The Aoe school was an old school of Japanese sword makers, active mainly in the port town of Kurashiki in Bitchū Province. They were part of the Yamashiro tradition.

According to legend, the school was founded by Yasutsugu (安次) in the 12th century. The earliest extant works are from his son Moritsugu (守次), who had several sons and students. Among the sons were Sadatsugu (貞次), Tsuguie (初代次家), Tametsugu (為次), Tsunetsugu (恒次), Sadatsugu (貞次) and Shigetsugu” (重次). Among the students were Ietsugu (家次) and Nobutsugu (信次). Some of these names carried on for many generations, and the school prospered until it died out around the 14th century.

Emperor Go-Toba (後鳥羽天皇, 1180-1239) was a great lover of swords who gathered around him 12 of the best swordsmiths of his time so he could learn the craft. Each would work with him one month of the year. Three of them were from the Ko-Aoe school; Sadatsugu, Tsunetsugu, and Tsuguie, all sons of Moritsugu.


Workmanship style

The evolution of the Aoe school is often divided into three periods: Ko-Aoe (old Aoe) from the 11th to mid-13th century, Chu-Aoe (middle Aoe) from the mid-13th to late 14th century, and Sue-Aoe, late 14th - 15th centuries. Throughout their active period, they produced mostly tachi swords.

Sugata: Relatively thick and narrow tachi, with deep koshi-zori, much funbari and ko-kissaki.
Jihada: They forged two different types of jihada, one a dense ko-itame and the other a unique chirimen-hada (縮緬肌), a dense mokume named after its appearance of silk crepe. Blades in nie-deki can have a o-mokume hada. The jigane typically shows much ji-nie and fine chickei. Many of their blades show jifu and sumegane.
Hamon: Suguha-based or light midare, in ko-nie-deki, with many ashi. Especially the earliest works show lots of nie and a lot of activity within the hamon such as kinsuji, sunagashi, etc.
Nakago: Typical for early works are o-sujikai yasurime finished nakago with a signature on the haki-ura side, under the mekugi-ana.
Boshi: Proportionate to the hamon, midare komi or suguha with no kaeri or short kaeri.

Sugata: Tachi become wider with a chu-kissaki, some with elongated kissaki.
Jigane: Tight ko-itame with ko-mokume creating chiremen hada, covered in ji-nie and chikei. Occasionally jifu and shirake utsuri. (Compared to Ko-Aoe, less bright, no o-hada and less sumegane.)
Hamon: Suguha or midare. Tighter nioiguchi with much ko-nie. Lots of activity in the hamon. Backward slanting ashi.
Boshi: Pointed maru with long kaeri.
Nakago: O-sujikai, sujikai or kiri yasurime.

Sugata: Long odachi swords with wide mihaba, shallow sori and o-kissaki.
Jigane: Tight ko-itame with some mokume. Sometimes shirake utsuri.
Hamon: Suguha and saka-choji-midare in nioi-deki with tight nioiguchi.
Boshi: Continuing the hamon. Normal kaeri.
Nakago: Few survived ubu.

Famous works

The most famous Aoe sword is undoubtedly the Juzumaru-Tsunetsugu (数珠丸恒次). It is signed Tsunetsugu who is believed to be the same Tsunetsugu who worked with emperor Go Toba. The sword is one of the Tenka-goken (天下五剣) the “Five Finest Swords under Heaven”. 

It was owned by Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282), was a Japanese Buddhist priest and philosopher and founder of Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. After his death, it was one of his three venerated possessions kept in the Kuon-ji temple in Yamanashi Prefecture. 

It got lost in the Edo period, until it was rediscovered in 1920 by sword scholar Shozo Sugihara. He presented it back to the Kuonji Temple but they declined, thinking it was a forgery. So it went to another Nichiren temple, the Honkō-ji temple in Aichi prefecture, where it remains until today.


 Juzumaru-Tsunetsugu Juzumaru-Tsunetsugu nakago

The Juzuaru-Tsunetsugu, jūyō bunkazai.
Honkō-ji temple, Aichu prefecture.

The reason the Kuonji Temple declined was because the yasurime are kiri (straight) and the signature is on the haki omote (front side when worn tachi style). Ko-Aoe works were known to be signed on the reverse, and the yasurime is o-sujikai. However, today, we know that many Aoe works, especially of the latter part of the Kamakura period, were signed on the haki omote.



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