Outlook 2017

Well, 2016 passed quickly and this is gonna be an outlook for 2017. As for myself, 2016 was very busy and also what I would consider successful, although it felt like “bit off more than I could chew” over many months. As far as trips are concerned, I met some old friends and great folks in Florence in February, so in Orlando in June, and had a great meeting with sword friends in New York in November just recently. Talking about trips and meetings for the coming year, I will be in Berlin in February (therefore I can’t make it to Tampa, sorry) and maybe I can manage it to attend the Nihonto-Club meeting taking place around that time, what would be really great, followed by a lecture I give at a Michigan university in April and I will be at the Chicago Sword Show at the end of that month. I will also be in Orlando again and this time, I really want to make it to SF in August. Also Japan and the DTI are overdue after skipping a few years.

Before we continue, I want to point out that my friend Joachim from the Nihonto-Club Germany is going to have his entire collection available online with hi-res pics of the blades. The site is work-in-progress at the moment and an English version will be available down the road. The link is: 


Regarding translations and ongoing/upcoming projects, first of all, I want to have out the second Fukushi volume as soon as possible and finish the series by the end of the year (as mentioned in the announcements of the societies/clubs). I’m both happy and relieved when this epitome of a standard work on sword fittings is completed and I ask for your patience as this here is still a one-man-show (except of course for tireless Grey who is correcting my bad English).

As far as my own projects are concerned, I have mentioned before here on my site and on other occasions: The Gendaito Project is still going strong and I have received an abundance of references throughout the year. As this all is not gonna fit in any physical book, there will be a two-pronged approach: 1) A book, of course, but which will focus on an as comprehensive as possible list of gendaitô swordsmiths and their biographies. 2) Prior to publishing, I will start a crowdfunding because I don’t want to have all the references I received rot on my HD. That is, I want to create a freely accessible online database that contains on the one hand all the stuff from my book and on the other hand concrete references for all the smiths (i.e. oshigata, blade pics, etc). Also, this online database approach is easy to update. So whenever new references or new info comes in, I will update the corresponding entries accordingly. This all takes quite some time and a continuous effort and that’s why I need to have this crowdfunded but I will make an annoucement when I have a minute of peace and when everything is ready to go. That all is planned before the release of the book so if you are donating a small amount to the project, you will get some kind of goodie and from a certain amount on you will receive the book of course. You get the idea.

Last but not least, what I want to start in 2017, and what goes hand in hand with the ongoing Kantei series (i.e. I get constantly asked about when I will published the series in book form), is what I would consider as a “mini Taikan series.” That means, I want to publish specific books on certain artists and schools, both in terms of swords and sword fittings, and which will all have to same layout. In other words, I want to create something like a humble sword and sword fittings library where everyone can pick the specific school or artist he wants. So you can build up the entire library or just get the ones you need. That’s why I’m going to have this out as b/w paperbacks so that the venture is not going to become (again) some steep investment. Keeping it real and affordable so to speak. The library will not be tackled on chronologically. I will start with the more famous schools and smiths/artists and then fill in the gaps down the road.

I have some other stuff up my sleeves but the above mentioned points should do it for the time being. In this sense, I wish all my (sword) friends and readers a good start into a hopefully healthy and succcessful 2017! Looking very much foward to an exciting year in this world of Nihontô 🙂



Kasuga-taisha sword findings polished

Wataru Hara-san just shared this Yomiuri Online article (link here) on FB and I thought I have to process this for my readers. In 1939, nine swords were discovered under the ceiling of the Kasuga-taisha treasure house during repair measures. Three of them were mounted as plain period kokushitsu no tachi (黒漆太刀). I don’t have any pictures of these swords but their koshirae probably looks something like shown below.



Now the blades were all rusted, of course, but in course of last year’s shikinen-zôtai (式年造替), the rebuilding of the sanctuary that only takes place every 20 years, it was decided to have three of them polished, I guess the three most promising ones. The shikinen-zôtai was finished in November this year by the way. So the three blades were given to ningen-kokuhô polisher Hon’ami Kôshû (本阿弥光洲) and they obviously turned out great as the Yomiuri Online article is speaking of “kokuhô and jûyô-bunkazai level swords.” Two of the sword are mumei but attributed to Ko-Bizen and one is signed Kuniyoshi (国吉). It is a work of Enju Kuniyoshi. Not sure if there are more pics behind the Yomiuri Online premium paywall so I also have just the one seen in the link but as Hara-san pointed out on FB, the prominent ha-machi suggests that this blade is in an extraordinarily healthy condition! It measures impressive 106.8 cm in total. Will let you know if I read more about this blades in the future.

Nidai Oku Motohira

Over the years, I have seen several inscriptions on sword tangs that refer to the use of a special supplements/raw materials used for making the blade. Most well-known supplement is of course nanban-tetsu (南蛮鉄) but others I have come across are for example old temple nails, old ship nails, old temple bells, and steel from the battleship Mikasa (三笠) as pointed out here by Arnold, just to name a few. I don’t want to go into detail about the availability/shortage of raw materials or the various reasons for incorporating other steels to make a sword. This time I want to introduce two swords with a very interesting inscription about the supplement that was used but first I want to start with the smith.

We are talking about the 2nd generation Oku Motohira (奥元平, 1833-1905). Motohira was born into a lineage of swordsmiths that worked for the Satsuma fief since the 1640s and if you start counting from their ancestor, Tadakiyo (忠清), then Motohira II was the 7th generation of that lineage. Now his grandfather, Oku Motohira I (1744-1826), was the most famous master of the Oku family of swordsmiths and when his son Motohiro (元寛), i.e. Motohira II’s father, died young and unexpectedly in Tenpô 14 (天保, 1843), the then only ten years old Motohira II was nominally declared head of the family. He was trained by the 2nd generation Motoyasu (元安, 1793-?) who was the son of his grandfather’s younger brother Motoyasu I. Well, there are many unclear points when it comes to the career of the 2nd generation Motohira. Swords of him are rare and dated ones are even more rare, but I know of at least two blades dated Keiô three (慶応, 1867) and one from Meiji 30 (明治, 1897) which will be introduced in this article. He signed in his early years with Motomitsu (元光) but I haven’t come across a blade signed that way yet, neither one that bears his Ju’an (寿安) under which he entered priesthood in his late years. Anyway, he was 34 years old in Keiô three and thus it is safe to assume that he already had been active at least 15 or so years at that time, assuming that he started his profession in his late teens, i.e. somewhere shortly after 1850. In Meiji 30 he was 64 years old and he died eight years later, in Meiji 38 (1905) at the age of 73. When it comes to his employers, Motohira II has actively experienced the rule of the last three Satsuma daimyô who were Shimazu Narioki (島津斉興, 1791-1859) who ruled from 1809 to 1851, Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬, 1809-1858) who ruled from 1851 to 1858, and Shimazu Tadayoshi (島津忠義, 1840-1897) who ruled from 1858 to 1871. He also witnessed the career of Tadayoshi’s son Prince Shimazu Tadashige (島津忠重, 1886-1968) who became a rear admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy and also that much of the ruling/upper class of his fief dominated the new Meiji government.

Anyway, now to the sword, or rather the swords, and why I wrote this post because the supplement that was used to make them is quite interesting. The first one (see picture 1, blade pictures courtesy of e-sword.jp) is signed the following way:

Satsuyô Oku Motohira (薩陽奥元平)
Seishin no yaku Meiji nijûhachinen ichigatsu Ikaie ni oite Kakakushi-hôrui ni eta nijûyon-senchi tsutsu no hen o motte kono katana o kitaru en (征清之役明治廿八年一月於威海衛鹿角嘴堡塁以所獲之廿四珊礮片鍛此刀焉) – “This blade was made by using a fragment of a 24 cm howitzer that was obtained from the Fort Lujiazui Battery of the Battle of Weihaiwei during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895.”


Picture 1: katana, Oku Motohira II, nagasa 63.6 cm, sori 0.9 cm

And the second blade (see picture 2) is signed the very same way, except from that we have here an actual date when it was made, which was the fifth month of Meiji 30 (1897), when Motohira was 65 years old, and also we have here a reference to where it was made (the otherwise identical signature omitted):

Meiji sanjûnen gogatsu Iso Shûsei-jo ni oite (明治卅年五月於磯集成所, “fifth month of 1897 at the Shûsei place in Iso”)


Picture 2: katana, Oku Motohira II, nagasa 70.7 cm, sori 1.4 cm

The Battle of Weihaiwei is dealt with in detail in Wikipedia so I am not goint to ruminate it here. Interesting is that we have actual artistic reference to and photographic evidence of what is stated on the two nakago. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article, the Chinese troops were defending their fortifications for about nine hours before abandoning them largely intact. However, several of these forts were seriously devastated as historic photographs show. The Fort Lujiazui Battery (in period Western publications often quoted as Lukeutsuy) was equipped with four 24 cm Krupp coastal howitzers of which one was indeed damaged (see picture 3). An intact one from the Lujiazui Battery can be seen in picture 4. So basically the whole barrel was blown off at the one and had later been tied with ropes and chains to the howitzer (see picture 5), probably in order to repair or recycle it. So far the historic facts. But there is also an artistic rendering of this incident where the whole howitzer is blewn from its firing platform, “effectfully” also blowing away the whole Chinese operating staff (see picture 6). Well, we can book this as artistic freedom.


Picture 3


Picture 4


Picture 5


Picture 6: 1895 print by Kobayashi Kiyochika (小林清親, 1847-1915) titled “Attack on the Lujiazui Battery at Weihaiwei” (威海衛鹿角嘴砲臺攻撃之圖)

Now back to the making of the sword. I am not sure if the entire broken-off barrel was taken and/or if some of these howitzers were disassembled and transported to Japan. But here maybe the supplement of the second blade comes into play. It mentions that the sword was made at the Shûsei place and refers to the Shûseikan (集成館) (see picture 7), an industrial complext that was initiated by Shimazu Nariakira in Iso, on the outskirts of Kagoshima. It was the first western-style industrial enterprise in Japan with factories that produced machines, textiles and other products and, lo and behold, steel for ship building and casting cannons.


Picture 7: The Shûseikan

There are now several possible scenarios about how these two blades (maybe there are even more out there?) came into existence. One could be that indeed the damaged howitzer was transported to the Shûseikan in order to be repaired or to salvage it. Maybe it was then decided to commemorate this successful attack on the Lujiazui Battery, and/or the win of the First Sino-Japanese War, by having a local smith, Oku Motohira II, make swords out of what was left of the barrel. Or maybe the idea with the swords came right on the spot when the battery was conquered to use that barrel and make some commemorative swords out of it, maybe for the actual commanding officers of the attack? Maybe some of these officers were from Satsuma, or maybe one was a friend of Oku Motohira II. The former is quite possible as we know that one famous Satsuma man, Major General Ôdera Yasuzumi (大寺安純, 1846-1895) (see picture 8) died at Weihaiwei when leading his infantry regiment against the land fortifications guarding the naval base. His position was hit by an artillery shell fired by the defenders. He was the only Japanese general killed in combat during that war and the highest ranking casualty on the Japanese side.


Picture 8: Print by Ogata Gekkô (尾形月耕, 1859-1920) titled “Major General Ôdera Attacking With All His’ Power From the Baichi Cliff” (大寺将軍揮全力襲撃百尺崖之圖)

Very interesting pieces of history these two Motohira blades! If I am in the area, i.e. Kagoshima, I want to do some more research in this direction at the Shôko Shûseikan Museum into which the Shûseikan main building has been turned in 1923.

Update: Dec 22 2016.

I have received a rubbing of another blade by Oku Motohira II that he made by incorporating a fragment of that howitzer. The mei is identical to the blade seen in picture 1, with the difference that the inscription is distributed over three and not two colums. So now we have three of these blades. Very interesting!