Tameshigiri with a ko-wakizashi

At our NY Token Kai meeting at the Met last month, I was were briefly talking about cutting tests (tameshigiri) with some of the attendees as one of the blades on display, a wakizashi by the third Edo Yasutsugu (康継) generation, has one inlaid in gold. The question came up about cutting test extremes, e.g. the maximum number of bodies that were ever cut through (seven on a katana by Kanefusa, 兼房). On this occasion, I brought up that I even remembered seeing a short ko-wakizashi cutting through a body but couldn’t recall the maker on the spot. Doing some digging, I eventually found the blade that I was thinking of. It is a ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of mere 38.5 cm (15.1”) by the first generation Nobukuni (see picture below).


Picture 1: jūyō, ko-wakizashi, mei: Nobukuni (信国), kinzōgan-mei Kuroda Chikuzen no Kami-dono go-shoji – Dō-otoshi kirite Nakahawa Saheita + kaō (黒田筑前守殿御所持・胴落切手中川左平太「花押」), nagasa 38.5 cm, sori 0.6 cm, motohaba 3.35 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


The type of cut used is not mentioned but this was common at the time of expert sword tester Nakagawa Saheita (中川左平太, ?-1653) as tameshigiri were yet not standardized. However, there were already specific terms for cutting through/off limbs etc. so it can be said that the blade did cut somewhere through a torso (, 胴). Now the blade is obviously not a tantō and does have some substance, but still very impressive, isn’t it?

Well, shorter blades were often tested with a special test hilt (kiri-tsuka, 切り柄) which are said to have been in use since the Momoyama period (1573-1600). In a document named Yamano-ryū Ryōdan no Maki (山野流両段之巻) from the second year of Kan’ei (寛永, 1624), we find recommendations on the length of kiri-tsuka depending on the length of the blade that was going to be tested. The entry that qualifies for the blade introduced here states that for a blade with a nagasa between 1 shaku 5 sun and 9 sun (45~27 cm, 17.7~10.6”), the kiri-tsuka should measure 1 shaku 4 sun or 1 shaku 5 sun (42 or 45 cm, 16.5 or 17.7” respectively) long. That is, such short blades were tested with hilts about as long as the blade itself.

Some of these early kiri-tsuka were just tightly wrapped whereas others were reinforced by metal bands. Later on, the famous Yamada (山田) family of sword testers came up with sophisticated, more ergonomical kiri-tsuka reinforced by metal rings and hold in place by a mekugi and a wedge instead of a habaki (see pictures below).


Picture 2: Various forms of kiri-tsuka.


As stated in the kinzōgan-mei, the blade was once owned by Kuroda Chikuzen no Kami, which may refer to Kuroda Yoshitaka (黒田孝高, 1546-1604) or to his son Nagamasa Kuroda Nagamasa (黒田長政, 1568-1623), although in most cases, it refers to the latter. I wrote about a similar reference to a Kuroda ownership here. Also lead tsuba, so-called tameshi-tsuba (試し鐔), were sometimes used to add weight to a blade that was going to be tested in order improve the result. The Nezu-ryū (根津流, 17th century) of tameshigiri recommends that for tantō measuring less than 9 sun 5 bu (~ 28.8 cm, 11.3”), a tameshi-tsuba weighing somewhere between 250 and 300 monme (940~1.125 g) should be used. For ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of about 1 shaku and 5 or 6 sun (45~48 cm, 17.7~18.9”), the tameshi-tsuba should weigh 150 to 200 monme (560~750 g). So our Nobukuni ko-wakizashi would be somewhere in between.

As for kiri-tsuka and cutting tests in general, much more detailed info can be found in my Tameshigiri book. And that should do it for today.


Picture 3: Kuroda Nagamasa.

NY Token Kai Meeting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So yesterday, March 31, 2019, I had the honor of moderating a study meeting of the local sword club NY Token Kai here at the Met. With 43 participants (if I counted correctly, plus five staff), it was very well attended and the Art Study Room that we had set up for the meeting was maxed out but not overcrowded. From the feedback that I have received on the spot and later last night via email and text I think I am confident to say that this first NY Token Kai meeting at the Met was a great success! Feedback, positive and negative, is highly welcome, so please use the comment section below.


Now I made “Echizen Yasutsugu and the Shimosaka School” the topic of this first meeting. Background for my selection was that I had to find an area within our collection that is representative in terms of both quantity and quality. Our department is in the possession of about 15 Yasutsugu/Schimosaka School swords from which I picked the best five, five because this is the traditional number of what would be at a sword appreciation meeting (kanshō-kai, 鑑賞会) in Japan. No kantei this time, but I want to do one at a future meeting.


So the meeting started with my talk about the mentioned topic, which I explored from a more historic point of view rather than just narrating the workmanships of all Shimosaka masters and Yasutsugu generations. As you know, I always like to provide background information and connect the dots and so I refrained from mechanically reciting ko-itame this and gunome that if you know what I mean. In parallel to the five blades which I will introduce below, we were unboxing two of the boxes that house fittings by each of the Gotō generations (I have written about one of them here). Well, rather one of them … I had physically checked them both last Friday to see their interior but when we got them off the cart we learned that one box had magically locked itself over the weekend. Our conservators tried to pick the lock but no luck (or rather not the right tools present that day). However, we did find the keys to all the boxes today, so everything is fine and we were discussing the possibility of having some of these boxes (our department owns four) on display in our galleries.


Now the following five blades were put out for study:

  1. mumei wakizashi Higo Daijō Sadakuni (肥後大掾貞国)
  2. hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi signed “Echizen Yasutsugu” (越前康継), Shodai
  3. wakizashi signed “(Aoi-mon) Yasutsugu nanban-tetsu o motte – Bushū Edo ni oite kore o tsukuru” (「葵紋」康継以南蛮鐵・於武州江戸作之), with gold inlay cutting test, Edo-Sandai
  4. katana signed “(Aoi-mon) Yasutsugu nanban-tetsu o motte Bushū Edo ni oite tsukuru” (「葵紋」康継以南蛮鐵於武州江戸作), Edo-Sandai
  5. katana signed “Echizen-jū Hyūga no Kami Fujiwara no Sadatsugu” (越前住日向守藤原貞次)


Between looking at the blades, or rather waiting in line to do so, and checking out the Gotō box(es), there was plenty of time for conversation I felt that everyone was having a great time. Before I am adding some more pictures and I would like to thank the club and its members for making a donation to our department (it is much appreciated by all of my colleagues), my dear colleagues Catherine Chesney, Sean Belair, and Ted Hunter for their assistance, and also of course the head of our department, Pierre Terjanian, who gave the green light right from the first time when I checked out the possibility of holding a NY Token Kai meeting at the Met. My sincere gratitude to all of you!










Honda Shigetsugu’s letter

When Honda Shigetsugu (本多重次, 1529-1596) was in camp at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, he wrote a brief letter to his wife, using the classical 5-7-5 syllable Haiku form for the middle part, the actual message:


Ippitsu mōsu: Hi no yōjin – O-Sen yasasuna – uma koyase! Kashiku…

“This will just be a short note: Be careful about fire, don’t let O-Sen (their son Senchiyo, later Narishige) loose weight, and feed well the horses! Yours sincerely …”

At first glance, this letter may appear to just contain some heartless orders by a ruthless Sengoku warlord, but Shigetsugu (not sure if he will survive the battle and ever see his family again) knew that his wife will understand the true meaning behind his words, which is: “As I am in battle, all domestic responsibilities are with you my dear, so take care that everyone, including all servants, pays attention so that nothing catches fire. We have five children but our oldest son Senchiyo will become my heir. Thus, if it comes down to that certain members of the household have to step back, it should not be him. Also, take good care of the horses as our lives as warriors are depending on them on the battlefield. Yours sincerely …”


The Ashikaga Takauji Armor

As my recent Facebook post on the Ashikaga Takauji armor gained some traction, I thought I better recap the provenance/details of that ō-yoroi in a post here. Before we start, I would like to mention that the detailed research on the armor referenced here was carried out by Mr. Ogawa Morihiro (小川盛弘), Special Consultant Emeritus of The Metropolitan Museum of Ar, in the 1980s. Also, for more high-res pictures of the suit, please check out the museum’s website here.

The armor in question (14.100.121b-e).

For the most part of its life, which spans over almost 700 years of existence, the armor is thought to have been preserved in the Shinomura Hachimangū (篠村八幡宮), located in former Tanba province, just on the Western outskirts of Kyōto (close to the present-day town of Kameoka). When Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358) was heading from Kamakura to Kyōto to fight the army that Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇, 1288-1339) had just raised in Hōki province in another attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate, he stayed for ten days at that very Shinomura Shrine to pray for victory in battle. Tradition has it that he donated the armor in question to the shrine to appease Hachiman, the God of War. He indeed win by the way and you can easily google the history of events.

Takauji2Portrait of a mounted warrior, long believed to depict Ashikaga Takauji.

Now we have to fast forward 570 years as the earliest thing we know for certain brings us to around 1902~1903, which was when the Kyōto-based antique dealer Ide Zenbei (井手善兵衛), who ran a store named Jidai’ya (時代屋) on Kyōto’s Shijō Street, bought the armor from the local Matsui (松井) family. Ide then sold it to Bashford Dean on July 19, 1905 for 1,200 Yen (about $17,000 today) who in turn gave it as a gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1914 whose first Arms and Armor Curator he had become two years prior. We neither know when the armor left the Shinomura Hachimangū and came into the possession of the Matsui, nor if it went directly from the shrine to the family or through “detours.” 

There exist detailed drawings of the armor which mention Matsui Kyōsaku (松井杏朔), a physician in the service of the Kameyama fief (亀山藩), the domain in which the Shinomura Hachimangū was located, as its owner. There are fief records extant which indeed list Matsui Kyōsaku as a physician, namely for the year Tenmei five (天明, 1785). Thus, it appears that the armor was already owned by the Matsui family as early as by the late 18thcentury. Incidentally, a member of the Matsui who died in Tenpō 13 (天保, 1842), who may have been the same person as Kyōsaku, donated the substantial sum of 120 silver pieces to a local temple, which tells us that the family was well off and therefore perfectly capable of owning such an armor. Another possible scenario: The armor was owned by the shrine but given into the custody of the Matsui family, probably patrons of the Shinomura Hachimangū as well, for safekeeping. After several generations, the lines between the actual owner and the safekeeper had become blurred and the maker of the drawings erroneously identified Matsui Kyōsaku as owner. And by another 70+ years later, when Ide bought it, the Matsui were assuming the armor was in their possesion. By the way, the drawings bear the “Matsuoka Library” seal and so it is assumed that they were done by Matsuoka Yukiyoshi (松岡行義, 1794-1848). Yukiyoshi was a retainer of the Kurume fief (久留米藩) in Chikuzen province, a scholar of court/military practices, and was also engaged in armor making, hence the detailed and precise drawings of the ō-yoroi in question.

Takauji3Inside of Bashford Dean’s house in Misaki.

Back to when Dean bought the suit. There exists a photograph from the inside of the house that Dean had built himself at Misaki (Kanagawa Prefecture, about 40 miles to the south of Tōkyō) which shows the armor put up on a chest. The two sode which were associated with the suit are hanging on the left wall and the helmet was put on a helmet stand but placed on a table on the other side of that room (shown in another photograph). In his studies, Mr. Ogawa has pointed out that neither the sode nor the helmet are original to the suit, although being very close in production time and interpretation (one sode however, the right one, was completely different and was deaccessioned by the museum later). Interestingly, the very sode and helmet are depicted in Matsuoka’s illustrations, so they are associated with the armor from at least the late 18th, early 19th century onwards. The whereabouts of the right sode are unknown. 

The left sode in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (14.100.50).

Also, the period photograph shows that the armor was fixed up before it was shipped to the US, e.g. the front and rear segments of the kusazuri had become completely separated from the a nd the bottom suso no ita of the right front segment was missing (and replaced accordingly). As mentioned, Dean gifted the armor in 1914 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the rest is history. Since then, it has been studied and published multiple times (e.g. by the famous grand scholar of armor, Yamagami Hachirō, 山上八郎) and in 1986, the city of Ashikaga, the place of origin of the clan of the same name, had commissioned master armorer Myōchin Muneyuki (明珍宗恭, 1917-2011) with creating a replica of the entire suit. 

Photograph from before the armor was fixed up (with the sode attached).

Finally I want to address the interpretation of the armor. It comes under the classification of a shiroito tsumadori ō-yoroi (白糸褄取大鎧), an “large classical armor laced in white with color accents.” It features a sendan no ita and a kyūbi no ita and the front of the dō is covered with a very impressive tsurubashirigawa that depicts the deity Fudō-Myōō (不動明王, Acala) and next to him Kongara-Dōji (矜羯羅童子, Kimkara) and Seitaka-Dōji (制多迦童子, Cetaka), his two boy servants. Ō-yoroi of this age are extremely rare, even more when they preserve, like the example in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, parts of their original lacing. It boils down to less than 40 specimen and if the armor had remained in Japan, it would today be designated as a jūyō-bunkazai, an Important Cultural Asset.

Detail of the tsurubashirigawa.

Last but not least, the background for my Facebook post was that our Department for Arms and Armor had to check the transportability of the armor for an upcoming interdepartmental loan and when everything works out as planned, the suit will be reunited with its helmet (although not originally together but “married” for at least 200 years) and displayed in an exhibition later this summer. I will of course make an announcement here and on my usual social media channels, so stay tuned.

The Yamatorige/Sanchōmō (山鳥毛)

Many of you who follow the “sword news” have surely heard that the city of Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, is currently attempting to purchase the famous national treasure sword Yamatorige/Sanchōmō-Ichimonji in order to bring it home to where it was once made more than 700 years ago. The city has started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and please follow the links below (the second one is to the official Facebook page) if you want to contribute and know more details about the project.



I also want to link below to the article Paul Martin, who is on board with the project, has written for JAPAN-Forward (Sankei Shinbun) that also gives you an overview of what it is all about.



Now in my humble article here, I would like to provide some more historical background and sum up the provenance of the sword. The first time the sword appears on the scene, as far as extant historic records are concerned, is the mid-16th century. The sword register of the Uesugi (上杉) namely, the Uesugi-ke Tōken Daichō (上杉家刀剣台帳), states the following on how it came into the possession of the family:

“When Uesugi Kenshin (上杉謙信, 1530-1578) (then named Nagao Kagetora, 長尾景虎), set out in the tenth month of Kōji two (弘治, 1556) to Kōzuke province where the local castellan of Shiroi Castle (白井城) and relative of Kenshin, Nagao Norikage (長尾憲景, 1511-1583), presented him with a sword by Kanemitsu (兼光). The sword was nicknamed Sanshōmō/Sanchōmō, either because its hardening pattern resembles a forest fire (shō, 焼) on a distant mountain (san, 山), or because it resembles the beautiful tail feathers (mō/ge, 毛) of a copper pheasant (yamadori/yamatori/sanchō, 山鳥).”


Uesugi Kenshin (left), Uesugi Kagekatsu (right)


So, already the Uesugi records are aware of the ambiguity of the blade’s nickname and some even interpret it as “mountain that appears to be on fire due to the evening sun” or as “resembling the controlled burning of dead grass on a hillslope (yamayaki/sanshō) in spring (in order to stimulate growth).” However, that ambiguity goes to a certain extent back to how Kenshin’s son Uesugi Kagekatsu (上杉景勝, 1556-1623) recorded the blade when he made his famous list of the 35 greatest treasure swords in his possession (he had inherited the blade afer his father’s death). That is, Kagekatsu used the archaic way (山てうまう) (see picture below) to note the term Sanchōmō, i.e. teu (てう) being an archaic hiragana variant of chō(ちょう) and mau(まう) of (もう). So without kanji characters, the exact meaning is unclear.


The red arrow marks Kagekatsu’s Santeumau notation.


In short, Sanshōmō became Sanchōmō and the latter then also became Yamatorige, with no one being able today to say with certainty what the actual origins of that nickname are. To me personally, the hamon of the blade sure looks more like fire but with some imagination, I can also see the resemblance to the staggered, graded tail feathers of a copper pheasant (see picture below). Also, as you may have noticed in the above quote, the blade was once attributed to Osafune Kanemitsu and handed down within the Uesugi family as such. When Emperor Meiji visited the Uesugi on their lands in Yamagata in Meiji 14 (1881), he was shown the Sanchōmō/Yamatorige as he was known to be a great sword lover, which was then still labeled as Kanemitsu.



Then in 1937, when Count Uesugi Noriaki (上杉憲章, 1876-1953), the then head of the Uesugi family, received the satus of a jūyō-bijutsuhin (Important Art Object) for the sword plus its mounting, it got attributed to the Ichimonji School, which is appropriate because the blade does indeed look much much more like an Ichimonji/Fukuoka-Ichimonji than a Kanemitsu work (well, Kenshin and Kagekatsu had a liking for Kanemitsu so this may have played into the provenace but that is a topic for another post). Three years later, the sword was designated as a jūyō-bunkazai (Important Cultural Property) and finally in 1952 as kokuhō (National Treasure). Now in the kokuhō designation, the owner of the sword is listed as Okano Taromatsu (岡野多郎松, 1900-?). Okano was one of Japan’s biggest sword collectors in the mid-1900s and owned a large number of jūyō-bunkazai and kokuhō blades. So Uesugi Noriaki, or his family, obviously sold the sword some time between 1940 and 1952 to Okano. The sword was then featured in the catalog to Okano’s collection, the Bizan Aitō Zufu (備山愛刀図譜), published in 1958 by Satō Kanzan in. Ten years later, in 1968, it was on display at the National Treasure special exhibition of the NBTHK where it was introduced as being owned by Okano Mitsuhiro (岡野光弘), who I assume was Taromatsu’s son.


The Sanchōmō in its present condition.

The Sanchōmō when it was designated as a kokuhō in 1952.

Koshirae of the Sanchōmō.


In recent years, maybe three or four years ago if I remember correctly, the current owner (of whom I do not have any information) made the attempt to sell the sword to a museum, institution, or facility located either where the blade was made or were the former lands of the Uesugi were. Eventually negotiations were made with the city of Jōetsu, Niigata Prefecture (former Echigo province and thus historical Uesugi territory), but the deal was cancelled in 2017. And this is where Setouchi City comes into play as one of the owner’s desired destinations of where the sword should be preserved for posterity. As indicated at the very beginning of this post, please refer to the links to get the first-hand information of Setouchi City and all parties involved.

For some additional reading on the Sanchōmō/Yamatorige and its place within the Uesugi family, please see my alternative Sword Legends site here.




The correct reading of certain names

This is just going to be a very brief post but upon suggestion, and also upon working on the Gotō chapter of Volume 3 of the Tosogu Classroom project a while ago, I want to urge collectors, scholars, and connoisseurs to refer to two Gotō artists in particular by their correct name, i.e. the correct reading of their characters.

One is the 11th Gotō main line generation Tsūjō (後藤通乗, 1664-1721). His official first name was (光寿) which is often erroneously read as Mitsutoshi because toshi is the most common name reading of the second character (寿), or unsimplified (壽). However, the correct reading is MitsuNOBU. This is pointed out by Fukushi Shigeo via the furigana (reading aids of syllables printed next to kanji) Mi-tsu-no-bu (みつのぶ) in all of his publications on the Gotō School (see picture below).


Also the Sano Museum uses the proper Mitsunobu reading in their catalogs (see picture below).


The Tōsō Kodōgu Kōza (again, see below) goes into detail and says the following: “It is common to refer to Mitsunobu to as Mitsutoshi but period documents of the Gotō family quote his name with the furigana Mitsunobu.” So, at least the Gotō family should know how to read the name of one of their main line masters, right?



Another name that is often quoted wrongly, and I did so myself in the past, is the official first name of the 16th main line master Hōjō (後藤方乗, 1816-1856). The kanji for his name are (光晃) and are correctly read Mitsuakira. There is some discussion about him being the only Gotō main line master who read the second character of his official first name with three syllables, a-ki-ra, whereas all others just used two-syllable readings, e.g. no-bu as in the previous case. Due to this oddity, it was suggested that his name should be read Mitsuaki, an approach which I followed myself for a while. However, Fukushi Shigeo, the Sano Museum, and Hajime Zenzai from Ginza Chōshūya (see pictures below) all quote his name as Mitsuakira (みつあきら) and therefore I am positive that this is the correct reading.





As mentioned at the beginning, let us all be careful not to mislearn certain name readings as it is so difficult to correct and “unlearn” later, talking from my own experience.

And whilst we are on the topic, I want to point out two more misreadings I see all the time on the net. One is yasurime, yasuriME, ME, and not yasuriMEI. Nothing to do with mei, i.e. it is not “file signature” (鑢銘, yasurimei) but “file marks/strokes” (鑢目). And the other one is Kiyomaro, KiyoMARO, MARO, and not Kiyomaru.

Gotō soroi-kanagu (後藤揃金具)

After roughly a century of peace (with the exception of the Shimabara Rebellion) and stability after the Tokugawa had taken over in 1600, the affluent Genroku era (元禄, 1688-1704) is considered as the Golden Age of the Edo period. However, this period did not last very long as financial miscalculations on part of the bakufu caused an abrupt inflation and much went so to speak downhill from there until rock bottom was hit in the mid to late 1800s. I don’t want to go into too much detail here but suffice to say, and focusing on the ruling bushi class, we see the divide between rich and poor growing gradually bigger from after Genroku onwards.

Well, the super rich were still very rich and when you were from a well-off and high-ranking samurai family, dealing with the issue of luxurious gifts and return-gifts was the order of the day. So apart from swords (I have talked about sword gifts on numerous occasions), what do you give a daimyō son as his wedding gift, e.g. when you are a daimyō or high-ranking hatamoto yourself? Well, from the second half of the 18th century onwards, it became fashionable, i.e. when you really had to leave an impression, to present a complete set of fittings of all Gotō generations. For example, one kozuka, kōgai, pair of menuki, or a full mitokoromono set by each and every one of the Gotō main line generations that existed up to that time. These sets are referred to as Gotō XX-dai soroi-kanagu (後藤◯◯代揃金具), with the XX referring to the then total number of main line generations of course. If its “just” kozuka, a full set may be referred to as Gotō jūrokudai soroi kozuka (後藤十六代揃小柄), as seen here.

This “fashion trend” among the rich goes hand in hand with the practice of the Gotō to issue origami appraisals/evaluations and add motif elements by an earlier generation to a newly made kozuka or kōgai, and signing so on the reverse, e.g. “Mon Teijō – Mitsutaka + kaō (紋程乗 光孝「花押」), which translates as “Motif element by Teijō, (attributed so by) Mitsutaka” (see picture above). Such signatures are referred to as kiwame-mei (極め銘) and newly made kozuka/kōgai with motif elements by an earlier generation to as kiwame-mono (極め物).

Now that all said, main reason for why I made this post is because I want to introduce one way of how such Gotō soroi-kanagu were stored (and presented). So, this is for those who have never seen such sets and I thought that might be interesting to share when I was handling a few of these boxes the other day at The Metropolitan Museum of Art whilst studying sword fittings. For those who have been to the Met by the way and checked out the Japanese arms and armor galleries, the Gotō sets that are on display are to a large extent stored in such boxes (now you know), But let’s start.

The picture below shows the large and heavy wooden box which is inscribed “Gotō-ke jūgodai menuki” (後藤家十五代目貫), “menuki by the 15 Gotō generations.” ↓

When you take off the lid, you see a nice little bundle which you pull out by the lateral purple cloth straps. ↓

Below is the inner chest taken out of the wooden box, still in its custom made cloth cover. ↓

That cloth cover taken off, a black-lacquer chest appears. ↓

Opening its lid, you see more cloth and opening the uppermost cover, another black-lacquer box appears which is labeled origami (折紙). ↓

As you have already guess, it is full of origami for each piece in the set. ↓

Under the origami box is another black-lacquer chest, wrapped in a separate piece of cloth. ↓

The lid of this chest is labeled “Iebori o-menuki” (家彫・御目貫) and taken off, it reveals three drawers with five sections each what brings us to the total of 15, i.e. one section for each Gotō generation, starting with the first generation Yūjõ (祐乗, 1440-1512) on top left (you have to read the names from right to left) and ending with the 15th generation Mitsuyoshi (光美, 1780-1843) aka Shinjō (真乗). ↓

And the picture below shows the whole ensemble. Can you put everything back together? 😉 These were just the menuki and The Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the possession of some more boxes with different sorts of Gotō fittings sets. Last but not least, an extravagant set is owned by the Sano Museum (see here). Their set consists of mitokoromono by the first 14 main line generations.

eBook Super Sale 2018



The DAI TOKEN ICHI is around the corner and it is time for another eBook Super Sale that gives you 50% off. As usual, it works 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 check or 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 tablets/phones with all references you need, if you are attending to the DTI. Should be handy to look up artists or backgrounds on the spot. In this sense, the eBook Super Sale will be up until the end of the month and the next one will not come until next easter.

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
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Oroshigane mentioned in signatures

Translating a signature the other day in which the swordsmith refers to a particular steel he used to make that very sword, I remembered that I had a halfway finished article on a related topic on my HD, and that is the use of oroshigane, or more precisely, on smiths explicitly mentioning in their mei the use of such.

First of all, I want to explain what oroshigane is, and many of the experienced collectors may already know that. Oroshigane is a steel that is produced or refined by the swordsmith himself, or such process, which is called oroshigane as well (the process is sometimes also referred to as jigane-oroshi). In a nutshell, oroshigane basically has two meanings: One is the smith just refining the tamahagane steel he has received from the tatara furnace and that he is going to use for certain parts of the blade, and the other is the smith making the steel for the sword himself, from scratch, i.e. he is making his own tamahagane for which he may use for example steel from old nails, old swords, old castle gate fittings, you name it. Note here: The very term oroshigane does not mean “steel making” per se. So when you read oroshigane in a signature, it means that the smiths wants to stress that he paid special attention to the steel he used for that blade. Several modern swordsmiths today for example go into great lengths (even combined with academic research on iron and steel) to produce their own steel, and proudly mention that in their signatures.

Now in earlier kotō times, going through the process of oroshigane was the norm, that is, a swordsmith had to refine the steel he received through his local supply chain. Today, the steel making process run by the NBTHK via their tatara in Shimane Prefecture is that optimized and sophisticated that the end product, the tamahagane, is basically ready for use by the swordsmiths, i.e. they only have to check and sort it on the basis of its carbon content (different parts of the blade require a steel with a different carbon content, but you already know that). The first time something like a centralized tamahagane production was achived was in the former half of the 16th century. Does that ring a bell? Yes, that came along with the mass production of swords in course of the ongoing wars, a time which went down in history as Sengoku period. Even the initiator of the shinshintō era of sword making, Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀, 1750-1828), noticed that and writes in his Tōken Jitsuyō Ron (刀剣実用論, Essay on the Practicality of Swords):

From around Tenbun (天分, 1532-1555) onwards, the steel produced by the centralized production centers could be used as is and this is when the process of oroshigane started to decline. It was then revived around Keichō (慶長, 1596-1615) by the Kyōto-based master Horikawa Kunihiro (堀川国広, 1531-1614) and was also frequently used by the Ōsaka swordsmith Tsuda Sukehiro (津田助広, 1637-1682) when he tried to recreate works of the Muromachi-period Mino smith Izumi no Kami Kanesada (和泉守兼定). However, the process of oroshigane fell again into oblivion from around Genroku (元禄, 1688-1704) onwards.

This entry is very interesting as it perfectly sums up and corraborates these certain parts in the history of Japanese sword making. That is, with the centralization of steel making and the mass production of swords, local characteristics in the jigane of blades start to blur and followed by a thorough but brief attempt to recreate old kotō masterworks during the Momoyama era, about one hundred years of peace brought forth by the Edo period left the majority of swordsmiths with not really an incentive to go the extra mile to painstakingly refine the already pretty much refined steels they received through their supply chain.


Picture 1: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Tsuda Echizen no Kami Sukehiro – Enpō shichinen hachigatsu hi jigane oroshi o motte kore o tsukuru” (津田越前守助広・延宝七年八月日地鉄研造之), nagasa 65.2 cm, sori 1.6 cm

So far the background of oroshigane but I actually wanted to point out the different ways swordsmiths mentioned that process/steel in their signatures. First of all, and probably due to obvious reasons stated above, I have not yet come across a kotō blade that mentions oroshigane in the mei. Picture 1 shows a blade dated Enpō seven (延宝, 1679) where the aforementioned master Sukehiro states in the signature: “Jigane oroshi o motte kore o tsukuru” (地鉄研造之), “made by using (or applying the process of) oroshigane.” Sukehiro here uses the character (研) which does not read oroshi per se (it reads ken or migaku/togu/suru) but which was used by “borrowing” one of its meanings, which is “to refine,” what brings us again to refined steel.

At this point, you may ask yourself, what does the very term oroshigane actually mean. I mean, gane is clear, it means “steel”, but oroshi? In our case, the term oroshi is assumed to come from the term fuki-orosu (吹き下す) which means “blow down upon,” and was probably chosen because it resembles the way the smith blows air into the prepared steel/charcoal arrangement for the oroshigane process in his furnace. Strong and dangerous winds blowing down the slope of a mountain are referred to as oroshi as well, written with the character (颪), which has to be taken literally so to speak, i.e. “down” (下) and “wind” (風). Tsuda Sukenao (津田助直, 1639-1693/94?) for example, a student of Sukehiro, used that very character when referring to oroshigane (see picture 2).

Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Tsuda Ōmi no Kami Sukenao – Genroku ninen nigatsu hi jigane oroshi o motte kore o tsukuru” (津田近江守助直・元禄二歳二月日以地鉄颪作之, “made by Tsuda Ōmi no Kami Sukenao on a day in the second month of Genroku two (1689) by using oroshigane), nagasa 62.4 cm, sori 1.6 cm

Other possible variants of quoting oroshigane seen in period signatures and documents are (卸し鉄), (卸鉄), (卸鋼), (をろし鉄), and (おろし鉄), and I am sure there are some more, so if you come across one, please let me know. Another way to refer to the process of oroshigane can be seen at the example of the northern Ōshū-based swordsmith Kunitora (国虎, 1658-1718) who was studied with master Inoue Shinkai (井上真改, 1630-1682). In the signature of the blade shown in picture 3, he states “oroshi yutetsu o motte kore o tsukuru” (以颪湯鉄作之) which means “made by refining pig iron.” In other words, he refined, via the oroshigane process, the pig iron he had received. And there even exists a blade by Kunitora, see link here, where he states in the mei that he refined nanban-tetsu via the oroshigane process to make it.


Picture 3: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “[kikumon] Izumi no Kami Fujiwara Kunitora – Oroshi-yutetsu o motte kore o tsukuru” (「菊紋」和泉守藤原国虎・以颪湯鉄作之), nagasa 73.8 cm, sori 2.0 cm

Gotō Ichijō’s personal sword

Before we start, I want to apologize for my recent posts being more brief than usual. Those who follow my page know why and when things have calmed down, i.e. when I have settled in with my new job, and place, I will get back to more detailed and “substantial” articles.

Now this time I want to introduce the tantō that Gotō Ichijō (後藤一乗, 1791-1876) had received as a gift from the bakumatsu era master swordsmith Koyama Munetsugu (固山宗次, 1803-?) and which he owned for the rest of his life. So let’s portray the careers of these two artists.

Picture 1: tantō, mei: “Bizen no Suke Munetsugu kore o saku – Kōka sannen hachigatsu hi – Zō Ichijō Hokkyō” (備前介宗次作之・弘化三年八月日・贈一乗法橋) – “Made by Bizen no Suke Munetsugu on a day in the eighth month of Kōka three (1846) as a gift for Ichijō Hokkyō”; nagasa 31.2 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

First of all, both Ichijō and Munetsugu were already renowned artists at the time the blade was made, which was in Kōka three (弘化, 1846), and very busy with fulfilling orders. That is, Ichijō was 56 and Munetsugu 44, following the Japanese way of counting. Let me begin with Koyama Munetsugu. Munetsugu started his career as smith for the Shirakawa fief (白河藩) of northern Mutsu province which was then ruled by the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira (久松松平) family. So far so good but in Bunsei six (文政, 1823), the bakufu decided that the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira needed to be transferred, and that is, to the Kuwana fief (桑名藩) of Ise province what basically cut their annual income by half. There are some theories why this happened but I don’t want to go into too much detail here and suffice to say, Munetsugu remained employed and was able to keep his job. However, he did not proceed to Kuwana right away but stayed for six more years in Shirakawa, i.e. his move down to Ise took place in Bunsei twelve (1829). Just two years later, he got the chance to go to Edo to work for the fief from its capital premises, which means that Munetsugu was now “where everything happened.” Well, there was a brief break from that as in Tenpō six (天保, 1835), Munetsugu worked for an unknow but short period of time for the Owari-Tokugawa family, i.e. directly from Owari province. We can only speculate why that employment did not continue (maybe it was a temporary contract in the first place) but the then Owari-Tokugawa head, Nariharu (徳川斉温, 1819-1839), tried to revive the economy of his fief but failed first badly as he was wasting so much money with his own ventures. In short, Nariharu eventually received a stern warning from his imperial tutor and obeyed so Munetsugu was probably laid off and that is why he returned to Edo and back into the employment of the Matsudaira.

Well, Munetsugu was just looking back at a very successful time in his career and one year before the blade introduced here was made, i.e. in Kōka two (1845), he had received the honorary title Bizen no Suke (備前介). In concrete terms, we are talking about the Tenpō era (天保, 1830-1844) and a large number of Munetsugu’s works and also of his greatest masterworks go back to that period. Or in other words, it was a few years in the Tenpō era when his career really took off. Incidentally, that was also the time when Munetsugu started his cooperation with the Yamada Asa’emon (山田浅右衛門) family of sword testers.

Picture 2: Gotō Ichijō

Back to Gotō Ichijō. The time the blade was made, the artist had been working for about two decades under his Ichijō name and that with holding the Buddhist priest rank of a hokkyō. He had received that rank after making in Bunsei seven (文政, 1824) the fittings for a tachi of Emperor Kōkaku (光格天皇, 1780-1817). When we look at Ichijō’s career through the lens of extant dated (and precisely datable) works, we recognize two small breaks, one from 1829 to 1832 and one from 1843 to 1846 (the year the very blade introduced here was made). As mentioned, this observation bases on dated/datable works so Ichijō may well have been very busy but did not finish works during these years, possibly working on too many projects at the same time. Also, the Gotō were going through kind of a difficult time right after 1845 as the bakufu discovered a major corruption scandal around one of them, Gotō San’emon Mitsumichi (後藤三右衛門光亨, 1796-1845), who was the 13th Gotō head of the bakufu mint and who was sentenced to death and decapitated in 1845 for his involvement. We don’t know if that incident affected Ichijō at all but it is surely not helpful if one of your relatives, and your family name, is – in that negative manner – all over the news.

This bring is right back to the blade. It is interesting to see that it was a gift as mentioned and we know that Munetsugu and Ichijō were working together on sword orders so this was not a one-time brief touching point of the career of these two artists. Also we know that Ichijō owned that sword until the end of his life, and wore it too (more on this shortly), so we may imply that it had a special meaning for him. So maybe this gift was Munetsugu saying “Hang in there!” and Ichijō was indeed going through difficult times. Or maybe it was all completely different and everything was perfectly fine and the blade was just a nice gesture on part of Munetsugu. Or, another theory, it marked the start of a successful cooperation and friendship.


Picture 3: koshigatana-koshirae with birch andfuemaki flute-style saya which is a work of master lacquer artist Hashiichi (橋市) who lived close to Ichijō, fittings en suite of polished oborogin with gold and silver hira-zōgan ornamentation (menuki and kozuka of shakudō with nanako ground)

In any case, Ichijō made his own fittings for the blade and the full koshirae can be seen in picture 3. The dashi-menuki on the unwrapped hilt depict pairs of 3-5-3 kiri crests for which the Gotō family became famous for, e.g. Tokujō (後藤徳乗, 1550-1631) designing it for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and on the kozuka we see kuyō crests, i.e. the crest of the Gotō family of kinkō artists worn by them since at least the time of their ancestor Yūjō (後藤祐乗, 1440-1512) (see picture 4)

Picture 4: Gotō Yūjō

Now we don’t know if Ichijō made the fittings, and had the koshirae parts made, right when he got the blade from Munetsugu, if he mounted it a certain way for the time being and redid everything at a later point, or if he had just kept the blade in shirasaya for some time and then decided to have it mounted with his own fittings at one point in his life. What we do know for certain is that he was wearing the blade in this koshirae as there exists “photo evidence” for that (see picture 6). A hint on when he made the fittings (and had Munetsugu’s gift blade mounted) may be hidded in the fittings as kurigata, kashira, and kojiri bear the inscription sen-kannin (専堪忍) (see picture 5) which basically means “forbearance/patience.” So, we can speculate that Ichijō chose these characters after going through some kind of difficult times in the mid-1840s, and Munetsugu did indeed present him with this blade to cheer him up, or much later when he was looking back on a very successful career and chose “forbearance/patience” as motto of life. As mentioned, just speculations, but it is so enjoyable and rewarding to reflect on these things.

Picture 5: kurigatga, kashira, and kojiri

Picture 6: Portrait of Ichijō wearing the sword in question.

It is assumed that picture 6 was taken when Kyōto Prefectural Governor Hase Nobuatsu (長谷信篤, 1818-1902) entrusted Ichijō in Meiji six (明治, 1873), i.e. three years before his death, with a post at the Meiji Restoration’s Encouragement of Industry venture which turned into the concrete first Exhibition for the Industrial Promotion of the Country (kokunai-kangyō-hakurankai, 国内勧業博覧会) two years after Ichijō died (and where subsequently many of the famous kinkō artists of the Meiji era participated).