Ok, I am leaving for the Chicago Sword Show tomorrow morning and am looking forward to see you guys there. So this is just gonna be a very short post but I thought it might nevertheless be of interest. A client asked me yesterday to explain the differences between a so-called Tenshō-suriage (天正磨上げ) and a Keichō-suriage (慶長磨上げ) as these terms are actually not explained in my Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords.
Before I deal with these kinds of suriage, a very brief historic outline of what we are talking about. By the end of the Muromachi period, a what I call a “civilian samurai uniform” started to emerge because now, shugo-daimyō and their higher-ranking vassals were no longer just protecting someone else’s land, they were ruling and administering it. As you don’t do this daily duty in full armor of course, the sword became the visible symbol of rank and authorative power. This was when these shugo-daimyō (the forerunners of the later daimyō) and their higher-ranking vassals needed a sword form, that could be easily thrusted through the sash of the new daily worn “uniform” and that did not have to be complicatedly suspended with cords like the tachi. For a more detail info on the changes in warrior dress code please look here. Again, we are talking about the upper ranks here, not what an average retainer had to his disposal.
Now Oda Nobunaga (織田信長, 1534-1582) came into power and he had, among others, a preference for Nanbokuchō-period Sōshū masterworks. If it was him who started it all of if there was already a momentum of reviving those works is a topic for another time but we know that his preference was continued by his “successor” Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1537-1598) and then basically by the entire upper warrior class. As Nanbokuchō-period Sōshū (and other, e.g. Sōden-Bizen) blades were long, wide, and heavy, Nobunaga and his peers had them shorted so that they can wear them with their civilian uniform. This was the start of the trend we are talking about here.
To be clear, Japanese swords have been shortened all the time. It was not like that the people at Oda Nobunaga’s time suddenly realized: “Hey, there is a nick or a crack at the base, but instead of throwing out the blade and have a complete new one made, let’s just cut off the end of the blade to the extent where the issue is and work the remaining part below of that into a new tang.” No, suriage and ō-suriage are as old as sword making is because steel was expensive and it is way easier and cheaper to shorten an otherwise completely functional blade and re-use it as a, well, shorter sword than have a new one made from scratch.
Back to the difference between Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage, which are by the way sometimes also just referred to as Tenshō-age and Keichō-age. Before I address the possible reasons for the differences, I want to outline them. As you can see in the shortened blade in picture 1, which comes under the category of a Tenshō-suriage, the tang tapers noticeably and the newly formed end is neatly shaped into a kengyō-jiri.
Picture 1: Tenshō-suriage
At the blade in picture 2, the tang does not taper that much (in the very case, the difference is actually not that obvious) and the newly formed end is just a straight kirijiri. So in short, the differences are: A Tenshō-suriage tapers more noticeably and has a more or less elaborately finished nakago-jiri whereas a Keichō-suriage does not taper much and ends in a straightly cut off kirijiri. There are no period set in stone rules that define a Tenshō and a Keichō-suriage, that is, these are relatively recent terms which were introduced to refer to certain kinds of ō-suriage tang finishes and I described them according to what I have been told (or more like overheard) in Japan. In other words, this post is not a very scientific treatise but states the issue as how I understand it and as how I explained it to my client who asked me this question.
Picture 2. Keichō-suriage
Now some thoughts about the reasons for these two different tang finishes of shortened blades. First of all, at the time Nobunaga came along, the highest circles were kind of looking down on shortened blades, in particular when it comes to presenting someone a fine sword. At the same time, it can be assumed that many of the extra long and wide Nanbokuchō blades with a nagasa of way more than 80 cm had already by shortened by then. But Nobunaga liked Sōshū and I think that he ordered his finest craftsmen to turn some of these Nanbokuchō works into blades that can be comfortably been worn as uchigatana/katana. This was so to speak stage one of this development, which took place during the Tenshō era (1573-1592), and the craftsmen shaped the newly created tang of a shortened sword into how a tang would have been initially finished by a swordsmith. Hence the taper and the sophisticated jiri. Or in other words, they were breaking new grounds and everyone was testing out the waters to see what was accepted and what not. So, you shorten a blade and make it look like as “original” as possible.
Jump to the Keichō era (1596-1615). Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had died (well, the latter not at the beginning but relatively quickly into Keichō era) but Nanbokuchō blades, in particular those of the Sōshū and Sōden-Bizen masters, were still very much first choice. Now by then, roughly twenty to thirty years after that entire trend had started, I guess that a shift had taken place. That is, by now, shortened blades have become socially acceptable so to speak. With that, there was no more need to “hold back” and do the balancing act of having a blade clearly shortened but make it look like as original as possible, in terms of tang finish. So, shortening a blade and leave it look like a shortened blade has always looked like (i.e. just the end cut off and filed the tang into a shape that can be fit into a new hilt) was no longer a taboo.
This is my take on this issue because even in Keichō times, we are talking about very fine blades. By way of explanation, it is like as if you are a master mechanic running the greatest workshop in the country (i.e. Hon’ami-Umetada collaboration): You just don’t have to cut corners when working on a Maybach or a Bugatti, that is, you have all the time and means in the world and don’t have to cut off a nakago in a straight kirjiri because you drown in work and just can’t shape it into a neat kenyō-jiri. Therefore, I rather think a shift in conception has taken place by the Keichō era and that this is the reason why shortened tangs were now finished differently than twenty to thirty years earlier and why we now refer to those different finishes as Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage.
I hope you can follow my train of thoughts and I will be back shortly with the next chapter of the Kantei series.