Tokubetsu Hozon Esshu Kuniyuki katana


Reference only. Not for sale.

Esshu Kuniyuki is a smith from Echizen province in the north of Japan who was influenced by the work of Norishige and the Soshu den. He seems to have worked side by side with Tametsugu, the son of Go Yoshihiro and student of Norishige. His work shows a lot of nie in the ha and Norishige-like forging with a lot of chikei and becoming close to matsukawa hada. His work has passed up to Tokubetsu Juyo by the NBTHK, and another 5 Juyo Token, but his work is very rarely seen. Kuniyuki is ranked at Jo-saku by Fujishiro, the same as Tametsugu.

There are extant blades by him dated in Joji (1364, 1365) and the Kozan Oshigata documents another two signed and dated blades by him, the first being Joji era (1365 – this one is the Tokuju example) and another that is hard to read but seems to be Oan 4 (1372). These begin with Esshu as the place name, and show very good forging skill with a lot of chikei and clear Soshu seems to influence in the later works. The earliest work is done with an ito suguba and horimono like Shintogo Kunimitsu, and the later works, the shapes are taken from Sadamune but the forging style comes down through Norishige. So this is very interesting as his work all seems to be focused on emulating recent Soshu smiths of his era.

The Umetada Meikan also lists one of his swords signed Esshu ju Fujiwara Kuniyuki side by side with a similarly signed Tametsugu Esshu ju Fujiwara Tametsugu so there is a clear connection between him and Tametsugu. As well on this page is a rare oshigata of the smith Yoshizane who is one of the sons of Go Yoshihiro. So from this oshigata we can see the Umetada were classifying these three as students of Go, or at least of Go and Norishige together. Especially as these immediately follow the swords of Go and Norishige in the Umetada Meikan, the context is pretty clear. As a side note from here, following these smiths on the next pages is a smith called Hata Chogi (秦長義) which can also be read as Hata Nagayoshi and signed based in Echigo (the third of the three Esshu provinces of Echizen, Etchu and Echigo). Fujishiro wrote that he is in the Kanro Toshinaga lineage which would relate him back to Takagi Sadamune and Soshu Sadamune. However the Umetada have him coming right after Yoshizane (橘義真), and Yoshizane’s signature follows this same pattern of three characters, and of course the famous smith at the root of this also using the YOSHI (義) character is Go Yoshihiro (江義弘). So it seems like he may be a student of Go as well.

Yoshizane (left), Esshu Tametsugu (center) and Esshu Kuniyuki (right)Yoshizane (left), Esshu Tametsugu (center) and Esshu Kuniyuki (right)

The date on the Kuniyuki in this example is Oan Rokunen (Oan 6, 1373) and the Tametsugu is not dated. There is another oshigata beside it with an Engen Gonen date (1340) and goes on to say Echizen Kuni before being cut off. This is likely a fourth sword that has been classified as Yoshizane based on how it’s aligned on the page. This kind of mei is called kakikudashi where the mei follows the date, and given the length of these signatures a lot got cut halfway through during suriage. That the other Yoshizane is a katana and this kakikudashi one is cut implies it was a tachi. And we then have a work span for Yoshizane of 1340 to close to Oei where katana began to be fashionable.

Tametsugu and Kuniyuki both later signed with Noshu as their province indicating that they moved to Mino province and followed Kinju in doing so, another smith who made the move to Mino after training somehow in the Soshu den. These three examples with Noshu in the mei of Kuniyuki are further documented in the Kozan Oshigata and both the Tametsugu and Kuniyuki have an Oan 7 date (1374). So thankfully because of the Kuniyuki works we know the exact date of the move of Tametsugu and Kuniyuki to Mino to be right at the juncture of 1373-1374.

There is another extant Tametsugu which is Juyo Bijutsuhin and Oan era and Noshu signature but the year is obliterated on that blade. We can likely now pinpoint that as 1373 or later (Oan 6 and up). And there is a Juyo Naginata Naoshi still extant by Tametsugu with an Oan 7 (1374) date. All of this is very strong evidence that Tametsugu and Kuniyuki share the same workplace in Esshu/Echizen and then move together at the same time to Mino. That would also imply then that they share the same teacher (Norishige), and goes a long way to explaining the work style of Kuniyuki (very similar to Norishige).

The other great Masamune student Kaneuji and his disciples settled in Shizu and later on in Naoe Shizu which ended up giving them their school names. Kinju, Tametsugu and Kuniyuki all migrated to Seki town and established what would become the Seki school that became the focal point for the Mino tradition. In both cases these smiths brought Soshu technology and habits to Mino but over time they transformed into what we consider to be the fifth and final tradition of the Gokaden.

If this blade were in a bit better condition it would easily qualify for Juyo, as the skill level is very high and the activity is still quite flamboyant on the blade. The hamon is packed with nie, sunagashi and kinsuji and the hamon blurs into the hada like Norishige, forming a quasi-hitatsura. All of this shows the influence of Norishige and if one cannot buy a Norishige this is the second best. This is a good example of the early Mino tradition where it was still strongly Soshu oriented and have similar style of workmanship. As the skill level is high in this sword and the issues with it are from condition, Tanobe sensei still praised it well in the sayagaki that is attached. He also confirms this analysis in a straightforward statement about the move to Mino. He dates it to the middle Nanbokucho period, from before the move to Mino, so it is from about 1364.

Another nice thing about these old oshigata and signatures is that they do confirm a mass movement of swordsmiths to Mino province. Smiths moved from Yamato Senjuin and Tegai to make the Mino-Senjuin and Shizu schools. As well as Kinju coming from Yamato, we see these Esshu smiths moving along as well. What the core reason was for this migration to Mino province from all these other locales during the mid to late Nanbokucho period is a good question but may have to do with the Toki daimyo taking over the province under the Muromachi Shogunate and the need for weapons during the war between the Northern and Southern Court. Then as now, war means profits and weapons makers follow the profits.

This tells us something else about the Mino tradition. Kaneuji first went to Shizu and then his students after his death or during his old age moved to Naoe Shizu. They all used the Kane (兼) character. The middle and end of the Mino tradition in the Muromachi period saw almost all of the smiths in the province using Kane in the Shizu pattern, like Kanesada, Kanefusa, Kanemoto, Kanemitsu, and so on. These Kane smiths were found in Seki in the mid to late Muromachi though their origins were in Shizu and Naoe Shizu. The names of Tametsugu, Kinju and Kuniyuki seem not to have been transmitted too far down the line. So the Naoe Shizu smiths must in the end have come to Seki to join these makers and subsumed their school in the end. Even today Seki remains as a well known center for cutlery.

In form the blade is 71 cm length and has a motohaba of 3.0 cm and a lot of taper, down to 1.85 cm in the monouchi. This shape shows the final stage of Nanbokucho evolution when the massive o-dachi of the Enbun period (1356) went out of style. It has futasujibi which always look good on Soshu works, and the terminus of these shows about where the original habaki sat. So there is some original nakago on the blade still and it was about 85 cm in length originally as a tachi. If you look over the ji you can see the whorls of o-hada mixed with running itame that form something like matsukawa hada that came from his teacher Norishige.

This sword passed Tokubetsu Hozon at the NBTHK, but the previous owner lost the papers. I will try to recover them but I guarantee replacement at Tokubetsu Hozon for the next owner. Tanobe sensei’s sayagaki was done in 2004 and at that time he was working at the NBTHK and as a result, only did sayagaki on blades that had already passed Tokubetsu Hozon.

Note: I will be adding some photos of the blade to the slideshow shortly.

Naoe Shizu Tanto Kuniyuki Sayagaki
Katana Sayagaki
This sayagaki is for the Esshu Kuniyuki katana and was written by Tanobe Michihiro, the retired head researcher of the NBTHK.

Echizen no Kuni Fujiwara Kuniyuki

但大磨上無銘也時代南北朝中期同工後ニ金重・為継等與共ニ美濃ニ移住シ美濃傳ノ源流トナル 本作同工ノ一作域ナル皆焼風ノ出来ヲ示ス佳品ニ候
Tadashi ō-suriage mumei nari, jidai Nanbokuchō-chūki. Dōkō ato ni Kinjū, Tametsugu nado tomi ni suru Mino ni ijū-shi Mino-den no genryū to naru. Honsaku dōkō ichi-saku’iki naru hitatsura-fū no deki o shimesu kahin ni sōrō.

This blade is ō-suriage and mumei and dates to the mid-Nanbokuchō period. Kuniyuki moved later in his career from Echizen to Mino province where he, Kinjū, Tametsugu, and other smiths laid the foundations for the Mino tradition of sword making. This masterwork is interpreted in a hitatsura-like deki, representing one of the known workmanships of Kuniyuki.

Hachō ni-shaku san-sun go-bu kore ari
Blade length ~ 71.2 cm

Heisei Kinoe-sarudoshi fumizuki jōkan Tanzan kangamite narabi ni shirushite + kaō
Examined and written by Tanzan (Tanobe Michihiro) in the first third of July in the year of the monkey of the Heisei era (2004) + mon