Sōei (宗栄) alias Usaku (右作)

Usually when it comes to details in a swordsmith’s career, we are dependent on written records which were either compiled by period sword scholars, by fief/government officials, or by the family/lineage of the swordsmith. As you can imagine, things get lost over the centuries and you can basically say what you like on paper. That is, on certain occasions, either the local administration or the bakufu required the craftsmen that it employed to provide them with a genealogy or a family history, for example in order to assess an employment status or a rank. Now when you are the head of a family of swordsmiths or tsuba makers and approached with this official task, you present your lineage of course from its best side.

So far, so good, but then there are works by artists extant on/via which they explicitly state that on this or that day a certain thing happened and that this thing was a game changer. In many cases, the discovery of such a work nixes written records, or at least sets them straight, e.g. a smith mentioning in the mei that he made a blade in year X and at the age of Y on the basis of which his year of birth can be calculated, not seldomly contradicing the year of birth that one of his descendants later wrote down for the bakufu. Or, scholars were just assuming when certain things happened until that one work popped up. The sword that I want to introduce here is auch a work.

Now we are talking about the Harima-based smith Sōei (宗栄), or to be precise, about the third generation of that lineage. To get that out of the way, his name is sometimes also read Munehide and that might have actually been the proper reading of his name as the Sōei lineage goes back to a group of smiths who shared the Mune (宗) character and who read it that way, i.e. Munenaga (宗長), Munetsugu (宗次), Muneshige (宗重), but more on this later. In short, Sōei has become the common reading for this smith, motstly to distinguish him from other Munehide smiths, like Chōgi (長義) is traditionally read Chōgi and not Nagayoshi, i.e. to set him apart from the other Nagayoshi smiths.

Before we come back to the third generation Sōei, some background on his lineage. It all started in the late 1500s when Akamatsu Masahide (赤松政秀, 1510-1570) was castellan of Tatsuno Castle (龍野城) in Harima province and needed some swordsmiths. So he hired master Munenaga (宗長) from Wakasa province whose ancestor was once a student of the second generation Nakajima-Rai Kuninaga (中島来国長). It appears that Munenaga took several smiths with him, maybe his students, or that Akamatsu Masahide hired more Wakasa smiths as we see a certain migration of Mune… smiths from Wakasa to Harima at that time. Be that as it may, the Sōei lineage goes back to that relocated Mune… group.

Fast forward to the early Edo period. The Akamatsu have been defeated and Harima province was split up into several fiefs after Sekigahara, with Himeji (姫路藩) being the most powerful one and being successively ruled by the Ikeda (池田), the Honda (本多), the Matsudaira (松平), and the Sakakibara (榊原). These relatively quickly changing rulers of Harima/Himeji might be a reason for why there are hardly any works of the first two generations Sōei extant, who are dated around Meireki (明暦, 1655-1658) and Kanbun (寛文, 1661-1673) respectively by the way. However, we know of worse situations and still plenty of swords being produced, so the issue of the circumstances of the first two Sōei generations needs further study.

Back to the third master, whose real name was Suzuki Gorō ́emon (鈴木五郎右衛門) and who was born in Kan ́ei eleven (寛永, 1634). It is said that his employment with the Matsudaira, the then daimyõ of Himeji, was confirmed when he was 15 years old, which would be Keian one (慶安, 1648) (according to the Japanese way of counting). The year after however, the fief was given to the Sakakibara who ruled in until 1667 when it was given back to the Matsudaira. The Matsudaira ruled Himeji again until 1682 and then the Honda took over. For a better overview, this was all the back and forth between those clans:

Ikeda (池田) (1600-1617) → Honda (本多) (1617-1639) → Okudaira-Matsudaira (奥平松平) (1639-1648) → Echizen-Matsudaira (越前松平) (1648-1649) → Sakakibara (榊原) (1649-1667) → Echizen-Matsudaira again (1667-1682) → Honda again (1682-1704) → Sakakibara again (1704-1741) → Echizen-Matsudaira one last time (1741-1749) → Sakai (酒井) (1749-1871)

The earliest extant dated work of the third generation Sōei is from Enpō one (延宝, 1673). It is signed as being made in Harima province and we find dated blades made in Harima until Tenna two (天和, 1682). A little later, he came to the attention of Ikeda Tsunamasa (池田綱政, 1638-1746), the daimyō of the Bizen Okayama fief (岡山藩), who hired Sōei to work for him locally. We know two dated blades made with a reference to Okayama in the mei, one from Jōkyō two (貞享, 1685) and one from Jōkyo three (1686). Apart from that, we know of a blade that is signed “Suzuki Sōei saku” and “made with nanban-tetsu in Ōsaka” but it is undated and so we don’t know when he made that trip Ōsaka and how long he stayed there.

Anyway, it was this relationship with Ikeda Tsunamasa which earned Sōei his later name, U or Usaku, and this name change goes back to the following anecdote: It was in Genroku five (元禄, 1692) when Tsunamasa asked Sōei to make a copy of a Samonji treasure sword (or several such copies, records vary in this respect) that the Ikeda owned. The copy turned out to be quite excellent and Tsunamasa was so pleased that he said: “This work is better than the Sa (左), so you may better call yourself U (右)!” This has to be understood in the context of period Japanese hierarchy, i.e. U (lit. “to the right”) ranks above Sa (lit. “to the left”). Sōei did so and signed henceforth with U in the following combinations:

  • U – Fujiwara Sōei” (右 藤原宗栄)
  • Fujiwara Usaku” (藤原右作)
  • Fujiwara U kore o saku” (藤原右作是)
  • Ugorō Sōei” (右五郎宗栄) (he also changed his first name from Gorō’emon to Ugorō)

And now we come to the blade that I want to introduce in this article. Up to its discovery (I think it was in 2013), it was unclear when Sōei took the U name but the very blade (see picture below) makes it clear, it was in Genroku seven (1694). The full signature reads:

Suzuki Sōei rokujūissai nite aratamete U to tsukusu (鈴木宗栄六拾一歳ニ而改右ト作ス) – “Suzuki Sōei at the age of 61 who is henceforth working under the name of U.”

Genroku shichi kinoe-inudoshi nigatsu hatsu-uma no hi renkan nijūdo kore o kitaeru (元禄七甲戌年二月初午ノ日錬貫廿度鍛之) – “Forged with twenty folds on the first day of the horse of the second month of Genroku seven (1694), year of the dog.”

Now the inscription does not explicitly say that this was the very day Sōei got that name change recommendation from Ikeda Tsunamasa but from experience I can say that such very detailed mei usually commemorate an important occasion. That is, it is in my opinion unlikely that the ancedote with the Samonji copy took place one or two years earlier and that “all of a sudden,” Sōei decided in 1694 that it is now time for a name change. In other words, I think the anecdote took place right before, most likely during the first month of that year and Sōei decided to wait for the auspicious day of the first day of the horse of the second month, a day which on which special prayers and shrine visits are taking place all over the country, to make this commemorative sword. Or at least it was finished and signed that day, forging obviously started earlier, so, as mentioned, Sōei was working towards that auspicious date. Incidentally, it is unclear if the “forged with twenty folds” makes sense in metallurgical terms but it may not be interpreted literally, i.e. Sōei more or less stating here that the blade was forged with utmost care.

One interesting thing is that the blade is a rather long wakizashi, measuring 54.9 cm in its nagasa. This leaves room for speculation, like if Sōei actually made a daishõ back then and only the shō has survived (was discovered) so far. There is another dated blade extant which Sōei made that very month. It is signed “U – Fujiwara Sōei” and just dated with “a day of the second month of Genroku seven, year of the dog.” This blade, like some others that are known, shows a certain practice/opportunity of Sōei, namely that he was able to work with the famous high-quality Chikusa (千種) steel made in Shisō (宍粟) in his home province of Harima. The very reference to this steel is usually signed by Sōei in the following way: “Banshū Shisō Chigusa eitetsu maru’ichi o motte renkan kore o kitaeru” (播州宍粟千種丸一以英鉄錬貫鍛是), which means “thoroughly forged by using solely exquisite Chigusa steel from Shisō in Harima province.”

As mentioned, we don’t know how long Sōei stayed in Bizen Okayama. The numerous works with a reference to Chigusa steel, e.g. one dated Genroku twelve (1699) don’t necessarily means that he was back hime by then as Ikeda Tsunamasa could have arranged that the steel was brought from Harima to Okayama where Sōei processed it locally (via oroshigane). The earliest known dated blade that states it was made again in Harima is from Hōei one (宝永, 1704). The mei says “Ban’yō Tegarayama no fumoto ni oite” (於播陽手柄山麓), “made on the foot of Mt. Tegarayama in Harima province.” Now this blade is a special order blade, for a certain Yuguchi Sukeyori (湯口祐頼), and the syntax with ni oite (i.e. “at” and not “resident of”) differs from his earlier Harima-based mei where Sōei just signed with “Harima ni Kuni…” That is, he may have returned to Harima just on certain occasions and may have spent the rest of his life in Okayama? His successors however worked again in Himeji/Harima.

According to tradition, Sōei died on the 27th day of the second month of Hōei five (宝永, 1708). Taking the mei of the blade introduced here as a basis, he lived to the age of 75 (and not to the age of 99 as stated so in the Kokon Kaji Bikō). The latest known blade that bears his age in the mei is from Hōei three (1706), stating that he made it at the age of 73, what is a match. There is a blade form his successor extant which is signed “Yondai-me Sōei jūsan-sai kore o tsukuru” (四代目宗栄十三歳造之), “made by the fourth generation Sōei at the age of 13”). As far as I know, this blade is not dated and we don’t know when the fourth generation Sōei was born. Tsuneishi says that the fifth and sixth generations died shortly after another, that is in Meiwa four (明和, 1767) and Meiwa eight (1771) respectively. The sixth generation is usually dated around Kyōwa (享和, 1801-1804) and all three, i.e. the fourth, fifth, and sixth masters, signed with “Harima no Kuni…” (播磨国…), “Banshū-jū…” (播州住…) or “Ban’yō Himeji-shin…” (播陽姫路臣…, “retainer of Himeji in Harima province”). So as mentioned, we know that they all worked again in Himeji/Harima.

I hope this article gave you an interesting insight into the life of Sōei and I have a few more blades in my references that mark special occasions in the career of a swordsmith and which I would like to introduce in the future.


Altering tsuba signatures

If you are following me for a while, you may remember my article from a few years ago here about Muramasa signatures being altered after they have become “unpresentable” with the Tokugawa coming to power. Now in this brief article I would like to tell you that this was not only done to sword but also to tsuba signatures.

Before I want to introduce a tsuba signature altered that way, I must begin with the history of the artist who made the piece in question, Myōju (明寿), and that is, the Umetada (埋忠) family.

Now I want to keep it relatively simple here because on the one hand, the issue we are talking about is just about the name itself and not about anything the Umetada family “did wrong” or about someone having bad luck with Umetada works, and on the other hand, I want to write a book about Myōju with all the detailed info, just like my book on Kanō Natsuo.

So as always, we have several traditions about the name origins of the Umetada family. One just says that the Umetada were ancestors of the famous swordsmith Sanjō Munechika (三条宗近) and that the name goes back to lands in Kyōto located to the northeast of the Imperial Palace of the same name, Umetada (梅多田), which were granted to the family. Another one says that during the reign of Emperor Ichijō (一条天皇, 980-1011, r. 986-1011), the Kawarasaki Pond (Kawarasaki no Ike, 河原崎ノ池) was filling up with dirt but instead of cleaning it out, the emperor just gave orders to have the pond filled up completely. This task was gratuitously taken over by the very family which thereupon assumed the name Umetada (埋忠) which means literally “to fill up (umeru) (something) free of charge (tada).” Another theory also refers to a filling-up-a-pond tradition, although much later, in the early Muromachi period during the reign of Emperor Shōkō (称光天皇, 1401-1428).

To return to our concrete subject, we have to fast forward to the early Edo period, to the time of the Kyōto shōgun deputy Itakura Suō no Kami Shigemune (板倉周防守重宗, 1586-1657). Shigemune was about to proceed to Edo and wanted to bring some nice gifts with him so he chose sukashi-tsuba made by the Umetada School but at that time, Edo warriors were taking everything literal and so he thought he better consult the Umetada family with what he thought would be an issue. That is, the characters Umetada (埋忠) mean literally interpreted “to bury (umeru, 埋める) (i.e. umeru does not only mean to fill up but also to bury something) loyalty (chū, 忠)” and so the family was changing the first character with the “harmless” homonymous ume (梅) which means “plum.”


Now Umetada Myōju died on the 18th day of the fifth month of Kan’ei eight (寛永, 1634) at the age of 74 and Itakura Shigemune was Kyōto shōgun deputy from 1620 to 1654, so it is assumed that the suggested name/character change took place some time after the famous Umetada grandmaster had passed away. The tsuba that I want to introduce here though is a work by Myōju and it was originally signed with “Umetada” (埋忠) on the right and with “Myōju” (明寿) on the left side of the nakago-ana. As you can see in the detail above, someone erased the first Ume (埋, “to bury”) character with chisel strokes or small hammer blows because he was superstitious and did not want to have the literal “to bury loyalty” context on his tsuba. Or, what I think is a more likely scenario, the then owner was picking this tsuba as a gift and maybe he knew that the person who was going to receive it was very sensitive regarding kanji context. In other words, if you are about to choose an important (return) gift in order to establish some kind of alliance or freshly pledged loyalty and the receiver is known to be a jerk when it comes to things like hidden messages in characters, you don’t necessarily want to give him something that says “to bury loyalty”…


Picture 1: jūyō-tōsōgu, tsuba, mei: “…tada Myōju” (◯忠明寿), kawari-mokkō-gata, brass, shakudō hira-zōgan, one hitsu-ana (plugged), uchikaeshi-mimi


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #38 – Daruma (達磨) School

The Daruma School is kind of living in the shadow when it comes to treatises on the Yamashiro tradition, but that is actually no surprise as this school was only active for a short period of time and as there are hardly any works of its smiths extant, all of them basically just revolving about its ancestor Shigemitsu (重光). So, we have to start, and pretty much also end with him.

There are several traditions and theories (some overlapping and possible side by side) about the background of Daruma Shigemitsu which I will list in the following:

  • He was a son of Awataguchi Yoshimitsu (粟田口吉光) but that can be ruled out as Yoshimitsu was active 100 years before Daruma Shigemitsu came along.
  • He came originally from the Satsuma-based Naminohira School but moved to the Ayanokōji district of Kyōto during the Bunna era (文和, 1352-1356) when he was 35 years old.
  • He was born in Yamato but was a descendant of Naminohira Masakuni (波平正国). As some of you know, Masakuni is said to have founded the Naminohira School after moving from Kyōto to Naminohira in Satsuma province. So, following this tradition, Daruma Shigemitsu must have been either a descendant of the Masakuni group that stayed in Kyōto and did not move down to Kyūshū, or of a later Naminohira Masakuni smith who moved back to the capital.
  • He came originally from the Yamato Tegai School but moved to the Ayanokōji district of Kyōto.
  • He signed first with Shigemitsu (重光), then with Masamune (正宗), and eventually entered priesthood whereupon he took the nyūdō-gō Daruma (達磨) and signed henceforth with this name.
  • He signed his Masamune name also with the characters (政宗).
  • He signed with Shigemitsu back in his days in Yamato but changed his name to Masamune when he moved to Kyōto.
  • He took the Daruma priest name because he had big staring eyes, making him look like Bodhidharma (Japanese Daruma). That is, people were already giving him the nickname Takashi/Takaji Daruma (たかし達磨) during his lifetime so he just used that nickname as his priest name. Incidentally, takashi/takaji means “smith who moved here from somewhere else,” what would basically support the tradition of him having moved to Kyōto from Naminohira or Yamato. In other words, his nickname translates as about “Daruma, the smith who is not from here.”
  • The name Daruma goes back to the “fact” that the smith moved to the Daruma neighborhood (Daruma-chō, 達磨町) of Kyōto which is located just to the south of the Imperial Palace. So, either he adopted the name of his new work place just like that or he picked his work place name when he entered priesthood. Fujishiro quotes a mei that would support that tradition, i.e.: “Jōshū Daruma-jūnin Shigemitsu” (城州達磨住人重光), “Shigemitsu, resident of Daruma in Yamashiro province.”
  • He also signed with the name Kunishige (国重) at some point in his career.
  • He was a student of Masamune or of Yukimitsu.
  • Shigemitsu was the early name of the famous Sōshū Masamune which was given to him by Kamakura-regent Hōjō Tokiyori. When Masamune moved towards the end of his career to Kyōto, he entered priesthood and stayed there under the name Daruma.

Well, that’s quite something to chew on, but what are the facts? The facts are that there are a few of what appears to be Nanbokuchō-period blades extant which are signed “Daruma”. So far, and apart from written statements, I was not able to find any Daruma blade that is actually signed Shigemitsu, e.g. the tantō that Honma refers to in his Nihon Kotō Shi as ek g dated with the Jōji (貞治, 1362-1368) era and differing noticeably from the Daruma signed works, also adding the comment “I cannot say that both of them were made by the same smith.” Also, it appears that no Masamune signed blade is known that is undoubtedly attributed to Daruma Shigemitsu.

Daruma Shigemitsu’s son Masamitsu (正光) is said to have been active around Eitoku (永徳, 1381-1384) in Ayanokōji. He too entered priesthood, in Eitoky three (永徳, 1383), and took the name Ryō’ami (了阿弥), and there is the theory that it was Masamitsu who signed with Masamune using the characters (政宗), i.e. not the ones (正宗) his father allegedly used. Satō writes that he has only seen one blade by this Masamitsu, a wakizashi in katakiriba-zukuri which is even more Mino-esque than the already somewhat Mino-esque works of Daruma Shigemitsu, but more on this in a little. The tang of this Masamitsu blade is shown in the Nihontō Kōza and in Fujishiro and for the sake of completeness, I want to post it below before we come back to Daruma Shigemitsu. Note: The tang of this blade was altered later in time, i.e. it is not how Masamitsu finished it.


Picture 1: Masamitsu mei

So, let me introduce a few Daruma works and add my own thoughts on this small school/group. First of all, it is said that Daruma Shigemitsu’s son and successor Masamitsu moved later in his career with his own son of the same name to Mino where he accepted several local students. This would explain the short Yamashiro-based life of the school, i.e. after only two (or one and a half) generations, the school had been relocated to another province.

The most famous Daruma work is the jūyō-bijutsuhin blade that is shown in picture 2. Now the Nihontō Kōza introduces it as a tantō but Honma refers to it as wakizashi and as I was not able to find its nagasa mentioned anywhere, I would say for the time being that it is probably a sunnobi-tantō/hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi. I was also unable to find a concrete description of the workmanship of this very blade so I give you my impressions that I get from that oshigata. The sugata speaks for heyday to late Nanbokuchō and the ha is pretty flamboyant, suggesting a considerable Sōshū influence. The arrangement of the gunome that feature sunagashi across their base, the limited tobiyaki seen here and there, and the widely hardened bōshi reminds me a little bit of an ambitious Kaneuji (兼氏) interpretation. With some good will I can also see a little bit of Nobukuni but the ha is for me a hint too wide and flamboyant for a Nobukuni work of that time, i.e. by one of the early Nanbokuchō generations. Hasebe would kind of fit better than Nobukuni in my opinion because there are some Kunishige (国重) and Kuninobu (国信) hira-zukuri tantō/ko-wakizashi which too show such a widely hardened bōshi with that pointy, rōzoku-like kaeri.

Picture 2: jūyō-bijutsuhin, mei: “Daruma” (達磨)

Anyway, lets move on to blade two (see picture 3) because it is a little bit like poking around in the dark with having only one oshigata and with knowing that oshigata can be quite misleading (see here, here, and here), e.g. there may be more tobiyaki and yubashiri that the person who drew it did not add, which would speak more for Hasebe etc. Blade number 2 is a hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi with a wide mihaba and a little sori. The kitae is a standing-out itame that is mixed with ō-itame and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden notare-chō that is mixed with gunome and the bōshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-like kaeri. The omote side shows a suken and the ura side a koshibi with a shorter tsurebi. The tang is a little suriage, has a shallow kurijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, and four mekugi-ana of which one is plugged.

Picture 3: jūyō, wakizashi, mei: “Daruma” (達磨), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 32.3 cm, sori 0.1 cm

Picture 4 shows an unsigned hira-zukuri tantō that is attributed to Daruma. The blade is a little shorter than the previous one but is ubu. It has a wide mihaba, some sori, and is overall of a sunnobi-sugata. The kitae is a ko-itame that is mixed with itame and some jifu and features chikei and plenty of ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden and relatively uniform koshi no hiraita-gunome that is mixed with gently undulating notare and gunome-midare. The nie increase in quantity towards the tip and make the ha tend there to kuzure, featuring nijūba and yubashiri. The bōshi shows a ko-maru-kaeri that is smaller on the ura than on the omote side but the turnback is quite brief on both sides. As for the horimono, we see gomabashi on the omote and a suken on the ura. The tang is ubu, has a kurijiri, two mekugi-ana, and its yasurime are indiscernible. The NBTHK describes the blade as showing a nie-laden gunome to ō-gunome mix that differs from Nobukuni and Hasebe works and that shows some Sōshū influence.

Picture 4: jūyō, tantō, mumei: “Daruma” (達磨), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 30.3 cm, sori 0.4 cm

Let me quote from Tsuneishi at this point:

Works are rare but there are some ambitious tantō extant which show a widely hardened Sōshū-like yakiba that somewhat resembles Nobukuni. Compared to Nobukuni however, the blades are a little bit smaller dimensioned and lack dignity, and are of overall somewhat inferior quality. The jihada is an itame with prominent masame and rather stands out. Be that as it may, the overall interpretation does speak for Nanbokuchō.

So, let me finish with a few thoughts on this school. I have to admit, I never had the chance to study a Daruma work hands on. I have no problem with accepting Daruma Shigemitsu being somehow connected to the then Nobukuni School and also jumping onto the Sōshū bandwagon that was going on all over the country at that time. Maybe there was a concrete reason for why his son moved to Mino, e.g. an explicit invitation by a local ruler to work for him over there and train local smiths, or the school was just overshadowed by the old-established major Kyōto lineages and so Masamitsu thought it is better to start something new elsewhere. This was all before the Ōnin War of 1467 that destroyed much of Kyōto so we are not facing here a situation where the Daruma smiths were forced to flee the capital.

Also, we have another “issue” here, and I am talking about the multiple names, famous names like Masamune and (Hasebe) Kunishige. There was namely the quite handy practice in the past to “invent” or to arbitrarily link certain smiths together in order to legitimize inferior works and straightforward or rather borderline gimei. That is, and to stay with the concrete example, if you come across a signed Masamune blade that just doesn’t match the quality of the famous Sōshū Masamune, and you don’t want to tell the owner that it is gimei, you can always say that although this is not the Masamune, it is still a legit Masamune, just a Daruma Masamune though (insert origami papering culture and monetary evaluation of blades at this point). Another example: There are blades by Sōshū Sadamune which just lack a little bit the quality that you would expect from a work by this smith and so these blades were attributed to Takagi Sadamune in the past. Sounds ok then, doesn’t it? I am just trying to make a point here so please don’t nail me down on the Sōshū/Takagi Sadamune issue that I used as an example. In short, if you are a member of the Hon’ami family being approached by someone famous with a gimei Hasebe Kunishige or Masamune and you don’t want to tell him the truth because you want to keep him happy, a happy returning customer, you can do the above-mentioned compromise thing by saying: “Well, this is not a Hasebe Kunishige but your blade is for sure authentic. It is just that it is a Daruma work from the time the smith still signed with his former Kunishige name.” This is also why in certain cases a magical second generation was invented, i.e. to have a basket for putting inferior works by a smith in.

Well, it is still possible that Daruma was indeed using all these names, i.e. Shigemitsu, Kunishige, and Masamune, but the fact that an obscure and roughly contemporary smith handily used all these famous names too certainly raises a red flag…

Nasu no Yoichi’s Sword

Many of you may know Nasu no Yoichi (那須与一, 1169-1190/1232), the famous Minamoto warrior who shot down the fan the Taira put atop a pole on one of their ships with a single shot during the Battle of Yashima in 1185. For this and other great military achievements, he received from Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199) a fabulous tachi by Ko-Bizen Naritaka (古備前成高).

Nasu no Yoichi

Now through very lucky circumstances, that very sword was handed down within the Nasu family for about 800 years, and is still extant today. Yes, you heard me correctly, 800 years in the possession of the same family! The tachi is depicted and described in the first volume of the Nasu Ke Gunki Zu (那須家軍器図), the arms and armors in the possession of the Nasu family, compiled by Yoichi’s descendant Nasu Sukeaki (那須資明) in Tenmei seven (天明, 1787). It is also featured in the Kansei twelve (寛政, 1800) publication Shūko Jisshū (集古十種) (see pictures below).




Illustrations from the Shūko Jisshū.

Fast forward about 150 years from Nasu Sukeaki, that is to December 18, 1935, the blade and its koshirae, which is contemporary to the blade, was designated to a jūyō-bijutsuhin. Then owner was Nasu Suketoyo (那須資豊), another descendant of Yoichi. The picture below shows the pictures from the jūyō-bijutsuhin designation.

From the jūyō-bijutsuhin designation.

Forward another roughly 50 years, to June 6, 1987, the sword was elevated to jūyō-bunkazai status. Then owner, and you may already guess it, was another member of the Nasu family, Nasu Takashi (那須隆, 1924-2008). Today the sword is owned by the Nasu Yoichi Denshōkan in Ōtawara, Tochigi Prefecture.

From the jūyō-bunkazai designation. Nagasa of the blade is 79.8 cm, overall length of the koshirae is 104.0 cm.

Now let me describe this historically so important sword. Why it is so historically important? Well, it has a pretty rock-solid provenance, it dates back to the late Heian period, it is completely ubu, signed, has one mekugi-ana, and still has its original koshirae, so we are pretty much in supreme unicorn levels of Japanese swords. The tachi is slender and of a very elegant shape, as it is typical for that time, having a quite shallow sori along the blade section but which gets very pronounced in the tang and from where the tang starts. Incidentally, this peculiar blade/tang sori distribution is sometimes described as “he shape” as it resembles the hiragana syllable he (へ). And due to this curved (magari) hilt (tsuka), this sword got the nickname Tsukamagari-Naritaka (柄曲がり成高), lit. “curved hilt Naritaka.” The kitae is a rather standing-out itame to ko-itame that is mixed with mokume and that shows ji-nie. The steel is blackish and the hamon is hardened in ko-nie-deki and appears as suguha-chō with a rather tight nioiguchi along the top, and as a ko-midare-chō with a somewhat subdued nioiguchi along the bottom half. The bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri.

The koshirae features a hilt that is covered with black-lacquered same and wrapped with black-lacquered leather. Towards the cutting-edge side, a menuki like ornament in the form of a long and thin yamagane plate is inserted which shows engravings of a nine-coins crest and karakusa. The saya is covered with thin black-lacquered leather with an additional layer of greenish fabric whose pattern is no longer discernible. The fittings are of yamagane too and show the same ornamentation as the menuki. Unfortunately, the tsuba, fuchi, and kojiri are missing. In terms of prominent kabutogane, tapering and noticeable thinness of the saya, the mounting is typical for the late Heian period.

So far, so awesome, 800 years old as mentioned, and I want to conclude by mentioning that there is the tradition that Minamoto no Yoritomo explicitly chose Ko-Bizen Naritaka for making the swords he was awarding to his closest retainers. Apart from the one introduced here, there are two more of these “Yoritomo-reward-Naritaka” extant. By the way, we know of less than ten signed works of Naritaka that are extant today, but let’s introduce the other two.

One (see picture below) was given by Minamoto no Yoritomo to Kudō Suketoki (工藤祐時, 1185-1252) some years after his father Kudō Suketsune (工藤祐経, 1147-1193) was killed in the course of the Revenge of the Soga Brothers. Later, one of Suketsune’s descendants, Kudō Naritaka (工藤就堯), presented the sword to his new master, the Masuda (益田) family, who were the shugo-daimyō of Iwami province. The Masuda later became karō elders of the Chōshū fief and owned the sword until recent times. On June 6, 1980 it was designated as a jūyō-bunkazai and eventually bought by the state which put it into the custody of the Kyōto National Museum, This blade too is completely ubu, signed, has one mekugi-ana, a nagasa of 80.4 cm, and shows a kitae in itame and a ko-midare hamon that is mixed with ko-chōji.


The other one was presented by Yoritomo to his general Sawara Yoshitsura (佐原義連) who was fighting for him in the northern Ōshū region, eventually receiving the lands of Aizu. Yoshitsura gave the sword later to his grandson Mitsumori (光盛) who changed his family name to Ashina (蘆名) and it was the Ashina who handed it down for the years to come. The blade (see picture below) has a nagasa of 82.4 cm, a sori of 2.7 cm, is completely ubu and signed in niji-mei too, and has two mekugi-ana. The jigane is an itame that tends to nagare and that features ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden chōji-midare with a rather subdued nioiguchi that is mixed with nijūba, many ashi and , and with kinsuji and sunagashi. The ha gets wider and more flamboyant along the monouchi. The bōshi is sugu and has a ko-maru-kaeri with a few hakikake on the omote side.


The last blade is a bit different as it is noticeably more flamboyant and a hint healthier than the other Naritaka works. The NBTHK noticed that already and also commented on it that also the signature differs a little bit but that all the differences may go back to a somewhat later production time. The meikan date Naritaka around Jō’an (承安, 1171-1175), an era which leaves room for Naritaka also working into the early Kamakura period. Well, we don’t know the years of birth and death of its alleged former owned Sawara Yoshitsura but we do know that Minamoto no Yoritomo died in 1199. So if it is indeed true that he ordered Naritaka to make this sword for Yoshitsura, then it was probably towards the very end of his life, what equals very very early Kamakura. As for Yoshitsura by the way, records say that he either died in 1192 at the age of 75, in 1203 at the age of 78, or in 1221 at the age of 82. Possible scenario: The blade is early to mid-Kamakura and goes back to the hand of a successor of Naritaka, maybe even made for the Sawara, who then later “suggested” that this is the sword that was once given by Minamoto no Yoritomo to their famous predecessor…