Denrai: chicken or the egg?

Denrai are heirloom items that belonged to well known clans from the feudal era of Japan.

Some of these were very powerful regional clans and have famous warlords in their lineages, and many of them played significant roles in the history of Japan. These are clans like the Uesugi, Shimazu, Mori, and so forth. 

There are also minor clans without significant power bases. On top of this all we add the Tokugawa Shogun and the Mito, Kishu and Owari branches of the Tokugawa family who stand apart from the other daimyo. 

There are some reasons why denrai status is important, outside of the historical interest and coolness factor to have a sword that belonged to one of the major clans.

When we look at the NBTHK Juyo zufu there are about 453 out of almost 12,000 swords that went Juyo and higher that have preserved information about what clan handed them down. This is a surprisingly small number of only 3 percent and points out that it is quite rare to have one of these blades.

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Getting Into The Groove

About 40% of suriage and ubu katana have bohi which is a simple groove which fills the shinogi area of the blade. Recently on nihontomessageboard.com a question came up about the strength effect on blades. 

I wrote about this a long, long time ago but it bears some updating here, about why a blade has grooves and what the effects are function wise. 

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One or Two Generations

After the Tokugawa made the final steps of unifying Japan, swordsmiths adopted more clear traditions of signing swords and dating them became much more common. The information they left behind and the fact that we’re dealing with “near history” makes it easier to understand swordsmith lineages. 

When it gets into the Muromachi period and earlier, things get a bit more murky. Many signatures were lost, dates are few and far between, and period specific references can contradict each other. 

In the modern period, with swords accessible to everyone and importantly with the work of the NBTHK passing Juyo blades and publishing them, the picture has become more clear. We owe a lot to Fujishiro Yoshio who’s work in the early 1900s on reference materials is more often right than wrong. So I’ll start this discussion with some of his general thoughts on this matter of one or two generations.

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Naginata and Naginata Naoshi

A naginata polearm can be shortened like a tachi, via suriage and reshaped into a katana. There is a subtype of naginata called a nagamaki which can only be truly identified when it is with its koshirae. The name actually reflects on the wrap of the tsuka of this type of polearm. Basically, how the blade is mounted and used ends up giving it purpose, and so its name.

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Yamatorige… Sanchomo… Sanshomo?

This is a famous sword owned by Uesugi Kenshin and the blade is now Kokuho. It is an Ichimonji sword and has an extremely flamboyant hamon. 

The blade is often called Yamatorige or Yamadorige which is one reading of the characters of its name 

山鳥毛

These characters can also be read as Sanchōmō though and it’s generally felt that this is the more correct name of the sword.

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Sue-Sa

So, who is this smith Sue-Sa 末左?

Fujishiro has an entry for Sue Sa and says that it is an Oei period Sa school smith. The Samonji school starts with O-Sa and several of his students and their students and so on reused the single Sa 左 in their signatures. So sometimes we need to check these blades and try to determine from where in the school they came from.

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Oshigata

An oshigata is a drawing of a sword, focusing on its hamon and shape. They have been used since before the advent of photography to record and document swords for reference. They can also serve as a fingerprint of sorts by focusing on the nakago which is transferred to the paper by rubbing.

A few heads up in this area are worth noting.

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Shizu and Yamato Shizu

Kaneuji is a smith of the Tegai school in Yamato and he was immensely skilled. He moved from Yamato to Kamakura (Soshu) and further honed his skills under Masamune, and came to emulate his style. After this, he moved to Shizu in Mino province and the school he left behind formed the basis for the Mino tradition. Because of his movements and style changes he is addressed by no less than four names which makes for some confusion.

These are:

  1. Kaneuji – 包氏
  2. Yamato Shizu – 大和志津
  3. Kaneuji – 兼氏
  4. Shizu – 志津

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An interesting Yoshimitsu

Awataguchi Yoshimitsu is one of the finest smiths to have ever lived, and is mostly thought to be the best tanto maker of all time. 

I was doing some research lately and found a blade that had more info than I could really understand with my basic Japanese. I talked to Markus Sesko about it and he uncovered a lot of interesting information. 

It ended up that this was the blade used by the famous tea master Sen no Rikyo to commit seppuku. Have a read about it on Markus’ blog.

Meibutsu and Meito

I just want to spend a few minutes to clarify the difference between these terms. There is some confusion out there and as soon as three people repeat the wrong thing it becomes truth.

I’m going to add some updates to this in bold. The purpose of this post was not so much to define meito but to disambiguate between meibutsu and meito as people were conflating them. One online statement that prompted this post was that a sword that had a name would be illegal to export from Japan. That idea took several independent facts and conflated them (that meito means it is meibutsu, and then that meibutsu were illegal to export, which they are not). In trying to clear that up I may have introduced some more confusion on how to interpret meito, so I’ll add more to the end.

MeitoThis is a sword with a name (a 号). There is an implication of above average quality or importance or fame associated with the use of this word. Any sword can have a name. What we primarily care about this though is a historical name, that is, the blade in question had a name during the Edo period. An example here is the Sunnokina Masamune. It is simply a Masamune that came down through the Edo period with a nickname. This term meito is also used to casually indicate swords of great quality and importance, that may in fact have no name (but we imagine they would be worthy of one). There are no legal restrictions on ownership or movement of meito. Sometimes the NBTHK will indicate a name for a sword in the Juyo or Tokuju papers, in other times it can be discovered through other books or often on the sayagaki where an authority has preserved the name. Sometimes the name comes down with no history at all.

Meibutsu: These are special meito that are on the list of the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, (享保名物長) the most famous swords in the country in Edo period Japan. These also have no restrictions on ownership. However, many of these also happen to be Juyo Bijutsuhin, Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho and as a result of that kind of status, would be illegal to export from Japan. An example of this would be the Kanze Masamune.

All meibutsu are meito but not all meito are meibutsu.

Utsushi also sometimes take the name of the source blace, for instance Kunihiro coped the Yamanba-giri Chogi, the resulting copy also became famous over the years and so took on a similar name to the original, becoming the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro. Both blades in this situation are meito, but not meibutsu, and both are Juyo Bunkazai making them illegal to export from Japan.

Elucidating on meito: it may be too strong a word to refer to a named sword (a sword with a  号) that doesn’t have sufficient fame.

Informally, calling a sword with or without a a meito is drawing on some of the aura of those blades in the meibutsucho. 

So we need I think to look at this as kind of a spectrum. On one end we have swords with  号 (named swords), and on the other end we have meibutsu 名物 (famous named swords in the meibutsucho). In the middle of the spectrum they start to be meito (名刀) and this extends over all of the meibutsucho. Another example meito would be the Nakigitsune Kuniyoshi which is a famous sword with a name but not on the meibutsucho. 

It still serves that not all meito are meibutsu though all meibutsu are meito. But I should be adding that not all swords with go are meito though all conventional meito have go. 

To this we add the informal use of meito and can add the fine print that depending on context, meito may not have a name but is a term reflecting the high quality of a particular piece making it something in a class with blades that are otherwise famous.

 

 

 

Fatality

We all dread the fatal flaw. 

These tend to be hidden on rusty blades, and revealed by polish. 

Depending on who made the blade and when, a fatal flaw will send the value to zero. Sometimes however, the balance of positives in a sword allow it to be appreciated and even paper to the top levels, with a so-called “fatal flaw” present.

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