Abstractions help us get a handle on new information. A Table of Contents is an abstraction of the information contained in a book. Executive Summaries are abstractions of information contained in a report. The Presidential Daily Briefing is supposed to be an abstraction of the status quo of the status quo of knowledge of the intelligence community.
For swords we have Traditions, Roads and Schools.
The idea of traditions comes from the Honami appraiser and polisher family’s approach to teaching and communicating similarity, or related styles of sword making. Sometimes these are translated into English as schools but I retain the habit of exclusively calling this highest level distinction traditions.
The Honami term for the most abstract level of distinction is the Gokaden (literally meaning Five Traditions). Each member of this group is named after the province of its origin: Yamato, Yamashiro, Bizen, Soshu and Mino. The order is specific and is roughly based on the time that these traditions appeared. Each province tended to have raw materials and handed-down techniques (as well as traditional customer desires) that caused work made within their borders to have similar features.
Since Japan is a mountainous country, some provinces were cut off from easy direct access to each other. The path of the roads represented an easy way for culture, materials, and knowledge to spread where mountains were a barrier to this spread. So, swords made along the main roads have similar styles to their neighboring provinces.
Since the original Honami made their distinctions beginning in the late 1500s, sword making trends changed.
The main reason for this style difference is that the unification of Japan both caused a cease of warfare, and the movement into towns and cities of artisans as they moved to where the customers were and supply of raw materials could be easily moved to central locations from the countryside. Economically, it made a lot of sense.
We call that collection of styles, the Shinto tradition, which literally means new sword tradition. Swords before this time, the classical Gokaden are grouped together and called koto meaning old swords.
During the Edo period, swords made in the Shinto tradition may be influenced by a koto tradition from amongst the Gokaden. In this we can have then say, a Yamato-style sword by Nanki Shigekuni or a Yamashiro-style sword by Hizen Tadayoshi or a Soshu-style sword by Umetada Myoju. Each of these smiths is working within the Shinto tradition but they are drawing inspiration and general patterns from one of the Gokaden. Eventually as time progressed the influence of the Gokaden in early Shinto tradition schools generally waned and new styles emerged meant to emphasize marketability. Furthermore the access to generic resources, such as iron from iron merchants, made it harder to recognize any distinct regional differences in the steel. Toward the 1700s and up to the 1800s, styles that emphasized flashy or artistic qualities over utility took hold.
Around 1800 this departure from the functional koto traditions mostly wound up and swordsmiths returned to trying to work based on the examples laid out by the Gokaden. This rejection of the Shinto tradition gave us something new yet again, and we call this final historical tradition Shinshinto. And, you can probably guess from the word, this means NEW new swords. This draws to a close pretty much with the Meiji era ban on swords, the elimination of the samurai class, and the end of feudal Japan.
As we move into the 20th century and the modern era, there was a need for sword production again during WWII. Many techniques at this point were lost, and swords were often made by machine and oil quenched in non-traditional ways. Some smiths did work traditionally, but their work styles don’t relate much to what came before them. This mismash of new things we call Gendaito, or modern swords. Thankfully nobody came up with Shinshinshinto.
After WWII and the last era in which swords were made with the intention to kill people, we have moved into what may be the final tradition of sword making. Today, sword making is an artistic and scholarly pursuit. Attempts are made to investigate and restore all the old knowledge, whenever and however it is possible and to try to challenge the old makers in all domains. The tradition we are in is called Shinsakuto or newly made swords. They may follow any of the traditions that came before, and the goal of the craftsman is excellence and pursuit of the craft.
Since swords are no longer used to kill and defend ourselves, but may be used for sport, it is sometimes hard to know how modern swords may stand up to old swords. We have the benefit of modern science and engineering but the old smiths had the benefit of practical knowledge and feedback from people who had to put their life in the hands of the swordsmith.
There is also the dark and shadowy corner that we call Majiwarimono which are basically oddball or country schools that do not fit easily into this five tradition concept of the koto period. Whenever we try to enforce some external abstraction onto things that formed organically we run into borderline cases such as the tomato: vegetable or fruit? It is a fruit but we use it like a vegetable, so we call it a vegetable though it is a fruit. Then there are some other things that defy easy classification.
Biologists and paleontologists have this problem and they use things called wastebasket taxa in order to have a place to stick things that don’t match anywhere else. This is what Majiwarimono is, and also proof that the Gokaden concept is an artificial thing that is providing some structure forced from the outside onto something that is more complex than this simple abstraction.
The simple abstractions though allow us to communicate and generalize and are extremely useful for what they do. The take home point though is that you cannot get the cart before the horse. Gokaden are post-it notes that go on top of a complex and glorious painting identifying certain areas and have their limitations. If you enslave yourself to the idea and start trying to make all swords fit somewhere into this concept you will be doing it backwards.
Schools in this terminology refer to groups of swordsmiths who are related by education and direct interaction with each other. A grand master like Mitsutada is the head of the Osafune school. He has students and junior smiths working for him, many of whom grow into masters of their own. His top student and son is the grand master Nagamitsu who grows the Osafune school and attracts even higher quality students and masters to work under him. In turn his son is Kagemitsu who hands the school down to Kanemitsu.
Each one of those smiths has styles that change due to the changing nature of warfare in the time period in which they work. Each one receives half of his name from his parent and master who taught him his craft. This act of handing down techniques from teacher to student and father to son, is not just how to make a sword. It is which materials to acquire to make the sword, what kind of tools to use (sometimes handing the actual tool itself down from teacher to student), as well as techniques such as how long to hammer, where to make your fold, what temperature the steel should be, and what kind of patterns to put into the hamon. Over time these things naturally evolve but there is a close relationship due to the direct influence of teacher to student.
The various smiths that work under the umbrella of these masters all have styles flavored by the master’s work, and together they represent the school.
Some of those smiths may become great masters on their own. If a school is very talented and popular, such a student may pack his bags, and hit the road and open a branch of the school anywhere from a few blocks away or to a different town in the same province.
As examples, Gojo means 5th street and is a branch of the Sanjo (3rd street) school in Kyoto. From the names, you can see that they did not move so far away.
Ichimonji broke into various subschools based on the town or region the smiths moved to. We have Fukuoka, Yoshiokia, Iwato, Katayama and Kamakura branches of this school as master smiths and students moved to chase resources or at the demand of customers. They are all still related by general styles and techniques.
Rai cast its students far and wide, Echizen Rai appears in a completely different province from the Yamashiro origins and prospers. Some of the students settle in Higo and this branch takes on distinct style to the point we rename the school in this area as Enju.
Some schools are used as wastebasket taxa as well. For these schools there exists documentation about them, some signatures exist, but the styles may be weakly defined and the quality poor. Hence, an unsigned sword without much distinct style to it or evident skill will be assigned to one of these schools. If the sword is not very good, then which wastebasket taxon it gets assigned to is not that important as they are fungible.
Overall, schools are basically bloodlines where we can trace back influence by direct interaction even though regions can change by movement of smiths.
Going back to traditions, smiths from the Awataguchi and Rai schools were both resident in Kyoto. This means they had access to the same raw materials, and their customer base had the same culture from the same city and from overlapping timeframes. Awataguchi comes a little bit before Rai and Rai continues after the Awataguchi school is extinguished but there is some overlap.
However, because of the similar circumstances these schools found themselves in, they have related production styles even though there isn’t any direct teacher to student transfer of knowledge and tools going on between them.
That’s the essential difference between traditions and schools. Traditions are broader generalizations with vaguely defined borders and schools are tighter definitions that become a bit vague when they branch (like with species, when a school branches off and begins changing into something different, it’s usually the branch founder that is still working in the style of the school he departed and it is his students that refine the differences into something new).
The traditions of Soshu and Mino occur from this kind of school branching.
Soshu begins when the Awataguchi trained smith Shintogo Kunimitsu begins experimenting with new techniques and materials outside of what he was taught, and finishes when his grand master students Yukimitsu, Norishige and Masamune fold in the Ko-Hoki and Ko-Bizen school work of the Bizen tradition and something new emerges from this hybrid set of techniques.
The grand master smith Shizu Saburo Kaneuji is a smith of the Yamato tradition and working in the Teigai school. He moves his forge to Kamakura town and learns the Soshu tradition from Masamune. He then migrates to Mino province, likely to exploit an unexploited demand for high level sword making. When he arrives he hybridizes the techniques learned from both Yamato and Soshu traditions and the result is something new: Mino.
His students then continue on this path and focus on the distinctions from the older traditions and Mino differentiates into a new tradition that looks nothing like its origins.
So, schools follow traditions but traditions emerge when schools branch and specialize and hybridize and evolve.
The deeper you look at the history of sword making the more detail you discover, almost like trying to zoom in on a fractal. So, without these abstractions at the top level, it becomes difficult to have general discussions about what makes them similar.
The point I want to hammer home about the traditions is that they are just abstractions meant to give us some handles on general similarities between craftsmen operating at the same region, and the same time, possibly in the same or neighboring areas. In reality, each province in Japan has some distinct styles, and even within a tradition like Bizen, the styles of each school of smiths may be distinct enough to have less in common than they do in differences.
These abstractions are there to serve us in communicating similarities between different work. Trying to hammer everything so that it fits into the abstractions we’re given is going backwards. For instance, Aoe school work shows hallmarks both of Bizen and Yamashiro traditions. So, what tradition should we put it into?
Well, the Honami shoehorned them into Bizen because they come from a neighboring province and have similar materials to work with. That they look like Yamashiro may just be coincidence. The point here is that you have to be prepared to walk away from the abstraction: Aoe does not have to be either Bizen or Yamashiro. We need to understand that it is just convenient to place them with Bizen for limited reasons. Their work is distinct and unique and it is acceptable to defy easy classification.
So in this, we need to wear two hats. Put on one and discuss Aoe as part of the Bizen tradition when convenient. Understand if someone else places them under Yamashiro what they are trying to say and don’t get bent out of shape about it. Because you can put the other hat on and understand that the Gokaden is just an abstraction and that Aoe is its own precious and unique thing that doesn’t have to be hammered into a peg hole in order to understand it. To truly understand Aoe you need to throw away the Gokaden and let your mind be free of the rules of the abstraction.
When you can turn it on, and turn it off again and move between modes of thinking, this will let you progress deeper into understanding Japanese swords or any other art form.