The pitfalls of removing signatures

At the Orlando Sword Show last weekend we were briefly talking about the issue of mei removing on swords. Nowadays this issue is fortunately more and more approached very cautiously but it hasn’t always been like that. As emphasized by Mike Yamasaki at our little round table lecture, you have to be very very careful when considering having a signature removed and in this brief article I want to provide you with a concrete example why this is so true.

There is a tantô by Enju Kunisuke (延寿国資) that was originally dated “Karyaku ni jûnigatsu hi” (嘉暦二十二月日, “a day in the twelfth month of Karyaku two [1327]”), i.e. the smith omitted the character for “year” (nen, 年). Now this date was later interpreted as being “Karyaku nijû” (i.e. Karyaku 20, the “ten” from the twelfth month shifting to the year, making 20 out of 2), and as the Karyaku era obviously did not last for 20 years, the year part was removed. Well, the tantô still passed jûyô, with its date now quoted as “Karyaku ?? nigatsu hi” (嘉暦〇〇二月日, “a day in the second month Karyaku ?”) (see picture below).


Picture 1: The tantô in question before (left) and after (right) the characters “two” and “ten” were removed.

Reason why I picked this particular blade or case is because it is a perfect example for making a decision on the basis of insufficient references. Namely, we are facing here a local peculiarity in dating swords. For example, there exists a blade by Enju Kunitoki (国時) that is just dated “Kôkoku san ni kyû” (興国三二九), i.e. “Kôkoku third (year, 1342) second  (month) ninth (day)” (see picture 2) and one by the same smith that is dated “Engen ? jû ni go” (延元〇十二五) (see picture 3). Now the mekugi-ana goes through the first number of the latter but the Engen era only lasted for four years, from 1336 to 1340. However, the subsequent part leaves room for interpretation as it might either be the fifth day of the twelfth month of the 25th day of the tenth month.


Picture 2: tachimei: “Kôkoku san ni kyû Kunitoki” (興国三二九国時)


Picture 3: tantômei: “Hishû Kikuchi-jû – Engen ? jû ni go Kunitoki” (肥州菊池住・延元〇十二五国時).

So if you have a signed blade and are looking for a second and a third opinion about its authenticity and things point towards gimei and if you have in mind of having the blade papered, and that doesn’t work with a gimei as everybody knows, please be careful and even get a fourth and better a fifth opinion as you are messing with a historical piece and might destroy an important reference. The first blade passed jûyô in 1977 and I have no information about when exactly the mentioned parts in the date were removed but it is not hard to imagine that somebody just saw a good jûyô candidate in the blade and didn’t do his homework, i.e. he stopped at counting the years the Karyaku era lasted and as that did not match what he saw in the date, had it removed. Incidentally, the NBTHK words its jûyô description in a way that might be interpreted as side blow by stating: “Date signatures are rare among this school what makes this tantô a valuable reference. However, it is truly regrettable that relevant parts in the date are hardly legible.” So maybe they knew that just by doing some more research on the Enju School, and I mean real research and not only superficial one as not all Enju smiths did this abbreviation thing of the year and month kanji, the initial mei could have been preserved.

And this is where the present-day and my very own efforts come into play again. What I try to say is that I have a certain mission, and that mission is to make available as much references as possible, either publically and for free via my site or for a reasonable price via my books (and eBooks). And this mission is very much about accessible data. Imagine the 1970s. You have this Kunisuke tantô and think it is a very good blade. So you bring it to all the meetings and people keep telling you that it is a jûyô candidate but some raise the issue of the date signature. So you try to do some research and buy all the relevant books (if you don’t have them in your library already). You find some Enju references of course but doubt remains and so you write some letters, yes, it was real letters back then, and people with only little more references than yourself quasi confirm your initial concern that the date is “doubtful” and that you might have it removed if you want papers, just “to be safe” so to speak and not to have it returned as “no pass.” So here we go and an important reference is lost forever (well, the early oshigata still exists but nobody knows for how long). I don’t say that my books are the end to all the problems, of course not, really, they might only be the start. But with start I mean a good start and maybe a better start than ever before, and we are talking about the West here. So now there is hardly any excuse for not doing your homework when thinking about having a signature removed and as this is Nihonto 2.0, I and other guys putting their entire lives into Japanese swords are just an email away. So if you have a question, have doubts about stuff in my books, and/or need further explanation on the one or other issue, just drop me a mail and we can proceed from there. And I am not the only one as mentioned. If you are still having a signature or parts of a signature removed because one or two parties told you so, it’s now, in 2016, more then ever your fault if it turns out that the mei was actually good and you were jumping into conclusions. Sorry for the harsh words but we really have to watch out not to loose any more references (as the majority of important blades has been discovered by now and you can take it for granted that on the concrete example of Kunisuke, not that many more are going to pop up that are dated). Of course, there are mei that need further study, gimei, and pretty obvious gimei and this entire post aims at the first one mentioned. Just to have that said as I am not talking about clumsy Kotetsu or Masamune gimei this time that can be identified as such immediately.


2 thoughts on “The pitfalls of removing signatures

  1. I very much liked the article Markus. This are like the nooks and crannies of nihonto that otherwise i would never know about. Very much enjoyed it.

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