Yamanba-giri

The Yamanba or Yama-uba is the name of a yokai from Japanese mythology. The so-called “Mountain-hag” could appear as a young woman, and had supernatural powers. They would offer shelter to travellers, then at night change shape to their true form and eat them according to some stories.

Two famous swords took their name from a tale of killing one of these yokai, the first being by Osafune Chogi in the mid 1300s, and the second being an utsushi (faithful copy) made by Horikawa Kunihiro at the end of the 1500s. Both of these blades still exist today and are both ranked Juyo Bunkazai.

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The Hoshizukiyo Masamune

Takeda Shingen was one of the great warrior lords of the Sengoku Jidai. I suggest following the link to Wikipedia to read his biography as he was an interesting and complicated man.

During the Muromachi period, the Takeda fought against several of the other great clans of the period, including the Uesugi and what would become the Tokugawa.

The Ashikaga Shogun Yoshiteru, during this period of conflict, gave a sword of his own that was attributed to Masamune to Shingen in order to help settle the disputes that were raging between the Takeda and the Uesugi clans. This sword was the Hoshizukiyo Masamune. Like many Soshu blades that got handed down to this period in the hands of daimyo, it was cut down to a relatively short length, just under 60cm.

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Tokubetsu Juyo 2020 Results

Volume wise this was one of the smaller sessions and seems to have had very high levels of difficulty. Only four items from non-Japanese passed and a total of 51 items made it.

Of those 51, four were koshirae, six were tosogu and 41 items were swords. Notably one more Shinshinto passed, a Sa Yukihide, making this the third time a Shinshinto sword has achieved Tokubetsu Juyo. One item from the Kyoho Meibutsucho also passed, the Meibutsu Ashiya (Sudareya) Masamune of the Shimazu clan.

Results follow after the break…

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Always Was and Still Is

First entry in a while… it’s been too busy for me for the last long while.

Anyway this thought has come up a few times recently and is worth noting and talking about.

When it comes to certain blades with attributions to Masamune, Sadamune, Go Yoshihiro, and other top Soshu makers or makers of similar reputation like the Awataguchi makers… there are some various differences in context based on the age of the attribution and how many layers of attribution we’re considering.

Sometimes the fact that a blade has kinzogan mei can affect how we interpret such a blade in the modern period as well.

I classify these blades as such:

  1. Is
  2. Used To Be
  3. Always Was and Still Is

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To mei ga aru

This language is an important note that the NBTHK inserts onto some papers for blades. It can appear at all levels of paper, from Hozon to Tokubetsu Juyo.

The typical kind of use would be like this:

太刀 銘 国吉(粟田口)(と銘がある)

Tachi: mei “Kuniyoshi” (Awataguchi) (to mei ga aru)

More after the break.

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Monster

This is going to be another post short on text. I’m working on listing a Chounsai Tsunatoshi. This blade is the biggest monster I have ever seen. 84 cm nagasa and motohaba is 4.1 cm. One of the problems with photography of a big sword is that if it is all in proportion, photos take away the sense of scale. You can’t give someone the right impression then of imposing size, this is something you get when putting it in your hands.

This photo however may do the trick. When you look at the habaki of this sword, it is in scale with the sword. So putting it beside a standard sized habaki, it allows your brain to fill in the gaps. Like looking at an NBA basketball player, if you just take his shoe off and put it beside a normal shoe, you will get an impression of the size of the man.

This sword was a custom order for a samurai who’s name is recorded on the nakago. His hobby must have been hunting dinosaurs.


Innovations in exhibitions

If you have not heard the name yet, Dr. Kiyoshi Sawaguchi is a formidable collector in Japan with an outstanding collection that comprises well over 10,000 items, placing him in the first rank. Of these a large number are ranked Juyo Token and higher, all the way through Kokuho.

He has been making parts of his collection available on an ongoing basis through various exhibitions that are staged throughout Japan. Ryuta Murakami has designed some very interesting new appliances for exhibiting swords that you will I think be relieved to see.

One of the common complaints we have about seeing swords “through glass” is that the lighting is bad, and the angles don’t let us see the highlights of the hamon of a great sword. And of course people who don’t know anything about swords can’t get a real appreciation when viewing them in standard museum exhibits. What’s more, they are not even aware that they are not getting a proper view of a sword.

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Ichijo and precision

Goto Ichijo is a well known giant in the field of tosogu. Recently one of my clients purchased a kozuka of what appears to be simple design, but under magnification all kinds of brilliant details come out. When you magnify weaker work it looks sloppy and melted. When you magnify Ichijo’s work it reveals more things to enjoy.

Rather than focus on the artwork on the front, what I would like to have a closer look at, is his signature and the treatment of the back of this kozuka.

(Note, ironically I had a measurement error in this post previously, I’ve updated the post with corrected measurements.)

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Manufacture period and Juyo Sessions

The info has been out there for a long while that the mid 70s Juyo sessions have weaker standards than the others. Every time I mention this I like to mention that this happened by lowering the bottom bar and accepting blades that may not have been accepted in other sessions. It doesn’t mean that all the blades are bad or blades at the top end of the range are bad. It just means that weaker blades got included, so you need to carefully study Juyo swords when you’re dealing with sessions between about 20 to 28.

As the top end is perfectly fine, the best swords in those sessions go on to pass Tokubetsu Juyo normally. At the bottom end there is zero chance of advancing and again if they were just sent in as new items a lot of them would fail today.

For this reason those blades are a target for arbitrage which is where dealers (who buy and sell based on quality) can buy those blades for cheap relative to better blades. They then sell to their customers (who buy and sell based on paper). Because the two groups are using different systems to value the swords, it creates a chance to profit. That is these lower quality swords will trade among people who know better for proper prices. Lower quality = lower price.

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Unpleasant Medicine for Sword Shows

Commercially based sword shows throughout the world get some mixed results. The two most healthy are the San Francisco show in August and the Dai Token Ichi in Tokyo, which is usually in the first couple weeks of November now.

Sword shows serve a few purposes. They are social gatherings, educational opportunities, and then a chance to buy or sell things.

I’m of the opinion that the bell started tolling on sword shows a while back, for many combined reasons and the process is a drawn out death spiral.

Importantly, I don’t want this to be read as criticism for show organizers. Building something, anything, is a complex task and usually people underestimate the effort and stress that goes into these things. I have never organized a sword show and I don’t know the pain and suffering involved, I absolutely do know though that organizing anything involving people on a large scale is like herding cats. Not an easy task. 

But I think these shows are mostly on the way out. Here’s what I think is wrong with them, and here is what I think the eventual solution is.

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Caravaggio

Saw this in the news… lost 1600s era painting going to auction. What struck me is that the sword to my eye does not look at all like the European swords of the time. It looks like a ken of some sort. It appears to have a hamon on it and a clearly defined shinogi and maybe a European hilt added to it.

No other content here, just a hmm moment.

For reference:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-caravaggio-idUSKCN0X9273

The item in question and what it makes me think of:

The sample ken here is quite a bit longer (93cm) than the one being used in the picture. It is a prewar Kokuho which is now Juyo Bunkazai and possibly Naminohira school.

Another way of looking at things…

Another long day here. Finishing work at 5am. Again.

So, a chart for your perusal. I won’t walk you through it this time but leave you to think about it.

The difference here is an important concept.

Every Tokuju item is already something that passed Juyo. Every Kokuho item is already something that was ranked Juyo Bunkazai previously.

In this chart those papers have been plotted at the time of publication of the original sword’s papers.

So going along this chart left to right it goes up in time with all the Juyo. Now say a Juyo in session 10 passed Tokuju later, that item has been colored in as a Tokuju. So basically (this is important that you understand what the chart represents), it’s like someone laid out all of the Juyo swords in order from end to end and plotted them.

Then, you go back and flag the original Juyo as a different color to show it went on to pass Tokuju.

So there are clear trends here which agree to things I’ve routinely said on my sword listings and elsewhere.

 

All of it

This is every sword plotted by length, with a high level confirmation… with the limit of a few o-dachi over 135cm. Just over 15,000.

Only about 10 years of work to get to that.

You can see various trends in here, the higher level papers show a clear ramp up in upper length (more ubu tachi present). The upper limit of wakizashi length shows clustering and we can see the longer wakizashi fall off the map when it gets to higher papers. Overall the strong visual signal for long swords shows that there is a clear preference for use in this range, and swords longer than about 78cm exist almost in a desert, they are so rare compared to the strongly defined standard length range.

Visualization

I’ve been working on some tools to visualize data and see if the patterns allow for some new insights, or at least to confirm anecdotal evidence or gut level knowledge.

This below is a chart of sword lengths vs. year of production for all Juyo Token, Tokubetsu Juyo Token and Juyo Bijutsuhin swords. I cut the length off at 150 cm, as there are a scattering of outlier swords (odachi and onaginata) that will cause the chart to compress.

Anyway you should be able to look at this image and draw a few conclusions. What do you see?

Analysis after the break…

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