This time we continue with the Nobukuni smiths who were active around Ôei (応永, 1394-1428) and of which we can at least make out two individual names, Minamoto Saemon no Jô (源左衛門尉) and Minamoto Shikibu no Jô (源式部尉) Nobukuni. As mentioned in the previous chapter, everything points towards that these two were brothers and sons of the 2nd generation Nobukuni. Following Tsuneishi’s approach, there was a third son, Gyôbu no Jô (刑部尉), who seems to have been the first born son but who, according to Tsuneishi, only signed with “Nobukuni” and not with any honorary title or first name. This approach is insofar supported by the fact that there are no blades known which bear the title Gyôbu no Jô in the mei but several from that time, i.e. Ôei, whose niji-mei “Nobukuni” differs from that of Saemon and of Shikibu no Jô. Thus this Gyôbu no Jô might have been the official successor of the lineage, signed like his predecessors just in niji-mei, but was supported by his two brothers in keeping the Nobukuni workshop going. Incidentally, Saemon no Jô Nobukuni is also referred to as Genzaemon no Jô Nobukuni because the clan name Minamoto can also be read as Gen and “results” with the subsequent Saemon in another first name, Genzaemon. In other words, his mei of clan name plus first name was interpreted wrongly in some older sources, that is as a single first name, but this Genzaemon reading has become so widespread that it is also used as kind of a nickname for Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni.
In the following I would like to introduce some works of Minamoto Saemon no Jô and Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni which will be supplemented by Ôei-era Nobukuni works which do not match in terms of signature style with these two masters and who thus might be works of Gyôbu no Jô Nobukuni. But before I want to refer to the workmanship of the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths in general and what distinguishes them from similar works from other schools that were active at that time.
Typical for the Ôei-Nobukuni group in general is that it produced many horimono-laden sunnobi-tantô and hira-zukuri wakizashi with a nagasa of somewhere between 30 and 40 cm, some of which also being interpreted in more uncommon shapes like katakiriba-zukuri or unokubi-zukuri. In case of long swords, the sugata is a hint more stout than the rather elegant sugata with koshizori that was applied by Bizen smiths at that time. That is, the mihaba of Ôei-Nobukuni long swords is a little wider and the kasane is a little thicker than that of Ôei-Bizen blades. Ôei-Nobukuni works often show a hamon which is very similar to contemporary Ôei-Bizen koshi no hiraita interpretations with the difference that it is hardened in nie-deki or ko-nie-deki whereas the Ôei-Bizen hamon is in nioi-deki. A very prominent feature of Ôei-Nobukuni blades which is not seen on Ôei-Bizen blades is yahazu, i.e. dovetail-shaped gunome elements. Also some Ôei-Nobukuni blades may show ara-nie, a feature that is indeed also not associated with Ôei-Bizen. And due to the presence of nie, we see sunagashi, kinsuji and yubashiri, characteristics which are also usually don’t go with with Ôei-Bizen. In addition, the kaeri is usually more pronounced, wider, and runs back in a longer fashion than it is the case at Ôei-Bizen. Compared to “full blown” contemporary Sôshû, Ôei-Nobukuni blades are a little less nie-laden and although some tobiyaki and/or muneyaki might be present, there is usually no hitatsura (I say usually because there are very few Ôei-Nobukuni blades which do show a hitatsura or a strong tendency towards hitatsura). Also, Ôei-Nobukuni works in suguha or in shallow notare may show some Yamato elements like hotsure or kuichigai-ba. When it comes to the jigane, the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths also worked more Bizen-like in ko-itame mixed with mokume rather than in the typical Sôshû itame or ô-itame. However, there is usually masame or nagare which distinguishes their works from Ôei-Bizen and as the steel of Ôei-Nobukuni blades might tend to shirake a little, it differs from contemporary Fujishima blades which otherwise may look similar at first glance because Fujishima smiths too often hardened in a Bizen-style hamon. Also utsuri might be present but which appears more often at interpretations in suguha and that in a relatively weak manner and as bô-utsuri following the ha and not as midare-utsuri as seen at Ôei-Bizen.
Now let’s work out some individual characteristics among Ôei-Nobukuni works, starting with Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni. It is said that he signed in his early years with Nobumitsu (信光) and a blade signed that way which is dated Shitoku two (至徳, 1385) seems to be one of these early works of Saemon no Jô Nobukuni. When it comes to his main Nobukuni phase, we know dated blades from Ôei 9 to 34 (1402-1427) what seems a little odd at first glance because there is almost a 20-year gap between his Nobumitsu and his Nobukuni phase. Well, that gap might either explained by him not dating that often during those 20 years, by the fact that he was mostly working as a support to his older brorhter Gyôbu no Jô at that time, or by the fact that just no more blades from that time are extant. Most experts say that it was Saemon no Jô who hardened amongst all Ôei-Nobukuni masters the most flamboyant hamon, e.g. koshi no hiraita-midare, with the most prominent nie-hataraki. Accordingly, he and Osafune Morimitsu (盛光) are counted by some as the two greatest mastersmiths from the Ôei era. Also not to forget, he was an excellent horimono artist.
Picture 16 shows a very typical work of Saemon no Jô Nobukuni. It is an ubu tachi with a long nagasa of 80.3 cm, a normal mihaba, and a rather shallow sori for that length. It shows a somewhat standing-out itame-nagare with ji-nie and chikei and a gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-notare, ashi, yô, sunagashi, and kinsuji. The nioiguchi is bright and please note that two gunome pair to yahazu-like elements in places. The bôshi is sugu with a little notare which tends to nie-kuzure. Both sides bear a bôhi which ends in marudome.
Picture 16: tachi, mei: “Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni” (源左衛門尉信国) – “Ôei kunen hachigatsu hi” (応永九年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Ôei nine ”), nagasa 80.3 cm, sori 1.8 cm, mihaba 2.8 cm, sakihaba 1.95 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Another very typical work of Saemon no Jô is seen in picture 17. Please note that with Ôei, we have entered the time when shinogi-zukuri wakizashi started to become common. This is such a blade. It has a nagasa of 42.8 cm, a normal mihaba, tapers noticeably, has a thick kasane, and a shallow sori which tends to sakizori. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame that is mixed mokume, with nagare all over, and that shows ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden gunome-chô that is mixed with angular gunome, togariba, chôji, gunome that pair to yahazu, plenty of ashi and yô, kinsuji, sunagashi, and yubashiri-like tobiyaki along some yakigashira. The nioiguchi is wide and clear and the bôshi is midare-komi with hakikake and a ko-maru-kaeri on the omote, and a shallow notare-komi which runs out as yakitsume on the ura side. On the omote we see a bôhi with marudome with below a gyô no kurikara in a hitsu. The ura side bears a bôhi with kakudome with the relief of a bonji inside.
Picture 17: wakizashi, mei: “Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni” (源左衛門尉信国) – “Ôei nijûichinen hachigatsu hi” (応永廿一年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Ôei 21 ”), nagasa 42.8 cm, sori 0.8 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.85 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
In picture 18 we see a sunnobi-tantô (or hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi) by Saemon no Jô. The proportions are still reminiscent of Nanbokuchô but everything is just a hint smaller, i.e. the nagasa is 31.8 cm and the mihaba is 2.9 cm. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a ko-nie-laden mix of gunome, ko-notare, togariba, chôji, and some angular elements. Also ashi, yô, and sunagashi appear. The bôshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri that features hakikake and that runs back in a long manner (not clearly shown in the oshigata). As for the horimono, the omote side bears a hi with kakudome with inside the characters of Hachiman-Daibosatsu and a rendai as relief, and the ura side bears a hi with kakudome with inside a bonji and a suken as relief. As mentioned earlier, the hamon might look like Ôei-Bizen at first glance but the nie, the bôshi, and the horimono speak for Ôei-Nobukuni.
Picture 18: sunnobi-tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Ôei kunen nigatsu hi” (応永九年二月日, “a day in the second month of Ôei nine ”), nagasa 31.8 cm, sori 0.15 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
Picture 19 shows a tantô by Saemon no Jô which displays a quite classical deki and which shows a few of the Yamato elements that I have mentioned earlier. The blade is of a relatively elegant sugata but which has due to the pronounced fukura a somewhat wide feel. The jigane is a rather-standing out itame that is mixed with mokume and ô-itame in places and that features plenty of ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden chû-suguha that is mixed at the base with some ko-gunome and that shows ko-ashi, yô, hotsure, kinsuji, a hint of kuichigai-ba, and a hint of nijûba. The nioiguchi is wide, bright and clear and the bôshi is sugu with a relatively wide and long running-back ko-maru-kaeri and shows some tendency towards nijûba too. On the omote side we see a sankozuka-ken and on the ura side a bonji with on top a katana-hi with soebi that end both in marudome. I think that this blade would be difficult at a kantei. It might look like Rai at first glance but then there are these few Yamato elements and the mixed-in mokume and ô-hada and the sugata with the thick kasane speaks for the transition between Nanbokuchô and early Muromachi. So I think with the advanced time and the not so classical horimono, the principle of exclusion might eventually lead towards Ôei-Nobukuni.
Picture 19: tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 26.9 cm, uchizori, motohaba 2.5 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
Now to Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni. He is said to have signed in early years with Nobusada (信貞) but this is doubted because a blade signed with “Nobukuni-ko Nobusada” (信国子信貞, “Nobusada, son of Nobukuni”) that is dated Ôei twelve (1405) postdates a blade signed “Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni” which is allegedly dated Ôei ten (1403). In short, it would be very odd if after receiving his honorary title and changing his name to Nobukuni he returned again to his earlier Nobusada mei. Anyway, I was not able to locate this Ôei ten blade and the earliest dated blade that I found for Shikibu no Jô is from Ôei 30 (1423). This date is followed by several extant works from the Ôei 30s (1423~1428) and then we have a blade dated Eikyô four (1432) and one where the mekugi-ana goes through the year but as it is a single kanji, it must be something between Einkyô one and nine, i.e. 1429-1437. This makes Shikibu no Jô the youngest of the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths and supports the tradition that he was the youngest brother of the second generation/s sons. Shikibu no Jô worked in the most Sôshû-esque deki of all Ôei-Nobukuni smiths, i.e. more nie, what is in particular true for his hira-zukuri wakizashi as also their shapes seem to connect more to mid-Nanbokuchô Sôshû than those of his older brother Saemon no Jô.
Picture 20 shows Shikibu no Jô’s most famous work, the jûyô-bunkazai wakizashi that is preserved in the Asama-jinja (浅間神社) and that thus also bears the nickname Asama-maru (浅間丸). It is a long and wide blade with magnificent horimono in the form of a very wide bôhi on both sides which bears as relief the characters of Fuji-Asama-Daibosatsu (富士浅間大菩薩) on the omote, and the characters Ise-Amaterasu-Susume-Ôkami (伊勢天照皇大神) on the ura side, both accompanied by a single rendai at the very base. The jigane is an itame mixed with ji-nie and chikei and the hamon is a nie-laden, gunome-based ô-midareba that is mixed with sunagashi. The bôshi is midare-komi and features a wide and long running-back kaeri.
Picture 20: jûyô-bunkazai, wakizashi, mei: “Hô Fuji-hongû Minamoto Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni” (奉富士本宮源式部丞信国) – “Ichigo-hotokoshi Ôei sanjûyonen nigatsu hi” (一期一腰応永卅四年二月日, “My greatest masterwork, on a day in the second month of Ôei 34 ”), nagasa 43.8 cm, sori 0.9 cm, motohaba 3.2 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
In picture 21 we see a jûyô-bunkazai tachi which was once (in 1924) designated so as a Nanbokuchô-era Nobukuni work. However, it has turned out to be a work of Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni and thus dates to the early Muromachi period, although the designation has not been withdrawn. The blade has been shortened to 71.6 cm, has a normal kasane (i.e. not thin as it would be typical for a Nanbokuchô blade), and has a quite shallow sori what makes it almost look like Kanbun-shintô at first glance, especially with the nakago in a shirasaya hilt for example. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with angular elements, togariba whose yakigashira seem to “fume” into the ji, ashi, yô, and sunagashi. Some gunome sections even tend to mimigata and we also see a hint of yahazu. The bôshi is midare-komi with a brief ko-maru-kaeri plus a little hakikake.
Picture 21: jûyô-bunkazai, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 71.6 cm, sori 0.9 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
A shinogi-zukuri wakizashi by Shikibu no Jô can be seen in picture 22. Again, the interpretation of the hamon is close to Saemon no Jô in case of long swords and shinogi-zukuri wakizashi. The jigane is a dense itame with plenty of ji-nie and chikei and the hamon is a gunome-midare in nie-deki that is mixed with angular elements, yahazu, many sunagashi, ashi, yô, and some tobiyaki. The bôshi is a widely hardened midare-komi with a brief ko-maru-kaeri.
Picture 22: wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Eikyô ?-nen rokugatsu hi” (永享〇年六月日, “a day in the sixth month of Eikyô ? [1429-1437]”), nagasa 52.4 cm, sori 1.6 cm, motohaba 2.75 cm, sakihaba 2.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Now to Shikibu no Jô’s tantô and hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi. An example is shown in picture 23. It is a wide and long blade with a noticeable sori and shows a jigane in itame-nagare with ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden gunome that is mixed with ko-gunome, ko-notare, ashi, yô, kinsuji and sunagashi and the bôshi is a widely hardened midare-komi with a pointed kaeri that features hakikake. On the omote side we see a katana-hi and below a sankozuka-ken and on the ura side a katana-hi with a bonji below.
Picture 23: wakizashi, mei: “Minamoto Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni” (源式部丞信国) – “Eikyô yonen hachigatsu hi” (永享二二年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Eikyô four ”), nagasa 41.3 cm, sori 0.8 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
This brings us to the difficult case of trying to find out which Ôei-Nobukuni works go back to the hand of Gyôbu no Jô Nobukuni. To do so, I first want to introduce in picture 24 the different Nobukuni signature styles (click to see full-size pic). As you can see, the 1st generation signed the character for Nobu somewhat “squeezed” to left. Apart from that, his character for kuni is a little bit distorted, i.e. tilting a little bit to the top right. The 2nd generation did not squeeze the character for Nobu so much to the left, only a tiny little bit, and the one shown on the far right of my chart might be an edge case in term of signature style, although the work, which was introduced in picture 13 in the previous chapter, is attributed to the 2nd generation. Also he signed the left three internal strokes of the character for kuni in a more horizontal way than the 1st generation did. Saemon no Jô Nobukuni signed in a peculiar way, namely with the left and right inner parts of the character for kuni mirrored and with the central “dividing” stroke executed in a vertical manner. So his signatures are pretty easy to detect. Shikibu no Jô signed the left and right inner parts in the usual way and executed the central “dividing” stroke in a slightly diagonal manner but his works can be distinguished from the others in terms of slightly more advanced production time. So then there are signatures which significantly predate works of Shikibu no Jô and which do not match the mirrored signature of Saemon no Jô. These signatures, of which we know dates from Eitoku three (1382) to Ôei four (1397), are executed with the central “dividing” stroke in a very vertical manner and as they thus differ from works of the 2nd generation, of works of Saemon no Jô, and of works of Shikibu no Jô, both in terms of meiburi and production time, I attribute those for the time being to the 3rd generation, to Gyôbu no Jô Nobukuni.
Picture 24: Nobuie mei comparison
That said, I have to go back to my previous Nobukuni chapter, in the way that maybe all but picture 13 might be actually works of the 3rd generation, i.e. of Gyôbu no Jô. This confusing grey zone before the arrival of individually signed Nobukuni blades, e.g. Saemon no Jô and Shikibu no Jô, is one reason for why it almost took me a full year to go on with the Nobuie chapter. In other words, most publications are kind of avoiding the issue of the succession of Nobukuni generations but I didn’t want to leave it like that, or rather I just didn’t want to brush off this issue, repeat everything that has already been written, and go on with the next chapter. So it took me a while to go again through all references, to study, compare and weigh off the about 150 Nobukuni blades I have in my references, and that is why I think the genealogy that I presented in the last chapter makes the most sense from point of view of my today’s knowledge.
Well, I still want to introduce some more works which are signed in the way that I regard uniquely between the 2nd generation and Saemon no Jô Nobukuni, starting with the blade shown in picture 25. It is a short and slender tachi dated Ôei three (1396) that tapers noticeably and that has a relatively deep sori which tends to sakizori. The jigane is a standing-out itame mixed with nagare that shows ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare that is mixed with togariba, some tobiyaki, and many sunagashi. The bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. The haki-omote side shows a bonji and then a koshibi with a suken as relief and the haki-ura side a bonji and a rendai. In terms of overall interpretation, I would place this blade in the vicinity of Eitoku three (1383) blade introduced in picture 9 in the previous chapter.
Picture 25: tachi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Ôei sannen jûnigatsu hi” (応永三年十二月日, “a day in the twelfth month of Ôei three ”), nagasa 66.3 cm, sori 2.1 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
And last but not least, the blade shown in picture 26 kind of closes the “missing link” between the blade shown in picture 14 in the previous chapter and the Ôei-Nobukuni blades with prominent yahazu. It is a quite long shôbu-zukuri wakizashi with a jigane in a rather standing-out itame mixed with ô-itame and nagare, featuring plenty of ji-nie and much chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden yahazu-ba mixed with gunome, ko-notare, chôji, togariba, angular elements, ashi, yô, kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, and much muneyaki. The nioiguchi is bright and clear and the bôshi is midare-komi with a wide ko-maru-kaeri thar runs back in a long fashion and that connects with muneyaki.
Picture 26: wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Ôei yonen nigatsu jûrokunichi” (応永ニニ年二月十六日, “16th day of the sixth month of Ôei four ”), nagasa 57.8 cm, sori 1.6 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, shôbu-zukuri, maru-mune
This should do it for today and in the next part I want to conclude the Nobukuni chapter with introducing works of later generations Nobukuni and the alleged 6th generation of whom works with Chinese datings are extant.