KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #7 – Awataguchi (粟田口) School 2

Awataguchi Hisakuni (久国) was the second son of Kuniie and thus the second oldest of the so-called “Six Awataguchi Brothers.” He is listed with the first name Tôjirô (藤次郎) what makes sense as “Jirô” means “second son.” So the “Fuji” from Fujiwara was combined with the fact that he was the second son and this approach was kept for all other sons of Kuniie who were named Tôsaburô, Tôshirô, Tôgorô, and Tôroku (the youngest went without the suffix ). Just his first son Kunitomo is an exception as he was called Saemon, or if we follow the “Fuji” character integration approach, Tôzaemon, or Tôrinzaemon if we also integrate the alleged family name Hayashi. Anyway. Hisakuni had the honor to become the sword forging instructor of Emperor Gotoba and received for this the honorary title of Ôsumi Gonnokami (大隅権守) and an extra intracalary month was added to the monthly-based goban-kaji to include him in the list. In addition, Gotoba also conferred titles of the ancient courtly Smiths Office (kanuchi no tsukasa, 鍛冶司) upon smiths who worked for the goban-kaji project. For example, Hisakuni was made head of all Yamashiro smiths (Yamashiro Kokuchû Kaji Chôja, 山城国中鍛冶長者) and entrusted with Bizen-Ichimonji Nobufusa (延房) – who was the other sword forging instructor of Gotoba – with another courtly sword office, namely that of the Nihon Kaji Sôchô (日本鍛冶惣庁). Those titles and the fact that Gotoba had chosen him as teacher (it is said that he worked for eight years with the retired emperor) speaks for the great skill of Hisakuni and virtually all experts agree that Hisakuni was the best of all Awataguchi smiths. Incidentally, the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen states that he died in Kenpô four (建保, 1216) at the age of 67, that means he was three years younger than Kunitomo (if we believe in this data).

Fortunately, there are relative many works of Hisakuni extant, both tachi and tantô. Like Kunitomo, and due to the local and chronological context, he made highly elegant and slender tachi with a deep koshizori that bends down towards the tip, funbari, and a ko-kissaki that might tend to a little chû. His jigane is of unrivalled quality and also the hamon is perfectly hardened. The fineness and density of his steel is referred to as tataki-tsume (たたきつめ) in old sword publications what means about “as dense as a stamped-down clay floor.” The most famous and best work of him is the kokuhô (picture 1) that was once a heirloom of the Matsudaira (松平) branch which ruled the Saijô fief (西条藩) of Iyo province. It shows a very dense ko-itame whose abundance of ji-nie tends towards nie-utsuri and which appears altogether as nashiji-hada. The hamon is a suguha-chô in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-chôji, ko-gunome, plenty of ko-ashi, some uchinoke, kinsuji and sunagashi in places, and brightly glittering ha-nie. The nioiguchi is very clear and the bôshi is a shallow notare-komi with a short kaeri (almost entirely yakitsume on the ura) with hakikake. The tang is ubu, although its end was altered as the seen on the first and third Kunitomo picture, shows a kurijiri, sujikai-yasurime, and two mekugi-ana. The niji-mei is chiselled right next to the mekugi-ana and it has to be pointed out that this is the thinnest signature known by Hisakuni. Also interesting is that the tang bears at the very end a kaô (picture 2) but which does not go back to the smith. It was added later, probably on behalf of a later owner of the sword.


Picture 1: tachi, kokuhô, mei “Hisakuni + kaô” (久国), nagasa 80.4 cm, sori 3.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 2: Detail of the kaô

Next I want to introduce the Hisakuni tachi from the Imperial Collection (picture 3). It is suriage and shows a dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and chikei and a suguha that tends to ko-notare and that is mixed with ko-midare, plenty of ashi and , and some kinsuji. The bôshi is sugu with a hint of midare and shows a ko-maru-kaeri with nijûba on the omote side. Please note that the signature is noticeably thicker chiselled than that of the kokuhô, what is the more common signature style of Hisakuni (actually, only the kokuhô was signed with that a thin chisel but Tanobe assumes that all known mei go back to the hand of a single smith).


Picture 3: tachi, gyobutsu, mei “Hisakuni” (久国), nagasa 66.7 cm, sori 1.5 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

When it comes to long swords of Hisakuni, also the jûyô-bunkazai from the former collection of the Akimoto family (秋元) has to be mentioned (picture 4) as it is regarded as his “second best” work. The tang was shortened like the gyobutsu just as much as to preserve the mei, which was added with the same thick chisel. The kitae is a very densely forged ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and also an irregular jifu-utsuri with some antai appears. The hamon is a nie-laden suguha that tends to ko-notare and that is mixed with ko-chôji, ko-midare, kinsuji, sunagashi, ha-nie, and seven some ara-nie in places. And with the hakikake in the bôshi and the jifu-utsuri we might say that Hisakuni gave this blade on top of its elegance a hint of power. Please note that like at the gyobutsu, the undulating area of the hamon focuses on the monouchi.


Picture 4: tachi, jûyô-bunkazai, mei “Hisakuni” (久国), nagasa 78.5 cm, sori 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 5: tachi, tokubetsu-jûyô, mei “Hisakuni” (久国), nagasa 74.4 cm, sori 2.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, dense itame with a hint masame and plenty of fine ji-nie, the hamon is a suguha-chô in ko-nie-deki with a little shallow notare and is mixed with ko-gunome, ko-midare, ko-ashi, , and fine sunagashi, the bôshi is a rather wide sugu-chô with a ko-maru-kaeri, the tang is completely ubu, has a kurijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, and comes in a kijimono-gata, again, we have here the common thickly chiselled mei of Hisakuni


Now to Hisakuni’s tantô. The majority of them is small dimensioned and has an uchizori that shows a hint of takenoko (i.e. can appear as more pronounced uchizori). By the way, Hisakuni is often quoted when it comes to the earliest extant fine tantô. And then there is the wide, long, slightly curved, and almost Nanbokuchô-esque jûyô-bijutsuhin tantô of Hisakuni that is the odd one out. But the signature and deki of the jiba is a total match with the other works of Hisakuni and experts agree that this is just one of the more rare dagger interpretations that were occasionally ordered at that time. Well, the blade shows a ko-nie-laden suguha-chô that is mixed with connected ko-gunome, yubashiri that create nijûba and kuichigaiba in places, and some kinsuji and sunagashi. The bôshi is sugu with a rather long running-back ko-maru-kaeri. On both sides a bôhi with a shorter soebi at the base is engraved.


Picture 6: tantô, jûyô-bijutsuhin, mei “Hisakuni” (久国), nagasa 29.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

The most representative tantô of Hisakuni (and regarded by some as one of the finest of all Awataguchi tantô) is the jûyô-bunkazai that was owned liked the kokuhô by the Saijô-Matsudaira family (picture 7). It is slender, as mentioned small dimensioned, has a rather pronounced uchizori, and shows a very dense ko-itame with fine ji-nie that tends to form nie-utsuri. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden suguha-chô that is mixed with ko-midare, kinsuji, and sunagashi, and we have the same tendency towards nijûba and kuichigaiba as seen on the sunnobi-style jûyô-bijutsuhin. The bôshi is sugu with a little midare-komi and has a ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 7: tantô, jûyô-bunkazai, mei “Hisakuni” (久国), nagasa 20.1 cm, uchizori, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

Picture 8, an heirloom of the Date (伊達) family, shows one of the more rare blades of Hisakuni that is signed with his first name. It is a slender jûyô-tantô that shows a very fine and densey forged ko-itame with ji-nie which appears as nashiji-hada. The hamon is a hoso-suguha in ko-nie-deki with a prominent yakikomi at the machi and with hotsure. The ha widens along the fukura and runs back with a ko-maru-kaeri. The omote side shows three bonji and the ura side a suken.


Picture 8: tantô, jûyô, mei “Tôjirô Hisakuni” (藤次郎久国), nagasa 22.4 cm, uchizori, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

There is also one tachi signed that way (picture 9), a jûyô that bears a kinzôgan-mei with the name of its former owner – Shimazu Narinobu (島津斉宣, 1774-1841), the ninth daimyô of the Satsuma fief – on its tang. It is slender, preserves despite of the suriage a deep sori, and shows an itame with some nagare and ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden suguha-chô mixed with chôji, ko-midare, sunagashi, kinsuji, and plenty of ha-nie. The bôshi is a thin sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 9: tachi, jûyô, mei “Tôjirô Hisakuni” (藤次郎久国) kinzôgan-mei “Bungo no Kami Narinobu kore o haku” (豊後守斉宣帯之), nagasa 68.4 cm, sori 2.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #6 – Awataguchi (粟田口) School 1

It is said that the Awataguchi School goes back to a certain Kuniyori (国頼) but who was not a swordsmith, at least it is noted so in the old genealogies which add the supplement “hi-kaji” (非鍛冶, also read “kaji arazu”), lit. “no smith.” So his successor Kuniie (国家) – who is listed as “started to educate himself to become a swordsmith” or “the first [of the school] who carried out the profession of a swordsmith” – is regarded as de facto founder of the school what in turn renders Kuniyori the school’s “ancestor” if you want. Kuniie is also listed as being a “descendant of Yamato´s Kôfukuji (興福寺),” whatever that means, because no source goes into detail about what relationship Kuniie had to this temple. The Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen states that Kuniyori was an armorer from Yamato and that his son Kuniie lived in Tanba (丹波), in the Soekami district (添上郡) of Yamato province which was an area that became a part of present-day Tenri (天理), Nara Prefecture. The Kôfukuji is about 10 km to the north of Tanba/Tenri. So not sure if these two traditions, i.e. being affiliated with the Kôfukuji and living/working in Tanba go hand in hand. I want to do some research on the jôji-hôshi (承仕法師) in the future, the so-called “monk craftsmen” or “monk workers” of a certain temple. Maybe I am able to come across something which helps us in this matter. The Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen dates Kuniie around Tenshô (天承, 1131-1132) but the meikan date Kuniyori around Bunji (文治, 1185-1190) and Kuniie around Genryaku (元暦, 1184-1185), that means both towards the very end of the Heian period. As mentioned repeatedly in this blog, these dates have to be taken with a grain of salt, so even if Bunji was later than Genryaku, there is a certain grey area and the dates do not rule out at all that Kuniyori and Kuniie were father and son. Well, if it is true that Kuniie became a swordsmith with his move to Kyôto, we have no records that tell us who his master was. In addition, there are no blades of Kuniie extant which would allow us to draw some conclusions on the basis of workmanship. I would like to refer to the Japanese practice of tôri-ji (通字) or kei-ji (系字) at this point, the practice of a lineage or school of sharing a common character. When we assume that Kuniie was in Kyôto around Genryaku (元暦, 1184-1185), under whom could he have studied? Neither the Ayanokôji nor the Rai School had been established at that time. The Sanjô School seems a bit too early so maybe Gojô comes into question. Their latest known master, Kuninaga (国永), is traditionally dated around Tengi (天喜, 1053-1058) but as mentioned in the relevant chapter of this series, it is very likely that there were several generations Kuninaga active. So with the practice of tôri-ji in mind, we can speculate that Awataguchi Kuniie might had been a student of a later Kuninaga. But it is of course also possible that the very character for “Kuni” had already been shared in his lineage of armorers and Kuniie so to speak brought it with him from Nara and his use of “Kuni” has nothing to do with the lineage of Gojô Kuninaga. Anyway, I said at the beginning of this series that I don’t want to go too much into historic detail and focus on kantei. But I also said I will introduce some historic background if it is necessary for the understanding of a certain subject. And the establishment of the Awataguchi School is such a case because as mentioned in the following, Kuniie’s six sons and their successors turned out to be the greatest masters of their time. It is thus hard to accept that a school like the Awataguchi came out of nowhere. So either Kuniie was a later and skilled smith from the lineage of Gojô Kuninaga, or he was a skilled armorer who reacted to the then local demand for elegant swords for the aristocracy, studied under a local smith, and worked with his six sons very hard to establish a forge that should become the first point of contact when it comes to high-quality blades. Before I come to the first tangible Awataguchi masters, please take a look here to read about the origins of the Rai School, a post of mine from last year that deals with a famous blade of Kuniyori. So if this blade is authentic and a work of this Awataguchi Kuniyori, then either the armorer approach should be dismissed, or already Kuniyori had changed his profession after his move to Kyôto and not just his son Kuniie. Lastly, I don’t want to leave out what is written in the early Kamakura-period work Uji Shûi Monogatari (宇治拾遺物語). This collection of Japanese tales of unknown author bases on a no longer existing work with the title Uji Dainagon Monogatari (宇治大納言物語), written by Minamoto no Takakuni (源隆国, 1004-1077) who was the Dainagon counselor of Uji. The later Uji Shûi Monogatari writes in Volume 1, Chapter 15: “He entered Kyôto from the Awataguchi Entrance […] nearby where the Awataguchi smiths reside/live.” So it seems that smiths were working there at the latest by the end of the 11th century but what makes this entry even more interesting is that this chapters starts with the words: “This is another old story.” This is a strong indicator for the assumption that the Awataguchi School does not go back to an armorer who had moved there at the very end of the Heian period. It is of course theoretically possible that the Awataguchi School had been active there as Gojô offshoot and mere below the radar level since mid-Heian times and that it was revived by an outsider, i.e. by Kuniie, who brought as a skilled armorer from Nara (the then heartland of master armorers) new blood into the school.



Kunitomo (国友) is the earliest Awataguchi smith of whom we have extant blades to work with (leaving aside the aforementioned Kuniyori tantô). He is traditionally dated around Kenkyû (建久, 1190-1199) and was the oldest son of Kuniie. The Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen states that he died in Kenpô one (建保, 1213) at the age of 67. Again, this information has to be taken with a grain of salt because as stated in my Masamune book, the publication gives for each and very smith his year of birth and death, a data that was not known to earlier authors and just pops up in the Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen that was published for the first time in Kansei four (寛政, 1792). Just wanted to address that at this point because when I am referring to dates forwarded by the Kotô Mei Zukushi Taizen in the future, I am not going to remind of their doubtfulness. So Kunitomo was summoned by the retired Emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽天皇, 1180-1239, r. 1184-1198) for his so-called goban-kaji (御番鍛冶) project and appears on the initial goban-kaji list as smith for the sixth month, and again on the list that features 24 smiths, on that one for the first month. By the way, also his son Norikuni (則国), his younger brother Kuniyasu (国安), and his nephew Kagekuni (景国) appear on goban-kaji lists and his younger brother Hisakuni (久国), Kagekuni’s father, had the honor to act as personal sword forging instructor of Gotoba. It is also said that Kunitomo’s father Kuniie was given the honorary post of supervisor of all goban-kaji. And this is why I think it is rather unlikely that an outsider came to Kyôto where he founded from scratch a school of sword makers whose smiths were considered right from the start as best of the best.

Extant works of Kunitomo are extremely rare and can be counted on one hand. The most famous one is the jûyô-bunkazai tachi that is preserved in the Atsuta-jingû (picture 1). It has a highly elegant and slender tachi-sugata with a deep koshizori that bends down towards the tip, much funbari, and a ko-kissaki. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame with ji-nie and the hamon a ko-nie-laden suguha with ko-ashi. The bôshi is sugu and has a smallish ko-maru-kaeri but appears almost as yakitsume. The tang of this blade is completely ubu. It tapers noticeably, has sujikai-yasurime, a kurijiri, and the finely chiselled mei is placed above the mekugi-ana and towards the back of the tang.


Picture 1: tachi, jûyô-bunkazai, mei “Kunitomo” (国友), nagasa 75.7 cm, sori 2.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, mitsu-mune

There is only one more signed tachi of Kunitomo known, or at least one more that is definitely attributable to Awataguchi Kunitomo. There is namely a tachi signed “Kunitomo tsukuru” (国友造) owned by the Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures (picture 3) that differs in terms of deki and signature style and that Honma hesitates attributing it to the Awataguchi smith and says it might actually be a Ko-Bizen work but from about the same time of production. However, it goes as Awataguchi work its designation as jûyô-bijutsuhin. Anyway, the other definite signed tachi of Kunitomo is a tokubetsu-jûyô (picture 2) and very close to the tachi of the Atsuta-jingû. It shows the same elegant and slender tachi-sugata with funbari and a deep koshizori but has an iori instead of a mitsu-mune. Also it is a little machi-okuri, although its tang has the original kijimomo-style shape whereas at the Atsuta-jingû blade, the end of the tang seems to have been altered so that it does not have this conspicuous curve. The tokubetsu-jûyô has a very dense ko-itame that is mixed with some itame and nagare in places and that appears with the ji-nie and chikei altogether as nashiji-hada. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden suguha-chô that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-ashi, , kinsuji, and sunagashi. The nioiguchi is rather wide and like the Atsuta-jingû blade, the ha tends to urumi in places. The bôshi is sugu and has a smallish ko-maru-kaeri but appears almost as yakitsume. Also we see a hint of hakikake at the very tip. There is a small koshibi on the haki-omote side that runs due to the machi-okuri a little into the tang.


Picture 2: tachi, tokubetsu-jûyô, mei “Kunitomo” (国友), nagasa 74.3, sori 2.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 3: tachi, jûyô-bijutsuhin, mei “Kunitomo tsukuru” (国友造), nagasa 72.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, slender and elegant tachi-sugata with a deep koshizorifunbari, and a ko-kissaki, the kitae is an itame mixed with mokume and ji-nie and the hamon is a ko-nie-laden suguha-chô mixed with ko-midare and kinsuji. Well, who am I to question Honma but from the overall interpretation and sugata and especially from the finish of the tang and the position of the signature, it would pass very well as Awataguchi Kunitomo for me.


Picture 4: tachi, tokubetsu-jûyô, mumei, attributed to Awataguchi Kunitomo, nagasa 76.6 cm, sori 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, elegant and slender tachi-sugata with a deep koshizorifunbari, and a ko-kissaki, the kitame is a dense ko-itame mixed with some itame here and there, nagare, ji-nie, and chikei, the hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-midare mixed with ko-gunome, ko-chôji, ashi, and plenty of kinsuji, the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake and kinsuji


Honma also says that there are two tantô that bear the mei “Kunitomo” which are no Awataguchi works but whose signatures don’t give the impression of being gimei of Awataguchi Kunitomo either. In other words, they are most likely works of another Kunitomo who is not found in the meikan and whom Honma attributes on the basis of the workmanship to the Yamato tradition, probably Senju’in school (and somewhat later than Awataguchi Kunitomo). Also he says that there are blades going round that bear the niji-mei “Fujibayashi/Tôrin” (藤林). Kunitomo is listed with the name Fujibayashi Saemon (藤林左衛門), although the exact reading or interpretation of this name is unclear. Some read it as “Fuji Hayashi Saemon,” i.e. Hayashi as the family name, “Saemon” as the first name, and “Fuji” referring to the clan name Fujiwara (藤原). Another theory suggests that the entire name is completely read as one first name, i.e. as “Tôrinzaemon.” And the reading “Fujibayashi/Tôrin Saemon” follows the assumption that Kunitomo´s first name was Saemon and that he signed his family name Hayashi and Fuji for the clan name Fujiwara in a conbined version as “Fujibayashi” which can also be read “Tôrin.” Now Honma says that such a Fujibayashi/Tôrin signed tachi was once submitted for an old kichô-tôken shinsa. The blade indeed did look like an Awataguchi-mono but it did not pass because of the suspicious or rather very uncommon signature. And then there is the kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri, kikuchi-yari-style ken signed “Fujibayashi/Tôrin” that was once owned by Naruse Masanari (成瀬正成, 1567-1625), the first daimyô of the Inuyama fief of Owari province. Here too, no one dares to attribute the work to Awataguchi Kunitomo, even if old sword publications say that Kunitomo also signed with the niji-mei “Fujibayashi/Tôrin” and even depict drawings of tangs with this mei.

Copies, homages, and reinterpretations

Just a couple of weeks ago I was following a discussion on NMB but couldn’t find the time to participate, and when I was finishing the reformatting of the Keichô-shintô project the other day, this thread and the discussions we had on the topic of utsushimono at two of our NBTHK-EB meetings (in 2009 and in 2014) came back to my mind. So before I continue with the kantei series, I would take the liberty of forwarding my two cents on this topic.

When talking about copies of blades, the term utsushimono (写し物) comes into play which means, well, “copy” but which can be used in a pretty broad sense. And that is the crux of the matter because when the term utsuhimono – or short utsushi (写し), e.g. as a suffix – is dropped, we need to differentiate. First of all, there is the “true copy,” that means a work that copies as faithfully as possible a concrete blade. For example the meibutsu Koryû-Kagemitsu (小竜景光) made by the Bizen smith Kagemitsu in the second year of Genkô (元享, 1322). Several smiths made copies of this blade, some of them on their own initiative but most because of being asked to do so by a customer. In my Tameshigiri book I introduced two Koryû-Kagemitsu-utsushi by the shinshintô smith Koyama Munetsugu (固山宗次). Interesting in this case is that Munetsugu made first, i.e. in Kôka four (弘化, 1847), a “reconstructed copy” of how the blade must have looked like initially (see picture 1 left). The Koryû-Kagemitsu has been shortened, although it still measures magnificent 80.6 cm in nagasa (see picture 1 center). Considerably later, i.e. in Bunkyû two (文久, 1862), Munetsugu made a 1:1 copy of the then condition of the meibutsu, and interesting this time, he also copied the signature of the original 1:1 and signed himself on the back of the tang (see picture 1 right). Please note that this does not come under the category of gimei as the smith added his name at least somewhere on the tang. But even if Munetsugu had not added his name on the back of the tang we would not see this blade as gimei. Meibutsu blades of the calibre of a Koryû-Kagemitsu can be compared to the Mona Lisa. So even if you make a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa, everybody knows that the original hangs in the Louvre and it is next to impossible to trick anyone buying it as original. Of course there were also schemes around meibutsu but they almost always evolved around a famous blade that was long believed to be lost but suddenly popped up somewhere, for sale of course. Details on the backgrounds of why and for whom Munetsugu made these copies can be found in my Tameshigiri book but it should be mentioned here that Munetsugu must have had the original in hand as the copy is indeed pretty close, that means much closer as you can make one just on the basis of oshigata drawings and plain measurements.


Picture 1: The Koryû-Kagemitsu and its two Koyama Munetsugu utsushi

I was already briefly talking about utsushimono in this post and like in the case above, the Fudô-Kuniyuki-utsushi of Nobukuni Shigekane (信国重包) can be considered as a “true copy.” That means even if the original meibutsu had to be retempered about 70 years before Shigekane got to work with it, his approach was still the attempt to copy as faithfully as possible a concrete blade. This brings us to the first “grey area.” Namely even supposing the Fudô-Kuniyuki had been missing at the time of Shigekane and all he had was good enough oshigata and descriptions, the result would still be considered as utsushimono as he copied, or tried to copy a concrete blade, although no longer existing. So the term utsushimono applies here too but it might not be paraphrased as “true copy.” In other words, the farther away the oshigata and descriptions from the original, the more we are entering the realms of a mere homage and eventually end up at a “free interpretation” of the Fudô-Kuniyuki if for example all that Shigekane had to work with was the order to “make me something like the famous but lost Rai blade” and the brief description that it had a this and that horimono and that it measured 1 shaku 9 sun 9 bu in nagasa. But of course also a smith (or his client) can specifically decide to make more like an homage, even if the original is still extant and could act as a model. An example for that are some of Echizen Yasutsugu’s (越前康継) copies of the meibutsu that were damaged by fire when Ôsaka Castle fell in 1615 and which he was ordered to retemper. So Yasutsugu made some “true copies” of these blades whilst he had the chance to study them hands on – or at least what was left of them in terms of steel, shape, and engravings – but he sometimes also copied just the sugata and horimono and added his own hamon. That means he did not even try to recreate the kind of hamon that the blades once might have shown. Again, they are still referred to as as utsushimono. By the way, I was talking about one of Yasutsugu’s “true copies” here.

Then there is the next category of “copies,” namely utsushi not of concrete blades but of styles of a smith or school. For example, if Koyama Munetsugu had made a blade that tries to reproduce the style of Kagemitsu, we would speak of a Kagemitsu-utsushi. Remember, the copy of the Koryû-Kagemitsu is not a Kagemitsu-utsushi but a Koryû-Kagemitsu-utushi. Many many blades were made over the centuries that try to copy the style of a certain school or master. I want to leave out the cultural backround but just one remark, it is common in East Asia for a craftsman to measure his own skill with that of a great master by trying to copy his works over and over again, not seldom over decades. Its just a learning and maturing process (artistically and spiritually) – learning through imitation – and does not mean that one uncreative. But lets get back to the topic. So if a smith tries for example to recreate a blade that is interpreted just like Osafune Kanemitsu (長船兼光) would have made a blade, it is referred to as Kanemitsu-utsushi, and if he tries to recreate a blade in the style of the Aoe School, it is referred to as Aoe-utsushi. And as borders between true copies and homages are fluid, there are other terms than utsushi or utsushimono which might nail the subtle differences better. For example nerau (狙う), “to aim at,” and narau (倣う・傚う), “to emulate, to imitate.” Incidentally, the term for learning, narau, has the same etymological origins (not going into detail on the sophisticated etymological differences of the characters for narau here). A little weaker form of saying “to aim at, to emulate, to imitate” is omowaseru (思わせる) which translates as “gives the impression of,” “has the appearance of” or “sth. reminds of sth.” For instance, a free interpretation that reminds of the style of Kanemitsu or of the Aoe School might be described as “Kanemitsu o omowaseru (兼光を思わせる)” or “Aoe-mono o omowaseru (青江物を思わせる)” respectively. It now depends on the writer, i.e. we see texts where such a free interpretation is still referred to as utsushi, but also such where it is stated that A tried to emulate B, that C aimed at D, and that a certain work reminds of X. So what its gonna be also depends on the context. Some smiths are known for focusing on concrete utsushi, for example Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤) who often copied or aimed at famous Osafune masters like Kanemitsu and Kagemitsu, whereas others rather reinterpreted certain things, for example Hankei (繁慶) and his working with the Sôshû tradition.

That brings us back to the different approaches of the smiths and it must be mentioned at this point that an utsushi is not considered as a forgery. Also forgeries try to reproduce a certain style, or even a concrete blade, as faithfully as possible, but they then “claim” to be a work of that school or smith or to be that very blade. In short, different intention. Or in other words, it doesn’t have to be by a great master or a very close copy but if the buyer/owner knows that the blade was made as copy of or as an homage to a certain school or smith, everything is fine. Like indicated above, it was very common to approach a smith and order a blade with the requirement it should be in the style of Kanemitsu or of the Rai School for example. Did myself so about ten years ago when I commissioned master Matsuba Kunimasa (松葉國正) with making me a naginata-naoshi style wakizashi that bases, freely, on a certain Ko-Aoe blade. What about the historic aspect? It is safe to assume that copies and forgeries coexisted from earliest times onwards. That means, learning through imitation was there what creates copies/imitations and making money from selling someone something cheap as something more valueable is is as human as it gets. So swords are of course no exception. It is hard to say for pre-Nanbokuchô smiths but one of the earliest examples of copying/imitating/recreating – isolated from the works left from the mere learning-through-imitation process – is the Ôei-Bizen group. When the turmoils of the Nanbokuchô period were over the Ashikaga family reinstalled the post of shôgun back in Kyôto and the upper warrior class was again trying to catch up with the cultural world of the aristocracy, after having tried something new and different, something more martial and bold in Kamakura. This is very well reflected in the sword fashions when the Bizen tradition, which was predominating during Kamakura times, was given up in the Nanbokuchô era in favor of the wild Sôshû tradition, which was given up again with the relocation of the bakufu to Kyôto in favor of the Bizen tradition. That means we see a significant backwards orientation at Ôei-Bizen as the group made blades in reminiscence of their great Kamakura predecessors. Another example for early utsushi are the numerous Rai or Yamashiro copies of the Sue-Seki smiths. My theory on the success of these copies is as follows: By that time, i.e. later Muromachi, sword forging in Yamashiro, that means Kyôto, was with entering the 1500s virtually non-existing and it is assumed that one reason for that was the massive “urban exodus” of the local smiths with the outbreak of the Ônin War. But unlike the changing fashions for long swords, classical koshigatana were always in demand. The koshigatana market had been predominated by the Yamashiro smiths as they equipped the warrior elite from the start with their fine daggers. Thus the peak of highest-quality tantô production is in the Kamakura period. The larger hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi that became increasingly in use with the Nanbokuchô period were a hint more utilitarian than the koshigatana, or at least more utilitarian than the “status symbol koshigatana” that were worn with formal costumes. So by the late Muromachi period, there were no Yamashiro masters at whom one could place an order for a classical koshigatana, i.e. a medium-sized tantô with harmonious proportions, a fine hada, and an elegant sugaha hamon. And thus warriors were approaching the then Seki masters who made them classical and high-quality koshigatana but which were much more affordable than looking for the real thing, i.e. trying to buy an Awataguchi or Rai original which always had been expensive. The Momoyama era experienced a “rediscovery” of the great early Sôshû masters and details on that like the upper warrior classes “need” for owning certain masters and the effect on then sword fashion can be found in my recent Masters of Keicho-Shinto and my Masamune book. But this much is to say: Sôshû was the order of the day and virtually every master or aspiring master was making Sôshû copies or a stab at the Sôshû tradition at that time.

And then came the shintô era of sword making which brought a lot of changes. The continuous peace, urbanization, accumulation of wealth for a higher number of individuals, and the conservative formation of an upper bourgeoisie had the effect that swordsmiths saw themselves more than ever as artists rather than as craftsmen. As a result, faithfully imitating certain predecessing masters or styles was no longer enough. Kotô blades are pretty much form follows function coupled with a special sense of aesthetics, i.e. simply put, the aesthetics of nativeness or natural simplicity. The great Ôsaka-shintô, Edo-shintô and early Hizen masters (just to name a few) developed with their strong creative power certain concepts, that means they started to separated the individual aesthetics of a blade like the sugata, jigane, hamon, and bôshi, just to rearrange them according to their overall idea of a sword blade. And utsushimono were no exception. Still “true copies” were made but we see more and more idealized reinterpretations of certain styles. In other words, these shintô masters reflected what constituted for example the Yamashiro tradition or for which the Yamashiro tradition was recognized for and banned these very elements onto canvas, in their case onto a sword blade. To stay with the example Yamashiro, the Yamashiro tradition is first of all famous for a densely forged, uniform jigane and a highly elegant suguha or suguha-chô. Accordingly, the great shintô masters focused on these elements and highlighted them at their own discretion. This changed again with shinshintô times as the shinshintô masters so to speak had to – after almost a decade of lean spell and a decrease in demand for swords and a decline craftsmanship – “reinvent” the whole wheel and were first of all aiming again at the kotô models. Rephrased, they first had to “learn” again through imitation before they were able to go over to free reinterpretations (which are by the way hardly seen in shinshintô anyway). Using the example of car makers and the Jaguar E-Type, the shinshintô masters were making as faithful as possible Jaguar E-Type retros whilst the shintô masters took everything for what that icon of a car stands for and created something new that might only remind of the original at a glance, or that can only be recognized as being Jaguar E-Type inspired when you have a decent undertanding of classic cars. But if the master was a great master, you can see what his inspiration was, how he skillfully highlighted certain elements, and how he really conveyed the aesthetics of the E-Type, oh pardon me, the Yamashiro tradition. But if a master was not that good, you might get what he was aiming at but the result is in the worst case a “Yamashiro grotesque.” Just like the thin line between an outstanding and a “too much” concept car.

Perfect timing, Aoi Art just put an interesting piece on sale. Link here (and picture below). It is a copy of a copy, that means Kasama Ikkansai Shigetsugu (笠間一貫斎繁継, 1886-1965) copied a blade by Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778-1857) which the latter had modelled, rather freely if you compare it to the three originals introduced in my Masamune book, on one of the Hôchô-Masamune. Like Koyama Munetsugu, Shigetsugu also copied the signature “Mo Hôchô-Masamune Naotane + kaô” (模包丁正宗直胤) of Naotane’s copy (or rather homage). Shigetsugu himself signed on the ura side, interestingly with “Ikkansai kore o tsukuru” (一貫斎造之), i.e. just with his and omitting his smith name (blade got papered to Shigetsugu by the way, so it is none of the other numerous Ikkansai smiths).


Leaving aside the art aspect, making a convincing and “true copy,” for example making a Koryû-Kagemitsu-utsushi, requires quite a high level of skill. Imagine how perfectly you have to master the craft to know how to arrange, fold, and forge your initial steel bundle and harden the blade to get in the end the exact same kinsuji at the exact same spot as on the original. You can do a lot with tsuchioki but in general, there are no tricks or shortcuts. That means you can’t “draw” a kinsuji onto a blade. It is just amazing how some smiths did this!

Masters of Keicho-Shinto


As announced a few days ago on Facebook, I was preparing a humble book that has the following background:

Last year, a client of mine who collects first and foremost Keicho-shinto (and who wishes to remain anonymous) commissioned me with compiling a work that quasi complements his collection (his blades are not featured). I’ve done it under the title “Masters of Keicho-Shinto” and it is quasi a catalog to a fictional, ideal exhibition on swords from that era. It features several works (about 100) of the then, well-known masters (35 in total) like Umetada Myoju, Horikawa Kunihiro, Horikawa Kuniyasu, Osumi no Jo Masahiro, Dewa no Daijo Kunimichi, Etchu no Kami Masatoshi, Kinmichi, Kashu Kanewaka, Hizen Tadayoshi, Hankei, Nanki Shigekuni, Sagami no Kami Masatsune, Echizen Yasutsugu, Owari Nobutaka, Harima Teruhiro, Hida no Kami Ujifusa and so on. Now my client has decided to share that info and asked me if I can make it a real book (original was PDF only). We/I will make it only available directly via me for the time being (b/w paperback) and for my client this is an opportunity to get some of his initial investment in this project back (so only a small part of the sales go to me as I was already paid back then of course). It comes with a detailed intro into the subject and should make an excellent reference for those who are interested in Keicho-shinto and the Momoyama-era sword style. Preview is provided below.


Price for the US letter format paberback 204p b/w book is 50 USD and 10 USD flat for shipping everywhere (except Australia which is 15 USD and Russia which is 20 USD shipping, sorry guys). As mentioned, it is direct order only for the time being. Easiest way is to PayPal me the total amount to “markus.sesko@gmail.com” and forward me your shipping details (+ phone number as Lulu asks for it) and I will have Luluy print a copy and send it to your place right away. Of course also checks and wire transfers are welcomed. Just get in touch with me at the aforementioned address. Also if you have any further questions.

eBook available here.

[Original post edited as introduced item has been sold.]


Gendaito Project Update 2


Just want to add a few thoughts on the upcoming Gendaito book but first of all, a big THANK YOU to all who provided me with material via the separate gendaitoproject@gmail.com address, facebook, the NMB, and everywhere else. Please understand that I will wait with replying and asking specific questions until the actual writing job starts. As mentioned earlier, I have gathered about 1,100 smiths and aim is to record and publish once and for all as many smiths as possible. I have also mentioned that there are quite many where no pictures or oshigata are available but which will be published too, or course, and this most likely collected and in a separate section. Apart from that, I am facing certain page limits, 800 pages to be precise, but it doesn’t make much sense to approach this limit anyway as I have learned that anything that big is prone to fall apart or get “wobbly.” The “sound barrier” is somewhere around 600~650 pages, which is within easy reach at more than 1,000 smiths. And I am not going to make it two volumes. As picture quality is also an issue, this will definitely not be a coffee-table book with details of hamon or jigane and an ouvre of each smiths works (much as I would like).

To sum it up: This book will not be a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Top priority is as indicated recording the CV’s of as many smiths as possible, accompanied by pictures/oshigata of signatures so that the book also work as a reference for mei comparisons. To leave the focus on the smiths, I also don’t want to toss off a half-hearted chapter on the history of gendaitô, but what I want to do is to follow up something like a Nihon Gendaitô Shi, so to speak continuing my Nihon Shinto Shi and Nihon Shinshinto Shi, that contains all that information like production sites, programs, contests, etc.

That should do it for tonight and thanks for your attention.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #5 – Ayanokôji (綾小路) School

Sadatoshi (定利) is regarded as the de facto founder and, in practical terms, also as the almost solitary representative of the Ayanokôji School. It is not exactly clear where he came from, scholastically speaking, but records say since olden times that he lived in the Ayanokôji district of Kyôto what earned his school or group its name. There is the tradition that Sadatoshi was the son-in-law of a certain Nagamasa (永昌), the legendary ancestor of the school. Some say that Nagamasa came originally from Tôtômi province and then there was also a northern Môgusa smith of the same name who was allegedly active in the late Heian period. As seen in the genealogy presented below, Nagamasa was suceeded by his heir Sukesada (介定) and then Sueyuki (末行) followed as next head Ayanokôji main line. Also we see that as far as records are concerned, the school had quite a wide genealogy and it seems that it must had been very much flourishing back then. But for whatever reason, not a single blade has survived of any other Ayanokôji smith than of Sadatoshi and Sadayoshi (定吉) and “funny” is, that Sadayoshi does not even appear in the earlier genealogies of the school. Another problem we are facing with the Ayanokôji School is that all the handed down active periods seem to be too late. Experts agree in the meanwhile that Sadatoshi was probably active earlier than it is stated in the old records, which date him around Bun’ei (文永, 1264-75). In concrete terms, the shape and first and foremost very classical workmanship of his blades rather suggests early than mid Kamakura. This in turn would place Nagamasa somewhere from the end of the Heian to the early Kamakura period, what matches more with the handed-down active period of Môgusa Nagamasa, Heiji (平治, 1159-1160), than with that of Ayanokôji Nagamasa, which is Kenchô (建長, 1249-1256). The pushing back of Sadatoshi’s handed down active period is also supported by another factor, namely his relation to Rai Kuniyuki (来国行), the earliest Rai smiths of whom works are extant. There are theories that Ayanokôji Sadatoshi and Rai Kuniyuki made daisaku works for each other and that Kuniyuki was Sadatoshi’s son, i.e. that they really worked very closely together. The degree of truth of all that might never be found out but what we can say is that their workmanship has indeed many things in common. And due to a relative good evidence base of dated works of Kuniyuki’s son Kunitoshi, we can date Rai Kuniyuki around Shôgen (正元, 1259-1260) and going from there, again Ayanokôji Sadatoshi’s handed down active period of Bun’ei (文永, 1264-75) seems to be too late as his works are for sure more classic and a little older than that of Rai Kuniyuki. Tanobe sensei sums it up with: “When we take into consideration all extant blades of Sadatoshi, we can see more common points in terms of sugata and jiba with classic Ko-Kyô-mono like Sanjô or Gojô than with Rai Kuniyuki. And the majority of Kuniyuki’s works looks at least one generation younger than those of Sadatoshi. But it is possible that the later active period of Sadatoshi overlapped with the early active period of Kuniyuki.” For the sake of completeness, I also want to forward some other approaches concerning the background of Sadatoshi. It is namely also said that he was the son of the Yamato Senju’in smith Tôgorô Sadamune (藤五郎定宗) who was active around Jôô (貞応, 1222-1224). This would kind of match in terms of his actual active period but there is hardly any Yamato influence seen in Sadatoshi’s blades. Also it is speculated that Sadatoshi might not have been an Ayanokôji smith at all. That means, he rather worked in the vicinity of the early Awataguchi and the very beginning of the Rai School and his only connection to the “real” Ayanokôji School was that he was married to Nagamasa’s daughter and eventually moved to their place in Ayanokôji. In other words, the rather “below-the-radar” group of smiths around Nagamasa and Sukesada that worked in Kyôto’s Ayanokôji only made it into the records because of Nagamasa being connected via his daughter to the, obviously very active and Awataguchi/Rai-related grandmaster Sadatoshi and not the other way round.


Well, the true connections of the earliest Yamashiro smiths might be lost forever in the mists of time so let’s go over to what is tangible, and that is Ayanokôji Sadatoshi’s workmanship. Sadatoshi made tachi with a noticeable taper, funbari, a deep koshizori that bends down towards the tip, and that end in a ko-kissaki. So all in all, his tachi are sender and of a very classical elegance. I might sound like a broken record but as long as we find ourselves in pre mid-Kamakura times, we will come over and over again terms like “elegant” and “classical.” Back to Sadatoshi. I have mentioned that we can see similarities in workmanship to Rai Kuniyuki but that does not necessarily apply to the sugata. That means, if you have a blade where you hover between Sadatoshi and Kuniyuki, go back again one step and take another look at the sugata. Kuniyukis tachi, at least those which are interpreted in a more slender manner, don’t taper that much, rather show a torii than a koshizori, and feature a ko-kissaki comes with a hint of chû or ikubi. In short, Sadatoshi’s tachi tend more towards Heian than to mid-Kamakura. As for the jigane, Sadatoshi’s steel is described as toromekite (蕩めきて, lit. “melted, sticky, syrupy”) and nebaki-yô ni mietari (粘きように見たり, lit. “has a sticky/viscous look”) in old sources. That means his jigane looks soft, “sticky” and a little subdued, compared to the bright and clear steel of Awataguchi and Rai works for example. The kitae is an excellently forged itame to ko-itame that can be mixed with some mokume and that shows plenty of ji-nie and occasionally also some fine and unobtrusive chikei. Sometimes the hada also stands out and the ji-nie might tend to nie-utsuri with jifu whereas some works show an approach of shirake. Sadatoshi usually hardened a ko-nie-laden mix of ko-midare, ko-chôji and ko-gunome whose elements are rather densely arranged and might connect to groups of several ko-chôji or ko-gunome in places. Along these connected groups, the ha usually appears as suguha-chô but apart from that, we see ups and downs and also some togari. The nioiguchi as well as the entire ha are altogether rather subdued. In addition, we usually see ko-ashi, , fine kinsuji and sunagashi. And the partially connected, partially disconnected, but often quite prominent yubashiri, the small tobiyaki, and the nijûba elements create that classical, “layered” and subjectively ancient look that ties Sadatoshi more to the Sanjô and Gojô Schools than to a technical mid-Kamakura background with its noticeable more sophisticated and magnificent interpretations. Another important kantei point are the mostly strong hakikake and nie-kuzure in the bôshi. The bôshi itself is suguha-chô to midare-komi and has a ko-maru-kaeri, a frayed tip where it is hard to define how the turnback is formed, or runs out as yakitsume.


Picture 1: Characteristic features of Ayanokôji Sadatoshi’s workmanship.

The ubu tangs of Sadatoshi are finished in kijimomo-gata or at least tend to kijimomo and show sujikai-yasurime. Sadatoshi always signed with a niji-mei which is chiselled in a beautifully ancient-looking manner. The character for “Sada” is in its cursive style quite peculiar and is noticeably larger than the character for “toshi.” The mei itself is always arranged pretty close to the nakago-mune and sits at blades with a bôhi below of where the groove runs out as kaki-nagashi. Well, the range of extant Sadatoshi signatures differs a little but Tanobe says that they all show about the same dymanic ductus and can be traced back to the same craftsman, although to different stages in his active period. Tsuneishi suggests that those mei which are overall somewhat smaller and where the character for “toshi” is noticeably larger or of the same size as the character for “Sada” are works of the 2nd generation Sadatoshi who signed his name in early years with the characters (定俊). And Satô Kanzan mentions a signed (almost sunnobi) hira-zukuri tantô from the possessions of the Gotoh Museum (五島美術館) which shows a pure suguha and which is somewhat inferior in quality than the extant Sadatoshi tachi. But he says that the mei does not look gimei at all and that this blade might thus actually be a work of the 2nd generation Sadatoshi. Incidentally, Tsuneishi quotes pretty specific differences in workmanship between the first and second generations Sadatoshi. He says that the second generation mostly hardened a more calm suguha-hotsure with lesser nie-hataraki and prominent hajimi, and that his itame is mixed with masame, stands more out, is mixed with ô-hada, and shows more shirake. He also says that the second generation made more kodachi than tachi.


Picture 2: kokuhô, tachi, mei “Sadatoshi” (定利), nagasa 78.8 cm, sori 3.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, this blade is regarded as the best extant work of Sadatoshi [former heirloom of the Abe (阿部) family, the daimyô of the Bingo Fukuyama fief (福山藩), today preserved in the Tôkyô National Museum]


Picture 3: jûyô, tachi, mei “Sadatoshi” (定利), nagasa 67.7 cm, sori 2.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, this blade shows one of the most classical deki of Sadatoshi and Tanobe writes that it “establishes intuitively as well as objectively a connection to Sanjô or Gojô” [former heirloom of the Naitô (内藤) family, the daimyô of the Echigo Murakami (村上藩) fief]


Picture 4: tokubetsu-jûyô, tachi, mei “Sadatoshi” (定利), nagasa 71.8 cm, sori 1.1 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Now to Sadayoshi (定吉). He is listed as son, student, or contemporary of Sadatoshi, in short, we don’t know fore sure how he was related to the latter. He is traditionally dated around Kôan (弘安, 1278-1288) but this has to be seen with the traditional Bun’ei (文永, 1264-75) dating of Sadatoshi which is, as mentioned, no longer sustainable. His works are as classical as Sadatoshi’s and Satô states that he knows two tachi of Sadayoshi which really look like works of Sadatoshi at a glance in terms of tachi-sugata and interpretation of the jiba. One of them is shown in picture 5. It shows a classically elegant tachi-sugata with funbari and a ko-kissaki. The kitae is a dense ko-itame with fine ji-nie and the hamon a ko-nie-laden mix of ko-chôji-midare with kinsuji and some protruding kawazu no ko-chôji along the monouchi. The nioiguchi is subdued and the bôshi is a shallow notare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri. The tang comes in a kijimono-gata with sujikai-yasurime like at Sadatoshi and please note that also the signature is executed in a very similar way, i.e. showing a cursive-style character for “Sada” and the second character being smaller than the first one.


Picture 5: tachi, mei “Sadayoshi” (定吉), nagasa 77.3 cm, sori 3.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune [preserved in the Tôkyô National Museum]


Picture 6: jûyô-bunkazai, tachi, mei “Sadayoshi” (定吉), nagasa 70.4 cm, sori 2.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune. This blade was initially attributed to the Chikuzen Sa smith of the same name but recent studies have revealed, that because of its jiba and signature style, it is most likely a work of Ayanokôji Sadayoshi.


By the way, one of my most favorite blades is a tokubetsu-jûyô Ayanokôji Sadatoshi. It was shown to me by a gentleman when I spend some time in the Hokuriku region some years ago. It is neither the most spectacular blade nor the healthiest early kotô blade I have seen. Its beauty is of a restrained, understated nature. It does not try to impress and is thus of true classical elegance, although I have to mention that I am a Yamashiro guy (apart from Aoe works which I like very much too). Looking at that blade gave me a flash of 800 years of Japanese history, of old Kyôto, of aristocratic Heian culture on the eve to warrior culture and much more. It made me walk home with a big smile on my face because, well, you can’t keep up the same constant level of enthusiasm and motivation as there are those days where you ask yourself, what the heck am I doing and did I make the right decisions? But if somebody had asked me why I was smiling, I would have replied that with looking at that outstanding sword, I just got reassured that my life is on the right track…