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.

Tosogu Classroom Sale

At the end of last year, members of the JSS/US, NBTHK/AB, and NBTHK/EB were able to buy the first volume of our joint 5 volume Tosogu Classroom project at the actual cost of producing the books. The translation was paid by the three above mentioned parties as a benefit to their members.

The first volume is now also available for non-members for the price of $60.00 (+ shipping, ~$4 US, ~$6 EU). For the time being, the book can only be ordered from me directly and public sales on Lulu and Amazon will not be released until the end of the year.

The first four volumes of the Tosogu Classroom set are hardbound with a dust jacket (US only), 8.5″x11″, will cost $60.00 each, and contain more than 500 pages of text with hundreds of black and white pictures. The fifth (complementary) volume is hardbound too, has the same format, will be approximately 350 pages but with illustrations being in color, it will cost $120.00. Volume 1 includes an introduction into fittings, materials, design, surface treatment, carving, inlay, coloring, early tsuba (both iron and kinkô), and the beginning discussion of artists and schools who worked in iron, going into great detail on the artists and work they produced (please find the table of contents of volume 1 below). Volume 2 will be the second volume on iron and volumes 3 and 4 will cover the kinkô artists. Considering the number of pages and pictures each volume will contain, either individual volumes or the complete set of five will be a valuable addition to your library.

Please get in touch with me via “markus.sesko@gmail.com” if you want to order the first volume, or if you have any question.


Volume 1 Contents

Character Conundrum

In this article I am going to tell a little bit from my everyday challenges as “sword translator.” To start with, I have to say that when it comes to kanji or grammatical puzzles that I can’t solve (or that I am not really 100% happy with with my attempt at explanation), these things stick and are saved in that certain part of my brain that is still working pretty well. When it comes to swords, tsuba, or sword fittings, there is chance that I totally forget everything within some months or so because it is just too much, so you can pretty much embarrass me if you show me or ask me about a certain blade some time down the road and I totally forgot that I have ever laid my eyes on that piece.

Anyway, let’s get back to topic. A little over a month ago I was approached about a cutting test inscription that contained a wording, or rather a certain character, that is relatively uncommon in tameshi-mei but which I had seen before. The mei in question can be seen in picture 1 and is found on a blade signed niji-mei “Masashige” (正重), either Sengo Masashige or Shitahara Masashige, with the style of the signature rather pointing towards the latter. The tameshi-mei in question reads (於千住銚之貮ッ胴拂・壽尊) and everything but the one character is clear, i.e. “cut by [a certain] Toshitaka (壽尊) + kaô through (拂) two bodies (貮ッ胴) at (於) Senju (千住),” Senju being the place in Edo where most of the cutting tests took place. So only “problem” here is the character (銚).

Picture 1

From the syntax of the tameshi-mei, i.e. the position where the character in question (銚) is found, it is obvious that it either means that Toshitaka “tested” this blade cutting at Senju through two bodies, or that Toshitaka “cut” with this blade at Senju through two bodies. So either kore o tamesu or kore o kiru respetively. As mentioned in my book on Tameshigiri, the term “tested” has been noted in earlier times with different characters,  e.g. with (様), (試), (験), or (驗). In short, there is a chance that the character in question should just read tameshi/tamesu, that is: “Senju ni oite kore o tamesu futatsu-dô harai – Toshitaka + kaô.”

Well, I could have just left it as it was, end of story, but I don’t like the “should” part in my last sentence and so I kept going, trying to see if I can find more, and this article is so to speak a chronology of the investigation into that conundrum. First of all, I instantly remembered that I have dealt with this character once before, and that was translating a hozon paper for a katana by the Dewa shinshintô smith Nagai Kunihide (永居国秀), and that was back in 2013. This blade too bears a tameshi-mei but as I was only working with the paper (see picture 2), I was not aware about the subtleties in syntax and thought that I was facing here a name, Nabeyuki (銚之) (more on the readings of this character in a little), because it was mentioned in one go with the name of the guy who performed the cutting test, a certain Saitô Shin’emon (斎藤新右衛門) by the way.

Picture 2

So having the same kanji and phrase (銚之) on a blade that bears a cutting test inscription too raised some red flags and I immediately had the hunch that it was not a name that I was facing translating the hozon paper four years ago. No sooner said than done, I started to dig into my references. Where else does this kanji or rather phrase appear? As I have a pretty decently organized archive, I made some finds right away, three to be precise, which I will introduce in the following.

Lo and behold, they are all related to cutting tests. So in hindsight, we are obviously not talking about a name as I had interpreted the mei just on the basis of the hozon paper. First example, shown in picture 3, is a Norishige (則重) blade that was shortened by Yokoyama Bizen Sukehira (横山祐平) and tested by Yamada Asa’emon (山田浅右衛門) in Bunsei eight (文政, 1825). The syntax of the mei (二ッ胴銚之) suggests that in this case the kanji is used in the way of “cut,” i.e. “cut through two bodies.” Now “problem” with this blade is that when I saved it, from the winners-auction.jp website, the detailed pictures already did not load anymore so just the quotation of the mei has to be taken with a grain of salt, also because I am generally very cautious when it comes to auctions like that.

Picture 3

The same applies to the auctioned blade shown in picture 4. Here we have another famous smith, Chôgi (長義), whose blade was again shortened in Bunsei eight by the same Yokoyama Sukenaga, and again Yamada Asa’emon cut with it through two bodies, what a coincidence (same seller BTW, *cough, cough*). In this case however, the character in question was wrongly interpreted in the listing as being the character for “forged” (鍛), and the (clumsily written) sayagaki did so too.

Picture 4

But I also have a watertight reference, and that is a Ko-Mihara blade that passed jûyô with which Yamada Asa’emon Yoshihiro (山田浅右衛門吉寛, 1738-1770), the 4th generation Yamada, cut through a body with the chiwari cut (see picture 5). The syntax of the cutting test inscription of this blade, (江戸於石町銚之), suggests that the character in question is read in this case as tamesu,. “Tested,” namely “tested in Kokumachi in Edo.” But before I continue with going into etymological considerations and my thoughts on this matter, I want to point out that the 1981 jûyô paper quotes the character in question as (䤵).  I think it is actually still (銚) (see picture 6) because of the two lateral horizontal strokes on the nakago, instead of three, and the upward sweep of the right vertical “hook” of the radical (儿). In short, I think that the right part of this character is (兆) and not (非).

Picture 5

Picture 6

So what is it now, “cut” or “tested”? First I tended 70:30 towards “tested,” tamesu/tameshi, because of the syntax of the blade introduced in picture 1 and the two wathertight, i.e. papered blades introduced in pictures 2 and 5. The character (銚) itself reads chô/jô/yô in its Sino-Japanese reading or nabe in its Japanese reading. It is the kanji for a certain small pot or sake bottle with handles. But it can also read suki and in this context, the character stands for “spade/plow.” Now no kanji dictionary lists this character as meaning “cut” or “test” (although some also say it can mean hoko, “spear” though) but I think that here we have to go to the etymological origins of this characters, which is “using a metal, metal tool/implement (金) to bisect (兆) something,” for example soil in the aforementiond meaning of “spade/plow.” Does that ring some bells, “metal used to bisect something”? Sounds pretty much like the definition of a sword to me.

That said, I have seen other instances where characters were used in the sense of their pictographic meaning and not necessarily for what they usually mean. So the cutting tests introduced above surely don’t mean “sake bottled through two bodies” and for the time being, and to conclude this article, I am now leaning 70:30 towards interpreting the character as “cut” rather than as “tested.” So I hope that brief tour into things like that, some of my daily tasks, was kind of interesting and if any of my native Japanese readers has further insight into this matter, please don’t hesitate to comment below. It would be very much appreciated. Of course, also please feel free to comment if you are not a native Japanese reader 🙂


Important update to services offered

Due to an overwhelming amount of inquiries that I now receive on a daily basis, I have to change a certain service/assistance that I offer.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am – honestly – very grateful to be approached by so many sword lovers every day now, asking about a specific translation of a mei, sayagaki, hakogaki etc. or about my opinion on the one or other piece. This is all fine and my basic translation fees can be found in the TRANSLATION SERVICE/PRICES menu at the very top of my page, or will be discussed along in your inquiry.

But now we have to talk about signature assessments, i.e. in the sense of signatures being possibly shôshin (authentic) or gimei (forgeries). I receive inquiries about this matter probably once or twice every single day and there is a lot of responsibility in answering such inquiries. People in touch with me can reassure you that I always try my best to answer, as good and as detailed as I can, any question about signatures, or in other words, I usually don’t blunty reply “its gimei” or “I don’t know”, i.e. I always try to explain why I think, for example along the execution of certain parts of a character etc., that a mei might be shôshin or gimei. And so far, I did not even charge for that service

But this has to change, not because I am greedy or mean, but because I just can’t take away time from my other (paid) projects to do such sensitive stuff any more for free. That said, I will charge from now on $150 for any inquiry about the authenticity of a a signature. Not for the reading per se, that will be free forever (unless it is a very long and very complex mei), but for the inquiry about if a signature might be shôshin or gimei.

Now there is of course some “lead time” before I charge that amount. That is, when you approach me about possible authentication of a mei, I will tell you in advance about how many shôshin references I am able to compare your mei with and we can take it from there. For example, maybe I only have a single or just a couple of reference mei for a certain smith, or none at all, and in this case I would not charge anything of course and would just give you my personal opinion as I did so far. But in case you approach me and I am able to tell you that I can compare your mei with let’s say 20, 50, or even 100 shôshin-mei, e.g. from NBTHK/NTHK papers or from publications, that will be the point when I have to charge $150 because as mentioned, comparing a mei to a considerable number of references is not only a very time consuming but also a very sensitive task (just think about people planning to submit papers on that basis). So for this fee, I will not only tell you the actual number of authenticated mei I am be able to compare your signature with but also provide you with a detailed sheet on the points where the mei in question matches, or does not match with the references. Naturally, I do not provide any guaranee for authenticity, also of course because I don’t have the blade in hand to compare workmanship and/or quality with the mei in questiion, but if I can tell you in advance that I am able to compare your signature with for example 20, 50, or even 100 authentic mei as mentioned, that should be a pretty decent factor for you to make up your mind on where to go from there (i.e. papers). Of course you will receive a pictorial reference where I point out the aspects of where the mei in question differs, or not.

So that’s gonna be about the new fee for signature comparisons and if you have a signed blade you want to know more about, just let me know and as mentioned and we can take it from there. Thank you very much for your attention.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #28 – Nobukuni (信国) School 3

This time we continue with the Nobukuni smiths who were active around Ôei (応永, 1394-1428) and of which we can at least make out two individual names, Minamoto Saemon no Jô (源左衛門尉) and Minamoto Shikibu no Jô (源式部尉) Nobukuni. As mentioned in the previous chapter, everything points towards that these two were brothers and sons of the 2nd generation Nobukuni. Following Tsuneishi’s approach, there was a third son, Gyôbu no Jô (刑部尉), who seems to have been the first born son but who, according to Tsuneishi, only signed with “Nobukuni” and not with any honorary title or first name. This approach is insofar supported by the fact that there are no blades known which bear the title Gyôbu no Jô in the mei but several from that time, i.e. Ôei, whose niji-mei “Nobukuni” differs from that of Saemon and of Shikibu no Jô. Thus this Gyôbu no Jô might have been the official successor of the lineage, signed like his predecessors just in niji-mei, but was supported by his two brothers in keeping the Nobukuni workshop going. Incidentally, Saemon no Jô Nobukuni is also referred to as Genzaemon no Jô Nobukuni because the clan name Minamoto can also be read as Gen and “results” with the subsequent Saemon in another first name, Genzaemon. In other words, his mei of clan name plus first name was interpreted wrongly in some older sources, that is as a single first name, but this Genzaemon reading has become so widespread that it is also used as kind of a nickname for Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni.

In the following I would like to introduce some works of Minamoto Saemon no Jô and Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni which will be supplemented by Ôei-era Nobukuni works which do not match in terms of signature style with these two masters and who thus might be works of Gyôbu no Jô Nobukuni. But before I want to refer to the workmanship of the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths in general and what distinguishes them from similar works from other schools that were active at that time.

Typical for the Ôei-Nobukuni group in general is that it produced many horimono-laden sunnobi-tantô and hira-zukuri wakizashi with a nagasa of somewhere between 30 and 40 cm, some of which also being interpreted in more uncommon shapes like katakiriba-zukuri or unokubi-zukuri. In case of long swords, the sugata is a hint more stout than the rather elegant sugata with koshizori that was applied by Bizen smiths at that time. That is, the mihaba of Ôei-Nobukuni long swords is a little wider and the kasane is a little thicker than that of Ôei-Bizen blades. Ôei-Nobukuni works often show a hamon which is very similar to contemporary Ôei-Bizen koshi no hiraita interpretations with the difference that it is hardened in nie-deki or ko-nie-deki whereas the Ôei-Bizen hamon is in nioi-deki. A very prominent feature of Ôei-Nobukuni blades which is not seen on Ôei-Bizen blades is yahazu, i.e. dovetail-shaped gunome elements. Also some Ôei-Nobukuni blades may show ara-nie, a feature that is indeed also not associated with Ôei-Bizen. And due to the presence of nie, we see sunagashi, kinsuji and yubashiri, characteristics which are also usually don’t go with with Ôei-Bizen. In addition, the kaeri is usually more pronounced, wider, and runs back in a longer fashion than it is the case at Ôei-Bizen. Compared to “full blown” contemporary Sôshû, Ôei-Nobukuni blades are a little less nie-laden and although some tobiyaki and/or muneyaki might be present, there is usually no hitatsura (I say usually because there are very few Ôei-Nobukuni blades which do show a hitatsura or a strong tendency towards hitatsura). Also, Ôei-Nobukuni works in suguha or in shallow notare may show some Yamato elements like hotsure or kuichigai-ba. When it comes to the jigane, the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths also worked more Bizen-like in ko-itame mixed with mokume rather than in the typical Sôshû itame or ô-itame. However, there is usually masame or nagare which distinguishes their works from Ôei-Bizen and as the steel of Ôei-Nobukuni blades might tend to shirake a little, it differs from contemporary Fujishima blades which otherwise may look similar at first glance because Fujishima smiths too often hardened in a Bizen-style hamon. Also utsuri might be present but which appears more often at interpretations in suguha and that in a relatively weak manner and as bô-utsuri following the ha and not as midare-utsuri as seen at Ôei-Bizen.


Now let’s work out some individual characteristics among Ôei-Nobukuni works, starting with Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni. It is said that he signed in his early years with Nobumitsu (信光) and a blade signed that way which is dated Shitoku two (至徳, 1385) seems to be one of these early works of Saemon no Jô Nobukuni. When it comes to his main Nobukuni phase, we know dated blades from Ôei 9 to 34 (1402-1427) what seems a little odd at first glance because there is almost a 20-year gap between his Nobumitsu and his Nobukuni phase. Well, that gap might either explained by him not dating that often during those 20 years, by the fact that he was mostly working as a support to his older brorhter Gyôbu no Jô at that time, or by the fact that just no more blades from that time are extant. Most experts say that it was Saemon no Jô who hardened amongst all Ôei-Nobukuni masters the most flamboyant hamon, e.g. koshi no hiraita-midare, with the most prominent nie-hataraki. Accordingly, he and Osafune Morimitsu (盛光) are counted by some as the two greatest mastersmiths from the Ôei era. Also not to forget, he was an excellent horimono artist.

Picture 16 shows a very typical work of Saemon no Jô Nobukuni. It is an ubu tachi with a long nagasa of 80.3 cm, a normal mihaba, and a rather shallow sori for that length. It shows a somewhat standing-out itame-nagare with ji-nie and chikei and a gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-notare, ashi, , sunagashi, and kinsuji. The nioiguchi is bright and please note that two gunome pair to yahazu-like elements in places. The bôshi is sugu with a little notare which tends to nie-kuzure. Both sides bear a bôhi which ends in marudome.

Picture 16: tachi, mei: “Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni” (源左衛門尉信国) – “Ôei kunen hachigatsu hi” (応永九年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Ôei nine [1402]”), nagasa 80.3 cm, sori 1.8 cm, mihaba 2.8 cm, sakihaba 1.95 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Another very typical work of Saemon no Jô is seen in picture 17. Please note that with Ôei, we have entered the time when shinogi-zukuri wakizashi started to become common. This is such a blade. It has a nagasa of 42.8 cm, a normal mihaba, tapers noticeably, has a thick kasane, and a shallow sori which tends to sakizori. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame that is mixed mokume, with nagare all over, and that shows ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden gunome-chô that is mixed with angular gunome, togariba, chôji, gunome that pair to yahazu, plenty of ashi and , kinsuji, sunagashi, and yubashiri-like tobiyaki along some yakigashira. The nioiguchi is wide and clear and the bôshi is midare-komi with hakikake and a ko-maru-kaeri on the omote, and a shallow notare-komi which runs out as yakitsume on the ura side. On the omote we see a bôhi with marudome with below a gyô no kurikara in a hitsu. The ura side bears a bôhi with kakudome with the relief of a bonji inside.

Picture 17: wakizashi, mei: “Minamoto Saemon no Jô Nobukuni” (源左衛門尉信国) – “Ôei nijûichinen hachigatsu hi” (応永廿一年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Ôei 21 [1414]”), nagasa 42.8 cm, sori 0.8 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.85 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

In picture 18 we see a sunnobi-tantô (or hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi) by Saemon no Jô. The proportions are still reminiscent of Nanbokuchô but everything is just a hint smaller, i.e. the nagasa is 31.8 cm and the mihaba is 2.9 cm. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a ko-nie-laden mix of gunome, ko-notare, togariba, chôji, and some angular elements. Also ashi, , and sunagashi appear. The bôshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri that features hakikake and that runs back in a long manner (not clearly shown in the oshigata). As for the horimono, the omote side bears a hi with kakudome with inside the characters of Hachiman-Daibosatsu and a rendai as relief, and the ura side bears a hi with kakudome with inside a bonji and a suken as relief. As mentioned earlier, the hamon might look like Ôei-Bizen at first glance but the nie, the bôshi, and the horimono speak for Ôei-Nobukuni.

Picture 18: sunnobi-tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Ôei kunen nigatsu hi” (応永九年二月日, “a day in the second month of Ôei nine [1402]”), nagasa 31.8 cm, sori 0.15 cm,  hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

Picture 19 shows a tantô by Saemon no Jô which displays a quite classical deki and which shows a few of the Yamato elements that I have mentioned earlier. The blade is of a relatively elegant sugata but which has due to the pronounced fukura a somewhat wide feel. The jigane is a rather-standing out itame that is mixed with mokume and ô-itame in places and that features plenty of ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden chû-suguha that is mixed at the base with some ko-gunome and that shows ko-ashi, , hotsure, kinsuji, a hint of kuichigai-ba, and a hint of nijûba. The nioiguchi is wide, bright and clear and the bôshi is sugu with a relatively wide and long running-back ko-maru-kaeri and shows some tendency towards nijûba too. On the omote side we see a sankozuka-ken and on the ura side a bonji with on top a katana-hi with soebi that end both in marudome. I think that this blade would be difficult at a kantei. It might look like Rai at first glance but then there are these few Yamato elements and the mixed-in mokume and ô-hada and the sugata with the thick kasane speaks for the transition between Nanbokuchô and early Muromachi. So I think with the advanced time and the not so classical horimono, the principle of exclusion might eventually lead towards Ôei-Nobukuni.

Picture 19: tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 26.9 cm, uchizori, motohaba 2.5 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Now to Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni. He is said to have signed in early years with Nobusada (信貞) but this is doubted because a blade signed with “Nobukuni-ko Nobusada” (信国子信貞, “Nobusada, son of Nobukuni”) that is dated Ôei twelve (1405) postdates a blade signed “Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni” which is allegedly dated Ôei ten (1403). In short, it would be very odd if after receiving his honorary title and changing his name to Nobukuni he returned again to his earlier Nobusada mei. Anyway, I was not able to locate this Ôei ten blade and the earliest dated blade that I found for Shikibu no Jô is from Ôei 30 (1423). This date is followed by several extant works from the Ôei 30s (1423~1428) and then we have a blade dated Eikyô four (1432) and one where the mekugi-ana goes through the year but as it is a single kanji, it must be something between Einkyô one and nine, i.e. 1429-1437. This makes Shikibu no Jô the youngest of the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths and supports the tradition that he was the youngest brother of the second generation/s sons. Shikibu no Jô worked in the most Sôshû-esque deki of all Ôei-Nobukuni smiths, i.e. more nie, what is in particular true for his hira-zukuri wakizashi as also their shapes seem to connect more to mid-Nanbokuchô Sôshû than those of his older brother Saemon no Jô.

Picture 20 shows Shikibu no Jô’s most famous work, the jûyô-bunkazai wakizashi that is preserved in the Asama-jinja (浅間神社) and that thus also bears the nickname Asama-maru (浅間丸). It is a long and wide blade with magnificent horimono in the form of a very wide bôhi on both sides which bears as relief the characters of Fuji-Asama-Daibosatsu (富士浅間大菩薩) on the omote, and the characters Ise-Amaterasu-Susume-Ôkami (伊勢天照皇大神) on the ura side, both accompanied by a single rendai at the very base. The jigane is an itame mixed with ji-nie and chikei and the hamon is a nie-laden, gunome-based ô-midareba that is mixed with sunagashi. The bôshi is midare-komi and features a wide and long running-back kaeri.

Picture 20: jûyô-bunkazai, wakizashi, mei: “Hô Fuji-hongû Minamoto Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni” (奉富士本宮源式部丞信国) – “Ichigo-hotokoshi Ôei sanjûyonen nigatsu hi” (一期一腰応永卅四年二月日, “My greatest masterwork, on a day in the second month of Ôei 34 [1427]”), nagasa 43.8 cm, sori 0.9 cm, motohaba 3.2 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

In picture 21 we see a jûyô-bunkazai tachi which was once (in 1924) designated so as a Nanbokuchô-era Nobukuni work. However, it has turned out to be a work of Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni and thus dates to the early Muromachi period, although the designation has not been withdrawn. The blade has been shortened to 71.6 cm, has a normal kasane (i.e. not thin as it would be typical for a Nanbokuchô blade), and has a quite shallow sori what makes it almost look like Kanbun-shintô at first glance, especially with the nakago in a shirasaya hilt for example. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with angular elements, togariba whose yakigashira seem to “fume” into the ji, ashi, , and sunagashi. Some gunome sections even tend to mimigata and we also see a hint of yahazu. The bôshi is midare-komi with a brief ko-maru-kaeri plus a little hakikake.

Picture 21: jûyô-bunkazai, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 71.6 cm, sori 0.9 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

A shinogi-zukuri wakizashi by Shikibu no Jô can be seen in picture 22. Again, the interpretation of the hamon is close to Saemon no Jô in case of long swords and shinogi-zukuri wakizashi. The jigane is a dense itame with plenty of ji-nie and chikei and the hamon is a gunome-midare in nie-deki that is mixed with angular elements, yahazu, many sunagashi, ashi, , and some tobiyaki. The bôshi is a widely hardened midare-komi with a brief ko-maru-kaeri.

Picture 22: wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Eikyô ?-nen rokugatsu hi” (永享〇年六月日, “a day in the sixth month of Eikyô ? [1429-1437]”), nagasa 52.4 cm, sori 1.6 cm, motohaba 2.75 cm, sakihaba 2.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Now to Shikibu no Jô’s tantô and hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi. An example is shown in picture 23. It is a wide and long blade with a noticeable sori and shows a jigane in itame-nagare with ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden gunome that is mixed with ko-gunome, ko-notare, ashi, , kinsuji and sunagashi and the bôshi is a widely hardened midare-komi with a pointed kaeri that features hakikake. On the omote side we see a katana-hi and below a sankozuka-ken and on the ura side a katana-hi with a bonji below.

Picture 23: wakizashi, mei: “Minamoto Shikibu no Jô Nobukuni” (源式部丞信国) – “Eikyô yonen hachigatsu hi” (永享二二年八月日, “a day in the eighth month of Eikyô four [1432]”), nagasa 41.3 cm, sori 0.8 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


This brings us to the difficult case of trying to find out which Ôei-Nobukuni works go back to the hand of Gyôbu no Jô Nobukuni. To do so, I first want to introduce in picture 24 the different Nobukuni signature styles (click to see full-size pic). As you can see, the 1st generation signed the character for Nobu somewhat “squeezed” to left. Apart from that, his character for kuni is a little bit distorted, i.e. tilting a little bit to the top right. The 2nd generation did not squeeze the character for Nobu so much to the left, only a tiny little bit, and the one shown on the far right of my chart might be an edge case in term of signature style, although the work, which was introduced in picture 13 in the previous chapter, is attributed to the 2nd generation. Also he signed the left three internal strokes of the character for kuni in a more horizontal way than the 1st generation did. Saemon no Jô Nobukuni signed in a peculiar way, namely with the left and right inner parts of the character for kuni mirrored and with the central “dividing” stroke executed in a vertical manner. So his signatures are pretty easy to detect. Shikibu no Jô signed the left and right inner parts in the usual way and executed the central “dividing” stroke in a slightly diagonal manner but his works can be distinguished from the others in terms of slightly more advanced production time. So then there are signatures which significantly predate works of Shikibu no Jô and which do not match the mirrored signature of Saemon no Jô. These signatures, of which we know dates from Eitoku three (1382) to Ôei four (1397), are executed with the central “dividing” stroke in a very vertical manner and as they thus differ from works of the 2nd generation, of works of Saemon no Jô, and of works of Shikibu no Jô, both in terms of meiburi and production time, I attribute those for the time being to the 3rd generation, to Gyôbu no Jô Nobukuni.

Picture 24: Nobuie mei comparison

That said, I have to go back to my previous Nobukuni chapter, in the way that maybe all but picture 13 might be actually works of the 3rd generation, i.e. of Gyôbu no Jô. This confusing grey zone before the arrival of individually signed Nobukuni blades, e.g. Saemon no Jô and Shikibu no Jô, is one reason for why it almost took me a full year to go on with the Nobuie chapter. In other words, most publications are kind of avoiding the issue of the succession of Nobukuni generations but I didn’t want to leave it like that, or rather I just didn’t want to brush off this issue, repeat everything that has already been written, and go on with the next chapter. So it took me a while to go again through all references, to study, compare and weigh off the about 150 Nobukuni blades I have in my references, and that is why I think the genealogy that I presented in the last chapter makes the most sense from point of view of my today’s knowledge.

Well, I still want to introduce some more works which are signed in the way that I regard uniquely between the 2nd generation and Saemon no Jô Nobukuni, starting with the blade shown in picture 25. It is a short and slender tachi dated Ôei three (1396) that tapers noticeably and that has a relatively deep sori which tends to sakizori. The jigane is a standing-out itame mixed with nagare that shows ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare that is mixed with togariba, some tobiyaki, and many sunagashi. The bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. The haki-omote side shows a bonji and then a koshibi with a suken as relief and the haki-ura side a bonji and a rendai. In terms of overall interpretation, I would place this blade in the vicinity of Eitoku three (1383) blade introduced in picture 9 in the previous chapter.

Picture 25: tachi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Ôei sannen jûnigatsu hi” (応永三年十二月日, “a day in the twelfth month of Ôei three [1396]”), nagasa 66.3 cm, sori 2.1 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

And last but not least, the blade shown in picture 26 kind of closes the “missing link” between the blade shown in picture 14 in the previous chapter and the Ôei-Nobukuni blades with prominent yahazu. It is a quite long shôbu-zukuri wakizashi with a jigane in a rather standing-out itame mixed with ô-itame and nagare, featuring plenty of ji-nie and much chikei. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden yahazu-ba mixed with gunome, ko-notare, chôji, togariba, angular elements, ashi, , kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, and much muneyaki. The nioiguchi is bright and clear and the bôshi is midare-komi with a wide ko-maru-kaeri thar runs back in a long fashion and that connects with muneyaki.

Picture 26: wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Ôei yonen nigatsu jûrokunichi” (応永ニニ年二月十六日, “16th day of the sixth month of Ôei four [1397]”), nagasa 57.8 cm, sori 1.6 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, shôbu-zukuri, maru-mune

This should do it for today and in the next part I want to conclude the Nobukuni chapter with introducing works of later generations Nobukuni and the alleged 6th generation of whom works with Chinese datings are extant.


GVSU Lecture Report

Just back from Grand Rapids I want to give you a brief report on the trip and lecture. The lecture was held on Wednesday, April 12, at Grand Valley State University’s L.V. Eberhard Center, starting at 5:30 pm, and it was a general overview of the history of the Japanese sword and how it is made, plus a brief introduction into the practice of cutting tests, tameshigiri. I will provide a transcript of the former part as PDF below.


The lecture was concluded by me introducing several swords from the Grand Rapids City Archives and Research Center, accompanied by a very good Q&A session. The day prior to the lecture I was given the opportunity to go through the Japanese sword collection of the City Archives and I picked six representative swords for the lecture. The Grand Rapids City Archives and Research Center own about 25 Japanese swords, a Japanese armor, and a few Japanese helmets (e.g. a signed and very good Saotome Iechika [早乙女家親] and a Nobuie dated 1512 but which is probably gimei). The swords I picked were a signed Hizen Dewa Daijô Yukihiro (肥前出羽大掾行広) katana whose koshirae features a nice Nobuie-tsuba, an unsigned mounted Bizen Yoshii (吉井) School katana, a signed Kashû Kanewaka (加州兼若) wakizashi in kyû-guntô mounts, an unsigned mounted kotô naginata-naoshi katana, an unsigned Mino wakizashi with a typical sanbonsugi-hamon in a nice Higo-koshirae, and an unsigned shintô wakizashi that is also nicely mounted.

That said, I want to thank all attendees, the Japanese/Chinese students I met for lunch the day before the lecture, Mr. Alex Forist and Mr. Jared Yax from the Grand Rapids City Archives and Research Center for giving me the opportunity to go through their Japanese collection, and Prof. Meghan Cai from GVSU’s Chinese Faculty for initiating the lecture and for organizing the whole event. ありがとうございます!

Ah, and as Grand Rapids is Beer City USA, I also enjoyed the local craft beers of course 🙂

Easter eBook Super Sale III


I just started, like last year and the year before, an Easter eBook Super Sale where ALL of my eBooks are reduced by 50%! This offer will be valid for until the day after Easter Monday (4/18) so you have enough time to decide what you want. So fill up all your tablets (or PC´s) with all the important Nihonto and Tosogu reference material you need four your studies!

Once again, it goes directly via me (i.e. I’m not going to manually change all the prices on Lulu.com and then change them back when the sale is over). I provide a list of all my eBooks below, showing the regular and the reduced prices. I also linked them so that you can check what the description says but again, DO NOT buy over there at Lulu.com this time. Get in touch with me via “markus.sesko@gmail.com” and pay me directly, either by PayPal using the very same email address or by credit card, using the donate button at the very bottom of this page and I’m going to send you over the eBook. And anyway, if you gave a question, just drop me a mail.

So grab this chance to fill up your laptops/tablets/phones with all references you need.

Thank you for your attention!

Akasaka Tanko Roku ….. $8.90 – $4.50
Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords ….. $24.90 – $12.50
Geneaogies and Schools of Japanese Swordsmiths ….. $19.90$10
Genealogies of Japanese Toso Kinko Artists ….. $19,90$10
Identifying Japanese Cursive Script ….. $14.90$7.50
Identifying Japanese Seal Script ….. $14.90$7.50
Japan’s Most Important Sword Fittings ….. $14.90$7.50
Jukken ….. $14.90$7.50
Kano Natsuo I ….. $59.90$30
Kano Natsuo II ….. $59.90$30
Kantei Reference Book – Hamon & Boshi ….. $19.90$10
Koshirae – Japanese Sword Mountings ….. $19.90$10
Koshirae Taikan ….. $59.90$30
Koto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90$45
Koto Meikan ….. $39.90$20
Legends and Stories Around the Japanese Sword ….. $9.90 – $5
Legends and Stories Around the Japanese Sword 2 ….. $9.90 – $5
Masamune ….. $29.90$15
Masters of Keicho Shinto ….. $19.90$10
Nihon-koto-shi ….. $29.90$15
Nihon-shinto-shi ….. $29.90$15
Nihon-shinshinto-shi ….. $29.90$15
Shinshinto Meikan ….. $29.90$15
Shinto Meikan ….. $29.90$15
Shinto Shinshinto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90$45
Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists ….. $89.90$45
Soken Kinko Zufu ….. $9.90 – $5
Swordsmiths of Japan ….. $89.90$45
Tameshigiri ….. $29.90$15
The Honami Family ….. $19.90$10
The Japanese Toso Kinko Schools ….. $24.90$12.50

German Titles:

Die Honami Familie ….. $19.90$10
Geschichten rund ums japanische Schwert ….. $9.90 – $5
Geschichten rund ums japanische Schwert 2 ….. $9.90 – $5
Koto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90$45
Nihon-shinto-shi ….. $29.90$15
Nihon-shinshinto-shi ….. $29.90$15
Shinto Shinshinto Kantei Zenshu ….. $89.90$45

Theodor von Lerch

I have said this several times: Delving into the world of nihontô makes you aware of parts of Japanese history you probably wouldn’t have thought about, ever. Looking for something in particular in my files the other day, I came across a translation/research I did seven years ago.

So this is the background: I was approached by a friend of mine from Bavaria who knows someone who owns a Japanese sword in shirasaya that has an inscription, i.e. a sayagaki. Obviously I was asked to translate the sayagaki but I have to admit, it can’t provide any pics here because I got the inquiry via real physical photos and I never scanned or copied them before they were returned.

Anyway, I don’t remember if the blade was signed or attributed but it was a work of Sa Akikuni (左顕国), a student of master Sa Yasuyoshi (左安吉) who was active in the early years of the Ôei era (応永, 1394-1428) and who had moved from Chikuzen to Nagato province. So his name was noted in the sayagaki and was followed by the following inscrtiption:


Tei ôkoku sanken chûsa Reruhi-kun.
Present to Lieutenant Colonal Lerch from Austria.


Now translating the brief dedication was not very difficult of couse but having a katakana transcription of a Western name that is just of three syllables made me doubt about finding anything on this person. However, I am from Austria too so I became ambitious about who he was. The age of the shirasaya and writing style of the sayagaki seemed to be Meiji, what would have been a match with my initial assumption that the person might have been one of the so-called oyatoi gaikokujin (御雇い外国人), a foreign government advisor in Meiji Japan. Next and always the first step, just google the name on Japanese Google, and well, just throwing in the katakana レルヒ already came back with a hit: Not a oyatoi gaikokujin but I was not that off. He was an official coming to Japan a little bit later than the oyatoi gaikokujin, Lieutenant Colonel Theodor Edler von Lerch (1869-1945), the guy who was the first to properly introduce the art of skiing to Japan, in 1911. Wow! So he was presented with a sword in Japan, obviously took it home, and it would be interesting to know how it ended up in Bavaria. 

I will provide some links for further reading on my fellow countryman below because I don’t want to rehash. I just thought it would be interesting to post this little anecote on my blog after stumbling upon this seven years old research of mine the other day.

Picture 1: Theodor Edler von Lerch in 1911 in Jôetsu, Japan.

Picture 2: The two bronze statues of Lerch in Japan, one at the Kanayasan Ski Resort (left) and one at Asahikawa Airport (right).

Picture 3: The local Lerch mascot at Kanayasan 😉


As mentioned, isn’t it fascinating what you come across by dealing with Japanese swords? That way, I had to dive into the world and history of Japanese barbershops, ramen noodles, sake brewing, weird delicacies served at a tea ceremony, the Portuguese entering the Indian Ocean, pirates, the entire Silk Road, the development of howitzers, the anatomy of skeletons of certain fish, and so much more. What a fruitful job and activity!




KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #27 – Nobukuni (信国) School 2

I know that by basically reverting to the old sources with my first chapter on the Nobukuni School, I didn’t make things easier but you have to be open for everything and not just regurgitate. So back to Nobuie and the difficult task of nailing down the immediate successor of the 1st generation, i.e. the one who studied with Sadamune, who was one of the first smiths to bring the Sôshû tradition to Kyôto, and who was the one who probably lived until the late 1370s or early 1380s. So if the 1st generation’s career did pass the zenith of the Nanbokuchô period, who followed him as 2nd generation? In my Swordsmiths of Japan, I already tried to do very same as here, that is, to find the balancing act between giving credit to the old traditions but following the most recent studies. That said, I introduced a 2nd generation but who might actually have been the 1st generation, or in other words, the first two generations in my Swordsmiths of Japan might have been the same smith.

This greyzone in counting the initial Nobukuni masters is very well reflected in the NBTHK jûyô papers which say – apart from explicitly stating 1st generation and Genzaemon and Shikibu to whom we will come later – also just for example “Nobukuni work from the Enbun-Jôji eras”, “Nobukuni work from the vicinity of the Kenmu-era 1st generation”, “Nobukuni work from the end of the Nanbokuchô period”, or “Nobukuni work from the Ôei era”. So in the following, I can’t help but so to speak keep this greyzone alive. That said, I will introduce works that chronologically follow those of the alleged 1st generation from my first Nobukuni chapter, works that are today – and because of this greyzone – just classified as “end of Nanbokuchô Nobukuni” and “Ôei-Nobukuni.” Those we can attribute to concrete masters like Minamoto Saemon, Shikibu, and Saburôzaemon Nobukuni will be introduced in the next chapter.

Now Tanobe follows the approach that I have forwarded in my first Nobukuni chapter, i.e. that the 1st generation was active to Eitoku (1381-1384). Satô Kanzan in turn sees the blades dated with this era, a tachi dated Eitoku three (1383) and a tantô dated Eitoku four (1384), as works of the 2nd generation. Well, Tanobe avoids tackling the succession of Nobukuni generations in his latest work, the Yamashiro Volume of the Nihontô Gokaden no Tabi series (published in 2015), so I will focus on the theories of Satô and Honma. As mentioned, Satô sees the Enbun and Jôji dated blades as works of the 1st generation, those around Eitoku as works of the 2nd generation (whom he sees being active until the beginning of the Muromachi era), and counts the smith who signed with Minamoto Saemon no Jô (源左衛門尉) and who was active around Ôei (1394-1428) as 3rd generation. Apart from that, he refers to Shikibu no Jô (式部丞) as being active a hint later than Minamoto Saemon and probably being the younger brother of the latter, although he does not explicitly introduce him as 4th generation. In short, and reading between the lines, Satô counts three Nobukuni main line generations and implies that by the time of the third master, i.e. the early Muromachi period, the lineage had already become a workshop with the name Nobukuni as trademark where several smiths worked (and signed with that name), being probably managed by the third generation Minamoto Saemon and his younger brother Shikibu no Jô. Honma just states that the Nobukuni who was active around Enbun and Jôji was the 1st generation, the one active around Ôei the 2nd, and the one active from Ôei to Eikyô (1429-1441) the 3rd generation. Interestingly, he sees Minamoto Saemon and Shikibu no Jô as younger brothers or students of the 2nd generation. This thing with Minamoto Saemon and Shikibu no Jô being both younger brothers of some Nobukuni kind of connects with Tsuneishi’s approach who introduces a Gyôbu no Jô (刑部丞) Nobukuni whom he lists as 3rd generation. That means, Tsuneishi sees Gyôbu no Jô as oldest, Minamoto Saemon as second oldest, and Shikibu no Jô as third oldest son of the late Nanbokuchô 2nd generation and states that it are only these three masters to whom we refer today as “Ôei-Nobukuni.”

So for the time being, I think of the genealogy of the Nobukuni School as seen in the link below:

Genealogy Nobukuni School


Now to some works which can be attributed to the immediate time after the 1st generation and before the Ôei-Nobukuni masters Minamoto Saemon and Shikibu no Jô. An interesting thing to observe at how the Nobukuni School went on is that it came from the Yamashiro tradition, that it next adopted the Sôshû tradition via Sadamune, and that it then shifted towards Bizen, although maintaining both Yamashiro and Sôshû characteristics, e.g. nie. That means, we can already see Bizen elements appearing towards the end of the Nanbokuchô period and with the Ôei era, works of the Ôei-Nobukuni smiths strongly resemble that of their Ôei-Bizen colleagues. That’s why Nobukuni works are often difficult to kantei.

I want to start with the aforementioned tachi which bears the date signature from Eitoku three. There is not much Sôshû and please note the pairs of gunome, an interpretation that is understood as the forerunner of the yahazu elements which are so typical for the Nobukuni School. The blade is of a small and slender sugata with not much sori and might be at the edge of being a kodachi. The jigane is a partially standing-out itame with plenty of ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare with a few sunagashi and some muneyaki. The bôshi is midare-komi with a prominently round kaeri and both sides feature a single bonji at the base.

Picture 9: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni – Eitoku sannen hachigatsu tsuitachi” (信国・永徳三年八月一日, “first day of the eighth month Eitoku three [1383]”), nagasa 65.1 cm, sori 1.4 cm, motohaba 2.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

The blade shown in picture 10 is dated with the third year of Meitoku (明徳, 1392), i.e. dates about a decate later than the previous one. The blade is of a magnificent and deeply curved sugata with an elongated chû-kissaki. It shows an itame that is partially mixed with masame-nagare and that features plenty of ji-nie and also chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with gunome, ashi, sunagashi, kinsuji, and yubashiri and the bôshi is a notare-komi with hakikake and that almost runs out as yakitsume. The ura side bears the characters “Namu Hachiman Daibosatsu” and the ura side just a single bonji.

Picture 10: tokubetsu-jûyô, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni – Meitoku sannen mizunoe-saru jûichigatsu hi” (信国・明徳三年壬申十一月日, “a day in the eleventh month Meitoku three [1392], year of the monkey”), nagasa 71.0 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Now with picture 11 we arrive at what I have mentioned before, that is, the trend towards Bizen that happened with the Nobukuni School entering the Muromachi period. The blade is dated Ôei two (1395) and does therefore classify as Ôei-Nobukuni in the strict sense but it predates a little bit the earliest extant dated blade of Minamoto Saemon, which is from Ôei nine (1402). The blade is relatively short, has a normal mihaba, a thick kasane, tapers noticeably, and ends in a compact chû-kissaki. The jigane is a dense but overall somewhat standing-out ko-itame that is mixed with some mokume and that features plenty of ji-nie and fine chikei. The hamon is a gunome-chô in ko-nie-deki that tends to koshi no hiraita (i.e. wide bases) and that is mixed with yahazu, togariba, ko-gunome, ashi, , kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, and tobiyaki. The nioiguchi is wide and bright and the bôshi is relatively widely hardened, showing a roundish kaeri and a hint of hakikake. On both sides we see a naga-bonji which is accompanied on the ura side by a koshi-bi with inside a suken as relief.

Picture 11: jûyô, tachi, mei: “Nobukuni – Ôei ninen hachigatsu hi” (信国・応永二年八月日), nagasa 68.3 cm, sori 2.45 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Let’s talk about tantô and wakizashi that the school produced around that time. First we must not overlook that although late in the Nanbokuchô period, the then Nobukuni head did still stick to the initial Yamashiro tradition of his school. A perfect example for that is the tantô shown in picture 12 which is dated Shitoku two (至徳, 1385). It is of a conservative shape but with a somewhat thicker kasane what rules out heyday Nanbokuchô. The jigane is a ko-itame that is mixed with ô-hada in places and that features plenty of fine ji-nie, chikei, and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that has a rather tight and clear nioiguchi and that shows a few sunagashi, hotsure, and kinsuji. The bôshi has a classical ko-maru-kaeri and shows a hint more nie than the ha. On the omote side we see a bonji, a shiketsu, and a rendai, and on the ura side a sankozuka-ken. As you can learn from the description, and the oshigata of course, the tantô is classical Yamashiro but enriched with sophisticated horimono and that speaks for that time for the Nobukuni School.

Picture 12: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Nobukuni – Shitoku ninen hachigatsu hi” (信国・至徳二年八月日), nagasa 26.0 cm, muzori, motohaba 2.6 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

In picture 13 we see another classical Yamashiro tantô by the 2nd generation Nobukuni, although this one is of a more slender mihaba. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame that is mixed with some nagare-masame and that features fine ji-nie and a linear nie-utsuri. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that tends a little to notare in places and that is mixed with hotsure, faint yubashiri, kinsuji, and sunagashi. The slightly undulating sugu-bôshi shows hakikake and a relatively long kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi.

Picture 13: jûyô, tantô, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), shu-mei: “Genroku jûyonen gokugetsu origami dai-kinsu roku-mei” (元禄十四年極月折紙代金子六枚, “[Hon’ami] origami from from the twelfth month of Genroku 14 [1701] evaluating the blade with six gold pieces”), nagasa 25.2 cm, muzori, motohaba 2.0 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

Now picture 14 shows a more Bizen-style wakizashi. The blade is dated Meitoku three (明徳, 1392) and is interpreted in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri with a prominent sori. The jigane is a dense but standing-out itame that is mixed with some ô-hada on the ura side and that displays ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with gunome and sunagashi. The bôshi tends to sugu and features a ko-maru-kaeri with a wide turnback. Both sides show a naginata-hi with soebi.

Picture 14: jûyô, wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni – Meitoku sannen hachigatsu hi” (信国・明徳三年八月日), nagasa 40.1 cm, sori 1.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Picture 15 shows a sunnobi-style tantô that is dated Ôei three (1396). It has a normal mihaba, as mentioned a sunnobi-sugata, and features a sakizori. The jigane is a densely forged itame that is mixed with mokume. Ji-nie and chikei appear and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-chô that is mixed with yahazu, hotsure, yubashiri, ashi, , kinsuji, and sunagashi. The nioiguchi is tight and the bôshi has again a roundish kaeri with some hakikake. The omote side shows a bonji with below a suken and the ura side a koshi-bi.

Picture 15: tantô, mei: “Nobukuni – Ôei sannen hachigatsu hi” (信国・応永三年八月日), nagasa 28.3 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


To recapitulate, certain Nobukuni works might be hard to kantei as they mix different traditions. So when you have a late Nanbokuchô Yamashiro blade that looks like Bizen but whose hardening is based on nie and which shows horimono (and yahazu), it is safe to go for Nobukuni. In the next chapter, we will talk about the aforementioned masters Minamoto Saemon an Shikibu no Jô and what attributes as Ôei-Nobukuni in general.