Ichimonji Katana

Ichimonji

periodMiddle Kamakura (ca. 1250)
designationNBTHK Juyo Token Katana
ratingJo-jo saku
nakagoo-suriage, mumei
nagasa69.6 cm
sori2.4 cm
motohaba3.3 cm
sakihaba2.4 cm
kissaki3.4 cm
nakago nagasa17.95 cm
nakago sorinone
price -sold-

The Fukuoka-Ichimonji school of which the founder is Norimune, occurred at the beginning of the Kamakura period. Then the master smiths Yoshifusa, Sukezane, Norifusa and Yoshihira became to play a conspicuous role of the school entering the middle of the Kamakura Period.

Amongst the smiths of the Fukuoka-Ichimonji school, Yoshifusa, Sukezane and Norifusa are superior to other smiths of the school in skill and show conspicuous characteristics in their works. Yoshifusa tempers gorgeous choji-midare mixed with fukuro-choji and squarish midare. Sukezane demonstrates a powerful workmanship emphasizing nie in the ji and ha. Norifusa forges very clear jigane and it looks powerful then tempers choji in smaller pattern. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

In the mid-Kamakura period, master smiths such as Yoshifusa, Sukezane, and Norifusa infused the highest level of art into their work. With their high and wide choji-midare hamon, the school’s reputation became established. Their hamon are very distinctive and appreciated, and were very distinctive when compared with Ko-Ichimonji work. The style of the hamon is dazzling and gorgeous, very beautiful and spectacular, and the style was supposed to have been started either by accident, or slowly and deliberately through efforts to produce a practical, beautiful and effective sword. Ishii Akira, NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Detail of Juyo Ichimonji Katana

The name of the Ichimonji school comes from the habit developed by the early Fukuoka-Ichimonji smiths of signing their blades with the single character “ichi” (), indicating the numeral “one.” Perhaps its bold meaning and intention remains rather obvious seven centuries later as human nature does not change that much, though times do.

Gojo Kanenaga, Ichimonji, Kokuho Okada-giri Yoshifusa
Gojo Kanenaga, Ichimonji, Kokuho Okada-giri Yoshifusa

Mr. Iwazaki Kosuke explains the Ichi of Ichimonji as Muteki, meaning No enemy, and this is not the name of a swordsmith, but is said to be a presentation name for a sword. It is not hard to imagine the feeling of strength when gazing down upon a battlefield with a Muteki sword in one’s sash. Fujishiro Yoshio

The intention of mutekino enemy — is that no blade, and no warrior, could ever hope to stand against the one who would wield an Ichimonji blade.

The Ichimonji school is composed of several branches, spanning different periods of time and residing in different areas of Bizen province. The name of Ichimonji is synonymous with the peak of the Bizen tradition, and their work in flamboyant choji midare with utsuri is unmissable and distinct in the history of the Japanese sword. Coming first were the Ko-Ichimonji smiths in the late Heian and early Kamakura, followed by Fukuoka-Ichimonji and then Katayama in the middle Kamakura, then Yoshioka and Iwato-Ichimonji in the late Kamakura to end of the Nanbokucho. As well, there is Kamakura Ichimonji, transplanted from Bizen to Soshu at the order of the Shogun in the middle Kamakura period.

Early Fukuoka-Ichimonji works exhibit nie-deki which is inherited from its origins in Ko-Bizen. The style was developed during the period of the Go-ban Kaji and spread to influence swordsmiths as far away as Yamashiro province. Later would shift to nioi-deki which is heat hardened at a lower temperature, and is thought to be a development which allowed the Ichimonji swords to remain tough while taking on a large amount of hardened material as can be observed in their hamon which became increasingly flamboyant through the years.

Detail of Juyo Ichimonji Katana

At the beginning period of Ichimonji, the hamon was ko-midare with nie, and was like that of early Bizen. The exuberant choji of Ichimonji was something which was achieved with the Goban Kaji of ex-Emperor Gotoba as the center. For this reason, the point that they held extremely advanced technology compared to other swordsmiths cannot be denied, and needless to say, the choji of Osafune Mitsutada and Hatakeda Moriie and such were received and continued from this Ichimonji, and this can also be seen in the works of the Yamashiro swordsmiths of the same era, such as Kunitsuna, Sadatoshi, and Kunitoshi. Fujishiro Yoshio

Detail of Juyo Ichimonji KatanaDetail of Juyo Ichimonji Katana

The Nihonto Koza waxes quite poetic when describing the works of Fukuoka-Ichimonji. I think it requires no comment to clarify the author's feelings on the quality of the works of this school.

As for the juka choji of FUKUOKA ICHIMONJI they reached a magnificent region that they alone have traversed in all times in this skill, and the large pattern choji ha which is applied till it becomes stripes, along with the kage utsuri which is like mist, is of unparalleled beauty, like the double petalled sakura that is kissed by the rising sun.

Juyo Ichimonji (top), Kokuho Okada-giri Yoshifusa (bottom)
Juyo Ichimonji (top), Kokuho Okada-giri Yoshifusa (bottom)

In spite of the high fame this hamon has received, most Ichimonji works are not so flamboyant. The works of the Ko-Ichimonji smiths resemble quiet style Ko-Bizen. Since the Ko-Ichimonji seem to have resided in Fukuoka, this use of the name Fukuoka tends to be synonymous with the middle Kamakura flamboyant works of the school as this development is the dividing line in time. Mostly though after this middle period works became more subdued, and in theory this is due to the difficulty of maintaining a sword that won't break while covering the blade mostly with hardened martensite which is what we get with a florid hamon. With Soshu as well we see hitatsura rise up and then go away fairly quickly, possibly for similar reasons. Osafune has the same development where the works of Mitsutada are carried forward only partway by Nagamitsu before he abandons his father's hamon and begins working in smaller choji midare or consciously cutting the heads off of the choji with an overlay of suguba in order to limit the amount of hardened material in the blade. So while these works done in more quiet style may be less visibly impressive to us as art collectors, we need to view this not as a loss of technique or ability but as an ongoing attempt to perfect the function of the Bizen sword.

Detail of Juyo Ichimonji Katana

Gotoba and the Ichimonji

In the year 1208 the cloistered Emperor Gotoba summoned the finest swordsmiths in the land to his place of exile and proceeded to take teachings from them. It is this process which begins the revolution of style and craftsmanship that made the Kamakura period the golden age of swords.

The first group of teachers were 13 smiths from three regions of Japan. Three smiths from Yamashiro Awataguchi, three from Bitchu Aoe, and seven smiths from Bizen Fukuoka:

  1. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Norimune
  2. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Nobufusa
  3. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Sukemune
  4. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Muneyoshi
  5. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Yukikuni
  6. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Sukenari
  7. Fukuoka-Ichimonji Sukenobu

The majority of Gotoba's teachers coming from Fukuoka-Ichimonji begins the long held belief of dominance of Bizen blades and the reverence of Fukuoka-Ichimonji in the history of the Japanese Sword.

Ichimonji Katana Bizen Groups Map

Spread of the Ichimonji

Some smiths of Fukuoka-Ichimonji would sign only with the single ichi character, while others would add the ichi above their name. Some never used it, and other works were handed down ubu but with no signature at all. There is some difference between these ichi-only swords and those that bear mei ji, so it is likely that there is some kind of division between them.

It was not until after the Ichimonji smiths spread from Fukuoka past the middle of the Kamakura period that some smiths would place the town in front of their name. While the Yoshioka smiths often added Yoshioka (吉岡) to their signatures, in Fukuoka there is only one smith, Naganori (Einin, 1298-1299), who added Fukuoka (福岡) to his signature.

It is generally thought that the Yoshioka group is thought to be pre-eminent in the latter part of the Kamakura period, there is overlap in time and no firm agreement over where the majority of Ichimonji smiths resided. Because of this, some swords will gain attributions only to Ichimonji, while others with more strong stylistic cues can be attributed closer to their work centers.

The Ichimonji would dominate the creation of swords in Bizen, spreading to Katayama and Iwato, as well as Yoshioka above. Sukezane of Fukuoka would also leave Bizen entirely for Sagami at the command of the Shogun, and be called Kamakura Ichimonji for the swords he made there.

After the rise of the Ko-Osafune kaji in the middle Kamakura period who began by emulating the Fukuoka-Ichimonji style, the Ichimonji would no longer be standing alone at the center of the Bizen tradition. Because Osafune would become so dominant, there is sometimes a misconception that the Ichimonji smiths were no longer active after the Kamakura period. They did flourish into the Nanbokucho period but would at this time become overshadowed by Osafune, which became the main line of Bizen development going forward.

Simplified Representation of Kamakura Bizen Groups
Kamakura Bizen Groups

There is some discrepancy between authors because the history of the spread of the Ichimonji smiths is a bit confusing. There is a grey area between when Ko-Ichimonji stops and Fukuoka-Ichimonji begins as it is the same group in the same place, and mostly reflects a style change. This is important to keep in mind when reading books as sometimes Ko-Ichimonji smiths are indicated as Fukuoka-Ichimonji smiths. We can most likely summarize the founders of the various branches as such:

  1. First Fukuoka Generation: Ko-Ichimonji/Fukuoka-Ichimonji Sukefusa
  2. Second Fukuoka Generation: Yoshifusa, Norifusa, Sukezane
  3. Sukezane moves and starts Kamakura group
  4. Norifusa moves and starts Katayama group
  5. Norifusa's son-in-law Sukeyoshi moves and starts Yoshioka group
  6. Sukeyoshi's student Yoshiuji starts Iwato group
Detail of Juyo Ichimonji Katana
Juyo Token Ichimonji Katana

Juyo Token Ichimonji Katana

This phenomenal sword was noted by Kanzan as being an heirloom of the Shimazu clan, who ruled Satsuma province. The sugata immediately places it in the middle Kamakura period, with its ikubi kissaki and wide shape. It represents the middle Kamakura Ichimonji school very well and is in fantastic condition.

Though the ikubi (boar's neck) kissaki is one of the textbook features of the middle Kamakura period, due to polishing and the fact that it was made for a brief time, we actually almost never see it in practice.

To put this in context, there are at the time of this writing, 7,334 koto Juyo swords of kodachi, wakizashi, katana and tachi shapes. Out of these, the NBTHK described the kissaki as ikubi only 115 times. In combination with the broad make of this blade and its deep sori, it makes a very powerful visual impression. The NBTHK took note of this, calling the sugata magnificent.

I've compared the blade above in two places with the famous meibutsu masterpiece Okada-girl Yoshifusa which is a Kokuho blade. This sword is a touch longer, a touch wider and in better condition than the Okada-giri. The hamon is equally flamboyant and the kitae is impressive. The NBTHK noted the presence of jukka-choji which are the highlight feature of the entire NBTHK school and usually narrowed down more to Yoshifusa's technique.

Condition wise, it is so well preserved. The width of the blade testifies to this, as it is 3.3 cm at the machi, usually a width that we will see in larger Nanbokucho period blades. Kanzan doesn't usually add commentary to his sayagaki, but in this case he made an exception referring to the blade as being kenzen (in perfect condition) and that it was gorgeously made.

Tanobe sensei added a sayagaki to the back side at my request, and noted kawazu-choji and fukuro-choji and the overall variety of the hamon along with the ikubi kissaki.

I think this blade is correctly attributed to the Fukuoka Ichimonji smiths, but in the session this passed Juyo, the mumei Ichimonji blades were placed in order with Kamakura Ichimonji (two), den Ichimonji (six) and Yoshioka Ichimonji (3) as the designations. A further two Ichimonji which are signed with Ichi were also simply called Ichimonji though one of the two says in the text it is Fukuoka Ichimonji. So for this session they seem to not have been making a distinction between Fukuoka and Katayama but were just using an Ichimonji designation.

Detail of Juyo Ichimonji Katana

Due to the fantastic condition of this blade, the excellence in the hamon and the perfect middle Kamakura sugata, I believe this blade to be a very strong contender at the next Tokubetsu Juyo shinsa. I am lucky to have been stuck in Japan for long enough in 2020 that this blade and a few other great pieces were able to fall into my lap. I'm struggling with the idea of selling it, as this blade appeals to me personally in a very strong way. Regardless of where it ends up, it will bring a lifetime of pleasure and teach everything one could want to know about the best of Ichimonji.

Ichimonji Katana OshigataIchimonji Katana Origami

Juyo Token Katana

Appointed on the 1st of November, 1977 (Session 25)

Katana, Mumei, Den Ichimonji

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, wide mihaba, deep sori, chū-kissaki that tends to ikubi, magnificent sugata

Kitae

itame-hada that features a faint midare-utsuri

Hamon

widely hardened and flamboyant chōji-midare in nioi-deki with a rather tight nioiguchi that is mixed with fukuro-chōji, some jūka-chōji, and many ashi and yō

Boshi

midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri

Horimono

on both sides a bōhi that runs as kaki-tōshi through the tang

Nakago

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

Setsumei

This is an ō-suriage mumei katana that has been handed down as work of the Bizen Ichimonji School. The Ichimonji School flourished from the early to the end of the Kamakura period on the Bizen regions of, i.a., Fukuoka, Yoshioka, Katayama, and Iwato and have rise to many great master smiths. This blade is, with its wide mihaba and ikubi-style chū-kissaki, of a magnificent sugata. It is hardened in a wide chōji-midare that is rich in variety and reflects so very well the flamboyant style of this school.

Ichimonji Katana Shimazu Mon

Shimazu Daimyo Ke

Saigo Takamori
Saigo Takamori

The Shimazu mon is a cross in a circle. It predates the arrival of Christianity in Japan, though the Shimazu had some flirtation with Christianity as they were located in Kyushu where Portuguese traders had access to the Japanese shores. They were outsider daimyo but they were the most powerful of the clans that remained in opposition to the Tokugawa, controlling 700,000 koku of production.

Their origin goes back to the early Kamakura period, where Shimazu Tadahisa was a son of the Minamoto Shogun Yoritomo. He conquered Satsuma, Hyuga and Osumi and the Shimazu reigned there for centuries. They went on to conquer Okinawa as well, at the time this was a completely foreign country of Ryukyu. Over the centuries they proved to be able leaders in civil and military affairs, having a strong economic base and high degrees of loyalty among their retainers.

They of course are famous for their role in the Boshin War in which samurai clans from the south who supported the re-establishment of the Emperor lead to the eventual collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the eventual modernization of Japan under the Meiji Emperor.

One of their most famous samurai was Saigo Takamori, who accepted the surrender of Edo Castle during the Boshin war that wrapped up the Tokugawa Shogunate. During the Meiji period Saigo had some philosophical problems with the modernization of Japan. After conflicts with other elements of the Meiji government, he resigned his positions and moved back to Satsuma. After some time and ongoing conflict the locals had with the Meiji government, Saigo ended up leading a revolt in Kagoshima. This revolt ultimately failed, and Saigo was wounded and committed seppuku on the field. The events of this story are dramatized in the movie The Last Samurai. A famous statue exists in Ueno Park of Saigo and his dog.

Ichimonji Katana Sayagaki

Sayagaki

This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagaki) on the back side by Tanobe Michihiro sensei. He is the retired former head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK). On the front is a sayagaki by Dr. Sato Kanzan, who was one of the founders of the NBTHK and one of the teachers of Tanobe sensei.

  1. 一文字
    Ichimonji
  2. 但大磨上無銘也。地刃健全也。島津家傳来之一品出来見事
    Tadashi ō-suriage mumei nari. Jiba kenzen nari. Shimazu-ke denrai no ippon deki migoto.
    [The blade is] ō-suriage mumei. The jiba is perfectly healthy (kenzen). Heirloom of the Shimazu family and of a gorgeous deki.
  3. 刃長弐尺参寸有之
    Hachō ni-shaku san-sun kore ari
    Blade length ~ 69.7 cm
  4. 昭和五拾貮丁巳年初秋吉日寒山誌「花押」
    Shōwa gojūni hinoto-hebidoshi shoshū kichijitsu Kanzan shirusu [kaō]
    Written by Kanzan on a lucky day in July of 1977, year of the snake [ monogram]
  5. 身幅廣ク猪首鋒ノ剛健ナル姿態ヲ呈シ乱映ヲ現ハス肌合ニ小模様ナガラモ刃幅廣ク蛙子丁子・袋丁子等ヲ交ヘル変化ニ富ム派手ヤカナ乱ヲ焼キ飛焼モ加ハリ刃中足・葉繁ク入リ匂口明ルク冴ヘルナド鎌倉中後期ノ同派ノ特色ヲ示スル優品哉
    Mihaba hiroku ikubi-kissaki no gōken naru shitai o tei-shi midare-utsuri o arawasu hada-ai ni ko-moyō nagare mo ha-haba hiroku kawazu no ko-chōji, fukuro-chōji nado o majieru henka ni tomu hadeyaka na midare o yaki tobiyaki mo kuwawari hachū ashi, yō shigeku iairi nioiguchi akaruku saeru nado Kamakura chūkōki no dōha no tokushoku o shimesuru yūhin kana.
    [This blade] with its wide mihaba and ikubi-kissaki has a sturdy and vigorous shape. Its hada is smaller structured and features a midare-utsuri. The blade is hardened in a wide and flamboyant midareba that is mixed with kawazu no ko-chōji, fukuro-chōji, and tobiyaki and thus is rich in variety. The ha is full of ashi and yō and the nioiguchi is bright and clear and so we have here a masterwork that reflects the characteristic workmanship of the Ichimonji School from the middle to late Kamakura period.
  6. 第二十五回重要刀剣指定品而島津家舊蔵ト傳フ
    Dai nijūgo-kai jūyō tōken shitei-hin shikamo Shimazu-ke kyūzō to iu
    Jūyō-tōken at 25th jūyō shinsa and it is said that this blade was once owned by the Shimazu family.
  7. 長弐尺参寸有之
    Nagasa ni-shaku san-sun kore ari
    Blade length ~ 69.7 cm
  8. 時在庚子坤月探山識「花押」
    Jizai kanoe-ne kongetsu Tanzan shirusu + kaō
    Written by Tanzan [Tanobe Michihiro] in October of the year of the rat (2020) + monogram
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