Challenges of translating period Japanese sword texts

A few weeks ago, one of my dear clients sent me a gift, a thick and old book on Japanese swords, basically with the words: “I got this one but it makes more sense in your hands than in my library. Maybe you can get some valuable information out of it and share them with all of us.” Thank you very much Mr. D.! Now browsing through the book now and then over the last weeks, I found some highly interesting information but first of all, I realized again how tough it actually is to translate period Japanese sword texts. In this article, I want to give you an understanding of my daily struggles and walk with you through the different layers of challenges that I and others are facing doing this kind of stuff. Before we continue, I want to state that I will introduce the title of the book, its contents, and more details about it in the future but suffice it to say, it bases on period sword literature from the Momoyama to early Edo period that goes partially back to the Takeya (竹屋) system of sword knowledge (for some basic info on the Takeya family, see this article here).



Now the very first challenge is of course being actually able to read/decipher the characters of a text like the two above. For this, you need to know how a Japanese/Chinese character, a kanji is written, i.e. the stroke order and how strokes merge and/or are omitted when writing them in semi-cursive or cursive (grass) script. The former, knowing how a kanji is written, is relatively easy to learn but the latter, being able to grasp the semi-cursive and cursive script, takes some years. This is basically the same challenge as it is with handwritten period Western texts from let’s say the 1700 or 1800s. You just have to learn it. Short anecdote: Some years ago I visited an exhibition in Japan that focused on the early Meiji period and there were letters on display written by some Germans working in Japan at that time which I could not read (I am Austrian as most of you know, so German is my mother tongue). But I was able to read the handwritten letters of their Japanese employers…

If you are able to handle challenge one, the reading/deciphering of the kanji, challenge two comes into play which is making a sense out of what you got. For this you have to understand the Japanese writing system, which you probably do when being able to master challenge one, but for those who don’t, I will explain. The Japanese writing system uses Chinese characters, the kanji, and combines them with a pair of syllabaries, hiragana and katakana. In short, a Japanese sentence usually contains a mixture of kanji and hiragana/katakana, the former representing a certain term and the latter supporting the meaning of that term, having grammatical funtions, and representing particles, just to keep it simple here. To quote Wikipedia in this respect: “Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is often considered to be the most complicated in use anywhere in the world.”

But wait, there is more. Kanji can also be kana syllables. Yes, you read that correctly. We are talking here about so-called man’yōgana (万葉仮名), a writing system that employs kanji to represent phonetical syllables in the Japanese language. This approach was by the way the origin of the hiragana and katakana alphabet, that is, Chinese characters used to represent a certain phonetical Japanese syllable were written in more and more cursive ways and ended so up as the simple hiragana and katakana we all know today. Just to give you an example, the picture below demonstrates how the character bi/mi (美), which means “beauty”, became via its cursive style of writing the hiragana syllable mi. In other words, if this character appeares somewhere in a period Japanese text and doesn’t make any sense at all in that context, it might just be there substitutional for the sylable mi. So for example if you come across the characters (黒美) in a period Japanese text, they most likely don’t mean “black beauty” because the second kanji is just there for its reading mi. That is, the word is kuromi (黒み), which means “black tinge”, “blackishness”, etc.

This brings us back to the first picture, the example I am using in this article, and I want to focus on the left four lines of the text on the right. So, if you truly master challenges one and two, you might be able to read/decipher these four lines as follows:


一 志津の事 是ハ正宗可弟子奈連トモ「ヤキバ」ハ

Shizu no koto – Kore wa Masamune ga deshi naredomo yakiba wa
Seki no tekuse o ushinawazu, ashi o soroe, ko-ashi
mata wa notare ni temo, sadamaritaru yō ni te omo
shiroki koto naki mono naredomo, jihada tsumari nie


I want to pick out one word to demonstrate what we just did, the third word in line two, ushinawazu. This word means “is not lost” and would today be written as (失わず), or just with hiragana syllables as (うしなわず). In the period text in question, the syllables na and wa have been replaced with the kanji (奈) and (者) which also read na and wa respectively. Apart from that, you also have to know when a syllable is voiced as those little voicing marks, the dakuten, are usually omitted in period texts. For example here, the last syllable zu is written with the hiragana syllable su (す) and you have to fill in the blank and “make” it into a zu (ず).

If you are still following, this is already pretty difficult so far and to bring that all together smoothly, i.e. being able to recognize, understand, and translate such a text, it takes many many years of studying.

But that is still not all. I picked this text because it contains another nasty little challenge, and that is, it contains so to speak “made up fantasy characters.” Yes, you read that correctly again. The example features three of them which I had to put into Japanese quotation marks 「 」 (and mark them with an asterisk in the picture) because as they are made up as mentioned, they are obviously not available as computer-typeable kanji.



The first one is shown in the picture above. First you would assume some character with the heart radical (忄) to the left, maybe this one (怽). But this character is very uncommon and not in use in the Japanese language. Well, it is used in Chinese but its meaning “a troubled/confused heart” doesn’t really make any sense in this context. Next thing to assume would be that it was used for its phonetical reading, which is or in Chinese but mi or mo don’t make sense either at this place in the sentence. To cut it short: The “character” in question actually consists of the three katakana syllables ya (ヤ) to the left, ki (キ) on top right, and ha/ba (ハ) written around ki. You get it? The term we are looking for is yakiba!

So, making up a character from syllables was totally a possibility back then, even if there exists a just kanji combination for yakiba – (焼刃) – which is not that difficult to remember at all. That is, if you are able to write a book on swords that contains hundreds of other difficult characters, it is not about that you can’t remember the kanji for yakiba and have to make them up. We are just dealing here with customs that were handed down within schools of sword knowledge and we find made up characters like that all the way back in the oldest, pardon, second oldest extant sword document, the Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi.



Back to the second of them (see picture above). Here you see the character (田) to the left and something like (禾) to the right but again, this combination doesn’t exists as a kanji. This time we are facing the combination chi/ji (千) on the left, ha/ba (ハ) written around that at the bottom, and ta/da (田) on the left, at least we had this initially correct… And with filling in the blank and adding the voicing marks in your head, you arrive at the term jihada!



The last one (see picture above) is even more tricky. In this case, the left part of the character is kei (景) which means “scenery” but the part on the right doesn’t even exist as a character by itself. Here you just have to come across some explanation (like I did with the book in question) one day because without that, I guess it is impossible to figure out that the kanji you see above stands for nie, which is usually written with the character (沸). Another way to write nie in this sense of made up characters is combining the two katakana syllables ni (ニ) and e (エ), or ni (ニ) and we (ヱ) (see picture below). On a normal day, you would think of reading e (江) here, as in Edo (江戸), or as the abbreviated character for Gō Yoshihiro’s (郷義弘) (江). Big head scratcher again if you are not aware of the existence of made up characters and how they work.




In conclusion I would like to say that if you want to translate period Japanese sword texts, you have to go very deep into the matter of the language, the subject of the sword, and the historical background. But if you do, it is totally worth it because in my opinion, getting a better and better understanding of the subtleties in another language is the best way to develop a decent understanding of the way of thinking and of the mindsets of the people who wrote these texts in the past. Also with translating poems and understanding their sometimes obvious, sometimes highly sophisticated allusions via not only the language itself but the deliberate use of certain characters, you get a grasp of the entire whole of the nihontō that just learning features in the steel can’t deliver. But this is something you really have to invest time and energy in, and probably need a teacher, so nothing you can just tackle at the side. The icing on the cake after many years of blade studies if you will. I am now studying Japanese for exactly 20 years and translate for about 15 (first as a hobby and 10 years now full time as my job), and it still feels as if I just have pushed open a door, a significant door maybe which makes you aware that the doors you have opened so far were nothing compared to what is still out there…



Volume 2 – Tosogu Classroom

Update on the project:

Volume 2 has just been completed and I am placing orders for members who have prepaid as we speak. That said, if you are going volume by volume, you can get in touch with me at your convenience to order Volume 2. Members of the three associations who organized this project – which are the JSS/US, NTBHK/AB and NBTHK/EB – can order Volume 2 for just the cost of printing and shipping, which is $44 within the US and Canada. If you are not a member, the price is $64 per copy. Slightly different prices apply for outside of the US so please get in touch with me to talk about details. As you can see in the preview below, Volume 2 is with almost 700 pages quite substantial. It is the second volume that deals with artist who worked in iron. Volume 3 and 4, which should follow in the coming months, will deal with the kinkō guys and Volume 5 is the color volume.

Thank you for your attention.

Volume 2 Contents

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #34 – Heianjō (平安城) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 1

With the Heianjō and Go-Sanjō Schools we are facing the well-known problem of historic records going very far back in time but with the exception of a very few “outliers,” on which the experts even have differention opinions on, the extant body of works does not go back farther than the early Muromachi period. Now you could just say it like that and go ahead by introducing these extant works, which is usually done in most of the sources, but if you follow my series you will know that I don’t want to skip these considerations on the origins of certain things as such a habit can give the reader the idea that swordsmiths schools just popped up out of nowhere and nothing is connected with anything.

The Heianjō and Go-Sanjō Schools are insofar also a kind of a special case because we know that they were working closely together in the mid-Muromachi period but we don’t know how far back this relationship goes, or if these smiths were connected to their earlier namesakes at all, but more on this later. Although period sources suggest that the Heianjō lineage is older than the Go-Sanjō lineage, I nevertheless want to start with the latter because it appears that the oldest extant blades signed with the very same name used by the main line, Yoshinori (吉則), are on the Go-Sanjō side.

For some reason, most of the older sword sources don’t deal in detail with the Yoshinori lineage. The Kokon Mei Zukushi Taizen, whose information has to be taken with a grain of salt (for reasons mentioned earlier in this series), briefly says that Yoshinori (吉則) was born in Jōwa five (1349) and died in Ōei eight (1401) at the age of 52. The Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi is to my knowledge the earliest relevant publication that presents a specific genealogy for the Yoshinori lineage in which it dates its first generation to Kenmu (1334-1338) and its second generation to Jōji (1362-1368). If this genealogy is correct, the Kokon Mei Zukushi Taizen is referring to the second generation, an approach by which also Satō Kanzan goes. As a reference, I want to introduce that genealogy of the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi below.


Sanjo Yoshinori Genealogy


At this point, the oldest extant signed Yoshinori blade comes into play. It is a jūyō-bunkazai tachi (see picture 1) preserved in the Sakakiyama-jinja (榊山神社), Gifu Prefecture, which is introduced by the experts as follows: Honma says early Nanbokuchō (corrected his previous Nihon Kotō Shi statement where he had dated the blade to the late Nanbokuchō period); Satō says end of Kamakura and probably a work of the Kenmu-era first generation; Tsuneishi says end of Kamakura too; the jūyō-bunkazai designation says early Nanbokuchō; and the prewar kokuhō designation (that blade had been kokuhō before WWII) from 1928 says end of Kamakura to Nanbokuchō and if the traditional counting of generations is correct (first generation Kenmu and second generation Jōji), somewhere in between those two but with a hint more towards the first master. Incidentally, the designation says that the blade was once a heirloom of the Tōyama (遠山) family, the daimyō of the Naegi fief (苗木藩) of Mino province, and was offered to the Sakakiyama-jinja during the Meiji era by the twelfth and last Naegi daimyō Tōyama Tomoyoshi (遠山友禄, 1819-1894).


Picture 1: jūyō-bunkazai, tachi, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則), nagasa 75.8 cm, sori 2.5 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, sakihaba 1.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, on both sides a bōhi that ends in marudome in the tang


Let us address the workmanship of this blade. It displays an elegant tachi-sugata that fits very well to the given time frame, i.e. end of Kamakura to early Nanbokuchō, and it is assumed that its original nagasa was somewhere close to 90 cm. It has a deep koshizori, tapers noticeably, and ends in a compact ko-kissaki. The jigane is a somewhat standing-out itame that is mixed with mokume and nagare and that displays ji-nie. The hamon is a classical ko-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-chōji and ashi and whose elements are rather densely arranged. The ha gets wider towards the yokote and ends in a nie-laden and wide bōshi with hakikake which almost appears as ichimai. In the preward kokuhō designation we read that the classical interpretation of the jiba does speak for Kyō-mono but that the hamon is somewhat more narrow and the nioiguchi partially somewhat harder than that of contemporary Yamashiro (e.g. Awataguchi, Rai) masterworks, although the blade itself is of course an outstanding masterwork too, just not at Awataguchi or Rai level, and its jiba is kenzen (in perfectly healthy condition).

In conclusion, there is agreement that the blade is in Yamashiro tradition, a Kyō-mono, and Tsuneishi goes so far to place it in the vicinity of the Ryōkai School, what brings us to the origins of the Sanjō Yoshinori lineage. To make it short, nobody knows but it is assumed that there was no connection whatsoever to the early Sanjō School. To keep them apart, the lineage of Yoshinori is also referred to as Go-Sanjō (後三条), “later Sanjō.” The Meikan list a Yoshinori from the early Sanjō School who was supposedly active around Chōkyū (長久, 1040-1044) but this early Yoshinori entry might just be an attempt to connect the Go-Sanjō with the initial Sanjō School. Others suggest that Yoshinori might have been a student of the Awataguchi Yoshimitsu-student Yoshimasa (吉正) who was active around Kōan (1278-1288). Would match in terms of active period and the use of the character Yoshi but that might actually be the only reason for this theory.

There is supposedly a Yoshinori blade extant which is dated Ōei two (1395) and which is the oldest dated work of that lineage but I wasn’t able to find it in my references so the next blade that I want to introduce is a jūyō-bijitsuhin tantō (see picture 2) that is dated to around the same time, that is end of Nanbokuchō to early Muromachi. This blade is also one of the earliest ones that is actually signed with the prefix “Sanjō” and it might be a work of the third generation, possibly second generation. The blade has an uncommon shape, kata-shōbu-zukuri, i.e. one side in hira and the other side in shōbu-zukuri, and sows a relatively narrow suguha-chō that is mixed with ko-gunome and a few sunagashi and kinsuji and that features an undulating bōshi with sunagashi that runs back with a pointy ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 2: jūyō-bijutsuhin, tantō, mei: “Sanjō Yoshinori saku” (三条吉則作), nagasa 29.4 cm, mitsu-mune


Now we arrive at blade three. It is a katana signed “Yoshinori” which Satō dates after the jūyo-bunkazai of the Sakakiyama-jinja but not later than early Muromachi. The blade is shortened and its bōhi ends in marudome in the middle of the tang whereupon it is sometimes confused at first glance with the jūyo-bunkazai but which is a tachi (notice the tachi-mei). Blade number 3 shows a standing-out ko-itame that is mixed with with masame and a ko-midare hamon that is mixed with ko-gunome and that gets wider and features more hataraki along the monouchi, an approach that can also be seen at the previous two blades. The bōshi is midare-komi and runs back with a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake.


Picture 3: katana, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則), nagasa 72.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 4, from left to right: mei of the jūyō-bunkazai, of the Yoshinori katana from picture 3, mei of the jūyō-bijutsuhin, mei of an Ōei dated Yoshinori work.


With this I want to come back to the question of succession of generations and do some signature comparison. Picture 4 shows the mei of the three so far introduced Yoshinori blades plus that of a tantō dated Ōei 26 (1419). As you can see, there are some unique features. At the first blade, the lower (口) radical of the Yoshi character is noticeably angular and the right radical (リ) of the nori (則) character has a vertical and relatively long left stroke. At the second blade, the right edge of the (口) radical ends in a noticeably pronounced manner, similar to how the katakana syllable se (セ) ends its horizontal stroke. At the character for nori, the left stroke of the right radical (リ) is still executed vertically but somewhat shorter. Also, the longer right stroke of that radical starts as a corner (𠃍) whereas at the previous mei, there is some little extension like (丁). At the third blade, the (口) radical does not show that pronounced edge and at the nori character, the left stroke has become a very small dot. At the fourth blade, the (口) radical apprars to remain the same but the left stroke of the (リ) radical is again longer but is executed in a diagonal manner. This all combined, plus other subtle differences like the curve of the long right stroke of the (リ) radical, makes it not too unreasonable to assume that we are facing here four generations, the first four, arranged chronologically.

I want to conclude this chapter by introducing the fourth blade shown in the signature comparison. It is a hira-zukuri sunnobi-tantō whose sugata is typical for the Ōei era. It shows a ko-itame that is mixed with nagare and that features ji-nie and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden suguha-chō that is mixed with some shallow ko-notare, gunome, and some fine kinsuji. The nioiguchi is rather compact but subdued and the bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi. The tang is ubu (just the jiri was cut off a little) and as you can learn from the interpretation of the jiba and sugata, we find some points in common with the contemporary Nobukuni School.


Picture 4: jūyō, sunnobi-tantō, mei: “Yoshinori” (吉則) – “Ōei nijūrokunen jūnigatsu hi” (応永廿六年十二月日, “a day in the twelfth month of Ōei 26, 1419).


Next chapter will deal with the Yoshinori generations who were active from the early Muromachi period onwards. So please stay tuned.