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