I know that by basically reverting to the old sources with my first chapter on the Nobukuni School, I didn’t make things easier but you have to be open for everything and not just regurgitate. So back to Nobuie and the difficult task of nailing down the immediate successor of the 1st generation, i.e. the one who studied with Sadamune, who was one of the first smiths to bring the Sôshû tradition to Kyôto, and who was the one who probably lived until the late 1370s or early 1380s. So if the 1st generation’s career did pass the zenith of the Nanbokuchô period, who followed him as 2nd generation? In my Swordsmiths of Japan, I already tried to do very same as here, that is, to find the balancing act between giving credit to the old traditions but following the most recent studies. That said, I introduced a 2nd generation but who might actually have been the 1st generation, or in other words, the first two generations in my Swordsmiths of Japan might have been the same smith.
This greyzone in counting the initial Nobukuni masters is very well reflected in the NBTHK jûyô papers which say – apart from explicitly stating 1st generation and Genzaemon and Shikibu to whom we will come later – also just for example “Nobukuni work from the Enbun-Jôji eras”, “Nobukuni work from the vicinity of the Kenmu-era 1st generation”, “Nobukuni work from the end of the Nanbokuchô period”, or “Nobukuni work from the Ôei era”. So in the following, I can’t help but so to speak keep this greyzone alive. That said, I will introduce works that chronologically follow those of the alleged 1st generation from my first Nobukuni chapter, works that are today – and because of this greyzone – just classified as “end of Nanbokuchô Nobukuni” and “Ôei-Nobukuni.” Those we can attribute to concrete masters like Minamoto Saemon, Shikibu, and Saburôzaemon Nobukuni will be introduced in the next chapter.
Now Tanobe follows the approach that I have forwarded in my first Nobukuni chapter, i.e. that the 1st generation was active to Eitoku (1381-1384). Satô Kanzan in turn sees the blades dated with this era, a tachi dated Eitoku three (1383) and a tantô dated Eitoku four (1384), as works of the 2nd generation. Well, Tanobe avoids tackling the succession of Nobukuni generations in his latest work, the Yamashiro Volume of the Nihontô Gokaden no Tabi series (published in 2015), so I will focus on the theories of Satô and Honma. As mentioned, Satô sees the Enbun and Jôji dated blades as works of the 1st generation, those around Eitoku as works of the 2nd generation (whom he sees being active until the beginning of the Muromachi era), and counts the smith who signed with Minamoto Saemon no Jô (源左衛門尉) and who was active around Ôei (1394-1428) as 3rd generation. Apart from that, he refers to Shikibu no Jô (式部丞) as being active a hint later than Minamoto Saemon and probably being the younger brother of the latter, although he does not explicitly introduce him as 4th generation. In short, and reading between the lines, Satô counts three Nobukuni main line generations and implies that by the time of the third master, i.e. the early Muromachi period, the lineage had already become a workshop with the name Nobukuni as trademark where several smiths worked (and signed with that name), being probably managed by the third generation Minamoto Saemon and his younger brother Shikibu no Jô. Honma just states that the Nobukuni who was active around Enbun and Jôji was the 1st generation, the one active around Ôei the 2nd, and the one active from Ôei to Eikyô (1429-1441) the 3rd generation. Interestingly, he sees Minamoto Saemon and Shikibu no Jô as younger brothers or students of the 2nd generation. This thing with Minamoto Saemon and Shikibu no Jô being both younger brothers of some Nobukuni kind of connects with Tsuneishi’s approach who introduces a Gyôbu no Jô (刑部丞) Nobukuni whom he lists as 3rd generation. That means, Tsuneishi sees Gyôbu no Jô as oldest, Minamoto Saemon as second oldest, and Shikibu no Jô as third oldest son of the late Nanbokuchô 2nd generation and states that it are only these three masters to whom we refer today as “Ôei-Nobukuni.”
So for the time being, I think of the genealogy of the Nobukuni School as seen in the link below:
Now to some works which can be attributed to the immediate time after the 1st generation and before the Ôei-Nobukuni masters Minamoto Saemon and Shikibu no Jô. An interesting thing to observe at how the Nobukuni School went on is that it came from the Yamashiro tradition, that it next adopted the Sôshû tradition via Sadamune, and that it then shifted towards Bizen, although maintaining both Yamashiro and Sôshû characteristics, e.g. nie. That means, we can already see Bizen elements appearing towards the end of the Nanbokuchô period and with the Ôei era, works of the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths strongly resemble that of their Ôei-Bizen colleagues. That’s why Nobukuni works are often difficult to kantei.
I want to start with the aforementioned tachi which bears the date signature from Eitoku three. There is not much Sôshû and please note the pairs of gunome, an interpretation that is understood as the forerunner of the yahazu elements which are so typical for the Nobukuni School. The blade is of a small and slender sugata with not much sori and might be at the edge of being a kodachi. The jigane is a partially standing-out itame with plenty of ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare with a few sunagashi and some muneyaki. The bôshi is midare-komi with a prominently round kaeri and both sides feature a single bonji at the base.
Picture 9: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni – Eitoku sannen hachigatsu tsuitachi” (信国・永徳三年八月一日, “first day of the eighth month Eitoku three ”), nagasa 65.1 cm, sori 1.4 cm, motohaba 2.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
The blade shown in picture 10 is dated with the third year of Meitoku (明徳, 1392), i.e. dates about a decate later than the previous one. The blade is of a magnificent and deeply curved sugata with an elongated chû-kissaki. It shows an itame that is partially mixed with masame-nagare and that features plenty of ji-nie and also chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with gunome, ashi, sunagashi, kinsuji, and yubashiri and the bôshi is a notare-komi with hakikake and that almost runs out as yakitsume. The ura side bears the characters “Namu Hachiman Daibosatsu” and the ura side just a single bonji.
Picture 10: tokubetsu-jûyô, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni – Meitoku sannen mizunoe-saru jûichigatsu hi” (信国・明徳三年壬申十一月日, “a day in the eleventh month Meitoku three , year of the monkey”), nagasa 71.0 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Now with picture 11 we arrive at what I have mentioned before, that is, the trend towards Bizen that happened with the Nobukuni School entering the Muromachi period. The blade is dated Ôei two (1395) and does therefore classify as Ôei-Nobukuni in the strict sense but it predates a little bit the earliest extant dated blade of Minamoto Saemon, which is from Ôei nine (1402). The blade is relatively short, has a normal mihaba, a thick kasane, tapers noticeably, and ends in a compact chû-kissaki. The jigane is a dense but overall somewhat standing-out ko-itame that is mixed with some mokume and that features plenty of ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a gunome-chô in ko-nie-deki that tends to koshi no hiraita (i.e. wide bases) and that is mixed with yahazu, togariba, ko-gunome, ashi, yô, kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, and tobiyaki. The nioiguchi is wide and bright and the bôshi is relatively widely hardened, showing a roundish kaeri and a hint of hakikake. On both sides we see a naga-bonji which is accompanied on the ura side by a koshi-bi with inside a suken as relief.
Picture 11: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni – Ôei ninen hachigatsu hi” (信国・応永二年八月日), nagasa 68.3 cm, sori 2.45 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Let’s talk about tantô and wakizashi that the school produced around that time. First we must not overlook that although late in the Nanbokuchô period, the then Nobukuni head did still stick to the initial Yamashiro tradition of his school. A perfect example for that is the tantô shown in picture 12 which is dated Shitoku two (至徳, 1385). It is of a conservative shape but with a somewhat thicker kasane what rules out heyday Nanbokuchô. The jigane is a ko-itame that is mixed with ô-hada in places and that features plenty of fine ji-nie, chikei, and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that has a rather tight and clear nioiguchi and that shows a few sunagashi, hotsure, and kinsuji. The bôshi has a classical ko-maru-kaeri and shows a hint more nie than the ha. On the omote side we see a bonji, a shiketsu, and a rendai, and on the ura side a sankozuka-ken. As you can learn from the description, and the oshigata of course, the tantô is classical Yamashiro but enriched with sophisticated horimono and that speaks for that time for the Nobukuni School.
Picture 12: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Nobukuni – Shitoku ninen hachigatsu hi” (信国・至徳二年八月日), nagasa 26.0 cm, muzori, motohaba 2.6 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
In picture 13 we see another classical Yamashiro tantô by the 2nd generation Nobukuni, although this one is of a more slender mihaba. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame that is mixed with some nagare-masame and that features fine ji-nie and a linear nie-utsuri. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that tends a little to notare in places and that is mixed with hotsure, faint yubashiri, kinsuji, and sunagashi. The slightly undulating sugu-bôshi shows hakikake and a relatively long kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi.
Picture 13: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), shu-mei: “Genroku jûyonen gokugetsu origami dai-kinsu roku-mei” (元禄十四年極月折紙代金子六枚, “[Hon’ami] origami from from the twelfth month of Genroku 14  evaluating the blade with six gold pieces”), nagasa 25.2 cm, muzori, motohaba 2.0 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
Now picture 14 shows a more Bizen-style wakizashi. The blade is dated Meitoku three (明徳, 1392) and is interpreted in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri with a prominent sori. The jigane is a dense but standing-out itame that is mixed with some ô-hada on the ura side and that displays ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with gunome and sunagashi. The bôshi tends to sugu and features a ko-maru-kaeri with a wide turnback. Both sides show a naginata-hi with soebi.
Picture 14: jûyô, wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni – Meitoku sannen hachigatsu hi” (信国・明徳三年八月日), nagasa 40.1 cm, sori 1.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri, mitsu-mune
Picture 15 shows a sunnobi-style tantô that is dated Ôei three (1396). It has a normal mihaba, as mentioned a sunnobi-sugata, and features a sakizori. The jigane is a densely forged itame that is mixed with mokume. Ji-nie and chikei appear and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-chô that is mixed with yahazu, hotsure, yubashiri, ashi, yô, kinsuji, and sunagashi. The nioiguchi is tight and the bôshi has again a roundish kaeri with some hakikake. The omote side shows a bonji with below a suken and the ura side a koshi-bi.
Picture 15: tantô, mei: “Nobukuni – Ôei sannen hachigatsu hi” (信国・応永三年八月日), nagasa 28.3 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
To recapitulate, certain Nobukuni works might be hard to kantei as they mix different traditions. So when you have a late Nanbokuchô Yamashiro blade that looks like Bizen but whose hardening is based on nie and which shows horimono (and yahazu), it is safe to go for Nobukuni. In the next chapter, we will talk about the aforementioned masters Minamoto Saemon an Shikibu no Jô and what attributes as Ôei-Nobukuni in general.
Hi Markus- Great to see Kantei starting again – many thanks Paul