Saeki Norishige Katana

Saeki Norishige

periodLate Kamakura Koto (ca. 1320)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Token Katana
ratingSai-jo saku
nagasa70.3 cm
sori1.5 cm
motohaba3.15 cm
sakihaba2.2 cm
kissaki5 cm
nakago nagasa19.5 cm
nakago sorislight
fuchi mei篤弘「花押」· Tokuhiro (kao)
price -new- -please enquire-

Etchu province is on the northern shore of the main island of Japan, in the provinces referred to as Hokkoku (the Northern Provinces). There were local smiths in the area and some known groups, but nothing in the way of true master craftsmanship before the Kamakura era. However two of the all time greats arise around 1300 AD. These are Go Yoshihiro in Matsukura and Norishige in Gofuku (sometimes known as The Two Go because of this).

The two smiths, Go Norishige and [Go] Yoshihiro, are placed at about the same time period [...] they later made incomparable sword masterpieces that must be said to be unparalleled.

When looking at a masterpiece by Go Yoshihiro by holding up a lantern in the middle of the night, or when drawing a dagger made by Norishige from its sheath and viewing it, you cannot help but automatically reach a serenity of mind which is like a dream. These two smiths were bright morning stars in the northern sky at around the end of the Kamakura period. Nihonto Koza

Go and Norishige do have a lot in common, with a dark color to the steel and expressive use of nie. Through history there have been stories of one being the other's student and vice versa, and both being the students of Masamune. Today the issue is mostly settled with Norishige considered a student of Masamune's teacher Shintogo Kunimitsu, and senior to Masamune. Go Yoshihiro is considered the top ranked student in the Masamune Juttetsu (the 10 great students of Masamune). This list of 10 students has some that are certain, some that are certainly not, and some that are unsure when we examine their credibility with the modern eye. They are all highly regarded artisans on their own, regardless of their association with Masamune, and all show influence of the Soshu tradition in their work.

Norishige has the personal name of Kurosaburo according to Fujishiro who also ranks him at Sai-jo saku, for grand-master skill. He is inevitably and frequently compared to his fellow student Masamune, and his work stands up very well against the greatest Soshu artisan of all time. Fujishiro called some work of Masamune into doubt, but said there is none held for Norishige, as his works are superb with a remarkable hada.

Norishige is superior to Masamune in the hataraki [activities] of nie and forges a unique jihada called matsukawa-hada. He is superior to Masamune in the hataraki of jihada and hamon, though he yields to Masamune in the clearness of jigane and the brightness of hamon. It is another feature of Norishige that the border of the hamon and ji is not conspicuous. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

Norishige was working at the end of the Kamakura period, between about 1308 and 1328 given his dated work. The close of the Kamakura period is marked by the outbreak of a nasty war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto (Yamashiro) and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino (Nara). This resulted in two different dating systems, a change in weapons manufacture and tactics, and the movement of swordsmiths and schools. Echizen and Etchu provinces saw the arrival of smiths from the Rai school (Echizen-Rai) and Yamato traditions (Uda). Uda is said to have taken teaching from Norishige, and as well Kashu Sanekage, another northern smith, and the techniques of Norishige and Soshu can be seen in their works though the sophistication and quality drops off considerably.

There was a lot of smith movement in these times due to the struggles which would only get worse in the Muromachi period. There is another Echizen smith, Tametsugu, who is the son of Go Yoshihiro. After the death of his father, he is said to have been adopted by Norishige. We can see the emulation of both of his parents in his work, and his is the closest to their skill that came after the two. There are 68 Juyo Token blades attributed to Tametsugu (making him number 26 on the list all-time). He was apparently born in and later returned to Mino a bit later than Shizu Kaneuji in the Nanbokucho period. Since Go died very young (age of 27 to 30), possibly Tametsugu was an adopted son as well, as he seems to have been old enough to pick up some of the style and cues from Go, but not long enough to learn to eclipse his master.

Norishige has various names, he left us two signed pieces with the signature Saeki Norishige, and we take this to be a family name or a neighborhood name in Gofuku-go. Old books have him with the title Shingoro (New Goro, in effect, the new Masamune), and with the given name Gorojiro (similar meaning). These are most likely posthumous nicknames as he was thought to appear after Masamune as one of his students. However, since the citation is extremely old it indicates that already Norishige, Masamune and Shintogo had achieved very high fame, and this nickname for Norishige would indicate that Masamune was already preeminent.

Norishige's given name is Gorojiro and [he is] a student of Shintogo Kunimitsu of Kamakura. His personal title is Shingoro. He is an expert of jigane forging and his jihada consists of varied grains with numerous hataraki. 喜阿弥本銘尽, Kiami-bon Mei Zukushi (around 1381 AD)

The Kiami-bon is a transcription of an earlier work that was written in the Kamakura period, and is the first recording of Norishige as a student of Shintogo Kunimitsu. The two works we have today with the Saeki signature are both tanto, and have dates but one is eroded away. The other though places him at 1319 and there is one other existing dated blade with a date of 1314. When we add in old oshigata that look reasonable we expand his work period from 1308 to 1328. All of this is the correct time period for working under Shintogo, so we have both tangible evidence today which confirms the old books and changes the commonly held perception since Edo times that he was a disciple of Masamune. There also exists old oshigata of him writing that he was a resident of Soshu and of Kamakura as well.

The Okinsho Kokon Meizukushi (a historic book) includes a list called kokin-kajimei hayamidashi (old and new sword smith names), which shows Norishige as Sagami-no-kuni junin Norishige [note I corrected 'Norimune' from the translation to be 'Norishige'] NBTHK Token Bijutsu

When we look at the style of the early dated tanto they do not depart very far from Shintogo Kunimitsu, all of this combines to indicate that he was one of the disciples of Shintogo learning Soshu craftsmanship in Kamakura and is a little bit older than Masamune, though they would be working side by side.

Today Norishige is most famous for a style of forging that he developed later on in his career, which combined a large patterned jihada with hard and soft steels which combined into many interesting nie effects. Old books comment on it, aside from the NBTHK . This large pattern and combination of steel is something that he took and perfected from the Ko-Hoki smiths that were three centuries in his past, and also worked in the north.

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

The jihada is o-itame-hada combined with itame and whirlpool like hada in large grain in company with abundant ji-nie and a lot of thick chikei which then stands out. This unique jihada is so-called matsukawa-hada or Norishige-hada. An old book says Norishige is good at forging iron material and his jihada looks complicated. Norishige combines soft and hard iron materials and produces unique jihada and jigane looks black [and] that is one of characteristics of Hokkoku swords. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

His work in this regard is peerless and distinctive. Nobody before him or since him was able to replicate it and in examining the works of Hankei, a famous gunsmith turned master swordsmith in the Shinto period who attempted to copy Norishige's work, the high degree of lamination failures indicates that this was very difficult to successfully achieve. Norishige's work as a result will tend to have some flaws in it when he developed this style due to the presumed difficulty of working this material.

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

The steel has been worked very well, so the grain results in ko-mokume hada with o-hada mixed in. There will be an ayasugi-hada effect steel, or whirlpool effect steel and within it will be chikei. This is popularly called the Matsukawa Hada of Norishige, one of the main trademarks of this smith.

The grain of the steel will stand out within the hamon and there will be sunagashi as well as violent inazuma which in entering the ji becomes a chikei. This particular occurrence is seen most from the middle of the blade towards the fukura area.

In the case of Norishige, steel having been well worked the result is very much in evidence in the Hamon as well as in the Ji with various 'workings' resulting from the Nie such as Chikei and Inazuma and Kinsuji. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

The matsukawa hada of Norishige is very easy to recognize once you've seen it and hard to forget due to its unique character.

Student A: How about the matsukawa-hada produced by Norishige?

Kanzan: The chikei is formed by mixing hard and soft steels in the process of forging which primarily derives the overall texture or hada on the metal surface. The chikei appears in the hada as an outstanding additive to it. The name matsukawa-hada was probably given to it owing to the appearance of the hada containing this particular kind of chikei making it look like the bark of old pine trees. English Token Bijutsu

Chikei are formed by ji nie which cluster together tightly and then overlap, making for patterns of harder steel embedded into softer steel. This is difficult to achieve forging wise and for heat hardening, not to have the whole thing fail. It achieves beauty when polished because of the contrast in the materials, and the chikei tend to shine brightly or look black as you move the sword through the light. Crossing into the hamon chikei become inazuma (lightning) and also entirely inside the hamon become kinsuji (gold lines).

Norishige is known for his particularly broad and violent nie hataraki (activities) that are contained with in the jihada and the hamon and cross back and forth between the two. This makes large areas of the sword have uncertain borders between these two zones. There is so much activity in both that it is just not clear where one begins and where the other ends. The descriptions of his activities are usually long because everything nie-related with a name can be found in his work.

[Norishige] left many zai-mei tanto that have shorter ha-watari and uchi-zori. He appears to have challenged Ko-Hoki and Ko-Bizen swords also demonstrated a creative workmanship of nie-deki like Masamune. Hataraki of his nie is more vigorous and lively than Masamune's. Hataraki of ji may exceed Masamune's but his jigane is somewhat inferior to Masamune in clearness and looks darker. The nioi-guchi of Norishige is not so bright and the border between ji and ha is not clearly defined [...]

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

As for the hamon, its border line is usually misty and unclear because of the density and thickness of both nioi and nie grains forming the nioiguchi, but the hamon consists of notare mixed with compact midare and gunome, and plenty of ashi together with kinsuji and sunagashi. The boshi depends on the kind of hamon and jihada in the lower portion and appears in various patterns such as midare-komi embellished with hakikake, and yaki-kuzure (deformed) or togari-gokoro (almost pointed). Horimono is rarely found on his works. The tip of the nakago is either kurijiri with very little curvature or almost kiri. The yasurime is almost horizontal katte-sagari. The mei is always given in two Chinese characters incised powerfully with a big chisel. The elegant style of writing is also characteristic of this artist. English Token Bijutsu

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

As for the jitetsu of Norishige, the hamon appeared in the hada and was entwined by the hada with sunagashi majiri. Fujishiro Yoshio

The shapes of his nakago change from time to time, with Dr. Honma commenting that this is likely due to requirements from the koshirae it was intended for. One of these shapes is kiri (straight cut), which is something also found in Yamato works such as the Hosho school. I've read that these were not so much cut, but probably chiselled and then broken off to create the straight edge.

Norishige has long been considered one of the master tanto makers. He is known for a shape of tanto called takenokozori which refers to a bamboo shoot. This type of shape has what they would call scarce fukura and by this they mean that the very end of the tanto is quite sharp without much roundness in the kissaki area. This is one of the traits you would use to identify Norishige during kantei.

In the Koto Period, among the few smiths who were skilled at making tanto, the outstanding smiths are: Awataguchi Yoshimitsu of Yamashiro Province, Rai Kunitoshi of Yamashiro Province, Shintogo Kunimitsu, of Soshu Province, Norishige of Etchu province, Osafune Kagemitsu of Bizen Province, and Samonji. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

Detail of Tokubetsu Juyo Saeki Norishige Katana

A further trait for Norishige and Soshu tanto in general is mitsu-mune (three sided spine). In this we look for the flat area to be fairly wide and the edges to be quite steep. Not all works have it or are required to have it, but it is considered one of the good features to have when it's there.

Norishige left us a good number of masterpieces and his signature has continued to exist for us. These are almost all items that come from his time after Kamakura, probably he returned to Etchu after the death of Shintogo. Whatever habits were going in Kamakura, it resulted in very few works being signed. Tachi lost their signature by shortening but seem also to have been made unsigned, and ko-wakizashi were often not signed until we get to Hiromitsu.

At the time of writing, for Norishige we have 106 blades that have passed Juyo and higher of which two are signed tachi and are two of the three that exist today. He has 27 Tokubetsu Juyo Token, which places him fifth after Rai/Niji Kunitoshi (41), Kanemitsu (38), Chogi (30), and Rai Kunimitsu (28). Keep in mind there are two Kunitoshi and two and a half Kanemitsu for every Norishige left.

In this count of Norishige blades 37 are tanto, 23 of which are signed. Nine of those tanto are also Tokubetsu Juyo. Two of the signatures are long signatures, another three show some unusual characteristics, with the rest being considered the standard signature of Norishige. As well as the NBTHK blades there are another 12 Juyo Bijutsuhin, eight Juyo Bunkazai and one Kokuho, all of which attests to his immense skill and reputation. The Kokuho tanto is referred to as Nippon Ichi, the best in Japan.

Tokubetsu Juyo Token Saeki Norishige KatanaSaeki Norishige Katana Oshigata

Tokubetsu Juyo Token Saeki Norishige Katana

This is a powerful katana by Norishige, and it passed Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo back to back in the 65th Juyo session in 2019, and the 26th Tokuju session in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic and reduced time available due to closures, the commentary on the swords that passed back to back within a few months like this are the same, so I've only documented the Tokubetsu Juyo translation below.

This blade exhibits very obvious matsukawa hada in the bottom 20% where ji nie have clustered along the forging lines. The matsukawa is present throughout the blade but above this line the steels are closer in carbon content so show less contrast. This kind of blade represents Norishige's transition into his final style which has strong influence from Ko-Hoki and begins his specific departure from the mainline Soshu smiths. The boshi and monouchi show hardening which follows almost a mirror image, and this is something found in some Masamune as well.

The blade is very robust, featuring a motohaba of 3.15 cm, making it one of the larger bodied Norishige. The wide body and elongated chu kissaki are found at the end of the Kamakura period in Soshu or Soshu influenced blades by Sadamune, Norishige, Yukimitsu, Rai Kunitsugu and so forth. This end of Kamakura shape predicts the odachi that would come in the Enbun period from smiths like Kanemitsu and Chogi that are even more massive.

The hamon is 100% typical Norishige, with choji, and gunome built into an overall notare shape. The whole is layered with kinsuji and sunagashi, and is bright and clear, with the blade being very healthy.

There is no sayagaki on the shirasaya currently, as Tanobe sensei was not available to make sayagaki for the first part of 2021 when I brought this blade over from Japan. A sayagaki can be added in the future at my expense for the new owner.

It is now very difficult to obtain any Soshu blades, and those by Norishige are particularly hard to come by. It's been five years since I've been able to acquire one and the prices for his blades have gone up considerably in this time. Three years ago I was quoted 20 million yen for a rather tired Juyo katana of his, and last year 23 million yen for a Tokubetsu Juyo katana). Over this time many new collectors have entered the market and with better access to educational materials online, interest has been focused on the higher level smiths. The recent Sotheby's auction has also shown very strong interest in the better half of armor quality, with very strong prices and many auction winners being previously unknown to the auctioneer. With Japan still being closed, this is likely to be the last great Soshu piece I will have for a long time. At least I can take some time off now.

This sword is accompanied by issaku (all made by one hand) koshirae by the Otsuki school artisan Sasayama Tokuhiro (篠山篤弘) and seems to have been purpose made for this sword.

Tokuhiro was the younger brother of Sasayama Tokuoki, who in turn was the best smith of the Otsuki school. Tokuhiro was born in 1831 and had the personal name of Tominosuke and was trained by Tokuoki. He saw the end of the samurai era and sadly died very young at the age of 41 in 1871. His work is not so common as he likely performed preparation work for his famous older brother.

This koshirae has iron tsuba, and fuchigashira. The tsuba has two holes which are holdovers from tachi tsuba from the old days and are called udenukiana.The fuchi exhibits a crashing wave in silver, and this form of wave is particular to the Otsuki school and called Otsuki-nami. The menuki are the gods of thunder and rain, Raiden and Fujin. They sit amongst the clouds, and are made in shakudo and copper. Lightning is exhibited via high karat gold inlay on the tsuba, fuchi and kashira, as well as on the lacquerwork of the saya. In addition the saya shows clouds, wind and rain. Tokuhiro put his signature on the fuchi but left the rest unsigned. This koshirae has Hozon papers from the NBTHK but will pass Tokubetsu Hozon. Usually Hozon on such a thing is just to verify the signature.

While Tokuhiro is not the top ranked Otsuki smith, an issaku koshirae from this school is a very nice addition to a blade. Since Tokuhiro died young we can estimate the date of manufacture on the koshirae to be about 1860 plus or minus a few years.

Saeki Norishige Katana Tokuju PhotoSaeki Norishige Katana OrigamiSaeki Norishige Katana Koshirae Origami


Appointed on the 28th of May, 2020 (Session 26)

Katana, Mumei, Den Saeki Norishige


shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, wide mihaba, no noticeable taper, despite the suriage a remaining koshizori, prominently elongated chū-kissaki


rather standing-out ō-itame that is mixed with mokume and nagare and that features plenty of ji-nie and much thick chikei, the steel is blackish


nie-laden and gently undulating notare-chō that is mixed with much chōji, gunome, many ashi and yō, some nie-hotsure along the habuchi, and plenty of kinsuji and sunagashi, the nioiguchi is bright and clear


midare-komi, tending to yakitsume, and featuring hakikake


on both sides a bōhi that runs as kaki-nagashi into the tang


ō-suriage, kirijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, one mekugi-ana, mumei


Norishige from Etchu Province


According to the Kokon Mei Zukushi (古今銘尽) and other Edo period sword publications, Norishige was one of the Ten Students of Masamune but judging from the shapes of his tachi and tantō and extant date signatures from the Shōwa (正和, 1312-1317) and Gen’ō (元応, 1319-1321), it rather appears that he was a fellow student of Masamune under Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) as Muromachi period sword texts suggest. Among the early great Sōshū masters, Norishige’s workmanship is closest to that of Masamune but his blades are mostly more nie-laden and his kitae stands more out and is larger structured, appearing overall as the highly unique so-called matsukawa-hada (松皮肌). Apart from that, the kitae is mixed with characteristic thick and prominent chikei, the ha features multifarious hataraki which are interwoven with the jihada, and we see an infinite variety in nie activities.

This blade displays a rather standing-out ō-itame that is mixed with mokume and nagare and that features plenty of ji-nie and much thick chikei, and that thus appears overall as matsukawa-hada. The hamon is a bright, clear, and nie-laden and gently undulating notare that is mixed with much chōji, gunome, ome hotsure, many ashi and yō, and plenty of kinsuji and sunagashi. Therefore, both ji and ha reflect very well the characteristic features and aesthetic points of Etchū Norishige. The excellently forged kitae appears as a typical matsukawa-hada with much chikei, the bright and clear hamon is a notare-chō with an abundance of beautifully sparkling nie, and the blade is overall of an excellent deki.

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