Go Yoshihiro Katana

Go Yoshihiro

designationNBTHK Juyo Token
periodKamakura (ca. 1320)
nagasa69.2 cm
sori1.2 cm
motohaba2.85 cm
sakihaba1.9 cm

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).

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 years old (some references say 30) 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.

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.

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. His son 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.

The similarities with Norishige are visible in the patterns of the kitae, but where the work of Norishige appears to embrace the wildness of a thunderstorm, Go Yoshihiro is like the sun shining, and reflecting off the fallen rain after the storm has passed. They are two sides of the same coin: chaos and order.

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).

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.

Juyo Token Go Yoshihiro Katana

Juyo Token Go Yoshihiro Katana

When I first began searching for Go Yoshihiro several years ago, my inquiries usually drew an amused response from the Japanese dealers I spoke with. The comments were, "It is an admirable dream you have one day to own a Go Yoshihiro" and, "One cannot expect to find something like that." On my last trip to Japan one even remembered my inquiries and kidded me on them. Remember that one never sees a ghost or a Go, after all... and I believe that when a gaigin comes to a Japanese dealer asking about Go, it may be the same as someone reading in a book on western art that Da Vinci painted nice paintings, then heading off to an Italian art gallery and asking if they can sell you one. An amusing thing indeed.

The Nabeshima Daimyo owned this Go Yoshihiro as well as another famous piece, which is listed in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho. The heritage of the sword herein has been testified to by Dr. Honma Junji and by Tanobe sensei of the NBTHK on the two shirasaya with sayagaki that accompany it.

The Nabeshima clan controlled Saga in Hizen province throughout the Edo period, and was one of the more powerful and important clans in Japan. Though the Nabeshima originally fought against the Tokugawa, they changed sides and supported Ieyasu before the Sekigahara war was over. Under the Tokugawa they had their fief increased and were considered an opposing force to balance the Shimizu in Kyushu.

Throughout the Edo period the Nabeshima were the sponsors of the Hizen Tadayoshi school of swordsmiths, the output of which were a valuable part of the economy of Hizen province.

This sword has been designated Juyo Token, an Important Sword, certifying its maker as Go Yoshihiro by the NBTHK. I have difficulty with words to describe this sword, as in my entire experience collecting swords this particular piece is my personal favorite. I remember the first time I saw it, with the light coming over my shoulder and spraying back into my eyes from the dense nie in the sword. I got goosebumps, and I just said out loud, though I was the only one in the room, "It's beautiful."

sword picture The nie have to be seen in hand to truly appreciate, though they are very clear in my photos. Consider the section shown on the left, with the gorgeous spray of ji nie that follow the grain. The swordsmith has accentuated ji nie that play with the light, and almost appear like silver dust being poured over the sword. In this work, he was able to halt the crystal formation just before they merged together, and the effect to the viewer is simply remarkable. I have had the sword for many years now, and had not submitted it for Tokubetsu Juyo consideration, though it is easily a candidate for this level.

This sword appears to have been used in anger, as the kissaki shows signs that it had to be reshaped to remove a chip, likely from striking a helmet. It further bears testimony to the worthiness of the blade that it saw service to the owner without bending or breaking, while remaining a breathtaking work of art.

Of all my possessions, of all artwork, of everything I have owned since I first had a dollar to spend, this is the item that has been most dear to my heart and forever will be. This sword to me is what the essence of sword collecting is about, the kind of dream sword to have, and it has been an honor to inherit the privilege and responsibility from the Nabeshima Daimyo of old.

This sword can easily be the centerpiece of any collection, and I trust that the new owner will undertake the responsibility with the same pride and pleasure that I have.

Go Yoshihiro Katana Oshigata

Juyo Token Katana


Shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, sori-asakutuki, chu-kissaki.


Itame hada nagare, moku-majiri, with ji-nie and chikei.


Chu-suguha with ko-midare, majiri, ashi, kuichigaiba, hotsure-majiri, nioi-fukaku, good nie-deki. Constant sunagashi and kinsuji throughout.


Omote: Maruku asaku (round, shallow) kaeru. Ura: "O-maru" style. Yakitsume-ru.


O-suriage, saki-kiri, kiri yasurime, two mekugi ana. Mumei.


"Go" is a given name for Yoshihiro, one of the Masamune-juttetsu, and he resided in Matsukura, Etchu. Just as with Sadamune, no work by Yoshihiro with his complete signature exists, therefore all his swords are kiwame-mono (attributed).

The characteristics of Go's swords are: precise and beautiful forging, and the jiba has exceptional saeru*. Also, the deep yaki boshi shows his style very strongly. This particular sword, has very bright nie on the jihada and yakiba, and is rich in both chikei and kinsuji. At first glance, one recognizes the Soshu style, yet the kuichigai-ba and hotsure in hakyu shows the added Yamato style elements. All those characteristics considered, I'll define this sword as the early work of Go.

*note: saeru is clarity, and Harry Watson notes that the word has strong poetic force, and says the best way to think of it is in relation to the clarity of the moon on a cold autumn night.

Go Yoshihiro Katana Sayagaki

Tanobe Sensei Sayagaki

  1. 重要刀剣指定品
    Juyo Token Shitei Hin
    Important Sword Designated Item
  2. 越中國江義弘
    Etchu no Kuni Go Yoshihiro
  3. 但大磨上無銘藩政期ハ鍋島家ノ傳来
    Tadashi o-suriage mumei han sei ki ha Nabeshima ke no denrai
    Shortened and unsigned, it is an heirloom from the feudal period House of Nabeshima.
  4. 同工ノ一作域ナル大和氣質ノ混在スル出来口也
    Doukou no issaku iki naru Yamato ki shitsu no konzai deki kuchi nari
    This is a work of Go Yoshihiro who's style shows his origin
  5. 沸ノ働キ見事亦地刃洗練味有之候
    Nie no hataraki ki migoto mata jiba senren mi ari kore sourou
    The activities of nie in the jihada and hamon are beautiful and of refined taste,
  6. 而格調頗ル高矣
    shikashite kakuchou sukoburu takashi
    as well as exceedingly noble in the highest degree.
  7. 珍々重々
    Chin chin, cho cho.
    It is very rare and important.
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