It’s necessary to know that different experts from different time periods saw different swords, and those swords that they saw form the basis for their judgments. For instance Soshu Sadamune signatures have been recorded but today we can’t find those blade or some dispute is made over the signatures. Unfortunately we do not have the actual work and cannot comment on it, other than that an old expert thought it was good and included it in their oshigata references. This implies at least that the work was as good as the signature proclaimed it to be.
The problem here is demonstrated by a parable called The Blind Men and the Elephant.
The blind men and the elephant
There are variations on it, but in this problem, three scholars are blindfolded and brought to an elephant for the first time and asked to describe it. The scholar holding the trunk says an elephant is quite similar in shape and movement to a snake, the one with his arms up on the side of the animal says an elephant is like a wall made of leather and the third expert with his arms around a leg says you are both wrong, an elephant is like a tree trunk.
Because they all have limited abilities to perceive the big picture, they can only report back based on what they are directly experiencing. These are all parts of a whole, a greater truth, that is hidden but exists. As a result, all of their opinions are correct while being wrong at the same time.
In terms of swords, we see this by relying too much on Fujishiro Yoshio’s magnificent Nihon Toko Jiten. In this book Fujishiro describes makers and their swords and assigns them quality ratings:
- Chu-saku (average quality)
- Chu-jo saku (above average quality)
- Jo-saku (superior quality)
- Jo-jo saku (above superior quality)
- Sai-jo saku (grand master quality)
That his system works as well as it does affirms Fujishiro’s genius, but while we read his commentary we need always to remember that he didn’t see everything that we see today on public exhibition and available for private analysis. His description of one smith’s work for example may differ from other experts: they are not mutually wrong but they are just describing what they have seen.
So it is important usually when reading and researching to cover as many different experts as possible and try to find the points they agree on and other points they may advance on their own and to make sure to think like a historian. All of this is data, at least of their own opinion, and we need to try to tie it together into an explanation later.
When it comes to Fujishiro, I have had some potential clients say that they will only buy a Sai-jo saku sword and it is missing both the idea that Fujishiro’s ratings are contextual to school and timeframe (i.e. a Jo-jo saku Ichimonji smith will generally outrank a Sai-jo saku Shinto smith) but also that Fujishiro was not omniscient. He may have given Jo-saku to a smith that passes 50% of their work on to Tokubetsu Juyo, just because he didn’t see many works of the smith or had items in poor condition so offered tentative opinions.
One thing Fujishiro did make a point about consistently stating is that the number of generations listed for smiths is generally exaggerated. His reason for this is something he calls “moving back the jidai”.
This means incorrectly assessing the age of the founding generation of a line making him older than it would seem, and then requiring to have a second generation present now to justify swords made during the younger time period. Sometimes this is done to confirm old stories which may or may not be true, and sometimes it is done to simply create an older, more mysterious and rare/valuable version of a smith.
The counts have changed in current years. For most famous smiths like Kanemitsu, Yukimitsu, Niji/Rai Kunitoshi, and so on, modern conclusions are that these smiths are one generation smiths. Some others like Rai Kunimitsu do need a second generation in order to adequately explain the range of dates on their work. Some, the situation is still left for study.
Motoshige is a Jo-jo saku smith from Bizen Osafune who is working in the Nanbokucho period primarily. This is the smith we consider usually to be synonymous with the 2nd generation Motoshige. There is an older Motoshige in the same line (1st gen) and then an older smith still called Ko-Motoshige as his nickname described by Fujishiro.
In some older books Ko-Motoshige is thought to be the Shodai Osafune Motoshige. More recently Ko-Motoshige was split off into Aoe, and then that left two generations of Motoshige to exist with the 1303 – 1365 timeframe.
This is an elephant and the blind men situation though and one has to study the current situation to understand where Motoshige is sitting in the analysis of generations.
Tanobe sensei corrected me once when I advanced the viewpoint of Fujishiro and he said, Ko-Motoshige is someone else.
Ko-Motoshige is an Aoe school smith, and is not correctly identified by Fujishiro who may have known he was out there but not saw the work. When we look at style and signature they are Kamakura period blades unrelated to Osafune Motoshige. They are signed in two characters with a distinct signing style.
In particular the MOTO (元) character looks slanted and these are always signed in two characters.
Since Ko-Motoshige is not related to Osafune Motoshige, the first Osafune Motoshige is who we consider the Shodai Motoshige. These tend to be tanto that kept the date, so we can see they are fairly young. These works look almost exclusively like Kagemitsu.
Motoshige is said to be connected to the Hatakeda school. This would place him as the son of Hatakeda Morishige who is a son of Hatakeda Moriie.
Fujishiro doesn’t like the theory because he doesn’t see much of the Hatakeda style in Motoshige’s work. If you look elsewhere though you will see various authors saying that Hatakeda got merged into Osafune around the time of the 2nd generation Moriie. This smith signs saying he is working in Osafune, so it is not clear even at this point what Hatakeda is (a villiage or a district within Osafune).
Moriie’s work looks like Mitsutada and there is no reason to believe that Shodai Motoshige should look like Moriie any more than to think Kagemitsu should look like Mitsutada. There is a break in time and a lot of style changes from middle Kamakura to late, and what we see is that the smiths in Osafune tended to copy Kagemitsu for their style. The various works assigned to Shodai Motoshige then either have early dates in the timeframe or else look like Kagemitsu style.
Accordingly, the NBTHK only attributed to him six times at Juyo, and there are another 4 Jubi and 2 Juyo Bunkazai. So these works are always pure Osafune style.
This is the smith who is praised for his great sharpness and who is thought to have been a student of Sadamune. He left behind works in Soshu style, Soden Bizen style and then a few which look like callbacks to the Kagemitsu style.
But generally it seems to be Soshu and Aoe influenced Bizen when it comes to Nidai Motoshige work. These have dates as far as 1363. When Fujishiro wrote, he said that the first Motoshige show up with Kagen dates (1303) but it’s not clear if he was factoring in Ko-Motoshige. However, 60 years is a bit long to assume one generation. As a result three generations is a better theory for Motoshige, the first being Ko-Motoshige and unrelated to the Osafune smiths.
These generally have a smaller, more sophisticated looking mei compared to the Shodai.
Aoe style Nidai Motoshige
Soshu Style Motoshige (Hitatsura)
Mix and Match
The NBTHK has attributed swords to each of these generations but seems to be swinging toward there being two Motoshige again. Ko-Motoshige as described above, an Aoe smith, and then Osafune Motoshige who is the assembly of the first and second generations. The first dated work found now is from 1216 so this establishes a 50 year time period by dated works (again implying that it has to be a bit wider than this). I still think that getting into 60 years in this case is more likely to be two smiths than one but it is not without precident.
With these smiths like Kanemitsu and Motoshige that have swung between generation counts, we need to alternately understand then that an attribution to a nidai can simply be seen as a classification of a particular work to the later dates of these smiths’ production life.
In particular for a blade described as Ko-Motoshige, you need to take further investigation to see if it is being implied as early Osafune Motoshige work or else the unrelated Aoe work.
And, we could receive a Juyo Motoshige that might be attributed to the nidai which we need to understand also may be Shodai Osafune Motoshige under a one smith theory. That is a synonym then.
Currently the NBTHK is likely to describe the long production life of Motoshige then make some commentary one way or another. Later work or earlier work, to be read as synonymous with nidai and shodai and the number of generations not completely settled.
Personally, I think with the style and signature differences, and the extra long period of dated established work, there is a good argument for Ko-Motoshige, Shodai Motoshige and Nidai Motoshige to all exist and be three seperate generations.
The discovery of more dated Motoshige work over the years will help provide data to update this situation.