how its original sugata might have looked like to start drawing conclusions on a possible production time. It is also important as you learn so if you are facing for example a tachi, a katana, or a tachi that has been shortened to a katana, i.e. to be worn as uchigatana. Back to funbari. Funbari is first and foremost typical for Kamakura-period tachi in general and for rather early Kamakura-period tachi in particular. Funbari is connected to the feature of yaki-otoshi, i.e. where the hardened edge starts at a considerable distance from the base. In the case of a yaki-otoshi, swordsmiths widened the blades towards the machi to specifically counteract any possible weakness in this area as it was not hardened.
Detail of a tachi by Ko-Hôki Yasutsuna with yaki-otoshi and funbari.
After the length, curvature, width, and tapering, you focus on the tip. Is it large, very large, medium-sized, or does it feel only slightly elongated, compact, or even stubby? All these are important indicators which either confirm your assumptions done so far on the basis of the previous characteristics or rule them out as they now no longer match. For example: You have a blade with a long nagasa, a deep koshizori, and a noticeable taper which you had dated so far somewhere before mid-Kamakura but which comes with an ô-kissaki, you can now rather rule out an early kotô and better switch to shinshintô. Of course this track has again to be either confirmed or dismissed by the characteristic features examined in the next steps. Or you have a magnificent blade that does not taper that much and which you had dated to Kamakura so far and which turns out to have an ikubi-kissaki. With this “discovery,” you can stay with the initial dating and focus on the next characteristics and see if you can further narrow down the kantei to a certain school or smith from that time. By the way, be careful with the term ô-kissaki. This means, an ô-kissaki actually might not be that big as you think when reading of this term. Or when you see a blade with just a larger but not “ridiculously” large tip, bear in mind that you might already face an ô-kissaki. What I try to say is: Don´t think automatically of a super-long nagamaki-style kissaki when the term ô-kissaki is dropped as transitions are fluid and an ô-kissaki might just be a hint longer than an elongated chû-kissaki. Again, the different kissaki interpretations are more easy to grasp in the next posts when we deal with the different sugata for each time. Here I am just introducing point by point the order or checklist of doing kantei. The rules of thumb when it comes to kissaki are: 1. The smaller the ko-kissaki, the earlier the blade probably is. 2. A chû-kissaki is the most common tip and found throughout all periods. 3. An ô-kissaki is most likely found on a blade from the Nanbokuchô, Keichô-shintô, and shinshintô era. 4. An ikubi-kissaki is as indicated usually only found on blades from the mid-Kamakura period, that is to say on mid-Kamakura blades that follow the more stout and wide approach (compared to the more slender tachi that were still produced at the same time). 5. And a kamasu-kissaki where the cutting-edge of the tip has virtually no fukura is usually restricted to very early kotô and jokotô or later reproductions of such ancient swords (but it might also be found on a blade where much material had to be removed at a restoration, e.g. due to a deep notch along the cutting-edge of the kissaki).
From left to right: ô-kissaki, chû-kissaki, ko-kissaki, ikubi-kissaki, kamasu-kissaki.
With this we arrive at the fukura, the curvature or bulbousness of the tip’s cutting-edge. The fukura can be rounded or full, or not rounded or scarce, and this applies to longer swords in shinogi-zukuri with yokote as well as to short swords and tantô in hira-zukuri. Well, the bulbousness of the tip’s cutting-edge is kind of a tricky point as transitions are very fluid and subtle and quite many kissaki have been reshaped to a certain extent. So if you read of a full fukura, don’t think automatically of a super roundish kissaki and in case of a scarce fukura not of a very straight kamasu-style kissaki vice versa as the actual differences are as mentioned more subtle. A really noticeably scarce fukura can be seen for example on tantô of Samonji (左文字) or of the Sue-Sôshû school and on later Muromachi-period katana with an elongated chû-kissaki, e.g. of Magoroku Kanemoto (孫六兼元). Also the Kyô-utsushi tantô (i.e. Rai copies) of No-Sada and other Sue-Seki smiths have by trend a rather scarce fukura. A chû-kissaki with a scarce fukura is also very typical for Ôei-Bizen smiths. This means, if you have a classical tachi that looks like Bizen Kamakura at a glance, take a closer look at the kissaki and if you find out that its cutting edge is not that pronounced, keep this in mind and bring it in line it with features along the jigane and hamon as you might face an Ôei-Bizen work. Also known for making tips with a noticeable scarce fukura are the smiths of the Kiyomaro (清麿) school and occasionally also Sa Yukihide (左行秀) worked in that pointy tip style. And don’t forget, at Norishige, who is also known for making tantô with noticeably scarce fukura, the scarce fukura comes in combination with a peculiar uchizori what results in a takenokozori.
Scarce fukura on tantô and katana respectively and from left to right: Sue-Sôshû, Samonji, Kiyomaro, Kurihara Nobuhide
1.6 Shinogi and shinogi-ji
Also how the central ridge is applied must not be forgotten as the height of the shinogi and the width of the shinogi-ji can point towards a certain tradition or production time. We speak of a high shinogi when the cross-section of the blade is noticeably diamong-shaped or the distance between the two ridges is noticeably wide in cross-section compared to the width of the kasane respectively. Representative for a high shinogi are the Yamato and Yamato-related schools like the Uda (宇多) school, the Mihara (三原) school, the Iruka (入鹿) school, the Tadasada (忠貞) school, the Niô (二王) school, the Kongôbyôe (金剛兵衛) school, or the the Naminohira (波平) school. Also the Sue-Bizen (Sukesada [祐定], Kiyomitsu [清光], Harumitsu [春光]) and Sue-Seki (Kanesada [兼定]) schools are known for making blades with a noticeably thin kasane and a high shinogi. Also representative for this feature are smiths like Shintôgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光), the Eitoku-era (永徳, 1381-1384) Mino Kanemitsu (兼光), Norishige (則重), Kozori Tsuneie (経家), Osafune Tadamitsu (忠光), Nanki Shigekuni (南紀重国), Sendai Kunikane (国包). Please note that a high shinogi comes mostly automatically with blade shapes like shôbu-zukuri and kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri and all kinds of naginata and nagamaki. So also schools like the Hôjôji (法城寺) school (Kunimitsu [国光]), the Katayama-Ichimonji (片山一文字) school (Norifusa [則房]), the Naoe-Shizu (直江志津) school, the Kanemitsu (兼光) and Chôgi (長義) schools, the Echizen-Yasutsugu (康継), Kiyomaro (清麿), and Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤) are on the list when it comes to a high shinogi as they often made naginata or nagamaki-naoshi-style blades.
A low shinogi is typical for Bizen and Sôshû blades, for example for the Ichimonji (一文字) school, the mid-Kamakura period Osafune (長船) school, or the Kozori (小反) school. Also representative for a low shinogi are: For Kyô-mono the Hasebe (長谷部) school, the early Nobukuni (信国) generations, the Daruma (達磨) school, the Heianjô (平安城) school; for Yamato Tegai Kanekiyo (包清); Rai Kuninaga (来国長); for Sôshû Sadamune (貞宗), Akihiro (秋広), Hiromitsu (広光), Yoshihiro (吉広), Masahiro (正広), Hiromasa (広正); for Mino Kanesada (兼定), Kanemoto (兼元), Kanetsugu (兼次), Kinjû (金重), Kaneyuki (金行); the Chiyozuru (千代鶴) school; Unji (雲次), Kanemitsu and Chôgi when not making nagamaki-style blades, Tsuda Sukehiro (津田助広), Ômi no Kami Sukenao (近江守助直), or the Hizen smiths. At Sukehiro and his students for example, the shinogi is usually extremely low so that it sometimes even seems optically as if the blade thins from the mune to the shinogi. The same applies to Sue-Bizen Sukesada. That means you have to be careful and check the height of the shinogi and its relation to the width of the kasane closely as there are Sue-kotô smiths like Sukesada or Kanesada who worked in the one or other style. And also the early Ko-Mihara smiths Masaie (正家) and Masahiro (正広) are known for applying a low shinogi in places even if the school has its roots in the Yamato tradition.
Now to the width of the shinogi-ji where also the rule of the thumb applies: Yamato and Yamato-related schools applied a wide shinogi-ji and Sôshû and Yamashiro smiths a narrow shinogi-ji . Also known for making blades with a wide shinogi-ji are: Mino Kanetsugu (兼次) and Kanesada (兼定), Osafune Mitsutada (光忠), Kozori Tsuneie (経家), the Un (雲類) group except for Unshô (雲生) from whom we know blades with a narrow shinogi-ji, Aoe Masatsune (正恒), and the Chikuzen Miike (三池) school. And representative for a narrow shinogi-ji are: The Awataguchi school (粟田口), Ko-Hôki Yasutsuna (安綱), Sekishû-mono (石州), for Bizen Ômiya Morikage (大宮盛景), Hidemitsu (秀光), Masatsune (正恒), and Sanetada (真忠), and for shintô times for example Kotetsu (虎徹).
From left to right: wide Yamato shinogi-ji (Shikkake Norinage), narrow Sôshû shinogi-ji (Sadamune)
1.6 Mune, kasane and niku
I put these three elements together as I usually look at them kind of together, quasi as first group of features that require a rotating of the blade. So after lifting the blade up to check its weight and “feel” and looking at it as a whole to determine the length, curvature, taper, and interpretation of the tip, it is time to look at it from the back and at different angles to see how the back ridge (mune, 棟) is interpreted, how thick it is, i.e. what kasane (重ね) it has, and to what extent the cutting edge bulges, i.e. niku what (肉) it has. First the mune. Here we distinguish roughly between a flat kaku-mune (角棟), a round maru-mune (丸棟), a two-surfaced iori-mune (庵棟), and a three-surface mitsu-mune (三ッ棟), and further how high the ridge is or how steep the lateral areas (oroshi, 卸・おろし) go down to the blade respectively in the case of an iori-mune, and how wide the top level is in case of a mitsu-mune. A kaku-mune is usually only seen on ancient blades but rarely also on some short and thick Sue-Bizen (末備前) tantô (e.g. yoroidôshi). A maru-mune is also typical for ancient swords but was occasionally also applied by the following smiths or schools: The Hasebe (長谷部) school, Nobukuni (信国), the Heianjô (平安城) school, Kaga Shirô Sukemasa (加賀四郎資正), the Môgusa (舞草) school, Fuyuhiro (冬広), the Ko-Bizen (古備前) school (Masatsune [正恒], Tomonari [友成], Kanehira [包平]), Osafune Nagamitsu (長光), Bizen Shirô Kuniyasu (備前四郎国安), Sukezane (助真), the Ko-Aoe (古青江) and Aoe (青江) school, the Mihara (三原) school, the Miike (三池) school, the Taira-Takada (平高田) school, and the Naminohira (波平) school. When it comes to an iori-mune, a high or steep interpretation is typical for Yamato-related schools and for Hankei (繁慶) for example. A gentle or low interpretation is rather typical for Bizen blades in general. A mitsu-mune in turn speaks for the Sôshû tradition and for tantô of the Yamashiro smiths. As for Sôshû-mono, the earlier masters applied more a mitsu-mune with a wide top surface whereas the Sue-Sôshû smiths applied rather a narrow top surface. A mitsu-mune is also typical for Umetada Myôju (埋忠明寿), the Horikawa (堀川) school, Echizen Yasutsugu (康継), i.e. at Keichô-shintô smiths who focused on the great Sôshû masters, but it can be found on all later copies of or hommages to early Sôshû works.
Measuring the kasane.
With checking the mune, you automatically arrive at the kasane. The term kasane is commonly used to refer to the thickness of a blade but please bear in mind that strictly speaking, it means the thickness at the mune, i.e. where the ridges of the back end and go over into the shinogi-ji (see picture above). So in the case of a high shinogi, the blade might be described as thick although the actual kasane is thin. The kasane can be an important key in appraising a sword. For example, mid-Nanbokuchô blades in Enbun-Jôji-sugata (more on this blade form later) are known for having a very thin kasane for their length and width. Later revival works from the Keichô-shintô and shinshintô times copy the overall sugata very well but come mostly with a somewhat thicker kasane. In other words, if you are facing a magnificent and wide blade with an ô-kissaki and you are not sure if Nanbokuchô or something later, check the kasane before turning towards the blade characteristics. It might give you an idea where the direction goes, i.e. stay with Nanbokuchô or focus on the possibility of a later copy. Also known for a considerably thin kasane is the Hasebe (長谷部) school. Even for mid-Nanbokuchô and the already existing trend to a thin kasane the Hasebe’s kasane is strikingly thin. So if you have lets say a sunnobi-tantô or hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi in Enbun-Jôji-sugata which shows a very thin kasane, it is advisable to check if the workmanship matches with the characteristic features of the Hasebe school. But also check the ratio of moto-kasane (元重ね) and saki-kasane (先重ね), i.e. the “tapering” of the thickness. Is the kasane decreasing uniformly from base to tip, or is there a certain drop of the thickness? In the latter case, chances are high that a blade had seen a more “intense” polishing at the monouchi area, i.e. the area with which a target is hit in the ideal case. This also shifts the balance significantly and a blade which has lost a lot of material towards the tip feels lighter or more “easy to handle” as it originally was what in turn might set you on the wrong track.
And finally the niku. Here a distinction is made between ha-niku (刃肉) and hira-niku (平肉) whereat the former describes the rate of the niku from the cutting edge to the habuchi, and the latter the rate of the niku from the habuchi to the shinogi. But this differentiation is rather sophisticated and mostly just the general term niku is used to describe the bulging of the cutting surfaces in cross-section. The fullness of the niku depends on the what kind of target the blade is designed for to cut, that means the harder the target the fuller the niku has to be. A noticeably full niku is typical for blades from the Kamakura period and a variant of a full niku which only drops towards the very cutting edge is called hamaguri-ba (蛤刃) (see picture below). With the mid-Nanbokuchô period, the niku decreases significantly. Niku can get low due to repeated polishing but a good polisher tries to preserve the original geometry of a blade as good as possible. That means removing the full niku of a Kamakura-era blade when not absolutely necessary would be considered as no go. So one has to be careful and take into consideration the age of a blade. A noticeably low niku is typical as mentioned for the mid-Nanbokuchô period but also for their later “revival counterparts” made in Keichô-shintô and shinshintô times. Incidentally, the distribution of the niku is called niku-oki (肉置) or niku-dori (肉取り).
And last but not least for this group of features it is also advisable to check if a blade has ubu-ha (生ぶ刃), an unsharpened cutting-edge at the very base. Ubu-ha is a sign that a blade is unshortened and hasn´t seen much polishes. So if you recongize ubu-ha on a classic tachi of which all characteristics point towards Kamakura, be careful and try to double-check other features to find out if you are facing one of the extremely a rare and healthy blades from that time or, what is more likely, a later copy. By the way, I have seen a Sa tachi with such a conspicious ubu-ha in Japan some years ago that I ended up at shinshintô utsushimono with my bid. So this blade quasi experienced only the absolute minimum of polishes over the last ~650 years!
Marcus – I’m really enjoying your articles on Kantei and would like to thank you very much for this reference work.
I’m finding it extremely useful after finishing my Koto Course with Fred Fimio in Canada. Look forward to collating everything together for a great reference.
Paul – Liverpool UK