Oroshigane mentioned in signatures

Translating a signature the other day in which the swordsmith refers to a particular steel he used to make that very sword, I remembered that I had a halfway finished article on a related topic on my HD, and that is the use of oroshigane, or more precisely, on smiths explicitly mentioning in their mei the use of such.

First of all, I want to explain what oroshigane is, and many of the experienced collectors may already know that. Oroshigane is a steel that is produced or refined by the swordsmith himself, or such process, which is called oroshigane as well (the process is sometimes also referred to as jigane-oroshi). In a nutshell, oroshigane basically has two meanings: One is the smith just refining the tamahagane steel he has received from the tatara furnace and that he is going to use for certain parts of the blade, and the other is the smith making the steel for the sword himself, from scratch, i.e. he is making his own tamahagane for which he may use for example steel from old nails, old swords, old castle gate fittings, you name it. Note here: The very term oroshigane does not mean “steel making” per se. So when you read oroshigane in a signature, it means that the smiths wants to stress that he paid special attention to the steel he used for that blade. Several modern swordsmiths today for example go into great lengths (even combined with academic research on iron and steel) to produce their own steel, and proudly mention that in their signatures.

Now in earlier kotō times, going through the process of oroshigane was the norm, that is, a swordsmith had to refine the steel he received through his local supply chain. Today, the steel making process run by the NBTHK via their tatara in Shimane Prefecture is that optimized and sophisticated that the end product, the tamahagane, is basically ready for use by the swordsmiths, i.e. they only have to check and sort it on the basis of its carbon content (different parts of the blade require a steel with a different carbon content, but you already know that). The first time something like a centralized tamahagane production was achived was in the former half of the 16th century. Does that ring a bell? Yes, that came along with the mass production of swords in course of the ongoing wars, a time which went down in history as Sengoku period. Even the initiator of the shinshintō era of sword making, Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀, 1750-1828), noticed that and writes in his Tōken Jitsuyō Ron (刀剣実用論, Essay on the Practicality of Swords):

From around Tenbun (天分, 1532-1555) onwards, the steel produced by the centralized production centers could be used as is and this is when the process of oroshigane started to decline. It was then revived around Keichō (慶長, 1596-1615) by the Kyōto-based master Horikawa Kunihiro (堀川国広, 1531-1614) and was also frequently used by the Ōsaka swordsmith Tsuda Sukehiro (津田助広, 1637-1682) when he tried to recreate works of the Muromachi-period Mino smith Izumi no Kami Kanesada (和泉守兼定). However, the process of oroshigane fell again into oblivion from around Genroku (元禄, 1688-1704) onwards.

This entry is very interesting as it perfectly sums up and corraborates these certain parts in the history of Japanese sword making. That is, with the centralization of steel making and the mass production of swords, local characteristics in the jigane of blades start to blur and followed by a thorough but brief attempt to recreate old kotō masterworks during the Momoyama era, about one hundred years of peace brought forth by the Edo period left the majority of swordsmiths with not really an incentive to go the extra mile to painstakingly refine the already pretty much refined steels they received through their supply chain.


Picture 1: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Tsuda Echizen no Kami Sukehiro – Enpō shichinen hachigatsu hi jigane oroshi o motte kore o tsukuru” (津田越前守助広・延宝七年八月日地鉄研造之), nagasa 65.2 cm, sori 1.6 cm

So far the background of oroshigane but I actually wanted to point out the different ways swordsmiths mentioned that process/steel in their signatures. First of all, and probably due to obvious reasons stated above, I have not yet come across a kotō blade that mentions oroshigane in the mei. Picture 1 shows a blade dated Enpō seven (延宝, 1679) where the aforementioned master Sukehiro states in the signature: “Jigane oroshi o motte kore o tsukuru” (地鉄研造之), “made by using (or applying the process of) oroshigane.” Sukehiro here uses the character (研) which does not read oroshi per se (it reads ken or migaku/togu/suru) but which was used by “borrowing” one of its meanings, which is “to refine,” what brings us again to refined steel.

At this point, you may ask yourself, what does the very term oroshigane actually mean. I mean, gane is clear, it means “steel”, but oroshi? In our case, the term oroshi is assumed to come from the term fuki-orosu (吹き下す) which means “blow down upon,” and was probably chosen because it resembles the way the smith blows air into the prepared steel/charcoal arrangement for the oroshigane process in his furnace. Strong and dangerous winds blowing down the slope of a mountain are referred to as oroshi as well, written with the character (颪), which has to be taken literally so to speak, i.e. “down” (下) and “wind” (風). Tsuda Sukenao (津田助直, 1639-1693/94?) for example, a student of Sukehiro, used that very character when referring to oroshigane (see picture 2).

Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Tsuda Ōmi no Kami Sukenao – Genroku ninen nigatsu hi jigane oroshi o motte kore o tsukuru” (津田近江守助直・元禄二歳二月日以地鉄颪作之, “made by Tsuda Ōmi no Kami Sukenao on a day in the second month of Genroku two (1689) by using oroshigane), nagasa 62.4 cm, sori 1.6 cm

Other possible variants of quoting oroshigane seen in period signatures and documents are (卸し鉄), (卸鉄), (卸鋼), (をろし鉄), and (おろし鉄), and I am sure there are some more, so if you come across one, please let me know. Another way to refer to the process of oroshigane can be seen at the example of the northern Ōshū-based swordsmith Kunitora (国虎, 1658-1718) who was studied with master Inoue Shinkai (井上真改, 1630-1682). In the signature of the blade shown in picture 3, he states “oroshi yutetsu o motte kore o tsukuru” (以颪湯鉄作之) which means “made by refining pig iron.” In other words, he refined, via the oroshigane process, the pig iron he had received. And there even exists a blade by Kunitora, see link here, where he states in the mei that he refined nanban-tetsu via the oroshigane process to make it.


Picture 3: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “[kikumon] Izumi no Kami Fujiwara Kunitora – Oroshi-yutetsu o motte kore o tsukuru” (「菊紋」和泉守藤原国虎・以颪湯鉄作之), nagasa 73.8 cm, sori 2.0 cm

Gotō Ichijō’s personal sword

Before we start, I want to apologize for my recent posts being more brief than usual. Those who follow my page know why and when things have calmed down, i.e. when I have settled in with my new job, and place, I will get back to more detailed and “substantial” articles.

Now this time I want to introduce the tantō that Gotō Ichijō (後藤一乗, 1791-1876) had received as a gift from the bakumatsu era master swordsmith Koyama Munetsugu (固山宗次, 1803-?) and which he owned for the rest of his life. So let’s portray the careers of these two artists.

Picture 1: tantō, mei: “Bizen no Suke Munetsugu kore o saku – Kōka sannen hachigatsu hi – Zō Ichijō Hokkyō” (備前介宗次作之・弘化三年八月日・贈一乗法橋) – “Made by Bizen no Suke Munetsugu on a day in the eighth month of Kōka three (1846) as a gift for Ichijō Hokkyō”; nagasa 31.2 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

First of all, both Ichijō and Munetsugu were already renowned artists at the time the blade was made, which was in Kōka three (弘化, 1846), and very busy with fulfilling orders. That is, Ichijō was 56 and Munetsugu 44, following the Japanese way of counting. Let me begin with Koyama Munetsugu. Munetsugu started his career as smith for the Shirakawa fief (白河藩) of northern Mutsu province which was then ruled by the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira (久松松平) family. So far so good but in Bunsei six (文政, 1823), the bakufu decided that the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira needed to be transferred, and that is, to the Kuwana fief (桑名藩) of Ise province what basically cut their annual income by half. There are some theories why this happened but I don’t want to go into too much detail here and suffice to say, Munetsugu remained employed and was able to keep his job. However, he did not proceed to Kuwana right away but stayed for six more years in Shirakawa, i.e. his move down to Ise took place in Bunsei twelve (1829). Just two years later, he got the chance to go to Edo to work for the fief from its capital premises, which means that Munetsugu was now “where everything happened.” Well, there was a brief break from that as in Tenpō six (天保, 1835), Munetsugu worked for an unknow but short period of time for the Owari-Tokugawa family, i.e. directly from Owari province. We can only speculate why that employment did not continue (maybe it was a temporary contract in the first place) but the then Owari-Tokugawa head, Nariharu (徳川斉温, 1819-1839), tried to revive the economy of his fief but failed first badly as he was wasting so much money with his own ventures. In short, Nariharu eventually received a stern warning from his imperial tutor and obeyed so Munetsugu was probably laid off and that is why he returned to Edo and back into the employment of the Matsudaira.

Well, Munetsugu was just looking back at a very successful time in his career and one year before the blade introduced here was made, i.e. in Kōka two (1845), he had received the honorary title Bizen no Suke (備前介). In concrete terms, we are talking about the Tenpō era (天保, 1830-1844) and a large number of Munetsugu’s works and also of his greatest masterworks go back to that period. Or in other words, it was a few years in the Tenpō era when his career really took off. Incidentally, that was also the time when Munetsugu started his cooperation with the Yamada Asa’emon (山田浅右衛門) family of sword testers.

Picture 2: Gotō Ichijō

Back to Gotō Ichijō. The time the blade was made, the artist had been working for about two decades under his Ichijō name and that with holding the Buddhist priest rank of a hokkyō. He had received that rank after making in Bunsei seven (文政, 1824) the fittings for a tachi of Emperor Kōkaku (光格天皇, 1780-1817). When we look at Ichijō’s career through the lens of extant dated (and precisely datable) works, we recognize two small breaks, one from 1829 to 1832 and one from 1843 to 1846 (the year the very blade introduced here was made). As mentioned, this observation bases on dated/datable works so Ichijō may well have been very busy but did not finish works during these years, possibly working on too many projects at the same time. Also, the Gotō were going through kind of a difficult time right after 1845 as the bakufu discovered a major corruption scandal around one of them, Gotō San’emon Mitsumichi (後藤三右衛門光亨, 1796-1845), who was the 13th Gotō head of the bakufu mint and who was sentenced to death and decapitated in 1845 for his involvement. We don’t know if that incident affected Ichijō at all but it is surely not helpful if one of your relatives, and your family name, is – in that negative manner – all over the news.

This bring is right back to the blade. It is interesting to see that it was a gift as mentioned and we know that Munetsugu and Ichijō were working together on sword orders so this was not a one-time brief touching point of the career of these two artists. Also we know that Ichijō owned that sword until the end of his life, and wore it too (more on this shortly), so we may imply that it had a special meaning for him. So maybe this gift was Munetsugu saying “Hang in there!” and Ichijō was indeed going through difficult times. Or maybe it was all completely different and everything was perfectly fine and the blade was just a nice gesture on part of Munetsugu. Or, another theory, it marked the start of a successful cooperation and friendship.


Picture 3: koshigatana-koshirae with birch andfuemaki flute-style saya which is a work of master lacquer artist Hashiichi (橋市) who lived close to Ichijō, fittings en suite of polished oborogin with gold and silver hira-zōgan ornamentation (menuki and kozuka of shakudō with nanako ground)

In any case, Ichijō made his own fittings for the blade and the full koshirae can be seen in picture 3. The dashi-menuki on the unwrapped hilt depict pairs of 3-5-3 kiri crests for which the Gotō family became famous for, e.g. Tokujō (後藤徳乗, 1550-1631) designing it for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and on the kozuka we see kuyō crests, i.e. the crest of the Gotō family of kinkō artists worn by them since at least the time of their ancestor Yūjō (後藤祐乗, 1440-1512) (see picture 4)

Picture 4: Gotō Yūjō

Now we don’t know if Ichijō made the fittings, and had the koshirae parts made, right when he got the blade from Munetsugu, if he mounted it a certain way for the time being and redid everything at a later point, or if he had just kept the blade in shirasaya for some time and then decided to have it mounted with his own fittings at one point in his life. What we do know for certain is that he was wearing the blade in this koshirae as there exists “photo evidence” for that (see picture 6). A hint on when he made the fittings (and had Munetsugu’s gift blade mounted) may be hidded in the fittings as kurigata, kashira, and kojiri bear the inscription sen-kannin (専堪忍) (see picture 5) which basically means “forbearance/patience.” So, we can speculate that Ichijō chose these characters after going through some kind of difficult times in the mid-1840s, and Munetsugu did indeed present him with this blade to cheer him up, or much later when he was looking back on a very successful career and chose “forbearance/patience” as motto of life. As mentioned, just speculations, but it is so enjoyable and rewarding to reflect on these things.

Picture 5: kurigatga, kashira, and kojiri

Picture 6: Portrait of Ichijō wearing the sword in question.

It is assumed that picture 6 was taken when Kyōto Prefectural Governor Hase Nobuatsu (長谷信篤, 1818-1902) entrusted Ichijō in Meiji six (明治, 1873), i.e. three years before his death, with a post at the Meiji Restoration’s Encouragement of Industry venture which turned into the concrete first Exhibition for the Industrial Promotion of the Country (kokunai-kangyō-hakurankai, 国内勧業博覧会) two years after Ichijō died (and where subsequently many of the famous kinkō artists of the Meiji era participated).