by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.
A chapter in The Book of the Sword, edited by Randolph B. Caldwell
Of the swords made by Sanjo Kokaji Munechika, it has been said that "- the curvature is so beautiful that it is out of this world" and that "Munechika's sori (curvature) has grace and elegance without parallel". In describing another, later sword the same source used the expression "(This) is a very popular blade, but still a poor blade, for it has no shape." (Underlining by author). This is not to imply that later blades are inferior either in shape or in quality. Quite to the contrary; there are proper and desirable shapes for swords made in any period and by any school. The point is rather that before all else, to be of high quality a blade must possess that shape which is the hallmark of quality for that time, that school, or even for that particular swordsmith. If it falls short of this first qualification, '-it has no shape' and is therefore a poor blade. Although these criteria are basic to judging swords, the above particular citations, which were made by Mr. Albert Yamanaka, a student of Koson Sensei, in two of a series of lectures on the Japanese sword, indicated the almost automatic reactions of one who has devoted long and intensive study to this subject.
'Shape' has been placed at the head of the list of characteristics to be considered in judging a blade for several reasons, one of which is immediately obvious. This is the fact that, upon drawing the sword from the scabbard (saya) for examination, (being very careful not to touch the blade proper with the bare hand) one must of necessity first observe the blade as a whole. In short he must determine what the shape is, and derive therefrom a whole series of clues or conclusions. These might include the period in which the blade was made, the purpose for which it was made, an indication of the school of swordsmith who made it and perhaps the very smith who forged it. This advanced level of appraisal must, however, be very rarely encountered except in the case of a highly distinctive blade as examined by an eminently qualified expert (kantei-ka).
I should digress momentarily at this point to recognize that, despite the great importance of shape in appraising a sword, the multiplicity of correlations in this area must in turn be further related to other equally important considerations. These include steel types and color, method of forging, 'grain' of' the blade, temper pattern of the cutting edge and point, carving on the blade, color of rust on the tang (nakago), file marks on the nakago and finally, signature if present. There are also certainly other factors which may be important, but since this discussion concerns itself with shape only, further comments will be limited to that area.
Inasmuch as the primary blade of the Samurai has always been the long sword, the peculiar traits and indicators of an historical era of a school of swordsmiths are most obviously to be seen in the TACHI or KATANA (depending upon the period concerned). Shorter swords (WAKIZASHI and TANTO), while forged in the same manner and from the same steel, were still subject to a greater variety of shapes for special purposes. It is not my purpose to contend here that the shorter blades, especially the Tanto, do not themselves have readily identifiable shapes. It is instead, my desire to limit the scope of this presentation since an exposition of equal length might be required to cover the special case of the Tanto alone. For those reasons subsequent discussions will concern themselves solely with the long sword.
There is also another limiting consideration. During the “Old Sword” period (Ko-To), 85% of the blades were made under one or another of the disciplines peculiar to the ‘five schools’ (Go-Kaden). Since each of these schools maintained its own secrets of method, shape, tempering, etc., knowledge of the dominant traits of each simplified the identification of swords by school, at the least. With the advent of printing and an extended period of peace after 1600 (Shin-To period), the secrets of all the schools were available to any swordsmith, to be employed to the limit of his personal skill. This could result in total adherence to the forms of a single one of the Go-Kaden or to any combination of several. From that time forward, therefore, sole reliance on one of five major schools will be modified by the necessity of acquiring an additional ability to recognize the peculiar traits of individuals or groups of Shin-To (New Sword) smiths.
For a characteristic of such great importance, shape is nevertheless very difficult to explain in simple terms, despite an initial impression to the contrary. In fact, for this first examination there exists a truly intimidating array of factors to consider and to correlate with one another. The ultimate in skill in this area can only be achieved by the examination of literally thousands of blades, both ‘good’ ones and ‘poor’ ones, until a ‘feeling’ is developed. A truly expert person can break down this feeling of rightness or wrongness into its individual components and explain the reasons for his conclusions. Most of us, however, who do not have the opportunity to examine and study so many blades over an extended period of time, are pleased to recognize the ‘ feeling’ itself - that this blade appears ‘ right’, while that one is ‘wrong.’
There are certain terms which are in constant use in discussing shape. It would perhaps simplify a truly involved study if these terms were listed and defined in general, with a consideration of the development and characteristics of each throughout the history of the sword. To that end, each of the following underlined subheadings will be examined as an entity, with the actual application of each trait to a total correlation of 'shape' left to the developing skill of the user. That is, after all, a fair approximation of the methods employed by those who are truly expert in this field. So let us begin.
This is an obviously undefinable term, but among these intangibles might be such words as ‘Elegance,’ ‘Masculinity,’ ‘Effeminate,’ ‘Strength,’ ‘Grace,’ ‘Shibui’ (simple but refined), and ‘Koroai’ (just right, neither too much nor to little). Keeping in mind that the Samurai sword was designed for war, these terms might take on more meaning when related to the time in which the blades were forged. There were intermittent periods of peace interspersed between longer periods of war. There were periods of high moral codes and severity of purpose - and there were periods of luxury and decadence. The blades made during those periods truly reflected the atmosphere and national culture of that time. A blade made by a great smith for purposes of war would have a manly or masculine aura, while one made during a period of peace or decadence would exaggerate the true grace of a war sword to the elegance of a show piece.
The first would be a strong, masterfully forged sword designed for battle, while the latter would have exaggerated curvature, effeminate slenderness, and a feel of ineffectualness. While not absolutely necessary, a knowledge of the history of Japan would be of great help in understanding these vague terms.
Here we address the foremost - and most obvious - consideration of ‘shape.’ The curvature and length of a Japanese sword were not to any great extent an accident of construction, but were developed and modified to meet specific needs of warfare. Two exceptions might be noted here - the unintended very slight curvature in very early straight blades, caused by the expansion and contraction differentials in the heating and quenching process; and the exaggeration of true curve in the case of a superficial 'improvement' of a sword made for decorative wear, not for use.
A general supposition is that the single edged Japanese sword was made by the expedient of 'splitting' a double edged Chinese sword - at least in concept. It is true that during the bronze age in Japan there were leaf shaped bronze double-edged swords. Some stone molds for casting these blades still exist. According to Professor Gowland (a comment in Sword and Same), however, “-despite appearance, there were never any double-edged swords in Japan from which NIPPON-TO derived.” It has been accepted as an archeological fact that the precursor of the Nippon-To, a straight single-edged sword, pre-dated the arrival of the KEN and TSURUGI from China during the influx of Buddhism in the fifth and sixth centuries. Such single edged blades, already at an advanced level of forging and tempering, were found in significant numbers in dolmens or burial mounds of the ‘Early Periods.’ One of these.straight swords of the 'Early Periods' is represented in the first photograph in Vol. I of Nippon-To Zenshu and in Figure 1. Although most of the dolmen swords are rusted out, this and a few others remained in sufficiently good state to allow polishing.
These swords were designed for use by foot soldiers against light or crude armor. With the advent of horses and fighting from horse back, and the development of more sophisticated armor, longer blades designed for a slicing cut rather than for chopping were needed. Although the ‘Ko Garasu Maru’ reputedly made by Amakuni in A.D. 703, is curved, the first authenticated smith to make and sign a sword which would be recognized as Nippon-To was Yasutsuna of Hoki province, around A.D. 806. You will note (Figure 2) that this blade is immediately recognizable as to conformation, with a length in the original of two shaku six sun four bu. The justly famous Munechika came along nearly two centuries later, around A.D. 987. Changes in shape can be seen to be subtle, being only the reflection of an individual smith's skill and inclination (Figure 3). Also at this time, very long swords - 3 shaku and longer - were developed for horseback work. These very long blades appeared intermittently until the early part of the Yoshino period, when they went out of vogue.
When, for a variety of reasons, emphasis turned back from fighting on horseback to fighting afoot, several changes became necessary. First, of course, the slung sword (Tachi) required two hands to draw - one to hold the saya and the other to draw the sword. Secondly, the long Tachi had the fault of either dragging the ground or of entangling itself in the wearer's legs. Three solutions were reached to accommodate these problems. In one instance, the blade was shortened and mounted in a scabbard thrust through the sash, cutting edge up. This allowed for a one handed draw into a fighting position. Another solution of relatively short duration was the wearing of the very long blades (so-called NO-DACHI) slung on the back for an over-the-shoulder draw. These modifications were specifically addressed to the problems of drawing the blade -- but foot-fighting also required a new style of fencing which included as recognized moves (though of relatively minor importance) some point thrusts. Therefore, in addition to the shortening previously discussed, the strong curvature designed for slicing was supplanted by a lesser curvature designed for quick cuts and parries. Thus was born the Katana form (Figure 4), which persisted as the preferred combat style until the abolishment of swords as primary weapons of war with the Haitorei regulation in 1876. It might be noted that there existed around the Oei period (A.D. 1400) a brief surge of popularity of Katana with practically no curvature at all (mu-zori). It was believed by some samurai that this straight blade gave a fraction of a second advantage in parrying po1earm blows. Most of the blades forged in this manner were by some of the Bungo Takada smiths. This fad disappeared rather quickly.
So far, this discussion has concerned itself with the abstract concept of curvature. This was not a hit-and miss procedure, however. There were various rules laid down for the determination of the ideal curvature of a blade, generally based upon each curve being the arc of a circle of a specified radius, Traditionally the circle diagram (Figure 5) was the basis for these computations.
These basic guidelines were modified to meet specific requirements in some cases. Of the five schools, for example, the Bizen school and the Mino school both employed the arcs of two different circles in determining the curvature a given blade. In these two instances, a smaller circle was used to define the curvature near the Nakago while a large circ1e was used for a greater proportion of the blade toward the tip (kissaki). This resulted in the center of curvature (or deepest point of curvature) being closer to the nakago than to the kissaki (Figure 6). This style is known as 'Bizen Zori' or ‘Koshi Zori.’ The schools of Yamashiro and Yamato - and generally the Soshu school - used a single circle, with the result that the center of curvature occurred at the midpoint of the blade (Figure 7). This is called Torii-Zori, after the name of the entrance way to shrines, which have an evenly It may also be called Kyo-Zori (Yamashiro curve), after the style of that school.
These varieties of style were yet further modified by either decreasing or increasing the curvature near the kissaki. The former condition - 'utsmuki' - consisted of a slight straightening of the blade near the kissaki, and was most typical of Tachi of the Heian and Kamakura periods. The opposite condition – ‘saki-zori’ - consisted of slight increase in curvature near the kissaki and is most commonly found on Katana of certain schools of the late Ko-To period (Sue-Ko-To) and Shin-To periods.
An interesting study has been conducted by Mr. H. Bartlett Wells of the blades found in certain volumes of the Juyo Token Nado Zufu. In this study he derived the percentage of depth of curvature to the length of the blades. It is not surprising that the greatest curvature is found in blades of the Heian and Kamakura periods - the greatest listed being 4.53% in the case of Etchu Tomotusgu (ca A.D. 1381) of the Namboku-Cho period. As to schools, the curvature of Bizen blades appears to be on the average the deepest) followed c1osely by Yamashiro blades of the same periods. Mr. Well’s figures further support the observation that the more recently made swords have a corresponding lessening of curvature, those of the Shin-To periods not normally reaching a level of 3% curvature, with the more recent ones being much less. It is perhaps well to observe that the ideal shapes discussed above do not always exist in the blades we now examine. For a variety of reasons, few of the Heian and Kamakura blades remain intact, many of them having been shortened by cutting off the original nakago (o-suriage) and reshaping a new one. This would naturally tend to alter drastically the characteristic curvature of, for example, a blade with koshi-zori, since possibly only what had been the larger single circle curve at the kissaki end would be all that remained. It could therefore become possible to misinterpret the original shape. Further, a partial explanation (other than the new method of fencing) could be adduced to explain the tendency to make straighter blades in the Shin-To period. It is a recognized fact that many Shin-To blades were deliberately forged to resemble the shortened older blades. There are numerous instances in which even the re-shaped nakago of a shortened (o-suriage) Ko-To blade has been deliberately incorporated into a Shin-To blade made in the same shape.
In this context, width is considered in proportion to the length of the blade -- for example, the blades of the Soshu school are generally wider in proportion to length than those of the others of the Go-Kaden. The initial point of observing this proportionate width is at the notches which occurred at the point of division between nakago and blade (-machi: ha-machi for the cutting side, mune-machi for the back side). Another glance at Figure 3 will immediately confirm the impression that the blade did not maintain the same width throughout. Rather, it is obvious that a strong taper (fumbari) exists. In later Ko-To blades, and even more so in Shin-To blades, this taper decreases, eventually resulting in a blade which appeared to have practically no taper. This is actually misleading, since practically all blades do have fumbari - the absence would produce a blade lacking in all grace and give the appearance of a sharpened club. Mr. Kentaro Yoshikawa, polisher to the Imperial Household Agency, gives the proportions for Ko-To blades as being at a ratio of 10 at the machi to 4 at the vertical line separating the blade proper from the point (yokote). For Shin-To blades, this proportion is normally a ratio of 10 at the machi to 7 at the yokote. One explanation of these proportions relates to the method of employment previously mentioned. Inasmuch as the longer, strongly curved swords were used in slashing, less weight was required at the point of percussion, or primary point of impact. With the different style of fencing employed by the samurai who primarily fought afoot, an increase in weight at the point of percussion would be greatly advantageous. An experiment by Mr. Alfred Dobree around 1904 on the point of percussion of Japanese swords demonstrated this point clearly. It also elicited from him an observation which perhaps should have been mentioned under Intangibles. This is the kinesthetic effect one experiences when he holds a sword in the approved fighting position. Whereas a well-made intact Ko-To blade falls naturally to a balance, many Shin-To blades feel slightly ‘off-balance.’ This could be in part attributable to the deliberate increase of weight in the area of the point of percussion (mono-uchi), or to some inadvertence following the copying of o-suriage Ko-To blades which were designed for another condition of balance and use.
These are three characteristics which may be viewed together. The shinogi is that ridge running the length of the blade which delineates the juncture of the planes (ji) leading to cutting edge and those leading to the mune (Figure 8). [Figure 8 shows the cross-sections of two blades, both with the cutting edge at the bottom an the mune at the top. In the left cross-section, the shinogi is located at 'b' and in the right cross-section it is located at 'd.']
The location of the shinogi varied according to period and school. In Figure 1, it can be observed quite close to cutting edge, while in Figure 2 - and most later blades, it is located proportionately closer to the back. Where-ever located, the proportionate distance between the two edges and the shinogi is maintained despite any degree of fumbari. In examining shinogi, two separate characteristics are to be observed. These are (a) the ratio of the location of the shinogi, and (b) the thickness of the blade at this point - or the ‘height’ of the shinogi ([thickness at] Figure 8b [or 8d]). As a general guide line, the most common ratio is about 7:3. That is, where 7 is the width from shinogi to cutting edge (ha), then 3 is the width from shinogi to mune. Variations are most notable in the Yamato school, where the ratio changes to about 6:4, a wider shinogi-ji (upper-plane); and in the Soshu School where the ratio may be 8:2, a much narrower shinogi-ji. Those Shin-To smiths who generally followed one of the Go-Kaden would be expected to observe the same ratios as found in the old school. For example Nanki Shigekuni followed the Yamato traditions, while several of the Horikawa group adhered to the Soshu styles. This consideration may be generally of great use in helping to identify the work of Shin-To smiths who were known to favor one of the five old schools over the others.
The other consideration concerning the shinogi concerns its relationship to the thickness of the sword - or specifically, does the shinogi stand higher than any other location on the flat of the sword, slanting downward to a cutting edge on the one side and to a mune that is thinner than the blade at the shinogi on the other. This would natura11y be high shinogi (Figure 8b), while a blade on which the planes of the shinogi-ji were parallel or nearly so would possess a low shinogi (Figure 8d). Generally, three groups might be classed as belonging to the high shinogi category. These are:
The low shinogi groups are:
The backs of blades, besides being a point of comparison for the shinogi, also possesses other identifying characteristics. The back could terminate in four modes - flat (Figure 9a) as in most of the 'Early Period' swords,' rounded - (Figure 9b), two-sides peak (Figure 9c), or a truncated peak resulting in three planes (Figure 9d). Further, the two-sided peak may have a high sharp peak or a low, relatively flat peak.
The Hiraniku or amount of curvature of the plane (ji) leading to the edge (ha) should be observed, since some schools have very little 'meat' or curvature of the ji, while others may appear quite ‘fat.’ Among the flat groups may be found blades by Kunitoshi (Yamashiro), Tomonari (Bizen), Mitsutada (Bizen) and others. Some of those having much hiraniku will be Sukesada (and other Osafune smiths), Motozane (Miike School), and the Ko-Enju group of Higo. Inasmuch as this characteristic may vary from smith to smith even within the same school, it behooves the collector to check his observations against the proclivities of a particular smith.
The kissaki of a sword is possibly the most difficult part of the sword to forge, and the quality of the point will have a great deal to do with the value of the sword. It is, as with all other portions of the sword, specifically adapted to the purpose, manner of construction, and period in which the sword was forged. It must be carefully formed and tempered and is thereafter as necessary as the nose on a person's face. Breaking off or cut- ting off the kissaki defaces the blade irrevocably and destroys its value. Any shortening must always be accomplished at the nakago. There are three descriptive terms applied to the kissaki in general, which are, quite simply: small (ko-kissaki) [Figure 10a], medium (chu-kissaki) [Figure 10b], and long (o-kissaki) [Figure 10c].
The very small, or short, kissaki were naturally found on the older, strongly curved Tachi with considerable fumbari. Among swordsmiths whose blades might be expected to have ko-kissaki would be found Yasutsuna smiths and Munechika, smiths of the Rai school of Yamashiro, the smiths of Awataguichi and Yamato, and the early smiths of Bizen (especially including the ‘Kage’-smiths), as well as the Hoju and early Gassan of Mutsu. As the fumbari decreased, the kissaki increased. Some famous smiths who made blades with notably long kissaki were Kanemitsu and Tomomitsu of Bizen (it was not until the time of these smiths, AD 1264 and later, that true o-kissaki blades were regularly made), the Hasebe of Yamashiro, Sadamune of Sagami, and others of these schools and period. There is no arbitrary dividing line for these differentiations, the decision being one of comparison. Also, of course, most smiths worked in the middle, or chu-kissaki range. One interesting variation of the ko-kissaki is the ikubi-kissaki which has practically no curvature on the cutting edge (fukure), and appears quite stubby. This type appeared on some Heian and early Kamakura blades.
In addition to being that necessary portion of the blade to which the handle (tsuka) was affixed, the nakago served several other purposes. One of these was its function in the superstition which assigned good or evil significance to the proportion of length of the blade proper to the length of the nakago. This was determined by a divination scale employed by those expert in this ‘art.’ As a parenthetical note, I have in my library a rather thick volume which describes the portents of practically every mark or flaw found on a blade. A more practical consideration interests us here, however, and that is what the nakago tells us of the sword. As I have mentioned before, many of the longer old swords have been shortened by cutting off the nakago. This of course denies us one point of reference, but much can still be determined. In an intact (ubu) condition, we must of course assign a certain importance to its shape. For example, most of the Heian and Kamakura Tachi had long, slender, and sometimes strongly curved nakago (Figure 3). If completely ubu, they possessed one peg hole (mekugi ana). The shape, length, curvature, tip (jiri) and location of the mekugi-ana could divulge a great deal of information about the period and school of a blade (irrespective of signature). Later, as Tachi shape was modified into Katana shape, some smiths modified, the shape of the nakago greatly. The Bizen smiths of the Oei period and later developed a heavy, stubby and generally graceless nakago. It appeared too short because of its nearly parallel edges, but still provided a strong, solid foundation for the tsuka. The Uda smiths also adopted a similar nakago. The Soshu smiths on the other hand, developed a nakago which is straight along the back, but strongly curved (tanago-bara) on the bottom to a small jiri. There is a total variety of all styles in between, some typical of groups and schools, others being almost signatures of the individual maker. Some Shin-To smiths have very long, highly tapered straight nakago; others have deliberately forged nakago after the form of reconstituted tangs on o-suriage Ko-To blades.
In the event a blade has been cut, or even if not, one might still draw conclusions from the number of mekugi-ana (either the number of separate times the blade has been shortened, a new hole being required each time or the number of different tsuka which have been fitted to it), from the thickness of the nakago in comparison with the thickness of the polished blade adjacent (each time the blade is polished it becomes a little thinner, while the nakago is not thinned), and from the texture and feel of the surface.
Having delineated the complexities and difficulties of achieving expert status, it is still important to recognize that a skill is involved, and that each skill must have an organization, or framework, around which to build. In order then for those who collect and wish to appreciate the Nippon-To, examination of a blade for shape should follow an orderly progression. Mr. Yazu Kizu, in one of his talks on appraising swords, has drawn on his experience and study, and has set down a list of steps to be followed after drawing the sword:
Hold the blade by the tsuka, the point straight up and the cutting edge to the left. Examine the blade from the bottom up, starting at the machi and moving slowly up to the kissaki. Then turn the blade with cutting edge to the right and examine the blade from the kissaki to the machi. In this process you will have observed the following:
The above points may be determined without removing the tsuka and are of very great importance. However, it should be kept in mind that the whole blade has not yet been examined. The nakago is a truly integral part of the blade, and was (in its original form) just as carefully forged and shaped by the smith as was the blade proper. It should be noted that the nakago is never polished as is the blade portion, but (unless shortened) is usually left to wear and age itself naturally through handling. The appearance, under these conditions may in some instances provide a deciding factor when a blade proper has characteristics typical of two or more smiths or schools. Those characteristics which fit into the concept of 'shape' with respect to the nakago are:
All that has been covered above relates to the shape factors which must be observed and correlated. Although some hints about and examples of several of these factors have been presented, the details of each can only be acquired after the most diligent and extended study. This includes examining as many blades as you possibly can, looking for all the points mentioned. Then you must correlate all of these shape factors with one another. After that is accomplished, all of these factors must in turn be correlated further with the equally complex evaluation of steel, method of forging, type of tempering, shape of temper lines, etc., etc. It is difficult, time consuming, frustrating, disappointing - and transcendentally pleasant, when after all the frustrations, you chance upon an unrecognized blade which says to you "This is Right" - and, having taken your chance, find that you have indeed discovered a genuine treasure.
It is my sincere hope that this necessarily short and compressed review of the shape of blades may have provided some insight into a true appreciation of Nippon-To, and possibly some guidelines to follow in judging swords you may have the good fortune to examine in the future.
I believe it appropriate to recognize my indebtedness for the enthusiasm I have long felt - and still feel - for the collection and study of Nippon-To to two Gai-jin friends who had preceded me in this fascinating field. They will recognize themselves by remembering the many pleasant evenings of discussion and disputation we have shared. As for specific encouragement and direct assistance in the study of the Nippon-To, I am particularly under obligation to Dr. Junji Homma and to my good friend, the late Mr. Kunitoshi Fujimura, a modern swordsmith of note who died while forging a sword. For much of the information contained in this presentation - aside from the reference library I have assembled over the years - I owe special thanks to Mr. Kentaro Yoshikawa, Mr. Yazu Kizu, Mr. Hakusui Inami, the published talks and translations of Mr. Albert Yamanaka, and the translations of Dr. Kanzan Sato's Token Kantei Techo by Mr. John Yumoto. As a ‘smoother of paths’ and interpreter, I would be hard put to better the friendly and courteous help of Mr. Junzo Sato.
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