Go Yoshihiro Katana

Go Yoshihiro

periodEnd of Kamakura
designationNBTHK Juyo Token Katana
ratingSai-jo saku
nakagoo-suriage, 3 mekugiana
nagasa69.4 cm
sori2.0 cm
motohaba2.7 cm
sakihaba2.0 cm
kissaki3.0 cm
nakago nagasa18.1 cm
nakago sorislight
price -sold-

When looking at a masterpiece by Go Yoshihiro, by holding up a lantern in the middle of the night, or when drawing a tanto made by Norishige from its sheath and viewing it, you cannot help but automatically reach a serenity of mind which is like a dream. These two smiths were bright morning stars in the northern sky at around the end of the Kamakura Jidai. Nihonto Koza

Go Yoshihiro is one of the most famous and important sword smiths to have lived. From the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi he has been revered as one of the Nihon San Saku, the Three Great Smiths of Japan. His peers in this group are Masamune and Awataguchi Yoshimitsu. This is elite company to say the least, and he is the most skilled smith of the Masamune Juttetsu (the 10 great students of Masamune).

He is fondly referred to simply as Go and the original kanji for this (郷) was over time replaced with a simplified version (江). So depending on the time frame of the Japanese source, one or the other may be used for his name.

Go had the given name of Umanosuke, and is supposed to have been a samurai retainer of the Tomoi clan, took up swordsmithing very young and died at 27 to 30 years old in or around 1325, leading to very few works being extant. He is said to have signed his works in two characters, but the small number left to us are now all o-suriage mumei (signature lost through shortening).

There exists an old saying that One never sees a ghost or a Go testifying to their rarity. We must keep in mind that this saying is several hundred years old, and has to be taken in the context where ghosts and demons, kami and supernatural powers were all commonly thought to exist, but of course personal experience with these was obviously very limited to say the least... about on a par to those who got to see the works of Go.

Albert Yamanaka explains this saying quite well in the Nihonto Newsletter:

There is a saying in Japan ... "one never sees a ghost or a Go", this means though we often read and hear about ghosts, we never see one and the same can be said for Yoshihiro's blades as well. It is that rare. [...] In the ancient Japan, when all of the famous blades were in the big Daimyo collections, the populace never did get to see these blades, but heard much about them and the above saying came into being.

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana

Yamanaka also states that Yoshihiro is included at the very top of the listing of swordsmiths, in reference to his skill.

In terms of the lineage of Go, going far back there have always been stories and contentions that his teacher was Masamune. At this point in time Go is considered the greatest of the students of Masamune, and some would consider him to be a peer in skill. He has to his credit many famous works, including eight famous Meito (named swords) which are variously Kokuho (National Treasures) and Juyo Bunkazai or Bijutsuhin (Important Cultural Items and Artworks), and some are in the Imperial Collection. All through time his works have been highly sought after and held in the highest regard.

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana

A clue to recognizing Go is that there is activity in the jitetsu and hamon, but as for the jitetsu, compared to that of MASAMUNE nado, it is probably a mixed steel, it is extremely beautiful, and the hada is also very tight, but the ji-nie that is a recognizable trait of the Soshu Den is fine, thick, beautiful, and clear. The chikei appears shizumi (indistinct or below the surface), and as for the hamon, the nioi-guchi is incomparably brighter and more clear than that of others among the koto [smiths].

When comparing Go to other koto [smiths] on this point, he can be said to have established this work style, which is absolutely peculiar to him. To state it another way, this is the value of the extant Go and this is also a point that is difficult for the inexperienced person learning kantei to grasp. Moreover, the excellence of this is something which, with the gradual accumulation of research, gradually becomes deeply assented to. Nihonto Koza

Go Yoshihiro hails from Matsukura county of Etchu province and is considered to have a relationship with Norishige, the nature of which is not exactly clear. Norishige was long ago considered a student of Masamune's teacher, Shintogo. Later in history he was moved into the Masamune Juttetsu but due to two dated works left to us, we know for sure the earlier description is the true one (he is senior to Masamune in the Shintogo mon).

Go comes along a little bit after Norishige and possibly follows him to Kamakura to take up training in the Masamune group. One of his sons is Tametsugu, who would go on to receive some teaching from Norishige due to the early death of his father. The early work of Go Yoshihiro is strongly flavored with influence from Yamato, and mixes with Soshu den in creating vivid, beautiful and unique work. A few signed and dated works of Tametsugu exist, some of which use Esshu as the place of manufacture (in 1368) and others use Noshu (Mino, in 1372) so we know that he migrated and approximately when.

There seems to have been a few talented smiths in this group. In the Umetada Meikan, blades by Go are grouped with Norishige, and then are followed by Uda Tomonori, Kunimune, Tomohisa, and Kuninaga. After this are four blades with signatures Echigo Kuni ju Hata Nagayoshi, Esshu ju Fujiwara Kuniyuki, Esshu ju Fujiwara Tametsugu and Tachibana Yoshizane. There is an implication then that these smiths are related in the Echizen/Echigo/Esshu area. Yoshizane is a particularly interesting signature as this implies he is a son of Go Yoshihiro, and the signatures of Tametsugu, Kuniyuki and Hata Nagayoshi are all extremely rare. Surviving signed work of Kuniyuki and Nagayoshi show a clear relationship to Norishige in the o-itame forging which is similar to matsukawa hada. Unfortunately none of Yoshizane's work has survived but if encountered as mumei, is possibly folded in with those of Tametsugu. Sanekage as well was one of Norishige's top students who also moved back to Kashu around the same time.

The meikan oshigata of these four smiths also takes pains to note that some of them are mitsumune, a common feature in the Soshu smiths.

Umetada Meikan: Yoshizane, Tametsugu, Kuniyuki, Hata Nagayoshi
Umetada Meikan: Yoshizane, Tametsugu, Kuniyuki, Hata Nagayoshi

Go Yoshihiro is famous for an ichimai boshi which is an important kantei point, though these are not in the majority of his works it would seem. Overall, his kitae is excellent and his nie are very bright and silvery, and in combination with his unique nioi-guchi, they appear like stars in the milky way. His hamon varies from a suguba to most commonly a gentle notare that is most often wide and more variable toward the kissaki. Though his work is rare, many have been designated in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, and as modern day Kokuho (National Treasures) and Juyo Bunkazai (Important Cultural Items).

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana

No matter what is said, in Go, the boshi is one clue to recognizing them, and they are boshi that become almost ichimai. But among these there are of course some that are yaki fukai (deep yaki, or wide yakiba), and which do not become ichimai. Nihonto Koza

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana

The fine work of Go Yoshihiro is often considered to be on a par with those of Masamune, as Dr. Honma wrote:

It has been said since olden times that Go was neither superior nor inferior to his master Masamune in workmanship. As compared with Masamune's work, his work exhibits a brighter appearance in the ji-ha. [...] it is easy to understand why Nanki Shigekuni, Shinkai and Kotetsu, who were all high ranking smiths of the Shinto period, tried to imitate his example.

In all, his work is more rare than Masamune, and it is one of the highlights of a collectors experience to be able to hold and appreciate a work by this grandmaster swordsmith. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

With similar training and origins, the work of Go and Norishige have some overlap in style. Go is always said to be more restrained and controlled, with tighter kitae and clearer and brighter workmanship than Norishige.

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana
Meibutsu Inaba Go
Meibutsu Inaba Go

The various works of Go left to us are:

  1. Juyo Token: 24
  2. Tokubetsu Juyo Token: 12
  3. Juyo Bijutsuhin: 6
  4. Juyo Bunkazai: 5
  5. Kokuho: 2

There are meibutsu that remain that have no ranking, as they stand on their own as famous historical works of Go. Of these all the best is considered to be the Kokuho Inaba Go. This blade features a hamon that starts out narrow and widens through the monouchi and forms an ichimai boshi, with a beautiful curve and all proportions perfect.

The blade carries an inscription that it was made suriage in 1585 by Honami Kotoku and that it was owned by Inaba Kanemon no Jo at the time, which refers to Shigemichi. Inaba Shigemichi was a retainer of Oda Nobunaga and one of his personal bodyguard. After Nobunaga's death, he was attached to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu was taken by the blade and purchased it from Inaba for 500 kan in 1600 and later gave it to his son Hideyasu. From there this blade was handed down through the Echizen Matsudaira and today is owned privately in spite of its Kokuho status.

Juyo Token Go Yoshihiro Katana

Juyo Token Go Yoshihiro Katana

This sword is a very special sword, bearing an attribution to Go Yoshihiro from the 12th Honami head Kojo, one of the best Honami judges. This attribution was done in 1662 and the blade received an extremely high gold valuation of 200 mai. This valuation comes before the later Edo period price inflation and coin debasement and is on a par with blades that are Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho.

These old attributions to Go are very special because blades at this time had to embrace all of the features of Go in order to achieve this. For makers like Sadamune and Go, for whom we no longer have any signed pieces to represent them, we have to rely on traditionally attributed blades and old descriptions of the work in order to assess them today. As a result, they almost always pass with den in the attribution. For some of these older pieces with the strongest past association with Go or Sadamune, the NBTHK passed them with no den, and this is one such example.

This origami was noted in the Juyo explanation and on the sayagaki. Unfortunately the owner who had this blade for a long time in the latter part of the 20th century died and due to the size of his collection various papers were misplaced, this being one of them.

The most famous feature of Go is the ichimai boshi, which is very widely tempered usually to the point of covering the entire kissaki. In spite of this trademark feature being so well known, the majority of blades attributed to Go do not have it. Of blades passing Juyo and higher, about 11 show this feature, and it shows up strongly only on half of them. This one ranks very strongly in this regard, showing a hamon that widens as it approaches the kissaki and then a boshi that fully covers the kissaki. This kind of widening hamon is another hallmark of Go. The extremely vivid kinsuji and sunagashi in the monouchi shine very brightly and are breathtakingly beautiful and make this blade very dynamic and exciting.

Due to my long 2020 stay in Japan through most of the pandemic, I was able to get access to a handful of extremely special and important pieces. This being one of them. When I took this blade to Tanobe sensei he was extremely enthusiastic about its quality, saying that the blade was so good that it could be considered as work of Masamune rather than Go, and that the only separating feature was the Ichimai boshi. He spoke long on this subject and based on Kojo's old attribution and the boshi, he said Go was most appropriate but continued always to talk about Masamune with the blade in his hands. I like the opportunity to surprise Tanobe sensei with an excellent sword, and this particular blade gained the strongest reaction from him that I have seen.

For me, of the various Go I have had the luck to encounter in my life, this one is the best. It exhibits all of the features of this smith and has no weaknesses. I showed this blade to various dealers in Japan and asked for kantei without disclosing the maker. The answer was always Go Yoshihiro, as there is no way to deny the textbook features contained in this sword. A few times, Masamune was held up as the next best answer but the boshi always points us back to Go.

Due to the lack of appropriate equipment, I have had to rely on another photographer's work for the sugata and formal presentation images, and I was able to cobble together a slideshow based on what I was able to capture in my hotel room. The vividness of this sword and the gorgeous activities made that part quite easy to achieve. The whole blade is packed with every variety of hataraki you would want to see in a Soshu blade including nie utsuri, and the relationship to Norishige is made clear by the construction of the inazuma and chikei.

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana

Of the blades that have passed Juyo and Tokuju and are attributed to Go, 14 of those have Edo period attributions by the Honami. Those judges are Koshitsu, Kojo (3), Kochu (1), Koyu (3), Kojun (2), Choshiki, Tadatsune, and Koson (2). So only five of these are early attributions. The Jubi have one more by an unknown Honami. In the Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho we can see Kotoku (2) and Kojo. Of the four total by Kojo, three of them have Ichimai boshi and the other has strong tempering along the mune so starts to approach Ichimai. From this we can see that Kojo put a lot of emphasis on the ichimai feature for his attribution.

We only very rarely see valuations achieve or exceed 100 mai from judges from the 13th head Kochu and earlier. In terms of the Kochu or earlier attributions to Go Yoshihiro with valuations, this is what we can see in the region of this sword:

  1. 100 mai: Meibutsu Hasegawa Go (Hasegawa daimyo heirloom tanto, destroyed)
  2. 100 mai: Meibutsu Nakagawa Go (Tokubetsu Juyo, Tokugawa Shogun heirloom, upgraded possibly by Kojo to 250 mai)
  3. 150 mai: Meibutsu Masuya Go (Tokugawa Hidetada heirloom)
  4. 200 mai: Meibutsu Matsui Go (Juyo Bunkazai, Tokugawa Shogun heirloom)
  5. 200 mai: Meibutsu Kozuke Go (Honda daimyo heirloom)
  6. 200 mai: Meibutsu Kotegiri Go (Inaba daimyo heirloom)
  7. 200 mai: Meibutsu Kita no Go (Maeda daimyo, Emperor Meiji heirloom)
  8. 250 mai: Meibutsu Samidare Go (Owari Tokugawa heirloom)
  9. 300 mai: Meibutsu Kuwana Go (Juyo Bunkazai, Honda daimyo heirloom)
  10. 350 mai: Meibutsu Nabeshima Go (Tokugawa Shogun, Emperor Meiji heirloom)
  11. 350 mai: Meibutsu Hachiya Go (Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu heirloom, burned)

All of these are meibutsu and owned by powerful warlords up to the Emperor when carrying this kind of valuation. So this blade needs to be understood as something that resides within this context and was something that was certainly the pride of some daimyo. Unfortunately this information has been lost to time, but thankfully this masterpiece still survived.

In conclusion, this is a very important piece even among the work of Go, due to its early recognition and high value from Honami Kojo, and its innate quality and beauty.

Go Yoshihiro Katana OshigataGo Yoshihiro Katana Origami

Juyo Token Katana

Appointed on the 10th of February, 1967 (Session 15)

Katana, Mumei, Go Yoshihiro

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, shallow sori, chū-kissaki

Kitae

itame-nagare that features ji-nie and chikei

Hamon

nie-laden chū-suguha that widens towards the tip and that is mixed with gunome-midare, sunagashi, and many kinsuji

Boshi

on the omote side a widely hardened midare with a pointed kaeri and on the ura side ichimai

Horimono

on both sides a bōhi that runs as kaki-tōshi through the tang

Nakago

ō-suriage, kirijiri, kiri-yasurime, three mekugi-ana, mumei

Setsumei

refers to the Yoshihiro (義弘), who was residing in the village (gō, 郷) of Matsukura (松倉) in Etchū province, and who has been referred to as by the abbreviated form Gō (江) since the end of the Muromachi period. Yoshihiro was one of Masamune’s Ten Students. No signed works of Yoshihiro exist, but his workmanship reflects the style from the end of the Kamakura period, and he mostly worked in the Sōshū tradition, although also blades in the Yamashiro or the Yamato tradition are known. In terms of skill, he is regarded as the best of the Ten Students.

This blade comes with an origami issued by Hon’ami Kōjo (本阿弥光常, 1643-1710) on the third day of the third month of Kanbun twelve (寛文, 1662), year of the rat, in which he attributes it to Yoshihiro and evaluates it with 200 gold coins. The blade is a little bit tired, but it is an excellent work, and we are therefore in agreement with Kōjo’s attribution.

Detail of Juyo Go Yoshihiro Katana
Go Yoshihiro Katana Sayagaki

Sayagaki

This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagaki) by Tanobe Michihiro sensei. He is the retired former head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK).

  1. 越中國江
    Etchu no Kuni Go
  2. 第十五回重要刀剣指定品
    Dai jūgo-kai jūyō-tōken shitei-hin
    Jūyō at the 15th jūyō shinsa
  3. 大磨上無銘。寛文十二年本阿弥光常ガ江義弘ニ極ハメ金子弐百枚ノ折紙ヲ附シタル者也。
    Ō-suriage mumei. Kanbun jūninen Hon’ami Kōjō ga Gō Yoshihiro ni kiwame kinsu niyhaku-mai no origami o fu-shitaru mono nari.
    Ō-suriage mumei, but comes with an origami issued by Hon’ami Kōjō (本阿弥光常, 1643-1710) in Kanbun twelve (寛文, 1672), which attributes this blade to Gō Yoshihiro and evaluates it with 200 gold coins.
  4. 地沸厚ク地景ヲ頻リニ織成ス精強ナル板目ノ肌合ニ直調小乱・小互乃目交ジリノ刃文ヲ焼キ沸匂深厚而金筋・砂流・湯走・稲妻ノ働キ繁多デ相刕上工ノ沸出来ノ変化ノ妙ヲ顕著ニ表示シタリ就中帽子ガ一枚風トナル點ヲ勘案スレバ所傳ハ正ニ妥當ナル優品哉。
    Ji-nie atsuku chikei o shikiri ni orinasu seikyō naru itame no hada-ai ni sugu-chō ko-midare, ko-gunome majiri no hamon o yaki nie-nioi shinkō shikamo kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, inazuma no hataraki hanta de Sōshū jōkō no nie-deki no henka no myō o kencho ni hyōji shitari nakanzuku bōshi ga ichimai-fū to naru ten o kan’an sureba shoden wa masa ni datō naru yūhin kana.
    The blade shows a strong itame-hada that features plenty of ji-nie and much chikei interwoven with the forging structure, and a nie-laden hamon in sugu-chō with a wide nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-midare and ko-gunome and that displays an abundance of hataraki like kinsuji, sunagashi, yubashiri, and inazuma. Thus, the exquisite variety in the nie-deki speaks for the hand of one of the early great Sōshū masters, and taking into consideration that the bōshi tends to ichimai, the most appropriate attribution of this masterwork is indeed to Gō Yoshihiro.
  5. 珍々重々
    Chinchin-chōchō
    Very rare, very precious
  6. 刃長弐尺二寸八分半有之
    Nagasa ni-shaku ni-sun hachi-bu han kore ari
    Blade length ~ 69.4 cm
  7. 時在庚子弥生 探山識「花押」
    Jizai kanoe-ne yayoi Tanzan shirusu + kaō
    Written by Tanzan [Tanobe Michihiro] in March of the year of the rat of this era (2020) + monogram
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