After dealing with the sword basics, we are entering the main body of my series series and that is the description of the workmanship of the individual schools and smiths, and that with a focus on kantei. So with “focus” I mean I am not going too much into historic detail and omit for the most part biographical data unless it is necessary for the understanding of certain chapter. Before we start I have to explain a few things. Like I followed the traditional approach in looking at Japanese swords, I will also follow the traditional approach in describing them, and that is kotô-era gokaden, kotô-era other schools (wakimono/majiwarimono), shintô, and shinshintô. What I mentioned at the very beginning of this series applies here too, that is to say that all major publications are structured like that and it doesn’t make much sense if I reinvent the wheel and tackle the schools in a complete different way. Well, this “traditional” approach is actually not as old as you might think. It is assumed that it was introduced by Hon´ami Kôson (本阿弥光遜, 1879-1955) who was a key figure of the Meiji, Taishô, and early Shôwa era in terms of gathering and spreading knowledge of the Japanese sword and it was him who realized that certain things have to be changed to make studies easier, meeting so the requirements of a strongly growing crowd of collectors and enthusiasts which was thirsting to know more about the nihontô. Before he introduced the gokaden (五ヶ伝・五箇伝), lit. “The Five Traditions,” swords in general and kotô swords in particular were classified according to their production site, or more precise according to the province they were made in, e.g. blades made in Bizen were called Bizen-mono (備前物), and such made in Yamato were called Yamato-mono (大和物), sorted by so-called goki-shichidô (五畿七道) system of initially administrative units and later geographical entities. The goki-shichidô consisted of five provinces in the Kinai or capital region, plus seven dô (道) or circuits, each of which contained provinces of its own. These seven circuits were the Hokurikudô, Nankaidô, Saikaidô, San’indô, San’yôdô, Tôkaidô, and the Tôsandô.
Well, this goki-shichidô system is unchangedly in use when it comes to the mere sorting of swordsmith schools but this alone and the classification via mono (物, lit. “thing” or rather “work”) and the province a sword was made in was inflexible and does not make clear any stylistic connections. That means, you can’t see at a glance that for example an Enju blade is, via the Yamashiro tradition, actually stylistically connected to the Kyôto-based Rai school when it is just listed as Kyûshû-mono. The introduction of the gokaden follows the observation that throughout kotô times there had been basically five major sword production sites, namely Yamato, Yamashiro, Bizen, Sagami (= Sôshû), and Mino, where own typical styles of sword forging emerged and developed. Swordsmiths from these production sites moved and spread their knowledge and so offsprings of the indigenous traditions spread all over the country. These offsprings developed own characterisic features but were scholastically connected to the original forging tradition. In other words, about 80% of all kotô schools and smiths can be attributed to one of the five major traditions which were the Yamashiro tradition (Yamashiro-den, 山城伝), the Yamato tradition (Yamato-den, 大和伝), the Bizen tradition (Bizen-den, 備前伝), the Sôshû tradition (Sôshû-den, 相州伝), and the Mino tradition (Mino-den, 美濃伝). The remaining forging traditions which emerged and developed separately or as offshoots from the gokaden or which are made up of a mix of two or more of the five major traditions are summarized as wakimono (脇物) or majiwari-mono (交わり物) respectively. The gokaden declined in importance with the progressing Muromachi period as the uncertain Sengoku era forced many swordsmiths to move to other, often very remote areas. At the same time, steel production was modernized and more and more swordsmiths were receiving now steel from the same source which meant a further approximation of the characteristic features of sword blades. This trend became even more obvious with the transition to the shintô era and so Kôson introduced a sixth tradition, the shintô-tokuden (新刀徳伝), about “special shintô sword tradition,” but I will just refer to swords made in that era as shintô as it is hard to nail down characteristic features for the shintô “tradition.” Well, Kôson followed the approach that a shintô blade can come with a fine jigane in combination with a wide and vivid hamon whereas in kotô times a fine jigane usually came along with a more narrow and unobtrusive, often suguha-based hamon, and a larger dimensioned jigane usually with a wider and more vivid hamon. Apart from that he felt that the new and picturesque hamon interpretations of the shintô era like tôran-midare, sudareba, kikusui and the like “justify” the introduction of a “special shintô tradition” of sword forging. However, the term shintô-tokuden is too general in my opinion as also the shintô era gave rise to several major currents (which were Ôsaka, Edo, Hizen, and Satsuma, and Kyôto if you want) and as a consequence, it never became as much established as the very practical approach with the gokaden.
In preparation for the upcoming chapters, I want to give a very basic overview of the fundamental characteristics of each forging tradition. In other words, if you spot them in the described combination on a blade, it is safe to focus on schools that worked in the associated tradition.
Yamashiro tradition: Rather dense and uniform itame or mokume in combination with a suguha or suguha-based hamon in ko-nie or nie-deki. Blades look elegant and dignified. Yamashiro lost (in sword terms) by the end of the Nanbokuchô period much its significance so rather do not expect a Muromachi-period uchigatana or katateuchi to be a Yamashiro work. Flourished from the end of the Heian to the early Nanbokuchô period.
Yamato tradition: High shinogi-ji and relative wide shinogi. Jigane often shows masame and the hamon is suguha or suguha-based in nie-deki which shows by trend more horizontal hataraki (i.e. hataraki that concentrate on and follow the habuchi). Blades look elegant but also strong and with a hint of ancient charme. Yamato too was superseded by the upcoming Sôshû and still thriving Bizen traditions in the Nanbokuchô period. So like mentioned above, rather do not expect a Muromachi-period uchigatana or katateuchi to be a Yamato work. Flourished from the end of the Heian to the end of the Kamakura period.
Bizen tradition: Jigane in itame or mokume with utsuri in combination with a chôji-midare or gunome-midare hamon in nioi-deki. Blades in Bizen tradition look flamboyant compared to blades forged in the Yamashiro or Yamato tradition. Had its heydays in the Kamakura and late Muromachi period.
Sôshû tradition: Larger structured itame in combination with a noticeably nie-laden midareba, notare, or hitatsura. Blades look “wild” and vivid and as the Sôshû tradition was not established before the very end of the Kamakura period, do not expect a blade in one of the (earlier) Kamakura-sugata to be a Sôshû work. Had its heydays in the Nanbokuchô, late Muromachi, and Momoyama period.
Mino tradition: Jigane shows more or less shirake, i.e. is whitish, and comes in combination with a hamon, mostly a midareba, that shows some concpicuously protruding togari elements, with the sanbonsugi so to speak as its purest Mino-hamon form. As the Mino tradition is the youngest of the gokaden and was not fully developed until the mid-Muromachi period, do not expect a blade in Kamakura or Nanbokuchô-sugata to be a Mino work. Mino blades look more “pragmatic” in general. Had its heyday in the late Muromachi period.
Shintô-tokuden: Fine, dense and “healthy” jigane in combination with a more “affected” or picturesque hamon. Bôshi often in suguha even if the rest of the hamon is in midareba. Blades have the “typical” katana shape, that means do not expect a long, elegant and classical tachi to be shintô, at least not in the first place.
So far the introduction to the upcoming main body of the series and I will be back soon with the first chapter which is on Yamashiro province.