Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage

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.



KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #36 – Heianjō (平安城) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 3

As mentioned at the very beginning of this Heianjō and Go-Sanjō chapter, it appears that the Heianjō lineage is older than that of the Go-Sanjō. According to tradition, the Heianjō lineage was founded by a smith named Nagamitsu (長光) who was succeeded by Mitsunaga (光長) and Yoshinaga (吉長) until the first Heianjō master with the famous name Nagayoshi (長吉) appears on the scene. No worries, I will provide a genealogy later in this article as usual.

Now I will talk about Mitsunaga very shortly because it appears that he is the earliest Heianjō master of whom blades are extant but want to share some thoughts on his predecessor, the school’s ancestor Nagamitsu. First of all, there are no blades of Nagamitsu extant. The Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen says that he was active around Bun’ō (文応, 1260-1261) and the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi dates him around Gen’ō (元応, 1319-1321) and says that he came originally from northern Ōshū (implying that he was a Mōgusa smith), bore the name Saburō (三郎), and moved to Kyōto where he joined the Hasebe School whereupon he signed with “Hasebe Nagamitsu.” Another theory says that Nagamitsu was a descendant of the Yamato Senju’in smith with the same name who was active around Tenpuku (天福, 1233-1234). As indicated, no blade that would suggest any of those traditions is extant.

Back to Mitsunaga. According to the Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen, he was born in Kenchō one (建長, 1249) and died in Genkō three (元亨, 1323) at the age of 75. This would match with the source saying that his father was active around Bun’ō (文応, 1260-1261) but also matches the tradition that his father was a descendant of the Yamato Senju’in Nagamitsu from Tenpuku (天福, 1233-1234). Fortunately, there is a dated blade of Mitsunaga extant, namely the jūyō-bijutsuhin tantō introduced in picture 1 which is from Genkō two (1322) and which is owned by the Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures. This blade has an interesting shape. Its omote side is in hira-zukuri and its ura side in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri. It has a mitsu-mune, some uchizori, and is otherwise of normal dimensions for that time. The kitae is a somewhat standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare that is mixed with sunagashi, kinsuji, and hotsure. The bōshi is midare-komi with a rather pointed kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. Gomabashi are engraved on the omote side and the ura side shows a koshibi. The nakago is ubu, has a kirijiri, and features a relatively finely chiseled mei.


Picture 1: jūyo-bunkazai, tantō, mei: “Heianjō-jū Mitsunaga – Genkō ninen nigatsu hi” (平安城住光長・元亨二年二月日, “on a day in the second month of Genkō two (1322)”), nagasa 24.8 cm, uchizori, motohaba 2.2 cm


Such kanmuri-otoshi shapes were very typical for Yamato blades of that time so the theory that his and his father’s roots were in Yamato sound plausible. Even the NBTHK states that this Genkō two blade reminds them in terms of tsukurikomi and interpretation of the jiba of the Yamato tradition. However, there are also Mitsunaga works extant which feature a nie-utsuri and so also another theory is possible, one that says that he was actually either an Awataguchi or a Rai smith. One of them is shown in picture 2. It is an unsigned tantō but which has a similar shape as the jūyō-bijutsuhin and which is attributed by the NBTHK to Heianjō Mitsunaga. This blade is in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri (on both sides this time), has an iori-mune, a relatively narrow mihaba, an uchizori, a thick kasane, and only little fukura. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame that tends to nagare in places and that features ji-nie, fine chikei, and a faint nie-utsuri. The hamon is a narrow and shallow ko-nieladen notare-chō with a wide and bright nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-gunome and plenty of kinsuji. the bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. There is a koshi-bi wie soebi on both sides which run as kaki-nagashi into the tang and the nakago is almost ubu (it is slightly machi-okuri), has a shallow kurijiri, and katte-sagari yasurime.


Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mumei: Den Heianjō Mitsunaga (伝平安城光長), nagasa 24.3 cm, uchizori, motohaba 1.95 cm


Whilst the first two blades were more on the Yamato side, blade number 3 shown below rather tends towards the Rai School. It is a small hira-zukuri tanto with a nagasa of 21.1 cm, uchizori, and a relatively slender mihaba. its kitae is a dense ko-itame with ji-nie and a nie-utsuri and its hamon is a nie-laden hoso-suguha-chō that is mixed with ko-gunome, notsure, and sunagashi. The bōshi is only slightly undulating, featuring a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake that runs back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi. The tang is a little bit suriage, has a shallow kurijiri, and katte-sagari-yasurime.


Picture 3: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Heianjō-jū Mitsunaga” (平安城住光長), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 21.1 cm, uchizori, mihaba 1.75 cm


At this point, I want to give you an idea of how complicated and interwoven the topic of these old smiths is. The Ōseki Shō from the early 1500s says for example that Mitsunaga’s was Konyū (虎熊) and the genealogy of the shintō-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni smiths (compiled in 1601) states that the second generation Nobukuni, one of their ancestors, used that too. This is interesting but could also just be a coincidence. The Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen and Tsuneishi however say that Mitsunaga’s  was Chonyū/Inyū (猪熊). Those who follow my blog very closely might remember these characters. Read in the Japanese way, Inokuma, we arrive at the place where the Hasebe School had settled in Kyōto (more info here). Very interesting, isn’t it, as one tradition says that Mitsunaga’s father was a Hasebe smith. But there is more. As mentioned in the linked article from 2013, there is the theory that the founder of the Hasebe School himself, Kunishige (国重), was a Yamato Senju’in smith who settled in Kyōto via a stopover in Kamakura where he learned the Sōshū tradition. Now this theory is of course not settled and we will probably never now for sure what was really going on 700 years ago but I take the liberty to throw out some possible scenarios now and then.

In this context, let’s take a look at the signature of the Heianjō smiths. As stated above, they signed with the prefix “Heianjō-jū.” This by itself is nothing special as it just means “resident of Kyōto,” that is, although uncommon for these schools, it would have been theoretically possible that even an Awataguchi or a Rai smith had signed with “Heianjō-jū.” However, the term Heianjō (平安城) comes with some contextual baggage so to speak. It was introduced, with Heiankyō (平安京), to distinguish the new Kyōto capital from the old one in Nara, which was Heijōkyō (平城京). Well, that move of the capital had been taken place 500 years before the Heianjō School emerged but taking into consideration (often deliberate) subtleties in Japanese language, it is possible that signing with this prefix was a way for former Yamato smiths to proudly state that they were now working in Kyōto, an issue that Sanjō, Gojō, Awataguchi and Rai smiths didn’t have to worry about as they were old-established Kyōto smiths. Incidentally, there is the old tradition that some Yamato smiths had their origins within the Iruka group (入鹿) of Kii province which in turn is said to have been founded by Mōgusa smiths in 10th century. So from that point of view, the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi is not totally off stating that the ancestor of the Heianjō lineage has northern Mōgusa roots in the wider sense.

Below I want to present the genealogy of the Heianjō School as I see it today.

Genealogy Heianjo


The Nagayoshi lineage will be the subject of the next chapter. Somewhat odd is that it appears that there are no blades of Mitsunaga’s son and (the first generation) Nagayoshi’s father Yoshinaga extant. At least I wasn’t able to find one… The Kokon Mei Zukushi might provide a hint for why Yoshinaga blades are virtually non-existent. In their genealogy namely his place is left blank and filled with the information “daughter of Mitsunaga.” This would mean that Yoshinaga was Mitsunaga’s son-in-law, what leads to a range of possible scenarios. Maybe Mitsunaga’s first born child was a girl and he waited in vain for being blessed with a male heir and as time went on and on, he eventually married his daughter to Yoshinaga to pass on his profession as a swordsmith. So maybe Yoshinaga came to the family relatively late. Well, there was according to tradition also the son Sadaie (定家) (see genealogy) but it is possible that after marrying his daughter to Yoshinaga, Mitsunaga’s wife did give birth to a boy eventually. Or Sadaie was adopted as another possible candidate to take over the lineage. It is interesting that the Kokon Mei Zukushi lists a Nagayoshi after Sadaie and one after the Mitsunaga’s daughter. Possible that there was some confusion going on after Mitsunaga died and it was decided that both Yoshinaga and Sadaie’s sons were allowed to continue with the Nagayoshi name, like as it was the case later with the two Echizen Yasutsugu lineages.

Anyway, that’s just some thoughts on the early Heianjō smiths and the Nagayoshi lineage will be dealt with in the next chapter.