The Bizen Tradition

by Jim Kurrasch
from the August 1996 Nanka Token Kai Newsletter
Most of the Gokaidô, where established in important political centers. When Yamato began Nara was the Imperial Capital. When the Capital moved to Kyôtô, sword manufacturing took off there also. The Sôshû Tradition was started in Kamakura when after that became the military seat of power. Even though Mino was not the location of a political capital, there where several major warlords that were in the area. Only Bizen started away from the political centers. It had a ample supply of charcoal, water, and iron sand. This was it’s blessing since political seats were also areas that sooner or later were under attack. The fact that Bizen was on the Sanyôdô gave easy access to these blades, and helped their fame. The flooding of the Yoshi river in 1591, along with the constant depletion of the natural resources of Bizen took it’s toll, and almost finished the Bizen tradition. But it produced swords through the history of Japanese sword making.
About half of the Kotô blades were made in Bizen. When one looks at the number of smith’s we find that in the Kotô period, there were about 4,000 smiths in Bizen, 1,270 in Mino, 1,025 in Yamashiro, 850 in Yamato, and 440 in Sagami. So Bizen had more sword smiths than the other 4 tradition combined. I am sure that it was no accident that the 2 traditions that had the most smiths (Bizen and Mino) were nioi deki. Nioi deki is considerably tougher than nie deki. So as a weapon in a major fight, a nioi deki blade might dull quicker, but would probably not break as quickly as one made in nie. And it takes less skill to produce a nioi deki blade than one in a uniform / even nie deki.
Back to the story! The Ko-Bizen School was founded by Sanenari ?? around Tenryaku – 950 AD. However none of his works are known to exist. We must wonder who taught him? The next in line where Tomonari ?? and Sukenari ??. The general description of these smiths blades is;
They made only tachi. These are in the Heian style. This means that they have a deep koshi zorii = bizen sorii, with strong fumbari. They are about 33 inches – 85 Cm. long. The sorii starts several inches in front of the habaki. If one ever comes across one of these blades it will most likely have been cut down. So then there will be no fumbari. The front portion of the blade will appear very straight, and the koshi zorii may have been reduced to nothing. But you may find a hint of it if you look at the shinogi ridge as it goes through the nakago. So look carefully! There will be slight niku.
There will be a ko-kissaki, but in most cases this will have been lost along the way. So expect to see a bôshi painted in with either very fine pin punches or by the polish. While we all know that this normally is a fatal flaw, knowledgeable persons will fully accept it for these blades. To possess a Ko-Bizen blade in almost any condition is a mark of a true lover of nihontô. To not buy one due to such a flaw just means that person’s still has much to learn. The over-all shape is very elegant and dignified, similar to the Yamashiro shape for the time.
The steel is a very finely worked ko-mokume, but there maybe o-hada in places. There will be a dense ko nie on the shinogi-ji, forming chikei. There maybe jifu = jifu utsuri = dark utsuri. Over-all the steel is a blue, and extremely beautiful to look at.
The hamon is a narrow ko-midare or ko-chôji-midare. There will be many action marks. There should be kinsuji, inazuma, ashi, yô, and sunagashi. Some works are nioi-deki but most are ko-nie-deki. The bôshi (if there) is ko-maru but there maybe a midare element to it. It will end in a short turn-back.
Very rarely there are bô-hi carved into the blade. If original these will go up into the ko-shinogi, and end squared off. No other horimono were made by these smiths.
The nakago are long and curved. Some are kijimomo = pheasant thigh shaped. Normally in a ni-ji mei but there maybe san-ji mei, and occasionally go-ji mei or even roku-ji mei. As to absolute identification of a mu-mei blade it is very hard. All Ko-Bizen smiths were fairly similar in style. So in kantei you are considered right if you state Ko-Bizen. One maybe able to narrow it down to a specific smith if he has studied one similar, but this should not be expected.
The Fukuoka Ichimonji ????? rose to greatness at the beginning of the Kamakura period. Their founder is considered to be Norimune ??, but there were others about the same time so it might have been a family or group thing. Their fame lasted about 100 years. The early ones may also be known as Ko-Ichimonji.
Here expect a tachi shape similar to Ko-Bizen, but stronger. The length will again be about 33 inches – 85 Cm. but there were also some ko-dachi made. The width will be wider than Ko-Bizen, and will be fairly even from kissaki to nakago. There will be a strong dignified sorii. The bôshi will be somewhat stout.
The steel again is a finely worked ko-mokume. There maybe some o-hada. There will be a midare or chôji jifu-utsuri. The color of the steel is a blue.
The hamon is nioi-deki with ko-nie forming kinsuji, and inazuma. The tetsû will show in the wider hamon. The bôshi is ko-maru or slight midare. There will only be a very short kaeri = turn-back if any.
If there are any original carvings they will only be bô-hi going well up into the bôshi. The ends will be square, or fade in the nakago.
The nakago will be long ending in kuri-jiri – chestnut shaped. Occasionally kijimomo are seen. The signature may only be Ichi = ?, but there may also be a ni-ji mei.
Yoshioka Ichimonji was founded by Sukeyoshi, who was the grandson of Fukuoka Ichimonji Sukemune. He was active around 1290 to 1305. He worked in Yoshioka. Yoshioka is about Yoshioka is about 6 km. = 4 miles north of Fukuoka. The smiths of this school worked from about 1288 to the end of the Kamakura period, and well into Nambokuchô (1350). Overall the work is similar to the Fukuoka smiths but inferior.
Both tachi and tantô were produced. Tachi are in a shallow koshi sori, and of the mid-Kamakura style. They are thick, and firm. Some taper to the kissaki giving a graceful shape. Those that most appear graceful are also a bit short. Sometimes ko-tachi were made as well as those with ikubi kissaki. If ubu they have strong fumbari.
When hi are carved they will not go into the kissaki. Bo-hi, bô-hi with soe-hi, and futasuji hi (double grooves) were often carved. The bottom end of the hi will be maru – round, or kakinagashi – square. Other carvings are rare.
The hamon is nioi deki. It is o-chôji midare, and some also have togari ba. The edge of the hamon will be clear and distinct (versus the Fukuoka Ichimonji who hamon was loose). Sometimes ko-midare was also seen, as well as suguha chôji midare. If ubu a blade may show koshiba.
The bôshi are midarekomi with kaeri. They tend to be deep.
The tetsû is a strong o mokume hada with chôji utsuri, or komokume hada with jifu utsuri. The grain will be hadatatsu, with chikei.
The nakago is long, with a tapering tip. The end will be kuri-jiri. Yasurimei are kiri or o suji chigai. Ichi was signed by the ha-machi and most have a longer signature below that. Some were dated. The nakago has niku.
The Shôchu Ichimonji were also called the Iwato Ichimonji. This was because they lived in the area of Iwato, and started in the time of Shôchu (1324 to 1326). Pieces from this group are rare. Their work is generally inferior to that of the Yoshioka Ichimonji. This group was founded by Yoshiuji, in Shôchu. There does not seem to be any connection between this and the other Ichimonji Schools. It may have had a connection with the Osafune smiths.
The tachi will be early Kamakura shape with little fumbari (of course it must be ubu to see this). It will be wide and thin. There will be little niku, and a long kissaki.
Carvings are hi such as bô hi, bô hi with soe hi, and futasuji hi.
The hamon is narrow and nioi deki. Occasionally suguha chôji midare is seen, but most will be ko chôji midare and midare. The ashi will tend to be reversed – saka. Small inazuma can be seen.
The bôshi is ko-midare with slight kaeri.
The hada is mokume, with masame. The steel seems weak, and there will be whitish utsuri.
The nakago is short and kuri-jiri tipped. Yasurimei is kiri or sujikai. There will be a Ichi, and the mei maybe niji or nagamei – long.
The Osafune were the largest group in Bizen and they lasted the longest of them all, from late Heian to 1591 with the flooding of the Yoshii river. They also achieved great fame during their time. This fame came after Mitsutada founded the Osafune School, around 1238. Mitsutada’s son Junkei Nagamitsu had a large number of important students. Shodai Nagamitsu was then followed by Kagemitsu who was just as famous.
This group made tachi, kodachi, tantô and naginata. Their tachi were either narrow with ko-kissaki or wide with ikubi kissaki. Either will have a graceful sori. Tantô were about 9 inches – 23 cm. long. Actually at one time or another Osafune smiths made almost everything as long as it was nioi deki.
Carvings are bô hi, futasuji hi, and ryû – dragons.
The hamon vary greatly from o-chôji, to ko-chôji, to ko-midare, and gunome. All are nioi deki, at least until So-den Bizen. With So-den Bizen some are nioi deki with so much ha nie that it covers the nioi. So one must really look to see that it is nioi deki.
The bôshi is midare or notare, with either komaru or yakizume and a slight kaeri.
The hada is fine tight ko-mokume with o-mokume. The tetsû is blue, and there is midare utsuri. Chikei maybe present. There is uruoi – a wet appearance to the ji.
The nakago have sori, and taper towards the kuri-jiri tip. It is signed nagamei, and often dated.
The younger brother of Mitsutada was Kagehide. He started a split off from the Osafune mainline school around 1260. The only famous smiths of this group were Kagehide and Kageyori.
Their Tachi were characteristic of the mid-Kamakura, and the ikubi kissaki tachi. There is little sori, but they are thick and wide. Basically these blades are stout.
If there are carvings they will be bô-hi carved up into the kissaki, and the end will be squared off. The nakago end will also be kakudome – squared off or they will go down through the nakago.
The hamon will show it’s hada. It will be in either suguha chôji midare with deep ashi, or it will be a chôji midare, with considerable activity. Either will be nioi deki. There will also be clustering of nie.
The bôshi is midare, with a togari point. There will be nie as well as deep ashi. As the bôshi crosses into the monouchi it will become suguha, but then returns to midare.
The tetsû is fine, but will contain o-hada, making it seem loose overall.
The nakago will be short with niji-mei. The yasurimei is o-sujikai.
About 1200 another school was started by Moriie, in Hatakeda, a town very close to Osafune (about ½ mile away). Moriie’s works appear very similar to Osafune Mitsutada, but Moriie’s will be more hade in the nie, and in the tetsû.
The shape again was either mid-Kamakura tachi or ikubi-kissaki tachi. Here the ikubi-kissaki was not a strong as normally seen. The blade has ha-niku but little hira-niku, and the blade will be thin.
The carvings will be bô-hi carved into the kissaki with the end squared off. The lower part will also be squared off or go into the nakago.
The hamon will be nioi deki o chôji midare with great variations in it’s height. Some chôji will reach to the shinogi while others end close to the ha. There will be long ashi of nioi but with nie. There maybe tobiyaki just above the hamon, caused by the neck of the chôji being made narrow so it separated in spots. The hamon will posses great activity, and seem very alive.
The bôshi is midare with a short kaeri. Sometimes there is yakizume.
The tetsû was worked very well. It is o-mokume with itame. The itame will become very large. There will be slight ji-nie that may form chikei.
The nakago will be long with kuri-jiri. The yasurimei will be either kiri or sujikai. Maybe either niji mei or sanji mei.