The Swordsmiths of Sôshû

by Jim Kurrasch

Minamoto Yoritomo established the Bakufu in Kamakura. This was at the begging of the Kamakura Period. Kamakura became the capital of Japan, so it made sense that sword making suddenly became very important there. This new fame brought sword smiths from the best Kaji at the time in Japan. Ichimonji Sukezane came from Fukuoka, Bizen Kunimune came from Osafune, and Kunitsuna came from Yamashiro. This generation retained much of their original style, that came from their home kaji. Shintôgo Kunimitsu was the first real Sôshû smith, and he was also the first to sign that he was from Kamakura. He was the son of Kunitsuna, so his steel had the fine tight texture of the Awataguchi. The better smiths of the following generations kept this clear tight tetsû, but added to it trememdous ji nie.

Yukimitsu, Masamune, and Sadamune really established the Kamakura style. Large tachi, only slightly narrowing from the ha-machi to the boshi. Tight tetsû, with extremely abundant ji-nie, forming chikei. Their ji-nie at first was not extreme, but then became more and clumped together (yubashiri), in strands, and finally started to take on a rounder look (marumi). Some of their blades (especially Masamune) have nioi, ko-nie, and nie thickly covering the ji. With the nie surrounded by nioi, the nie takes on a three dimensional effect. The hamon became wider and wilder, with ha-nie in abundance. The bôshi started off with abundant ko-nie and little kaeri, then became larger, with slight turnback. There is only slight hira-niku. There are no signed examples (all are o-suriage mumei) of long swords by Yukimitsu, Masamune or Sadamune, so what really happens is there are likely some that were made by one and attributed to one of the other. So if a blade appears in a earlier style (hira-niku, or inokubi kissaki) it is attributed to Yukimitsu. A later style (o-kissaki) it is attributed to Sadamune. If it has a extreme amount of ji-nie it is called a Masamune. If it has some large nie with nioi, and ko-nie it is called Masamune. If the steel is a bit tighter it’s a Sadamune. If a bit looser it’s Yukimitsu. If it is tight, but loose in spots it is Masamune. Masamune sometimes has considerably more ji-nie / chikei on one side of his blades than the other.

As for tantô Yukimitsu’s and Masamune’s were slender with the exception of Masamune’s three Hocho Masamune (kitchen knives). As for the Hocho Masamune they have all been accounted for so do not expect to find one at a gun show. Sadamune started to make longer wider wakizashi. His tetsû is considered by some to be the finest, tig clearest tetsû of all history.

Many tend to think that Sôshû blades have ji-tetsu that is a loose itame. This is some what true of the sue-Sôshû but is absolutely not true of the earlier better smiths. What they do have is a great amount of ji-nie that forms into many chikei. For some unknown reason this has been translated as to loosely knit steel. There is absolutely no truth to that reasoning. If a blade has loose steel and someone tries to say it maybe a Sôshû Masamune, or Sadamune, that is absolute non-sense. Sôshû Masamune had tight steel, but it had tremendous chikei. Chikei is not loose steel, it is ji-nie so thick that it forms bright strands. These at time have a dark look to them, but nothing like loose steel.

Masamune and Sadamune were the best of the Sôshû Jôiden (absolute best of Sôshû), they always retained some aspect of Yamashiro. Their blades always maintain a true artistic quality. After that the true Sôshû Den comes in. This was where the blades were pure Sôshû tradition with no real influence from other schools. Sô-Den is where the Sôshû influence is seen in other schools such as Sô-Den Bizen, or Sô-Den Yamato.

As the Kamakura Shogunate ends, and Nambokuchô begins we also begin to see a decline in the quality of the Sôshû tradition, just as all Japanese sword making started to decline. With Hiromitsu and Akihiro the yubashiri has become tobiyaki, but there still is abundant ji-nie. The kissaki has become longer yet, and the kaeri is deep. The katana of Kamakura were large but they were also very elegant and well balanced. With Nambokuchô they become larger and less elegant. The hada becomes coarser. The ko-wakizashi become longer. Basically the blades take on a somewhat exaggerated feeling. This is really what the term Macho is all about. Where something is done for effect alone, and there is really no justified reason for it. Some say that these Sôshû Den blades take on a blood thirsty look to them.

As the Muromachi period begins the Sôshû blades continue to decline. They have tobi yaki but the nie lessens considerably. The bôshi becomes deep (a long kaeri). The katana are much shorter, and they were made as katana, where as the earlier blades were made as true tachi, and became katana due to their being shortened. The ko-wakizashi are still short (about 13 inches long), wide and thin. The ji-tetsû is hard, some is tight mokume, and some has ô-hada.

By sue-Sôshû the nie is very sparse and is more like nioi. The bôshi is similar to the rest of the blade, with very little nie, and it is more like nioi. The kaeri is deep. The ji-tetsû is hard tight mokume. Some appear to contain a whiteness.

As Shintô comes around Sagami has little in the way of sword smiths. After the fall of the Bakufu, the decline in sword making was considerable. The Hôjo family established themselves in Odawara which was close by in Sagami. Some of the Sôshû smiths went there and regained some of their abilities. Finally Tsunahiro, a descendant of Masamune was the only one active. This line continued through Shintô, Shinshintô, and into Gendai.

The Tsunahiro made short katana and wakizashi, as well as ko-wakizashi and tantô. Their work was nie deki, and o-midare, with ara nie. Their blades a very hanayaki, and the grain of the steel stands out. The tetsû is mokume with o-hada. There will be a strong black color. Their ko-wakizashi are thick. They tend to look stout. And with that the great line of the Sôshû smiths is just about to a end. But who knows maybe one of these days Chris Bowen in Japan will let us know that they are coming back, as one of their descendants again takes on this trade and excels at it.