HONMA’S QUESTIONS #1

In 1972 and 1973, Tōkyō Shuppan (東京出版) published a “couplet” of books, titled Kunzan Tōwa (薫山刀話, “Kunzan’s Sword Talk”) and Kanzan Tōwa (寒山刀話, “Kanzan’s Sword Talk”) respectively. The books contain a collection of articles/thoughts/insights by Honma ‘Kunzan’ Junji (本間「薫山」順治, 1904–1991) and Satō ‘Kanzan’ Kan’ichi (佐藤「寒山」貫一, 1907–1978), focusing on kotō swords in case of Honma, and shintō/shinshintō swords in case of Satō, following thus the corners to which these two great sword scholars were often boxed into.

So last summer, I re-read both books and remembered vividly when I first “read” that final chapter in Honma’s edition twenty years ago or so, the chapter that addresses sixteen “topics for future Nihontō research.” Well, back then, I was in my early 20s and had studied Japanese for less than four years at that point, so it actually took me a while to work through that chapter (that’s why I put “read” in quotation marks in the previous sentence). Being young, however, I was positive that I was going to solve all these questions in no time, and some more. Well, life, work, and first of all reality caught up with me pretty quickly, and whilst I was laughing at my young self re-reading that chapter last summer, I realized that actually not that many of these topics have been properly addressed, let alone been solved in the fifty years since the book came out. Spoiler alert: At some point, we are just running out of references and have to work with what we have, and chances are getting smaller and smaller over the decades for new groundbreaking material (objects/documents) to magically surface. However, you never know, as seen here and here from a few years ago.

Going forward, I would like to introduce these “future topics” as I think they might be of interest, and maybe the one or other feels encouraged to dig deeper into one of these issues. Before we continue, I should say that I take the liberty to introduce them on the basis of my personal interest, and that they will be dispersed with other articles. In other words, this will not be a chronological A–Z, but a once in a while approach. Also, because I wanted a snappier title, I chose “Honma’s Questions” for the series. Easier than “Honma’s Topics for Future Nihontō Research.” In addition, topic-wise, there is some overlap with Volume 10 of the Shinpan Nihontō Kōza (新版日本刀講座, 1970, 1997), but I want to address these question at another time.

Anyway, let’s start.

Kamakura Period Kajihei – History of Forgeries and Improving Kantei

Honma starts this chapter by stating that the history of sword forgeries is an old one and that already the Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi (観智院本銘尽), a manuscript which contains sword knowledge from the end of the Kamakura period and which we have access to today via a copy from Ōei 30 (応永, 1423), mentions in the entries on Bungo Yukihira (行平) and Ko-Aoe Tsunetō (常遠) that forgeries of these smiths are in circulation.

I checked the manuscript and found the two entries in question, which I would like to show here as a reference. In case of Yukihira, the comment is written towards the bottom edge of the book and is a bit difficult to read, but it should be: ōku nisemono ari (おゝくにせ物あ里), “a lot of forgeries exist.” In case of Tsunetō, the comment is: mata nisemono ari (又にせ物あ里), “also forgeries exist.”

Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi comment on Yukihira (w/ detail).

Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi comment on Tsunetō (w/ detail).

Furthermore, the entry on Yukihira contains another interesting comment on forgeries: nisemono wa mei o yoku utsu nari (にせ物ハめいをよくう津奈り), “forgeries have a nicely cut mei.” That is, Yukihira blades with a nicely cut mei should be treated with caution as the authentic signature are chiseled in a more powerful and unaffected, yet elegant manner, which makes them appear more unsophisticated at first glance.

Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi comment on the signatures of Yukihira forgeries (w/ detail).

Next, Honma mentions that, if he remembers correctly, the Nōami Hon Mei Zukushi (能阿弥本銘尽) from the mid-Muromachi period (imprint of Bunmei 15 [文明, 1483]) lists the Yamato smiths Yukiyoshi (行吉) and Nobuyuki (信行) as “smiths who made forgeries” (nisemono kaji nari, にせ物鍛冶なり). I checked that source as well and yes, it is the Nōami Hon Mei Zukushi, although Yukiyoshi and Nobiyuki are listed in the Yamashiro, not the Yamato chapter. In any case, Honma continues by assuming that on the basis of this entry, these Kamakura period smiths may have been specialized forgers, just like the Bakumatsu and Meiji era Kajihei (鍛冶平) was, about whom I have written about here.

In my Swordsmiths of Japan, the following two smiths, who are interestingly enough listed as having been active around the very same time, might come into question:

YUKIYOSHI (行吉), Bun ́ei (文永, 1264-1275), Yamashiro – “Yukiyoshi” (行吉), he lived in Yamashiro ́s Kushige (櫛笥)

NOBUYUKI (信行), Bun ́ei (文永, 1264-1275), Yamashiro – “Nobuyuki” (信行)

Checking the Nihontō Meikan, however, I found a somewhat earlier Yukiyoshi, whom I have not listed. The Nihontō Meikan dates him around Jōō (貞応, 1222–1224), states that he either lived in the Ayanokōji or the Nishikikōji neighborhood of Kyōto, and that he is said to have been a producer of so-called Shibatsuji-mono (柴辻物). This is insofar interesting as Shibatsuji-mono is a period term for mass produced swords (kazuuchi-mono) coming out of the Shibatsuchi neighborhood of Kyōto since earliest times. This might hint at an overlap with the tradition of him also mainly making forgeries.

The Nōami Hon Mei Zukushi states in the entry for Awataguchi Kunitsuna (粟田口国綱) that there is “rumor that the Kunitsuna blade worn by Ashikaga Yoshinori (足利義教, 1394–1441) is a forgery,” and in the entry for Ichimonji Sukemune (一文字助宗), it is mentioned that there are forgeries of his blades which are engraved with a chrysanthemum crest that is deliberately finished to look as if it was polished down. In the chapter on Sagami smiths, the Nōami Hon Mei Zukushi mentions that as Masamune (正宗), Sadamune (貞宗), and Hiromitsu (広光) have become so famous that “many forgeries of their works are in circulation” and that therefore close attention should be paid to the jihada and yakiba of questionable blades. This entry, by the way, is another evidence that contradicts the theory that the swordsmith Masamune is fictionary and was invented in the Momoyama period.

So, Honma concludes that the existence of these entries suggests that forgeries must have been a widespread issue as early as in the Kamakura, Nanbokuchō, and Muromachi periods. He continues by stating that often judging the authenticity of a signature can be quite difficult and that even if a signatures has been examined before, and the work thus been evaluated, there is always room for refinement in the assessment, even if we are talking about jūyō-bunkazai, jūyō-bijutsuhin, and jūyō-tōken levels, some of which he would like to re-examine again. Note: Honma does not address tokubetsu-jūyō here because this NBTHK level was only introduced the year before the book was published. Also, he refers to the jūyō-bijutsuhin Ko-Naminohira Yukimasa (行正) tachi at this point, which is dated Heiji one (平治, 1159) and which is the oldest dated Japanese blade in existence, but whose mei and date he admits to probably not being legit, or at least needing further study.

Jūyō-bijutsuhin, tachi, signed: “Yukimasa Heiji gannen hachigatsu futsuka – Kuniyasu” (行正平治元年八月二日・国安) – “Yukimasa, on the second day in the eighth month of Heiji one (1159) – Kuniyasu (presumably the then owner of the sword).”

Honma then stresses that the availability of reference material has very much improved in the recent decades and that even just before WWII, scholars only had a fraction of what is available today to work with, i.e., from Honma’s perspective in the early 1970s. That is, Honma defends his predecessors by saying that this lack of references does not diminish their expertise and states, borrowing a concept from Sumō wresting, that working today with easier accessible material is more like the humble experience of defeating a senior in the ring who had trained you for many years.

The section then continues with Honma pointing out that no one is able to write characters the very same way each time and that this is true for smiths chiseling their names onto the tangs of their swords as well. In other words, the ductus and overall characteristic style must be taken into consideration, rather than focusing on a single stroke and basing your judgment of whether a blade/mei is authentic or not just on that detail. “Always look at the blade itself too,” Honma repeats the old mantra, and says that he very much tried to live by this rule, although occasionally he admits, there comes along a mei that looks alright, but the blade looks nothing like the name that is on that tang…

Honma then briefly addresses the order of inspecting a blade. Some, he says, just take a quick look at the mei and then go right over to study the blade, but it is rather recommended to look at the blade first and at the mei last. However, he adds, in recent years, some are skipping the entire “blade part” and are judging the authenticity of a sword by solely looking at the mei. Honma concludes by stating that it is vital to properly assess the position/appearance of a signature in relation to the entire tang. He mentions that there is the saying of “this mei really fits well,” meaning that it matches the overall finish, age, and patina of a tang and has so to speak “calmed down together with the tang.” Gimei often have not “calmed down” and may even stick out like a sore thumb. Coming back to the Yukimsa blade that is dated Hōji one, Honma says that it is an example of a mei that has “calmed down” and that is thus in harmony with the appearance of the tang, which means reading between the lines, that if this mei is indeed gimei, it must be a very early one, possibly contemporary or close to the blade’s production time.

*

So, what to do with all of this? Well, I definitely want to dig deeper into the issue of early forgers by studying in depth, again, all the period documents, and I will keep you posted about interesting finds. In other words, and although this may sound too ambitious, I actually want to translate all these period documents in full, and as per today, I am about three quarters through the Kanchi’in Bon Mei Zukushi already, which I tackled first for chronological reasons. So, stay tuned. Maybe also an entire book on gimei is overdue, but this is a double-edged sword, because it does not matter how often you state that information provided is just a guideline and that objects have to be examined in hand and/or submitted to Shinsa for authentication, people will take everything at face value and complain endlessly about decisions they made on the basis of the book…

One thought on “HONMA’S QUESTIONS #1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s