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.
The to mei ga aru note literally means “there is a signature of” … so it is a way of distancing from an assertation of validity.
Such a piece falls into a gray area between gimei (false signature) and shoshin (authentic). That the NBTHK did not reject it means that there are strong reasons to believe that the signature is authentic. For instance on such a signature, the patina on the nakago is the correct age and has not been artificially induced. The aging of the nakago, including damage from centuries of corrosion, has happened after the signature has been added. So we know the signature is from the time of manufacture or else very close to it. On a Kamakura period blade these are strong arguments to authenticity. Furthermore, the work on the blade is correct for the smith in the signature.
What may be off is the style, in that it does not match currently accepted styles perfectly, but potentially has enough that it is not so different to be categorized as false.
This happens very rarely that this note is added, and reflects that they want to defer future judgment when we have more information about the signature. If such a signature is removed, then when the next candidate in this style comes along, now that new candidate will exist in isolation.
Changes in time
Bear in mind that no smith is a robot, and we can tell from Shinto smiths that are nearer to us in time that as they went through their career they did things like change their name entirely, change their signing style to grass script from block characters, and so on.
An example of changing to grass script would be Sukehiro. A smith who changed his name entirely would be Echigo no Kami Kanesada who became Terukane, or Izumi no Kami Kanesada who became Shinkai. And, Mino Kanesada famously changed one character to script making his signature have two phases. The second style is famous so he’s called Nosada as a nickname, indicating that the sada character he writes looks like the character for no.
In my own case, I can no longer sign checks and get the bank to accept them because my signature has shifted so much from the time I opened my bank account until now that the bank views the signature I make now as a forgery. So, I need to go in and update the signing card. So it’s natural to change and that a smith maintained a static format at all that is reliable to examine.
So when it comes to Nanbokucho and earlier smiths we need to be careful and account for student’s doing the signatures, professional scribes doing signatures, and that many known good signatures have been lost to suriage so what we have to try to connect the dots is just a small handful of the original repertoire of work. Because of this we need to consider these to mei ga aru signatures carefully and not with scorn.
Kinzogan-mei, shu-mei, and shusho
In the case of these signatures, a judge has attached his judgment to an unsigned blade. This blade is unsigned because it was shortened previously in most cases, though in some cases it can be ubu and unsigned.
In the earlier cases the judge may actually have seen the original signature and is preserving who made it, but in later periods the judge is giving his own judgment.
There are a few categories where these judgments may be somewhat loose or contentious:
- The judgment is simply wrong.
- The judgment has been completely falsified including the judge’s own signature.
- The judgment is in the generally correct school but has been exaggerated or otherwise misjudged.
- The judgment is an honorary judgment.
In the case where it’s flat out wrong the NBTHK won’t issue a paper until the judgment is removed. So we don’t usually have to deal with this situation. Similarly if it’s a fake kinzogan or shumei the NBTHK won’t issue papers and they will have to be removed. So the first two cases don’t get through to us.
In the last two cases these blades will paper. In the first case, a typical situation is a later period Honami attributing a Soshu school work to Masamune. A typical case follows.
In this case the note on the front says:
刀 正宗 本阿 花押 と金象嵌銘がある
This is read as the blade has a gold signature of Masamune, with a Honami signature. If the NBTHK were backing this attribution without reservations it would not have the note of to kinzogan mei ga aru attached afterwards.
Please note that the front, or the back, may have this note depending on the era of the papers.
The case of these attribution signatures is different from signatures made by the maker. In the case of the to notes being added to a signed blade, it is reflecting some uncertainty on the signature and a need for further study.
In the case of the attribution signature, we know the attribution signature is authentic and it’s not that the signature itself needs study. It’s that the attribution is weak and the NBTHK is trying to draw attention to the fact that the papers are not substantiating this attribution in any strong way.
So it’s really a different department entirely.
Signed: the work is agreed to be by the smith in question, the signature may be legit and needs more study, what is sure is that it is not being considered gimei at this point in time.
Gold signature: the signature is indeed by the judge in question, but we do not agree with the attribution to the smith.
So it’s really important to absorb the distinction because in one case the uncertainty is focused on the signature, in the other case on the attribution.
What they really want you to do is to take pause when you see this note, then read the explanation for this particular sword and they will explain what they mean in detail there.
In the case of this Masamune, the blade is written up as a good Soshu school work and with some thought of being Sadamune. So we can see right away that they don’t like stating this blade as Masamune whatsoever. At best it is going to be Sadamune and at worst something else, but still a top ranked Soshu smith of some sort. This kind of blade then we would rank at the bottom of all pieces with a Masamune paper on them because the details of the paper take great pains at distancing from this Honami judgment.
The judge in question by the way is Honami Koyu and he has a fair number of these exaggerated attributions, however he also has a fair number of solid ones. At this point in time, Masamune blades available to attribute were difficult to find. As a result some high ranking Soshu work got these convenient upgrades. Because the smith in question here may be Soshu Sadamune, it’s not so far off from Soshu Masamune and the NBTHK elected to paper this with an explanation and not destroy the history of the blade. I agree with this approach and I think it is really important to read these explanations as part of the purchasing decision. Unfortunately a lot of people just get to the name of the smith and stop.
In the case of Masamune what we want to see is an enthusiastic embrace of the maker in the setsumei in order to set it apart from these that are not the correct style for the smith and come some decades after his manufacturing time.
In this case there are some smiths like Tomonari or Aoe Sadatsugu who have very little signed work available and have extremely high reputations. There are cases where a Ko-Bizen school work or an Aoe school work gets attributed to one of these mighty smiths with a kinzogan or shumei of some sort. In the cases the NBTHK will attribute to Ko-Bizen or to Aoe, and can deal with the attribution mei through several ways.
- Ignore it completely, and treat the blade as mumei. This is done in the case of shusho which are red attribution signatures added around the Meiji timeframe (late 1800s). These are then judged to be who the NBTHK thinks they are as if the attribution is just not there.
- Add to mei ga aru of some form to indicate uncertainty on the attribution.
- Accept it at face value and then describe in detail in the setsumei that the attribution in this case has a non-literal meaning.
In these cases the blade has to be of a quality that is consistent with the name being invoked by the judge. Otherwise it will have to be removed in order to paper. That is, say the blade is Nanbokucho period Yoshii school. If this blade had a Tomonari red signature on it, the blade won’t paper but will need the Tomonari removed.
If the blade is in fact early Heian Ko-Bizen, and is of excellent quality, but has no other particular reason to be attributed to Tomonari, then this is the kind of attribution signature that will be considered honorary and given a pass while the NBTHK corrects the judgment.
The reason for these is that the judge at the time had no way of signaling that the blade was special quality. They don’t want to say it’s just run of the mill Aoe or run of the mill Ko-Bizen but want to single it out as special. So the judge selected a near-legendary smith of the school and attributed it to him, so you need to understand that the judge is saying that the blade is good enough to be by a smith of the highest repute of the school.
If this is the meaning to take from it, then the NBTHK will record that the signature is there and explain it more in the setsumei without saying to mei ga aru… so it’s confirmed as the correct quality and artistic integrity though the style is not correct to attribute to this smith. So, right level, probably wrong maker, and understood at the time by the judge but he wanted to flag it as a special work.
The devil really is in the details. It’s important always to translate sayagaki, and setsumei and try to understand all of the gray areas. We are dealing with history of 700 or 800 years back and it’s a dimly lit room. Because of that some of these items exist a bit in the shadow and it’s your responsibility to throw light on it and understand what the context is on any particular item.
If the NBTHK enthusiastically embraces an attribution on some of these more rare makers they will say so, and if they are distancing themselves, it will be in the language of the explanation. Your job is to be aware that edge cases and gray areas exist so you need to evaluate any particular sword without thinking there is only the absolutes of 100% correct and 100% fake as buckets for a judgment to fall into.