Aoe Tsugunao

period:Nanbokucho (ca. 1352)
designation:NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago:suriage zaimei
mei:備中國住次直作 — Bitchu no Kuni ju Tsugunao saku
nagasa:77.0cm
sori:2.2cm
motohaba:2.9cm
sakihaba:2.05cm
kissaki:4.1cm
nakago nagasa:20.8cm
nakago sori:0.2cm
price:-please inquire-

Bitchu and Bizen provinces were in western central Japan. They shared a border, and the three rivers Yoshii, Asahi and Takahashi run down from the mountains in this area, depositing high grade iron sand on their banks. Going east to west, distributed on these rivers in the Kamakura period would be the Ko-Yoshii and Ko-Osafune schools (on the Yoshii), the Ko-Ichimonji, Fukuoka Ichimonji and Yoshioka Ichimonji (on the Asahi), and the Katayama Ichimonji and Ko-Aoe schools on the Takahashi.

The Aoe smiths are said to take their name from a subdivision of the of the Fukuyama village, in Mizu of Bizen province. From here they transplanted to Bitchu province but preserved the name of their origin. The Aoe name is still seen in this area today, between the Asahi and Takahashi rivers. Yasutsugu is said to be the founder of Aoe from around 1120 AD, but his work isn't seen anymore.

Now, the actual distances involved here are quite small. Travelling 35 kilometers (20 miles) in a straight line you would cross over this entire territory of these three rivers from Osafune to Aoe and all the smiths in between. This small area was the major pulsing factory that over 500 years produced so many great works that they account for approximately 40% of all the existing Juyo Token today. The difference between Bizen origin and Bitchu origin is basically which side of the Asahi river you live on, and leads us to understand more clearly the close relationship between these smiths and schools. Though they are a stone's throw away, the difference in locality did produce some marked differences in workmanship.

The convention of the Honami was to maintain five traditions during the koto period: Yamashiro, Soshu, Yamato, Bizen and Mino. The reality of this is that it is a simplification meant to try to subdivide an unwieldy number of regional traditions based on local materials and techniques. For example, the Kyushu smiths which predate Samonji are not easily classified. We tend to throw them in with Yamato because the workmanship is a bit antique and unsophisticated seeming but this is not a fair distinction. Kyushu style is Kyushu style, but that does not really assist us in trying to take a bird's eye view and discuss nihonto in non-specific terms. So in this classification system some lines are blurred and schools can be related by reason of being more alike than dissimilar while other schools may share bloodlines so will be classified in the same tradition. Bizen and Bitchu styles, the latter of which contains Aoe, have intermingled and though they are distinct, Aoe is associated with Ichimonji, Osafune, etc. under this one big tent of “Bizen Tradition“ works. As a result, for western collectors, it can pass by somewhat in stealth mode under the shadow of the name of its neighboring province. Dr. Honma however sorts them out as standing at a peer level with Bizen, Yamato, and Yamashiro in the Kamakura and earlier times rather than under the umbrella of Bizen.

Aoe as a style is often thought to bridge a gap between the choji developments of Bizen and the suguba and refined jigane styles of Awataguchi and Rai in Yamashiro. Ko-Aoe works are also considered to be among the most elegant blades, with deep koshizori and ko-kissaki that connect them strongly to the early years of tachi making, while the Chu-Aoe works brought the art of steel to its highest level in Bitchu.

Competing nomenclature: Aoe, Chu-Aoe or Sue-Aoe

The smiths of the Ko-Aoe group gave way to those we just call Aoe at the end of the Kamakura period. There are different sets of names used by different authors and schools of thought. The first divides Aoe into Ko-Aoe (old Aoe) up until the Kamakura period, then calls these smiths Chu-Aoe (middle Aoe) up until the Nanbokucho period, then calls the last group Sue-Aoe (end Aoe) until they extinguish some time in the Muromachi period.

The second set of nomenclature only uses Ko-Aoe and includes in this group smiths working up until the late Kamakura period, then uses Chu-Aoe to cover the smiths working until Aoe fades away. Sometimes Sue-Aoe is used for specific Muromachi period finds in this case.

The third set of nomenclature would be to just use Ko-Aoe, and Aoe for the rest. In this case the NBTHK would attribute a blade to Aoe school, and in this imply that it is a blade from the Kamakura-Nanbokucho border period up until the Muromachi period. If they mean older they will specifically call it Ko-Aoe then, which will place it into the Kamakura period. We like to think of these period divisions as very sharp borders but it's not the case. Everyone did not suddenly wake up one day and say well, it's 1334, we all need to change our styles. So in this case Aoe can also be thought of to be a bit of a broader umbrella which will cover some time going into the end decades of the Kamakura period where the styles were beginning to evolve into the Nanbokucho style.

This is important to recognize because any particular smith may at times be referred to as Aoe, Sue-Aoe or Chu-Aoe depending on which system the author is using, but they will all be saying the same thing.

During the Nanbokucho period the smiths of Aoe seem to have maintained traditions while Bizen went off into experiments and began producing nioi-deki swords. Aoe maintained development in nie but we see Bizen features in their blades still, usually with utsuri but also we see several special features that are unique to this school that causes it to be distinct from the rest of the Bizen schools and exposes some of the line blurring required for the Honami five schools concept to be deployed. They furthermore preserved the choji hamon in the form of saka-choji (slanting choji) when all of the other Bizen schools saw it fade away and they resisted the Soshu influence which took over in Osafune after the Ichimonji schools fell into obscurity.

Special Features

These features are those that were specific or best made by the smiths of Aoe:

  1. chirimen-hada: a crinkled texture that reminds one of crepe silk. This hada is formed by embedding fine patterned itame within mokume patterns during forging and then coating it all with ji-nie (Tanobe sensei points out however that the true secret to doing this has been lost).
  2. sumi-hada: areas where the steel color changes, said to be “dark but clear”. Dr. Honma says that this is a softer type of steel and is one of the key things to look for in Aoe kantei.
  3. dan-utsuri: multiple layers of interesting ghostly patterns in the ji. The term utsuri means a reflection, and usually it is some kind of reflection in the hamon. The exact structure of utsuri is still open for debate, and not all utsuri is a simple reflection of the hamon but as we see in Aoe works it can be multi-layered and complex and exceedingly beautiful, making the works of this school very special when the utsuri is very good. The earliest utsuri began with areas called jifu which look like fingerprints, and then would extend to become midare or choji utsuri which appear to mirror the hamon (hence the name coming from the word for reflection). The smiths of Aoe were able to layer several different patterns of jifu and midare on top of each other to produce a three dimensional effect. This is overlaid with suji-utsuri which is one to three levels of horizontal utsuri which parallels the cutting edge the way the sky glows when the sun is setting. When you rotate such a blade through the light you will see many different effects in the ji as a result of all of this subtle utsuri work. The Aoe smiths may have had access to a particular grade of iron sand in their locale that other schools did not. This exposed special properties when worked and from its basic discovery the Aoe smiths worked on enhancing and developing utsuri in their work.
  4. namazu-hada: it is not seen so much but is meant to describe areas of dark hada which appear to have no texture and this reminded the old sword judges of catfish skin that had no scales, from where it takes its name. There would be texture here but this still would have been forged so tightly that it became muji and then was mixed in with steel with less forging and embedded into it. One can theorize that this was ongoing experiments with making hybrid materials that better stood up to the wear and tear of everyday use.
  5. katana-mei: the Aoe smiths in the older periods tended to sign in two characters, and the character Tsugu (次) is commonly handed down through their lines going for centuries. During the Nanbokucho period many Aoe smiths began to sign on the opposite side of the blade to everyone else in Japan... this began earlier in the Heian period with one of the Yasutsugu group smiths and several other Aoe smiths signed on either side. What this means is now a subject for speculation only, but the best reason is given by one of Sato Kanzan's students in the Token Bijutsu.

About the reasons for katana mei, we don't know for sure as no records were handed down. The Token Bijutsu relates a theory:

[...] since the [signature] was to represent the maker's spirit and conscience as well as for preventing forgery, the act of inscribing in a non-conformist way had a meaning in itself. Token Bijutsu

That is to say, it was a way of saying we are different, and we are special, those of us making these swords in Aoe.

At the end of the Kamakura period we also see many examples of signature and date appearing on the same side, and this too is unusual to see (these are called kakikudashi-mei). Signatures also changed from two character signatures to full length signatures featuring the name of the province, similar to what happened in Bizen nearby (and also in Yamato as some of the rare Yamato signatures do list the province in them). For some reason this did not seem to spread to Yamashiro, though it is certainly seen in Soshu too.

As we proceed through the Nanbokucho period, the Aoe techniques split, where the traditional style based on suguba was continued and also a style based on Bizen choji midare but with slanted midareba was developed (and shared with the Katayama Ichimonji smiths where it may have originated). Some of the works in the Nanbokucho period became quite massive and as a result most lost their signatures in the Edo period when they were cut down in size to wear as katana. Because of the lack of signatures at this time due to shortening, many swords made by the Nanbokucho Aoe smiths now only carry an attribution to the school. Confusion is made worse by the Aoe school consistently handing down names like “Moritsugu” and others through the years, and then having no date... making signatures appearing consistently though the era and work style changed. This makes it very hard to know which is which, just that through the workmanship's common denominators as described above they can be put to the same school and/or period.

While these changes were going on, the Aoe jihada also became more refined and beautiful with tight, jewel-like ko-itame becoming seen and the sori straightened out with large kissaki and massive shapes which is a common thread in Nanbokucho schools. We see katana mei very rarely in the Nanbokucho as this tradition was mostly dropped. Nie and ko-nie development was left behind in favor of nioi from neighboring Bizen as well. Sumi-hada increased and chirimen-hada decreased. Though these works were highly skilled and easily at the level of the main line Bizen smiths working in Osafune, Aoe work at the top levels seems to have suddenly come to an end at the beginning of the Muromachi period. This would conclude the majority of a 400 year span of work that reached the top levels of artistry.

Gotoba and the Kamakura Golden Age

While most collectors are intimately familiar with Ichimonji works due to their flamboyant and easily recognizable nature, the more subtle nature of Aoe work can sometimes slip below the radar.

Understanding the prominence and importance of Aoe begins with Emperor Gotoba, who selected smiths from the various swordmaking regions and brought them together to teach him sword craft. It is thought that this process of bringing the grand-masters of Japan together, and likely the competitive spirit that was thereby engaged, is one of the driving factors for the blossoming of the Kamakura period and its status as the golden era of the Japanese sword.

Gotoba's first group of teachers numbered twelve, one for each month. They were selected from Yamashiro, Bizen and Bitchu. Three of the first eight teachers were Aoe smiths: Sadatsugu Tsunetsugu, and Tsuguie. This also lets us know that Aoe were prosperous and held at the same level as the Awataguchi and Ichimonji smiths of their era which represent the pinnacle still of the Yamashiro and Bizen traditions. It's also important as it helps to date Aoe work, as there are no dates written down earlier than the middle to late Kamakura period.

Gotoba himself would go on to become an accomplished swordsmith, and signed his works with a Kiku (Imperial Chrysanthemum) and a diagonal Ichi mark. At least one of these still exists today.

Aoe Tsugunao

Aoe Tsugunao is the top smith of the middle period Aoe school. His work span is from 1338 to about 1367. As mentioned above there are various nomenclature systems, so he may be referred to as Chu-Aoe or Sue-Aoe depending on the case but he is a smith who appears immediately after the Kamakura period and he seems to have captained the rise to prominence of the middle Aoe smiths.

[Tsugunao is] said to be the son of Yoshitsugu. This era [Enbun - 1356] saw the ascendancy and development of the Aoe smiths. This Tsugunao is considered the first person of the Chu-Aoe school. Fujishiro Yoshio

The other excellent smiths of the middle period Aoe are Moritsugu, Sadatsugu, and Tsuguyoshi. Their work took similar forms, and one of the main features we look for is saka-choji (slanting choji) which is something of a specialty. Even in the case of working in suguba, examination can reveal the saka-ashi (slanting ashi) that align with this style they specialized in.

A hint of shallow notare and sugu saka-ashi are common in middle Aoe, and is also close to Motoshige. Fujishiro Yoshio

Many of the mumei Aoe school blades from the middle period have been made by these three masters and when the signature is lost they can be hard to surely attribute. Judges for centuries have simply designated them as Aoe. Because their tachi were made with great lengths, many of them have lost their signatures and as such fall into these mumei groups. Only very rarely will a mumei blade be directly attributed to Tsugunao.

There are currently 13 Juyo items by Tsugunao and all but one of them are signed. As mentioned above, the mumei items found will usually have an attribution of Aoe only. There are another six which are Tokubetsu Juyo, meaning that about one in three of his signed works passes Tokuju. There are an additional three which are Juyo Bunkazai, and one of these accompanied the famous Mikazuki Munechika kokuho when it was donated to the Tokyo National Museum. That Tsugunao was a gift from the Tokugawa Shogun Hidetada to Date Mitsumune the grandson of Date Masamune.

There is one more tanto by Tsugunao documented by the NBTHK though it has never been submitted for papers:

In the Nanbokucho era, Tsugunao is a representative Aoe school smith, and other famous well known smiths were Tsuguyoshi, and Moritsugu, and their characteristic swords are nioiguchi with a bright clear saka-choji midare hamon. Among them, it may be that Tsugunao was the leader of the Aoe school smiths, and his active period was around the Jowa, Bunwa, and Enbun eras, and he had two styles, one is an elegant saka-choji midare hamon, and the other is a tight nioiguchi suguha with saka-ashi hamon, and we have seen more saka-choji hamon than suguha hamon in Tsugunao swords, and this is the opposite from Tsuguyoshi. Among Tsugunao swords, this is a very fine suguha, and the ji and ha are well done, and although there is no classification for this sword, this is one of his masterpieces. According to the Owari Tokugawa family's record, at one time they owned this sword, and it was a a gift from Tokugawa Ieyasu, and is listed in the Kozan-oshigata, and this has gorgeous kinnoshi (thin gold paste) kizami-saya aikuchi koshirae from the Momoyama era, and this makes it even more special. Token Bijutsu, March 2009

One of the other Tokubetsu Juyo tanto was similarly a gift from Shogun Tsunayoshi to Yanagisawa Naganobu. This makes some good ongoing evidence from these gifts from the Shogun that the work of Aoe Tsugunao was held in great esteem during the Edo period. As well as these tanto, a Katana was given from Shogun Iemitsu, and three other Tsugunao seem to be mentioned in the Tokugawa daybook as gifts from the Shogun.

The signed blades of Tsugunao are broken down as such: 6 ko-wakizashi, 6 tanto, 1 naginata naoshi, and 8 tachi (including the Juyo Bunkazai blades). The Aoe smiths, for an unknown reason, had a habit of using katana mei on their tachi blades. This is one of the interesting attributes of the school but it is harder to find than one may think. For Tsugunao, of the 8 tachi that exist, there are only two katana mei, making it rare indeed.

Of additional note, the three Tokubetsu Juyo tachi are all in suguba. Tsugunao made excellent saka-choji blades, but this style doesn't seem to be seen in any of the signed tachi at Juyo or Tokuju levels, but is confined to wakizashi and to mumei swords.

Aoe's jigane is most representative of all the characteristics of this school. The itame contains a notable amount of mokume. The grain structure is clearly visible and forms the so-called chirimen-hada in crepe silk-like texture. There are sumi-hada looking like jifu showing in many places to add a greater variety to the steel surface grain texture.

With the arrival of the Nanbokucho period, almost all Aoe blades were signed in the tachi-mei manner, in small letters given closer to the back. There were more blades giving the date inscription immediately following the signature on the same side of the tang, in the manner called kakikudashi-mei.

Tsuguyoshi, Tsugunao, Moritsugu, Sadatsugu and others were representatives of the Aoe school in the middle of the Nanbokucho period. The blade structure reflecting the fashion and spirit of the war-like ages became markedly larger. The jigane became even more tight than the product of the Aoe school in the late Kamakura period. The sumi-hada became more outstanding, and the chirimen-hada less conspicuous. The hamon in purely nioi structure formed the nioiguchi of very clear and tight qualities. The hamon was formed in both straight lines and florid saka-choji-midare patterns.

I would like to mention that there was a question from one of you asking how Aoe's unique utsuri and chirimen-hada were produced. They are something swordsmiths in our days have been striving to reproduce in their [modern] works without much success. It is our task to keep trying to solve the unanswered question from the scientific standpoint. Tanobe Michihiro

Two times in the past signed works of Tsugunao came to auction. Walter Compton had one of the long signed tachi and this blade sold for $154,000 in 1992. Bonham's auctioned the signed naginata naoshi for 90,000 GBP ($145,000 USD) in London in 2010.

Tsugunao's great regard has him ranked by Fujishiro at Jo-jo saku for highly superior work. As well the Edo period cutting masters ranked him at Ryo-wazamono for superior cutting blades.

Tsugunao Tachi

Well, this blade is simply stunning. It's one of my favorite blades I've ever seen; extremely impressive. I have been keeping it in the vault for a while. When I left the blade with Tanobe sensei in 2013 to get the sayagaki done, he wrote a note back saying he could not locate it in the Tokuju volumes, so please advise on which session it passed in so he could find it.

The blade is just that good that Tanobe sensei did not consider for a moment that it was still designated at Juyo. I would have submitted it for the current session except that my clients are submitting several blades this year and I didn't want to step on any toes. This blade I am sure will pass Tokubetsu Juyo as it represents everything that Tokubetsu Juyo should be. As well I have Tanobe sensei's reaction above to fall back on in my judgment.

To begin with, this blade has arrived through 650 years in an incredible state of health, from top to bottom the skin is intact and it is gorgeous. It shows you what a great koto blade looked like on the day it was made. The length at 77cm is 10% longer than a blade we'd call a good sized katana. The vast majority got shortened down to about 69cm and you can see that someone tried to make the sword of useful length in the Edo period but absolutely did not want to compromise the signature. So it remains at the bottom end of the nakago and is a long style signature. What is more interesting is that this is a katana-mei on a Nanbokucho period Aoe tachi. For Tsugunao, there is only one other that exists still like this. For whatever reason, when he made this blade he decided to throw back and emulate the Ko-Aoe smiths in their unconventional signature style.

The jigane of this sword is grouped with the most beautiful I have seen, and I am including Shintogo Kunimitsu, Masamune, Yoshimitsu, and Sadamune. It is easily the equal of the Awataguchi school in construction. Looking at it is like looking at the first thin ice forming on a clear pond in winter as there is so much depth and beauty to it. The long kissaki and perfect sori balance this blade out in its large size and give it a magnificent presentation. This type of shape is an invention of the Enbun period (starting at 1356) going through Joji (ending in 1368). Tanobe sensei dated this one to Bunna, coming a bit before Enbun, indicating that this sword is one of the forerunners of the Nanbokucho revolution in style.

Furthermore, it has a maru mune (rounded mune) which is one of the features of middle Aoe but is rarely seen elsewhere. Making this type of mune incurs a lot more work for the smith than other shapes.

Topping it off, this blade survived combat as there is a large kiri-komi from a sword strike that hit the blade around the shinogi. So, in spite of it remaining so perfectly preserved, it was in fact a sword used in battle.

Tanobe sensei wrote one of the longest sayagaki I've seen for this blade. He praised the blade quite enthusiastically and I think there's more text there than in the Juyo setsumei. When this blade passed Juyo by the way, it was the very top level paper as Tokubetsu Juyo did not exist yet. Many of these early Juyo went on to take Tokubetsu Juyo papers as a result when this new level was introduced in the early 1970s.

Accompanying this excellent sword are fine quality elegant katana koshirae featuring many family mon. I haven't tried to decode the exact meaning of this set of symbols. The habaki is halfway between solid gold construction and gold foil, it is a thick sheet of gold plate over a copper core. Overall the fittings complete the package quite beautifully. They are signed on the fuchi by Kiyotake.

This one is really a special piece in all ways. It is a masterpiece of Tsugunao and shows off the extremely high skill of the middle period Aoe smiths. The length and size demonstrate well what a great Nanbokucho blade looked like. The preservation is beyond what one could hope for. It's a rare katana mei, and signed Nanbokucho tachi themselves are things that are very hard to find. Obviously, this one is highly recommended.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 4th, 5th and 6th of July 1968, session 17

Tachi, mei: Bitchu no Kuni ju Tsugunao saku

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, maru-mune, relatively wide mihaba, in spite of the suriage a relatively deep sori, and a somewhat elongated chû-kissaki

Kitae

somewhat standing-out itame with mokume, and some sumihada

Hamon

hoso-suguha with a hint of notare, some saka ashi, the nioiguchi is tight

Boshi

notare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri

Horimono

on both sides a bôhi with maru-dome on the omote and with kaki-nagashi on the ura

Nakago

suriage, kirijiri, ô-sujikai yasurime, two mekugi-ana, a smallish naga-mei on the omote towards the mune and below of the hi

Setsumei

This is a work of the Nanbokuchô-period, i.e. Sue-Aoe smith Tsugunao. He tempered a noticeably slanting chôji-midare but also like here a tight suguha. Such workmanship is not peculiar to Tsugunao but was common among all Aoe smiths. But it is assumed that this work comes a bit before the dated works of Tsugunao from Enbun (延文, 1356-1361).



Sayagaki

This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagaki) by Tanobe Michihiro. He is the retired former head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK).

  1. 第拾七回重要刀剣指定品
    Dai 17-kai jûyô tôken shitei-hin
    Designated at the 17th Juyo session
  2. 備中國青江次直
    Bitchû no Kuni Aoe Tsugunao
  3. 七字有銘而文和頃ノ年代也
    Shichiji yûmei shikamo Bunna goro no nendai nari.
    This blade bears a seven-character signature and can be dated around Bunna (1352-1356).
  4. 延文・貞治型ノ勇壮ナ姿態ヲ呈シ精妙ナ縮緬肌ニ筋映ガ現ハレ得意ノ端正ナ直刃ヲ焼申候而同工ノ最高ノ水準ヲ表示セリ
    Enbun-Jôji-gata no yûsô na shitai o teishi seimyô na chirimen-hada ni suji-utsuri ga araware to kui no seitan na suguha o yaki môshi-sôrô shikamo dôkô no saikô no suijin o hyôji-seri.
    It possesses a majestic Enbun-Jôji sugata and shows a very fine chirimen-hada and a suji-utsuri, and the hamon work in suguha is not only very typical for this smith, but its nobility reflects his very high levels of quality.
  5. 総ジテ貫禄十分デ保存ノ完璧サモ加ハリ
    sôjite kanroku jûbun de hozon no kanpeki-sa mo kuwawari migoto nari.
    The blade is in its entirety very dignified and perfectly preserved.
  6. 見事矣丸棟ニ仕立テル點モ同派ニハ屡経眼セリ尚一類ノ此期ノ作デ刀銘ハ尠ナク好資料也
    maru-mune ni shitateru ten mo dôha ni wa shibashiba keigen-seri nao ichirui no konogo no saku de katana-mei wa sukunaku yoi shiryô nari.
    It shows a maru-mune which is also often seen with this school, and the fact that it is signed katana-mei makes it a valuable reference indicating that smiths from this school did (although rarely) sign this way around that time.
  7. 長貮尺五寸四分有之
    Nagasa 2 shaku 5 sun 4 bu kore ari
    nagasa ~ 77.0 cm
  8. 珍々重々
    Chinchin-chôchô
    It is an extremely rare and precious blade.
  9. 㞱季癸巳蘭月探山邉道識
    Toki mizunoto-mi Tanzan Hendô shiki + kaô
    Evaluated by Tanobe Michihiro in the seventh lunar month of 2013 + kaô