Kantei is Easy

by Jim Kurrasch

Every basic book on Japanese Swords gives basic methods of how to kantei a sword. They tell you to first look at the shape to determine the age. And then look at the grain to determine which school. And look at the hamon to determine which smith made it. And finally look at the signature to see it matches what you have come up with independent of the signature. It the name matches your opinion, then check the signature to see if it actually matches that smith’s known signatures. Well I say, beyond the very basics, it just does not work that way. And I will assume that just because the reader has chosen this club, and to read this Newsletter they are interested in learning, and thus should be beyond the basics, or are at least trying to get beyond them.

Take the shape. If we go back we remember that prior to the Mongol Invasion of 1274 and 1281, the Japanese used a fine tachi shape, with a ko-kissaki. This tachi was about 30 to 35 inches long. With these invasions they went to a ikubi kissaki. At the end of the Kamakura period the Sôshû Tradition developed with it broad blades. And in Nambokuchô they went to the ô-dachi, with it’s large kissaki. At the end of the Nambokuchô, the development of the katana came about, with it’s ability for the fast draw, and strike. So many of the tachi and ô-dachi were cut down to katana length.

The katana shape continued with few exceptions of special order or near novelty pieces. And in the Shinshintô period there was a attempted resurrection of the Kotô blades. Much of this was in shape only. And even that shape was wrong since most of the early Kotô blades that they had for examples had been cut down to katana at the end of Nambokuchô.

Well what I am saying that these are fine basic rules. But as all rules there are exceptions, and in studding the Nihontô there are almost more exceptions than not. How about the National Treasure wakizashi in the Temple on Ômishima Island of the Inland Sea near Hiroshima. It is suppose to have been made between 925 and 950 AD I have seen it, behind glass of course, and it looked pretty much like any other chû-kissaki wakizashi. From a distance nothing abnormal to tip one off. And I am sure that it was not the only blade made like this in the Heian period, and actually that one was made pre-Heian.

One also finds that at the beginning of the mid-Kamakura period, the chû-kissaki started to come in. And that was long before the Mongol Invasions. Along with this chû-kissaki the blades started to become wider. So while the Mongol Invasions and Masamune’s Sôshû Tradition did help to develop new styles, the trend for these styles was already there. Basically I am sure that the death of the ko-kissaki was being written long prior to the Mongols reaching Japan’s shores.

And then there is Nambokuchô with it’s fantastically large blades. But in fact about 50% of the blades made were just normal tachi, similar in shape to those made prior. And the making of the ô-dachi started to die out about 1375. But some ô-dachi were still being made around 1425. And in fact every once in a while we find a huge blade produced in just about any period. Dedication pieces for shrines, a piece de resistance for some swordsmith, or somebody just wanted one. About 20 years ago, for the wall of the Bizen Sword Museum, in Osafune there was a very large tachi made, probably 7 feet long with another 2½ feet of nakago. We also find that anytime after a style was developed, it was copied. We occasionally run across a gendaitô shaped like a Heian tachi. Or in both Shintô and Shinshintô there were wakizashi made very stout with grand points, and kiriha-zukuri wakizashi were also made. And why where these made, well why not? Or somebody wanted one.

Now how about the tetsû. Any basic student of nihontô knows about the tetsû of the 5 Traditions. Let’s see they are;

Yamato = masame

Yamashiro = mokume

Bizen = mokume

Sôshû = itame

Mino = masame / itame

And Shintô was similar to Mino, with a masame mune and a itame ji. But then there are the waki groups. Waki is a term used for non-main branch of a school, and thus they were frequently of lesser quality. So it’s soon becomes obvious that these groups while following the basic traditions, also had their own variations. If we find a blade that has that soft look of Kotô. And it is just too well done to be waki and it has itame, with no masame it must be Sôshû. Or must it? Actually we find that there was almost no true mokume ever produced. Except for rare individual instances, the only school that produced true mokume (known as “jurin-moku”), was Bushû Shita, down in Kyushu. And that obviously is not one of the 5 Traditions. In all other cases what is described as mokume, is really a mixture of mokume / itame. Shinshintô Naotane made “uzu-hada” – whirlpool like mokume.

Well how about something easier. Masame is not too hard to make or distinguish. So if we find a very well done Kotô blade with masame , it must be Yamato, Mino or at least be following the Yamato Tradition. Right? No – wrong. About ½ of the Kotô Bizen groups had masame mixed with their mokume. And even in single groups there were variations with smiths who worked at the same time. Such as in the Yamashiro Rai School, occasionally we find mokume / masame. One way to differentiate Niji Kunitoshi and Rai Kunitoshi is that Rai Kunitoshi used masame mixed with mokume. And as I mentioned above almost all mokume is mixed with itame. And to make matter worst there was one Kotô Mino smith that occasionally put mokume in his works instead of itame . And to make matters really worst, many Kotô smiths who would not normally using masame, would use it for their polearms. Many of those polearms have been cut down into wakizashi.

Well then how about a smith characteristic hamon. Well that is another thing that you probably do not want to bet the farm on. Let’s face it if you are in the Kyô Yoshimichi School in Yamashiro around 1800, and have a IQ of 70 maybe you were completely happy using basic sudare-ba for all of your swords. But if you had a IQ of 150 or 175, and were starting your own school, you probably wanted to occasionally play around with styles of hamon. This may be for only one blade, or it could have been for a period. Rai Kunimitsu had 5 major styles of tantô, and 3 major styles of tachi. And occasionally we hear about a blade that has the provenance for certain identification of the smith. But without that provenance nobody would believe it. Well what happens if the blade is ô-suriage and lost it’s provenance. Well then it is assigned to another smith.

Then how about utsuri? Well if a blade has midare utsuri it is Kamakura Bizen. With bô-utsuri it is Bizen and Ôei to Sue-Kotô. With this Bizen means Bizen and those provinces around Bizen, such as Bitchû, Bingo and Aki. Basically the Sanyôdô. Then comes shirake utsuri. Just how many of the readers can tell shirake utsuri from midare utsuri? Since shirake utsuri was more accidental than anything else it could be from all over, but mostly in the Kyushu area and Mino. Also there is a type of utsuri frequently formed when a blade has been polished down too far.

Or how about nioi deki and nie deki? Well Bizen and Mino used nioi deki while Yamato, Yamashiro, and Sôshû used nie deki. But can you tell the difference? And how about those great exceptions? Early Kotô Bizen also used nie deki. Sue Sôshû also used nioi. And then there is the problem of just what is what. Well nie deki is a hamon primarily made of nie, and nioi deki is primarily nioi. But when we say primarily, what do we mean, and where do we draw the line. Then there is always such things such as nioi deki lined with nie. And I have seen them lined with so much nie that it is very hard to see just where it is nioi. But it is still considered nioi deki.

Then we get into Shintô and Shinshintô. This gets much, much easier. According to Ishii in Nihontô Meikan there were many more swordsmiths during Kotô than post Kotô. 15,296 during Kotô, 4,574 during Shintô, and 3,138 for Shinshintô and Gendaitô combined. That is very close to 2 to 1. Here hamon, yakidashi (hamon just in front of the nakago), and bôshi really mean a lot. Actually if one can not tell just how good the smith is by the look and feel of the blade, the above characteristics are everything. This is because other than basic quality, and variations in the hamon there was not a great difference in many post-Kotô smiths. This is further compounded during Shinshintô. Many of the Shinshintô smiths wanted to become versatile in various Kotô traditions. And some of the better ones did. But for the most part the Shinshintô Revival was mostly in the shape of the blade and real high quality never returned.

What the title promised you Kantei is Easy is true. All that you have to do is study a little, and remember a few simple rules. Of course you also must remember the 45,000,000 exceptions to the rules. Happy studying. I know that you can do it. :^) Jim