Gorozaemon Norimitsu KatanaGorozaemon Norimitsu

periodFirst Half of Muromachi (1452)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token Katana
ratingChu-jo saku
nakagoubu
mei備州長船則光
Bishu Osafune Norimitsu
uramei宝徳二二年八月日
Hotoku ni-ni nen hachigatsu hi - August, 1443
nagasa60.9 cm
sori2.5 cm
motohaba2.0 cm
sakihaba3.1 cm
kissaki2.9 cm
nakago nagasa12.9 cm
nakago sori0.2 cm
price$22,000 -new-

The Bizen tradition is the koto tradition with the longest run, beginning in the Heian period about 1,000 years ago and continuing to the beginning of the Edo period. This is a 600 year run, and for the majority of this run the Osafune school was the main center of sword production in Bizen province.

The first Osafune smith was Mitsutada who worked in the middle 1200s, and the main line handed down through Nagamitsu, Kagemitsu, and Kanemitsu. Each of these men are regarded now at the peak of the craft and are all Sai-jo saku.

When Japan entered the Muromachi period there was a general pullback in quality. Most affected were the Yamashiro and Soshu traditions who were at the highest peak and came down to rather mundane levels. Yamato lots its quality as well, and Oda Nobunaga crushing the power of the monks in Japan would eliminate the base of operations for Yamato smiths.

The Mino tradition as well that began under Shizu Kaneuji and had some master smiths that followed him would sink in quality in the early Muromachi. In the mid to late Muromachi it recovered a bit, but not for the same reasons as other traditions in the past. Mino blades tended to be workmanlike and very functional weapons. Good for killing, sharp and reliable but not works of art outside of the work of a few smiths like Kanesada and Kanemoto in this period of time. Their need as weapons of unrestrained war was the reason for the increase in production in the Mino forges.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Gorozaemon Norimitsu Katana

The primary oasis where quality was maintained was with the Bizen smiths. Though they did not stay at the glorious levels of the Kamakura and Nanbokucho period, they stood alone as the producers of the best swords in Japan for about 200 years. Osafune alone remained as the Ichimonji production died out and great masters like Yosozaemon Sukesada in the early 1500s would make works that were perfectly forged and with gorgeous hamon and are much sought after today (and very expensive).

Battle of Kawanaka, 1561 - Wikipedia
Battle of Kawanaka, 1561 - Wikipedia

There were several other good to excellent smiths in Osafune over the Muromachi period, though much of the efforts focused on mass production swords as Japan geared up for the Sengoku Jidai and Oda Nobunaga attempted to unify the country through war. Mino was the factory that supplied the swords for his warriors and I supposed by counterpoint Bizen was where the resistance got theirs. Because of this there were many factory-style produced swords coming in particular out of the Kiyomitsu and Sukesada workshops, some of which have no artistic merit whatsoever and were sold by weight. These Sue-Bizen swords as a result show a tremendous amount of variation in skill and quality, from the custom ordered chumon-uchi of the great masters like Yosozaemon which went to generals and nobility; to the kazu-uchi sold in a bundle by weight, meant for men who were likely to die in the first few minutes of fighting. This was also the era in which guns were first used on the battlefield, and until the first volley and reload, casualties would have been higher. As a result, there was just no reason to supply the highest quality sword to anyone who could carry one anymore.

Because of that variation in quality, some understanding of Muromachi blades is required so as to not mix up the mass produced blades with the higher quality blades, and to understand their era of production.

In the time between the Nanbokucho and the middle Muromachi, we have the Oei-Bizen smiths who maintained almost the same quality as the Nanbokucho era. In some cases, with smiths like Yasumitsu and Morimitsu, quality was in fact higher than the smiths that came immediately before them with the exception of Chogi, Kencho and Kanemitsu. Oei was a surprisingly long era lasting from 1394 to 1428. During this time quality remained fairly high.

The Sengoku Jidai (Age of the Warring States) launched with the Onin war in 1467 and lasted up to to about 1600 when Ieyasu put the lid on things and completed the unification of Japan. The shift to mass production starts to ramp up as this period gets hot and peaks with Nobunaga's push to unify Japan in the middle 1500s. From before the Onin era, blades are more associated with the Oei-Bizen smiths than with the Sue-Bizen smiths that would follow.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Gorozaemon Norimitsu Katana
Juyo Reference Norimitsu
Juyo Reference Norimitsu

Osafune Norimitsu

Tokuju Reference Norimitsu (1453 date, 2 cm machi-okuri)
Tokuju Reference Norimitsu (1453 date, 2 cm machi-okuri)

The Norimitsu name originates with one of the students of Nagamitsu in the late Kamakura period. He was one of the students who worked in groups mostly producing blades that would then take the Nagamitsu signature if they were of a certain quality. After the death of Nagamitsu and with Kagemitsu taking over primary responsibility in the forge, Norimitsu made and signed his own work before passing on himself. He left a line behind him that lasted into the Muromachi period.

Gorozaemon-no-jo Norimitsu was the fourth of this line and the most famous of the Norimitsu including the founding generation. His own father being named Sukezaemon. He left behind a sword dated in Bunmei 9 (1478) stating that he was 72 years old at the time, so we know his birth date was 1404. He would have learned sword smithing before the Oei period was finished and his work style is the same as Oei period smiths, though he lived a long and prosperous life. Because of the use of two personal names on his swords and his long life, sometimes he is understood to have been two makers but the status quo and as Fujishiro describes him, it is just one smith.

The 1st Norimitsu was named Gorozaemon-no-jo and is commonly referred to as the most able of the Eikyo Bizen smiths and there are some very excellently made works of this smith to be seen.

This fact is substantiated in the case of the sword called the Shikibu Masamune regarded to be one of the best Masamune in existence before it was destroyed in a fire during WWII (and which had an origami of 700 mai of gold).

This Masamune had many mountings for it and the sho [accompanying wakizashi in the daisho] for this Masamune was a Norimitsu. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

Norimitsu's works are signed both with the personal name of Saemon-no-jo and Gorozaemon-no-jo. In later periods these would signify special ordered items when a smith left a zokumei like this on a blade, but it was not common to do so at the time of Norimitsu. During his time period though there began a habit of gassaku or jointly-made blades where two swordsmiths would work together and both would sign the sword. In his case Norimitsu made blades with Sukemitsu in the middle and Ukyo-no-suke Katsumitsu towards the end of his life, from time to time.

Sukemitsu and Norimitsu of the Eikyo-Bizen school were active between Oei-Bizen and some people classify them into the Oei-Bizen school. Also it has been said that they are Sue-Bizen smiths and demonstrated a transitional workmanship. The Eikyo-Bizen school [transitional between Oei-Bizen and Sue-Bizen] became to be recognized as one of independent Bizen schools recently. The delay of its recognition seems to be resulted that they also temper gorgeous fukushiki-gunome on occasion. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Gorozaemon Norimitsu Katana

Because Norimitsu's work straddles both Oei-Bizen at the beginning and Sue-Bizen at the very end of his life, sometimes he is put into a subgroup called Eikyo-Bizen. But traditionally we classify him with the Oei-Bizen smiths since this was his style and the beginning of his work. The desire for a good handle to classify the transitional time between Oei-Bizen and Sue-Bizen has given rise to this label but it's not so often seen because it is a fairly new term.

Eikyo Bizen smiths like Norimitsu used to be considered as Oei Bizen smiths. Their hamon were midare and often had open bottom gunome mixed with choji and were beautiful and active, which is similar to Oei Bizen work, so an Eikyo Bizen smith’s name is treated as an almost correct answer. But the Eikyo Bizen smith’s original style have an entirely midare hamon, and are low or narrow, and they are built on details which are smaller than the Oei Bizen open bottom midare hamon; in addition, the choji hamon are not as prominent or as strongly presented as Oei Bizen work. Instead of choji, their hamon are mixed with square shaped ko-gunome, and are mainly nioi. Eikyo Bizen hamon are not like Oei Bizen work with large up and down variations in a very active hamon, and are not like Sue Bizen hamon which are midare with large open bottom gunome, and double gunome. Their hamon were made during a transitional period, with somewhat smaller gentler hamon, and this is a characteristic feature of their hamon, and are different from the hamon on this wakizashi, so please pay attention to these characteristic details.

Hinohara Dai, NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Norimitsu's work is generally excellent and Fujishiro's Chu-jo saku guidance is not correct. The NBTHK has presented kantei of his blades to the membership who have mistaken them for various Sai-jo Bizen smiths of the Sue-Bizen period because of their quality.

This katana is about 2 shaku, so it has a short length, a thick kasane, and is solidly built. There is sakizori, and from the shape, you can judge this as work from the latter half of the Muromachi period. The jihada is a tight ko-itame, and there are pale midare utsuri, and a clear beautiful jihada, and from this, you can judge this as a typical uchigatana from this period. In the latter Muromachi period, country smith’s jihada are not always good. But at this same period, Bizen smiths’ chumon-uchi (special order) swords were carefully made work with characteristic jihada which are a tight itame hada, and bright and refined, just like this katana. This is such a well made work that many people voted for master smith names among the Sue Bizen smiths such as Yosozaemon jo Sukesada, Jirozaemon jo Katsumitsu, Sakyoshin Munemitsu, and Jirobyoei jo Harumitsu. Most people voted for Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada and Jirozaemon no jo Katsumitsu. If you looked at this as Sue Bizen work, it would be good enough. According to the Meikan sword book, Osafune Norimitsu’s active period was during the Nambokucho period from around Oan to the Tensho period. [re: Kantei of sword signed Bishu Osafune Norimitsu saku] NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Gorozaemon Norimitsu Katana
Tokubetsu Hozon Gorozaemon Norimitsu KatanaGorozaemon Norimitsu Katana OrigamiGorozaemon Norimitsu Katana Koshirae Origami

Tokubetsu Hozon Gorozaemon Norimitsu Katana

This sword is of the shortened style called katate-uchi and was common during the middle Muromachi. The description given above during kantei is of an identically dimensioned sword at 2 shaku, with wide and robust build and high class make as would be taken for a custom ordered blade. Such a sword would compliment use of a yari as a primary weapon as was the mode of war at the time. A full sized katana or tachi would be too bulky to carry as a secondary weapon and a wakizashi not as effective. Thus this style of katana was born that was wide, solid and short, similar in purpose to a cavalry saber in western swords.

Yamanaka says that the well forged steel of Norimitsu along with the presence of ji nie on his works makes them very similar to Yamashiro works. Unlike many later period Bizen works we can see utsuri on his blades though it is not as strong as earlier utsuri. In the case of this blade there is midare utsuri. Smiths like Yasumitsu and Morimitsu used both midare and bo utsuri in their work.

Fujishiro ranks him as Chu-jo saku for average skill during this time period, but modern appreciation of Oei-Bizen swords is much higher than Fujishiro has them. Yasumitsu and Morimitsu's works achieve Tokubetsu Juyo and Juyo Bunkazai in spite of their Jo-saku rating. Yasumitsu himself has in fact four Juyo Bunkazai which is as many as all of the Sai-jo Sue-Bizen smiths combined. So one cannot take Fujishiro's rankings too far to heart when trying to understand the quality of the early Muromachi Bizen swords as he seems to have under-ranked them all vs. how the swords are perceived today.

Norimitsu's skill being above Chu-jo saku is well testified by the 9 Juyo Token in his name. Some of these made Juyo in spite of being slightly suriage. One of these 9 went on to pass Tokubetsu Juyo and there is in addition a Juyo Bunkazai made by Norimitsu with a full mei of Bizen no Kuni Osafune ju Saemon-no-jo Fujiwara Ason Norimitsu and dated 1459. This is all in keeping with a ranking of Jo-jo saku or Sai-jo saku for a smith with few available works.

Norimitsu also had a habit of signing at the bottom of the nakago, which is a style that comes from earlier koto smiths. The idea of this is to not to distort the steel near the machi where the most stress will be in the nakago. If you hammer a mei into place in this point the steel becomes of uneven hardness and can be a point where a fracture can begin. This is also the reason that koto smiths tended to sign in thin or lighter mei and with fewer characters than the Edo period smiths who signed in large, deep and flamboyant signatures. Those Edo period blades did not have to go straight into battle and the reputation of the smith hinged more on the beauty of the blade rather than if you could come out the other end of a fight with your sword in one piece. So different requirements of the time period led to different signing styles. I think the machi was moved up about 0.6 cm. This kind of adjustment happens when someone chips the bottom corner of the ha at the machi. Those chips come from hard use when the tsuba impacts upwards against the machi. So it is probably a sign of battle, and as there are Juyo examples which are suriage (much worse) and the Tokuju example above is about 2 cm machi okuri, I think this is not going to effect Juyo and it's not significant.

As an additional note, Japanese swordsmiths chose August and February as months to use for signing swords. It is likely that these are made before and after and then the closest month is chosen out of August and February to use in the signature. August is the 8th month with a Japanese numeral of hachi (八) and February has the numberal ni (二). Both of these are symbols that are cleft (cut in two), the hachi is cut vertically and the ni is cut horizontally. This is some sympathetic magic to help the sword to cut well. In the case of years, when it's the fourth year of an era, they do not use the numeral for 4 which is shi (四). The reason for this is that it is a homonym for death, and to write death into the sword would be unlucky for the owner. In those cases they wrote the number 2, 2 times, so you get a date as in this sword: 宝徳二二年八月日, which gives you the 2nd, 2nd year, or the 4th year, without having to use the numeral shi.

These 1400s period Bizen swords are not as common as those from the middle of the Sengoku Jidai as production really ramped up at that point in time. This blade is dated in 1452 so comes from before the Onin war. It follows very closely to Norimitsu's standard style, is excellently forged and has a beautiful hamon along with ji-nie all over the blade. The sword itself is as wider than late Kamakura blades, and has a very deep curve making it have a wicked shape. The nakago is short for its use in one hand, is ubu and features a single low mekugiana indicating it was likely housed in tachi koshirae and so was a sidearm for a high ranked nobleman who would be on horseback carrying a yari as a primary weapon. It is of equivalent or better quality to the Juyo examples so I think this would be worth submission to Juyo for the new owner.

Koshirae LeftKoshirae Right

This sword is also accompanied by nice koshirae in Mino style. These fittings I think are from around Momoyama to early Edo period as they show wear and handling that would be appropriate for a katana of this time, but the koshirae is of later manufacture in the Edo period. They mounts are very tasteful and this style of tosogu was in use from the time that the sword was made up until the early Edo, making them a very nice selection for the sword. The koshirae is antique and is accompanied by an NBTHK Tokubetsu Kicho certificate. These green papers are now disavowed by the NBTHK and in general need to be upgraded. In this case the blade also had a green paper which was recently updated to Tokubetsu Hozon in 2013 to clarify that it was not one of the badly papered blades. The koshirae was left with green papers basically to save money. I will guarantee Hozon for the koshirae but I think it can pass Tokubetsu Hozon.

Norimitsu also carries a good ranking for sharpness from the Edo period cutting masters, coming in at Ryo-wazamono. Overall this is a nice blade with potential for Juyo, complete with a good koshirae and is in all a very good representative of its time period.