A very special tsuba by and for Natsuo

This time I want to introduce a Natsuo tsuba which is not “just” a great masterwork like they all are but which is oustanding as it marks a very important stage in his career.

The above shown tsuba has the motif of the God of Luck Jurōjin (寿老人) riding a crane on the omote and young pines on the ura side. It is of shakudō, has a nanako ground, and makes much use of empty space. Jurōjin on his crane is interpreted in a quite three-dimesional manner, jutting out in a relatively prominent from the ground plate. Jurōjin is regarded as auspicious, as is the crane, as are young pines. So just from the motif of motif elements alone we have triple auspiciousness so to speak. Highly elegant is also how Natsuo plugged the one hitsu-ana with gold as part of the design and has the nanako and parts of the motif running over it. That is, to emphasize the optical or rather perceived fact that Jurōjin is indeed flying on a crane, a reference point is required. Now you can just add for example treetops to create a sense for height, i.e. flying, but often the perception of flying high in the sky was achieved via the sun or the moon in the background. But instead of merely adding a flush hira-zōgan of the sun or lunar disc, Natsuo so to speak made use of the common practice of plugging hitsu-ana and turned that into the sun so to speak, what is in my opinion a highly elegant approach as stated above.

So far, so good, very nice tsuba you will all agree on, but why is it sp special? Well, for this, we first have to take a look at the signsture, which reads: “Kōka san no toshi taisō shokyū – Ōtei-sōka Toshiaki + gold seal ” (弘化三暦大簇初九・鶯蹄窓下寿良), “humbly made by Toshiaki on the ninth day of the first lunar month, spring, of Kōka three (1846)”. First of all, the ninth day of the first lunar month is an auspicious day as it is the birthday of the Jade Emperor who is also revered in Buddhism, what adds quasi a fourth layer of auspiciousness to the tsuba (i.e. Jurōjin, a crane, and young pines being the other three).

The more advanced kodōgu enthusiasts, and readers of my book(s) on Natsuo may know, Toshiaki (寿良) was the early name with which Natsuo signed. Now let me introduce his career up to the time this tsuba was made so that we get some background for its importance. Natsu was born on the 14th day of the fourth month of Bunsei eleven (文政, 1828). In Tenpō ten (天保, 1839), he started an apprenticeship with the kinkō artist Okumura Shōhachi (奥村庄八). Okumura was a Gotō-trained guy and so he learned from him first and foremost the proper application of nanako, the making of menuki, gilding and silvering via techniques like kingise, ginsise, iroe or okigane, and the production of ground plates for kozuka. Training under Okamoto was not enough because after just about one year of learning, it was in Tenpō eleven (1840), he left his workshop and entered an apprenticeship with Ikeda Takatoshi (池田孝寿) from the Ōtsuki school (大月). The Ōtsuki school was a renowned lineage of kinkō artists founded in the mid-18th century in Kyōto. The school followed initially the classical style of the Gotō school but then became famous when its fourth master Mitsuoki (光興, 1766-1834) started to study painting under contemporary masters like Ganku (岸駒, 1749/1756-1838) and Nagazawa Rosetsu (長沢蘆雪, 1754-1799) from the Maruyama school (円山). This means that later in his career Mitsuoki applied more and more novel motifs and tried fresh interpretations strongly inspired by his training as a painter.

Takatoshi’s father Ikeda Kyūbei (池田久兵衛), who signed with Okitaka (興孝) and later with Takaoki (孝興), was a student of Mitsuoki but it is said that also Takatoshi studied directly with the fourth Ōtsuki master. Natsuo later said that under Takatoshi he spent two whole years, among other things of course, practicing katakiribori basics following copper plates designs given to him by his master. This practice helped him a lot and so his master decided it was time to grant him the character for Toshi from his own name whereupon Natsuo took the craftsman name Toshiaki (寿朗). He was 15 years old at the time.

While practising kinkō he also studied classical Chinese in the morning under Tanimori Shigematsu (谷森重松), and in the evening painting under Nakajima Raishō (中島来章, 1796-1871) from the Maruyama-Shijō school (円山四条). His master Raishō even suggested that Natsuo should become a painter but he stayed with the kinkō art which mas more to his liking. Well, as Natsuo was born rather weak, his adoptive mother Miyo (みよ・美代) was initially against his wish to become a kinkō craftsman. Instead she made him learn to play the shamisen but Natsuo later told his students that he stopped that very early because it was absolutely not his thing.

After five years of training under Takatoshi, the master realized the great progress his promising student had made and entrusted him for the first time with works for customers for which he could refine his takabori and kebori techniques, the first of them being menuki in the form of flying cranes, a fuchigashira set with a turtle motif, a kozuka with kebori of bamboo, and a tsuba showing young pines.

And now we arrive at where the tsuba introduced here was made. In Kōka two (弘化, 1845), i.e. when he was 17 years old (or 18 according to the Japanese way of counting years), Natsuo decided that his craft was advanced enough to leave his master Takatoshi, and just one year later he took the risk to open up his own business in the old cultural capital Kyōto. In other words, the tsuba in question was made by Natsuo when he was just 18 years old (or 19 according to the Japanese way of counting years) and most likely the piece with which he celebrated his going into business for himself. It is now possible that he was comissioned with it by an affluent client, so to speak as form of support to get his business started, and we know that often clients left the motif of the work to the artist. That is, maybe Natsuo’s very first client told him he is going to pay him good money for a nice tsuba, as support for his craft, and that it just should depict something auspicious, maybe something with the upcoming New Year in mind. Or, Natsuo came up with everything for himself and thus placed so much auspiciousness into it, i.e. as a relatively safe bet to find a paying customer as auspicious motifs of course never go out of fashion.

Be that as it may, after leaving his master Toshitaka, Natsuo was basically an autodidact. In Kaei two (嘉永, 1849), when he was 21/22 years old, he gave up the craftsman’s name Toshiaki in favour of Natsuo. His student Okabe Kakuya (岡部覚弥) later quoted Natso upon describing the times of his name change: “When I was twenty-two or twenty-three I experienced a first sense of maturity when carving kozuka with the motif of a tiger carrying his cubs over the river and fuchigashira showing hares and waves, as these pieces were so much praised by everyone who saw them.”

However, when he was twenty-five he had the feeling that Kyōto might not be the best place to unfold his talent as “so many people wore ceremonial court dresses and were just into fabrics and patterns.” So, he made plans to try his luck in Edo, the capital and the center of the bushi class. On the second day of the tenth month of Ansei one (安政, 1854) he borrowed 20 gold pieces from his adoptive mother and left Kyōto with his friend Chūshichi (忠七) and took with him a tsuba with the motif of the Oath of the Peach Garden into which he had put his entire heart and sold, to use as a demonstration piece to show his abilities in Edo. The rest of his career is described in detail in my book on Natsuo here.

Above is a picture of the young Natsuo. I do not know how old Natsuo was at the time it was taken but I assume it is pretty close to when the tsuba introduced here was made. So in conclusion I want to say that this tsuba would surely make a very very nice cornerstone of every Natsuo collection. I do not know who the owner of the tsuba is but he must be very proud of owning this, in my opinion very special by and for Natsuo.

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #37 – Heianjō (平安条) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 4

As mentioned in the previous chapter, evidence base for everything before the famous Muromachi period Nagayoshi master is very limited. For example, basically all we have on the first generation of that lineage is a depiction of a tang of one of his works in the Ōseki Shō (see picture 1). The blade in question is signed “Kyōto-jūnin Sugawara Nagayoshi” (京都住人菅原長吉) and comes with the comment “dated with a day of the twelfth month of Ryakuō three (暦応, 1340).” Please note that the era is mentioned in that document with the abbreviated characters (厂广) for (暦応). As that source is heavily focusing on tang finishes, no comment on the workmanship of the blade itself.


Picture 1: Nagayoshi ancestor as shown in the Ōseki Shō

So far the supposed first generation of the Nagayoshi lineage. Next we have a work, a real work, not just a picture in an old book, which is thought to go back to the hand of the second generation. Or rather, the NBTHK says: “Compared to the common, i.e. later generation Nagayoshi works, this blade has much more refined jiba and it appears that (in terms of its overall interpretation) it corresponds to the Nagayoshi whom the meikan list around Ōei (応永, 1394-1428), although further research on this issue is necessary.” In short, the blade “feels” different than all the other Nagayoshi works and its sugata and jiba suggests Ōei, what in turn would mean second generation.

The blade in question (see picture 2) has a rather wide mihaba, a thick kasane, and a noticeable sunnobi-sugata. The kitae is a dense ko-itame that is mixed with nagare and that features fine ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden, quite varied gunome-chō with a bright and clear nioiguchi and is mixed with chōji, ko-notare, tobiyaki, ashi, and . The bōshi is midare-komi with a roundish kaeri on the omote side and a somewhat pointed, later returning kaeri on the ura side. The omote shows a sankozuka-ken as relief in a katana-hi and the ura a relief of what appears to be a naginata within a katana-hi. The nakago is ubu, has a kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, and bears a sanji-mei which is chiseled to the right of the ubu-mekugi-ana.


Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, wakizashi, mei: “Nagayoshi saku” (長吉作), nagasa 34.95 cm, sori 1.1 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

As stated in my (preliminary) Heianjō genealogy (see previous chapter here), it appears that there was one more generation before it becomes more tangible. That is, it seems that there was a third generation who was active around Hōtoku (宝徳, 1449-1452). However, I was yet not able to find any blades that go back to the hand of this master. Now the fourth generation, who was supposedly active around Bunmei (文明, 1469-1487) is where Fujishiro jumps in. Well, he does list the Ryakuō era ancestor but then nothing in between him and the Bunmei master. He writes: “It is said that the first generation Nagayoshi was active around Eikyō (永享, 1429-1441) but as I have not seen any such old Nagayoshi work, I tend to think that the famous Nagayoshi lineage started with this (i.e. the Bunmei era) master.” So in short, he counts him as first generation and assumes that it was around his time that the Heianjō School got its momentum and rose to fame. Incidentally, the known dates from Bunmei twelve (文明, 1480) to Meiō nine (明応, 1500) are attributed to this Nagayoshi whom Fujishiro lists as first, and I as fourth generation.


Picture 3: mei: “Yoshinori no ko, Nagayoshi saku” (吉則子長吉作)

This brings us to the most famous master of the entire lineage, the fifth generation Heianjō Nagayoshi, whom Fujishiro lists as second generation. From him we know dated blades between Bunki three (文亀, 1501) and Eishō 13 (永正, 1516) and a signature that states “made by Nagayoshi, son of Yoshinori” (see picture 3) is attributed to him. So, he must have been adopted by the Bunmei-era fourth master but felt obliged at some point in time, to point out that he was the son of Yoshinori, probably emphasizing the close relationship of these two local lineages. In addition, there exists blades by the fifth generation Nagayoshi which are not signed with the Heianjō (平安城) but with the Sanjō (三条) prefix, underlining that local connection.

Before I go into detail about his life and career, I want to address his workmanship. Sources like the Nihontō Kōza keep it rather simple but I wanted to get a good grasp on his entire body of work before writing this chapter, which was one reason for why it took me so long to continue the series. That said, I have learned that this Nagayoshi was actually working in an amazing variety of styles, which I want to address in the following. So first of all, the brief entry of the Nihontō Kōza:

His tachi-sugata does not have a wide mihaba and has a deep sori, a medium thick kasane, and a high shinogi. The kitae is a dense and beautifully forged itame. The hamon feels somewhat “tight” and can be, amongst others, in midareba, notareba, and suguha, whereas the midareba interpretations are similar to the ha of Muramasa. The bōshi features a roundish kaeri in case of a suguha and is usually widely hardened in case of a midareba. Horimono can be ken, bonji, kurikara, etc., they are deeply engraved, and appear somewhat more “concise” than horimono of the Hasebe School.

Next I would like to quote Tsuneishi who goes much more into detail:

Early Nagayoshi works are very rare but it appears that the few existing pre-Eishō works have a hint wider mihaba than other Kyō-mono, a noticeable sori, and a somewhat elongated kissaki, i.e. a relatively sturdy shape and by trend of a more firm build than contemporary Sanjō Yoshinori blades. Some blades show a sugata similar to that of the Ōei-Nobukuni group and the hamon is usually gentle and features only little nie. The blades from around Eishō look like Naoe-Shizu at first glance but they feature a sakizori and are of a more gentle sugata than Naoe-Shizu works. They are hardened in gunome-midare or in a hako-midare-like ha with not so much nie whereas the midare elements are separated by long and gently undulating sections. We see a particularly large koshiba, a prominent feature which is referred to as Heianjō-koshiba (平安城腰刃) by experts (see picture 4). The midareba of later works is very similar to that of Muramasa. The bōshi is usually a widely hardened midare-komi with a pointed kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. The jihada is a ko-itame that is mixed with masame and that features ji-nie and is a little tigher than the hada of Sanjō Yoshinori blades. Horimono are very often found. We know if shin no kurikara as relief in a hitsu, of ken, bonji, etc., all of them deep and very skillfully engraved. Ken horimono are particularly long. Engravings may resemble Nobukuni horimono at first glance but are somewhat inferior in quality, and many are in fact more similar to Sue-Sōshū horimono. The majority of horimono is found on wakizashi and tantō, for example a compact but highly detailed sō no kurikara on the omote and a koshibi with soebi or gomabashi on the ura side which run as kaki-nagashi into the tang. The tangs shown in early meikan which bear date signatures from the eras Bunmei, Bunki, and Eishō tend somewhat to a tanagobara, although not as much as the tangs of Muramasa blades, with the nakago of tantō being exceptionally long. We find more tantō than katana as time progresses. These tantō are relatively wide, have a thin kasane, a hint of sakizori, and show a midareba, hako-midare, or yahazu-midare in nie-deki, and we see the same koshiba as at katana. The kitae is an itame that is mixed with some masame. There are also blades that feature a deliberately applied muneyaki which makes them look like Sue-Sōshū at first glance. Early tantõ that appear to date back to the end of the Ōei era are rather smallish like the tantō of Sõshū Hiromitsu (広光) and some rare examples show a very vivid midareba. Around Eishō and Tenbun also yari were made. The tangs tend more towards a tanagobara among later works and are then very similar to Muramasa or Sue-Sōshū tangs.


Picture 4: Heianjõ-koshiba

Now let’s take a look at some blades. The first blade I want to introduce (see picture 5) is regarded as one of the best Heianjō Nagayoshi blades out there. It is jūyō, has a relatively wide mihaba, a maru-mune, a sakizori, and a chū-kissaki. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame with ji-nie and a tendency towards shirake all over the blade. The hamon starts with kind of a 12 cm long yakidashi-style narrow ha and turns then into a hiro-suguha in ko-nie-deki with a clear and relatively tight nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-gunome, and ko-ashi. The bõshi is sugu with a rather pointed kaeri on the omote and an ō-maru-kaeri on the ura side, both sides with hakikake and the kaeri running back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see a very skillfully engraved sō no kurikara and on the ura gomabashi with below a rendai. The tang is ubu, has a funagata, a ha-agari kurijiri, kiri-yasurime (Satō says shallow sujikai), two mekugi-ana, and features a rather thickly chiseled goji-mei. There exist several more blades in this very style, which I would describe as classical Muromachi period Heianjō Nagayoshi style. That is, a nice katana shape with sakizori and a chū or somewhat elongated chū-kissaki, horimono at the base on both sides, a hamon in suguha-chō or with some ko-notare and/or ko-gunome, and a funagata-nakago which may tend to tanagobara. I include two more pics of blades in that style below of picture 5 (please click on the thumbnails to enlarge).


Picture 5: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi” (平安城長吉), nagasa 69.3 cm, sori 1.97 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 2.3 cm, kissaki-nagasa 3.95 cm, shinogi-zukuri, maru-mune


Another style where Nagayoshi goes more towards classical Yamashiro can be seen in picture 6. It is a katana with a rather slender mihaba, a noticeable taper, a deep koshizori, and a ko-kissaki. The kitae is a fine and densely forged ko-itame with a little bit of nagare, fine ji-nie, and a shirake-utsuri. The hamon is a suguha in nioi-deki with ko-nie that is mixed with many ko-ashi and with a fushi-like ko-gunome protrusion on both sides below of the monouchi. The bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri, there are no horimono, and the tang is ubu, has a ha-agari kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, and bears a relatively thin and smallish rokuji-mei. So, the overall interpretation seems to aim at Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊) or Ryōkai (了戒), i.e. his local predecessors. A blade in such style can be seen at Darcy’s site here.


Picture 6: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi saku” (平安城長吉作), nagasa 67.4 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 2.75 cm, sakihaba 1.7 cm, kissaki-nagasa 2.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, mitsu-mune

Let’s go over to short swords and tantō, a category where it gets really varied as indicated earlier. Now I think that the Muramasa resemblance (more on that later) is more obvious on tantō than on katana. Let me introduce such a work. Picture 7 shows a somewhat smallish tantō that has for its short nagasa a relatively wide mihaba and thus a somewhat stocky appearance. There is a hint of uchizori and the kitae is a dense ko-itame that is mixed with some nagare-masame on the omote side and that features fine ji-nie and some faint shirake. The hamon is a gentle ko-notare in nie-deki with a somewhat tight, bright, and clear nioiguchi and appears identical on both sides, a characteristic that is typical for Muramasa as most of you know. The bōshi is ko-maru with a relatively wide turnback. The omote side shows a sō no kurikara and the ura side gomabashi. The tang is ubu, tapers in tanagobara-style to a ha-agari kurijiri, and the yasurime are very slightly slanting kiri-yasurime. So what differs from Muramasa is basically the sugata, the presence of elaborate horimono, and the finer jigane.


Picture 7: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi” (平安城長吉), nagasa 22.1 cm, very little uchizori, motohaba 2.2 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

The tantō shown in picture 8 is similar, although somewhat bigger. It shows a kitae in a rather standing-out itame that features nagare towards the ha and ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-notare in ko-nie-deki with some hakoba at the base. The bōshi tends to ō-maru and shows a little bit of hakikake on the ura side. On the omote side we see gomabashi and on the ura side a naga-bonji and a rendai. Again, the hamon being identical on both sides, and this time also the rather standing-out itame, bear a resemblance to Muramasa, although with the nagare towards the ha and the deep valleys we may also see a remote resemablance to Naoe-Shizu.


Picture 8: tantō, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi” (平安城長吉), nagasa 26.6 cm, sori 0.3 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

Next tantō style he produced aims at smallish but thick Sue-Sōshū or Sue-Bizen yoroidōshi. Picture 9 show such a tantō. It has a nagasa of just 18.9 cm, a takenoko-sori, and a thick kasane. The kitae is a dense itame with ji-nie and the hamon a ō-gunome in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with gunome and some tobiyaki. The bōshi is sugu with a roundish kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see Fudō-Myōō as relief in a hitsu and on the ura side a shin no kurikara, also as relief in a hitsu. The tang is ubu, has a kurijiri, and shallow katte-sagari yasurime. I include two more pics of blades in that style below of picture 9 (please click on the thumbnails to enlarge).


Picture 9: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Sanjō Nagayoshi saku” (三条長吉作), nagasa 18.9 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, takenoko-sori


And then there is the Heianjō Nagayoshi tantō style where the ha tends to hitatsura or is a full-blown hitatsura in Sōshū style, in particular in the style of the Hasebe School with yahazu and prominent muneyaki all the way down. Picture 10 shows such a work. This tantō is again relatively small, has a hint of sori, and an overall rather stocky appearance. The kitae is a fine and densely forged ko-itame with ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare with a rather tight nioiguchi and some mura-nie that is mixed with angular elements, yahazu, gunome, and sunagashi and where the ji between the ha and the muneyaki is filled with tobiyaki and yubashiri, i.e. resulting in a hitatsura. The bōshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri that connects with the muneyaki. On the omote side we see a kurikara as relief in a hitsu and on the ura side a sō no kurikara. The tang is ubu, tapers in funagata-style to a kurijiri, and features kiri-yasurime. As mentioned, this interpretation aims at Hasebe works. I include two more pics of blades in that style below of picture 10 (please click on the thumbnails to enlarge).


Picture 10: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Sanjō Nagayoshi saku” (三条長吉作), nagasa 23.8 cm, motohaba 2.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune



This is a relatively long chapter so I hope you made it until here as I want to conclude with some considerations on Heianjō Nagayoshi’s career and him being the master of Muramasa. First the facts: 1. From signed blades with supplements in the mei we know that Nagayoshi was temporarily also working in the provinces of Mikawa and Ise and there is the tradition that he even made it to eastern Sagami province (going there with his student Masazane (正真) with whom joint gassaku works exist). 2. Dated blades suggest that the fifth generation Heianjō Nagayoshi and the first generation Muramasa were active at pretty much the same time, suggesting that they were of the same age. Now it is not uncommon that a smith learned from a master of the same age, most common scenario of course at a later point in his career when it is about refinement of the craft, not so much about learning the craft from scratch.

Now there exists a copy of a sword document that the seventh Hon’ami main line head Kōshin (本阿弥光心, 1496-1559) presented shortly before his death to his employer, the sword loving shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利義輝, 1536-1565). Therein we read that it was the other way round, i.e. Nagayoshi learning from Muramasa. His entry reads: “He (Nagayoshi) was originally a smith from the Kyōto Heianjō group but who moved later to Mikawa province and who became around Bunki (文亀, 1501-1504) a student of Muramasa.”

So what is true here, who was the master of whom? I can think of a scenario where both traditions could kind of work. As you all know, the Ōnin War, which took place in the Ōnin era (応仁, 1467-1469) of the same name and which ushered in the Sengoku period, destroyed much of Kyōto and many swordsmiths were forced to the capital as working/local clientel conditions were no longer bearable. I now think that maybe already the famous Nagayoshi’s predecessor, i.e. the fourth generation went east to continue his work in Ise, maybe even also in farther east Mikawa province. There he trained the first generation Muramasa and his son, the fifth generation Nagayoshi. Then the master died there and I think maybe master-student Muramasa supported the fifth generation Nagayoshi in continuing the forge. In other words, they found themselves in a condition of two craftsmen helping each other refining both their crafts and fulfilling orders, hence the similarity in workmanship (and as mentioned, they were probably of the same age too). So the Hon’ami Kōshin entry may mean that around Bunki, i.e. after the fourth Nagayoshi master had died, his successor studied togeher with Muramasa the craft and did not learn it from him. What also plays a role here are the then social conditions, in particular those of craftsmen. The Heianjō smiths came from an established lineage, and from the capital. That is, it is rather unlikely that one of them went down to rural Ise to start an apprenticeship with a yet unknown smith with no famous background whatsoever. In short, I follow the approach that Muramasa learned from Nagayoshi in Ise, maybe from father and son Nagayoshi IV and V who had to leave Kyōto and found shelter/work in Kuwana.

Old sayagaki inventory

This is going to be a very brief post. Background is, I was asked about a certain sayagaki which I explained to my client but which I thought might be interesting for some of my readers.

Now as most of you know, a sayagaki is just something someone wrote on a plain shirasaya storage “mounting”, i.e. it can be anything from just barely mentioning what blade that storage mounting holds to an elaborate expert comment/praise of the blade in question. In other words, a sayagaki may add value, or at least additional info to the sword, but does not have to.

The initial purpose of doing a sayagaki was obviously of inventory reasons. That is, you write down what blade is stored therein and add a few notes so that you don’t have to draw it and take the hilt off all the time. In other words, the first sayagaki just mentioned something like “Masamune, shortened, unsigned, length X, written by X” or “Go Yoshihiro, shortened, unsigned, comes with a Hon’ami X evaluation to X gold coins, received by Tokugawa X on the X date on the occasion of X.”

As mentioned, most of you already know that. What I would like to explain a little bit in this post is the practice of adding an inventory number to a sword in shirasaya. Beginning with the Tokugawa family, every daimyō family had a more or less extensive sword collection that was usually stored away in some kind of kura (蔵・倉・庫), a special storehouse with thick earthenware walls that could withstand a fire for some time, usually located within the principal castle of each fief. In charge of managing that storage facility was the local koshimono-kata (腰物方), or koshimono-bugyō (腰物奉行) in case of the bakufu, i.e. a retainer who was responsible for keeping track of all the swords owned by the fief or the administration/lord of the fief in particular. So for example, when an important occasion was approaching, the daimyō called his koshimono-kata and told him to pick a proper gift sword for the wedding/inauguration/succession etc. person X.


Picture 1:


Picture 2:

And this brings us back to the actual topic of this post. In concrete term, I was asked about the sayagaki shown in pictures 1 and 2. The sword in question is an Ichimonji (一文字) from the possession of the Owari-Tokugawa family and both the hilt and the top part of the shirasaya mention the following:

Jin ichi no nanajū (仁一ノ七拾)

Note: The inscription on the hilt uses the old (拾) character for ten whereas the saya uses (十).

So, there is obviously a number here, “1-70” but which is preceded by the character (仁), jin, which means “benevolence.” So, and that was the question from my client, what has that sword, number, or sayagaki to do with “benevolence”?

Actually, not much and there is a relatively easy explanation. Benevolence, jin, was the highest ranking of the Five Confucian Virtues, which were:

jin (仁) – Benevolence
gi (義) – Righteousness
rei (礼) – Proper rite
chi (智) – Knowledge
shin (信) – Integrity

This system was of course known by everyone and as it was so omnipresent, it served as way of ranking, like ABCDE, with A being jin and the highest rank of that hierarchy. In other words, Jin ichi no nanajū means “Sword 1-79 from the highest category of our swords.”

Also, I have seen shirasaya inventory sayagaki that use the four directions of the compass – kita (北, north), minami (南, south) nishi (西, west), higashi (東, east) – which either refer to a certain section within a single kura storehouse or to a different storehouse within a fief.

So, “lection” for today: If you have like jin or gi or rei on a period sayagaki, this does not mean that the sword is benevolent, righteous, or of proper rite respectively. No, these Five Confucian Virtues were merely used as a ranking system of 1 to 5. I have written about a kind of similar topic here.

Oh, and for those who are curious about the sword in that shirasaya, it is the tokubetsu-jūyō Yoshioka-Ichimonji shown below 😉


Raikirimaru (雷切丸) – The Thunder Cutter

Whilst doing cataloging work for the Samurai Art Museum, Berlin, I came across a fuchigashira set by Gotō Ichijō (後藤一乗, 1791-1876) whose motif I had troubles with identifying. Now as you can see in picture 1 below, the set shows, embedded into thunder clouds and lightning, a fiercly looking guy wielding a sword, and although I am not yet 100% sure, I had the hunch that it might represents the story which I am going to share with you now. Or in other words, I might later find out that the fuchigashira set actually depicts something else, what is quite possible, but that hunch of mine about what it might show is a pretext for introducing that very story here.


Picture 1: fuchigashira set, mei: Ichijō + kaō (一乗「花押」)


Ok, let’s start. There exists a famous sword which is nicknamed Raikirimaru (雷切丸), lit. “The Thunder Cutter,” or short just Raikiri (雷切) (Note: Maru is a suffix that represents something valuable/beloved but it is hard to translate 1:1. So, the maru suffix often just represents the determiner “the”, i.e. Raikiri meaning “Thunder Cutter” vs. Raikirimaru meaning “The Thunder Cutter”.)

The year is Tenbun 17 (天文, 1548), a very hot fifth day of the sixth month, and the 35-years-old Tachibana Dōsetsu (立花道雪, 1513-1585) is taking a nap under large tree near his hown town of Fujikita (藤北) in Bungo province. (Note: That is according to the early Edo period Ōtomo Kōhai Ki (大友興廃記). The 20th century Yanagawa Shiga (柳川史話) says the incident took place on the fifth day of the sixth month of Tenbun six (1537) when Dōsetsu was 25 years old.) Suddenly, a storm came up and a big thunder woke up Dōsetsu, a thunder which was immediately followed by a lightning that struck the tree. But Dōsetsu swiftly jumped out from under that tree, drew his cherished sword Chidori (千鳥), “Plover” (named after its plover menuki), and cut the God of Thunder that came down on him in that lightning. So he survived but the lightning did struck him, although records vary on how much he got affected, that is, from “his legs constantly hurt throughout his life afterwards” over “his left leg was crippled” to “half (the left) of his body was paralyzed henceforth” is possible.


Picture 2: Tachibana Dōsetsu (also named Bekki Akitsura, 戸次鑑連). Note how the face with the fierce eyes just looks like the depiction on the fuchigashira.


Historic records mention that in his later years, retainers had to carry around Dōsetsu in a palanquin from which he gave orders wielding a long Bizen Katsumitsu (備前勝光) tachi with a nagasa of 82 cm in the one, and a teppō in the other hand, plus having a 3 ft long staff dangling from a cord attached to one of his hands which he used too to give orders. Now there is the tradition that Dōsetsu went like that, i.e. with the palanquin, into battle after the lightning hit him but when we look at other period records, we learn that he distinguished himself in consecutive battles (taking place in the years 1562, 1567, 1568, and 1569). None of these period records mention a palanquin and it is stated that in the 1567 Battle of Yasumimatsu (休松の戦い), he killed seven men with his sword and in the 1568 Battle of Tatarahama (多々良浜の戦い), he was riding right into the enemy lines from wherein he fought furiously. So, it is pretty unlikely that he did all that from a palanquin and it appears that he was doing pretty ok with what he suffered from that lightning stroke (it is said that throughout his life, he participated in 37 battles!) and that it only started to bother him in later years. In short, I think that people saw the old and then half-paralyzed Dōsetsu fiercely commanding his men from the palanquin and the legend was created that he had always been that way since he was struck by a lightning as a young man.

So far Dōsetsu but what about the sword? It is still extant and preserved in the Tachibana Museum (立花家資料館) in Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture. Well, this is the blade which was handed down as Raikirimaru because there is some discrepancy in measurements. The today extant blade has a nagasa of 1 shaku 9 sun 3 bu (58.5 cm), i.e. it was shortened at one point to become a compact uchigatana, or an ō-wakizashi if you will. The Tachibana family records however (Onkoshimono Yurai Oboe, 御腰物由来覚) mention the blade as measuring 1 shaku 6 sun 7.5 bu (50.7 cm) in nagasa. There is nothing wrong with period records not matching the present-day length of a sword as there is always the chance that it has been shortened since but this doesn’t work the other way around, that is, the blade can’t magically get longer and grow again 8 cm. A possibility is of course that the person who compiled the Onkoshimono Yurai Oboe just made a mistake and got the nagasa wrong.

Raikiri-BladePicture 3: The Raikirimaru, nagasa 58.5 cm, sori 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Back to Dōsetsu. When he died in Tenshō 13 (天正, 1587), the sword came into the possession of his adopted son and successor Tachibana Muneshige (立花宗茂, 1567-1643) who became the first Tachibana daimyō of the Yanagawa fief (柳川藩) of Chikugo province, the fief the family then ruled until the abolition of the feudal system. The ura side of the tang bears towards the nakago-jiri the kinzōgan-mei “Tachibana Hida no Kami shoji” (立花飛騨守所持), “owned by Tachibana Hida no Kami.” Hide no Kami was the honorary title of Muneshige but it is unclear if he himself had it added or if it was done later. Also unclear is if it was Dōsetsu who changed the nickname of the sword from Chidori to Raikirimaru or if one of his successors decided to better stick to that legend with the lightning and that the sword shall henceforth be referred to as Thunder Cutter. Even the Onkoshimono Yurai Oboe admits that is unclear from when on the nickname Raikiri was in use. As you can see, we are again facing one of these difficult cases where we have to work from one contradicting period source to the next and where we have little rock solid facts.

Be that as it may, Muneshige bequathed the sword to his successor Tachibana Tadashige (立花忠茂, 1612-1675) who gave it to his sixth son Tachibana Shigetoki (立花茂辰, 1656-1678). Shigetoki died only three years after his father and at the young age of 23 and so it was decided to give the sword to Yashima Iwami Yukikazu (矢嶋石見行和) who was Shigetoki’s younger brother, but an illegitimate child of Tadashige. However, Yukiazu promised that the sword will be treasured within his lineage and the Yashima were anyway closely related to the Tachibana main line. So the sword was still quasi in family possession.

Fast forward about one hundred years, the then head of the Yashima family, Yashima Suō (矢嶋周防), gave the Raikirimaru back to the Tachibana main line, that is, he presented it in Hōreki nine (宝暦, 1759) to the seventh Yanagawa daimyō Tachibana Akinao (立花鑑通, 1730-1798) on the occassion of Akinao was proceeding to Edo. By then, the Raikirimaru was appraised (by whomever) as Mihara (三原) work but as Akinao was going to Edo, plans were made to submit it to the Hon’ami family. For whatever reason, the blade was not submitted to the Hon’ami main line but to Kōho (本阿弥光葆, ?-1788) who was the 5th generation of the Hon’ami Kōtatsu lineage and who appraised it as a Sōshū work. As a return gift, Yashima Suō was given a chiisagatana by master shintō smith Yamato no Kami Yasusada (大和守安定).

Raikiri-Blade1Picture 4: Color photo of the Raikirimaru.

Then some time during the early Shōwa era, Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜, 1879-1955), whom I just dedicated an article recently here, was examining the swords in the Tachibana collection and in his 1942 published Tōken Kantei Hiwa (刀剣鑑定秘話), he noted the following on the Raikirimaru:

“I was respectfully examining the Tachibana treasure sword Chidori, which has been renamed to Raikirimaru. The blade measures just around 2 shaku and it appears that at one point, it had suffered some fire damage. However, it is in a very old polish so I am not really able to tell much about its workmanship/quality, but it looks quite promising.”

To wrap things up, I want to briefly address the workmanship of the blade. As you can see in picture 3 and 4, it features quite a deep sori and ends in a chū-kissaki, what suggests that it was once of a pretty magnificent tachi-sugata, probably end of Kamakura. The jigane is a ko-itame that is mixed with nagare and the hamon is a nie-laden suguha with a wide nioiguchi but the jiba is overall relatively calm and does not feature much prominent hataraki like chikei and kinsuji. So, although this is just a remote diagnosis without ever seeing the sword, I can both understand the Mihara and the Sōshū approach, the latter more like referring to early Sōshū like Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) or Yukimitsu (行光). The nakago is ō-suriage as mentioned, has katte-sagari yasurime, three mekugi-ana, and of the kinzōgan-mei, the gold has come off of the last three characters.

So, when I have the chance to travel to Fukuoka, I surely want to visit the Tachibana Museum and I then want to inquite beforehead if it is possible to see the Raikirimaru (not sure if it is on permanent display but hands-on study would be perfect of course).


On vacation

Ok, we are leaving for Italy tomorrow May 8 and I will be back in office on May 23. I will be able to reply to emails of course but I would kindly ask you to wait until the 23rd or 24th to send me translation/research work (a quick NBTHK or NTHK paper is always possible of course 😉 ). Thank you!

Also, as 2018 is a BIG anniversary year for me (20 years of studying Japanese, 10 years of running my business, and 5 years of running this blog), some changes will come in the weeks and months after our trip. That is, I will do a little rebranding and restructuring of my services, mostly shifting my focus to one side and downsizing at the other. But I will explain in more detail when the time has come and everything is ready (still have to wrap my head around the one or other issue).

In this sense, I am looking forward to some great Italian food and wine and will enjoy la dolce vita for the next couple of weeks!

Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜)

Time for another portrait of an important figure in the sword world, Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜). Kōson was born on April 29 of Meiji twelve (明治, 1879) as Kawaguchi Teikichi (川口定吉), son of Kawaguchi Magotarō (川口孫太郎), in Maebashi (前橋), Gunma Prefecture. Before the Meiji restoration and the abolishment of the feudal system, his father had been a sword polisher of the Maebashi fief of the same name, located what was then Kōzuke province and ruled by the Matsudaira (松平) family. It is said that Magotarō, who also went by the name Kinmei (欽明, also read Yoshiaki), later became a physician, or that he was a physician for the fief who polished swords at the side. When Teikichi was twelve years old, i.e. in 1890, his father moved to Tōkyō and Teikichi entered an apprenticeship as sword polisher with Hon’ami Ringa (本阿弥琳雅, 1859-1927). This is how his remarkable career started.


Hon’ami Ringa


Ringa was the 16th generation of the Kō’i (光意) lineage of the Honami which had branched off from the 7th Hon’ami main line generation in the Momoyama era. Ringa had been adopted into the Hon’ami family as had been basically all his Kō’i predecessors since the 5th generation of that lineage. I assume that Ringa was recognizing Kōson’s great talent because he managed it to get him married to a daughter of a relative of Hon’ami Mitsuyoshi/Kōga’s (本阿弥光賀, ?-1887) widow. Mitsuyoshi/Kōga was from the Kōmi (光味) lineage of the Hon’ami and as he was working (from Edo) for the Mito-Tokugawa, he is referred to as Mito-Hon’ami (水戸本阿弥). Henceforth, I will refer to Mitsuyoshi/Kōga just as Mitsuyoshi in order to avoid confusion with the earlier Hon’ami master Kōga of the same name from the early 1700s.


Kōson polishing the famous sword Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro (山姥切国広).


Now at the of time of Teikichi’s adoption into the Kōmi-Hon’ami family, taking the name Kōson, sword-related craftsmen were struggling since the abolishment of the samurai class and the 1876 ban on wearing swords in public. Mitsuyoshi for example had also worked as an architect and gardener. His widow, who had been a geisha before Mitsuyoshi married her, and his adopted daughter both committed suicide later by jumping one after another into the Sumida River. One of the then polishing students of the Hon’ami Kōmi lineage who was supposed to marry Mitsuyoshi’s adoptive daughter, Wada Shūsen (和田秋詮, ?-1929), behaved erratically after his master’s death and was kicked out of the workshop. Of course also his marriage arrangement was cancelled but that didn’t stop Wada touring the country as official Hon’ami sword appraiser under his master’s name Hon’ami Mitsuyoshi. However, it didn’t go so well for Wada as he died later, in July of 1929, at a sword meeting from a stroke.

Just another anecdote of those “crazy” times. The previous head of the Kōmi lineage, Hon’ami Tadataka (本阿弥忠敬, ?-1897), worked very hard to live up to the famous Hon’ami name and was quite often approached by sword collectors, for example asking him to authenticate their blades, but as a member of a Hon’ami side line, he was not allowed to issue Hon’ami appraisals. What he did was buying the official Hon’ami copper seal that was stamped on the back of origami from an impoverished member of the main line, who was working as a farmer at that time, and went ahead and just issued Hon’ami origami on his own. Well, Tadataka was a heavy drinker and also died from a stroke.

Among all that stuff going on, there was also a momentum for the Hon’ami. For example, Tadataka’s successor Tenrai (本阿弥天籟, ?-1938) was one of the first to grasp the changing times and the idea to make some of the family secrets public. In 1904 for example, he published the Japanese style-bound ten-volume work Kokon Tōken Kantei Hiketsu (古今刀剣鑑定秘訣), a treatise on the workmanship of kotō and shintō blades. The whole project was quite risky because of the relatively small number of potential buyers, but it was a matter of great personal concern to Tenrai because he tried to bring in fresh air to the then sword world. Besides that, he was a passionate drawer of oshigata, not only of masterworks and meibutsu but also of ordinary “everyday” blades. To the side of his oshigata he wrote comments in the style of the Hon’ami family, the way it had been practiced for centuries. So it was both something new and something traditional.


Kōson posing with the famous yari Otegine (御手杵).


I might digress but I just wanted to give you an idea of the times Kōson found himself becoming an independent swoerd polisher in Meiji 40 (1907). Three years earlier the Russo-Japanese War had broken out and it was one of the first incidents that brought the actual “use” of Japanese swords back on the table. So things improved a little for people in the sword craft. Kōson worked very hard to make the Japanese sword more accessible to the general public. Just a couple of decades ago namely, a commoner was not supposed to know anything about swords or even be interested in them. It was a “samurai thing” so to speak. But Kōson published a magazine called Nihontō Kenkyu (刀剣研究, “Sword Studies”), and among others in 1914 and 1924 the books Nihontō (日本刀, “The Japanese Sword”) and Tōken Kantei Kōwa (刀剣鑑定講話, “Lectures on Sword Appraisal”) respectively. He even founded a sword club, the Nihontō Kenkyū Kai (日本刀研究会). Also, as some of you might know, it was Kōson who introduced the system of the gokaden.


Kōson (sitting to the right) and Kurihara Akihide (栗原昭秀) (sitting to the left) preparing in May 1937 a sword exhibition in Manschuria.


So from about 1910 onwards, it was Kōson and Tenrai who were the go-to-guys for everything Hon’ami, i.e. polishing and appraisal-related as it was them who were able to continue the traditional Hon’ami business. The main namely line wasn’t quite able to make it. For example, their 19th head Kōchū (本阿弥光仲, ?-1869) was a dandy and had to pawn the official copper seal that had been granted to the family for their appraisals by Hideyoshi, plus some calligraphies by his ancestor Kōtoku (本阿弥光徳, 1556-1619) and eventually even his house. After he had died, it was his successor Tadamichi (忠道) who sold Mitsuyoshi the Hon’ami copper seal because as you know, the Hon’ami worked for the Tokugawa and when the Shogunte was abolished, they all ended up without a job. The situation improved a little bit when Tadamichi was employed, together with other Hon´ami members, by the Imperial Household Agency (Kunai-shō, 宮内省) for the newly founded section for swords. However, the sword section was shortly closed afterwards in the fourth year of Meiji (1871). When he realised that the situation was helpless , he “fled” from his debts and became a farmer as mentioned. Well, he returned later to Tōkyō when everything had “cooled down” where he henceforth ran a ryokan hotel and dealt with antiques. His successor Michitarō (道太郎, ?-1895), the last head of the Hon’ami main line, ended up as a shoe maker…


Kōson watching Prime Minister Saitō Makoto (斎藤実, 1858-1936) examining a kabuto.


As shown in the picture above and below, Kōson was very active before and during WWII. In 1936, he put all the oshigata he had taken so far from former daimyō and high-ranking collections and combined them to a neat set of twelve scrolls, each measuring 15 m when rolled out. In 1942, he published his Nihontō Taikan (日本刀大観, “Broad Overview of the Japanese Sword”). After the war, he became an advisor and trustee and a shinsa member of the newly founded NBTHK. With his 70th birthday in 1948. he took on the pen name Kaishi’an Sōho (芥子庵宗甫).


Kōson showing an ōdachi made by Kurihara Akihide to Minister of War Araki Sadao (荒木貞夫, 1877-1966).


The last project he was working on was the Nihontō no Okite to Tokuchō (日本刀の掟と特徴, “Guidelines and Characteristic Features of Japanese Swords). He was already 77 years old at that time and fighting with lung cancer, from which he died just one month after the publication of the book, on July 26, 1955. Kōson’s legacy was not only to contribute greatly to the post-WWII sword momentum, he also trained three great polishers and experts, his immediate successor Hon’ami Mitsuhiro/Kōhaku (本阿弥光博, 1918-1979),  ningen-kokuhō Ono Kōkei (小野光敬, 1913-1994), and ningen-kokuhō Nagayama Kōkan (永山光幹, 1920-2010).

Kōson’s two kaō.


Last but not least and for the sake of completeness, I want to mention the other Hon’ami lineage that went strong after the decline of the main line, and that is the most important Hon’ami group today. I am talking about Ringa’s successor Nisshū (本阿弥日洲, 1908-1966). Nisshū was the son of Ringa’s polishing student Hirai Chiba (平井千葉). He later became ningen-kokuhō, as did his son Hon’ami Kōshū (本阿弥光洲, 1939- ).


From left to right: Ono Kōkei, Nagayama Kōkan, Hirai Chiba, Hon’ami Nisshū.

Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage

Ok, I am leaving for the Chicago Sword Show tomorrow morning and am looking forward to see you guys there. So this is just gonna be a very short post but I thought it might nevertheless be of interest. A client asked me yesterday to explain the differences between a so-called Tenshō-suriage (天正磨上げ) and a Keichō-suriage (慶長磨上げ) as these terms are actually not explained in my Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords.

Before I deal with these kinds of suriage, a very brief historic outline of what we are talking about. By the end of the Muromachi period, a what I call a “civilian samurai uniform” started to emerge because now, shugo-daimyō and their higher-ranking vassals were no longer just protecting someone else’s land, they were ruling and administering it. As you don’t do this daily duty in full armor of course, the sword became the visible symbol of rank and authorative power. This was when these shugo-daimyō (the forerunners of the later daimyō) and their higher-ranking vassals needed a sword form, that could be easily thrusted through the sash of the new daily worn “uniform” and that did not have to be complicatedly suspended with cords like the tachi. For a more detail info on the changes in warrior dress code please look here. Again, we are talking about the upper ranks here, not what an average retainer had to his disposal.

Now Oda Nobunaga (織田信長, 1534-1582) came into power and he had, among others, a preference for Nanbokuchō-period Sōshū masterworks. If it was him who started it all of if there was already a momentum of reviving those works is a topic for another time but we know that his preference was continued by his “successor” Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1537-1598) and then basically by the entire upper warrior class. As Nanbokuchō-period Sōshū (and other, e.g. Sōden-Bizen) blades were long, wide, and heavy, Nobunaga and his peers had them shorted so that they can wear them with their civilian uniform. This was the start of the trend we are talking about here.

To be clear, Japanese swords have been shortened all the time. It was not like that the people at Oda Nobunaga’s time suddenly realized: “Hey, there is a nick or a crack at the base, but instead of throwing out the blade and have a complete new one made, let’s just cut off the end of the blade to the extent where the issue is and work the remaining part below of that into a new tang.” No, suriage and ō-suriage are as old as sword making is because steel was expensive and it is way easier and cheaper to shorten an otherwise completely functional blade and re-use it as a, well, shorter sword than have a new one made from scratch.

Back to the difference between Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage, which are by the way sometimes also just referred to as Tenshō-age and Keichō-age. Before I address the possible reasons for the differences, I want to outline them. As you can see in the shortened blade in picture 1, which comes under the category of a Tenshō-suriage, the tang tapers noticeably and the newly formed end is neatly shaped into a kengyō-jiri.

Picture 1: Tenshō-suriage

At the blade in picture 2, the tang does not taper that much (in the very case, the difference is actually not that obvious) and the newly formed end is just a straight kirijiri. So in short, the differences are: A Tenshō-suriage tapers more noticeably and has a more or less elaborately finished nakago-jiri whereas a Keichō-suriage does not taper much and ends in a straightly cut off kirijiri. There are no period set in stone rules that define a Tenshō and a Keichō-suriage, that is, these are relatively recent terms which were introduced to refer to certain kinds of ō-suriage tang finishes and I described them according to what I have been told (or more like overheard) in Japan. In other words, this post is not a very scientific treatise but states the issue as how I understand it and as how I explained it to my client who asked me this question.

Picture 2. Keichō-suriage

Now some thoughts about the reasons for these two different tang finishes of shortened blades. First of all, at the time Nobunaga came along, the highest circles were kind of looking down on shortened blades, in particular when it comes to presenting someone a fine sword. At the same time, it can be assumed that many of the extra long and wide Nanbokuchō blades with a nagasa of way more than 80 cm had already by shortened by then. But Nobunaga liked Sōshū and I think that he ordered his finest craftsmen to turn some of these Nanbokuchō works into blades that can be comfortably been worn as uchigatana/katana. This was so to speak stage one of this development, which took place during the Tenshō era (1573-1592), and the craftsmen shaped the newly created tang of a shortened sword into how a tang would have been initially finished by a swordsmith. Hence the taper and the sophisticated jiri. Or in other words, they were breaking new grounds and everyone was testing out the waters to see what was accepted and what not. So, you shorten a blade and make it look like as “original” as possible.

Jump to the Keichō era (1596-1615). Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had died (well, the latter not at the beginning but relatively quickly into Keichō era) but Nanbokuchō blades, in particular those of the Sōshū and Sōden-Bizen masters, were still very much first choice. Now by then, roughly twenty to thirty years after that entire trend had started, I guess that a shift had taken place. That is, by now, shortened blades have become socially acceptable so to speak. With that, there was no more need to “hold back” and do the balancing act of having a blade clearly shortened but make it look like as original as possible, in terms of tang finish. So, shortening a blade and leave it look like a shortened blade has always looked like (i.e. just the end cut off and filed the tang into a shape that can be fit into a new hilt) was no longer a taboo.

This is my take on this issue because even in Keichō times, we are talking about very fine blades. By way of explanation, it is like as if you are a master mechanic running the greatest workshop in the country (i.e. Hon’ami-Umetada collaboration): You just don’t have to cut corners when working on a Maybach or a Bugatti, that is, you have all the time and means in the world and don’t have to cut off a nakago in a straight kirjiri because you drown in work and just can’t shape it into a neat kenyō-jiri. Therefore, I rather think a shift in conception has taken place by the Keichō era and that this is the reason why shortened tangs were now finished differently than twenty to thirty years earlier and why we now refer to those different finishes as Tenshō-suriage and Keichō-suriage.

I hope you can follow my train of thoughts and I will be back shortly with the next chapter of the Kantei series.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #36 – Heianjō (平安城) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 3

As mentioned at the very beginning of this Heianjō and Go-Sanjō chapter, it appears that the Heianjō lineage is older than that of the Go-Sanjō. According to tradition, the Heianjō lineage was founded by a smith named Nagamitsu (長光) who was succeeded by Mitsunaga (光長) and Yoshinaga (吉長) until the first Heianjō master with the famous name Nagayoshi (長吉) appears on the scene. No worries, I will provide a genealogy later in this article as usual.

Now I will talk about Mitsunaga very shortly because it appears that he is the earliest Heianjō master of whom blades are extant but want to share some thoughts on his predecessor, the school’s ancestor Nagamitsu. First of all, there are no blades of Nagamitsu extant. The Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen says that he was active around Bun’ō (文応, 1260-1261) and the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi dates him around Gen’ō (元応, 1319-1321) and says that he came originally from northern Ōshū (implying that he was a Mōgusa smith), bore the name Saburō (三郎), and moved to Kyōto where he joined the Hasebe School whereupon he signed with “Hasebe Nagamitsu.” Another theory says that Nagamitsu was a descendant of the Yamato Senju’in smith with the same name who was active around Tenpuku (天福, 1233-1234). As indicated, no blade that would suggest any of those traditions is extant.

Back to Mitsunaga. According to the Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen, he was born in Kenchō one (建長, 1249) and died in Genkō three (元亨, 1323) at the age of 75. This would match with the source saying that his father was active around Bun’ō (文応, 1260-1261) but also matches the tradition that his father was a descendant of the Yamato Senju’in Nagamitsu from Tenpuku (天福, 1233-1234). Fortunately, there is a dated blade of Mitsunaga extant, namely the jūyō-bijutsuhin tantō introduced in picture 1 which is from Genkō two (1322) and which is owned by the Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures. This blade has an interesting shape. Its omote side is in hira-zukuri and its ura side in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri. It has a mitsu-mune, some uchizori, and is otherwise of normal dimensions for that time. The kitae is a somewhat standing-out itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a nie-laden gunome-midare that is mixed with sunagashi, kinsuji, and hotsure. The bōshi is midare-komi with a rather pointed kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. Gomabashi are engraved on the omote side and the ura side shows a koshibi. The nakago is ubu, has a kirijiri, and features a relatively finely chiseled mei.


Picture 1: jūyo-bunkazai, tantō, mei: “Heianjō-jū Mitsunaga – Genkō ninen nigatsu hi” (平安城住光長・元亨二年二月日, “on a day in the second month of Genkō two (1322)”), nagasa 24.8 cm, uchizori, motohaba 2.2 cm


Such kanmuri-otoshi shapes were very typical for Yamato blades of that time so the theory that his and his father’s roots were in Yamato sound plausible. Even the NBTHK states that this Genkō two blade reminds them in terms of tsukurikomi and interpretation of the jiba of the Yamato tradition. However, there are also Mitsunaga works extant which feature a nie-utsuri and so also another theory is possible, one that says that he was actually either an Awataguchi or a Rai smith. One of them is shown in picture 2. It is an unsigned tantō but which has a similar shape as the jūyō-bijutsuhin and which is attributed by the NBTHK to Heianjō Mitsunaga. This blade is in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri (on both sides this time), has an iori-mune, a relatively narrow mihaba, an uchizori, a thick kasane, and only little fukura. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame that tends to nagare in places and that features ji-nie, fine chikei, and a faint nie-utsuri. The hamon is a narrow and shallow ko-nieladen notare-chō with a wide and bright nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-gunome and plenty of kinsuji. the bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. There is a koshi-bi wie soebi on both sides which run as kaki-nagashi into the tang and the nakago is almost ubu (it is slightly machi-okuri), has a shallow kurijiri, and katte-sagari yasurime.


Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mumei: Den Heianjō Mitsunaga (伝平安城光長), nagasa 24.3 cm, uchizori, motohaba 1.95 cm


Whilst the first two blades were more on the Yamato side, blade number 3 shown below rather tends towards the Rai School. It is a small hira-zukuri tanto with a nagasa of 21.1 cm, uchizori, and a relatively slender mihaba. its kitae is a dense ko-itame with ji-nie and a nie-utsuri and its hamon is a nie-laden hoso-suguha-chō that is mixed with ko-gunome, notsure, and sunagashi. The bōshi is only slightly undulating, featuring a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake that runs back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side gomabashi. The tang is a little bit suriage, has a shallow kurijiri, and katte-sagari-yasurime.


Picture 3: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Heianjō-jū Mitsunaga” (平安城住光長), hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 21.1 cm, uchizori, mihaba 1.75 cm


At this point, I want to give you an idea of how complicated and interwoven the topic of these old smiths is. The Ōseki Shō from the early 1500s says for example that Mitsunaga’s was Konyū (虎熊) and the genealogy of the shintō-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni smiths (compiled in 1601) states that the second generation Nobukuni, one of their ancestors, used that too. This is interesting but could also just be a coincidence. The Kotō Mei Zukushi Taizen and Tsuneishi however say that Mitsunaga’s  was Chonyū/Inyū (猪熊). Those who follow my blog very closely might remember these characters. Read in the Japanese way, Inokuma, we arrive at the place where the Hasebe School had settled in Kyōto (more info here). Very interesting, isn’t it, as one tradition says that Mitsunaga’s father was a Hasebe smith. But there is more. As mentioned in the linked article from 2013, there is the theory that the founder of the Hasebe School himself, Kunishige (国重), was a Yamato Senju’in smith who settled in Kyōto via a stopover in Kamakura where he learned the Sōshū tradition. Now this theory is of course not settled and we will probably never now for sure what was really going on 700 years ago but I take the liberty to throw out some possible scenarios now and then.

In this context, let’s take a look at the signature of the Heianjō smiths. As stated above, they signed with the prefix “Heianjō-jū.” This by itself is nothing special as it just means “resident of Kyōto,” that is, although uncommon for these schools, it would have been theoretically possible that even an Awataguchi or a Rai smith had signed with “Heianjō-jū.” However, the term Heianjō (平安城) comes with some contextual baggage so to speak. It was introduced, with Heiankyō (平安京), to distinguish the new Kyōto capital from the old one in Nara, which was Heijōkyō (平城京). Well, that move of the capital had been taken place 500 years before the Heianjō School emerged but taking into consideration (often deliberate) subtleties in Japanese language, it is possible that signing with this prefix was a way for former Yamato smiths to proudly state that they were now working in Kyōto, an issue that Sanjō, Gojō, Awataguchi and Rai smiths didn’t have to worry about as they were old-established Kyōto smiths. Incidentally, there is the old tradition that some Yamato smiths had their origins within the Iruka group (入鹿) of Kii province which in turn is said to have been founded by Mōgusa smiths in 10th century. So from that point of view, the Kokon Kaji Mei Hayamidashi is not totally off stating that the ancestor of the Heianjō lineage has northern Mōgusa roots in the wider sense.

Below I want to present the genealogy of the Heianjō School as I see it today.

Genealogy Heianjo


The Nagayoshi lineage will be the subject of the next chapter. Somewhat odd is that it appears that there are no blades of Mitsunaga’s son and (the first generation) Nagayoshi’s father Yoshinaga extant. At least I wasn’t able to find one… The Kokon Mei Zukushi might provide a hint for why Yoshinaga blades are virtually non-existent. In their genealogy namely his place is left blank and filled with the information “daughter of Mitsunaga.” This would mean that Yoshinaga was Mitsunaga’s son-in-law, what leads to a range of possible scenarios. Maybe Mitsunaga’s first born child was a girl and he waited in vain for being blessed with a male heir and as time went on and on, he eventually married his daughter to Yoshinaga to pass on his profession as a swordsmith. So maybe Yoshinaga came to the family relatively late. Well, there was according to tradition also the son Sadaie (定家) (see genealogy) but it is possible that after marrying his daughter to Yoshinaga, Mitsunaga’s wife did give birth to a boy eventually. Or Sadaie was adopted as another possible candidate to take over the lineage. It is interesting that the Kokon Mei Zukushi lists a Nagayoshi after Sadaie and one after the Mitsunaga’s daughter. Possible that there was some confusion going on after Mitsunaga died and it was decided that both Yoshinaga and Sadaie’s sons were allowed to continue with the Nagayoshi name, like as it was the case later with the two Echizen Yasutsugu lineages.

Anyway, that’s just some thoughts on the early Heianjō smiths and the Nagayoshi lineage will be dealt with in the next chapter.

Easter eBook Super Sale IV


I just started, like last three years before, an Easter eBook Super Sale where ALL of my eBooks are reduced by 50%! This offer will be valid for until April 6 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, by check, 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

Thoughts on the Gokaden

In the very same source I addressed here, I found another very interesting entry, an entry that kind of predicts the well-known concept of the so-called gokaden (五箇伝), the “Five Traditions”.

At the beginning of the Yamashiro part of my Kantei series I have stated that it is generally assumed that the system of the gokaden (五ヶ伝・五箇伝), lit. “The Five Traditions,” was introduced by Hon´ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜, 1879-1955). “His” five traditions were:

  • Yamashiro tradition (Yamashiro-den, 山城伝)
  • Yamato tradition (Yamato-den, 大和伝)
  • Bizen tradition (Bizen-den, 備前伝)
  • Sōshū tradition (Sōshū-den, 相州伝)
  • Mino tradition (Mino-den, 美濃伝)

Before his time, swords, in particular kotō swords, were mostly classified according to their production site, that is the province they were made in. For example, blades made in Bizen were called Bizen-mono (備前物), and such made in Yamato were called Yamato-mono (大和物). But this classification via mono (物, lit. “thing” or rather “work” in this context) and the province a blade was made in is inflexible and does not make clear any stylistic connections. That is, you can’t see at a glance that for example an Enju blade is, via the Yamashiro tradition, actually stylistically connected to the Kyōto-based Rai school when it is just listed as Kyūshū-mono. So Kōson’s approach via den (traditions) makes sense but the interesting find I made recently shows that he did not come up with that gokaden system out of the blue.



So the section in question is basically about the basics of kantei and it is written in a somewhat esoteric manner. Lets begin with the overview that caught my attention. As seen above, we are provided with five basic classifications, very similar to Kōson’s gokaden. These classifications are:

Spring: Bizen – steel like wood
Summer: Yamashiro – steel like fire
Late Summer: Kyūshū – steel like earth
Fall: Sagami – steel like metal
Winter: Yamato – steel like water

As you probably realize right away, we are dealing here with the concept of the Five Elements or Five Phases (五行, Chinese Wǔ Xíng, Japanese gogyō). Before the mid-Edo period, this concept was very much in use in Japan and, to keep it simple here, it was only given up because of the nationalistic push applied by the Tokugawa bakufu. The book in question was written in the early Edo period and so it still follows the Five Elements approach that was prevailing in earlier periods. It is interesting to see that Mino is not in that list, although by the time the book was written, it had been a major sword production site for more than one hundred years. This suggests that earlier wisdom was copied here which had not yet adopted the Mino tradition into its curriculum (although Mino is still introduced, as part of the Sōshū tradition, see below).

Now the supplement of “steel like wood” for example does not have any direct meaning, neither does “spring” for Bizen province, and it seems that the Five Elements system was applied to swords as a memory aid so to speak. Like an easy to remember way of summing up the five major sword production sites by the manageable number of five which was anyway used by everyone because to the Five Elements concept. But there is more. This list of five is then expanded on the following pages of the book and each province/region is listed with its major schools. Although there are some associations which are hard to follow in terms of workmanship, this expansion of the list of five is actually doing what Kōson was doing later, and that is listing schools and/or smiths in each group which are stylistically connected. The first section is expanded as:

Spring: Bizen – Wood
jōsaku Ichimonji (一文字)
jōsaku Osafune Mitsutada (長船光忠)
jōsaku Hatakeda Moriie (畠田守家)
Ukai Unji (鵜飼雲次)
chūsaku Yoshioka-Ichimonji Sukemitsu (吉岡一文字助光)
gesaku Yoshii Naganori (吉井永則)
gege-saku Kozori Yoshikage (小反吉景)
chūsaku Tajima Hōjōji Kunimitsu (但馬法成寺国光)
chūsaku Bitchū Aoe Moritsugu (備中守次)
chūsaku Bingo Mihara Masaie (備後三原正家)
gesaku Suō Niō Kiyotsuna (周防二王清綱)
jōsaku Hōki Ōhara Sanemori (伯耆大原真守)

As you can see, there is already a qualitative classification via the jōsaku, chūsaku etc. system and for some reason, this school of knowledge thought that Niō Kiyotsuna and Ōhara Sanemori somehow belonged to Bizen. For the sake of completeness, I want to quote the remaining four expansions in the following, and associations have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Summer: Yamashiro – Fire
jōsaku Sanjō Munechika (三条宗近)
chū-no-chū Rai Kuniyoshi (来国吉)
jōsaku Raitarō Kuniyuki (来太郎国行)
jōsaku Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊)
jōsaku Niji-Kunitoshi (二字国俊)
chū-no-ge Ryōkai (了戒)
jōsaku Chūdō-Rai Mitsukane (中堂来光包)
betsujō Awataguchi Tōmanosuke Norikune (粟田口藤馬之丞則国)
gesaku Settsu Nakajima-Rai Kuninaga (摂津中島来国長)
gesaku Rai Tomokuni (来倫国)
gesaku Rai Kuninao (来国直)
chūsaku Higo Kikuji Enju Kunimura (肥後菊地延寿国村)
gesaku Heianjō Mitsunaga (平安城光長)
gesaku Inaba Kokaji Kagenaga (因幡小鍛冶景長)
gesaku Nobukuni 3rd generation (信国三代)

Late Summer: Kyūshū – Earth
betsujō Bungo Kishindayū Yukihira (豊後紀信太夫行平)
jōsaku Ki no Masatsune (紀正恒)
chūsaku Sō Sadahide (僧定秀)
gesaku Jitsu’a (実阿)
gege-saku Satsuma Naminohira Yukiyasu (薩摩浪平行安)
chū-no-ge Chikugo Miike Motozane (筑後三池元真)
gesaku Ōshū Mōgusa Takeyasu (奥州舞草雄安)
gesaku Chikuzen Kongōbyōe Moritaka (筑前金剛兵衛盛高)
gesaku Bungo Takada Tomoyuki (豊後高田友行)
jōsaku Etchū no Kuni Matsukura-jū Yoshihiro (越中国松倉住義弘)
jōsaku Etchū ni Kuni Gofukuyama Norishige (越中国御服山則重)

Fall: Sagami – Metal
jōsaku Bizen Saburō Kunimune (備前三郎国宗)
jōsaku Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光)
jōsaku Kamakura-Rai Kunitsugu (鎌倉来国次)
jōsaku Tōroku Sakon Kunitsuna (藤六左近国綱)
jōsaku Tōsaburō Yukimitsu (藤三郎行光)
mujō Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗)
betsujō Hikoshirō Sadamune (彦四郎貞宗)
chūsaku Kurōjirō Hiromitsu (九郎次郎広光)
chūsaku Akihiro (秋広)
chū-no-jō Tōgenji Sukezane (藤源次助真)
gesaku Kyō Hasebe Kunishige (京長谷部国重)
jōsaku Mino no Kuni Kaneuji (美濃国兼氏)
gesaku Mino no Kuni Kinjū (美濃国金重)
Chikuzen no Kuni Sa (筑前国左)
chūsaku Bizen no Kuni Chōgi (備前国長義)
jōsaku Bizen no Kuni Kanemitsu (備前国兼光)
chūsaku Bizen no Kuni Motoshige (備前国元重)
gesaku Iwami no Kuni Izuha-jū Naotsuna (石見国出羽住直綱)
gesaku Owari Yamada-Seki Kunitsugu (尾州山田関国次) (via Mino)
gesaku Hachiya-jū Daruma (蜂谷住達磨) (via Mino)
gesaku Etchū Uda Kunimitsu (越中宇多国光)
gesaku Kaga Fujishima Tomoshige (加賀藤島友重)
gesaku Izumo Dōei Naganori (出雲道永永則)
gesaku Awa Kaifu Yasuyoshi (阿波海部泰吉)
gesaku Echizen Chiyozuru Kuniyasu (越前千代鶴国安)

Winter: Yamato – Water
chūsaku Senju’in Shigehiro (千手院重弘)
betsu Taima Kuniyuki (当麻国行)
jōsaku Tegai Kanenaga (手掻包永)
chūsaku Shikkake Norinaga (尻懸則長)
chūsaku Hoshō Gorō (保昌五郎)
gesaku Suruga Shimada Yoshisuke (駿河島田義助)
gesaku Mikawa Heianjō Nagayoshi (三河平安城長吉)
gesaku Ise Kuwana Muramasa (伊勢桑名村正)
gesaku Wakasa Fuyuhiro (若狭冬広)


So it appears to me, as indicated, that the Five Elements approach was nothing more than a vehicle to learn by heart and remember these smiths and their qualitative evaluation. Imagine you are the son of a high-ranking samurai who is sent to learn kantei with a Hon’ami or a Takeya sensei of that time and after a while the teacher would ask you: “What are the smiths for fall and what evaluation do they have?” or “What are the earth steel smiths?” You probably got beaten with a bokutō if you don’t remember correctly 😉

Next in the book follow the major kantei points, distributed into the “Five Elements of Shape” (gotai, 五体) and the “Ten Characteristics” (jūsei, 十性). The Five Elements of Shape are: tsukurikomi, kissaki, mune, shinogi, and overall shape. And the Ten Characteristics are: bōshi, kaeri, nie, nioi, course of hamon, hada, color of the steel (which is again divided into five colors: blue, red, yellow, white, and black), shine, ji, and kitae.

In conclusion I want to say that I am of the opinion that although this all sounds esoteric at first glance, we should not pay too much attention to that, or rather don’t go down that rabbit hole too deeply. Like here, I get more the impression that the concept of splitting up information into five bullet points was an easy way to make such lists as everyone know the Five Elements concept. It is very interesting to see some pre-Kōson gokaden system and that is why I thought I should share this with my readers.