Hasebe Kunishige Tanto

Hasebe Kunishige

periodNanbokucho (ca. 1380)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token
nakagoubu, zaimei, possibly a bit machi-okuri
mei長谷部国重 (Hasebe Kunishige (nidai))
nagasa27.6 cm
sori cm

The Soshu tradition starts with a tanto made by Shintogo Kunimitsu, famous now as the Midare Shintogo. It is otherwise in Yamashiro Awataguchi style, except for a beautiful nie-laden midare hamon. With the creation of this tanto, a whole new set of possibilities opened up in the sword world.

Shintogo Kunimitsu is famous in his own regard, and also probably had the three best students in the history of sword smithing, in Yukimitsu, Masamune and Norishige. These three would take the teachings of Shintogo and expand them, mastering the manufacture of activities in nie and binding together the best features of Ko-Hoki, Ko-Bizen and Yamashiro technique. With the subsequent generation, including Sadamune, Go Yoshihiro, Shizu and Samonji, the Soshu tradition would burn very brightly indeed.

Though these students have great fame today, the main line from Shintogo Kunimitsu was handed down to Shintogo Kunihiro who was likely his son and the headmaster of the Sagami forge in which all of these smiths would come to greatness. His style though never diverged from the traditional Yamashiro based style of his father.

One important thing that Shintogo Kunimitsu and Shintogo Kunihiro did for us, was to record the place of their work as Kamakura on a small number of works. This allows us to confirm the place of manufacture and their central position in the Soshu tradition.

Shintogo Kunimitsu also signed a sword using a family or place name of Hasebe, in signed tachi (Sagami no Kuni Kamakura Junin Hasebe Kunimitsu) and this is something Shintogo Kunihiro repeated. This becomes interesting later on, in the third generation of Soshu smiths: Hiromitsu, Akihiro and Hasebe Kunishige as Kunishige both repeats this Hasebe name and carries the KUNI character of his name that could have been granted by Shintogo Kunihiro. Akihiro and Hiromitsu also carry one of Kunihiro's characters, which possibly points to their place in the lineage as being in the main line inheritance from Shintogo Kunimitsu. While Hiromitsu and Hasebe Kunishige have been long thought to be students of Masamune, what is more likely in my opinion is that these are formally students of Shintogo Kunihiro and would have received teachings from all of the master smiths alive at the time in the Kamakura forge.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Hasebe Kunishige Tanto

These three smiths are bound together by their work styles, in a similar way that Masamune, Norishige and Yukimitsu are bound by their work styles. Though Sadamune was their contemporary, he comes just a bit before in time. So as a result we see similar styles of sugata of these four smiths together, but Sadamune stands alone in his use of a Yamashiro style jihada. In his best works, Sadamune is said to be peerless in the clarity and precision of his forging, superior even to his father Masamune.

The history of Hiromitsu is a bit complicated, as there are two major signing styles. The first is a two character signature which also points to his heritage through Shintogo. There is actually one suguba Hiromitsu as well which reminds one of an enlarged work of Yukimitsu, again indicating the cross pollination between master smiths of the time. In later years Hiromitsu began signing his work in long form consistently, and adding dates frequently. As such we can place these works which have sometimes been said to be a second generation, solidly in the 1350s and 1360s, with the last known dated work in 1369. Akihiro is thought to be his younger brother and has work dated in the 1360s and 1370s with the earliest in 1357 and the last known one in 1387.

While placing the earliest work of Hiromitsu is a bit unreliable due to the presence of these seemingly older two character signatures, Hasebe Kunishige signed commonly in long form and sometimes with a date. We see his dated work beginning in the 1346 and the last dated one showing up in 1368. We don't have any dates for Hiromitsu in the 1340s. This would make Hasebe at least a peer to Hiromitsu in time, if not a little bit earlier. As well since together they each share one character from Shintogo Kunihiro in their names, it would also seem to confirm that they are the oldest two students of Kunihiro. Since Akihiro's first dated work that shows up is only a few years younger than Hiromitsu's, I think it is fair to think he's the youngest of three students following in this succession.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Hasebe Kunishige Tanto

Hasebe Kunishige is recorded in old books as being a swordsmith from Yamato, which is given as one origin of the name Hasebe. He moved to Kamakura, made swords with the Kamakura smiths, and at the end moved to Kyoto in Yamashiro. Today he is often included because of this, along with his line, as a Yamashiro smith. However, his style has very little to do with traditional Yamashiro style but is entirely middle period Soshu.

Meibutsu Heshikiri Hasebe (Kokuho)
Meibutsu Heshikiri Hasebe (Kokuho)

Kunishige, Hiromitsu and Akihiro specialized in a development known as hitatsura in which the hamon rose above the yakiba in a disconnected all over tempering style. This had its basis in the yubashiri activities started mostly by Soshu Yukimitsu. These formed clouds of nie but didn't coalesce into determined areas of hardening. We see them also in Go Yoshihiro, Masamune and Norishige specifically but it is a hallmark of Soshu work ever since Yukimitsu.

It's not until these mid generation smiths though that we see it turn into a conscious development, and it is now synonymous with their work. The vast majority of what they made and remains to us is in this flamboyant hitatsura style. Because of this, these blades are remarkably easy to kantei, as no other smiths that came after really got the hang of it. As we progress into the Muromachi period, the Soshu style hitatsura becomes less natural feeling and more clearly an imposed technique and starts to lose its charm. The Bizen smiths in the middle Muromachi, along with Muramasa, took up the hitatsura style from time to time and generally did a better job of it than the Soshu smiths of the middle 1500s, as their skill had fallen off remarkably from the time of the founding of the tradition.

Hasebe Kunishige has works ranked Juyo Bijutsuhin and one famous National Treasure called the Heshigiri Hasebe (Dominant Cutter). It was one of the prized swords of Oda Nobunaga who cut through a table with it to kill a man hiding under the table. Nobunaga was the first of the great warlords to begin the unification of Japan, a process continued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and finished by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nobunaga often had great swords from the Nanbokucho period cut down to a size around 65 cm which seemed to be a convenient size for him to wear mounted or on foot. This one though, the Heshigiri Hasebe, was Nobunaga's favorite. The blade is Meibutsu, included in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho listed in the Edo period as one of the most famous blades in the country. Hideyoshi owned the blade after Nobunaga and then it was handed down in the Kuroda clan through the Edo period.

The name Hasebe has now become synonymous with the school of smiths that followed him, and as well as a nickname for Kunishige himself. So, when we encounter this as an attribution we need to be careful and make a determination about whether or not it's a school or an individual attribution. Mostly the NBTHK and the Honami before them avoided making a direct attribution to Kunishige, and what we see are school attributions unless otherwise explained.

Following Hasebe Kunishige is his son, the second generation Hasebe who had the name of Rokurozaemon which he left on some of his swords. Where the work of the first generation leaves off and the second generation begins is hard to tell. There are some variations in the mei of Kunishige. He retains some minor fame for being the first smith to use the tama style Kuni character (国) where previously smiths used the older form (國) which is not much in use today. However, some of Kunishige's work does use this older form of Kuni. This leaves it open to discussion as to why this happened, if it marks work of the older or the younger generation is not clear. Most texts end up mixing the two together without any differentiation. The nidai is said to be the father of Hasebe Kuninobu, and other smiths in this lineage are Hasebe Munenobu, Hasebe Kunihira, Hasebe Shigenobu, and others. Kuninobu however did use the old style Kuni so it is potentially daimei he made for the shodai Kunishige. There are likely multiple generations here as well since Kuninobu's signature evolves a bit over time. It is also possible that Kuninobu took over the Hasebe Kunishige name and made blades under this name at the end of his career and in essence then was also the nidai Hasebe Kunishige, and Rokurozaemon then is the sandai. A lot of this is hard to piece together, given the relatively few dated works, but this may be the best interpretation. As it stands right now the NBTHK doesn't usually differentiate between early Hasebe work, as mentioned unsigned pieces usually just take a school attribution and signed Kunishige work will simply have the mei verified. At some point in the future where more blades are examined, more will be able to be said about this topic.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Hasebe Kunishige Tanto

Fujishiro points out that because Kunishige left relatively many works (and I will add, a healthy school of smiths behind him), that he had to be a prosperous and successful smith.

Some sources point the handover of the Hasebe Kunishige line to be in the Enbun period, and state that Kunishige was certainly a student of Masamune. Today he is included in the Masamune Juttetsu (the 10 great disciples of Masamune). From the standpoint of time it could be so as Masamune died around 1340, and Hasebe Kunishige's first dated work we know of is 1346. This would make him still a trainee while Masamune was in his final days. Fujishiro puts the nidai Hasebe Kunishige though as starting around Oei at the junction of Nanbokucho and Muromachi periods. The thought that the second generation is working in the 1350s is probably something that was used to justify the first generation as being old enough to have worked under Masamune, unless Kuninobu does in fact take over from Kunishige. The changeover I think is more likely in the late 1360s and 1370s with the second generation working up until the first few years of the Muromachi period. Fujishiro says that the second generation Kunishige was the younger brother of Hasebe Kunishige shodai, but this is confusing as Kuninobu and others are said to be sons of Hasebe Kunishige and are working earlier in time. He does say there are daimei by the second generation for the first generation.

Tachi are particularly rare from the Hasebe school and virtually non-existent for Akihiro and Hiromitsu. It leads us to believe that these swords were heavily worked in the wars of the Nanbokucho period and destroyed, whereas those from the Kamakura period just prior to this seem to have been already put aside as masterpieces for preservation.

Fujishiro ranks Hasebe Kunishige as Jo-jo saku, but Dr. Honma says he is the equal to Akihiro and Hiromitsu who are both Sai-jo saku smiths. The second generation Hasebe Kunishige is ranked Chu-jo saku for above average skill in his time period. Furthermore Dr. Honma states that the Heshigiri Hasebe is so good, that had he left 10 such works he would have placed Hasebe Kunishige into the top place of the Masamune Juttetsu. Dr. Honma is of the generation that placed the first generation Hasebe Kunishige very early in Kenmu (end of the Kamakura period) and so puts the dated works of the 1350s and the 1360s to the second generation Hasebe Kunishige as a result. These explanations then lean toward there being a third generation Hasebe working in Kyoto well into the Muromachi period.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Hasebe Kunishige Tanto

The Hasebe smiths and Akihiro and Hiromitsu had a signature style where they signed at the very bottom of the blade, and for some reason the nakago on these Nanbokucho period tanto were exceedingly stubby. Given the extended length of the blades, it is a head-scratcher as to why the nakago were made so small. Whatever reason for this is now lost, but had to have something to do with the koshirae (which have almost all been destroyed from the Nanbokucho period). Later periods which saw these blades remounted usually made the blades machi-okuri to lengthen the nakago and make for a larger tsuka. Since the blades were long it made sense to do this, and the style of koshirae they were originally intended for was long gone. Some were even made o-suriage, in the case of Akihiro there were a couple of tanto that ventured into near-katana lengths. One remains ubu but machi-okuri and about 45 cm long, probably closer to 50 cm as made. Another is completely o-suriage but is still a long tanto at 37 cm. The low signing position of these smiths in the nakago makes them look a bit unbalanced in placement, but the rationale seems to have been to move stress away from the fulcrum point (the machi) and so as to prevent stress cracks from appearing where the mei has work hardened the nakago. With Hasebe Kunishige the mei is particularly compressed as well, apparently to move it as far as possible from the machi.

The Hasebe school eventually petered out in the early 1500s, as successive generations lost the skill of their forebears and other schools took over in Yamashiro (such as the Heianjo group).

Tokubetsu Hozon Hasebe Kunishige TantoHasebe Kunishige Tanto Paper

Tokubetsu Hozon Hasebe Kunishige Tanto

This is early work of the second generation Hasebe Kunishige according to Tanobe sensei. The NBTHK papered it to Kodai Hasebe Kunishige which simply means later generation (i.e. not the shodai). Tanobe sensei narrowed it down in his sayagaki the Rokurozaemon and put the period at the end of Nanbokucho. By his measure this is the nidai Hasebe Kunishige and discounts some of the theories above about Kuninobu inheriting the name.

The blade is remarkably healthy as most Hasebe work is very worn down from use and repolishing. Even the Juyo items usually show a lot of loose steel and are no longer in good condition. So, this blade is a treat since it is quite intact.

This blade was in with a cache of some good swords in Japan up until last summer when the cache was found and broken up and the blades came in for papering. I was able to get it shortly after this and had the sayagaki made. The blade is in old polish which is acceptable but could probably do with a shiage. In the formal photos, the kind of light I use reveals a couple of impressions where some rust very slightly etched the steel and was removed probably with conscientious use of uchiko. I've been debating since I got the blade if I should have a shiage done (the last stage of polish) to remove these marks, but they don't appear at all when held in the hand. So it seems to me to be an open question still.

This blade was polished in sashikomi in the ji and hadori in the hamon which is actually a nice approach as splashing hadori all through the ji because blades are in hitatsura can make sometimes for a confusing and inelegant presentation. Hitatsura has a reputation already for being a bit flashy, so this tones it down a bit. I also didn't want to erase the old polish and how it was done, but to defer the decision to the buyer. As part of this then, I will offer to pay out of pocket the cost of a shiage should the new owner not be satisfied with the old polish on this blade (you would need to consult with me on choosing a polisher).

The blade is otherwise very nicely shaped with a bit of a wicked curve to it. One one side the activity is quite relaxed and the jihada sparkles, while the opposite side has violent activity throughout. I think the machi is a little bit moved up in this blade according to the condition of the nakago. This is generally the case with Soshu tanto from the Nanbokucho period as detailed above. There are lines of solid black chikei that pass in and out of the yakiba forming inazuma and kinsuji where they cross. Fine nie completely cover the surface, giving a kaleidoscope effect.

This blade is accompanied by fine quality Edo period koshirae with red lacquer and gold shi-shi kodogu. The kodogu are quite detailed and I think this relates to them being made by one of the better makers of the Edo period. They are papered with old green papers. These are no longer accepted for the purpose of upgrading, but in this case they simply confirm the work as antique. I think someone who has in depth knowledge of kodogu should have a close look at the metalwork on these and potentially the menuki need to be temporarily unmounted and sent in for papers. I think it would be safe to say Kyo-kinko for the manufacture but there is a good chance this is Goto work I think. The mounts are not original to the blade as there is a remount plug in the same. This can be addressed by replacing the same if it is not acceptable to the new owner. Remounting blades and koshirae has been and still is commonly done, so I don't think this is a major priority.

Koshirae LeftKoshirae Right
Menuki LeftMenuki Right
Hasebe Kunishige Tanto Koshirae Paper

If you're wondering about the box cut out of the middle of the papers, some Japanese owners did this when they sold an item as the older papers had the owner's name on them. It's a face saving measure and one of the reasons why tracing some of the history of these blades can be a headache.

It's very difficult to find hitatsura blades of the pure Soshu tradition of the Nanbokucho period. In the time that follows this blade, Soshu really dropped off in skill or just lost access to whatever local resources made for the magic of their limited production span. Furthermore a great deal of the works left to us now are unsigned and attributed, and many are just polished out. So I think this is a nice opportunity to get a great Soshu blade that hearkens back to the glory days and is aligned with the direct lineage of the Soshu smiths.

Hasebe Kunishige Tanto Sayagaki


This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagak) by Tanobe Michihiro is the retired former head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK).

  1. 長谷部国重
    Hasebe Kunishige
  2. 五字有銘蓋シ二代トサルル六郎左衛門
    Goji-yūmei kedashi nidai to saruru Rokurōzaemon
    This blade bears a five character signature and is most likely a work of the second generation, of Rokurōzaemon.
  3. 南北朝末葉ノ年代歟地刃の出来宜矣
    Nanbokuchō-matsuyō no nendai ya jiba no deki yoroshii
    It is from the very end of the Nanbokuchō period and its jihada and hamon are excellently made.
  4. 長八寸八分
    Nagasa 8 sun 8 bu
    Length 26.7 cm
  5. 于时乙未極月探山邉道識
    Kono toki kinoto-hitsuji gokugetsu Tanzan Hendō shirusu + kaō
    Written by Tanzan Hendō in December of the year of the sheep of this era (2015) +kaō
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