|period||Late Kamakura (ca. 1300)|
With the establishment of the military government in Kamakura in the 1200s, Regent of the Kamakura Shogunate Hojo Tokiyori called out for swordsmiths to come to Sagami province and make swords for the warriors and the elite of his court. Heeding this call were the master swordsmiths Sukezane and Kunimune of Bizen province, and Kunitsuna of Yamashiro Awataguchi. Their work was proud and majestic, but never departed from the foundations of the teachings handed down in their respective schools.
Shintogo Kunimitsu is considered to be a son of Awataguchi Kunitsuna or possibly of Bizen Kunimune. Having learned and mastered the Awataguchi style he became preeminent in Sagami in the art of making swords, and tanto in particular. Influenced by the local culture and the work of the master smiths around him, his style took on a new form showing vibrant jigane with chikei and a yakiba of nie filled with activity. His work is credited as the beginning of the true Soshu den. His first dated work is mentioned as Einin 1 (1293), and it is interesting to note that the only existing dated work of Awataguchi Kunimitsu is dated Ko-an 11 (1288). In the past, works of these smiths have been confused for each other, though their signatures are somewhat different.
Shintogo was also a master teacher as well as a smith, since his students achieved unprecedented fame throughout the history of Nihonto. These men were Shintogo Kunihiro, Tosaburo Yukimitsu, Saeki Norishige and Goro Nyudo Masamune. Kunihiro and Yukimitsu, being senior pupils made many works in similar style to their teacher but very few works by them exist signed in their own name. These are all limited to tanto. It is thought that their production mostly consisted of daimei and daisaku (works done in the name of the teacher) as Shintogo Kunimitsu was a dominant force in the world of Kamakura.
Three of the students of Shintogo Kunimitsu went on to ultimate levels of fame and are recorded in the sword books as important masters. Yukimitsu, Masamune, and Norishige together took the Soshu style to its peak. Norishige went on to develop his unique style of matsukawa hada, while Masamune went on to fame as the greatest of all swordsmiths for his remarkable achievements within the Soshu den.
The eldest student, Yukimitsu, bore the personal name of Tosaburo and he is said to have been the foster father of Masamune. Albert Yamanaka names him speculatively as a son of Bungo Yukihira. If true, his name is a combination of his father's and his teacher's. Yukimitsu is noted as an excellent carver of horimono, though these are sometimes attributed to Daishinbo. Yamanaka believes that the carving work though is Yukimitsu's and it is inherited through Bungo Yukihira who is also noted for his horimono, particularly in the hi.
The relationship between Masamune and Yukimitsu was likely one of brotherhood given the relative closeness of their ages, rather than a father/son relationship. There exists a signed and dated work by Yukimitsu with the Kareki era (1326). While there are no signed works by Masamune that bear a date, there are two oshigata that have been handed down of works that are now lost or destroyed. These oshigata have dates bearing the era of Showa (1312) and Kareki (1326). Norishige's dated works also appear from this period, and these dated works are very much in the style of Shintogo. So it would seem that this was the formative age for Masamune and Norishige, while for Yukimitsu it would be during the height of his skill. The sugata of the works of Masamune, Norishige and Yukimitsu, daito and tanto both, never depart those associated with the end of the Kamakura period.
Work Style and Quality
The style of Yukimitsu was very wide ranging, from the confident elegance of Shintogo to the explosive beauty of Masamune; old books always comment on his virtuosity. Some Masamune that exist today have in older times had appraisals as Yukimitsu and vice versa. The chief example of these is the Kokuho Hosokawa Masamune. It was a gift to Toyotomi Hideyoshi from Tokugawa Ieyasu and came with an attribution to Soshu Yukimitsu. Honami Kochu later remade the attribution to Masamune and valued it at 300 gold coins. Today his judgment is upheld and it is recognized as one of the truly great works of Masamune. The later work of Yukimitsu and the top work of Masamune overlap each other in skill and presentation quite a bit, resulting in this kind of confusion. Honma sensei writes about the overlap in regards to a Den Yukimitsu Juyo Bunkazai (from Great Masterpieces of Japanese Art Swords):
It is described in archives that Yukimitsu left blades of the greatest variety in style of sword making among advanced smiths of the Soshu school. Some of the attributions done in the Edo period need to be discussed carefully again in the future. On the other hand, this example of excellent quality at a glance bears workmanship equivalent to that of Masamune. As it has a more classical appearance in shape and hamon than Masamune work, this old attribution is naturally accepted.
About this same sword:
Yukimitsu's own specialty is appreciated by the clearly shining quality of nie which thickly cover the blade surface, as well as by beautiful activity of chikei and kinsuji. Among his unsigned works, this is the most remarkable masterpiece. Sato Kanzan
In particular, his work in gunome midare is very similar to Masamune, both in style and in quality. Among experts he is held in highest regard.
... and there are also gunome ko-midare which must be regarded as the upper grade of the Soshu den. Fujishiro Yoshio
It is clear from these statements that his best work shows Yukimitsu as a peer to Masamune in talent. Though the styles overlap, often there are small telltale signs present that allows for the detection of the hand of Yukimitsu. It would seem to be the case that the use of Den on some of these works that there is some argument to be made that they were indeed made by Masamune, but that the strongest and most likely possibility remains Yukimitsu.
Since Yukimitsu comes a bit before Norishige and Masamune, his own work style in his younger years most closely resembles Shintogo Kunimitsu. We see this in his suguba tanto and in one style of conservatively shaped tachi (now all shortened to katana) that features suguba. These blades vary in quality, from excellent to those that are very high masterpieces. In this style, the best of them resembles and rivals the work of Shintogo Kunimitsu, with silky jigane and nie that look like millions of bright stars embedded in a nebula. These works embrace the height of classical elegance and show all of the features of the root of Soshu den.
The Nihonto Koza writes about this, and also refers to the variety of work he made as an experimentation expected during the transitional times of the forming of Soshu den:
YUKIMITSU reflects the traits of the times, many of his works show a transitional shape, and there are pieces among both his katana and tanto which are not of a standard pattern, but as would be expected, the excellence of his forging, which beautifully shows the chikei, and the strength of the nie as a joko (superior smith) of SOSHU are extraordinary. It equals the nagare of SHINTOGO KUNIMITSU, and he executed a type of work which assents to a time and position which is intermediate to the appearance of MASAMUNE and SADAMUNE
One of the early enhancements Yukimitsu made in his tanto was to make a more powerful sugata in contrast to Shintogo. It may have simply been an effort to strengthen the more elegant style from a simple physical standpoint. This may be foreshadowing of the trend of Nanbokucho to continue to lengthen and widen the styles of the Kamakura period.
Today, we do not see very many works by any of the Soshu smiths. The theory is that most of them were destroyed in the fighting from the Mongol times up through the Nanbokucho.
The Nihonto Koza compares the invention of the Soshu den to the development of the atom bomb in World War II: they were weapons that appeared suddenly and outclassed everything else on the battlefield by an order of magnitude. They say that these were also the Shinshinto of their time. While older treasure swords were squirreled away and kept from use, the Soshu swords were the ones taken to the battlefield by over half of the warriors on the field at the end of the Kamakura and through the Nanbokucho.
A New Appreciation
The Muromachi period brought great battles and long periods of warfare in Japan. Large armies took the field and the forges of the day began specializing in mass production of low quality weapons to arm them. The cost of this was the gradual loss of techniques required to make the most superior swords. This loss in skill was seen everywhere, though Bizen held on the best to their inheritence even they suffered. The problem was economics: the need of the day was for many functional blades, and the focus was on creating these efficiently instead of expending time making that single, mighty, superior sword. Because of this, techniques to produce these great swords fell into disuse and then were not transmitted from teacher to student. In their place, methods to produce many swords cheapy and quickly flourished.
Over the period from 1400 to 1600, the Soshu den fell from its great heights and almost all skill was lost. The smiths of the day couldn't come close to replicating the high art of earlier years and quickly ceded their position to the smiths of Bizen and Mino. Soshu had shone very brightly, and for only a brief moment in time.
At the end of the Muromachi period, the time of wars began to come to a close and the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi for the first time (temporarily) unified Japan. During his rise to power he became a great lover of the Soshu den. These swords had graduated from the most imposing high technology modern swords of their day to artworks from ancient times that could no longer be replicated by modern technology. The Soshu swords that had survived the earlier periods of warfare were now raised to stand with the treasure swords of older times. They took the primary role as gifts to and from the Shogun and Daimyo of later periods. This we can see by looking at the Tokugawa daybook. It makes note of many Soshu works of all smiths, including Yukimitsu, going back and forth from Daimyo to Shogun. Works of Masamune, Go Yoshihiro, Yukimitsu and Sadamune were those that recognized the status of giver and recipient at the highest level.
Most of the famous swords in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho of the Edo period belong to the Soshu smiths and among them are many Yukimitsu. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, the signed pieces that we have are very few. There are only a handful of signed tanto and no signed tachi exist as they were all cut down to be worn by Daimyo and high ranking samurai in Edo period katana koshirae. This is the fate of most Soshu tachi: those by Go, Masamune and Sadamune are now all suriage mumei katana. Those by Akihiro cannot be found and only one exists by Soshu Hiromitsu. Three or so Norshige have survived with signature intact, as have a handful of Shintogo Kunimitsu. Of all the great Soshu tachi made over the period of 150 years, the number we have left can be held in the arms of one person.
These great Soshu works remained out of the public eye for the most part during the Edo period. It was not until the major collections were broken up and sold off in the 20th century that normal people had a chance to see smiths like Masamune, Yukimitsu and Go Yoshihiro. For me, works by Yukimitsu never disappoint and they are among my favorites of all makers of swords. I carry a bias towards Awataguchi and Soshu works, and for me, in Yukimitsu we get to see the best of both worlds so I find them particularly wonderful.
Soshu Yukimitsu Katana
This sword is a fantastic example of early Yukimitsu work which is made in the style of Shintogo Kunimitsu. There is only one mumei katana which is attributed to Shintogo Kunimitsu, and it resembles this work quite well. The exception being that Yukimitsu is known for much thicker layers of nie being applied, which this sword has both in the ji and in the yakiba. As such it is work of Soshu Yukimitsu made in the style of his teacher.
This sword is extremely healthy, unlike many koto swords which have seen many polishes. This sword is very robust, and has a niku which is distinctly clam shell shaped. The sword is surprisingly heavy in the hand as a result. I point this out, because the niku is one of the overlooked areas when people try to decide about submitting a sword to higher level papers. The best examples of the Kamakura period retain this kind of health and are those that are often singled out for Tokubetsu Juyo status.
The kissaki of this piece is 3.0cm and takes on a bit of the appearance of ikubi kissaki though it is still a chu-kissaki. The shape we see relates to the middle Kamakura ideal but is straddling the mark that brings it into the late Kamakura. I think it is compliments the shape of the sword just right.
The jigane of this sword is like silk. It scintillates gorgeously in the light and photos do not do it justice. The hamon in suguba shows the thick application of nie along with fine activities of kinsuji, that illustrates well the departure of the Soshu style from its roots in Awataguchi type of techniques and presentation.
This sword came to me out of a private Japanese collection, the owner of which made it available in part of a three way trade in order to acquire a Tokubetsu Juyo Aoe work. This sword has not been featured on the market since he bought it a long time ago, and this is its first time outside of Japan.
It was brought in for sayagaki prior to my last visit to Japan in preparation for my acquisition. When I visited Tanobe sensei he was very excited about the sword, and immediately asked me, “Did you get the Yukimitsu?“ I told him yes, that I was unable to resist such a fantastic sword and that it reminded me of Shintogo very much. His response was, “Oh! You got it!” He said that he agreed about Shintogo, and that I must be sure to bring the sword to the next Tokubetsu Juyo shinsa as he felt strongly that it would pass. I asked him about his sayagaki at this point, as he had expressed great pleasure in it about the sword and I wanted some clarification on the language he used. He said that he had written that this particular sword was one of the top works of Yukimitsu and had put that in the sayagaki. Unusually he ends the sayagaki with an exclamation in Japanese. He also wrote the date on the sayagaki very poetically, as he mentioned the Morning Star and I have not seen this on any other sayagaki. I can't help to think that this is simply an allusion to the bright shining beauty of this sword, but that is just my own speculation. I left that day assuring him that I would indeed submit this sword to Tokubetsu Juyo shinsa in 2016. Should the sword sell before then I will pay the submission fees for the new owner, and will return the blade to Tanobe sensei for his review in advance of the next shinsa. There are some scratches on the blade that seem to be from improper application of uchiko, and I would like to get the blade back to Japan well in advance of the shinsa should he decide these should be addressed with shiage. They are extremely minor though and in the hand it is extremely difficult to see them.
There are not very many high level Soshu blades available in general and they have become very popular on the world market. It is getting harder and harder to locate any good Soshu, but his type of early Soshu den is rare and one of this caliber is extremely difficult to find. It is a real pleasure to be able to show this sword and I highly recommend it to someone looking for an item with great chances to appreciate in value and who wants to have an example that shows what the beginning of the Soshu tradition looks like.
Tokubetsu Juyo Token Katana
Appointed on the 24th to 26th of April, 1969, Session 18
Katana, Mumei, Yukimitsu
shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, ō-suriage, shallow sori, chū-kissaki
ko-itame with plentiful of ji-nie and chikei, the steel is clear
suguha with a bit notare and mixed with gunome and kinsuji, the nioi-guchi is wide, very heavily adorned with nie, and clear
sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri
ō-suriage, shallow kirijiri, sujikai-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, mumei
This is an ō-suriage katana which attributes to Sōshū Yukimitsu. Yukimitsu was the student of Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) and is known since olden times for his range in workmanship. That means he applied a suguha in the tradition of his master, a deki in midareba, and also a hitatsura.
This katana is tempered in suguha-chō with a hint of midare. The jigane is very nie-laden and mixed with chikei. The ha and the nioi-guchi are bright and clear and rich in hataraki like kinsuji and sunagashi.
This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagak) by Tanobe Michihiro is the retired former head research judge of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK).
- 相模国藤三郎行光Sagami no Kuni Tosaburo Yukimitsu
- 第拾八回重要刀剣指定品Dai jūhakkai jūyō-tōken shitei-hin
- 大磨上無銘也同工ハ新藤五国光門人而正宗トハ相弟子ニアタリ先輩格ナラO-suriage mumei nari. Dōkō wa Shintōgo Kunimitsu monjin shikamo Masamune aideshi ni atari senpai-kaku naran.The blade is ō-suriage and mumei. Yukimitsu along with Masamune were students of Shintōgo Kunimitsu but Yukimitsu was the senior pupil.
- 本作ハ師風ヲ踏マヘ更ニ沸ノ変化ノ妙ヲ一層織成シ所傅ハ正ニ至當也Honsaku wa shifū o fumae sara ni nie no tsuki henka no myō o issō orinashi shoden wa masa ni shitō nari.This work follows the style of his master [Shintogo Kunimitsu] but the excellence and variety of the nie and how they appear are typical for Yukimitsu.
- 格調高ク見事ナル出来映而同工極中屈 指哉Kakuchō-takaku midokoro naru dekibae shikamo dōkō kiwame-chū kisshi kana.So elegant and very beautifully made, it is certainly one of the finest among all works of Yukimitsu.
- 長弐尺参寸壹分Nagasa 2 shaku 3 sun 1 bu.Blade length: 70cm.
- 旹季甲午啓明Toki kinoe-uma keimei.In the year of the horse of this era (2014), viewing the Morning Star...
- 探山邉道識Tanzan Hendō shirusu + kaōTanzan (Tanobe Michihiro) wrote this.