The Kunikiyo (國清) line of smiths started with Shimada Kichiemon (島田吉左衛門), born in 1589 in Matsuhiro city, Shinshu. Initially a student of his father the swordsmith Shimana Sukemune, he left his hometown and became a top student of grandmaster swordsmith and samurai Horikawa Kunihiro. Kunihiro was known for mastering sword making in many different styles, often with horimono.
He left Kyoto in 1614 after his master’s death went on to serve the Daimyou of Echizen, Matsudaira Tademasa in 1616. In 1627 he changed his name to Kunikiyo, using his master's character for Kuni (國), when he was granted the Yamashiro-daijo (山城大掾) noble title from the imperial court. He gained the more prestigious Yamashiro-no-kami (山城守) title in the following year, 1628.2 He was then also allowed to carve the 16 petal imperial family chrysanthemum mon into his swords, a very high honor.
Sources are not consistent on his time of passing, which is given either as 1649 at the age of 60, or 1665 at age 76. I tend to accept the 1665 date, because there is an oshigata in the Nihonto Zuikan of a sword with midare hamon, uncommon for the 2nd generation, with a signature that shows the traits of the first generation in its execution. This sword is dated Manji 4th year, corresponding to 1661.3
The title and smith's name were continued by his son, real name Shimada Shinbei (島田新兵衛). He first signed with Kunimune (国宗) before continuing as Kunikiyo. Later changed his real name to Kichiemon, his father's. According to Hawley and Markus Sesko, there were 5 generations in total.4
A wakizashi by 2nd generation Kunikiyo.
Tested by Yamano Kaemon Nagahisa on May 4th, Kanbun 6th year. (1666 A.D.)
Listed at mandarinmansion.com
1st generation Kunikiyo, (1589-1665)
Active around Kan ́ei (寛永, 1624-1644).
Personal name Shimada Kichizaemon.
2nd generation Kunikiyo, (?-1698)
Active around Kanbun (寛文, 1661-1673).
Personal name Shimada Shinbei, later Kichizaemon.
Own son Ichizaemon Kunikiyo died young.
3rd generation Kunikiyo (?-1700)
Active around Tenna (天和, 1681-1684).
Personal name Shimada Shinbei. Adopted son of 2nd generation. Possibly his younger brother.
4th generation Kunikiyo (?-?)
Active around Hōei (宝永, 1704-1711).
Personal name Shimada Shinbei.
5th generation Kunikiyo (?-?)
Active around Kyōhō (享保, 1716-1736).
Personal name Shimada Kuhachirō.
1. Markus Sesko; Swordsmiths of Japan A-Z. Lulu Inc. 2015. Page 430. Although Fujishiro believed he may have been a student of Kunitomo instead. See Fujishiro Matsuo; Nihon Toko Jiten. Koto Hen. Tokyo 1973.
2. For the process of attaining these titles, see Markus Sesko; How honorary titles were conferred.
3. Kataoka; Nihonto Zuikan. Shinto volume. Page 746.
4. W.M. Hawley; Japanese Swordsmiths Revised. W.M. Hawley, Hollywood. 1981. Page 308. Markus Sesko; Swordsmiths of Japan A-Z. Lulu Inc. 2015. Page 430.
First- and second-generation work
In Japanese lineages, the first generation is referred to as shodai (初代) and the second as nidai (二代). The work of the first and second-generation Kunikiyo is nearly indistinguishable, both consistently produced high-quality blades and are known for a very controlled suguha hamon which they mastered like few others. Horimono are often seen, many with chrysanthemum branches. They are best told apart by studying the signatures.
Worked in a Hizen-like suguha (straight) hamon, and a Soshu midare (wavy) style. Produced somewhat brighter crystals in the hamon.
Signed Sukemune (助宗) in his early years. Started to sign Yamashiro-daijo Fujiwara Kunikiyo (山城大掾藤原國清) from 1627 to 1628 Yamashiro no Kami Fujiwara Kunikiyo (山城守藤原國清) after being granted that title in 1628.
There are some idiosyncrasies in his signature that help in telling him apart from successive generations. I highlighted the important strokes in red.
1. An early shodai signature. Typical for the shodai are the offset horizontal strokes in 城 and the angle of the bottom strokes in 國 that are sometimes near parallel. The small "box" is never closed. His early signatures tend to have two horizontal strokes in the bottom of 清.
2. Later, he started to do the upper of the two strokes in the bottom of 清 in a more horizontal or sometimes slanted manner.
3. Another example of his later signature. This particular sword, made of foreign steel (nanban tetsu) and was produced on a day in the 2nd month of Kan'ei 21, corresponding to February 1644. Notice the two near-parallel strokes here in the bottom of 國.2
The second generation worked mostly in suguha hamon and often with horimono. Achieved slightly tighter forging.
The best way to tell them apart is through the signature. At some point, the second generation started to add a horizontal line under the chrysanthemum mon: "一" (ichi), Japanese for "one". However, this is absent on early works and it is not known when he introduced this.
In absence of the ichi, look at the writing styles of the characters “shiro” (城) in Yamashiro and "Kuni" (國) in Kunikiyo.
1. An early nidai signature. Typical for the nidai are the upper strokes of 城 being at less of a steep angle, or sometimes not in the same angle. This sword was tested in 1666, so made before that time.
2. A later nidai signature with the addition of the ichi (一). Otherwise very similar to 1.
3. On some signatures, probably postdating 2, we see that the little box of the character 國 is now closed. This oshigata is listed as the nidai, but as few works are known to be of the sandai (third generation), I wonder whether we can see it as a trait of the sandai instead.3
1. Various authors; Nihon To Koza (Lectures on Japanese swords). Volume 4. Translation by Harry Afu Watson. Page 84. Also see Kataoka; Nihonto Zuikan. Shinto volume. Page 701.
2. Source of shodai oshigata: 1: Kataoka; Nihonto Zuikan. Shinto volume. Page 740. 2: Ibid page 741. 3: Fujishiro Matsuo; Nihon Toko Jiten. Koto Hen. Tokyo, reprint of 1973. Page 749.
3. Sources of nidai oshigata: 1: Kunikiyo wakizashi listed here at mandarinmansion.com. 2: Kataoka; Nihonto Zuikan. Shinto volume. Pages 743-744.
1st generation Kunikiyo is rated jo saku (上作, superior made).
2nd generation is rated jo saku (上作, superior made).
3rd generation is rated chu-jo-saku (中上作, above average made).
4th generation is rated chu-jo-saku (中上作, above average made).1
Both are rated wazamono for sharpness, which quite literally means “an instrument that plays as it should”, a reference to their excellent cutting ability.2
1. Fujishiro Matsuo; Nihon Toko Jiten. Koto Hen. Tokyo, reprint of 1973.
2. Yamada Asaemon V; Kaiho Kenjaku (懐宝剣尺). 1797.
Further reading on Kunikiyo
Kanzan Sato; The Japanese Sword. Kodansha International and Shibundo. Tokyo, New York, London. 1983. Pages 99-102.
Markus Sesko; Nihon-shintō-shi 日本新刀史 The History of the shintō Era of Japanese Swords. Lulu, Inc. 2013. Available for purchase here.
Markus Sesko; Swordsmiths of Japan A-Z. Lulu Inc. 2015. Available for purchase here.
Kataoka; Nihonto Zuikan. Shinto volume. 1977. Page 746.