Gojo Kuninaga Tachi

Gojo Kuninaga

periodHeian (ca. 1050 AD)
designationNBTHK Juyo Token
nakagoubu, mumei
nagasa76.4 cm
sori2.2 cm
motohaba2.5 cm
sakihaba1.4 cm
kissaki2.0 cm
nakago nagasa17.3 cm
nakago sorislight
price -sold-

The first smith with signed extant works of the koto period was Yamashiro Sanjo Munechika. He worked in the mid Heian period, and around 987 he arrived in Kyoto to his home in Awataguchi. Until this period, or shortly before, Japanese swords were locked in the stagnant form of the straight chokuto which was a style imported either from Korea or from the Chinese mainland. Munechika is recognized as the founder of the Sanjo school, and is known to have signed his swords either Munechika or Sanjo but never both.

Around the time of Munechika's arrival, the Japanese sword went into a period of development, and the curved shape of the tachi we are familiar with arose. The Yamashiro swords of Munechika's time are gentle and elegant, reflecting the period of peace and tranquility in which they were made. These swords are also referred to as Ko Kyo, or Old Kyoto pieces.

Kyoto is nestled into an area surrounded by hills with a lake nearby, and the people of this time had dug out small canals to bring water into the town. This no doubt provided all the conveniences running water always brings people, and these same canals that exist today were probably used by swordsmiths in their art. Even today in Kyoto, Sanjo street still remains where the Sanjo school was. If you take the subway which runs parallel to two of these canals (one larger and probably more modern, and one very small and quite old), about five minutes from Sanjo station you can find Gojo.

Detail of NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Gojo Kuninaga Tachi

The smith Arikuni of the Sanjo school was one of the students of Munechika, and one of his sons and students in turn was Kanenaga. Kanenaga was part of the Gojo school, a tributary of Sanjo. The son of Gojo Kanenaga is Gojo Kuninaga. The last two in this lineage are all that we know of the Gojo school at this point in time. The work period for the Gojo school spans 1028 to 1058, far back and early on in the history of the Japanese Sword.

There are not many extant works from this period in time. Sanjo Munechika made several famous swords, being credited with the Kokuho Mikazuki (the crescent moon Munechika, named for patterns in the hamon and jihada), and the lost Taka-no-So (Hawk's Nest Munechika, which was said to have been found in the nest of a falcon). Gojo Kuninaga made the famous Gyobutsu Tsuru-Maru; a sword called The Crane and owned by the Emperor or Japan. This sword is referred to in the NTHK Novice Course with glowing praise:

It has a highly elegant tachi shape and a flamboyant ko-midare hamon. The perfection of this work makes it without a doubt an outstanding sword amongst famous works.

Dr. Homma Junji was of the opinion that the Tsuru-maru Kuninaga is the foremost masterwork of all Yamashiro swords in existence. In other words, that the greatest of all Yamashiro works is a Gojo. And in addition, Yamanaka writes in the Nihonto Newsletter that this work of the Gojo school is one of the five best swords in all existence.

Detail of NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Gojo Kuninaga Tachi

To understand the rarity of works like these, one need only to examine the NBTHK's Juyo Token index. All the smiths of Sanjo and Gojo schools combined account for 34 Juyo Token at the time of printing. Consider that a good Shinto smith like Omi Daijo Tadahiro or Nidai Echigo no Kami Kanesada by themselves have achieved around 80 Juto each, and understanding that it is not for lack of quality that these Ko Kyo pieces are not Juyo, but that they simply do not exist in large quantities.

Of these 34 Juyo Token, ten works are from the Gojo School (three of which are Tokubetsu Juyo); that is they are either Kanenaga or Kuninaga. Seven of these ten are Kanenaga, two are Kuninaga, and the one discussed herein and featured in the oshigata that follows, is the tenth.

Detail of NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Gojo Kuninaga Tachi

Both Kanenaga and Kuninaga are highly rated swordsmiths. Kanenaga is Sai-jo saku in Fujishiro, and 2000 man yen in the Toko Taikan (20 million yen for an excellent condition daito), while Kuninaga is considered Jo-jo Saku, but also 2000 man yen.

Both smiths are considered among the leading swordsmiths of the period of the earliest Japanese swords. Their work can be found amongst the Juyo Bunkazai, and Juyo Bijutsuhin, as well as featured as one of the top blades in the collection of the Emperor of Japan.

NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Gojo Kuninaga Tachi

NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Gojo Kuninaga Tachi

There are only 30 Ko-Yamashiro works ranked by the NBTHK, this encompasses Gojo and Sanjo schools. Of these, only 7 are ubu tachi. This is one of those, something extremely rare to be roughly a thousand years old and unmodified.

While the blade was attributed to Gojo, Tanobe sensei offered the opinion in his sayagaki that the blade is likely work of Gojo Kuninaga. He is Jo-jo saku and one of the top makers of all time. Jo-jo saku in the company of the early Sanjo smiths and the Ko-Bizen great smiths is a very high ranking. It is thought that he may have also worked in Awataguchi and as such may be the very first Awataguchi smith. This is found on a nakago with a long signature, and the blade is now Juyo Bijutsuhin. The relationship between Sanjo, Gojo, Awataguchi, Ayanokoji and Rai is still something left open for study. We have so few signed pieces and almost no dated pieces from these early blades so it becomes hard to put the scene together without some conjecture. But Gojo predates Awataguchi and Ayanokoji and is likely the root point for both of these schools.

The sword is in remarkably good condition for a blade this old. The hamon is vibrant and beautiful, in the casual, natural and elegant style of the Ko-Kyo smiths of ancient Yamashiro province. The blade would have been intended for the nobility of the era, and maintains a dignified sugata and a ko-kissaki. So many blades that do exist now from this time period have kissaki that are polished down, it's just a fact of life. Many have lost their boshi or just have a hairline boshi left. This blade is fully intact with a healthy and beautiful boshi, making it highly unusual. As well the NBTHK points out the presence of hira-niku, which makes it beefy for its age. Many of these old blades saw so many polishes that the niku has become flat over time.

Furthermore there is a bonji placed low on the blade, this has seen some polish so appears to be original. It is of Fudo Myoo I think but I have yet to study it closer. Many old blades like this that became suriage could see this area of the blade enter the nakago and such a bonji would be filed off, so this sword provides a nice record for early horimono.

The nakago has a bit of an unusual shape due to the fact that it may have been hammered out a bit to create some more horizontal room to punch the lower hole at some time in the Edo period. Otherwise it is kijimomo, (pheasant's thigh) shape, which allows for some room for old-style tsuka which have rivets which pass through.

This sword features a yakidashi, the hamon begins above the machi. This helps us identify it as truly ubu work and this feature was meant to help prevent cracking at the low parts of the blade. Especially with longer blades, there is more leverage at the machi and it seems the smiths worked with this in mind.

Though we often see older examples of blades with deeply curved nakago, this seems to be more a feature of early Kamakura blades than of Heian blades which were in transition still from the perfectly straight Chokuto type blades, themselves based on a design pattern from ancient China. As such the first Heian blades tend to have graceful and gentle curves and their nakago is fairly straight. This can be confirmed by examining both Heian period blades and Heian period koshirae (which are very rare but some examples do exist).

This blade, being intact and long, and as rare as one could want it to be, as well as being retained in an excellent state of health, will make for a good candidate to Tokubetsu Juyo shinsa in the future. As a Juyo, it passed in session 59, which is one of the more difficult recent shinsa with high requirements.

Koshirae RightKoshirae Left

This sword is accompanied by Meiji period tachi koshirae made in Heian style. These koshirae were likely made to present the blade as a gift. Because this sword was found in the USA fairly recently it was not properly cared for, for half a century. The results of this can be seen in some minor pitting on the blade and that some of the koshirae parts were lost (the menuki and some of the pegs in the tsuka). I have used the existing parts to fabricate matching pegs and rivets where required from the same materials.

The koshirae photos reflect the current status of their restoration. The menuki chosen to go with these are NBTHK Hozon Kyo Kinko shishi (solid gold). Koshirae like this run around 3 million yen in Japan (I can provide a similar example off of a Japanese dealer website). The repairs and restoration work have been undertaken by Brian Tschernega, a top artisan. There are still some minor dings and cracks in the lacquer, which can be seen in the photos, and I've elected to leave these in place rather than alter the original lacquerwork on this koshirae.

Gojo Kuninaga Tachi OshigataGojo Kuninaga Tachi Origami

NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Tachi

Appointed on the 11th of October, 2013 (Session 59)

Tachi, mumei, Den Gojo


shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, slender mihaba, noticeable taper, funbari, relatively deep sori that appears as koshizori and that rather bends down towards the tip, ko-kissaki


dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, fine chikei, and a nie-utsuri


chū-suguha-chō that is mixed in the upper half of the blade with ko-chōji and ko-gunome that tends in the lower half to ko-midare-chō, in addition plenty of ashi and yō, some small yubashiri along the yakigashira in places, and fine sunagashi, the nioiguchi is wide and bright and tends to be subdued in the bottom half and the hardening is in ko-nie-deki


midare-komi with yakitsume


on the haki-omote side at the base a bonji


ubu, kurijiri, yasurime indiscernible, two mekugi-ana, mumei


This is a mumei tachi with an ubu-nakago that attributes to the Yamashiro Gojō School. Well known from this school are Kanenaga (兼永) and Kuninaga (国永) and both worked in a classical, highly tasteful style.

This blade is slender, tapers noticeably, and shows funbari. It has a relatively deep sori that appears as a koshizori which rather bends down towards the tip, shows some hira-niku, and ends in a ko-kissaki. That is, it is of a classical tachi-sugata from the end of the Heian and early Kamakura times. The kitae is a dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, much chikei, and a nie-utsuri, resulting in a beautiful jigane.

The hamon is a ko-midare that consists of a mix of ko-chōji and ko-gunome and thus the jiba is really of that classical appearance that is so typical for Ko-Kyō-mono [i.e. oldest Yamashiro works] whereupon we are in concord with the provenance that the blade is a work of the Gojō School.

Gojo Kuninaga Tachi 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. 城刕五条
    Jōshū (i.e. old Yamashiro) Gojō
  2. 生茎無銘ト雖モ格調高キ雉子股ノ形状ヲ呈ス姿態・地・刃全テニ古様サヤ優雅ナ品格ヲ湛ヘル...
    Ubu-nakago mumei to iedomo kakuchō-takaki kijimono no keijō o tei-su shitai, ji, ha subete ni inishiezamasa ya yūga na hinkaku o tataeru meisaku shikamo Ko-Kyō-mono ...
    The blade has an ubu-nakago and is mumei but the highly elegant kijimomo style shape and the truly classical interpretation of the ji and the ha of this very dignified masterwork show the highlights of Ko- Kyō-mono.
  3. ...ノ見所ヲ明示シ取分ケ五条物中デモ国永ニ最モ擬セラルル者有之候 
    ... de mo Kuninaga ni mottomo giseraruru mono ari kore sōrō.
    In particular the characteristic features of Gojō works are shown, amongst which it most likely seems to be a work of Kuninaga.
  4. 長弐尺五寸二分也ナホ本刀ニハ製作ノ秀デシ飾太刀拵ガ附帯ス
    Nagasa 2 shaku 5 sun 2 bu nari nao hontō ni wa seisaku no hiideshi kazaritachi-koshirae futai-su.
    Blade length ~ 76.3 cm, comes with an excellently made kazaritachi-koshirae.
  5. 惟時癸巳暦林鐘探山邉道観并誌
    Koretoki mizunoto-hebidoshi rinshō Tanzan Hendō mite narabi ni shirushite + kaō
    Examined and written by Tanzan Hendō in July of the year of the snake of this era (2013) kaō
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