Minamoto Masao KatanaMinamoto Masao

periodShinshinto (1865)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token Katana
ratingJo saku
mei源正雄
Minamoto Masao
uramei元治元年三月日
Keio Gannen sangatsu hi
nakagoubu, 23.5cm, slight sori
nagasa77.6cm
sori1.2cm
motohaba3.3cm
sakihaba2.5cm
kissaki4.2cm
price -sold-

The Shinshinto period saw the return of koto styles to current manufacture under the leadership of Suishinshi Masahide. Masahide travelled throughout Japan, and visited as many swordsmiths who had long lineages going back into the koto period that he could. If they were willing, he took study under them to learn whatever remained of koto techniques, and along with study of koto masterpieces, he put together a fairly reasonable (but not exact) approach to reproducing koto works. This revival ended the Shinto period.

Minamoto Kiyomaro

There were several grand master smiths that came after Masahide, the greatest of whom is Kiyomaro without a question. Kiyomaro was the best smith of the Shinshinto period, and has a tragic and well known story. He was born in Shinano province to the Yamaura family to a samurai of the name of Nobukaze in 1813. He took up sword smithing as a student of Kawamura Toshitaka for the Ueda clan and signed his work first as Tamaki, his birth name, then later Masayuki. Over time he would use the name Hidetoshi. He studied military arts under Hatamoto no Itsuzai Kubota Sugane, and had aspirations to following his father as a samurai. Kubota encouraged him to return to sword smithing, and arranged for him to have masterpieces to examine as inspirations and models. In 1846 he resumed making swords under the name Kiyomaro as we know him today (the first character of Kiyomaro 清麿 comes from the alternate reading of Sugane's name 清音).

Kiyomaro set his aim at the very top: to emulate and then beat the Soshu grand masters at their own style. It is sometimes said his desire was to beat Soshu Masamune, and it's written that he primarily emulated Shizu. When I look at his work though, to my eyes it seems mostly inspired by Chogi, both in tanto and katana form. Kiyomaro made large blades with o-kissaki and when he applied himself to his maximum, extremely outstanding quality.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Minamoto Masao Katana

Yamanaka writes that Kiyomaro betrayed Kubota and stole money Kubota was responsible for, and sought out his fortunes in Choshu when the first stirrings of rebellion against the Tokugawa began and his name change to Kiyomaro was on his return to Edo (apparently after this adventure went nowhere). Kiyomaro seems to have been very much motivated by his passions, and was a heavy drinker as well.

When he returned to Edo he changed his name to Kiyomaro. [He] set up his forge at Yotsuya and subsequently came to be known as Yotsuya Masamune. Kiyomaro is known to have been a very heavy drinker and rarely worked towards the latter part of his life, and known to have been intoxicated most of the time. Then, on the 4th of November of Ansei 1st (1854) he committed hara kiri and was 42 years old [at his death]. Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

At the time of his death, Kiyomaro was greatly in debt, heavily submerged in sake, and without any hope for the future and was far behind in the orders he was committed to fill.

Some of the information about Kiyomaro is a bit muddled, as Sugane seems to have been more than simply a teacher but also was a sponsor for Kiyomaro's business and I think the name change must have happened before he fled Edo. Kiyomaro's work was in such demand that Sugane set up a lottery wherein 100 potential buyers would submit 3 gold coins each and then whatever Kiyomaro happened to finish at the end of the month (somewhere around 3 or 4 blades) would be granted to the buyers by lottery. This gave a very high rate of revenue but also probably a lot of upset potential buyers, and the stress of trying to keep up production and quality is thought to be a contributing factor to him running off to Choshu.

Kiyomaro was accompanied on his journey by his older brother Saneo who was a swordsmith that had trained along a similar path. Saneo also signed sometimes as Masao and changed up his name as Kiyomaro did.

Kiyomaro had three primary talented students, Kurihara Nobuhide, Minamoto Masao (a different smith from Saneo above), and Kiyondo. Nobuhide was the more talented of the three, but Masao and Kiyondo were the faithful followers. Kiyondo is famous for completing his master's unfilled orders after Kiyomaro killed himself, and no doubt when Kiyomaro returned to Edo and remained drunk most of the time, Masao and Kiyondo were responsible for most of the work that exited the forge under his name.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Minamoto Masao Katana

In spite of his rash decisions, early death, flings with being a warrior, name changes and alcoholism, at his very best Kiyomaro made masterpieces that were unmatched in the Shinshinto period. The closest approximation in western canon would be Vincent van Gogh, who also was a peerless artist, consumed by demons, and died far too young. Both because of the skill and the romance associated with his story, the work of Kiyomaro today is extremely expensive, with starting prices in excess of $200,000 regardless of levels of papers and has exceeded $400,000 at auction. The only swords from the entire Shinshinto period that have passed Tokubetsu Juyo are a daisho made by Minamoto Kiyomaro.

Markus Sesko goes into more depth in his blog entry on Kiyomaro should you be interested in reading further.

Minamoto Masao

As mentioned above, one of his two most faithful followers was Minamoto Masao. He was born with the name Suzuki Jiro in Mino province and his work period almost completely overlaps with Kiyomaro. Kiyomaro died in his early 40s and Masao's work ceases 10 years after this, so it is likely that they were about the same age. His dated work runs out 10 years after the death of Kiyomaro who died young, so Masao did not live so long either.

We don't often see signed work of Masao, as most of his output went into assisting Kiyomaro during his time in Kiyomaro's forge. He seems to have gone independent just as Kiyomaro was in the final stages of swan song, as Kiyomaro died within the year after Masao left and began signing on his own. Some of the gimei Kiyomaro that are around are sometimes ascribed to Masao, but Fujishiro disagrees with this and says that they are works of Kajihei (Naomitsu). It goes without saying that there is a great motivation to produce fakes of Kiyomaro due to their value, and his fame, and as a result any work bearing his name should go under great scrutiny.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Minamoto Masao Katana

As mentioned, most of the life work of Masao went into Kiyomaro's signed pieces, as even his name takes the Masa character from Kiyomaro's early mei of Masayuki.

Minamoto Masao’s name Masao took a kanji, Masa, from his teacher Kiyomaro’s early name Masayuki’s, and from this fact, he is supposed to be Kiyomaro’s oldest student. It is thought that around Kaei 6 (1853) he became an independent sword smith and lived Edo (Tokyo) in Shitaya Okachimachi. Around Kaei 6, many things happened to the Kiyomaro school. In the same school, Kurihara Nobuhide started making own swords in Kaei5 (1852), and in the same year the 2nd generation student Saito Kiyondo became a student. In Kaei 6, Masao became an independent smith, and in Kaei 7(1854) Kiyomaro passed away.

These three of Kiyomaro’s students became independent around the Kaei era, and Masao and Kiyondo adopted Kiyomaro’s Kaei period style. Kiyondo has similar hamon to Kiyomaro, but the ji and ha are clear, and kinsuji and sunagashi inside the ha are more gentle, the boshi kaeri has many bright almost kinsuji style hakikake, which people describe as being like the strokes of a comb. Masao’s hamon are mainly low gunome (the distance from the top of the gunome to the valley is small), with round topped gunome and usually his midare hamon do not have high and low variations, which are characteristics of his style. Also, his and Kiyondo’s swords have a clear ha, the kinsuji, and the sunagashi are more gentle when compared to his teacher Kiyomaro. His boshi are mainly midare-komi with a sharp tip, and sometimes we can see a midare-komi ko-maru boshi.

Masao does not have many horimono, but sometimes we can see well carved waka (tanka poetry) on his swords. His nakago tip is kurijiri, and most of the time the yasurime is suji-chigai. His signatures show all kinds of layouts, but mainly on the omote in the center, between the mekugi-ana he signed Minamoto Masao. Usually on the ura side, in the same location or slightly higher, he signed the date with a large thick tagane (chisel) in a sosho (grass-like) style. From Ansei 5 (1858) to Manen 1 (1860) for three years, he stayed in Hokkaido at the Hakodatekan, and made swords using Hakodate satetsu (iron sand), and he signed with long mei such as oite Hakodate sanroku motte satetsu tsukuru ; oite Ezo Hakodate sanroku motte shirikishinai satetsu tsukuru kore. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

His time in Hakodate was said to be for supplying swords for the Tokugawa forces patrolling the northern borders.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Minamoto Masao Katana

Masao's skill can be seen in some of the rare output that exists, in particular the small number of Juyo blades. On one of these the NBTHK said that the blade was equal to Kiyomaro, which is not surprising given his responsibility for assisting Kiyomaro for so much of his life. As well, of the three students of Kiyomaro he is the only one who used Minamoto like his teacher, which may indicate a closer relationship. Fujishiro ranks Masao as Jo saku for superior skill.

The jiba is with its abundance of hataraki like chikei and kinsuji quite ambitious and so we are facing here a great masterwork of Masao which is really on part with works of his master Kiyomaro. NBTHK Juyo Token session 43

Tokubetsu Hozon Minamoto Masao KatanaMinamoto Masao Katana Origami

Minamoto Masao Katana

This is a really large sized katana from the end of the Shinshinto period. Because it is made long and wide in balanced proportions, it may not register immediately from the photos how massive it is. The nakago was made even longer and an extra mekugiana was added at forging time for an additional peg to keep this blade in check. It's almost 78cm long and it's of unusual size even for Shinshinto, though of course this is found often in Kiyomaro's work.

This would be one of the works from the very end of his work span, given that the last dated work in the references is 1865. The work shows a bit of tempering in the ji, particularly in the top with some black harder steel mixed in. The jigane is filled with chikei and this blade looks quite a bit like Kiyomaro as a result of its structure, size and somewhat extended kissaki but of course the full talent of the best Kiyomaro works is not here. Tanobe sensei confirms the resemblance to Kiyomaro as he says the blade continues the style of Kiyomaro and is a masterwork.

Masao signed this blade in grass script as was his habit and it's quite beautifully done, and the nakago finished perfectly, and the habaki is high class gold foil.

I bought this blade in Japan and it was papered only in Heisei 27 (2015), so it has not been around the block. The blade is in old, but satisfactory polish, but unfortunately there is a small fukure showing in the bottom of the blade.

This fine Masao wakizashi sold recently in Japan for 3.5 million yen.

Minamoto Masao Katana Shirasaya

Sayagaki

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

  1. 武刕源正雄
    Bushu Minamoto Masao
  2. 三字銘及元治元年三月日紀有之同工清麿高弟也長寸勇健ナル姿態ニ師風ヲ継承スル闊達ナ乱ヲ焼ク優品而互乃目ノ腰低キ刃取ヲ示ス點ニ同工ノ個性ガ窺ヒ知ラル。
    Sanji-mei oyobi Genji gannen sangatsu hi no ki kore ari dōkō Kiyomaro kōtei nari chōsun yūken naru shitai ni shifū o keishō suru kattatsu na midare o yaku yuhin shikamo gunome no koshi-hikuki hadōri o shimesu ten ni dōkō no kosei ga ukagai shiraru.
    The blade bears a three-character-signature and is dated with a day of the third month Genji one (1864). The smith was one of the best students of Kiyomaro. This masterwork is long and of a magnificent shape and shows a bold hardening in midare and thus truly continues the style of his master Kiyomaro. Apart from that, its ha features gunome with a low koshi and therefore can also see one of Masao’s characteristic features.
  3. 長弐尺五寸参分余有之
    Nagasa 2 shaku 5 sun 3 bu yo kore ari
    Blade length 76.7 cm
  4. 時在丁酉霜月
    Jizai hinoto-tori shimotsuki
    November of the year of the cock of this era (2017)
  5. 探山識「花押」
    Tanzan shirusu + kaō
    Inscribed by Tanzan