Getting Into The Groove

About 40% of suriage and ubu katana have bohi which is a simple groove which fills the shinogi area of the blade. Recently on nihontomessageboard.com a question came up about the strength effect on blades. 

I wrote about this a long, long time ago but it bears some updating here, about why a blade has grooves and what the effects are function wise. 

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One or Two Generations

After the Tokugawa made the final steps of unifying Japan, swordsmiths adopted more clear traditions of signing swords and dating them became much more common. The information they left behind and the fact that we’re dealing with “near history” makes it easier to understand swordsmith lineages. 

When it gets into the Muromachi period and earlier, things get a bit more murky. Many signatures were lost, dates are few and far between, and period specific references can contradict each other. 

In the modern period, with swords accessible to everyone and importantly with the work of the NBTHK passing Juyo blades and publishing them, the picture has become more clear. We owe a lot to Fujishiro Yoshio who’s work in the early 1900s on reference materials is more often right than wrong. So I’ll start this discussion with some of his general thoughts on this matter of one or two generations.

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Naginata and Naginata Naoshi

A naginata polearm can be shortened like a tachi, via suriage and reshaped into a katana. There is a subtype of naginata called a nagamaki which can only be truly identified when it is with its koshirae. The name actually reflects on the wrap of the tsuka of this type of polearm. Basically, how the blade is mounted and used ends up giving it purpose, and so its name.

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Yamatorige… Sanchomo… Sanshomo?

This is a famous sword owned by Uesugi Kenshin and the blade is now Kokuho. It is an Ichimonji sword and has an extremely flamboyant hamon. 

The blade is often called Yamatorige or Yamadorige which is one reading of the characters of its name 

山鳥毛

These characters can also be read as Sanchōmō though and it’s generally felt that this is the more correct name of the sword.

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Sue-Sa

So, who is this smith Sue-Sa 末左?

Fujishiro has an entry for Sue Sa and says that it is an Oei period Sa school smith. The Samonji school starts with O-Sa and several of his students and their students and so on reused the single Sa 左 in their signatures. So sometimes we need to check these blades and try to determine from where in the school they came from.

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Oshigata

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.

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Shizu and Yamato Shizu

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.

These are:

  1. Kaneuji – 包氏
  2. Yamato Shizu – 大和志津
  3. Kaneuji – 兼氏
  4. Shizu – 志津

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An interesting Yoshimitsu

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.

Meibutsu and Meito

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.

MeitoThis 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. 

Fatality

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.

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Wisdom

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.

This book is free here on JSTOR.

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.