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

Don’t be lazy

Non-Japanese collectors are often very lazy when it comes to reading and understanding the attribution of their blade.

They get as far as the first column on a Juyo paper and stop. If that first column says Masamune, to them it means the blade is Masamune beyond a shadow of a doubt and they go no further. I have encountered many situations of a collector owning a sword for 20 or so years and never translating the sayagaki or the setsumei from a Juyo paper. They know that first column and that is all.

The first column on an unsigned sword is an attribution that has various shades of gray, these can be added with the “den” modifier that shows a small degree of leeway or the “to mei ga aru” modifier which means at best that the blade requires more research to categorize, or at worst, that the attribution being indicated has severe doubt or should be dismissed.

The setsumei portion of a Juyo paper is literally the explanation of the attribution and is critical to understand that first column with the name of the smith in it.

So that is what you need to read in order to understand how the judges felt about the attribution they made.

The range of these comments covers:

  1. dismissal
  2. severe doubt
  3. doubt
  4. cautious optimism
  5. fervent support

This is why you really cannot stop at the first column in terms of a blade like a Masamune, and feel that you understand all of the context around the attribution.

When the blade has a kinzogan mei to Masamune or other smiths of this level, the NBTHK may accept the blade at Juyo and then explain that the smith in question is one option, but that other smiths may be equally or possibly even better as attribution targets. But if that kinzogan is there, it may be just enough to accept what is written and then add in some doubt and the other alternatives so the reader understands what context it is held in.

An example of this is a kinzogan Masamune with a “to mei ga aru” addition to the setsumei.

The blade is typical of the Nanbokucho era workmanship with a wide blade a fairly thin kasane. Inside the jihada and hamon are the activities that are associated with top class smiths of the Soshu school.

At first glance this reads just fine and flattering, but on a second reading:

  1. Masamune’s work is typically Kamakura and not Nanbokucho
  2. Thin kasane is more in keeping with Soshu smiths like Hasebe and is another mid-Nanbokucho feature
  3. The statement that the activities are associated with top class Soshu is a wide statement that covers any Soshu smith capable of passing Tokubetsu Juyo

So it is clear that the sword is very good, but the NBTHK is leading the reader away from Masamune. Other comments they can add here are along the lines of “the attribution requires further study, however the work is certainly representative of top class Soshu smiths,” or similar statements.

When you add in the “to mei ga aru” enough context is there to understand that this blade is not being supported as a Masamune by the NBTHK, but that Masamune is one possibility, but a very unlikely one, out of many. Add in the last piece of context that the attribution was done by one of the weaker Honami generations and the reading is now certain. If you take the time to translate it and read it that is.

A more warm embrace is found here:

This blade shows a kitae in itame whose ji-nie is rough in places and that shows chikei and a nie-laden hamon in notare-chō that is mixed with a little gunome, ara-nie, and many kinsuji and sunagashi. It thus displays and ambitious workmanship and particularly outstanding are the nie and the exquisiteness and clarity of the jiba. A masterwork that we agreed upon that it displays one of the interpretations that are known for having been applied by Masamune.

Now the careful reader should not be put off by the word rough here, it is just describing the appearance of the nie and not the condition of the blade. The construction being noted as based on notare is one of the primary features of Masamune, and you can see that the NBTHK has also applauded the construction as ambitious, exquisite and clear. So this shows a more positive attitude in general toward the blade and thus the attribution. The last statement though, that this shows one of the interpretations known for Masamune is a little bit more lukewarm. It means that it fits into the overall scheme of things. Call it an 8/10 type of acceptance, the blade is higher quality than the previous one and it fits what is acceptbale for Masamune, i.e. satisfactory as an attribution. The first, not really satisfactory. This one satisfactory, the next shows what you want to hear.

The blade in question is the one on the left. On the right is the famous meibutsu Fudo Masamune. This one also has the same name for the same reason of the horimono but is not meibutsu. It is an heirloom of the Ogasawara clan and was given to Ogasawara Tadataka by Asano Mitsuakira. The Asano clan is well known of course because their samurai became the 47 Ronin of the famous story.

Anyway, on this blade the NBTHK wrote:

The jiba of this tantō shows vivid and beautiful nie and the ji displays an abundance of chikei. The hamon is a vivid midare that bases on a notare-chō and that features kinsuji, many yubashiri, and also some shimaba. And with the elegant sugata in uchizori and the typical shape of the nakago, the blade meets all criteria for a Masamune and so the attribution was unanimous. With the prominent yubashiri and the tendency towards hitatsura, the blade shows similarities to the gyobutsu Kyōgoku-Masamune and to the Fushimi-Masamune that is featured in the Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō. 

So in this we see a full description that perfectly corresponds to the complete style of Masamune unlike the first blade which describes something more like Hasebe.

The sugata is praised as elegant.

But the key phrase is here:  the blade meets all criteria for a Masamune. Unlike the first where doubt is sown, and unlike the second where they say that it shows one of the styles, this one is a very warm embrace saying that it checking every box there is. The followup to that is an unusual comment saying that there was no disagreement of any sort or any reservation among the judges.

Lastly they draw parallels to famous Masamune blades which allows us to put the blade into context as one of the important works of Masamune that remains to us and so is something that we can slot in as an archetype blade.

So this shows clear and fervent support for the attribution to Masamune, and when you read these comments one after the other you can get a feeling for how the judges regarded each blade.

Now that gets us to the point of the posting.

Always Was and Still Is

A blade of the first type discussed above, at some point in its life became a Masamune, but now it’s not really accepted. Others are outright rejected in that they have an older paper to a smith like Go or Masamune and today the blade has been downgraded to Tametsugu or Shizu and so on. Tametsugu and Shizu are still excellent smiths and the blade may still be great, but we have to accept that they are a grade down from Go and Masamune.

So, those Used To Be and now they’re not. It’s nice to have those because we know some history and now the judgment is more conservative and more reliable than the old judgment.

The case of blades that fall under Is are simply blades with no known history and a modern judgment. Those also are nice because the past as shown above is sometimes a difficult encumbrance. Past judges and history throw a shadow over what we can say about something now. There is a reluctance to disagree with an old judge if there is a plausible reason to accept what that judge had to say. In that we get the type of Masamune that passes now and then the setsumei throws shade on that attribution. Basically saying, well, this is a possible attribution but there are better choices we think.

Take away that history pushing in one direction or another, and the judges are free to speak their minds. So, we can get a reading of Go or Masamune in the modern period and it can be free of burden / free of responsibility and so something that is entirely acceptable. The only thing lacking is the sense of historical context.

So that is what brings us finally to Always Was and Still Is. This is simply the best kind of sword and the most rare. Sometimes we have to deal with some condition issues on these, but the fact of them is that they were known in old days under the same attribution as they are accepted today. And they are not accepted with doubt; they are accepted with applause.

When you have something like this Masamune tanto above from the Ogasawara clan, you have the complete historical context. It was a Masamune back then: this blade even has a great old solid gold Umetada habaki that shows it was treated at the highest level in the early 1600s before the Asano got it and gave it to the Ogasawara. The Asano gave it around 1670 so we know that it had already been Masamune by the time the Umetada made the habaki around the Momoyama period, it was Masamune at the time of the gift, and it is fervently accepted as Masamune now. So we have a clear historical trail that for more than half of its life it’s been highly regarded and clearly accepted as Masamune straight through to the present, an unbroken story almost 4 centuries long now.

I didn’t mention that this blade also was judged as Masamune in 1668 as Honami Kojo, one of the best Honami judges. That is just icing on the cake at this point.

Since so many blades did lose their histories, and some histories are in doubt, this idea of Always Was and Still Is I think is very important in terms of separating out the most special blades even from those that are clearly special.

Each of these three types has positive connotations, but only those that fall under Always Was and Still Is have no downsides and everything pointing up.