In this chapter I will introduce the last relevant Rai smiths, starting with Kunisue (国末) who was allegedly the third son of grand master Rai Kunitoshi, so at least according to the oldest extant sword publication, the Kanchi’in Bon Meizukushi, whose core data was compiled whilst all these masters were still alive. The source also says that he died in his thirties. However, the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen says that he was not the son but the younger brother of Kunitoshi, that he was born in the Kenchô (建長, 1249) and died in the Shôchû era (正中, 1324-1326) at the age of 76. Interesting is that the Kanchi’in Bon Meizukushi lists Kunisue at another point, namely in a Rai genealogy, as younger brother of Kunitoshi (like the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen does). So the source is not consistent in this regard. Anyway, there is only one signed blade of Rai Kunisue extant, what would support the approach that he died young, but there is another tradition, namely the one that he later moved to the Hikigayatsu (比企谷) neighborhood of Kamakura, and this in turn would speak in my opinion rather for that he lived longer. Due to this alleged Kamakura connection, which is by the way found in both of the above mentioned sources, Kunisue is also referred to as Hiki-Rai (比企来). As indicated, there are virtually no blades of him extant, i.e. not a single one that bears a designation by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, nor any one that is jûyô or tokubetsu-jûyô. The mentioned signed blade is designated as a jûyô-bijutsuhin and shown in picture 1. It has a suriage-nagasa of 72.9 cm and the original length is estimated with around 79 cm. It is rather slender, tapers noticeably, has a relative thick kasane, a deep sori, and a ko-kissaki. The kitae is a dense and excellently forged ko-itame that is mixed with mokume and some jifu in places. In addition, ji-nie, chikei, and a jifu-utsuri appears. The hamon is a chû-suguha that tends a little to shallow notare. It is mixed with ko-ashi, saka-ashi, and “soft” looking yô and the hardening is in nioi-deki with only a hint of fine ko-nie. The bôshi is sugu with a short ko-maru-kaeri. Both sides bear a bôhi with ryô-chiri that runs on the omote side as kaki-tôshi through, and on the ura side as kaki-nagashi into the tang. We also see traces of a tsurebi in the kissaki. The tang is suriage as mentioned, shows katte-sagari yasurime, and bears on the hira-ji a rather small sanji-mei.
Picture 1: jûyô-bijutsuhin, tachi, mei “Rai Kunisue” (来国末), nagasa 72.9 cm, sori 1.98 cm, motohaba 2.8 cm, sakihaba 1.75 cm, kasane 0.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Now the jigane speaks because of the densely forged ko-itame and the clarity of the steel basically for Rai but we also see a considerable amount of mokume as well as jifu that tends to jifu-utsuri in places, what results with the saka-ashi in a slightly Aoe or Un feel. Honma places the mei on the basis of its smaller size in the vicinity of Rai Kunimitsu and also sees him rather as a contemporary of the latter than of Kunitoshi. He also says that judging from this blade, Kunisue was surely a very skilled smith but does not reach the quality level of the top Rai Kunimitsu works. He further states that the hada stands more out and the jigane is stronger than at Kunitoshi and Kunimitsu. Incidentally, the blade was once a heirloom of the Sakai (酒井) family, the daimyô of the Shônai fief of Dewa province. It was later owned by Honma sensei’s younger brother, Honma Yûsuke (本間祐介). Incidentally, the smiths of the Rai School we are dealing with today are highlighted below.
Via Kunisue we arrive at an offshoot of the school, and that is the so-called Nakajima-Rai (中島来) branch which was founded by Kunisue’s son Kuninaga (国長). Please note that Kuninaga and his successor are both also referred to as Nakajima-Rai. So when you hear the term Nakajima-Rai, it almost always means first and second generation Rai Kuninaga and only in certain cases it is about the branch in general or about other smiths from that branch. Now Kuninaga was trained by Kunitoshi and turned out to be a great master himself, leaving us today two jûyô-bunkazai and about 100 jûyô (of which one made it tokubetsu-jûyô, counting both works that bear attributions to Rai Kuninaga and to Nakajima-Rai). These blades comprise all categories, i.e. tachi/katana, hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi, and tantô, and even a naginata-naoshi is among them. Thus we have quite an impressive body of work to deal with. To my knowledge, there are no dated blades of Kuninaga extant but he is traditionally placed around Gentoku (元徳, 1329-1331), with his successor of the same name somewhere between Shôhei (正平, 1346-1370) and Ôan (応安, 1368-1375). The Kotô Meizukushi Taizen however sees Kuninaga as son of Kunisue’s son-in-law Kuniyasu (国安, who will be introduced later) and states that he was 24 years old in the Enbun era. But this would rule out that he had studied with Kunitoshi and would place him much later than stated by all the other sources. So I stick to the above mentioned approach that he was the son of Kunisue, a student of Kunitoshi, and active from the very end of the Kamakura to the early Nanbokuchô period (and not that his career just started in mid-Nanbokuchô). Anyway, Kuninaga moved at some point (the Nihontô Kôza says during the Gentoku era) to Nakajima in Settsu province, thus the nickname Nakajima-Rai. Disclaimer: I will deal with the smiths who emerged from all these local offshoots in corresponding chapters, i.e. Settsu, Echizen and so on).
When we take a look at the above mentioned body of work as a whole, we learn first that signed blades are very rare, and second that we have on the one hand a few more classical blades, and on the other hand noticeable more that are either quite magnificent or come with an ô-kissaki that clearly speak for heyday Nanbokuchô. Accordingly, a shift in generations is obvious, although we can’t say for sure when exactly it took place, and it seems as if the second generation was more productive. It is said that smaller, more angular signatures are that of the first and larger, more roundish signatures that of the second generation. The differentiation of the meiburi seems to match with the differences in sugata and production time. Please note that in the case of Kuninaga, the NBTHK treats the generations equally in terms of quality. In other words, they do not, as it is sometimes the case, attribute the best works to the first and the somewhat inferior ones to the second generation but orientate themselves merely on the sugata and the interpretation of the jiba (and meiburi of course in those rare cases where a signature is present). In this sense, it should be mentioned that the one and only tokubetsu-jûyô of Kuninaga is a work of the second generation and if you have a blade that is attributed to the Nidai, it means just that it was made by the (worthy) successor and doesn’t imply at all that it is inferior in quality. As for the attribution criteria to Rai Kuninaga, the Hon’ami family used to handle it that way that mumei blades which are close to Rai Kunimitsu in interpretation but are somewhat inferior in quality get an attribution to Rai Kuninaga or ti Nakajima-Rai. And the NBTHK seems to follow this approach. Simply speaking, it means that if you have a Hon’ami origami or a NBTHK attribution of an unsigned blade to Rai Kuninaga or to Nakajima-Rai, it means that it is in their eyes a very good Rai work from the close vicinity of Kunimitsu but insufficient to pass as such. There is room for discussion of course but that’s the general approach. Next I introduce, in chronological order, some works of the two generations Rai Kuninaga as I want to talk about “attribution labels” like that separately.
The blade shown in picture 2 is one of the two jûyô-bunkazai. It is attributed to the first generation, bears a smallish mei, and its sugata with the elongated chû-kissaki speaks clearly for a blade that was made before the heyday of the Nanbokuchô period. In short, we can date it somewhere from the very end of the Kamakura to the early Nanbokuchô period. The kitae is a ko-itame with some masame, plenty of ji-nie, and the steel is clear. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with many ko-ashi, some uchinoke and kuichigai-ba, and that widens at the monouchi where it tends a little to kuzure and from where it runs into an (almost) ichimai–bôshi. So by just looking at the oshigata, one might be even reminded of Gô Yoshihiro at first glance with this wide and wild monouchi and the widely hardened bôshi. The tang is suriage and shows katte-sagari yasurime. This tachi is considered as the greatest masterwork of Rai Kuninaga and as being equal in terms of quality to his contemporary Rai Kunimitsu. It was once worn by Takeda Shingen (武田信玄, 1521-1573) and was later offered by one his his local successors, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (柳沢吉保, 1659-1714), daimyô of the Kôfu fief of Kai province, to the Enri-ji (恵林寺, Yamanashi Prefecture) which still owns it today.
Picture 2: jûyô-bunkazai, tachi, mei “Rai Kuninaga” (来国長), nagasa 79.3 cm, sori 2.5 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, sakihaba 1.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
The next blade (picture 3) is ô-suriage mumei and attributed to Rai Kuninaga and because of its pre-heyday Nanbokuchô sugata (i.e. chû-kissaki and noticeable taper), I tend to attribute it to the first generation for the time being, although it is already rather wide, has a shallow sori for its length, and was once pretty long. The jigane is a standing-out ko-itame that is mixed with mokume, nagare-masame, and jifu. In addition, plenty of ji-nie, chikei, and a nie-utsuri appear. The hamon is a nie-laden chû-suguha-chô that is mixed with ko-gunome, ko-chôji, many ashi and yô, and towards the top and bottom also with nijûba and long kuichigai-ba. The nioiguchi is rather tight and is bright and clear. The bôshi is sugu with a relative wide ko-maru-kaeri and shows some hakikake at the very tip.
Picture 3: jûyô, tachi, mumei, attributed to Rai Kuninaga, nagasa 76.5 cm, sori 1.8 cm, motohaba 3.2 cm, sakihaba 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Picture 4 shows another blade that is probably a work of the first generation. It is ô-suriage, has a normal mihaba, a relative deep sori for its length, and a chû-kissaki. The jigane is a very dense and beautifully forged ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and the hamon is a ko-nie-laden hiro-suguha-chô that is mixed with ko-chôji, ko-gunome, many ashi and yô, and some kinsuji and sunagashi. The nioiguchi is bright and clear and the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. Again, we see an increase in midare and hataraki along the monouchi, but not as strong as seen in the blade from picture 2 of course, and also the ha drops again before the yokote and turns into a pretty calm bôshi.
Picture 4: jûyô, tachi, mumei, attributed to Rai Kuninaga, nagasa 69.7 cm, sori 1.7 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, sakihaba 2.1 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Tantô and hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi of the first generation are very rare, this means, the majority of Rai Kuninaga works from that category are attributed to the second generation. The hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi shown in picture 5 is, based on the small and thinly chiselled signature, attributed to the Shodai. The blade is relative wide and also shows some sori what would speak for Nanbokuchô at a glance (please compare it to the similar Kunizane hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi introduced in picture 2 here). But it has to be mentioned that such a sugata is sometimes also seen in the Kamakura period and it still remains to be clarified if the heyday Nanbokuchô danbira are more related to growing koshigatana or to shrinking uchigatana (i.e. blades like the Nakigitsune-Kuniyoshi introduced here). Anyway, the blade in question shows a rather standing-out itame that is mixed with some masame. Ji-nie appears and the hamon is a suguha-chô that is mixed with some ko-gunome, hotsure, kinsuji, and sunagashi. The nioiguchi tends to be tight and the ha is clear and the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. Both sides bear a soebi-accompanied katana-hi that runs with kaki-tôshi through the tang, although the initial end of the grooves might be grasped at the nakago-jiri.
Picture 5: jûyô, wakizashi, mei “Rai Kuninaga” (来国長), nagasa 38.3 cm, sori 0.6 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
Now let’s go over to the second generation and I want to start with the blade that I have mentioned before, that is the only tokubetsu-jûyô of Rai Kuninaga. This hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi has an obvious sunnobi-sugata, is wide, has some sori, and a thin kasane, so no discussion that this is not heyday Nanbokuchô. The kitae is an itame that is mixed with some nagare and apart from that, jinie, chikei, and a nie-utsuri appear. The hamon is pretty flamboyant for a Rai work and appears as a nie-laden gunome that is mixed with chôj, ko-notare, ashi, yô, sunagashi, kinsuji, and along the upper half also with yubashiri and tobiyaki what almost results in a kind of hitatsura approach from the monouchi upwards. The bôshi continues from there and appears as a midare-komi with a rather pointed kaeri on omote side and some hakikake. The omote side shows a suken, and the ura side gomabashi, both with a tsume at the base. The blade is, as mentioned, with the abundance of hataraki and the strong jigane truly flamboyant for Rai and reflects the advanced times, times when with the emergence of the Sôshû tradition such and similar, more “ambituous” interpretations began to dominate. Incidentally, the blade was once a heirloom of the Hisamatsu (久松) family, the daimyô of the Iyo-Matsuyama fief on Shikoku.
Picture 6: tokubetsu-jûyô, wakizashi, mei “Rai Kuninaga” (来国長), nagasa 33.0 cm, sori 0.35 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, kasane 0.55 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
Another characteristic feature of the Nidai Kuninaga is that his hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi often show similarities to blades by the Hasebe School of his contemporary Nobukuni (信国), who was from the Rai offshoot Ryôkai. One such Nobukuni-kind-of interpretation is shown in picture 7. It is a signed tantô with a nagasa of 28.9 cm, a thin kasane, and some sori and shows a somewhat standing-out and altogether rather largely structured itame that is mixed with nagare all over. In addition, plenty of ji-nie, chikei, and a faint nie-utsuri appear. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with gunome, ko-ashi, kinsuji, and sunagashi and the bôshi has a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake. As horimono we see a suken with tsume base on the omote, and a bonji on the ura side. So the standing-out hada and the conspicuous trend to nagare as well as the slight approach to yahazu (see the one hamon protrusion on the ura side above of the bonji) make one think of Nobukuni at a glance.
Picture 7: jûyô, tantô, mei “Rai Kuninaga” (来国長), nagasa 28.9 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.6 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
As for the Nidai’s long swords, they follow as mentioned the then heyday Nanbokuchô trends, i.e. are wide, magnificent, don’t taper that much, have a shallow sori, and end in an ô-kissaki, although there are also many that feature “just” an elongated chû-kissaki. Picture 8 shows such a blade, once a tachi, later greatly shortened to a katana. The kitae is a dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and is mixed with nagare-masame. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden hiro-suguha-chô that is mixed with many and densely arranged ko-chôji, ko-gunome, ashi, yô, some yubashiri along the yakigashira, and sunagashi. The nioiguchi is wide, bright, and clear and the bôshi is widely hardened and runs out as yakitsume with hakikake on the omote, and shows pointed kaeri on the ura side.
Picture 8: jûyô, katana, mumei, attributed to Rai Kuninaga, nagasa 69.3 cm, sori 2.0 cm, motohaba 3.2 cm, sakihaba 2.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
The last blade that I want to introduce for the second generation has a really large ô-kissaki and that shows again features that can be considered as characteristic for Rai Kuninaga, and that are njûba and kuichiga-ba (or in this very case just slight approaches to kuichigai-ba). So with the aforementioned proximity to Rai Kunimitsu in mind, we might say that he often followed the basic style of Kunimitsu which was introduced here in Picture 5c. So when it comes to long swords, we learn that in quantitative terms Kuninaga mostly followed style 5c. Well, the blade shown in picture 9 is wide, does not taper much, and concludes as mentioned with a pretty large kissaki. At first glance, the rather thick kasane and deep sori might sound, on the paper, uncommon for a heyday Nanbokuchô blade but we have to take into consideration that it is very likely that this blade was once quite long. The kitae is a dense ko-itame that is mixed with some nagare here and there and that shows ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden suguha-chô with a little notare and is mixed with a hint of ko-gunome, many ashi, uchinoke, nijûba, fine sunagashi, and kinsuji, hataraki that also continue into the slightly undulating sugu-bôshi which runs back with a ko-maru-kaeri with some hakikake.
Picture 9: jûyô, katana, mumei, attributed to Rai Kuninaga, nagasa 68.9 cm, sori 1.9 cm, kasane 0.77 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, sakihaba 2.35 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
I will end this chapter with Rai Kuniyasu (来国安) who is seen as son of Kunisue, son-in-law of Kunisue, grandson of Kunisue, son of Kunitoshi, or as son-in-law of Kunitoshi. But there might be some merger here with his student of the same name who moved later to Echizen province where he founded the Echizen-Rai offshoot. So although mostly listed as student, it is possible that Echizen-Rai Kuniyasu was actually the son of Rai Kuniyasu and as a consequence the grandson of Kunisue. Anyway, most meikan date him around Gentoku (元徳, 1329-1331) and the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen says Kenmu (建武, 1334-1338), what would match with his alleged direct connection to Kunisue and/or Kunitoshi and with the interpretation of his blades, which are typical for the very end of the Kamakura and the beginning of the Nanbokuchô period. Now extant blades of Rai Kuniyasu are very rare and most that are labelled as Rai Kuniyasu are works of his son/student Echizen-Rai Kuniyasu. Well, we know that Rai Kuniyasu left, together with his homonymous son/student, Kyôto and settled in Awaji (淡路) in Settsu province. Because of that, he is also referred to as Awaji-Rai (淡路来). Just as a sidenote, Awaji is located in present-day Ôsaka and just about 1 mile to the northeast of Nakajima. As a sidenote, there exists a connection between this Awaji manor and Echizen, the province to which his son/student moved later but I want to address this in a separate article.
A blade that is attributed to Rai Kuniyasu, i.e. not to Echizen-Rai Kuniyasu, is seen in picture 10. It is suriage but maintains its sanji-mei “Rai Kuniyasu” of which the last character is almost illegible. The blade is elegant, has a relative deep sori, and a chû-kissaki. The kitae is a dense ko-itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden and relative narrow suguha-chô that is mixed with ko-chôji, ko-gunome, ashi, yô, sunagashi, and kinsuji. The nioiguchi is wide and the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri and shows a few hakikake. The hamon is interpreted in a way where all hataraki are found within the ha or adjacent to the habuchi, this means, there is no “layered” approach with nijûba or uchinoke.
Picture 10: jûyô, tachi, mei “Rai Kuniyasu” (来国安), nagasa 70.7 cm, sori 1.9 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 1.85 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
That should do it for Rai and in the next chapter we continue with Ryôkai whose Rai offshoot I treat, in view of the Nobukuni group that emerged from it, as a school of its own. In other words, the next chapter will not be “Rai (来) School 10” but “Ryôkai (了戒) School 1.”
The last paragraph about Awaji Rai seems too brief, his work is rare and grandfathered a school. When I tried to find out more, he just got more fascinating. I tried to imagine he and his brothers as boys in the forge with all the famous Yamashiro Rai. Have you written about Awaji Rai Kuniyasu in detail elsewhere on your site, or in your books? Does he have more than one juyo sword? Thank you for considering and thanks so much for your inspiring work.