Gassan Sadakatsu KatanaGassan Sadakatsu

periodShowa (October 1940)
designationNBTHK Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, NBTHK Hozon
nakagoubu, one mekugiana
mei大阪住月山貞勝謹作 花押
Ōsaka-jū Gassan Sadakatsu kinsaku + kaō
uramei皇紀二千六百年記念
Kōki 2600-nen kinen
nagasa68.5cm
price$24,000 -new, on consignment-

Gassan 月山 is the name of a mountain in Ushu (the second character is the kanji for mountain), and this gives the old Gassan school of the koto period its name. The Gassan smiths made swords in a remarkable style in which the jihada appears as a series of rolling waves, called ayasugi hada. It is considered the key kantei point in identifying works of this school. Dewa province where they hail is from the far north of Japan and so developed its own unique regional quirks like this one.

Though Gassan starts in koto (thought to be as far back as Kamakura), and there are smiths of this school in the Shinto period, it is not until the late Shinshinto period, transplanted to Osaka, that the school begins to rise to its zenith.

At the beginning of the Shinshinto period, the grand-master Suishinshi Masahide had travelled the country encouraging swordsmiths to return to the work styles of the koto greats of old. In the revolution in technique that followed, Masahide accumulated many students of great skill. Among these students was Gassan Sadayoshi.

While Sadayoshi did not have the skill of Masahide, he sired a son who began working as a swordsmith at 14 years old, and was regarded as highly skilled at 20. He took the name of Gassan Sadakazu, and went on to become one of the true masters of his time.

Detail of Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, Hozon Gassan Sadakatsu Katana
Dewa by Hiroshige (showing Mt. Gassan)
Dewa by Hiroshige (showing Mt. Gassan)

In 1869 Osaka, the son of Sadakazu was born and set on the path of his talented father and eventually took the name Gassan Sadakatsu. Soon after taking up a hammer, the son like the father became considered a genius swordsmith, capable of working in all classical traditions with a high degree of skill.

Sadakazu had been appointed an Imperial Court Artist in 1906, and died twelve years later in 1918. Towards the end of his father and teacher's life, Sadakatsu often made daimei and daisaku works. As their level of skill and their styles were nearly identical, it has been concluded that it is impossible to determine whether a particular sword is only daimei or whether it is actually daisaku. That this is impossible shows how well the student inherited his father's skill.

After the death of Sadakazu, Gassan Sadakatsu in turn made swords for the imperial household, other dignitaries (including Emperors Meiji, Taisho, Showa, and King George V of England), and shrines such as the Ise shrine. His work was also used to present to the honors graduates of the Military and Naval Universities.

During the later part of his work period (the 1940s) Kurihara Hikosaburo ranked over 400 of the working swordsmiths of the time, and included Gassan Sadakatsu in the first rank (Sai-jo Saku, a rank including the top twelve of these 400).

As well as having inherited his father's talent, Gassan Sadakatsu also proved to be an excellent teacher. His son Gassan Sadaichi (also read as Sadakazu II), and his student Takahashi Sadatsugu went on to become Living National Treasures. This designation by the Japanese government is the most prestigious one can receive, as it considers that the essential and highest cultural qualities of Nihonto are embodied in the recipient.

Detail of Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, Hozon Gassan Sadakatsu Katana

Sadakatsu often made swords in Bizen, Yamato and Soshu styles which show his versatility and careful study. However, the most distinctive style associated with his work is a vivid ayasugi hada. This style of his school has its root in the earliest Gassan koto swords, but Sadakatsu was able to perfect it and make it perfectly regular which is something that we don't see in the oldest Gassan works. He formed chikei throughout the blade and the waves of the hada allow these to become kinsuji, inazuma and uchinoke as the hada weaves in and out of the hamon.

Sadakatsu demonstrated skill with difficult forms, such as copying the Kogarasu-maru tachi and was also an excellent maker of tanto and often his swords show very well executed horimono. His grandson Sadatoshi today still faithfully executes these fine horimono.

Detail of Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, Hozon Gassan Sadakatsu Katana
Gassan Sadakatsu
Gassan Sadakatsu

Sadakatsu often made swords using stock from the Japan Iron Sand Company. I've tried to find information on this company before without much luck.

During the 1930s, T. Nagahara & Co. took orders for and distributed swords made by Gassan Sadakatsu to the USA and the UK. According to their subscription form, Gassan Sadakatsu made his swords with a combination of several steels and ores. They list the component recipe of a Sadakatsu sword as:

The positive and negative steel are forged together to form Uwagagane (refined steel), and then this is combined with Hamaegane to form the sword. It is not clear from this which steels go where in the traditional construction of a blade, it just lists the steels used. My feeling is that the positive and negative steels simply map over into the light and dark steel that we see in his clearly defined jihada. The positive steel being "diamond hard" would indicate higher carbon content, and it is the light colored steel that forms the bright nie of his blades and the various activities when the hada intertwines through the hamon. So perhaps that would indicate there is some substance to the theory.

The charge to have these custom made blades in 1930, delivered to a port in the UK or USA was 2,000 yen -or- 200 Pounds Sterling -or- $1,000 US dollars.

Sadakatsu died in 1943, but he left behind his excellent students, who were well taught, and filled the role of preserving the techniques that Sadakatsu embodied. He remains today as a very important figure in the history of the Japanese Sword and in my opinion was easily the best swordsmith of his time and without his efforts modern swordsmithing would be held back a century in knowledge.

Detail of Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, Hozon Gassan Sadakatsu Katana
Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho, Hozon Gassan Sadakatsu KatanaGassan Sadakatsu Katana Koshu Tokubetsu KichoGassan Sadakatsu Katana Origami

Gassan Sadakatsu Katana

This great katana shows everything that is held dear about Gassan Sadakatsu. It was previously auctioned in Japan for 2.6 million yen, and is faithfully executed with a vibrant ayasugi hada. He was 71 when this blade was made, and it also shows off his horimono carving with a dragon on a ken (so-no-kurikara) crowned with a jewel (tama), and gomabashi over a lotus flower (rendai). The hamon is in nie deki with black chikei crossing in and out of the yakiba forming beautiful activities as it does so.

This blade was made as a commemorative work for the 2,600th year of the Japanese Empire, dating back to the legendary first emperor. He made some number of these blades as this was a popular commission at the time and they are all made with excellent skill. This indicates that the blade was a custom order, and likely then used as a gift. Much of his output was made for these reasons, as gifts and commemorations, as he was a highly influential swordsmith and working in the Imperial Household. As well, it comes with a solid silver habaki made in the Gassan workshop as they have a very distinctive style.

It should also be pointed out that after Chinese New Year in February of 1940, the zodiac corresponds to the Metal Element and is the year of the Dragon. No doubt the significance was not lost on Sadakatsu when he placed the dragon horimono into this sword.

This blade received papers twice with the NBTHK, the first being Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho in Showa 50 (1975). Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho is a retired status that ranked just below Juyo. It equates mostly today with Tokubetsu Hozon though it may be slightly higher due to the fact that the NBTHK used to have three paper levels below Juyo and now has two. These old NBTHK papers when they exist now need to be held in doubt unless they are confirmed with modern papers as various scandals and poor judgment over time caused the NBTHK to stop issuing them in 1980. As such we see those blades floating around with old papers, and when not confirmed they need to be taken with a grain of salt at best. In this case the sword was resubmitted for Hozon in Heisei 27 (2015) and obtained it which confirms that the old judgment was accurate. This is exactly how a dealer should be handling the situation of the old Kicho, Tokubetsu Kicho, and Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho papers by resubmitting on a prove it basis.

As a side note, there is a section cut out of the middle of the blue paper. This is where they used to place the owner's name. As a result when selling these blades, for face saving purposes the owner tended to remove his name.

There are a couple of scratches on the blade which date to its ownership in Japan and probably over use of uchiko over the decades. I think there is a chance that the blade is on its original polish since there are wear marks from the habaki showing up on the ji near the machi and the horimono was rather filled with uchiko when the previous owner took it out of Japan. He spent days cleaning it with a toothpick and afterwards Ted Tenold spent another day cleaning out the uchiko from the horimono. A combination of oil and uchiko turns into a sticky crust that is pretty hard to extract. For all of these reasons uchiko should really be avoided. Anyway the scratches mostly show up on the photos but are not a problem in the hand, and I think that the sword should be preserved as-is rather than alter the polish.

This would be a great blade to complete a collection of various traditions and time periods, as it demonstrates the unique ayasugi style of the Gassan school, while being a commemorative work of the top swordsmith of his time.

Gassan Sadakatsu Katana Sayagaki

Sayagaki

This sword bears an inscription (sayagaki) by Gassan Sadaichi when he was 79 years old. Sadaichi was the son of Sadakatsu and was the third Living National Treasure swordsmith appointed in Japan. This speaks of course to his skill, and that of his father and teacher. Usually only one or two swordsmiths hold this title at any point in time. So this sayagaki is a very nice touch and addition to this sword.

  1. 大阪住月山貞勝謹作 花押
    Ōsaka-jū Gassan Sadakatsu kinsaku + kaō
  2. 皇紀二千六百年記念
    Kōki 2600-nen kinen
    Commemorating the 2,600th year of the Japanese Imperial Reign (1940)
  3. 綾杉傳刃長貮尺二寸六分強有之
    ayasugi-den, hachō 2 shaku 2 sun 6 bu kyō kore ari
    In ayasugi style, length 68.5 cm
  4. 昭和六寿年十月吉日太阿月山源貞一「花押」誌
    Showa 60-nen jūgatsu kichijitsu Tai'a Gassan Minamoto Sadaichi, kaō, shirusu
    Written by Tai'a Gassan Minamoto Sadaichi on a lucky day of October 1985