SUGU KO-MIDARE, CHOJI-GUNOME MIDARE with SUNAGASHI, NOTARE O-MIDARE.
YO and MUNE-YAKI.
HAKO-MIDARE and HITATSURA.
KAI and SURUGA: SOSHU style.
and the SUE-BIZEN
|The BUN-GI Triad|
The best of the many Sukesada smiths was Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada in Bizen province. His father was Hikobei no jo Sukesada, a great smith in his own right, eclipsed as a Sukesada only by the skill of his son.
The craft of Yosozaemon was a throwback to earlier times; his is a unique artistry for the Muromachi period, and he stands as the last truly great Bizen smith before this tradition too fades into history. As such, he is considered the representative smith of his period and school, together commonly referred to as Sue Bizen.
Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada had two sons, the nidai Yosozaemon and Genbei no jo Sukesada, both smiths of excellent skill and workmanship. There is a daito in Japan signed both by Yosozaemon and Genbei, and is the only one of its kind that I am aware of. Swords like this are particularly important because they prove a chronology, a similar sword signed both by Hikobei and Yosozaemon names Yosozaemon as the son. Similarly this daito implies a teacher/student relationship at least, if not a filial one, between Yosozaemon and Genbei.
There exists a sword dated Tenmon Rokunen (1538) Nanaju Issai (age 71), and since Yosozaemon died at the age of 76, we know the date of his birth and death, 1467 and 1542 respectively. Yosozaemon continued making swords right until he died, encompassing 42 Juyo Token in his work, and is rated Sai-jo Saku by Fujishiro for greatest quality of workmanship, and O-wazamono for great sharpness. He is valued at 1,000 man yen in the Toko Taikan, but in practice, pieces by him do not often come onto the open market (especially daito). A Juyo Token example by Yosozaemon Sukesada tends to command prices starting at $120,000 USD. That is, if one could even be found for sale. They do come up from time to time, but they disappear fast as he remains one of the most popular smiths among Japanese collectors.
There are many interesting elements in the work of Yosozaemon. Though his skill is unusual for his period, his work conforms to the style of Sue Bizen. This, we should look to the elements of the late Muromachi period in his work with superb execution. The representative tanto of the period tend to be short, with a shape that evokes thoughts of yoroi-doshi (Fujishiro p. 603 ko-shimarishita tanto), or otherwise those of the moroha-zukuri shape (pictured at the right). Katana were rather short, tending to be katate-uchi, so one would expect a shortish and stout nakago, with typical Bizen style nakago-jiri. One will expect the mune to be normal iori mune, and his mei will be confidently chiseled in smallish characters, with a slightly right leaning hand.
The nakago will have a typical Bizen shape as well, and one would expect the nakago mune to be a bit rounded at the machi, which will then slowly flatten out as it proceeds to the nakago-jiri. It is often somewhat elongated in terms of its relationship to the cutting edge. As the uchisori shape is a throwback to Kamakura times, this elongated nakago becomes a good kantei point in determining period.
The katana sugata that is traditionally associated (somewhat erroneously, sugata is determined by period more than school) with Bizen has most of the curve near the nakago. Beginning with Nambokucho the sori began to creep up the sugata, and in the Muromachi period you see saki sori, where the curve is evident near through the monouchi to the kissaki.
Utsuri is commonly associated with Bizen works, but by the late Muromachi utsuri had mostly disappeared, so we would not necessarily expect to see it in the work of Yosozaemon. He is well known for a fine mokume and itame kitae, and has produced works in an active gunome choji, gunome midare, suguha, notare, and hitatsura hamon all nioi deki. His work will appear bright and silvery. Ji nie are present, and can form hada hataraki such as chikei. Yosozaemon is famous for a hamon he invented, which is scarcely seen, called kani-no-sume or kani-no-hasami (crab claw, pictured in the following oshigata) as it looks like the pincers of a crab. The boshi will generally be a continuation of the hamon, most often with very deep kaeri.
His kitae is considered to be the best of his time, so when considering a piece that is extremely well forged, with otherwise typical Sue Bizen characteristics, Yosozaemon should come to mind. His work do not often bear horimono though some are present.
The consideration of mei is particularly important in Sue Bizen work. There are various forms of signature that one sees in the Osafune smiths. One tends to see the nijimei signatures, and signatures of the form Bishu Osafune Smith in the earlier Osafune periods.
In the Sue Bizen times, a tradition began to be held on the signatures which can indicate the quality of the work. Using Sukesada as an example, lowest quality would probably be mumei, and then Bishu Osafune Sukesada, which are often considered mass produced works (kazu-uchi "mass produced" or taba-gatana "bundled swords," from being sold wrapped as a bundle rather than individually). They will most likely not have a date associated with them. As the signature becomes longer, moving to Bizen Kuni Ju Osafune Sukesada (Saku). These will usually have a date. The highest form will combine this signature with the name of the person ordering the work to be done, and these are considered chumon uchi (ordered works). They will most often have a date. Often on these, or without the client's name, one will see a zokumei (personal name), in the case of this smith it will read, Bizen Kuni Ju Osafune Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada. Sue Bizen swords with zokumei are almost always considered chumon uchi, and almost always will bear a date. Generally, the rule of thumb is that the more information there is on the nakago, the better, when it comes to Sue Bizen smiths.
The mei is something that is important to note, as the names Hikobei, Genbei, and Yosozaemon are very often forged. If one sees a sword with zokumei by one of these smiths, it is a signal that the swordsmith has "signed off" on what he considers to be his best quality of work, special ordered for a client. Such a work will not contain forging flaws or low quality work. So if a lack of skill is evident on such a sword, one should be thinking it is gimei.
Furthermore, the signature form where Ju (lives in) precedes the town name Osafune is irregular in general, but it is the rule for Sue Bizen smiths. The english grammatical equivalent would be a sentence that says, "In California state, lives Los Angeles John Smith." Because it is peculiar and specific to Sue Bizen, many forgers of these names make the mistake of placing Ju after the town name of Osafune, which would be normal for most everything else. However, in this case, it is a very strong clue to the sword being gimei, no matter what the rest of the sword might say to you.
Another note is to valuation. A sword with zokumei, in effect, already has the blessing of the swordsmith so would be given an easier path to Juyo papers than one bearing no zokumei. This does not mean that lacking a zokumei implies that a sword is lesser quality, as there are many that are Juyo without zokumei, and in one case there is even a Juyo katana by Hikobei no jo Sukesada that is signed Bishu Osafune Sukesada, one of the lowest forms of signature. There are rarely hard and fast rules in regards to Nihonto; one has to internalize as much information as possible and then make a judgment call according to one's experience.
Because of all of this, Sue Bizen swords in general have signatures with implication far and above those of other periods and schools.
The late Kamakura period Japanese sword is often described as the
greatest edged weapon ever made. It certainly was an epoch in the long history
of Japanese sword making. By then the Soshu tradition had emerged as the
dominant force in further guiding the evolution and development of the sword. In
Sagami province, smiths like Kunitsuna and Sukezane combined many of the best
elements found in the Yamashiro and Bizen traditions. The famous group of sword
smiths that followed them culminated with Masamune and his school. Magnificent
blades were produced in grand shapes and proportions that had not been seen
before this time. Forged and laminated with as many as five separate pieces and
heat-treated [the edge hardened & tempered) at mostly higher temperatures,
these works were on the whole much more free and lively in their appearance. The
blade surfaces displayed a well worked itame hada often mixed with mokume and
covered with nie in such amounts as to seem almost layered on. The edge steel
after hardening produced equally bold workings [hataraki], again with strong nie
and kinsuji that weave around and through the hamon. Many of the swords made in
this manner were stronger and harder overall than what had been produced up to
that time. Perhaps this kind of blade was [more] brittle and prone to chipping
too, but they were sharper and simply cut better than others. In looking at them
today, and usually in a greatly shortened and reduced state, it is still very
easy to see why they were so popular. Simply put, Soshu swords show well, even
at a distance. The owner of such a blade was easily carrying "the biggest
During the early part of the 14th century, the school of Masamune was attracting many new "students" or converts to their style of sword making. Clearly, Soshu den was sending many innovative 'fingers of influence' to the farthest reaches of Japan. Men who had spent most of their time forging swords in just one tradition were now experimenting with these new ideas. It has often been written that Masamune [is supposed to have] trained a select group of ten pupils which are considered to be the Juttetsu or 'Ten Famous Students' or "10 Great Disciples of Masamune". These students are:
Chogi (Bishu Osafune Ju Chogi Saku) (Bizen Kuni Osafune Ju Chogi)
Although Chogi was probably not a direct student of Masamune due to the dates when he was forging, his works are greatly influenced by Masamune's work and the Soshu tradition and the work of the Soden Bizen swordsmiths.
Kanemitsu (Bizen Kuni Osafune Ju Kanemitsu) (Bishu Ssafune ju Kanemitsu) (Bizen no Kuni Osafune ju Saemonjo Fujiwara Kanemitsu)
Kanemitsu may have created some of the sharpest swords ever known and he produced swords for many generals and other great men. He is another student who was most likely not taught by Masamune directly, but he was influenced by the Soshu and Soden Bizen revolution.
Shizu Saburo Kaneuji (Kaneuji)
Shizu Saburo Kaneuji lived in Yamato province before going to Mino to study under Masamune. Kaneuji's style changed radically in Mino. His swords are most like Masamune's and are often confused with Masamune's. The Mishina school can trace its history back to Kaneuji and through him back to Masamune.
Kinju along with Kaneuji are the founders of the Mino style. Kinju was a monk at the Seisen-ji in Tsuruga. He led to the creation of Echizen sword making like Kuniyuki, moving to Mino around the time of Ryakuo (1338-1342) creating the Seki tradition.
Kunishige (Hasebe Kunishige)
Kunishige created the Hasebe school where swords in the style of the second period of Soshu and Yamashiro were produced. His swords are considered by some to be equal to Akihiro and Hiromitsu. Kunishige created the Heshikiri Hasebe, The Forceful Cutter. It is listed in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and then Oda Nobunaga. It bears a gold appraisal inlay of Honami Kotoku called a Kinzogan. Today the sword is a family heirloom of the Kuroda Daimyo Ke. The sword received its name from the story of Oda Nobunaga drawing it to cut through a table to kill Kannai, a tea master who betrayed him.
Kunitsugu Rai Minamoto Kunitsugu)
Kunitsugu also goes by the name Kamakura Rai as he is the grandson of Rai Kuniyuki. The influence of the Soshu and Yamashiro traditions are seen in his works.
Saemonzaburo (Chikushu Sa) (Chikuzen no Kuni ju Sa)
Saemonzaburo believed to go by the name Yasuyoshi, signed his work using the first two letters of his given name. He is considered by some to be one of the greatest of Masamune's students. He was a Soshu swordsmith and he also created the Chikuzen tradition.
Saeki Norishige (Norishige, Saeki)
Saeki Norishige is historically considered to be one of the best of Masamune's students. He is numbered among the Juttetsu. However, current research indicates that he was a senior student to Masamune, junior to Yukimitsu, and under the great teacher Shintōgo Kunimitsu. He, like Go, comes from Etchu province and is well known as the only smith to have mastered the style of matsukawa-hada, pine tree bark pattern steel, making his work unique.
Go Yoshihiro (Yoshihiro)
Very few works exist by Go Yoshihiro due to his death at the young age of 27. No known signed works exist. He is believed to have gone by the names of Go Yoshihiro or simply Go, which was the name of the town where he came from. He is a Soshu sword smith and a member of the Etchu tradition.
Naotsuna (Sekishu Izuwa Naotsuna Saku) (Naotsuna Saku)
Many theories exist that Naotsuna may have been a student of Saemonzaburo among others. His work is considered by many to have been influenced by Soshu even if not taught by Masamune directly, he is also influenced by the Soden Bizen and Iwami province style.
The list is well known and among the ten brilliant disciples were two smiths from Bizen province, Kanemitsu and Nagayoshi.
Kanemitsu is usually credited with having started the Soden School, which successfully combined Bizen and Soshu forging techniques. Chogi was active at about the same time, so perhaps he should share this honor as well. Indeed, as is most often the case, the works of Chogi show a stronger use of the Soshu tradition than does Kanemitsu. Signed and dated tanto were often produced, and a small number of long swords still exist, but rarely with their mei intact. Most of the surviving signed and dated examples of Nagayoshi [Chogi] can be placed in time around that of Shochu [1324-25], through Oan [1368-74]. He is generally accepted as having worked around the Embun and Joji eras [1356 or 1362].
It is interesting to note that unsigned and attributed blades done in Yoshino era wide body configurations are fashioned more in the true Soden style than the signed works are. Much can be left to speculation here, but it appears that current scholarship tends to dismiss a direct relationship by Chogi with Masamune and his school. Nagayoshi like so many other sword smith's who worked during this period of time, was very likely caught up with all of the excitement and changes brought on by the 'new wave' of Soshu. He sought to make a better product by utilizing the best elements from both the Bizen and Soshu schools in his own work. Surely to him, recent history had showed this to be a proven formula for success. At a minimum, it can be said that Nagayoshi was a greatly skilled [Bizen] smith who broke almost cleanly away from this long established and original tradition(s). The fact that he could produce such great blades that combined the softer Bizen steel production with the higher temperature nie-deki hardening methods used at Soshu, is proof of that. Although often only faintly visible, it is remarkable that Chogi was still able to create an utsuri on many of his blades.
The Nambokucho period saw the introduction of the o-dachi, a blade that could easily exceed three shaku in length. The intense fighting occurring at that time required a longer weapon of greater strength to gain an advantage over an opponent. The first blow delivered by such a sword would often be the last and deciding one. Den Chogi likely produced many such pieces by the middle of the 14th century.
A variety of highly refined forging methods were used to make these tremendous weapons. He and his group members produced an excellent itame and mokume hada covered with fine quality nie and large pattern chikei. Yubashiri and tobiyaki can be seen on these works, and especially on tanto. The grain will stand out clearly within the tempered area of the blade. A distinctive hamon was often done in large patterns of gunome midare/notare mixed with choji and wide valley midare. It still has a clearly defined nioi-line but there is much nie clustered all around it and they will form ashi and yo. Doubled gunome and mimi-gata [ear shaped] and yama-gata [mountain shapes] are peculiar to Chogi and much nie and sunagashi is worked in. Kinsuji, and inazuma are often seen. The boshi is straight or in a subtle midare and flame shaped or pointed with a long kaeri that runs down the mune. When taken altogether, the connections to Kanemitsu and to Soshu are evident. It can be said that [den] Chogi's swords were for the most part much more lively than Kanemitsu's. The word in Japanese is 'Hade'. These characteristics as just noted, will make a [den] Chogi blade resemble to some degree the works of Soshu Akihiro, Hiromitsu, or the Sa smiths.