by Jim Kurrasch
In Old Japan it was considered lucky to have a tantô by a Kunimitsu. In fact they liked names ending in mitsu. The Kunimitsus of choice were Shintôgo Kunimitsu © of Sagami, or Rai Kunimitsu of Yamashiro. Shintôgo Kunimitsu is considered the 1st true Sôshu Swordsmith, and the teacher of Masamune. He worked in the late Kamakura period, and produced many tantô. Rai Kunimitsu also made many tantô and worked later in Kamakura and early Nambokuchô eriods. He was one of the best Rai swordsmiths, and the most diverse of them. He worked in both the Yamashiro tradition and the Old Sôshû tradition. Kyôto, Yamashiro was his residence.
The character Rai means to come. The name Rai is believed to be due to the first Rai smith Kuniyoshi coming from Korea. But none of his works are still available (however there are old ôshigata of his blades) so his son Kuniyuki is now credited with being the founder. Kunimitsu was the probably the son of Rai Kunitoshi, and possibly the brother of Rai Kunitsugu. There apparently was a Rai Kuniyori around Bunji Jidae 1185 – 1190. He may have been the founder of the Awataguchi Kaji.
Rai Kunimitsu possessed a very wide range of versatility. He was equally great in making tachi or tanto. I have recently been informed by Dr. Carrol Ford that Rai Kunimitsu is considered by some in Japan to have been the ultimate tachi smith. Several of his blades have been made Kokuhô (Japanese National Treasures), others Jûyô Bunkazai, and comparatively many Jûyô Tôken. His hamon could be suguba, notare midare, ko-gunome, ko-chôji, narrow, wide, or a mixture of those hamon characteristics. And bodies of his blades were wide or the classically slender. He is known to have made one kanmuri-otoshi tanto (the Ikeda Rai – Jûyô Bunkazai ) which was normally a Yamato shape. Occasionally he made wakizashi and small naginata. The Kyoho Meibutsu Cho lists the Ikeda Rai being converted from a naginata to a tanto, but from the available photos, and oshigata of it, I wonder about this statement. This blade has a turn-back that goes half of it’s length. It’s name is because it was worn by Ikeda Sanzaemon Terumasa. Later it passed on to the Maeda family.
He also had some variation in his signature so there is a theory that there were 2 generations that used this name. All of his tachi have small mei, but the tanto may be large or small. The small signature of the tachi might have been so he would not have to write over the shinogi ridge on the nakago. He normally signed sanji mei but occasionally used the yonji mei Rai Minamoto Kunimitsu . His 1 st dated example is from the 1st year of Karyaku (1326), and his last is from the 2nd year of Kanô (1351). He frequently used a mitsu-mune. He signed the kanji Rai with two separate strokes to form the center horizontal stroke. Normally both slanted downward from right to left . but occasionally one finds the right dot to go downward from left to right . Sometimes the upper right corner of the kanji kuni is slightly rounded and sometimes it is sharp. The kanji mitsu sometimes has it’s lower right stroke with a truly vertical – vertical section, and other times it slants to the right as it rises. His early mei (Karyaku and Gentoku Eras) have rounded kanji. The kanji of the Jôwa and Kanô Eras are squarer and clumsier. There was a marked decline in his ability and a change in his signature about 1351 – 1352. This leads some to feel that there may have been 2 persons signing Rai Kunimitsu.
His steel is always compactly forged ko-itame (occasionally there are traces of ohada), and covered with ko-nie. Sometimes forged so fine that the jigane is best appreciated by the advanced sword collector, and as such it is best described by traditional phrases. It may be presumptuous to do otherwise. The traditional statements were ‘beautifully serene’ or ‘exceptionally fine’. Some collectors who have not learned to appreciate it, call this metal ‘over-worked’ or ‘lacking zing’. This condition should not be completely confused with Rai jitetsu, but it is a extension of it. Rai utsuri – nie utsuri is occasionally seen in Kunimitsu’s work.
When dealing with Rai blades always remember about Rai-hada or Rai jitetsu. There are several things that characterize Rai-hada . One is a very fine hada which is partially loose in places. Another is a sticky looking jihada, it appears to be covered with honey. And another description is subdued and small patterned. It gives the metal a somewhat ‘weak’ appearance when compared to other important schools of the period or earlier. But please remember that these are Rai characteristics. They have always been there, and they established a famous reputation over many centuries with these. Also remember when dealing with Works of Art, try to not judge only by ‘modern standards’. Remember that the past was a very different World. Things that are fairly easy now may have been very difficult in the past. 800 years ago making something along the line of clear muji in a sword was very difficult, and required much extra work. Only the very best swordsmith groups were able to achieve it. The Rai smiths kept improving their blades, and trying to make a clearer steel with a tighter kitae . And Rai Kunimitsu was right at the front of the group when making fine steel. This was a skill, that was lost in later generations of Rai, and Japanese Swordsmiths in general. In the Shinto Era muji kitae again became possible with the use of western methods of refinement, but the steel would never again be as clear as the Rai steel was.
This is probably as good a place as any to talk about clear steel. For many years I wondered just what they were talking about. Them I remembered that one time Sensei Yumoto had said that one of my blades had very clear steel. And I remembered that the smith of another blade of mine had the reputation for making dirty steel (but as a novice I felt that he had great grain). So I held the 2 blades side by side pointing towards the light, and the meaning instantly became very clear. So I suggest that to learn you use a similar test. And if you do not have blades with enough of a difference try using a mirror. It will be clearer than the clearest blade.
The Rai smiths are known to have used a very thin skin, and most Rai blades now show some shingane. But theirs tend to show as spots, versus that of Bizen blades which show in larger areas. Actually again Dr. Ford told me that Rai did not use thin skin at all, but there tends to be material from the nakago that is down below the habaki, and appears like shintetsû. This tantô tends to support that since it has been polished quite a few times but is not tired. I do not know how common it is in Rai blades, but there is at least one Rai Kunimitsu tantô with a masame shintetsû, fine enough to fool fairly advanced students into thinking that it was a Yamato Tegai blade.
Kunimitsu’s works were very similar to those of Rai Kunitsugu who was one of Masamune’s 10 students. The major difference between the works of Rai Kunimitsu and Rai Kunitsugu is that Kunitsugu’s works tend to have more activity in the hamon. Actually with his broad ability Kunimitsu made blades similar to almost any of the Rai smiths. Normally for a good Kantei one has to play the percentages. Such as a blade could be Rai Kunitsugu’s except the hamon is slightly narrower. Or it does not have quite enough activity to be Rai Kunitsugu. Or the nie are not impressive enough to be Rai Kunitsugu. Rai Kunitoshi only produced slim blades. Niji Kunitoshi and Rai Kunitsugu seldom signed their works. Niji Kunitoshi made a chôji hamon.
This tantô is classic in every way. It is hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, and feels uchi-zori. The length is 10 5/8 inches (27.1 cm.). The width at the ha-buchi is 1 inch (2.54 cm.). The hada is ko-itame so extremely fine that one almost has to imagine it. This hada elongates, and opens up somewhat (this still is very tight) near the hamon. The hamon is ito-suguha. It has a slightly hakikake ko-maru boshi, with a long kaeri. There is a brilliance to the ji, caused by it being absolutely filled with ko-nie , which form many chikei. There are also fine kinsuji but the thinness of the hamon (less than 1/8 inch) does not give much room for them. The brilliance of the ko-nie adds to the difficulty in seeing the fine hada. There is a feeling of nie bo-utsuri, but there is so much ko-nie that the utsuri is almost lost in it. Except for the brilliance and activity, this blade is as close to shibui as one comes, and that tends to pacify me just by holding it. But that may be awe, since I know that people like me are only suppose to visit blades like this, and never own one (my thoughts have been “confirmed” by my friends). The nakago tapers, with a kuri-jiri end and is ubu except the ha-machi has been moved up slightly. It has 3 mekugi-ana , the middle one is double. The yasuri- mei are katte agari (slants up to the right). It is signed – Rai Kunimitsu.
There are very few sword collectors that have the knowledge to truly appreciate a sword like this. Most see the serene ji, partially washed out by the many ko-nie. And they think “What the hell, this is a Rai blade? This is not very exciting! I have swords that are better than this!” But as one advances in sword collecting they hear that one should buy swords now that they will never be tired of. This is such a sword. It’s ji-nie are so thick that they fog over the activities of the steel. And as in a fog things can sometimes be seen and other times not. So one must truly look to see it’s Hidden Treasures. This is like a Beautiful Lady coquettishly hiding her Charms, only giving occasional peeks of what is “Beyond”. With this sword one moment you can see the chikei, and then you turn the blade slightly and can not. You see the nie of 10 colors in a certain light with a certain angle, and then you lose it. But you now see the kinsuji near the middle of the blade. And now you see the kinsuji in the boshi. But your hand moves ever so slightly, and that kinsuji is lost. But the hakikake is now seen. I feel that as the current care taker I will have many years of enjoyment with this blade and I know that I will never tire of it. Due to a small wooden tag on the sword bag it appears that this blade was in Kôzan’s Oshigata. This was a book of Famous Blade Ôshigata originally published by Honami Kôzan during the Muromachi Period, and republished in 1967 (1,200 copies). John Prough checked this out and found that it was not in Kozan’s Ôshigata , but another blade in the U.S. was. So his theory is that maybe the 2 blades were in the same sword shop at sometime and had their sword bags changed.
This tanto was evaluated by the NTHK to have been made by Rai Kunimitsu about Genkô 1331 in the very last years of the Kamakura period. It is in a ‘very healthy’ state for being over 650 years old. 1331 was in the first part of Rai Kunimitsu’s noted career. He reached his peak performance in the early 1340’s, by the late 1340’s his quality was declining, after 1351 this decline was drastic.
There was a very similar Rai Kunimitsu tantô in issue # 554 of Tôken Tô Reikisshi on page 47. There was also a similar but shorter tantô (a Jûyô Bunkazai) in the ‘Appreciation of Master-pieces’ section of issue # 33 of the english edition of Tôken Bijutsu, and other Rai Kunimitsu blades in issues # 2, 5, 14, 16, 23, 27, 30, 32, 43 (2), 44 & 49. The Kyoho Meibutsu Cho listed the Goto Rai Kunimitsu appraised in 1624 (Kanei 1), that had been owned by Eijo the 6th Mainline Goto Master. This blade appears to be slightly longer than the one mentioned above, but very little information about it is known. At the time of appraisal it was owned by the Matsudaira of Bizen Kuni.
Recently I have heard of several Rai Kunimitsu blades in the US. Two are tachi, one of those was good enough so that Yoshikawa’s mouth dropped open when he saw it (I doubt that has happened often). There is this and another tantô. And several years ago another tachi (that was in Kôzan’s Oshigata) was sold in a New York Auction to a Japanese Dealer. That is a pretty impressive number of blades by one Kôkûho Smith to have here in the US.
In the Tôken Taikai ’79 there was a Rai Kunimitsu tantô in the Meibutsu Display Room. This blade was in a old shirasaya, with a sayagaki by Honami Koson from 1937. It had full size ôshigata on page 13 of the catalog. That blade was 25.6 cm., hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune and uchi-zorii. And the hamon was notare with gunome , and kinsuji. It had also been written up in the Nov. – Dec. 1978, issue of the JSSUS Newsletter, on page 19. On November 19, 1979 this blade was in the Butterfield & Butterfield Auction as item 45A. The above information was stated and a price of $11,000 was pulled down (and a 10% premium was added). The next that we hear about this blade was in the 1st Coleman & Quirt, Ltd. Auction of February 6, 1983, as item # 10. There was the following statement “Due to the patina of the nakago , the house suspects this blade may be retempered.” I do not know what it sold for this time but the pre-sale estimated price was $2,500 to $3,500. Watch your backs out there boys!
Note that with respect to Honami Koson, War time sayagaki are always to be suspected. It was awful hard to tell a soldier as he goes off to war that his blade was flawed. And for Japan the War was from the 1890’s to 1945. Of course if it is so hard to not give a military man a break as he goes to war, why did I get a fix it ticket for a broken tail light 2 days before returning to Viet Nam?