KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #30 – Hasebe (長谷部) School 1

Now we arrive at Yamashiro’s Hasebe School which is, lo and behold, actually Sôshû. Also, we are facing here kind of the same issues as we faced with the Nobukuni School. In regards to the former aspect, the Hasebe School does not qualify as member of the Yamashiro tradition in the strict sense of the word because its workmanship is, as mentioned, pure Sôshû. However, all traditional sources introduce the school as part of the Yamashiro tradition due to it being later located in Kyôto, and I don’t want to break with these conventions in my kantei series. In other words, and as my regular readers may know, I am questioning old publications quite frequently but at the same time, I still want to stick to traditional approaches as much as possible in order to maintain “backwards compatibility.” Long story short, I am introducing the Hasebe School in the Yamashiro chapter, the place you will also find it in traditional original Japanese sources in case you want do more research. I have dealt with the origins of the Hasebe School a while ago in this article. So basically there is the theory that the name of the school, and therefore the school itself, has its origins in Yamato province but there is also the approach to link the origins of the Hasebe School to Shintôgo Kunimitsu who bore the family name Hasebe. That said, I would like that you also read Darcy’s excellent write-up on this context here.

When it comes to the mentioned similar Nobukuni School issue, it is that of the counting of generations of the school founder, Hasebe Kunishige (長谷部国重). This means, like at the Nobukuni School, there are views which basically assume that the ancestor and first generation emerged in the mid-Nanbokuchô period whereas some of the older sources see him as student of Masamune and therefore place him in the early Nanbokuchô period. But let’s start and address these issues as we proceed.

The records are in agreement that the Hasebe School was founded by Kunishige. This Kunishige now either came from the Senju’in (or Taima) School, i.e. having Yamato roots, or was the son of (or otherwise related to) Shintôgo Kunimitsu. The former approach suggests that he followed the then trend of smiths being either invited to Kamakura or that he tried his luck at this new hotspot of sword making whereas the latter approach suggests that Kunishige was born into a newly created but now thriving sword making tradition. Either way, he must have been in touch with Masamune and with Masamune’s colleagues and this local context is good enough for me to understand why later sources count him as one of the famous Ten Students of Masamune. Just for your info, the Kotô Mei Zukushi says that the 1st generation Hasebe Kunishige was the son of Senju’in Shigenobu (千手院重信), that his first name was Chôbei (長兵衛),  that he was born in Bun’ei seven (文永, 1270), and that he died in Jôwa three (貞和, 1347) at the age of 78. It also says that he worked in Kyôto from the Ryakuô era (暦応, 1338-1342) onwards. The last statement makes insofar very much sense because with the fall of the Kamakura bakufu in 1333, we see kind of a “Kamakura exodus” with most of the then of Sôshû masters leaving the area, i.e. Gô Yoshihiro and Norishige going to Etchû, Rai Kunitsugu and Hasebe Kunishige to Kyôto, Sadamune to Takagi in Ômi province, Kaneuji and Kinjû to Mino, Chôgi to Bizen, and Sa going down to Kyûshû. I don’t want to digress too much but just so much for the historical background: After Kamakura fell, it was tried to have the shôgun in Kyôto and a deputy shôgun in Kamakura but that never worked out because the deputy shôgun tried to become shôgun what made Kamakura and the region was basically unstable. So only a few masters still remained on site to equip the local military elite, for example Hiromitsu and Akihiro.

Back to Kunishige. When we take a look at his entire body of work we learn that he focused on the production of hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô respectively (or all long swords were either used up or shortened later). Tachi are rare, what is in particular true for signed specimen. To my knowledge, there are only three zaimei tachi known, one is dated Jôwa five (貞和, 1349) and its authenticity is debated since pre-WWII times, one has an orikaeshi-mei, and one is ubu and displays a signature style which differs somewhat from that seen on his ko-wakizashi and tantô, although it is mentioned that in fact of the otherwise matching workmanship of the blade itself, the differences in the mei might well lie within the realm of changes of a smith’s signature style over time.

So before we introduce some of Kunishige’s works, let’s address the elephant in the room, the question about the succession/counting of generations. In the meikan, we usually find find three generations, the 1st being active around Kenmu (建武, 1334-1338), the 2nd around Enbun (延文, 1356-1361), and the 3rd generation, Rokurôzaemon (六郎左衛門), around Ôei (応永, 1394-1428). The Nihontô Koza also introduces three generations Kunishige, with Honma sensei adding that the workmanship of the first two is hard to distinguish and basically has to be tackled via the quality factor, what is the traditional approach we see so often, i.e. “looks definitely like smith A but the quality is a little inferior so let’s say it is a work of a second generation A.” This scenario sometimes works but sometimes there is nothing really substantial to base it on. Incidentally, in his Nihon Kotô Shi, Honma states that he agrees with the tradition that the 1st generation was already active around Kenmu. Tsuneishi and Uchida both follow the three generations theory too (with Rokurôzaemon the 3rd being active around Ôei) whereas Tanobe sensei dismisses the approach that the 1st generation was active that early (or rather counts the Kenmu and Enbun Kunishige as one smith) and counts Rokurôzaemon as 2nd generation (as Fujishiro sensei does).

My take on this is as follows. I accept that some mid to later Nanbokuchô smiths with a Sôshû-influenced workmanship have never trained with Masamune or have never been to Kamakura but I have troubles with accepting that certain smiths, especially like Hasebe Kunishige whose workmanship is so close to what was done by the first generation Sôshû smiths, so to speak locally popped up out of the blue two or three decades after initial masters like Masamune had been active. Also, the travelling of medieval smiths is often doubted but when for example Aoe smiths were able to make it the 150 miles (as the crow flies) from Bitchû to Kyôto to work for Gotoba, nothing speaks for smiths doing the 215 miles trip from Kyôto to Kamakura (again, as the crow flies). Let’s take a look at the dated blades we know from Kunishige. The earliest is the Jôwa five one mentioned above but as this mei is doubted, Bunna four (文和, 1355) becomes the earliest one. Then it continues with Enbun two (延文, 1357), three (1368), five (1360), Jôji two (貞治, 1363) and four (1365), and Ôan one (応安, 1368) as the youngest. And then we have two oshigata of Rokurôzaemon blades which are dated Ôei 24 (応永, 1417) and Shôchô one (正長, 1428). So when the Kotô Mei Zukushi is correct with the 1st generation being born in 1270 and having died in 1347, all these dated blades before Rokurôzaemon go back to the 2nd generation. The Kotô Mei Zukushi also says that the 2nd generation Kunishige was born in Shôwa two (正和, 1313) and died in Ôan four (応安, 1371) at the age of 60, what does not add up, and states that the 3rd generation was born in Enbun one (延文, 1356) and died in Ôei eight (応永, 1401) at the age of 46 what seems to be incorrect as there are blades known as mentioned above which bear much later dates

Not saying that the Kotô Mei Zukushi is correct with all its dates of course (for reasons mentioned in one of the previous chapters) but everything would fall in line if this source is quasi off by one generation. That is, what if it was the 1st generation who was born in 1313? He would have been in his late 20s or early 30s when studying with Masamune, and in his 20s in the Kenmu era. And he would have been just 55 years old when the youngest known dated Kunishige blade was made in 1368. The fact that the vast majority of dated Kunishige blades is from about that time, or a little earlier, could be explained by the assumption that his school only really took off after the Hasebe smiths got settled in Kyôto. The problem that remains is that it seems that when the 1st generation assumedly died in 1371, there are then no dated blades known from the 2nd generation. This in turn could be explained by the fact that when he was reaching his artistic maturity (being born in 1356), it was already the late Nanbokuchô period and so maybe the demand for Hasebe blades had decreased. Or he was weak/sickly and hardly worke himself as he assumedly died at the young age of 46. And the 3rd generation then left Kyôto and tried his luck somewhere else (more on this later).

Enough speculation and as I was already writing quite a bit, I will only introduce a few long swords by Kunishige and will leave his hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô as well as the characteristic features of his and Hasebe workmanship for the next part. Let’s start with what is undoubtedly Kunishige’s most famous work, the kokuhô meibutsu Heshikiri-Hasebe (圧し切長谷部) (see picture 1). For info on the historical background of the blade and its nickname please see my other site here. The Heshikiri-Hasebe has a wide mihaba, a shallow sori, a thin kasane, and ends in an ô-kissaki, i.e. everything is classical heyday Nanbokuchô. The kitae is a dense, excellently forged ko-itame with fine ji-nie and the steel has that beautiful “wet” look. The hamon is a notare-midareba in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ashi and that tends with its tobiyaki and yubashiri to hitatsura. The bôshi is relatively widely hardened and runs back in an ô-maru-kaeri.


Picture 1: kokuhô Heshikiri-Hasebe, nagasa 64.8 cm, sori 0.9 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 2.5 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 2 shows the tachi with the questionable mei/date. It has relatively unobtrusive sugata, i.e. not heyday Nanbokuchô, what would corroborate its date, and ends in an elongated chûj-kissaki. Don’t be mislead by the four mekugi-ana and the low signature, the blade is considered to be ubu. That is, we have here already one of the typical characteristics of the Hasebe School, namely signing the blades sometimes at the very bottom of the tang. As you can see in the oshigata, the hamon is a rather calm suguha with some midare towards the base and the kaeri of the bôshi encloses a shimaba, a feature that is often seen at Sôshû blades, e.g. at Masamune.


Picture 2: tachi, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重) – “Jôwa gonen tsuchinoto-ushi jûgatsu hi” (貞和五年己丑十月日, “a day in the tenth month of Jôwa five [1349], year of the ox”), nagasa 71.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


In picture 3 we see a katana that is designated as a jûyô-bunkazai and that is attributed to Hasebe Kunishige via Den. It is ô-suriage, has a wide mihaba, a thin kasane, a shallow sori, an elongated chû-kissaki, and, what is another feature relatively often seen on Hasebe blades, a maru-mune. The kitae is an itame that tends to nagare and that shows ji-nie and the hamon is a notare that is mixed with gunome, ashi, connected , and that tends along the upper half of the blade to hitatsura. The bôshi is midare-komi and shows hakikake.


Picture 3: jûyô-bunkazai, katana, mumei: Den Hasebe Kunishige (伝長谷部国重), nagasa 70.6 cm, sori 1.36 cm, shinogi-zukuri, maru-mune


And last for today the aforementioned tachi that is ubu and signed but whose signature differs a little bit from that seen on Kunishige’s hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô. The blade is rather slender, has a deep sori, and ends in a ko-kissaki. So in terms of shape, this should be either a very early work of Kunishige (what would explain the different signature) or a later work that was made for court use. The kitae is an itame that is mixed with mokume and that features plenty of ji-nie and chikei. The steel has a “wet” look and is very clear. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-notare-chô that is mixed with gunome, many ashi, kinsuji, sunagashi, hotsure, yubashiri, and muneyaki and tends to a so to speak layer-based (i.e. not a tobiyaki and/or togari-based) hitatsura. The bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri and shows hakikake that tend to a little bit to nie-kuzure.


Picture 4: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重), nagasa 67.7 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.75 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune




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