Alteration vs. Correction

I have written a couple of times about the issues of removing signatures from swords, for example here and here. Now in these two examples, the signature was removed due to lack of knowledge in the one case, and due to criminal activities in the other case. This time, I would like to introduce a blade where not its signature per se but a kinzōgan-mei attribution was removed, and that not because of ignorance but more as a correction, thus this title of this post.

The blade in question is a tachi that has been shortened to a katana and that was tested by the famous early Edo period sword tester Nakagawa Saheita (中川左平太, ?-1653), cutting with it with just one hand through a body (katate-dō, 片手胴). At the time the cutting test was performed, the blade was attributed to Rai Kunitsugu (来国次) and inlaid so in gold on the other side of the nakago. The blade is of quite an elegant shape, tapers noticeably, keeps despite of the ō-suriage a deep sori, and ends in a ko-kissaki, or a very compact chū-kissaki if you will. It shows a fine and densely forged ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and a ko-nie-laden suguha-chō to slightly undulating notare with a wide nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-gunome, a few ko-midare elements, sunagashi, and small yubashiri. The bōshi is sugu and shows a ko-maru-kaeri and a bōhi is engraved on both sides which runs with kaki-nagashi into the tang.

Now Rai Kunitsugu is known as a Rai smith who incorporated more than his school colleagues the Sōshū tradition and so a blade like here with such a dense ko-itame and a calm suguha-chō is atypical for him. This was also recognized by the NBTHK when the blade passed jūyō in 1975 and the kinzōgan-mei attribution (not the cutting test and the information on the owner) was put in the certificate with reservation, i.e. as to kinzōgan-mei ga aru (と金象嵌銘がある). The state of the blade as it passed jūyō is shown below.

Picture 1: jūyō in 1975, nagasa 71.5 cm, sori 2.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.7 cm, moto-kasane 0.6 cm, kissaki-nagasa 2.3 cm, nakago-nagasa 19.2 cm

Two years later, the blade passed tokubetsu-jūyō, and here comes the part which this brief article is about. As you all know, you just don’t submit a blade for tokubetsu-jūyō because you are in a good mood. There are high chances a blade may not pass and it also has to be assessed if such a submission makes sense from an economical point of view. In short, some blades are strong candidates whilst with others more or less barely passed jūyō and it is better to save the money/hassles/time to opt for tokubetsu-jūyō. So, you have to decide case by case.

Here at this sword, the owner and probably experts he asked for advice must have recognized its quality and its chances to pass but I guess no one was happy with the period attribution to Rai Kunitsugu. As mentioned, even the NBTHK had reservations when they had awarded it jūyō status two years before. So ultimately it was decided to have the kinzōgan-mei removed and submit again. I already told you that it passed tokubetsu-jūyō, and it did so with the attribution “Den Awataguchi Hisakuni” (伝粟田口久国). Well, quite nice result if you ask me (don’t get me wrong, a Rai Kunitsugu attribution is not bad either). The NBTHK justifies its attribution as follows: “The shallow suguha-chō with its strongly sparkling nie, the densely forged ko-itame, and the very clear steel reflect very well the typical characteristics of this school,” i.e. Awataguchi. The state of the blade as it passed tokubetsu-jūyō is shown below.

Picture 2

Last but not least some info on the previous owner of the sword who is mentioned in the kinzōgan-mei as: “Matsudaira Uemon no Suke Tadamasa kyō shoji” (松平右衛門佐忠政卿所持), “owned by Lord Matsudaira Uemon no Suke Tadamasa.” Tadamasa is better known under his name Kuroda Tadayuki (黒田忠之, 1602-1645) who was the second Kuroda daimyō of the Fukuoka fief (福岡藩) of Chikuzen province (see picture 3) and son and heir of the famous warlord and daimyō Kuroda Nagamasa (黒田長政, 1568-1623), fathered with his second wife who was an adoptive daughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tadayuki participated in his first battle when he was just twelve years old (or 13 according to the Japanese way of counting), leading an army of about 10,000 men into the Ōsaka Winter Campaign in 1614. Tadayuki went to Ōsaka instead of his father as Ieyasu had made Nagamasa caretaker of Edo Castle at that time. To go into this battle, Nagamasa presented his son with the nanban-kabuto with golden fern maedate he had received from Ieyasu at Sekigahara.

Picture 3: Kuroda Tadayuki

When Tadayuki succeeded as head of the Kuroda in 1623, he received from Ieyasus’s successor Hidetada (徳川秀忠. 1579-1632) the character for tada (忠) and successively took the names Tadanaga (忠長), Tadamasa (忠政) (the name that is mentioned on the sword), and Tadayuki. Incidentally, up to that granting of the tada character, he went by the name Mantokumaru (万徳丸). After Ōsaka, he also fought in 1637 in the Shimabara Rebellion and died 1652 in Fukuoka Castle. Last but but not least, and kind of a coincidence considering the new attribution at tokubetsu-jūyu, Kuroda Tadayuki owned “another” Awataguchi blade. It is a tantō by Awataguchi Norikuni (粟田口則国) which is shown in picture 4 and which is today designated as a jūyō-bijutsuhin. He had once received it as a gift from the Tokugawa family, possible at the time he received the tada character.

Picture 4: jūyō-bijutsuhin, tantō, mei: Norikuni (則国), nagasa 24.8 cm


Mukansa/Ningen-Kokuhō List

Please note: Apart from swordsmiths, this list in work in progress and will be updated as soon as more detailed information is located. To the very left, the year the rank was granted is listed. The dates to the very right are the years of birth and death.

Swordsmiths (刀匠)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1958 – Takahashi Sadatsugu (高橋貞次) – 1902-1968
1960 – Miyairi Akihira/Yukihira (宮入昭平・行平) – 1913-1977
1967 – Gassan Sadaichi (月山貞一) – 1907-1995
1967 – Sumitani Masamine (隅谷正峯) – 1921-1998
1970 – Imaizumi Toshimitsu (今泉俊光) – 1898-1995
1972 – Kawashima Tadayoshi (川島忠善) – 1927-1989
1973 – Amata Akitsugu (天田昭次) – 1927-2013
1973 – Ōsumi Toshihira (大隅俊平) – 1932-2009
1981 – Endō Mitsuoki (遠藤光起) – 1904-1997
1981 – Sakai Ikkansai Shigemasa (酒井一貫斎繁正) – 1905-1995
1981 – Yakuwa Yasutake (八鍬靖武) – 1909-1984
1981 – Hokke Saburō Nobufusa (法華三郎信房) – 1909-2000
1982 – Yoshihara Yoshindo (吉原義人) – 1943-
1982 – Yoshihara Kuniie (吉原国家) – 1945-
1982 – Gassan Sadatoshi (月山貞利) – 1946
1985 – Tanigawa Moriyoshi (谷川盛吉) – 1920-1990
1985 – Kanbayashi Tsunehira (上林恒平) – 1949-
1986 – Yamaguchi Kiyofusa (山口清房) – 1932-
1987 – Kawachi Kunihira (河内国平) – 1941-
1987 – Ōno Yoshimitsu (大野義光) – 1948-
1989 – Takahashi Tsuguhira (高橋次平) – 1927-1996
1990 – Sō Tsutomu (宗勉) – 1926-2015
1995 – Mikami Sadanao (三上貞直) – 1955-
1995 – Miyairi Norihiro (宮入法広) – 1956-
1996 – Enomoto Sadayoshi (榎本貞吉) – 1908-2000
1996 – Seto Yoshihiro (瀬戸吉広) – 1945-
1996 – Hiroki Hirokuni (広木弘邦) – 1948-2013
2000 – Miyairi Kozaemon Yukihira (宮入小左衛門行平) – 1957-
2000 – Ōkubo Kazuhira (大久保和平) – 1944-2003
2003 – Yoshihara Yoshikazu (吉原義一) – 1967-2018
2006 – Ogawa Kanekuni (尾川兼圀) – 1925-2012
2006 – Sō Masachika (宗昌親) – 1954-
2010 – Furukawa Kiyoyuki (古川清行) – 1948-
2010 – Ogawa Kanekuni (尾川兼国) – 1953-
2010 – Matsuda Tsuguyasu (松田次泰) – 1948-
2014 – Matsuba Kunimasa (松葉国正) – 1959-
2017 – Kubo Yoshihiro (久保善博) – 1965-

Ningen Kokuhō (人間国宝)

1955 – Takahashi Sadatsugu (高橋貞次) – 1902-1968
1963 – Miyairi Akihira/Yukihira (宮入昭平・行平) – 1913-1977
1971 – Gassan Sadaichi (月山貞一) – 1907-1995
1981 – Sumitani Masamine (隅谷正峯) – 1921-1998
1997 – Amata Akitsugu (天田昭次) – 1927-2013
1997 – Ōsumi Toshihira (大隅俊平) – 1932-2009

Teishitsu-gigei’in (帝室技芸員)

1906 – Miyamoto Kanenori (宮本包則) – 1830-1926
1906 – Gassan Sadakazu (月山貞一) – 1836-1918


Polishers (研師)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

? – Sugihara Hiroshi (杉原弘) – ?-
2003 – Mishina Kenji (三品謙次) – 1951-
? – Yanagawa Kiyotsugu (柳川清次) – ?-
? – Saitō Tsukasa (斎藤司) – 1953-
? – Abe Kazunori (阿部一紀) – 1954-?
2012 – Sugihara Sōto (杉原宗都) – 1967-

Ningen Kokuhō (人間国宝)

1975 – Hon’ami Nisshū (本阿弥日洲) – 1908-1996
1975 – Ono Kōkei (小野光敬) – 1913-1994
1996 – Fujishiro Matsuo (藤代松雄) – 1914-2004
1998 – Nagayama Kōkan (永山光幹) – 1920-2010
2014 – Hon’ami Kōshū (本阿弥光洲) – 1939-


Tsukamaki (柄巻)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1997 – Mitani ‘Tsukashū’ Shūji (三谷「柄秀」修史) – 1935-
? – Sakairi ‘Tsukashin’ Masayuki (坂入「柄真」眞之) – 1947-
2003- Tōyama Yasuo (遠山康男) – 1946-


Tōshinbori (刀身彫)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1997 – Yanagawa Senju (柳村仙寿) – 1945-


Chōkin / Kinkō / Shirogane

Mukansa (無鑑査)

? – Koyama ‘Jozan’ Yoshikazu (古山「如山」義和) – 1948-2017
? – Tamaoka Toshiyuki (玉岡俊行) – 1949-
1998 – Miyajima Hiroshi (宮島宏)
2009 – Naruki Issei (成木一成) – 1931-
? – Hagawa Yasuho (羽川安穂) – ?


Higo-zōgan/sukashi (肥後象嵌・透)

Ningen Kokuhō (人間国宝)

1965- Yonemitsu Mitsumasa (米光光正) – 1888-1980


Sayashi (鞘師)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1983 – Takayama Kazuyuki (高山一之) – 1940-

Early sukashi motifs 1

A few weeks ago, I skimmed through a Japanese blog post and briefly had to halt at an expression, a kind of a tongue-twister, because I was sure I have read that somewhere before but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now after clearing a few things off my desk, I checked my archive, and as it is quite well organized, I did indeed find the very expression, and this is the whole background for this article.

Now some of you may have wondered about what the symbolism of the openwork design (sukashi, 透かし) of some very early tsuba, e.g. Ko-Katchūshi (古甲冑師) or Ko-Tōshō (古刀匠) might be. Well, in books, also in my own books as well as in some of my articles, these plain motifs, appearing to depict things from everyday life, are usually described as reflecting the then mindset of samurai facing uncertain times, death on an everyday basis, and all of that filtered through period Zen-Buddhism etc., you get the idea.

This is still all correct and in this article, I just want to take a closer look at one, or rather two of these simple early openwork designs, like I tried to shed more light on another, a similar aspect five years ago here. As it initiated the whole article, I want to start with the sickle, Japanese kama (鎌), as an early openwork design. Now the sickle is often depicted on early tsuba in combination with the gorintō (五輪塔), the five-story Buddhist pagoda usually seen along temples and in cemeteries. In short, and leaving out Buddhist and other context that you can find here and here, the gorintō may be equated with a gravestone. So, such a gorintō on a tsuba is associated with death. Imagine a medieval knight having his armor decorated with gravestones. There is not much range of interpretation as this is a pretty straightforward symbolism, and this is how a gorintō was understood in medieval Japan.

Back to the sickle. When someone was killed by a sword or edged weapon, people made comments like: “Toki-koto rikama no gotoki” (説き(利き)こと利鎌のごとき), which, when you try to read it out loud and fast, is the tongue-twister I was talking about at the beginning of this article (and which I found again in the Tōsō Kodōgu Kōza, Volume 1, p. 39). The comment literally means “effective like a sharp sickle” and may be interpreted in a similar way as the Western proverb “live by the sword, die by the sword.” In other words, sickles next to a pagoda on a tsuba represent death and the way you are gonna die, i.e. from an edged weapon. Very fitting for a medieval samurai, isn’t it? However, there is of course some scope for interpretation. The sickle is also an agricultural symbol. For example, after a rice harvest, Japanese farmers sometimes put one of the sickles used into the tokonoma alcove, after it was purified, together with like red rice beans and/ormochi, as an offering to the God of Agriculture, a custom that is referred to as kama-iwai (鎌祝い), lit. “sickle celebration/prayer.” There is also some religious context here. For example, Hachiman (八幡) is said to have been an agricultural deity before he became the God of War, and in the case of the deity Suwa (諏訪), it was exactly the other way round. Thus, the sickle on a tsuba may also be interpreted as representing the “choice” of a farmer becoming a warrior and accepting so his ultimate fate, death, or as the prayer of a warrior to maybe escape war and death and eventually being able to lead a peaceful agricultural life on the countryside.

Let’s check out another early openwork design, the so-called kukurizaru (括り猿), also sometimes seen in combination with a gorintō as shown below. Kukurizaru means literally “tied up monkey,” i.a. a monkey who is restrained by binding his hands and feet together with a rope. Often, the term kukurizaru is just translated as “talisman” but there is more to it, of course. The kukurizaru symbolism has to be understood as a mirrored reference, that is, although the monkey being the animal that is closest to us humans, it will be an animal at the end of the day and even if we are human, you just have to push certain buttons and we will fall back to the realm of animals. So, the tied up monkey means that you should remember that you should try to be above of that and supposed to control your desires and your lust. In other words: Never be caught off guard or loose control. In combination with the gorintō, this symbol quasi acts as a reminder for medieval warriors: If you are cought off guard or loose control, you die!

The kukurizaru charm left, the sukashi design right.

In conclusiuon, I just wanted to write this brief article to provide some further information, scratching the surface a little for those who are asking themselves: “Why is there a sickle?” or “Kukurizaru is just a lucky charm so what?” That said, I very much want to extend that topic in the future and go a little deeper when time allows as it is also very interesting for me because after all, nothing was applied to tsuba or sword fittings, or swords in general, for no reason. In other words, you can kind of compare the Muromachi-period sukashi symbolism with “old school” sailor tattoos, that is, there was a limited set of designs, born from superstitions etc., that everyone then understood and that you could choose from. So when I come across another interesting context, I will continue from here.


Setouchi City Crowdfunding #1

Some of you might be aware of the plans of Setouchi City trying to raise finds through crowdfunding to but the famous meitō Sanchōmō (山鳥毛). I am not directly involved in the crowdfunding but was approached by the city in order to share the project among possible donors outside of Japan. If you have a couple of minutes, please take the survey below that helps the city of Setouchi to plan in more detail their upcoming crowdfunding (will be announced separately here). Thank you!