An utsushi is a copy of someone else’s work. This kind of copy was not meant to deceive. In most cases the source work is a masterpiece that has achieved some recognition. In creating the utsushi a craftsman is both challenging himself to make a work in the style of the past master, learning about the techniques required to make a work in this style, and as well pay homage to artwork he holds in high esteem.

Some of these copies make alterations or simply draw inspiration from the work that came before them. This kind of work would be done in the style of the predecessor so that it could fit in amongst their repertoire. Others were made exactingly as a note for note rendition of the previous work. In some of these cases the craftsman has the item on hand he is trying to copy. In others, he is working from drawings, or notes of the work. These notes or drawings may be incomplete or may be themselves just approximations of the piece in question.

Some of these utsushi can be quite interesting as the work that they are copying is now lost. In some cases, we can assume that the work was indeed copied but the utsushi copies are now lost. 

Echizen Yasutsugu

Yasutsugu was one of the great smiths of the Shinto period. Part of his name was given to him by the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu in the manner of donating the yasu character. The Tokugawa amassed an incredible collection of blades, and though some writers have disparaged Yasutsugu’s skill, I think the first Shogun was a rather capable man and shrewd enough to defeat every warlord he faced and unite Japan and lock his family into a ruling position for over two centuries. I consider him able enough to judge a good sword, and a good swordsmith. 

Anyway Yasutsugu’s relationship with the Shogunate put him in a unique position in sword history, both in time and in access to great blades which he would copy, and in some cases repair. 

When Osaka castle went up in flames in the last actions of the wars that united Japan, many of the great swords that Toyotomi Hideyoshi had accumulated burned in this fire. When a sword burns, we don’t mean it literally catches fire. Instead the steel heats up in the flames, then cools down slowly as the fire burns out. When it does this, it loses the hard martensitic steel on the edge that the smith created when he quenched the blade for the first time.

This, if done on purpose to help shape steel, is annealing. If done by a fire, it causes irreparable harm. 

It means the hamon is lost, and the blade is now a lifeless thing that will not hold an edge. When the work is critical or great, a high level swordsmith can attempt to restore it somewhat by repeating the process of coating the blade with clay, designing and applying a new hamon pattern, and repeating the heating and quenching cycle. The new hamon will not ever be as good as the original, nor will the design be the same as the original smith intended: all of that is lost. But the blade will hold an edge again and in the case of burned masterpieces, the steel in these blades is such high quality that the recreated hamon will in many cases be better than the smith can create on newly made blades. This tells us that the old steel had some properties that were lost over the centuries and have still not been rediscovered today. 

Yasutsugu was given the task of recreating the hamon on many of these masterpieces. He remade several swords by Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, and Soshu Sadamune in particular. These blades were famous in their times and remain famous now. As part of this process, Yasutsugu seems to have carefully studied every phase of their creation. In the case of one of these blades imaged below, he repeatedly constructed the blade from scratch, making many utsushi. I believe he would have done this as part of the process of learning what hamon would work best on the target blade, before he attempted to put it back into the fire. As any tailor will tell you, measure twice and cut once.

Yasutsugu seems to have measured many times.

The Shishi Sadamune and Yasutsugu’s utsushi

We see here five copies of the Meibutsu Shishi Sadamune which is pictured to the lower right. Each one of these copies varies somewhat as Yasutsugu made small modifications to the underlying design. The one in the upper right is even katakiriba-zukuri, one side is made flat. Some of them bear the Tokugawa Aoi mon and one of them (in the upper left) bears an inscription devoting the blade to Honda Narishige who was the sponsor of Yasutsugu before (and during) his tenure with the Tokugawa. 

This particular blade is the closest of them all to the actual blade by Sadamune. As well, its hamon best matches the final result on the Sadamune after he finished its work, so this is likely the penultimate piece.  

Yasutsugu also copied the Ataki Sadamune and the Kiriba Sadamune which are similar swords, flat on one side in katakiriba-zukuri and with extensive horimono. He would copy these two and make hybrids between them, and others that were inspired by the the two. These two blades would go on to be copied by the second and third generations as well. Like the Shishi Sadamune, the Kiriba Sadamune has a remade hamon by Yasutsugu. In English we often say retemper but this is a misnomer. In Japanese we’d use the term saiha for a blade that has been re-hardened or yakinaoshi to refer the act of putting on a new hamon.

Yasutsugu’s best copy of the Kiriba Sadamune and the original blade itself (in spite of it being saiha) are both Juyo Bunkazai.

Yasutsugu utsushi and the Kiriba Sadamune


As with the other utsushi you can see that the copy is not a note for note rendition of the original Sadamune. The original Sadamiune is a bit longer than Yasutsugu’s copy, but Yasutsugu moved the break in the horimono to a higher position in the blade, and he copied the style of the bonji, rendai, and kuwagata horimono from the Ataki Sadamune. It is not meant to be an exact rendition of this sword, and in fact is more similar to the Ataki Sadamune. So, in the past these were said to be Kiriba Sadamune utsushi but now they are generally considered to be utsushi of the Ataki Sadamune.

The Ataki Sadamune itself is in the Imperial Collection now and finding references to it means digging through a lot of old oshigata books. Markus Sesko did this for me and found it in the Tsuguhira Oshigata. 

It too previously was a property of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but I’m not sure if Yasutsugu performed yakinaoshi on it. We do have this utsushi by the 1st and 2nd generations of Yasutsugu below, which helps describe the original, showing another use of utsushi.

The original Ataki has a suken in the nakago at this point from suriage and it has a similar shape to the Kiriba Sadamune. Since the Ataki Sadamune is pretty much a hidden sword and the similar Kiriba Sadamune was out in the open as a Juyo Bunkazai, it was thought for many years that these utsushi were all copies of the Kiriba Sadamune as I wrote above. Once the first and second generation Yasutsugu copies came to light that explicitly referenced the Ataki Sadamune this knowledge has been updated. 

Unlike some of these other blades, the Ataki Sadamune does not take its name from the family that owned it, but for the fact that Ataki Fuyuhiro met his death on the edge of that particular blade in the 1500s. Toyotmi Hideyoshi ended up with the blade, so it is very possible it too burned in Osaka castle and Yasutsugu repaired it, but I don’t know for sure.

Ataki Sadamune utsushi by Nidai and Shodai Yasutsugu

Yasutsugu also signed with the name Shimosaka and it’s thought this was his name before Yasutsugu. The blade on the right is a mirror image of the blade in the middle and he signed the rightmost blade as Shimosaka. All of the other copies are made in the same direction when signed Yasutsugu. So it seems to me to be purposeful and that, though this is his early signature, I think it is a later period work for him. Note the 2nd generation work on the left, and how he rendered an accurate copy of the cut off nakago on this blade, and how he also chose to make a more typically Shinto style kissaki for his copy. 

The point to take home here is that utsushi are not always note-for-note copies, but can be inspirational as is evident from the variations on this theme laid down by the Ataki Sadamune and Kiriba Sadamune.

Lost blades

These are three lost blades (as far as I know, please correct me if I’m wrong). The blade on the left is a note-for-note copy of Yoshimitsu, right down to the signature. In the middle is the Baichiku Sadamune which Yasutsugu copied many times and probably made yakinaoshi on the original. On the right is the Taka-no-so Munechika. There are others he copied and the originals were lost as well. But for Yasutsugu we would be scratching our heads now I guess. 

There is a good point in looking at these, that so many blades were lost… so many great blades as well. Some modern theories step in and see only blades that have suffered through centuries of war. They were burned, broken, shortened, remade hamon, and then … lost. Only the copy survives. When we have so much history lost or destroyed, we need to piece it together and also, have peace in ourselves that in trying to reconstruct what happened, we often don’t have enough data. These utsushi preserve some, and the Baichiku Sadamune went on to inspire other Echizen makers to make more work in this style. That one is Tokuju by the way.

Hizen Tadayoshi

Getting away from Yasutsugu, I recently found a work of Hizen Tadayoshi that is also a Soshu-den utsushi. In the case of Tadayoshi, he learned his craft from Umetada Myoju who took inspiration from the Soshu smiths Shizu and Sadamune in particular, but also Shintogo Kunimitsu. So in some rare instances we see early work of Tadayoshi in Soshu style. Later on in life he based his style on Yamashiro Rai and that formed the basis for most Hizen work of the school he founded. 

He returned to visit Myoju on several occasions, and there are two tanto that he made and Myoju added a somei to these, happy with his student’s work and proudly indicating their relationship. The first one from his earlier period is signed Hizen Kuni Tadayoshi and Myoju added Kono Tadayoshi Umetada Myoju no Deshi (This Tadayoshi is the student of Umetada Myoju) and the blade looks like Shintogo Kunimitsu, the father of Soshu den and teacher of Masamune.

When he returned on the third visit and changed his name to Tadahiro, another such tanto was made with his new name and Myoju added a soemei again but this time saying Kono Tadahiro Umetada Myoju no Deshi. The blade recalls the first one but has additional excellent horimono most likely executed by Myoju and featuring a Fudo Myoo. This Fudo Myoo horimono is quite similar to the one placed in the Meibitsu Fudo Masamune which is on the right. Most stories say the Soshu engraver Daishinbo made these horimono on the early Soshu work.

Anyway, this second tanto seems to have been made to beat the earlier work in all regards, it adds katakiriba as well, like the Sadamune copies above. Both of the Tadayoshi and Tadahiro blades echo the Soshu tradition. Note even the small rendai (lotus) horimono on the Shintogo and Tadahiro. These are Soshu tie-ins.

Myoju probably made the horimono on both Tadayoshi/Tadahiro blades below, and he didn’t sign when he did this for Tadayoshi so we can never surely know. 


The following blade, there is a five character signature of the form that comes from his mature period just before he changed his signature to Tadahiro, roughly 1621-1624 and I think shows the influence of Myoju again.

In this blade, Tadayoshi is copying Soshu, with the midareba hamon and particular the styling of the horimono. The blade carries a sayagaki by Sato Kanzan as well stating it is a koto utsushi but it doesn’t state which smith is the target. I thought at first it was a copy of Sadamune as is common in this early 1600s period, but if you look at the Sadamune utsushi above they are all with wide bodies.

There is a famous blade by Masamune however that has similar horimono and shape to this elegantly tapering Tadayoshi example. The Kanze Masamune is in fact a Kokuho (National Treasure) and is one of the finest examples of Masamune’s work. I think Tadayoshi was working off of this blade as a target, and similar to the other’s above, it is not an exact copy but takes its inspiration from the tapering shape and in particular the horimono which lie in the bohi of the Masamune.

Since the Kanze Masamune is greatly shortened, down to about 64 cm, the horimono have migrated into the nakago of the blade. Tadayoshi’s reconstruction is 73 cm and host the horimono closer to where they would be in an original Soshu-den sword. In the case of Tadayoshi his horimono were made by specific artists, either Umetada, Munenaga or Yoshinaga (the son of Munenaga). Tadayoshi in this example even makes the identical extended Fudo Myoo bonji horimono, though it is on the opposite side, similar to Yasutsugu’s mirror image of the Ataki Sadamune

Utsushi are not restricted to swords, we see them in kodogu as well. In this case, Yanagawa Naomasa copied the famous work of Yokoya Somin in the Shishi theme, and noted it in his signature that he was a student of Somin. Both of these pieces are Juyo Tosogu. Again we can see the maker working as faithfully as he can, but there are small differences in the two.

Can you tell who made which?


To wrap this up is my favorite utsushi story. A long time ago in Montreal I found some tsuba in an antique shop. I asked the shop if they could put me in touch with the owner, and they did. It was the widow of a gentleman who had collected tsuba, and he put together a very nice set of 24 and I bought them all from her. 

In this set was a very charming wakizashi tsuba featuring a tiger, and it was my favorite in the set. My friends told me at the time they thought the mei was no good because it was on the wrong side, but the work was outstanding. I didn’t know a lot at the time… (c.f. helpful friends blog post at this point). Anyway, I sold the tsuba and the collector who bought it discovered that there was a matching katana tsuba that was auctioned in Germany some time in the past. He couldn’t locate it and then asked Ford Hallam to make an utsushi to replace the missing tsuba. Ford worked backwards from the photo of one side of the katana tsuba and the extant example of the wakizashi tsuba to recreate the set. 

The result is rather magical, and shows the difficulty of making such an utsushi as well as the skill built into the original piece (which kind of verifies the signature in the first place). 

I think it is the best video in and around our hobby.

Anyway, watch and enjoy the magic of utsushi.

P.S. the Somin is on the left.