Sometimes you come across a wonderful work by an obscure maker who has either fallen through the cracks of historic swordsmith recording (such an unrecorded smith is referred to as meikan-more, 銘鑑漏れ), or who appears to have been a one-hit wonder. Of course, the earlier the maker, the more difficult it is to make assumptions on his output and on how many of his works have been lost over time.
This time, we are talking about a work by a smith with the name Haruakira (治剣), which likely many of you have never heard of. To begin with, I would like to introduce one of his extremely rare works, a wakizashi, which has passed Jūyō in 1997.
The blade is in hira-zukuri, has a mitsu-mune, a wide mihaba of 3.05 cm, a nagasa of 35.0 cm, and a hint of sori. Thus, we have here a typical hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi from the mid-Nanbokuchō period. The kitae is a prominently standing-out itame that is mixed with mokume and towards the mune with nagare-masame and that features ji-nie and much chikei. The hamon is a gently undulating notare-chō in nie-deki that is mixed with gunome, togariba, kinsuji, sunagashi, and many ashi. The elements of the ha are relatively small dimensioned and the nioiguchi is rather subdued. The bōshi is midare-komi and displays a Jizō-style kaeri on the omote, and a pointed kaeri on the ura side. Kinsuji and hakikake appear on both sides in the bōshi and the kaeri connects with the muneyaki, which runs all the way down to the mune-machi. The nakago is ubu, has a ha-agari kurijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, and bears anaga-mei and date.
In the write-up of the Jūyō paper, the NBTHK mentions that the workmanship bears strong resemblance to the style of the Sa (左) School, but showing more rustic hataraki in the jiba, although being overall of a bold make and of an excellent deki. Now, the similarities to the Sa School is logical for geographic reasons, i.e., Nagato, the westernmost province of Honshū and present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, was only separated from Chikuzen province (present-day Fukuoka Prefecture) by the narrow Strait of Shimonoseki (and a little bit of Buzen province). In addition, several Sa School smiths had migrated to Nagato over time. The vertically compressed signature, i.e., cramped looking signature, however, also bears some resemblance to the mei of the Hasebe (長谷部) Scool. Whilst we are talking about the signature, please note that Haruakira signed the second character of his name, akira (剣), in the variant (剱).
Well, this Jūyō blade was the only work by Haruakira that I was able to find in my references. Interestingly, it is featured in the Kōzan Oshigata (光山押形), which was compiled in the late 17th to early 18th century. Since the time that source was compiled, the second mekugi-ana had been enlarged. Please note that although the signature is fairly faithfully copied, the Kōzan Oshigata got the date wrong. That is, one stroke for the month was overlooked by Hon’ami Kōzan (本阿弥光山, 1634–1714) and therefore the second (二月) instead of the third month (三月) was written into the oshigata. Compared to the rest of the signature, which is fairly faithfully copied as mentioned, the entire part of the month and day is noticeably off. Maybe Kōzan did not pay much attention to the lesser important parts of the date here?
So, Haruakira was a swordsmith from the middle to somewhat later Nanbokuchō period based in Nagato province who was likely related to the Sa School. This is as much as we can say about this maker. When we look into the meikan, we find two more Nagato smiths with this name: A Haruakira who was active around Eishō (永正, 1504–1521), and another one who was active around Keian (慶安, 1648–1652). It therefore appears that local swordsmiths revived that name, in both cases roughly 150 years after their predecessor.
I was not able to find works by any of the later two Haruakira either, but one blade of the Eishō-era smith is featured in the Tsuchiya Oshigata (土屋押形), which was compiled from existing oshigata taken by Tsuchiya Harunao (土屋温直, 1782–1851). The blade appears to be a katateuchi-style uchigatana, which became increasingly popular around the time that Haruakira was active, and features tobiyaki and very prominent muneyaki. The yobiyaki, however, look a bit “disorganized,” and if you zoom in on the habuchi, it looks like that the ha is nie-laden. Interestingly, this Haruakira used the character (釼) instead of (剱) for the character akira (the difference is in the left-hand radical).
I would like to conclude by reflecting on the local historical context. With the exception of the influx of Sa School smiths around the mid-Nanbokuchō period and of Niō (二王) School smiths migrating from neighboring Suō province throughout the 15th century, Nagato province never had been a notable production center for swords. It is interesting to observe that the meikan do not list any Nagato smiths before the Nanbokuchō period. This is insofar odd as the Kamakura Shōgunate installed a local commissioner in Nagato (Nagato Tandai, 長門探題) in 1276 to oversee coastal defense after the Mongols had invaded two years prior. Seems as if this did not have any impact on local sword production, meaning that the troops employed there were likely sourcing their swords from other provinces (or merely brought them with them).
That spike in Nagato sword production around the mid-Nanbokuchō period is very likely linked to the Ashikaga campaign against Kyūshū that took place at that time, and that increase in recorded Nagato-based smiths throughout the 15th century likely to the then expansion of one of the local rulers, the Ōuchi (大内) family. The low number of recorded Nagato smiths throughout the subsequent Sengoku period suggests that local samurai were sourcing their swords once again from elsewhere.
Now, the continued lack of significant numbers of Nagato swordsmiths during the Edo period might be explained by the background of its rulers, the Mōri (毛利) family. Due to their allegiance to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu transferred them from their lands in Aki province to Nagato once he had won Sekigahara, which came with a significant decrease of annual income. In a nutshell, the Tokugawa remained suspicious about the Mōri, ranking them tozama daimyō (外様大名, lit. “outside daimyō), and the Mōri held a grudge against the Tokugawa until the end of the Edo period. Accordingly, and despite the fact that military infrastructure already greatly suffered in Nagato due to the decreased income, it is safe to assume that the Tokugawa did not want to see a major weapons production site operating down there. However, the Mōri boosted local tsuba production, resulting in a myriad of makers and works, referred to as Chōshū-tsuba (長州鐔, named after the Chōshū fief that the Mōri were ruling) that reached every nook and cranny of Japan.
I hope I did not go off too much on a historical tangent and I want to continue this “Forgotten Masters” series whenever I come across such in course of my research.
Very nice! I have long been a proponent of seeking quality, rather than relying on famous names. We needn’t travel back in time very far to find obscure smiths who for a variety of reasons, never became well known, despite being highly skilled- there are plenty of examples from the Taisho and early Showa period. No doubt there are many throughout sword making history. And, indeed, even an average smith could occasionally get lucky and hit a home run. One needs to learn how to recognize and appreciate fine workmanship, regardless of where it is found.
I look forward to future entries in this series! Thank you!