Hard to Kantei or So-Den Bizen

by Jim Kurrasch
This article shows the sometimes long and winding road that some of us students of nihontô must go through to kantei our blades. I do not view it as a slight upon me. After all I am only a student of nihontô, and hopefully I will remain such until the day I die. As we are studying Sôshû, you may wonder why I am talking about a Bizen style blade. Read on and you shall find out.

Some of you know that for a Christmas present in 1994, I purchased a tachi for myself that since has bothered me a great deal. From the time that I first saw it I knew that it was a very fine blade. The dealer that sold it to me said that it was a Kamakuratachi. My feeling was that it was probably close, but there were questions. It is suriage by about 4 inches, and is still 28 ¾ inches. There is a 2 character signature, katana mei, but the kanji are obscured enough by pitting so they are difficult to read. The second kanji maybe yûki. The first could be a lot of things. So I have been taking it around to my more knowledgeable friends getting ideas. The size and being katana mei tended to make them say late Nambokuchô. Personally I have no problem with calling it Nambokuchô if that is what it is. Nambokuchô was a very good period for sword making. But the blade just did not seem 100% right for that period.

The hamon is nioi deki, but so lined with nie that it took me quite awhile to see the basic nioi line. The hamon is a somewhat wild gunome chôji, with nijûba. The monouchi quiets down considerably, but it has nijûba, and a short area of sanjûba. This quiet monouchi is something that is sometimes seen on Kamakura blades. More so on early Kamakura blades than late ones. One of the other problems with this blade is that when I purchased it, it was considerably obscured, by probably at least 100 years of mediocre care. They had not taken bad care of it, but probably had not averaged more than 1 uchikoing per year. And this had taken it’s toll, on visibility. So I was not able to say what was really there, or what was not. The utsuri was visible after about 1 week, but it was so weak that I was not sure that it was not shirake. After about 1 month I started to see the nie. There were lines of sunagashi all through the hamon. Then the chikei started to show. And patches of ko-mokume . Up to that time I thought that it was masame, and thus maybe Yamato. But something about Yamato just was not right.

Then some of the sunagashi became kinsuji, and inazuma . The utsuri was more visible, and it was definitely midare . From the first I had thought about Bitchû Aoe, due to the katana mei. But Aoe usually has sumi-tetsû. And though there are strange patches that are dark in a certain light. They are not the same as the sumi-tetsû that I was shown in my early days of sword collecting. That was a dark patch of shin-tetsû showing no grain structure. Actually that sumi-tetsû reminds me of a piece of smoked mirror inlaid into the ji of the blade. And that sumi-tetsû was kind of pretty, but still not a good thing. What this blade has is patches of nie above the hamon that do not reflect the light as one expects. They only look dark at certain angles, and they definitely are not shin-tetsû . But another problem arises. The Japanese were and still are fond of giving names and definitions with multiple meanings. And while they may make sense to those that have seen the condition described, as well as lived in that culture. But they frequently make no sense to those of us who have not lived in that culture, nor seen the condition. So part of my problem was flat out inexperience.

But I kept plugging away. I studied and restudied every Kotô ôshigata that I had. Every time I came up with a new lead (about every other week) I would research it as completely as possible. Finally on the third time reading my set of the english edition of Token Bijûtsû I stumbled across something that made sense. I remembered reading it before, and thinking about it but not fully understanding it. Satô Kanzan had written “If a blade has midare utsuri, it is Kamakura Bizen.” He goes on to explain that stating Bizen also covers other provinces of the Sanyôdô, such as Bingo, Bitchû, Aki, and Suwô. And he basically says see how easy it is to kantei Bizen. Do not worry about the small stuff, just go back to the first rule. Well it took a while for that to sink in, but I was happy to accept it. By this my blade was Kamakura and made in the area of Bizen. The next question was who around Bizen in the Kamakura period signed katana mei? The only one that I could think of was Bitchû and more specifically Bitchû Aoe.

The next part was to find everything that I could about Bitchû. This was helped slightly by the fact that I had visited the Tokyô National Museum just after it had had the display Masterpieces of Bitchû Aoe Swords. Actually most of that book is in Japanese, but it does not have a lot of writing anyway. Some great examples and pictures it does have. Also I went through Yamanaka’s Newsletter, Kotô Zuikan , The Notes of Yasu Kizu, the english edition of Tôken Bijûtsû, as well as Token Tô Rekishi . With each of these I gleaned as much material as possible. I must point out a basic fact, and that is “It frequently helps to read as many references on Nihontô as possible.” This is because sometime one writer may just state something in a way that makes it clear to you. Maybe you read 5 other authors stating the same thing, but in a way that you did not understand. And that one just makes it all so clear.

So what did I come up with? Sensei Yumoto stated that the Bitchû Aoe hamon was ko nie into Kamakura, and nioi after that. They used katana mei to mid-Kamakura, and started to use tachi mei after that. But this was for tachi only and did not apply for tantô. And he stated that Aoe blades have a extremely different jitetsû, of very fine itame, on coarse grain. And they often have sumi-tetsû.

Tanobe Michihiro stated that Ko Aoe has “Fingerprint like dark utsuri .” This is jifu-utsuri. And “During Nambokuchô the sumi-hada is more outstanding, the chirimen-hada is less outstanding.”

Yoshikawa Kôen stated that from long ago it has been said that if one is told no after stating Rai in kantei. Then they should state Aoe. And if one is told no after stating Aoe then one should state Rai. This is partly because the hamons are similar. And especially Chû Bitchû Aoe and Rai have several things in common. Early Yamashiro jigane is like fine textured silk, tight and delicate. Early Aoe’s jigane is more like fine silk crepe, that is fine textured silk, tight and delicate but with a hada pattern floating over it. In Token Tô Rekishi Yoshikawa Kôen also speaks of a Aoe tachi by Kuniyuki about 1260, that is about 3 shaku long, with ikubi kissaki . It is made of mokume and flowing masame, and has a almost full temper pattern. Yoshikawa states that it is very untraditional, but has excellent provenance. And that provenance is a statement by Honami Kotoku.

Kashima Susumu tells us that Bitchû was around present day Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture, this was by the Takahashi River. The old Kibi region was a major iron producing region over 1,000 years ago. At that time they produced various farm instruments. It first produced swords at the end of the Heian Era, and continued until the end on Nambokuchô. There were 2 basic schools Masu and Senô, but they were not schools in the traditional sense. Many of the smiths used the same name for generation after generation making differentiating difficult. There were also many individual names who only lasted 1 generation. Of the first 12 smiths of Gotoba-in, 3 were Bitchû Aoe the other 9 were Bizen and Yamashiro.

Chû Aoe had considerable variations. It started to sign more tachi mei, and signed with more kanji per signature. Ko Aoe was from late Heian to 1240, made narrow koshi-zorii tachi with a hamon based on narrow suguba. They also used almost exclusively ko-kissaki, ô-sujikai yasurime, considerable taper of width from tip to base, and katana mei. Considerable curvature at the habaki moto is a unique characteristic of Ko Aoe, and was not used by Bizen or Yamashiro smiths. Sue Aoe was around Enbun – 1356, they made huge tachi, and wide tantô, and wakizashi. Individual smiths can be kanteied out of Ko Aoe and Sue Aoe, but in Chû Aoe they were not individualized enough. Noritaka founded the Senô kaji, but little is known about him. As for signing katana mei, why not? There was no law or rule stating how the mei must be signed. After a while it became a good point for kantei. Also remember that at that time the nakago was mostly hidden by the tsuka. If the tsuka was frequently removed, it may not fit right anymore. So were the mei was, really was not too important.

Satô Kanzan again stated that if a blade contains chôji utsuri – midare utsuri it is Kamakura Bizen. And the only problem is with Shintô Ishidô, the occasional others are mutants. If the blade contains bô utsuri it is Ôei Bizen or later, or maybe late Nambokuchô. Shirake utsuri was accidental. But the earliest Bizen and some Sue Bizen may not contain utsuri in the ji. Ko Aoe used exclusively ô-sujikai, and theirs were very neatly done. In Ko Aoe, the group following Masatsune signed tachi mei, in thick chiseling, in the center of the tang below the mekugi ana. The Ko Aoe group following Yasutsugu signed katana mei, in thin chiseling near the mune, below the mekugi ana. However Yasutsugu’s son Moritsugu signed tachi mei above the mekugi ana close to the mune (some sons were contrary even in early Kamakura Japan). Most other major Aoe groups sign katana mei, such as Sadatsugu, Yasutsugu, and Yukitsugu.

There are terms for several things that are associated with Bitchû Aoe. Chirimen hada is crepe silk like hada. It is caused by mixing mokume-hada with ko-itame hada, and covering it with fine ji-nie. Sumi hada is serene or clear hada. And namazu hada is a dark hada like the skin of a catfish. Namazu hada was made in the end of Kamakura and the Nambokuchô.

In the area of modern day Kurashiki the Aoe and Shii schools practiced. There was also the Bitchû kaji from Muromachi into Edo. But they had different craftsmanship, and should not be considered successors of the classical Aoe. Homma Junji stated that Aoe made the kari mata design in their hamon. This is a pattern of split chôji, looking like a dove tail. They also used hangetsu – half moons. And they used shimada – isolated spots in the hamon. He told of a Jûyô tachi made by Tsuguyoshi in 1346. It was ko-itame with masake , and the shinogi-ji is masame.

Now more facts about this tachi. The basic shape is shinogi zukuri , with a koshi-zorii of 23/32 inch – 1.80 cm. It is 28 13/16th inches – 73.1 cm. Long. With a total length of 36 7/8th – 93.6 cm. At the habaki moto it is 1 3/16th inches – 3.00 cm. The saki moto is ¾ inch – 1.94 cm. And the bôshi is 1 ¼ inches – 3.58 cm. long. The kitae is mokume – masame . The nakago is suriage, and the yasuri mei has been recut katte. The signature is large 2 character katana mei, cut below the original mekugi ana, close to the mune.

The bôshi is kaeri – flame on both sides. It has a medium turn back. The hamon is really basically chû suguba , but in the mono uchi area there is a nie nijûba, and on the tachi ura sanjûba. As this goes back in the blade it becomes more dense. There it becomes shimata, kari mata, and hangetsu (as I understand them). Parts of those are attached to the hamon and parts not. This is much more noticeable on the tachi ômotte than on the ura. The suguba part of the hamon is loaded with nezumi ashi, and occasional yô. Especially on the ômotte the pattern reaches above the basic nioi line of the hamon. The smoothness there causes that part to look dark in certain light, so is this the sumi-tetsû?

There is a midare utsuri, as well as a coating of fine ji nie . If one looks closely they will see that the utsuri follows the grain of the metal. And in places following the mokume from the ha, up into the ji causes it to look like dark fingerprints – jifu utsuri reaching up into the white nie utsuri. In the shinogi ji there is also a midare pattern of the utsuri going up into the darker tetsû. The hamon has the look of moist snow, or snow that is just starting to melt. There is also a fine hada pattern to the hamon. In the hamon there is inazuma and kinsuji . Many places these are singles and maybe 0.002 inches wide. But in one place there is a series of very fine triplet and quadruplet kinsuji, weaving parallel lines, in and out, over and under the hamon, on and off for about 6 inches – 15 cm.

Now for the chirimen hada. As was said this appears like fine crepe silk or fine silk with a hada pattern over it. When held next to a fine patterned Rai Kunimitsu blade, the Rai blade appeared to be a finer pattern. But I feel part of this is due to the characteristics of the ko ji nie. If one lightly spray paints an area, as more and more is applied, the fine pattern of random dots, starts to form a pattern, and fine lines develop. With the sword some of those become chikei. But here there are very many that are like mini chikei. This forms a additional pattern on the blade.

During this study of the Bitchû Aoe, I noticed that about ½ of the smith used Tsugu in their names. Either as the first or second character. So I looked at the signature again, and Son of a Gun, it may be Tsuguyuki. So then I looked up Tsuguyuki, in Ishii’s Nihontô Meikan There was only one smith by that name. And Son of a Gun again he worked around Karyaku – 1326 in the Bitchû Aoe Den.

The next authority that I had look at the blade was Ômino San of the NTHK. He agreed that it was niji mei, but did not think that it was Tsuguyuki. He also said that it did not have Aoe hada. One thing to remember here is that after Ko-Aoe the quality of Aoe hada diminished. But at the same time the tendency for sumi-hada increased. And Ômino San also pointed out that it did not have sumi-hada. So what do I think now? Well going back to if it has midare utsuri it is Kamakura Bizen. And with that it must be at least following the Aoe School. Considering the tendency in the area for ichidai – smiths working alone for one generation, it is not too hard to believe that some would vary somewhat from the main line. But something still was not right! And Ômino San’s comments were just what I needed, it was probably not Bitchû Aoe.

The other thing that Ômino San pointed out was what the first kanji of the signature could be. He felt that it has 2 horizontal lines across the top. There are not many kanji used in swordsmiths names with this characteristic. Fusa, Moto, are the best candidates, and then there are ones like Aki, Mune, and Mitsu which are close but really do not fit. I am now fairly sure that my Tachi is So-Den Bizen Motoyuki, just as it seems to be signed. But the signature is obscured by 600 years, and parts of it have been allowed to pit and be eaten away.

Sometimes the tang were left in the tsuka for a very long time. There was a theory that if the blade was removed too much it would not grip as firmly. And let us face it, 600 years ago this was a new sword, and it’s main use was as a weapon. Thus the signature was not so important in the grand scheme of things (there it was a weapon). There is one theory that says if a blade survives it’s first 100 years, it has a very good chance to survive after that. This is because it will be used for it’s first hundred years, and be too valuable to use after that.

This blade has caused me great grief trying to figure out just what it is. This was partly due to the characteristics being very obscured by neglect (not rusty, just obscured – hazed over). And part of the problem is that it is just such a unusual style. Looking back things seem more logical now, but last year I was obsessed with this blade, and trying to figure out just what it is. I would read, and read, start heading towards a conclusion, study some more and figure out a flaw with my theory. Thus the hunt started again.

Well since this blade has a faint midare utsuri that limited just what it could be considered. And since even that utsuri could not be seen when I bought it, kantei was more than difficult at that point. This brings up another point. About 1½ years ago one of the local collectors / dealers told me that we should forget the Japanese Kantei Experts and use Knowledgeable Americans. Well I told him that was nonsense. Virtually no person outside of Japan has been able to study enough styles, and examples to have anything close to a working knowledge of kantei. Occasionally, (some feel frequently) the Japanese Experts miss identifying points and make mistakes. But any non-Japanese Expert would probably be flat out wrong much more often than right. And if you have had time to study your blade under different conditions and light for several months you should know much more about it than a expert can see in a quick appraisal. However there is one “Expert” that I know that “insists” that everything must be seen and known within seconds of viewing down a blade. Well that opinion is so full of BS that it is laughable. I have seen “The Real Experts” look at a blade repeatedly, and for length while deciding. And the other thing is that in “His appraisal” your blade is not very good and has problems. If he buys it though, it soon becomes a example of the finest blade that this smith made.

Back to this tachi (I call it a tachi due to it’s former length, about 34 inches – 85 Cm., but it is signed katana mei). Another thing about the Traditional Kantei system. It was / is the job of the Lead Judge to come up with a opinion, and it is the job of the other Judges to look for problems with that opinion. Basically the others say something like no it can not be that smith because this blade has such and such which he did not use. So using a modification of this system I was the lead judge, trying to find my errors

So where now? Well his comments about the first kanji gave me hope. Two long lines across the top. My friend and Co-Editor Tom Bill had stated several months prior that he had thought that the signature might be Bizen Motoyuki. Tom has studied the Japanese Brush writing, but I thought “No, Moto has two long lines across the top”. When he re-stated to me he thought the signature was Motoyuki I re-read about him again, and things got clearer.

I had talked to Tom frequently about this blade, and used him to bounce ideas. He is a commercial artist and thus thinks in a artists way. This gives him great attention to detail, as well as a amazing memory for that detail. I had said to him earlier that I thought this blade could be So-Den Bizen but the signature did not match, and katana mei was not a So-Den Bizen characteristic.

Studying everything that I could about Motoyuki was very quick. Almost nothing is known about him. He was the son or student of Motoshige, and his blades are very rare. So I figured that the next step is to study every thing that I could about the other swordsmiths around Motoyuki during his life. Things started to make more sense.

Bizen Osafune Motoshige, there may have been one or two smiths. Ko-Motoshige frequently signed niji mei – katana mei. He worked in the late Kamakura, and there are dated examples going back to 1304. His works were traditional late Kamakura Bizen, but they are sometimes mistaken for Bitchû Aoe.

So-Den Bizen Motoshige, is considered to be one of the 3 students of Sôshû Sadamune. His works tended to follow Sôshû in shape only. He made large wide blades, but the hamon was in classical Bizen style – nioi deki, with few nie inclusions.

The question was there 1 or 2 Motoshige? Well the working time spanned was very long 60 or 70 years maybe more. And the style changed dramatically. The style change can be explained due to the sword style of the time was changing. People wanted things to be more of a Sôshû style. Maybe not everybody was able to make this change, but those excellent smiths that could would become famous – a survival of the fittest.

As to the long time span of Motoshige? It is thought that the reasons that Motoyuki’s works are so rare is because he “assisted” Motoshige. This bring up another important point. The Lead Swordsmith owned the kaji, and thus the swords that were produced. So as he developed a student, they would do more, and more important work. Think of the situation, the swords you produce are worth approximately $10,000 at the current price. Your lead students swords are worth about $5,000. Now what happens when that student’s top swords start to be as good as your average sword? If he signs it the value is $5,000. If you sign it the value is $10,000. The sword follows your tradition, and was made in your shop. There was a Great Honor for a student to know that some of his swords could past for his Master’s swords.

Another thing that clouds the issue is when the student takes on more and more responsibilities. He first just assists. Then he takes over the folding of all of the steel, and then he forms the swords. As the Master ages, the Master’s task are lessened. He starts to just temper the sword, and later just signs them, if they did not have a priest sign them. So with able assistants a Masters apparent working life span and style is capable of being extended considerably. In Shintô there were several smiths that occasionally worked together, and would sign the blades as being joint works. In Kotô that was rare, but assistance to the Master Smith obviously happened.

The number of signed blades by Bizen Osafune Motoyuki are very few. And that makes his known characteristics few also. I have read about some of his blades but there would be a very brief statement, and no ôshigata . Issue # 568 of Token To Rekishi had a Motoyuki blade as the front piece. It is a Yushu Saku blade. There is a photograph, and it is dated 1390. The write-up says “Motoyuki is the son of second generation Motoshige, and his older brother is Motoie. Is it perhaps the case that both these smiths spent most of their energies in the assistance of their father as extant works are quite rare, which is particularly true for Motoyuki? This work is strikingly healthy, and while lacking flamboyance …. this sword is an excellent source of research data”.

There are several major difference’s between the above Motoyuki blade and mine. The above is signed tachi mei – long signature and dated. It is also lacking flamboyance, which is a characteristic of Motoshige. Mine is niji mei – katana mei, and very hade – flamboyant. This brings up another area of So-Den Bizen. For the most part So-Den Bizen followed Sôshû in shape only, the ji, the hada, and the hamon tended to follow the traditional Bizen line. Kanemitsu is felt to be the founder of So-Den Bizen. He and Nagayoshi are considered to be students of Sôshû Masamune. Kanemitsu’s blades have been famed to be very sharp blades. Thus they were carried by famous Generals. As Nagayoshi gained more fame he changed the pronunciation of his name to Chôji. Chôji is the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji for Nagayoshi. Motoshige was considered to be the student of Sôshû Sadamune, who was the son (adopted?) of Sôshû Masamune.

So the main smiths in the So-Den Bizen line were Kanemitsu, Nagayoshi, and Motoshige. Kanemitsu and Motoshige produced blades that were quiet, and reserved, but in the grand Sôshû shape. Nagayoshi is considered the most classical So-Den Bizen smith since his blades appear the nearest to Sôshû blades. His blades tended to be filled with kinsuji, inazuma and sunagashi. This in itself was a sign of excellence. The iron traditionally used by the Bizen smiths was soft and difficult to temper with nie. But his blades that had considerable nie did not have utsuri, or at best they had a very weak utsuri.

As for second generation, and later smiths of the So-Den Bizen. They tended to follow the first generation, but some also made blades that were much more hade than their Masters. This is probably logical. They all lived in the same small town of Osafune (it is still a fairly small town). Since they were trying to follow the same tradition that was from a distant area, they probably had to associate with each other to progress much. It is also logical that there was some cross town rivalry, with smiths from the three kaji showing that they could out do each other, or at least keep up with the other’s work. The second generation smiths and their clients had seen more examples of Sôshû work, they had admired Nagayoshi’s work, and they wanted blades that were similar.

So what characteristics does this blade posses that makes it So-Den Bizen other than the signature. We always must remember that the signature could be forged, and with a smith of few signed blades it would be difficult to prove that they were not authentic. This blade has the length and width that says “think Nambokuchô” but that length was also occasionally made before and after Nambokuchô. The mihaba is wide, and that points more for Nambokuchô, but was not unheard of in late Kamakura. Midare utsuri tends to say Kamakura, but went into Nambokuchô and rarely into Ôei. Nioi deki a main characteristic of Bizen, but certainly not restricted to it. But then there is the matter of the nie. The hamon is absolutely filled with nie, especially at the rear of the blade. This blade is filled with activity, ashi, yô, kinsuji, inazuma, sunagashi, and chikei. The front of the blade is suguba with nijûba and some sanjûba. As the hamon goes back on the blade it turns into a chôji midare. And farther back the ni-juba picks up nie and tends towards but does not become full tempered. There is also mune-yaki. This puts me in the position to say if it is not So-Den Bizen, what is it?

The signature could be fake. But why Motoyuki? He was not well known, and thus his name would not increase the value of this blade. And if we follow the traditional line of kantei, we look at the blade determine the age. Kamakura – Nambokuchô. Bizen but following the So-Den line. Now in kantei one thinks of what Master it would follow, and then if the quality is not good enough to be his, it would be given a appropriate students name. And following that theory, this blade would be kanteied to follow Nagayoshi, and not Motoshige. The next question is it good enough to be considered Nagayoshi, or would it go to a student? I am not qualified to answer such a question, and part of the answer lies in just how strict or easy the Shinza Committee is. I do feel that if this blade was signed with a reasonable signature of Nagayoshi, a Kantei Committee would have a hard time turning it down.

Well so much for me blowing my own horn. If anybody can give me a more reasonable answer I am always open to suggestions. I feel that it is better to be shown wrong today and be right tomorrow, than be wrong today, and build a foundation on that.

There is a feeling in the U.S. that all of the good blades have gone to Japan, and the collectors are only left the poorer quality blades. I feel that this is non-sense. I purchased this blade from a major dealer who has been selling swords for longer than I have been collecting swords. It did not come out of the woodwork, but had been in another collection for years. But apparently nobody did the legwork to determine just what this blade was, other than a fine Kamakura tachi. Now admittedly I did not get this blade cheap, but I am no way a rich man. But when I saw this blade I first thought that there was no way that I could afford it. But I asked the price and it was affordable. Of course this was helped by the fact that it’s condition was so obscured that there did not appear to be a bôshi (but there is). And due to having numerous past polishes some tateware are showing, and slight shintetsû. I will also admit that if this blade had cost $500 more I probably could not have purchased it. But it did not cost more and I did purchase it. So do not whine about all the good blades are gone, or too expensive. And do learn to kantei blades, so that you to can find your share of the good blades that are just in seclusion.

Another thing that has happened on this blade. I just received issue # 611 of Token To Rekishi. I must think that Ômino San asked Yoshikawa Sensei about my blade. The front piece was on a Ko-Aoe Nobutsugu tachi. That was good. But pages 11 to 16 was on Bizen Motoshige. And to make life even better the ôshigata of the tachi on page 14 shows a very quite monouchi , but just behind it the blade absolutely bursts into tremendous activity. Ah, sometimes life can be very good. But for a reality check I still have not had it kanteied, and I still might be blowing it severely. [:^) Oh well if that is happening this will be even a greater learning experience for me. And I still have a very good blade.