Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜)

Time for another portrait of an important figure in the sword world, Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜). Kōson was born on April 29 of Meiji twelve (明治, 1879) as Kawaguchi Teikichi (川口定吉), son of Kawaguchi Magotarō (川口孫太郎), in Maebashi (前橋), Gunma Prefecture. Before the Meiji restoration and the abolishment of the feudal system, his father had been a sword polisher of the Maebashi fief of the same name, located what was then Kōzuke province and ruled by the Matsudaira (松平) family. It is said that Magotarō, who also went by the name Kinmei (欽明, also read Yoshiaki), later became a physician, or that he was a physician for the fief who polished swords at the side. When Teikichi was twelve years old, i.e. in 1890, his father moved to Tōkyō and Teikichi entered an apprenticeship as sword polisher with Hon’ami Ringa (本阿弥琳雅, 1859-1927). This is how his remarkable career started.

Hon’ami Ringa

Ringa was the 16th generation of the Kō’i (光意) lineage of the Honami which had branched off from the 7th Hon’ami main line generation in the Momoyama era. Ringa had been adopted into the Hon’ami family as had been basically all his Kō’i predecessors since the 5th generation of that lineage. I assume that Ringa was recognizing Kōson’s great talent because he managed it to get him married to a daughter of a relative of Hon’ami Mitsuyoshi/Kōga’s (本阿弥光賀, ?-1887) widow. Mitsuyoshi/Kōga was from the Kōmi (光味) lineage of the Hon’ami and as he was working (from Edo) for the Mito-Tokugawa, he is referred to as Mito-Hon’ami (水戸本阿弥). Henceforth, I will refer to Mitsuyoshi/Kōga just as Mitsuyoshi in order to avoid confusion with the earlier Hon’ami master Kōga of the same name from the early 1700s.

Kōson polishing the famous sword Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro (山姥切国広).

Now at the of time of Teikichi’s adoption into the Kōmi-Hon’ami family, taking the name Kōson, sword-related craftsmen were struggling since the abolishment of the samurai class and the 1876 ban on wearing swords in public. Mitsuyoshi for example had also worked as an architect and gardener. His widow, who had been a geisha before Mitsuyoshi married her, and his adopted daughter both committed suicide later by jumping one after another into the Sumida River. One of the then polishing students of the Hon’ami Kōmi lineage who was supposed to marry Mitsuyoshi’s adoptive daughter, Wada Shūsen (和田秋詮, ?-1929), behaved erratically after his master’s death and was kicked out of the workshop. Of course also his marriage arrangement was cancelled but that didn’t stop Wada touring the country as official Hon’ami sword appraiser under his master’s name Hon’ami Mitsuyoshi. However, it didn’t go so well for Wada as he died later, in July of 1929, at a sword meeting from a stroke.

Just another anecdote of those “crazy” times. The previous head of the Kōmi lineage, Hon’ami Tadataka (本阿弥忠敬, ?-1897), worked very hard to live up to the famous Hon’ami name and was quite often approached by sword collectors, for example asking him to authenticate their blades, but as a member of a Hon’ami side line, he was not allowed to issue Hon’ami appraisals. What he did was buying the official Hon’ami copper seal that was stamped on the back of origami from an impoverished member of the main line, who was working as a farmer at that time, and went ahead and just issued Hon’ami origami on his own. Well, Tadataka was a heavy drinker and also died from a stroke.

Among all that stuff going on, there was also a momentum for the Hon’ami. For example, Tadataka’s successor Tenrai (本阿弥天籟, ?-1938) was one of the first to grasp the changing times and the idea to make some of the family secrets public. In 1904 for example, he published the Japanese style-bound ten-volume work Kokon Tōken Kantei Hiketsu (古今刀剣鑑定秘訣), a treatise on the workmanship of kotō and shintō blades. The whole project was quite risky because of the relatively small number of potential buyers, but it was a matter of great personal concern to Tenrai because he tried to bring in fresh air to the then sword world. Besides that, he was a passionate drawer of oshigata, not only of masterworks and meibutsu but also of ordinary “everyday” blades. To the side of his oshigata he wrote comments in the style of the Hon’ami family, the way it had been practiced for centuries. So it was both something new and something traditional.

Kōson posing with the famous yari Otegine (御手杵).

I might digress but I just wanted to give you an idea of the times Kōson found himself becoming an independent swoerd polisher in Meiji 40 (1907). Three years earlier the Russo-Japanese War had broken out and it was one of the first incidents that brought the actual “use” of Japanese swords back on the table. So things improved a little for people in the sword craft. Kōson worked very hard to make the Japanese sword more accessible to the general public. Just a couple of decades ago namely, a commoner was not supposed to know anything about swords or even be interested in them. It was a “samurai thing” so to speak. But Kōson published a magazine called Nihontō Kenkyu (刀剣研究, “Sword Studies”), and among others in 1914 and 1924 the books Nihontō (日本刀, “The Japanese Sword”) and Tōken Kantei Kōwa (刀剣鑑定講話, “Lectures on Sword Appraisal”) respectively. He even founded a sword club, the Nihontō Kenkyū Kai (日本刀研究会). Also, as some of you might know, it was Kōson who introduced the system of the gokaden.

Kōson (sitting to the right) and Kurihara Akihide (栗原昭秀) (sitting to the left) preparing in May 1937 a sword exhibition in Manschuria.

So from about 1910 onwards, it was Kōson and Tenrai who were the go-to-guys for everything Hon’ami, i.e. polishing and appraisal-related as it was them who were able to continue the traditional Hon’ami business. The main namely line wasn’t quite able to make it. For example, their 19th head Kōchū (本阿弥光仲, ?-1869) was a dandy and had to pawn the official copper seal that had been granted to the family for their appraisals by Hideyoshi, plus some calligraphies by his ancestor Kōtoku (本阿弥光徳, 1556-1619) and eventually even his house. After he had died, it was his successor Tadamichi (忠道) who sold Mitsuyoshi the Hon’ami copper seal because as you know, the Hon’ami worked for the Tokugawa and when the Shogunte was abolished, they all ended up without a job. The situation improved a little bit when Tadamichi was employed, together with other Hon´ami members, by the Imperial Household Agency (Kunai-shō, 宮内省) for the newly founded section for swords. However, the sword section was shortly closed afterwards in the fourth year of Meiji (1871). When he realised that the situation was helpless , he “fled” from his debts and became a farmer as mentioned. Well, he returned later to Tōkyō when everything had “cooled down” where he henceforth ran a ryokan hotel and dealt with antiques. His successor Michitarō (道太郎, ?-1895), the last head of the Hon’ami main line, ended up as a shoe maker…

Kōson watching Prime Minister Saitō Makoto (斎藤実, 1858-1936) examining a kabuto.

As shown in the picture above and below, Kōson was very active before and during WWII. In 1936, he put all the oshigata he had taken so far from former daimyō and high-ranking collections and combined them to a neat set of twelve scrolls, each measuring 15 m when rolled out. In 1942, he published his Nihontō Taikan (日本刀大観, “Broad Overview of the Japanese Sword”). After the war, he became an advisor and trustee and a shinsa member of the newly founded NBTHK. With his 70th birthday in 1948. he took on the pen name Kaishi’an Sōho (芥子庵宗甫).

Kōson showing an ōdachi made by Kurihara Akihide to Minister of War Araki Sadao (荒木貞夫, 1877-1966).

The last project he was working on was the Nihontō no Okite to Tokuchō (日本刀の掟と特徴, “Guidelines and Characteristic Features of Japanese Swords). He was already 77 years old at that time and fighting with lung cancer, from which he died just one month after the publication of the book, on July 26, 1955. Kōson’s legacy was not only to contribute greatly to the post-WWII sword momentum, he also trained three great polishers and experts, his immediate successor Hon’ami Mitsuhiro/Kōhaku (本阿弥光博, 1918-1979),  ningen-kokuhō Ono Kōkei (小野光敬, 1913-1994), and ningen-kokuhō Nagayama Kōkan (永山光幹, 1920-2010).

Kōson’s two kaō.

Last but not least and for the sake of completeness, I want to mention the other Hon’ami lineage that went strong after the decline of the main line, and that is the most important Hon’ami group today. I am talking about Ringa’s successor Nisshū (本阿弥日洲, 1908-1996). Nisshū was the son of Ringa’s polishing student Hirai Chiba (平井千葉). He later became ningen-kokuhō, as did his son Hon’ami Kōshū (本阿弥光洲, 1939- ).

From left to right: Ono Kōkei, Nagayama Kōkan, Hirai Chiba, Hon’ami Nisshū.

3 thoughts on “Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜)

  1. Markus, I’ve enjoyed your articles and translations immensely. This one on Hon’ami Koson is especially meaningful to me. I currently have an o-suriage daito with a Koson attribution to Rai Kunimitsu which I have no reason to doubt because the hada and hamon are classic including a prominent nie utsuri throughout the sword among other Kunimitsu trademarks like regular saka-ashi in the suguha hamon. But, what is most interesting is the saya-gaki in which Koson stated that this fine sword had been passed down through many generations of the Shimazu family in Satsuma. The sayagaki is dated October, 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor. I’ve had Koson kin pun mei attributions on other swords in the past, notably an Awataguchi Kunimitsu tachi and a Hojoji Kunimitsu nagamaki which later received papers; and I still have a first rate signed Hojoji Masahiro wakizashi with Koson sayagaki.

    For your information, I started studying and collecting Nihon-to in 1964, after four years of Judo, and was one of the early members of the Los Angeles Token Kai. I had quite a few good swords including an ubu ko-Ichimonji tachi which was submitted to a shinsa in Newport Beach, CA organized by the LA group with members of the NBTHK. The people who ostensibly represented the NBTHK asked to see my collection and afterwards told me that everything I had wasn’t very good. A few days later they sent someone else down with an offer to buy my collection (which of course I rejected). However, the experience did sour me on swords and I later sold everything but the Awataguchi Kunimitsu. That sword was judged to be a nidai Yamato Tegai Kanenaga at that shinsa and given a green paper. However, they told me to remove the Koson kin pun mei “because Koson made a lot of bad attributions”. Years later the sword did go Juyo for Awataguchi Kunimitsu, and I am really glad that I didn’t listen to their petty politicking. What made me distrust their words and actions was that I had never seen a Koson attribution that wasn’t right on. He got a lot of bad-mouthing from members of the NBTHK in those early years which was based on nothing more than jealousy. After I read Albert Yamanaka’s notes about this it all came into focus. Of course, I can’t say that the actions of the people at the 1972 shinsa fairly represented NBTHK leadership, as I didn’t know any of those details.

    I’ve been inactive in sword circles the past forty years or so, but you might find my name familiar. In 1969 I bought twenty signed but totally wrecked swords from a large quantity of rusty blades found in Thailand, and following in the footsteps of Professor Chikashige of pre-war Imperial University, cross-sectioned them and polished the cross-sections to show the distribution of shingane and kawagane, and how it related to the swordsmith schools for each sword. The paper was distributed by the LA Token Kai that year and re-published by Robert Benson in his Bushido Journal a few years later. It was a natural for me, as I had minored in metallurgy at MIT. But, that’s all ancient history.

    Keep up the good work. I particularly enjoy your articles on history and historic individuals that do so much to round out understanding of sword technology and history.

    Best Regards, Harvey Stearn


  2. Hello Mr Sesko,

    As we say in France, I found a small “coquille” about the year of death of Hon’ami Nisshū.
    He died in 1996, not in 1966.
    Thanks a lot for your website.
    Best regards,

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