Egawa Tarōzaemon Hidetatsu (江川太郎左衛門英龍)

This time I want to introduce quite a rare blade which has a certain historic significance and thus, obviously, a very interesting historic background. It is a work by the Egawa Tarōzaemon Hidetatsu (江川太郎左衛門英龍, 1801-1855) who was a daikan (代官), a bakufu governor of lands that were directly owned by the Tokugawa. From the mid-18th century to the Meiji era, this governmental post was in charge of lands stretching over the provinces of Sagami, Izu, Suruga, Kai, and Musashi.

Picture 1: Self-portrait by Egawa Hidetatsu.

Now Hidetatsu was member of a very prestigious family which can be traced back to the Heian period and of which many heads can be tied to important historic figures throughout the history of Japan. The original family name of the Egawa was Uno (宇野), which was a place in Yamato province, but when they supported Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199) in raising one of his armies, they were given the Egawa manor in Izu province. They later successively served important rulers as indicated, for example the Hōjō regents of Kamakura, and changed their name to Egawa in the Muromachi period. At the end of the Muromachi period, they were switching sides, from Hideyoshi to Ieyasu, who later declared them daikan governors.

There is a Wikipedia entry on Hidetatsu here but I just wanted to stress the history of his family as it is not mentioned in the article and as it is kind of important to understand why things where as they were. In other words, and when it comes to Hidetatsu’s later military functions, the bakufu did not appoint a random samurai of good standing but was rather relying on hereditary well-established power structures. And that position within this very power structure and its accompanying connections allowed him to pursue at the side the activities that I will describe in the following.

Picture 2: Egawa Hidetatsu in full formal attire.

So, Egawa Hidetatsu was of high rank and thus raised and educated accordingly. He studied swordsmanship of the Shintō Munen-ryū (神道無念流), Confucianism, calligraphy, classical poetry, painting (see the pretty good self-portrait above), rangaku (Dutch/Western learning), and gunnery. He was also an early advocate of vaccination and tried to improve local agriculture and the latter two things earned him within the local population the praising nickname “The Reformer Egawa Daimyōjin”. Apart from that, he was using his bakufu salary to employ talented men, for example two rangaku scholars, an expert on classical Chinese, and a swordsmith, and that brings us back to the topic.

Hidetatsu was learning sword making from the shinshintō grandmaster Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778-1857) but when later Naotane kicked one of his students out of the school, Tanenaga (胤長), who had a serious drinking problem, Egawa Hidetatsu took Tanenaga in and employed him for a salary in the form of a stipend for three persons (I have briefly written about this relationship about four years ago here). Tanenaga was thus moving to Izu where also another very talented swordsmith was working for Hidetatsu, Nakayama Ikkansai Yoshihiro (中山一貫斎義弘, 1797-1865). This “venture” is insofar interesting as Egawa, as being the local daikan, was pushed by the bakufu to ensure to protect Japan’s coasts in that area after the Morrison Incident had occured in 1837 and gave so to speak everyone involved a wake up call. Two years later, the bakufu put Hidetatsu officially in charge of establishing the defense of Edo Bay and so he was thoroughly committing himself to the production and the most effective use of Western-style cannons. As pointed out in the Wikipedia article on Egawa, there was the debate going on at that time whether or how to adopt Western guns/weapons and methods. Some were absolutely against that and stressed that the nation should focus on traditional weapons and tactics whilst others promoted a theoretical synthesis of “Western knowledge” and “Eastern morality” in view of “controlling the barbarians with their own methods”. I don’t want to go into too much detail here because entire books have been written on that inner conflict of Japan and as I want to focus more on the sword aspect.

Picture 3: wakizashi, mei: “Egawa Tarō” (江川太郎), nagasa 47.6 cm, sori 0.9 m, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

That blade shown in picture 3 is now a work of Egawa Hidetatsu himself. It is a wakizashi with a rather wide mihaba, a shallow sori, a thick kasane, and a chū-kissaki. The kitae is an itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a gunome in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-notare, chōji, and small tobiyaki and that features a rather tight nioiguchi. The bōshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri. The tang is ubu, has a shallow ha-agari kurijiri, sujikai-yasurime with keshō, one mekugi-ana, and is entirely finished in the way most Naotane students finished their tangs. The overall deki reminds of Naotane working in the Bizen tradition. Incidentally, the blade was a heirloom of the Ichiki (市来) family who were retainers of the Satsuma fief. Egawa had students from all over the country who learned Western gunnery from him so it is possible that a member of the Ichiki family studied with him and either purchased the wakizashi from Egawa or received it as a gift.

I want to conclude this article with another sword-related episode from Egawa’s life. As mentioned above, he also sincerely studied swordsmanship as it was expected from a samurai of his rank and position. One of his fellow Shintō Munen-ryū students was Saitō Yakurō Yoshimihi (斎藤弥九郎善道, 1798-1871) who was of peasant origin, worked from the age of twelve onwards as a shop boy, but went to Edo as a teenager where he became the servant of a hatamoto what enabled him to practice swordsmanship. Later he became an assistance instructor of the Shintō Munen-ryū where he met Egawa who gave him money to establish in 1826 his own dōjō, the Renpeikan (練兵館), and accepter Saitō as his retainer.

Picture 4: Saitō Yakurō Yoshimichi

As stated several times in my books, the nerves of everyone were on the edge in the late Edo period as so many fiefs were facing bankruptcy and famines and many considered the Tokugawa Shogunate as either the cause for all of that or being unable to do anything against the country going south, or both. So uprisings were not uncommon and a major one was the rebellion started by Ōshio Heihachirō (大塩平八郎, 1793-1837) in Ōsaka in 1837. Accordingly, the bakufu was in crisis mode and also wanted to see what was going on in their own lands. So they gave orders to Egawa to check out the “mood” of Kai province which was under his jurisdiction as daikan because Kai was known as cesspool of gamblers at that time and there was a lot of unrest in that province. Now Egawa realized that he most likely would not get a real insight into matters when he goes up north into Kai with his conspicuous daikan retinue and so he came up with the plan to just take Saitō with him and both disguising as sword dealers. They were subsequently also checking out parts of Musashi and Sagami province like that and there is a drawing extant that Egawa made later about the “adventure” of the two (see picture 5).

Picture 5: Drawing by Egawa Hidetatsu titled Kōshū-bikō (甲州微行, “Travelling Kai province incognito”). The one holding the sword bundle is Saitō.

PS: There is a sword in the new Samurai Art Museum, Berlin that is directly connected with the above mentioned Morrison Incident and which I want to introduce at a later point.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #32 – Hasebe (長谷部) School 3

We arrive at Hasebe Kuninobu (国信) who was either the younger brother or the second son of Kunishige. The Kotô Meizukushi Taizen follows the former tradition and says that Kuninobu was born in Bun’ei eleven (文永, 1274) and died in Kôei two (康永, 1343) at the age of 70. When it comes to dated blades, I state in my Swordsmiths of Japan A-Z that we know nenki from Enbun two (延文, 1357) to Kentoku two (建徳, 1371). This information is from the Tôkô Taikan but I was not able to find either of these two dates, only blades dated Jôji two (貞治, 1363) and Jôji four (1365), which are also the two dates that Tanobe sensei quotes in his latest book on the Yamashiro tradition. In short, Kuninobu appears to have been active a little bit later than Kunishige, although it is impossible to say from the current evidence base if he was the younger brother or the second son of Kunishige, i.e. both is absolutely within the realm of possibilities. That said, there is also the tradition that Kuninobu signed later in his career with Kunishige too. We are facing the same issue with the Nobukuni School, and also with the students of Shintôgo Kunimitsu for example. Now we don’t know if these double or triple identical names for one school mean that 1) there were just two, three, or sometimes even four smiths in one school who all signed with the same name, 2) that certain students were actually acting as head of the school under the master’s name for a certain while, or 3) if these period entries like “X signed later with Y too” actually just translates as “student X was later allowed to make daisaku-daimei works for master Y.”

So, let’s get started with Kuninobu’s workmanship and what distinguishes him from Kunishige. First difference: There are just a hint more signed long swords extant by Kuninobu than by Kunishige. Well, this factor might only come into play when doing a text-based kantei, but I nevertheless wanted to mention it here. That is, if a long kantei blade seems to be a Hasebe work and it is mentioned that it is signed, well, I would rather go for Kuninobu than for Kunishige. Kuninobu’s hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô are very similar to Kunishige, as their workmanship is quite close in general. What can be said is that Kuninobu’s hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi are by trend somewhat larger, and his tantô somewhat smaller than at Kunishige, i.e. we have so to speak more “clearly separated” short blade forms at Kuninobu than at Kunishige, although differences are of course not “jumping out at you.” Apart from that, Kuninobu applied a more roundish fukura and we usually see more yahazu in his ha than at Kunishige.

The first blade of Kanenobu that I want to introduce here is the famous meitô “Karakashiwa-Kuninobu” (唐柏国信), a fabulous ubu jûyô-bijutsuhin tachi with a nagasa of 79.4 cm which was once owned by the Uesugi family and which is also featured in Uesugi Kagekatsu’s (上杉景勝, 1556-1623) collection of 35 treasure swords (see picture 1). The blade has a perfectly healthy jiba, a magnificent shape with a very deep toriizori, still plenty of ha-niku, funbari, and an elongated chû-kissaki. The kitae is a dense itame with some nagare towards the ha and that shows plenty of ji-nie and some chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden ô-gunome mixed with chôji, ko-gunome, ko-notare, many ashi and , kinsuji, tobiyaki, yubashiri, and muneyaki. Thus the ha appears as a truly gorgeous hitatsura and the bôshi is a widely hardened midare-komi that tends to kuzure and whose kaeri connects with the muneyaki. Incidentally, we are facing here again a characteristic difference between Hasebe long swords and short swords, namely the trend that there is not so much nagare-masame at the former than at the latter. Incidentally, it is said that the nickname of the blade goes back to its flamboyant hitatsura resembles either Ricinus flowers or leaves (tôgoma [唐胡間], period name karakashiwa).

Picture 1: jûyô-bijutsuhin, tachi, mei: “Hasebe Kunonobu” (長谷部国信), nagasa 79.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Blade number 2 is another tachi of Kuninobu which shows the same characteristically tapering nakago and basically a similar shape, although a not so deep sori, but which is interpreted in an obviously more calm manner. The jigane is a dense ko-itame that features a faint nie-utsuri and the hamon is a nie-laden chû-suguha-chô that is mixed with some gunome, plenty of ko-ashi, and some saka-ashi on the haki-ura side. The bôshi starts with sugu, gets then a little undulating, and turns back briefly with a rather pointed kaeri. There is a bôhi with marudome on both sides and tang is a little machi-okuri.

Picture 2: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Hasebe Kunonobu” (長谷部国信), nagasa 75.4 cm, sori 2.2 cm, mihaba 3.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Now to Kuninobu’s short swords and again, I want to start with the most famous one, a jûyô-bunkazai hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi that is preserved in the Atsuta-jingû and that is said that to have been made by Kuninobu as offering to the shrine when he had withdrawn there to pray. Accordingly, the blade is sometimes referred to as “Atsuta-Kuninobu” (熱田国信) in period sources. The blade is very wide, has quite a pronounced sori, and a long sunnobi-nagasa of 40.7 cm, that is, it is of an overall quite magnificent hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi sugata. The kitae is a standing-out ô-itame with ji-nie that shows long nagare sections towards the ha. The hamon appears on the omote side as ko-notare that is mixed with angular and yahazu elements, and on the ura side we see a somewhat larger gunome-chôji-chô mixed with ko-notare and ko-gunome. The ha is nie-laden and there are sunagashi, kinsuji, tobiyaki, yubashiri, and muneyaki that run back in a very noticeable manner down to the base of the blade. So the ha appears altogether as hitatsura. The bôshi is midare-komi with a rather late starting, ô-maru-like and long running-back kaeri with hakikake that connects with the muneyaki. The omote side shows a katana-hi with below a tsume and the ura side gomabashi with a bonji on top. Kuninobu made quite many of such hitatsura hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi where angular and/or yahazu (or gunome-chôji) elements are connected via relatively low sections of ko-notare.

Picture 3: jûyô-bunkazai, wakizashi, mei: “Hasebe Kunonobu” (長谷部国信), nagasa 40.7 cm, sori 0.7 cm, motohaba 3.8 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

The next blade that I want to introduce is strongly tending towards yahazu. It is again a hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi that has a wide mihaba and some sori. The kitae is a standing-out itame that is mixed with masme towards the ha and the mune and that features ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden yahazu-gunome-chô connected with ko-notate that is mixed with sunagashi, tobiyaki, yubashiri, and a prominent muneyaki, i.e. that appears again as hitatsura. The bôshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri that tends to nie-kuzure and that connects with the mune-yaki. Incidentally, the old sayagaki of this blade mentions that it was presented by the Owari-Tokugawa branch to the 14th Tokugawa shôgun Iemochi (徳川家茂, 1846-1886) when Iemochi was stopping by at Nagoya Castle on the eleventh day of the fifth month Keiô one (慶応, 1865).

Picture 4: jûyô, wakizashi, mei: “Hasebe Kunonobu” (長谷部国信), nagasa 33.5 cm, sori 0.3 cm, motohaba 2.95 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

With the next blade (picture 5) I want to remind readers that the Hasebe School too, like their Nobukuni colleagues, did apply rich and skillfully engraved horimono occasionally. The blade is a large hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi with a wide mihaba, some sori and a thin kasane. The kitae is an itame mixed with mokume that shows nagare-masame towards ha and mune and that features plenty of ji-nie and much chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden gunome that is mixed with ko-notare, some angular elements, kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, and tobiyaki and that overall tends again towards hitatsura. The bôshi is midare-komi and has a relatively wide ô-maru-kaeri which connects with the interrupted muneyaki. On the omote side we see a bonji and a kurikara and on the ura side an ascending dragon that chases a gem.

Picture 5: tokubetsu-jûyô, mei: “Hasebe Kunonobu” (長谷部国信) – “Jôji ninen ?-gatsu hi” (貞治二年〇月日), “a day in the ? month of Jôji two [1363]”),  nagasa 38.0 cm, sori 0.4 cm, motohaba 2.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


That should do it for this time and in the next part we round off the Hasebe chapter with Kunihira and the genealogy of the school.


Tosa-Myōchin/Akasaka Collaboration

Before we begin, Iwant to give you a brief background to this article. Those who follow me on Facebook and members of the NMB might know by now that I am very lucky and grateful to be on the team that contributes to the new Samurai Art Museum in Berlin, Germany. I still owe my loyal readers a detailed write-up on the job but in a nutshell, I am in charge with the catalogization of all the objects in the Janssen Collection and working hard to get that done as we speak. In this course I came across an item that I want to introduce here because it is the first time I saw a collaboration like that, but more on that later. Suffice it to say, the quality level of the collection is truly impressive. When you face a collection that comprises nearly 600 objects as the Janssen Collection does, it is usually that you have a mere accumulation of “artefacts” with only a few outstanding items that are of special interest. In the Samurai Art Museum, it is exactly the other way round, i.e. it seems that there is an endless pool of highly interesting objects to pick from for a closer examination, the object introduced in the following being one of them.

It is widely known that the stylistic/scholastic origins of the Tosa-Myōchin group of tsuba artists were the Akasaka School from Edo. Accordingly, Tosa-Myōchin tsuba are often strongly resembling Akasaka-tsuba and we know numerous works where Tosa-Myōchin artists were providing the forged iron ground plate for Akasaka and other tsuba makers. If you are long enough into the subject of samurai related (art) objects you will know that the name Myōchin equals armor making. I will not go into too much detail in this article but it can be said that the Edo-based Myōchin School was the thriving and most important lineage of armor makers throughout the entire Edo period. Those fiefs who were able to afford it made sure that their best armorers received training from the Myōchin masters in Edo and as the main line gave master students the permission to bear the Myōchin name, the school branched out significantly over time, the Tosa-Myōchin group forming one of these branches.

I am writing Tosa-Myōchin group because there was not a single school in the strict sense of the word. That is, there were three different families who made up the Tosa-Myōchin group, the Kawasaki (川崎) family whose armor making goes back to the master-student relationship of their member Munetoshi (宗利) with the 24th head of the Myōchin main line, Myōchin Ōsumi no Kami Munesuke (明珍大隅守宗介) during the Kyōhō era (1716-1736), the Ichikawa (市川) family which is linked to the Myōchin main line via a master-student relationship with the 26th generation Myōchin Nagato no Kami Munemasa (明珍長門守宗政), and the Nomachi (野町) family whih emerged from these two local Tosa-Myōchin branches. The Kawasaki family was the lineage that was very actively involved in tsuba making as the Ichikawa was focusing on armor production and the Nomachi family on for example the zōgan inlay on rifles and the production of smaller metal objects like tobacco pipes etc.

Now when it comes to tsuba making, we actually don’t know who Kawasaki Munetoshi’s master was, or if there was a master at all, Fukushi sensei for example assumes that maybe Munetoshi just brought home some tsuba which were very popular at that time in Edo and tried to recreate them back in Tosa, what he was of course totally capable of as a professional armorer. Many of his works resemble 4th generation Akasaka Tadatoki (忠時) and Tadashige (忠重) tsuba but we also know some which look like Ko-Akasaka or Kyō-sukashi by the way. That said, I have to explain the then situation of the nation to understand one of the motifs of Munetoshi also making tsuba. The Edo period experienced a peak in the Genroku era (元禄, 1688-1704) which goes back to the economic stability the Tokugawa Shogunate had brought but when that bubble burst, the bakufu and the fiefs realized that they could not carry on as they were until Genroku times. In short, everyone was looking out for additional sources of income, and craftsmen now increasingly going over to two-pronged approaches is only understandable. But it has to be stressed that things like that were very much regulated, i.e. the fief had to give their employed craftsmen permission to make, and first of all to sell works which do not correspond to their actual profession. So tsuba production was really an option for certain fiefs to improve their financial situation a little bit. In other words, a “normal” fief-employed craftsman had an annual salary, often accompanied by an additional stipend, and for that, he had to provide the fief with what they required him to make. As indicated, every business at the side required permission and violating that by selling under the counter could be severely punished.

Back to topic and fast forward 100 years. The 4th Tosa-Myōchin master, Muneyoshi (宗義, 1791-1867), was the first where we can confirm an “official” master-student relationship with the Akasaka School, and that is in his case with the 1st generation Akasaka Tadanori (忠則). He actually went to Edo without permission and details about his impressive career can be found in the soon to be published second volume of the Tosogu Classroom. But this brings us to the actual work that I want to introduce here. It is a Saiga-style okitenugui-nari kabuto with embossed eyebrows and furrowing on the mabisashi and decorative kirigane applications along the lateral plates and the top plate. The bowl is signed “Akasaka Tadanori – Doshū Myōchin Ki no Munenaga” (赤坂忠則・土州明珍紀宗長) (see picture below).



Munenaga was Muneyoshi’s adopted son. He was born in Tenpō ten (天保, 1839) and succeeded as 5th head of the Tosa-Myōchin School two months after Muneyoshi had died, to be precise, he succeeded on the 27th day of the fourth month of Keiō three (慶応, 1867). Unless we assume that Munenaga was active under that name before he succeeded as head of the family (his real first name was Yoshitsugu/Ryōji, 良次) we are pretty much able to narrow down the production time of this helmet to the two years from Keiō three to the end of the Boshin War in 1869. This late production time also suggests that it was the second generation Akasaka Tadanori who had his hand in this collaboration, not the first one who had trained Munenaga’s adoptive father Muneyoshi. This brings us back to my initial commect about this being the first time I see a collaboration like that, namely an Akasama master also participating in armor making and not other way round of Tosa-Myōchin artists making tsuba. Looking at the helmet, I assume that probably Munenaga did the forging and assembling of the iron plates and maybe Akasaka Tadanori provided the decorative kirigane, i.e. the lozenge elements that sit under the rivets, or maybe they split up the forging work for the plates, although that seems rather unlikely to me. Also very interesting is the interpretation of the helmet itself because that very form, a Saiga-style okitenugui-nari kabuto, was mostly in fashion during the Momoyama era. In bakumatsu times namely we usually see a return to classical armors of the Kamakura and Nanbokuchō times, at least when it comes to higher ranking traditionalist bushi. So it is fascinating to see that a local samurai had himself made a helmet that so to speak followed an “outside of the box anachronism” within then arms and armor currents.

Anyway, I want to study that item more closely the next time I am at the museum and talk to my armor friends so please bear in mind that this article may receive some update in the future.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #31 – Hasebe (長谷部) School 2

As promised last time, we are continuing with Hasebe Kunishige’s short swords. A characteristic feature of his (and his school’s) hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi (and partially also of the larger tantô) is that they show a noticeably thin kasane, i.e. thinner as it was already common during the mid-Nanbokuchô period. This peculiarity is more noticeable at shorter blades because of obvious pratical reasons: Long swords from heyday Nanbokuchô do indeed have a thinner kasane than their Kamakura predecessors but you just can’t make a tachi too thin. Another typical feature of Kunishige and Hasebe that is a hint more obvious on hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô than on long swords is the tendency towards nagare-masame towards the ha and towards the mune. Sometimes it is just a little nagare along the itame but relatively often you will see almost pure masame in these areas, i.e. ha and mune. So the whole tradition with Kunishige having Yamato roots might actually just be “reverse engineering” so to speak, i.e. having an emphasis on masame, what speaks for Yamato, and then finding in Yamato province a place, Hase, that has literally parts of his name in it. But in a scientific and an evidence-based world, it is of course not that easy. Well, nagare-masame is also found at Ryôkai and Nobukuni but in their case it mostly appears just along the ha and not towards the mune. Incidentally, the Yamato characteristics seen at Kunishige blades are in my opinion not as strong as the Yamashiro characteristics seen at early Nobukuni blades. In other words, and as mentioned in the corresponding chapters, early Nobukuni works do confirm that he had Yamashiro roots whereas just masame here an there is, for me, not enough to close the Hasebe case and accept that Kunishige came from Yamato.

The first blade (picture 5) that I want to introduce is the blade that bears the earliest known date signature of Kunishige that is considered to be watertight, a hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi that is dated Bunna four (文和, 1355). The blade has a wide mihaba, a thin kasane, has a little sori, and is altogether of a typical sunnobi-sugata. The jigane is an overall standing-out itame that is mixed with masame towards the ha and towards the mune. In addition, also ji-nie and chikei appear. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden notare that is mixed with gunome, ashi, , kinsuji, sunagashi, tobiyaki, and muneyaki and that thus tends a little to hitatsura, although it is not a full and prominent hitatsura. The bôshi features a maru-kaeri with hakikake that runs back in a long fashion and connects with the muneyaki. As for the horimono, the omote side shows a suken and a bonji and the ura side a futasuji-hi which runs with kaki-nagashi into the tang. The tang is ubu, has a shallow kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, and three mekugi-ana. So, the kasane is a hint thinner than seen at contemporary heyday Nanbokuchô hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi, there is a tendency towards hitatsura, a long kaeri (although not added in the oshigata), and prominent masame and thus we have again all the characteristic features of the Hasebe School.


Picture 5: tokubetsu-jûyô, wakizashi, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重) – “Bunna yonen hachigatsu hi” (文和二二年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Bunna four [1355]”), nagasa 34.2 cm, sori 0.4 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

The next blade (see picture 6) that I want to introduce was made a few years after the one shown in picture 5. It is a tantô that is dated with the Enbun era but unfortunately, the mekugi-ana goes through the year so the date can be anything between 1356 and 1361. This blade is a little bit smaller, measuring 29.0 cm in nagasa, but still features in relation to that nagasa a wide mihaba. The jigane is an itame that tends to masame-nagare along the ha and there is plenty of ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with some ko-gunome, angular elements, much sunagashi all over, and tobiyaki, i.e. the hamon again appears altogether as hitatsura. The bôshi features a ko-maru-kaeri that runs back in a continuous manner as muneyaki. So please take a look at the hamon, bôshi, and muneyaki: We have here an interpretation that is very typical for the Hasebe School, namely a more or less uniformly wide hamon (i.e. no gradual widening towards the bôshi etc.) that is so to speak “mirrored” in a small way in the muneyaki. Or in other words, imagine two more or less parallel hardenings which “enclose” a hitatsura in between them. Kunishige and the other Hasebe smiths of course also hardened different hamon which increase in width, sometimes even prominently towards the bôshi, but from my experience, if you have a heyday Nanbokuchô hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi or sunnobi-tantô in hitatsura that has this almost what I call a “tuning fork” like hamon/muneyaki combination, there is a good chance that it is a Hasebe work. That said, there are quite similar interpretations by contemporary Sôshû masters like Hiromitsu and Akihiro but usually we see a hint more ups and downs along their hamon, and in particular dango-chôji in case of Hiromitsu. Also, there would not be that prominent masame-nagare and their blades would show a little thicker kasane.


Picture 6: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重) – “Enbun ?-nen nigatsu hi” (延文〇年二月日), nagasa 29.0 cm, only a little sori, motohaba 2.8 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

In picture 7 I want to introduce another example, this time with the picture shown vertically, so I hope you understand what I meant with the “tuning fork” comparison, even if the muneyaki part doesn’t go all the way down here. It is another hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and shows a somewhat standing-out itame that tends to nagare in places and that is mixed with mokume, some jifu, plenty of ji-nie, and chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden notare that is mixed with gunome, a little bit chôji, many ashi, fine sunagashi and kinsuji, and with some tobiyaki at the base and along the upper half of the blade. The nioiguchi is bright.


Picture 7: tokubetsu-jûyô, wakizashi, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重), nagasa 36.9 cm, sori 0.5 cm, motohaba 3.5 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Picture 8 shows a tantô with a moderate nagasa for mid-Nanbokuchô but which appears with the relatively narrow mihaba nevertheless in sunnobi-style. The jigane is a standing-out itame that is mixed with masame towards the mune and that features ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden gunome-chôji that is mixed with ko-notare, tobiyaki, yubashiri, sunagashi, and kinsuji and with the muneyaki, we arrive again at a full-blown hitatsura. Please note the different bôshi: It has a pointed kaeri on the ura but a typically roundish “Hasebe kaeri” on the omote side.


Picture 8: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重), nagasa 27.0 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


The last blade (see picture 9) that I want to introduce for Kunishige should demonstrate another side of his repertoire, although interpretations like that are rather rare for him. It is a sunnobi-style tantô with a dense ko-itame that only tends on the ura side towards nagare-masame, and this only very little. In additiom, there is plenty of ji-nie and chikei. Such a relatively fine ko-itame is usually rather associated with Hasebe Kuninobu tachi than Hasebe Kunishige short swords. The hamon starts a a low and calm notare-chô which then turns into a wide chôji that is mixed with tobiyaki, yubashiri, muneyaki, fine kinsuji, and sunagashi. Thus the ha only appears in the upper section as hitatsura. Incidentally, the nioiguchi is wide and bright and the bôshi has a ko-maru-kaeri with a small shimaba on the omote side.


Picture 9: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重), nagasa 27.9 cm, sori 0.3 cm, motohaba 2.8 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Next part will deal with Hasebe Kuninobu after which we will conclude the Hasebe chapter wit Kunihira and the genealogy of the school.

Shrine gifts to the Shôgun

This time I want to talk about a special custom, and that is the traditional sword gift that the Tanzan-jinja (談山神社) made to each new shôgun. Before we start, the Tanzan-jinja was mostly referred to by its mountain name, Tônomine (多武峯), in feudal times, just to point that out if you come across conflicting data when doing research or reading about that custom in another context. Anyway, the Tanzan-jinja, or Tônomine respectively, is located close to present-day Sakurai (桜井), Nara Prefecture. It is about 15 miles (25 km) to the south of Nara station (linear distance), or 38 miles (62 km) to the south of Kyôto (again, linear distance).

There exists a seven-volume record titled Kyôto Oyakusho-muki Taigai Oboegaki (京都御役所向大概覚書), a collection of official memoranda and reports fro the office of the Kyôto magistrate, the Kyôto machi-bugyô (京都町奉行), which was compiled in Kyôhô two (享保, 1717). Therein we read that from the 18th year of Keichô (慶長, 1613) onwards, the Tanzan-jinja (Tônomine) presented at every shogunal succession one sword from its possessions to the new shôgun. Practice was this that the Kyôto magistrate office required the Tanzan-jinja to bring in advance a few dozen swords so that they in turn can call the head of the Hon’ami family to come in and pick the one that is most suitable for the present.

Picture 1, from left to right: Ietsuna, Tsunayoshi, Ienobu

In order to not just provide dry text here, I want to introduce a sword that was presented by the shrine on one such occasion, namely a Nobukuni (信国) tantô (see picture 2) that was given to the 5th Tokugawa shôgun Tsunayoshi (徳川綱吉, 1646-1709) when he took over from Ietsuna (徳川家綱, 1641-1680) in the fifth month of Enpô eight (延宝, 1680). By the way, Kôjô (本阿弥光常, 1643-1710) was the head of the Hon’ami family at that time but we don’t know who exactly was in charge of picking the sword.

Picture 1: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 26.1 cm, uchizori, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

The second shrine gift that I want to introduce here is from the sixth year of Hôei (宝永, 1709) and concerns the succession of Tokugawa Ienobu (徳川家宣, 1662-1712) taking over from Tsunayoshi and becoming the 6th Tokugawa shôgun. In preparation to his 1709 succession, the astonishing amount of 58 swords were brought from the Tanzan-jinja to the place of the Kyôto magistrate and for this time, we know who from the Hon’ami family was chosen to pick the gift sword, Hon’ami Kôzan (本阿弥光山, 1634-1714). That is, it was maybe not the head of the family who was proceeding to Kyoto to meet with the official.

Incidentally, we also know that Kôzan was in charge for picking the Tanzan-jinja sword gift for the very next succession, which took place in Shôtoku three (正徳, 1713), the year before he died. So from the Kyôto Oyakusho-muki Taigai Oboegaki record we know that Kôzan had to judge the condition of the polish and had to arrange a polish (togi-age, 研上ケ), the making of a new shirasaya, a wooden habaki (yes, wooden, that’s what the record says), and a new sword bag (katana-bukuro, 刀袋) if necessary. What he picked was an unsigned wakizashi attributed to Bizen Osafune Sadamitsu (備前長船貞光), measuring ~ 42 cm in nagasa

That kind of speaks volumes for the then, i.e. mid-Edo “treasure” swords of the shrine, i.e. a signed Nobukuni is pretty good, don’t get me wrong, but an unsigned and therefore probably ô-suriage blade of a minor Bizen smith? For the auguration of the new shôgun? I want to do more research in the future to see if also other shrines were making similar gifts, what seems likely, at least for ther larger shrines, and maybe these shrine presents were more seen as nice gestures, unlike gifts from daimyô where all the context of family bond and alliances comes into play. But be that as it may, it tells us how many swords these shrines were storing at any time throughout the Edo period, i.e. if they picked 58 for “a closer consideration”.

In this sense, there is hope that there are still treasure swords going to be discovered  in some shrines in the future, as for example pointed out here. Also, I just finished translating an article for the Western members of the NKBKHK which deals with an armor that was probably worn by the famous warlord Katô Kiyomasa (加藤清正, 1562-1611) and that had been stored away more or less unnoticedly in a simple bucket in a shrine in deep Nagano Prefecture for about 400 years!


Kantei Series Challenges

In view of the shortly published second part of the Hasebe chapter of my Kantei series, I just wanted to share a certain difficulty that I face on a regular basis when doing research for this series. I will skip the greater context and details of workmanship here because they will be addressed in the upcoming chapter.

So the difficulty I am talking about is significantly differing oshigata and/or blade descriptions. The blade in question is a hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi by Hasebe Kunishige (長谷部国重) which was also introduced by Tanobe sensei in his Me no Me article series. Therein he uses it to point out that certain rare interpretations by Kunishige bear a resemblance to contemporary Nobukuni (信国) works, in concrete terms through a typically wide Enbun-Jôji-sugata and a hardening in suguha. Tanobe also explains that the standing-out ô-itame with nagare-masame towards the ha and mune and the large, roundish, and long running-back kaeri (which connects with muneyaki that continue to about the mid-blade section) eventually identify the blade as a Hasebe work. So that’s all fine, case almost closed, but I wanted to find out more on that blade, in particular to see if there are more of this kind in order to work out similarities/differences between the Hasebe and Nokubuni schools.

As Tanobe mentioned that the blade in question is jûyô, I was able to find it in the records (it passed in 1967) and what do I see, a significantly different oshigata (see picture 1). No more a relatively pure suguha as seen on the oshigata used by Tanobe sensei. Also no strikingly roundish bôshi and neither a drawing nor a mention of the long muneyaki. In the jûyô oshigata we see a hamon in shallow notare (or with good faith a suguha-chô that is mixed with notare at best) that even shows a hint of ko-chôji or ko-midare in places. Also, the bôshi features a relatively pointed kaeri, or at least that is what the “artistic rendering” of hataraki within the bôshi suggests. Apart from that, check out the significant difference in thickness of the ha along the monouchi and fukura. There is the same notare protrusion on the omote side, close to the tip of the suken shown on both oshigata, but then Tanobe’s version shows quite a thin suguha whereas the jûyô version shows a wide ko-notare/sugha-chô that features ups and downs. And on the ura side, the ha protrusion of the mid-blade section comes at the end of the gomabashi in the Tanobe version whereas on the jûyô oshigata, that protrusion starts after the gomabashi horimono. And also please notice how much wider the ha on this side is along the fukura


Picture 1: Tanobe oshigata left, jûyô oshigata right.

It is very interesting to see how two experts can “read” a blade differently. Anyway, I just wanted to give you a quick look “behind the scenes” of my Kantei series and stress that picking references can be a sensitive task. So on one hand, I don’t want to work through the same old blades over and over again that are found in every book but on the other hand, I also don’t want to introduce one oddity after the other. Aim is to provide a good balance between very typical works and a few more rare interpretations which help to understand the variety of workmanships of certain smiths or schools in some cases. That should do it for today and I will be back with part 2 of the Hasebe chapter shortly.

Similar reads:

The Musashi-Masamune – One blade, four oshigata
Another different oshigata
Kiyomaro oshigata comparison

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #30 – Hasebe (長谷部) School 1

Now we arrive at Yamashiro’s Hasebe School which is, lo and behold, actually Sôshû. Also, we are facing here kind of the same issues as we faced with the Nobukuni School. In regards to the former aspect, the Hasebe School does not qualify as member of the Yamashiro tradition in the strict sense of the word because its workmanship is, as mentioned, pure Sôshû. However, all traditional sources introduce the school as part of the Yamashiro tradition due to it being later located in Kyôto, and I don’t want to break with these conventions in my kantei series. In other words, and as my regular readers may know, I am questioning old publications quite frequently but at the same time, I still want to stick to traditional approaches as much as possible in order to maintain “backwards compatibility.” Long story short, I am introducing the Hasebe School in the Yamashiro chapter, the place you will also find it in traditional original Japanese sources in case you want do more research. I have dealt with the origins of the Hasebe School a while ago in this article. So basically there is the theory that the name of the school, and therefore the school itself, has its origins in Yamato province but there is also the approach to link the origins of the Hasebe School to Shintôgo Kunimitsu who bore the family name Hasebe. That said, I would like that you also read Darcy’s excellent write-up on this context here.

When it comes to the mentioned similar Nobukuni School issue, it is that of the counting of generations of the school founder, Hasebe Kunishige (長谷部国重). This means, like at the Nobukuni School, there are views which basically assume that the ancestor and first generation emerged in the mid-Nanbokuchô period whereas some of the older sources see him as student of Masamune and therefore place him in the early Nanbokuchô period. But let’s start and address these issues as we proceed.

The records are in agreement that the Hasebe School was founded by Kunishige. This Kunishige now either came from the Senju’in (or Taima) School, i.e. having Yamato roots, or was the son of (or otherwise related to) Shintôgo Kunimitsu. The former approach suggests that he followed the then trend of smiths being either invited to Kamakura or that he tried his luck at this new hotspot of sword making whereas the latter approach suggests that Kunishige was born into a newly created but now thriving sword making tradition. Either way, he must have been in touch with Masamune and with Masamune’s colleagues and this local context is good enough for me to understand why later sources count him as one of the famous Ten Students of Masamune. Just for your info, the Kotô Mei Zukushi says that the 1st generation Hasebe Kunishige was the son of Senju’in Shigenobu (千手院重信), that his first name was Chôbei (長兵衛),  that he was born in Bun’ei seven (文永, 1270), and that he died in Jôwa three (貞和, 1347) at the age of 78. It also says that he worked in Kyôto from the Ryakuô era (暦応, 1338-1342) onwards. The last statement makes insofar very much sense because with the fall of the Kamakura bakufu in 1333, we see kind of a “Kamakura exodus” with most of the then of Sôshû masters leaving the area, i.e. Gô Yoshihiro and Norishige going to Etchû, Rai Kunitsugu and Hasebe Kunishige to Kyôto, Sadamune to Takagi in Ômi province, Kaneuji and Kinjû to Mino, Chôgi to Bizen, and Sa going down to Kyûshû. I don’t want to digress too much but just so much for the historical background: After Kamakura fell, it was tried to have the shôgun in Kyôto and a deputy shôgun in Kamakura but that never worked out because the deputy shôgun tried to become shôgun what made Kamakura and the region was basically unstable. So only a few masters still remained on site to equip the local military elite, for example Hiromitsu and Akihiro.

Back to Kunishige. When we take a look at his entire body of work we learn that he focused on the production of hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô respectively (or all long swords were either used up or shortened later). Tachi are rare, what is in particular true for signed specimen. To my knowledge, there are only three zaimei tachi known, one is dated Jôwa five (貞和, 1349) and its authenticity is debated since pre-WWII times, one has an orikaeshi-mei, and one is ubu and displays a signature style which differs somewhat from that seen on his ko-wakizashi and tantô, although it is mentioned that in fact of the otherwise matching workmanship of the blade itself, the differences in the mei might well lie within the realm of changes of a smith’s signature style over time.

So before we introduce some of Kunishige’s works, let’s address the elephant in the room, the question about the succession/counting of generations. In the meikan, we usually find find three generations, the 1st being active around Kenmu (建武, 1334-1338), the 2nd around Enbun (延文, 1356-1361), and the 3rd generation, Rokurôzaemon (六郎左衛門), around Ôei (応永, 1394-1428). The Nihontô Koza also introduces three generations Kunishige, with Honma sensei adding that the workmanship of the first two is hard to distinguish and basically has to be tackled via the quality factor, what is the traditional approach we see so often, i.e. “looks definitely like smith A but the quality is a little inferior so let’s say it is a work of a second generation A.” This scenario sometimes works but sometimes there is nothing really substantial to base it on. Incidentally, in his Nihon Kotô Shi, Honma states that he agrees with the tradition that the 1st generation was already active around Kenmu. Tsuneishi and Uchida both follow the three generations theory too (with Rokurôzaemon the 3rd being active around Ôei) whereas Tanobe sensei dismisses the approach that the 1st generation was active that early (or rather counts the Kenmu and Enbun Kunishige as one smith) and counts Rokurôzaemon as 2nd generation (as Fujishiro sensei does).

My take on this is as follows. I accept that some mid to later Nanbokuchô smiths with a Sôshû-influenced workmanship have never trained with Masamune or have never been to Kamakura but I have troubles with accepting that certain smiths, especially like Hasebe Kunishige whose workmanship is so close to what was done by the first generation Sôshû smiths, so to speak locally popped up out of the blue two or three decades after initial masters like Masamune had been active. Also, the travelling of medieval smiths is often doubted but when for example Aoe smiths were able to make it the 150 miles (as the crow flies) from Bitchû to Kyôto to work for Gotoba, nothing speaks for smiths doing the 215 miles trip from Kyôto to Kamakura (again, as the crow flies). Let’s take a look at the dated blades we know from Kunishige. The earliest is the Jôwa five one mentioned above but as this mei is doubted, Bunna four (文和, 1355) becomes the earliest one. Then it continues with Enbun two (延文, 1357), three (1368), five (1360), Jôji two (貞治, 1363) and four (1365), and Ôan one (応安, 1368) as the youngest. And then we have two oshigata of Rokurôzaemon blades which are dated Ôei 24 (応永, 1417) and Shôchô one (正長, 1428). So when the Kotô Mei Zukushi is correct with the 1st generation being born in 1270 and having died in 1347, all these dated blades before Rokurôzaemon go back to the 2nd generation. The Kotô Mei Zukushi also says that the 2nd generation Kunishige was born in Shôwa two (正和, 1313) and died in Ôan four (応安, 1371) at the age of 60, what does not add up, and states that the 3rd generation was born in Enbun one (延文, 1356) and died in Ôei eight (応永, 1401) at the age of 46 what seems to be incorrect as there are blades known as mentioned above which bear much later dates

Not saying that the Kotô Mei Zukushi is correct with all its dates of course (for reasons mentioned in one of the previous chapters) but everything would fall in line if this source is quasi off by one generation. That is, what if it was the 1st generation who was born in 1313? He would have been in his late 20s or early 30s when studying with Masamune, and in his 20s in the Kenmu era. And he would have been just 55 years old when the youngest known dated Kunishige blade was made in 1368. The fact that the vast majority of dated Kunishige blades is from about that time, or a little earlier, could be explained by the assumption that his school only really took off after the Hasebe smiths got settled in Kyôto. The problem that remains is that it seems that when the 1st generation assumedly died in 1371, there are then no dated blades known from the 2nd generation. This in turn could be explained by the fact that when he was reaching his artistic maturity (being born in 1356), it was already the late Nanbokuchô period and so maybe the demand for Hasebe blades had decreased. Or he was weak/sickly and hardly worke himself as he assumedly died at the young age of 46. And the 3rd generation then left Kyôto and tried his luck somewhere else (more on this later).

Enough speculation and as I was already writing quite a bit, I will only introduce a few long swords by Kunishige and will leave his hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô as well as the characteristic features of his and Hasebe workmanship for the next part. Let’s start with what is undoubtedly Kunishige’s most famous work, the kokuhô meibutsu Heshikiri-Hasebe (圧し切長谷部) (see picture 1). For info on the historical background of the blade and its nickname please see my other site here. The Heshikiri-Hasebe has a wide mihaba, a shallow sori, a thin kasane, and ends in an ô-kissaki, i.e. everything is classical heyday Nanbokuchô. The kitae is a dense, excellently forged ko-itame with fine ji-nie and the steel has that beautiful “wet” look. The hamon is a notare-midareba in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ashi and that tends with its tobiyaki and yubashiri to hitatsura. The bôshi is relatively widely hardened and runs back in an ô-maru-kaeri.


Picture 1: kokuhô Heshikiri-Hasebe, nagasa 64.8 cm, sori 0.9 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 2.5 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 2 shows the tachi with the questionable mei/date. It has relatively unobtrusive sugata, i.e. not heyday Nanbokuchô, what would corroborate its date, and ends in an elongated chûj-kissaki. Don’t be mislead by the four mekugi-ana and the low signature, the blade is considered to be ubu. That is, we have here already one of the typical characteristics of the Hasebe School, namely signing the blades sometimes at the very bottom of the tang. As you can see in the oshigata, the hamon is a rather calm suguha with some midare towards the base and the kaeri of the bôshi encloses a shimaba, a feature that is often seen at Sôshû blades, e.g. at Masamune.


Picture 2: tachi, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重) – “Jôwa gonen tsuchinoto-ushi jûgatsu hi” (貞和五年己丑十月日, “a day in the tenth month of Jôwa five [1349], year of the ox”), nagasa 71.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


In picture 3 we see a katana that is designated as a jûyô-bunkazai and that is attributed to Hasebe Kunishige via Den. It is ô-suriage, has a wide mihaba, a thin kasane, a shallow sori, an elongated chû-kissaki, and, what is another feature relatively often seen on Hasebe blades, a maru-mune. The kitae is an itame that tends to nagare and that shows ji-nie and the hamon is a notare that is mixed with gunome, ashi, connected , and that tends along the upper half of the blade to hitatsura. The bôshi is midare-komi and shows hakikake.


Picture 3: jûyô-bunkazai, katana, mumei: Den Hasebe Kunishige (伝長谷部国重), nagasa 70.6 cm, sori 1.36 cm, shinogi-zukuri, maru-mune


And last for today the aforementioned tachi that is ubu and signed but whose signature differs a little bit from that seen on Kunishige’s hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi and tantô. The blade is rather slender, has a deep sori, and ends in a ko-kissaki. So in terms of shape, this should be either a very early work of Kunishige (what would explain the different signature) or a later work that was made for court use. The kitae is an itame that is mixed with mokume and that features plenty of ji-nie and chikei. The steel has a “wet” look and is very clear. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-notare-chô that is mixed with gunome, many ashi, kinsuji, sunagashi, hotsure, yubashiri, and muneyaki and tends to a so to speak layer-based (i.e. not a tobiyaki and/or togari-based) hitatsura. The bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri and shows hakikake that tend to a little bit to nie-kuzure.


Picture 4: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Hasebe Kunishige” (長谷部国重), nagasa 67.7 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.75 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune



Hôki no Kami Masayoshi’s (probably) last blade

From the very end of the kotô era onwards, we start to get more reliable information on the biographical data of swordsmiths, for example the dates of birth and death and what year honorary titles were received etc. This “tendency” does not only go back to the obvious fact that more data is extant the later, i.e. younger we find ourselves in history but also to the relatively massive bureaucratic apparatus the Tokugawa bakufu brought along. In addition, shintô and shinshintô smiths, or at least the renowned masters, signed in greater detail than their kotô colleagues, generally speaking. In this article, I want to introduce such an example.

So when we look into the meikan, we often read things like: “Smith X died in the fifth year of D and we know dated blades from B to C,” at least when it comes to the more well-known shintô and shinshintô masters as mentioned. Or we read for example: “There exists a blade dated C that is signed with the supplement ‘made at the age of Y’ what calculates his year of birth as A.” This all gives us a pretty decent idea of when the smith worked but also tells us about what were his early years, when did he have his zenith, and which blades can be regarded as late works. The blade that I want to introduce goes “a step further” in what it states about when it was made and under which circumstances so to speak. But first of all, let me introduce the very smith we are dealing with.

Picture 1: Portrait of Hôki no Kami Masayoshi

It is Hôki no Kami Masayoshi (伯耆守正幸, see picture above), the 3rd generation of Satsuma’s Masayoshi (正良) lineage. Masayoshi was born in Kyôhô 18 (享保, 1733) as son of the 2nd generation Masayoshi, whom he succeeded under that name, but when he received his honorary title “Hôki no Kami” in Kansei one (寛政, 1789), he changed the yoshi character of the hereditary name from (良) to (幸). Masayoshi was in his mid 50s when he received that title and four years later, he started with sign with the supplement “Satsuma-kankō” (薩摩官工, about “official smith of the Satsuma fief”), and reaching the age of 70, he started to add his age to his mei.


Picture 2: katana, nagasa 70.1 cm, sori 1.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Now the blade shown above is very special because it is signed the following way:


“Hôki no Kami Taira Ason Masayoshi” (伯耆守平朝臣正幸)
“Hachijûroku-sai botsuzen shinren no saku” (八十六歳没前真錬之作, “carefully made before his death at the age of 86”)


“Bunka jûgonen tora nigatsu” (文化十五年寅二月, “second month of Bunka 15 [1818], year of the tiger”)
Taira Masazane kore o shirusu” (平正真記之, “recorded by Taira Masazane”)


In short, Masazane, one of Masayoshi’s students, recorded on the tang that Masayoshi carefully made that blade before his death and when the master was already 86 years old. We know that Masayoshi died on the 22nd day of the fourth month of that year. At first glance, this would mean that the blade was made two months before his death but here we have to weigh in a custom of swordsmiths to date blades by default with the second or the eighth month of a year unless it is a special date signature where the exact day and month the blade was made is recorded. Masayoshi followed this custom as the vast majority of his dated blades either show the second or the eighth month in the mei, in particular the second month. That said, the blade in question could have been theoretically made anytime between the first day of the first month and the 22nd day of the fourth month of Bunsei 15, the day that Masayoshi died. Well, Masazane’s supplement is quite a rarity and therefore I tend to think that this was maybe the very last, or one of the last few blades, that Masayoshi made. In other words, it was something special that compelled Masazane to add that info to the mei.

When it comes to Masayoshi’s latest works for comparison, we know a kogatana signed with the supplement “made at the age of 82,” a katana dated Bunka twelve (1815) and signed with the supplement “made at the age of 83,” a katana dated Bunka 13 (1816), and a katana dated Bunka 14 (1817), all of them papered. So far I was unable to find another example that was made in the same year as the one introduced here, in Bunka 15, the year of his death.

Now when author and expert Fukanobu Yasumasa (深江泰正) introduced this blade back in Token Bijutsu #240 (January 1977), he interpreted the mei in the literal way, i.e. that Masayoshi pesonally made this blade before his death and that Masazane recorded that fact after the master had passed away. However, he also notes that the yasurime are katte-sagari, the tyical file marks of his students, whereas Masayoshi himself finished his tangs in katte-agari yasurime with kiri at the beginning (or just with kiri-yasurime). Thus Fukanobu sensei forwards the possibility that the tang was indeed finished and signed by Masazane but that the blade was probably completely made by master Masayoshi, maybe even down to the horimono.



Well, I think I respectfully disagree with this theory. To understand why, I recommend you watch the excellent recent BBC documentary Handmade in Japan linked above that shows kind of a similar case. It portrays the Komiya (小宮) family of swordsmiths and shows how nearly eighty-eight years old grandfather Komiya is overseeing his two sons and his grandson making swords. Grandfather Komiya says himself in the documentary: “I’m unable to do it anymore because of my age,” what is understandable when you take into consideration the physically hard work it requires to forge-fold the steel bundle and to forge out the blade. Even if Masayoshi was super fit at the age of 86, I have my doubts that he did the whole forging work. Maybe he did the yakiire himself, that’s quite possible. Also taking into consideration the fact that master Masayoshi trained more than 40 students, that several of them were allowed to do daimei for him (and the best of them also to do full daisaku-daimei), and that the finish of the tang speaks for a student’s work, I am thinking of the following “cause of events,” although of course this is all nothing more than pure speculation:

The local forge in Satsuma must have been quite a bustling place and as master Masayoshi was famous throughout the country, the order situation was surely pretty good. When Masayoshi got really old, let’s say 80+, he was basically doing the same thing as grandfather Komiya does in the BBC documentary, and that is talking to customers, to the administration of his fief, and walking around in the forge giving orders and tips. As the sword production was probably still in full swing in early 1818, some students were busy making daisaku-daimei works for the master, Masazane being one of them. Then Masayoshi passed away towards the end of the fourth month and I think that the sword introduced here was the very daisaku-daimei blade that Masazane was working on at that time. So after the funeral and everything, Masazane maybe feld obliged to commemorate that context on the blade, implying that it was the last sword Masayoshi “made” before he died. However, it is absolutely possible that a few other blades that were just finished or in production at the time of Masayoshi’s death were signed this way by the students who were making them as daisaku-daimei and that maybe this is the only one that is extant today (or has been discovered yet).

Anyway, it is a very interesting and rare inscription and I literally came across that blade the day before I watched the BBC documentary for the first time. So I thought I have to share this with you.

On the eve of another famous historical Japanese incident

About three years ago, I wrote a humble article here on sword-related “things” happening on the eve of on of Japan’s most famous historical events. Well, this time, we find ourselves a little earlier than the 47 rônin but the incident is of similar historic significance. But before we continue, let me introduce the sword that was the catalyst for this article.

The above picture shows a katana by Osafune Yoshimitsu (賀光) which was made in Kanshô five (寛正, 1464) for a certain “Monk Kenju”. The full signature is “Bishû Osafune Yoshimitsu – Kenju-bô – Kanshô gonen nigatsu hi” (備州長船賀光・けん志ゆ坊・寛正五年二月日, “on a day in the second month of Kanshô five”). Please note that the name of the monk (, 坊) is noted in an “archaic” manner, i.e. as “Ke-n-shi-yu” but which reads Kenju. Now who was this Kenju? None other than the famous Buddhist priest Rennyo (蓮如, 1415-1499) (see picture below). So let me explain in the following the context of Rennyo’s Kenju name, the things happening before and around this sword was made, and why it is therefore an important historic piece.



Now Rennyo was born in Ôei 22 (応永, 1415) as eldest son of the later 7th abbot of the Hongan-ji, Zonnyo (存如, 1396-1457), and this is kind of where Rennyo’s later problems already started: His mother namely wasn’t Zennyo’s wife, she was his grandmother’s  maid. Five years later, in Ôei 27 (1420), Zennyo eventually married, not the maid but Nyo’en (如円, ?-1460) from the Ebina (海老名) family. With this marriage, Rennyo’s biological mother had to leave the Hongan-ji and he never saw her again. It is said that most of his later “motivation” goes back to the trauma Rennyo had suffered being separated from his mother at the age of six (counting in Japanese years).

When Rennyo was 17 years old, that is in Eikyô three (永享, 1431), he became a yûshi (猶子) of Provisional Middle Councillor (gonchûnagon, 権中納言) Hirohashi Kanenobu (広橋兼郷, 1401-1446). Yûshi means literally “another child considered as one’s own”. It is similar to an adopted child (yôshi, 養子) but does not come with the legal obligations a yôshi does. The yûshi approach was mostly used for giving one’s child in the care of an influental person to develop good connections for its later career, and not to aim at a possible succession as head of that family. After becoming Kanenobu’s yûshi, Rennyo, then still bearing his youth name Hoteimaru (布袋丸), became a monk at the Shôren’in (青蓮院) in Kyôto whereupon he took the name Kenju (兼寿), the very name that is noted on the sword.

In Eikyô eight (1436), Rennyo’s grandfather Gyônyo (巧如, 1376-1440), the 6th abbot of the Hongan-ji, abdicated and his father Zonnyo became the 7th abbot. When Zonnyo died in Chôroku one (長禄, 1457), Rennyo’s step mother tried get her own son that she had with Zonnyo, Ôgen (応玄, 1433-1503), to become the 8th abbot but it was decided in favor of Rennyo. Well, probably because Rennyo was still the first born son of Zonnyo and already well-versed in all Buddhist things, being 42 years old whereas his step brother Ôgen was only 24 (or 25 if you count in the Japanese way). As abbot, Rennyo immediately started to expand the influence of the Hongan-ji in the Kinai provinces around Kyôto what was much to the displeasure of the Enryaku-ji, the head temple of the Tendai School located on Mt. Hiei. Funds and protection were mostly provided by artisan-class followers of Rennyo from congregations in Ômi province but Rennyo was refusing to pay obligatory funds to the Enryaku-ji which he was supposed to pay on behalf of the Shôren’in as the Enryaku-ji was then the head temple of Kyôto’s Shôren’in.

So issues began to build up and Rennyo must have known that some of them were probably ending in physical violence. Therefore he approached the Osafune master smith Yoshimitsu to forge him a sword for self-defense. And he turned out to be right: In the first month of Kanshô six (1465), i.e. the year after the sword was made, the Enryaku-ji declared Rennyo a butteki (仏敵), an “Enemy of Buddha,” and sent out warrior monks who destroyed Rennyo’s then base, the Ôtani-Hongan-ji (大谷本願寺) in Kyôto. Warrior monks were sent out again three months later and others followed and these “activities” of the Enryaku-ji went down in history as “Kanshô Presecutions” (Kanshô no hônan, 寛正の法難). Sometimes Rennyo was able to bribe the monk warriors due to the wealth of the congregations he had convered in the area, other times he was only able to flee at the last minute and due to timely assistance from a cooper who saw the attackers coming, leadinf Rennyo out through the back of the temple. In short, Rennyo was very well in need of a sword! This context and the notation of Rennyo’s Kenju name makes the very blade an important historical piece as mentioned and it is today designated as an Important Cultural Property of Ôsaka Prefecture (the blade is preserved in the Ôsaka City Museum).

After the attacks of 1465, Rennyo tried to gain more support from local followers but the Enryaku-ji with its ties to the court and the bakufu was too strong and a kind of a peace deal with the temple was made in the third month of Ônin one (応仁, 1467) that required Rennyo to retire from the post of abbot of the Hongan-ji. Also, the Ônin War broke out that month, significantly weakening the bakufu, and so Rennyo was realizing that he will not have any government support or outside forces to protect his congregations from the Enryaku-ji. So he left Kyôto and lived a nomadic life, eventually rebuilding the Hongan-ji in northern Echizen province, gaining many many followers, and returning to Kyôto in Bunmei seven (文明, 1475) with such a following that Mt. Hiei could no longer prose a credible threat to him and his Jôdo Shinshû School (quoting from Wikipedia).

I hope this was another interesting short excursion into Japanese history with a concrete sword as a starting point and I will continue to do so whenever I come across similar historically important objects that are related to the sword world.

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #29 – Nobukuni (信国) School 4

With this article, we are concluding the chapter on the Nobukuni School. Just to repeat, when it comes to traditional clasifications of works by this school, for example by the NBTHK, we are facing the following parameters:

  • Work of the 1st generation
  • Mid-Nanbokuchô work in the vicinity of 1st generation
  • Nobukuni work not later than late or end of Nanbokuchô
  • Nobukuni work from the transition between Nanbokuchô and Muromachi
  • Ôei-Nobukuni
  • Direct attributions to Saemon no Jô or Shikibu no Jô
  • Early Muromachi
  • Later generations Nobukuni

So far we have dealt with all of these classifications, except for the last two, which I am going to tackle in the following.

Now I have stated this already in my second chapter on the Ryôkai School: By the end of the Nanbokuchô period, the old-established Yamashiro schools were all fading and Sôshû had taken over significantly, even in the old imperial capital. There is the theory that everything Kyôto-based started to disappear with the Ônin War, which lasted from 1467 to 1477, and this is certainly true for that time because the war destroyed much of Kyôto and in particular the power of the office of shôgun. So it was surely not a good time for craftsmen like swordsmith who were depending on a steady supply of raw materials (e.g. there was no steel production in the capital itself). However, we already see a so to speak “Kyôto exodus” way before that time, for example with the Ryôkai School whose descendants moved down to Kyûshû where they founded the Tsukushi-Ryôkai group. We are able to date back their works to the 1440s. Also the Rai School had been well scattered into the four winds way before the outbreak of the Ônin War (Nakajima, Echizen, Higo/Enju). So that war can’t be the reason for why many swordsmiths left the capital in the early to mid 1400s but lets save these reasons for another time.

According to tradition, it was the second son of the 3rd generation Nobukuni who was hired in Eikyô twelve (永享, 1440) to work for the Ajimu (安心院) family that ruled the manor of the same name in Buzen province which was located just a little bit to the southeast of Usa (宇佐). Again we are facing here the “oddity” of the Nobukuni (and of the Ryôkai) School that their smiths were allegedly signing with several different names. So the second son of the 3rd generation is said to have signed with Nobukuni Yoshiie (信国吉家) and he might actually be the same person who signed with Nobukuni Yoshihisa (信国吉久), the 4th generation of the lineage. As you can see, the name of the school has turned into a family and brand name by then just like the later shintô-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni smiths all had their individual names but signed with the prefix Nobukuni. Anyway, in my article on Japanese Sword Trade With Ming China, I have introduced a Nobukuni blade that is dated with a Chinese nengô, namely “ninth month Chénghùa two” (成化二年九月), what corresponds to the seventh year of Kanshô (寛正, 1466). I will introduce this blade again here, in picture 27.


Picture 27: tachi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), date see text above, nagasa 67.9 cm, sori 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


The blade is suriage and has a relatively elegant sugata with a deep sori. The kitae is a dense ko-itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a gunome in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with angular gunome and with hint of yahazu. The nioiguchi is rather tight and clear and the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. The haki-omote side shows a bôhi that is followed by a futasuji-hi and on the haki-ura side we see the opposite, i.e. a futasuji-hi that is followed by a bôhi.

Nobukuni Yoshisada (信国吉貞, ?-1640), the ancestor of the aforementioned shintô-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni School, still worked initially for the same Ajimu family, until they got defeated by the Ôtomo (大友) but Yoshisada’s career thereafter will be discussed in the corresponding shintô chapter. He counted himself as 12th generation Nobukuni and when we take all this into account, i.e. a continuous employment by Buzen’s Ajimu family and the 6th generation making swords with Chinese dates, I tend to think that the whole main line had moved down to Kyûshû with the 4th generation. That is, it would seem odd if the 4th and 5th generations worked on Kyûshû, the 6th generation back in Kyôto, and the 7th to 12th generation again down in Buzen. Well, maybe some of them were able to proceed to the capital once in a while.

Be that as it may, there were also Nobukuni smiths who stayed in Kyôto, what is proven by extant signatures like “Heianjô-jû Nobukuni” (平安城住信国) that date to the early to mid 1400s. It is assumed that one of the Nobukuni smiths signing that way was the son of Shikibu no Jô. When it comes to kantei points for later generations Nobukuni, well, it is difficult to name unique features. Basically it can be said that the characteristics of the school in hardening a nie or rather ko-nie-based Bizen-like koshi no hiraita gunome/midare with remnants of yahazu and the strong tendency of adding horimono can still be seen in early to mid-Muromachi period Nobukuni works but, as seen in other schools, the quality declined. Also the quantity declined and although some meikan list a few Kyôto-based Nobukuni smiths for the late Muromachi period, I would personally not go for Nobukuni at a Bizen-esque blade of that time. Early to mid-Muromachi yes, but not late Muromachi or end of Muromachi.

Picture 28 shows an uchigatana signed “Nobukuni” which is papered to “early Muromachi period Nobukuni” but whose signature (see picture 29) does not match any of the masters we have dealt with in the last part. The blade is short and classifies with its nagasa of 57.7 cm today as a wakizashi but I still think that it was made as an uchigatana which was worn as long side sword to a tachi and/or as main sword outside of the battlefield. Its kitae is a ko-itame that is mixed with masame-nagare and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a gunome in ko-nie-deki that has tendencies to koshi no hiraita and that is mixed with ko-midare, a few yahazu-like elements, some tobiyaki, ashi, and . The bôshi is midare-komi with a rather pointed and wide kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side a koshi-bi.


Picture 28: uchigatana, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 57.7 cm, sori 1.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Picture 29: Signature of the above blade

Last part that I want to introduce here is shown in picture 30. It is attributed to “later generation Nobukuni.” It has a nagasa of 49.0 cm and as we are here somewhat later in the Muromachi period, I think this one was indeed made as a wakizashi. It shows a kitae in itame that is mixed with mokume and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with kinsuji and sunagashi, The bôshi features much hakikake and thus tends to kaen. The blade shows a sô no kurikara on the omote and gomabashi on the ura side.


Picture 30: wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 49.0 cm, sori 1.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


With this article we end the chapter on the Nobukuni School, the Tsukushi-Nobukuni (筑紫信国) branch that prospered later on in Buzen province and all the other offshoots like the Yamamura (山村) group of Echigo province will be dealt with in the corresponding chapters, and next time we will continue with the Hasebe School.