Denrai: chicken or the egg?

Denrai are heirloom items that belonged to well known clans from the feudal era of Japan.

Some of these were very powerful regional clans and have famous warlords in their lineages, and many of them played significant roles in the history of Japan. These are clans like the Uesugi, Shimazu, Mori, and so forth. 

There are also minor clans without significant power bases. On top of this all we add the Tokugawa Shogun and the Mito, Kishu and Owari branches of the Tokugawa family who stand apart from the other daimyo. 

There are some reasons why denrai status is important, outside of the historical interest and coolness factor to have a sword that belonged to one of the major clans.

When we look at the NBTHK Juyo zufu there are about 453 out of almost 12,000 swords that went Juyo and higher that have preserved information about what clan handed them down. This is a surprisingly small number of only 3 percent and points out that it is quite rare to have one of these blades.

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It’s just one guy

I posted before about the study of generations in attributions. In the past it’s been considered that there were two generations (or more) of various smiths and I took out examples like Kanemitsu and Motoshige. These smiths lived long and prosperous lives and as a result saw a lot of style changes due to the times changing under them.

Think about the clothes you were wearing 30 years ago and what you’re wearing now. Well maybe that’s not a great example because some of us (ahem) kind of get stuck in time and don’t move too much. But if you go back far enough you will find photos of yourself that look out of place with today’s fashion. If you go back even further you may see clothes that repeated fashions from previous times.

The genius of the Ko-Bizen smiths seems to be that they experimented and tried out many different styles. There are some with hamon that look like good Soshu den, there are some that completely predict the Ichimonji styles of the Kamakura period. In general though the work of Ko-Bizen can be said to have a natural feeling and construction compared to a more forcible infliction of the smith’s will on the blade as we see happening with middle to later period Ichimonji work.

What is important to realize is that there was a general move toward choji style in the middle Kamakura that extended past the Ichimonji smiths of Bizen. It embraced Osafune, Rai, Hatakeda and early Ukai schools probably among others.

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