I toss this word aroundvvery now and then. This I think is a key element to understand, both when learning at the beginning of your studies and if you are able to acquire high quality pieces of any school or maker. These do not necessarily have to be Juyo or higher blades, the concept of archetypes apply everywhere.
An oshigata is a drawing of a sword, focusing on its hamon and shape. They have been used since before the advent of photography to record and document swords for reference. They can also serve as a fingerprint of sorts by focusing on the nakago which is transferred to the paper by rubbing.
A few heads up in this area are worth noting.
Kaneuji is a smith of the Tegai school in Yamato and he was immensely skilled. He moved from Yamato to Kamakura (Soshu) and further honed his skills under Masamune, and came to emulate his style. After this, he moved to Shizu in Mino province and the school he left behind formed the basis for the Mino tradition. Because of his movements and style changes he is addressed by no less than four names which makes for some confusion.
- Kaneuji – 包氏
- Yamato Shizu – 大和志津
- Kaneuji – 兼氏
- Shizu – 志津
Awataguchi Yoshimitsu is one of the finest smiths to have ever lived, and is mostly thought to be the best tanto maker of all time.
I was doing some research lately and found a blade that had more info than I could really understand with my basic Japanese. I talked to Markus Sesko about it and he uncovered a lot of interesting information.
It ended up that this was the blade used by the famous tea master Sen no Rikyo to commit seppuku. Have a read about it on Markus’ blog.
I just want to spend a few minutes to clarify the difference between these terms. There is some confusion out there and as soon as three people repeat the wrong thing it becomes truth.
Meito: This is a sword with a name (a Gō 号). Any sword can have a name. What we primarily care about this though is a historical name, that is, the blade in question had a name during the Edo period. An example here is the Sunnokina Masamune. It is simply a Masamune that came down through the Edo period with a nickname. This term meito is also used to casually indicate swords of great quality and importance, that may in fact have no name (but we imagine they would be worthy of one). There are no legal restrictions on ownership or movement of meito. Sometimes the NBTHK will indicate a name for a sword in the Juyo or Tokuju papers, in other times it can be discovered through other books or often on the sayagaki where an authority has preserved the name. Sometimes the name comes down with no history at all.
Meibutsu: These are special meito that are on the list of the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, the most famous swords in the country in Edo period Japan. These also have no restrictions on ownership. However, many of these also happen to be Juyo Bijutsuhin, Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho and as a result of that kind of status, would be illegal to export from Japan. An example of this would be the Kanze Masamune.
All meibutsu are meito but not all meito are meibutsu.
Utsushi also sometimes take the name of the source blace, for instance Kunihiro coped the Yamanba-giri Chogi, the resulting copy also became famous over the years and so took on a similar name to the original, becoming the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro. Both blades in this situation are meito, but not meibutsu, and both are Juyo Bunkazai making them illegal to export from Japan.
We all dread the fatal flaw.
These tend to be hidden on rusty blades, and revealed by polish.
Depending on who made the blade and when, a fatal flaw will send the value to zero. Sometimes however, the balance of positives in a sword allow it to be appreciated and even paper to the top levels, with a so-called “fatal flaw” present.
As the sword will be judged differently by men of different interests, you must be very careful in its selection. Some are foolish enough to pass judgment on a sword which they cannot really understand, others will not speak the truth although they see it.
The merchant may speak falsely in order to sell his wares.
If a blade belongs to some nobleman, or if it is appreciated as a family treasure, or if the possessor is very proud of its supposed qualities, the true judgment will often be withheld through courtesy. When you would have any sword truly judged, you must commit it unreservedly to a judge of absolute sincerity.
— The Complete Manual of the Old Sword (ca. 1793)
Nothing has changed.
Bear in mind there are some transcription errors. Since it was translated over 100 years ago there is some Olde Tymey romanization as well. I find these old books fascinating as sometimes they confirm things that took us a long time to get to. For instance, this book relays the story of Niji Kunitoshi changing his name to Rai Kunitoshi at the age of 38 and names him Magotaro.
With the most useful data we have now, the last signed and dated Niji Kunitoshi is indeed at the age of 38 and the first signed and dated Rai Kunitoshi blade appears at age 49. Until Tanobe sensei put the lid down on this theory, there was a lot more belief that these were two separate smiths. Rai Magotaro Saku is also on a blade which is now Kokuho (National Treasure) and attributed to Kunitoshi.
Sometimes the old books have truths in them that were forgotten, and in the meantime people came up with some new fanciful stories. Not everything in an old book is going to be agreeable. They are however important things that fill in the gaps or at least provide some fertile ground for modern analysis.
I had a good question come in about my references to lower tier schools, and the question asked me to reflect on what were the top tier schools. You can find in Nagayama’s The Connoisseur’s Book of Japanese Swords good listings of the Leading Schools for each time period. I think every collector should have this book. It was out of print for a while and prices went way up, but it is back in print now and you can buy it following that Amazon link (which does not make me money, just get this book and use it).
Trying to get a handle on which schools are the best actually seems easy at first but it gets a little bit complicated the deeper you dig.
This is a magic number that you may or may not know.
70 centimeters and above for a katana is considered premium length. Below this is can be detrimental to the value of a blade.
There are reasons for this.
A nice to have on everyone’s list… the daisho. The name literally means “big-small” and refers to the pair of swords that only a samurai was authorized to wear.
There are some simple basics about daisho and some misconceptions. The learning curve is shallow but some people skip over the essentials, and it can cause some damage.
The title refers to a conversation I had with a top Japanese dealer.
I try hard to focus on quality and to weed the weak out when I select something for my site. I don’t want to get commercial grade items and host them, this to me isn’t interesting, and I don’t want to pretend to fawn over items that were basically utilitarian in their time.
This spawns some thoughts.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
— William Shakespeare
Juliet is ready for level two sword study.
There is some confusion regarding the terms tachi, katana, uchigata, naginata, naginata naoshi, tanto, sunnobi tanto, wakizashi, and ko-wakizashi.
The NBTHK lacks some consistency when they paper some of these blades, so I figured I would go through everything at length.
An utsushi is a copy of someone else’s work. This kind of copy was not meant to deceive. In most cases the source work is a masterpiece that has achieved some recognition. In creating the utsushi a craftsman is both challenging himself to make a work in the style of the past master, learning about the techniques required to make a work in this style, and as well pay homage to artwork he holds in high esteem.
Some of these copies make alterations or simply draw inspiration from the work that came before them. This kind of work would be done in the style of the predecessor so that it could fit in amongst their repertoire. Others were made exactingly as a note for note rendition of the previous work. In some of these cases the craftsman has the item on hand he is trying to copy. In others, he is working from drawings, or notes of the work. These notes or drawings may be incomplete or may be themselves just approximations of the piece in question.
Some of these utsushi can be quite interesting as the work that they are copying is now lost. In some cases, we can assume that the work was indeed copied but the utsushi copies are now lost.
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.