Carved out of copper alloy with details highlighted in gold.
In koshirae 107.3 cm
Blade 85.3 cm
Edge 66.5 cm
Base 6 mm
Tip 4 mm
(at yokote line)
Hamachi (base) 31 mm
Kissaki (tip) 22 mm
Koshirae: Wood, shakudō, urushi lacquer, silk, deerskin, gold
Blade circa 1350s-1370s
Koshirae 19th century
From a Japanese gentleman living in the U.S.A.
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Introduction, the Sōshū school
Following the Geinpei War of 1180–1185, samurai warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo appointed himself as the first Shōgun of Japan, starting a period of rule by the samurai warrior caste that would last into the 19th century. He headed the country from the de facto capital of Kamakura in Sagami province, using the emperor in Kyoto as a figurehead. Kamakura remained the center of power from its founding in 1185 to its fall in 1333 A.D.
Skilled swordsmiths from around the country gathered around Kamakura in Sagami province, which was also known as Sōshū (相州), and started to influence each other. Among them were those from the Fukuoka Ichimonji, Awataguchi, and Ko-Bizen schools. An exciting new style of sword-making emerged, called the Sōshū school, of which Shintogo Kunimitsu is regarded the founder. Among his students was Masamune.
Masamune is widely regarded as Japan's greatest smith. When Masamune is mentioned, the names Sadamune, Norishige, and Go Yoshihiro often follow, all top-level Sōshū masters in their own right. Sadamune was believed to have been Masamune's adopted son, while Norishige was a fellow student of Masamune under Shintogo Kunimitsu. Go Yoshihiro is often described as Masamune's greatest student. His works are rare, as he is thought to have passed away around 30. There's a Japanese saying:
"You never see a ghost, or a Go."
In 1333 the Kamakura Shogunate was defeated by Emperor Go-Daigo in 1333, briefly re-establishing Imperial rule until 1336 when warlord Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the Imperial government and became Shogun, ruling from Kyoto. This hailed in the Nanbokuchō period ("North and South court period"), with a Northern Imperial court under Ashikaga and a southern Imperial court under emperor Go-Daigo. Many Sōshū masters dispersed from Kamakura to serve new markets, and in a few generations, the tradition faded away.
Due to their great artistry and limited time of production, old Sōshū swords were very much prized collectibles among Japanese nobility. They were often worn in later mounts as part of their formal attire. Presented in this article is a fine Sōshū sword that comes in Edo period formal imperial koshirae.
Various authors; Nihon To Koza. 1930s.
Honma Junji; Nihon-kotō-shi. 1963.
Dmitry Pachalov; Sōshū den Masterpieces. Axios, 2019.
A fine example of a Sōshū sword of the Nanbokucho period (1336 to 1392), exhibiting the wild tempering effects both inside and above the hamon that the school is known for.
Like most, it started life as a long tachi but was shortened at some point in history. This shortening was so common that very few Kamakura period swords seem to have survived in full length.
I have tried to photograph it well, but this is a sword that really needs to be seen in hand to appreciate it to the fullest.
(With plain English below)
Sugata: O-suriage, mumei. Three mekugi ana, two plugged. Bo-hi on either side. Deep sori and slightly elongated kissaki.
(Overall form: Shortened and unsigned. Three peg holes in tang, two plugged. Groove on either side. Deep curvature with slightly elongated tip.)
Jigane: Itame-hada with masame lots of ji nie, chikei and yubashiri. Some ara nie. Shirake utsuri.
(Steel: Regular wood grain with some straight grain. Many martensite crystals in the area above the temperline. Dark lines of martensite and islands of tempered steel showing above the temperline. Some patches of coarse martensite crystals. Undulating misty tempering effects above the hamon.)
Hamon: Nie deki, gunome midare with notare. Prominent sunagashi with nijuba and kinsuji.
(Temperline: Appearing in mostly large martensite crystals. It consists of many roundish elements arranged in a slightly undulating line. Prominent brushed sand effects with areas of double lines of tempered steel and black gleaming lines inside the tempered zone.)
Boshi: hakikake and kaeri, right side jizo.
(Temperline in tip: having a large amount of martensite crystals showing, and the temperline makes a U-turn and runs back a portion under the spine. The right side resembles a Jizō bodhisattva statue as seen from the side.)
(Carvings: one wide groove in the upper blade facet on either side.)
Unsigned swords are a source of speculation, but experts are often able to attribute them to a certain school and time period, and in many cases, even to a specific smith. The sword comes with two papers or origami. The first and oldest was issued by Hon'ami Nisshū in Shōwa six (1931). The second is a Tokubetsu Hozon ("especially worthy of preservation") paper issued by the N.B.T.H.K. in 2021.
Hon'ami Nisshū (1908–1996); Sadamune (貞宗)
Hon'ami Nisshū (1908–1996) was a sword polisher and sword appraiser of the famous Hon'ami line, a family who used to work directly for the Tokugawa shogunate. He was designated a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government. He attributed the sword to Sadamune, Masamune's adopted son and the student who followed Masamune's work most closely. Curiously, while the length and description of the blade correspond to ours, the paper speaks of two grooves on either side.
N.B.T.H.K. Tokubetsu Hozon; Den Tametsugu (為継)
The N.B.T.H.K., almost a century later, goes for Den Tametsugu. Den is used as "almost" and is usually used to describe a sword that exhibits most, but not all, traits of that smith. It does mean that the sword is thought to be of at least the quality of that smith and in some cases, could even be better than what they are used to seeing from a particular smith. The hamon and hada on this sword appear to be typical for this Sōshū master.
The two opinions show that sword attribution is not the exact science many collectors want it to be. But what we can read from them is that the sword is probably attributable to a high-level 14th-century Sōshū master whose life overlapped with that of Masamune. Given how much Japanese sword scholarship has advanced since Hon'ami Nisshū put his brush to these papers, I regard the later N.B.T.H.K.'s opinion as the most accurate. While Sadamune tempered a very similar hamon, his hada tends to be more finely forged, exhibiting very evenly spread nie that appears closer to Masamune's work. Patches of ara nie, as seen here, are noted in the works of Go Yoshihiro and may be indicative of Tametsugu's connection to Go.
Tametsugu, first name was Shirōbei (四郎兵衛), was a skilled and versatile Sōshū smith. He is traditionally believed to have been the son of Go Yoshihiro and continued training under Noroshige after his father's early passing. This is mainly based on the fact that traits of both Go and Norishige can be found in some of his works.1 He probably lived from around 1315 to 1380.
Go Yoshihiro and Norishige were based in Esshū (越州). Signed works of Tametsugu mention Esshū, Echizen, and Mino. Dated blades with his Echizen signature range from 1357-1369. During his time in Echizen, he probably produced swords for Ashikaga's forces, who launched attacks on the south from there. He later moved to Akasaka in Mino. A blade dated 1374 was signed "resident of Mino," showing he was there from at least 1374 onwards.2
He may have been attracted to Mino because one of Masamune's students, Kaneuji, also moved there. Kaneuji is considered the founder of the Mino tradition, and Mino was to become one of the main sword-making centers of Japan. Another source states that he originally came from Mino and simply went home after Norishige's passing.3
In total, 75 blades by Tametsugu reached the highly desirable Juyō level, a designation of the blade being important. Of those, 11 were signed, and the rest were unsigned pieces attributed to Tametsugu. Of those, 20 have the Den Tametsugu attribution.
Fujishiro Matsuo rated Tametsugu's work as jo-saku (上作), which means he produced superior workmanship within his school. As these ratings are contextual, this is high praise when you consider that his peers were no less than Masamune and his top students.4 Tametsugu's swords are also rated wazamono for being good cutters.5
For more information, see my glossary article: Tametsugu (為継)
Notes to Tametsugu
1. Nihon to Koza. Vol 2 Koto Part 1. Pages 372-373 and 383.
2. Honma Junji; Nihon Koto Shi. 1963. Translation by Markus Sesko. The History of the kotō Era of Japanese Swords. Print and publishing: Lulu, Inc. Page 190.
3. Nihon to Koza. Vol 2 Koto Part 1. Page 372.
4. Fujishiro Matsuo; Nihon Tōkō Jiten (日本刀工辞典). 1978.
5. See the Kokon Kajibiko (古今鍛冶備考) of 1830.
The tachi koshirae
The sword comes with a very nice itomaki no tachi (糸巻太刀) koshirae. Itomaki means "silk wrapped", referring to the grip wrap that continues over the first part of the scabbard. It is believed to have originally been to protect the scabbard from getting damaged by the armor.
The execution of this example follows the exact regulations of the Shogunate, with the shakudō mounts with golden family crests and fine gold sprinkled lacquer (nashiji) scabbard. The crests seen in gold on both the mountings and the lacquered scabbard are the kirimon (桐紋) or "paulownia seals".
They refer to the paulownia woods, where according to an ancient Chinese legend, a phoenix was believed to appear during the coronation of a new emperor. From the time of emperor Go-Daigo's reign onwards (1318-1339 A.D.), it was exclusively used for the Imperial Household and second only in rank to the chrysanthemum seal. Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598 A.D.) also started to use it and conferred it on generals for bravery and faithful service.1
The mounts are unsigned but undoubtedly made by the Gotō family, resident metalworkers for the Tokugawas.
1. W.M. Hawley and Kei Kaneda Chappelaer; Mon, the Japanese family crest. Self-published. 1976. Page 7.
This style of mountings was to be worn with the formal dress called reifuku (礼服), worn by senior samurai at court. They often carried much older and prized heirloom blades.
The set comes with N.T.H.K. papers attributing it to the Edo period.
Some of Japan's best swords have itomaki no tachi koshirae. The most famous among them is the koshirae of the Dojigiri, or "Demon Cutter" by Ko-Hoki smith Yasutsuna. It is one of the Tenka-Goken (天下五剣) or "Five [Greatest] Swords under Heaven" and possibly the most celebrated of them all. You can barely open a Japanese sword book without seeing the Dojigiri on one of its pages. The sword is a national treasure, now housed in the Tokyo National Museum. Initially dated to the 9th century, but more recent scholarship puts Yasutsuna's working period to around the 11th or 12th century.
Its mountings are believed to date from the Momoyama period (1568-1600).
Koshirae of the Dojigiri.
National Treasure. Tokyo National Museum.
Many great swords that were presented were also in itomaki no tachi. An example is a Ko-Aoe school tachi of the Kamakura period (1192-1333 A.D.) forged by Bichu Masatsune. It was presented to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura by Tokugawa Yoshimune, probably in 1736 when he had the Shrine restored.
Itomaki no tachi koshirae for a Ko-Aoe Bichu Masatsune sword.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura by Tokugawa Yoshimune, probably in 1736.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine collection.
Blades in itomaki no tachi koshirea were often presented to (foreign) dignitaries including the queens of England and the Netherlands.
For more information and many more examples, see my glossary article: Itomaki no tachi
A fine Sōshū school sword that exhibits the typical traits of that school nicely, being flamboyant work in nie creating many visual effects in the temperline. Attributed to Sadamune by Hon'ami Nisshū in 1931 and later to Den Tametsugu by the N.B.T.H.K. in 2021.
It comes in a set of beautiful tachi koshirae made according to the regulations of the Edo shogunate. This type of mounting is often used for prized old heirloom swords and was worn by the upper echelons of the shogunate during formal gatherings.
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Very delicate work with carved guardian lions.
Unusual tsuba with foreign figures and Chinese auspicious symbols.
Pierced and chiseled showing an 18th century European vessel.
Very finely carved with designs reminiscent of export wares.
With scenes of pine trees and three drawers.