Kamakura-Ichimonji Suketsuna

period:Mid to Late Kamakura (ca. 1280)
designation:NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago:o-suriage, mumei
nagasa:70.1cm
sori:1.8cm
motohaba:3.0cm
sakihaba:1.9cm
kissaki:2.9cm
nakago nagasa:21.3cm
nakago sori:0.1
price:-please enquire-

This SUKEZANE, and SUKETSUNA, who was in this group, are commonly called KAMAKURA ICHIMONJI, and along with MITSUTADA, NAGAMITSU and such of the BIZEN OSAFUNE Ha, the majestic MASURAO BURI (Warrior style) of tachi were naturally the most favored among the busho (military leaders). Nihonto Koza

The beginning of the Kamakura period in Japan ushered in the great golden age of swords. From the period between 1200 and 1330, craftsmanship reached its pinnacle, a height that has never again been reached. The greatest smiths of all time worked during this period. Hisakuni, Yoshimitsu, Shintogo Kunimitsu, Masamune, Norishige and so on. The importance of Kamakura period work is easily seen as they by far dominate the counts in the Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo registers, comprising 36% and 52% respectively. They are few and far between to find, as most swords that exist today come from the Muromachi to Edo periods. However these swords are usually outranked in quality by their Kamakura period predecessors. So please bear in mind that the footprint they occupy in the Juyo and Tokuju registers is in spite of their rarity as swords. This percentage increasing at Tokubetsu Juyo, taking half of the slots and leaving the other half for basically everything else, is a repeat statement of how you should consider the great works of this period.

The Kamakura flower blooms from the seed planted by Emperor Gotoba who summoned the best smiths in Japan to teach him the art of swordsmithing. Coming to teach him were the best smiths of the Ichimonji school from Bizen, Awataguchi school from Yamashiro and Aoe school from Bitchu at the turn of the 13th century. Afterwards we see the provincial and regional traditions diverge quite a bit. A noble elegant style developed in Yamashiro and a violent macho style developed in Bizen, with the Aoe smiths straddling these two styles.

The Ichimonji smiths come from a vague grouping we call Ko-Ichimonji, which means “Old Ichimonji” but is really just a handle put on the progenitors of the Fukuoka Ichimonji smiths as the style began to emerge. Certainly they did not call themselves this at the time, but there is a transition from Ko-Bizen and Ko-Aoe styles which did not differ very greatly from each other or Ko-Yamashiro, and as the style begins to separate out into what would become the Ichimonji schools, there is this separation then from Ko-Bizen into this Ko-Ichimonji group.

The Ko-Ichimonji smiths are working in and around Fukuoka in Bizen, and when the style finally crystallized into this very flamboyant choji midare with a powerful shape that was suitable for scaring enemies and those faint of heart, we differentiate the smiths into Fukuoka Ichimonji. Over time, either through success and the budding off of the school or by running out of local resources, the Ichimonji school spread into Katayama in Bitchu province, and Yoshioka in Bizen, and later on into Iwato and probably elsewhere. Each of these branches of the Ichimonji share a choji midare as the base style in common though they have their different spins. The early Fukuoka smiths we don't know a lot about as they changed from two character signatures into just signing with the numeral “one” or ICHI (一). So we take that to be a statement they were making themselves about the prowess of their blades and their school. The Yoshioka Ichimonji smiths who came after continued the tradition but often added their names after the Ichi.

During the height of the Fukuoka Ichimonji dominance in the middle of the 1200s, one of the best smiths of this school was Fukuoka Ichimonji Sukezane. At this time the Shogunate in Sagami province (Soshu) was being established and a need for making high quality swords was waiting to be satisfied in Kamakura town. The Shogun put out a call for master smiths that was answered by Saburo Kunimune of Bizen Osafune, Awataguchi Kunitsuna of Yamashiro Kyoto, and then from Sukezane and his son Suketsuna from Bizen Fukuoka.

These four smiths are all ranked Sai-jo saku and would be the first talented smiths to work in Kamakura. They mostly kept to their regional styles though we see some cross-pollination if we can examine all of their work. These four are basically “generation zero” of the Soshu tradition. They come first, but they do not ever change style enough to what we know today as the Soshu tradition. This tradition seems to merge the flamboyant nie deki of Fukuoka Ichimonji and Ko-Hoki and Ko-Bizen together with the jigane of Awataguchi.

The two smiths Sukezane and Suketsuna together will sometimes be referred to as Fukuoka Ichimonji smiths from their origin, but are often referred to by the nickname “Kamakura Ichimonji”. Though they never quite get to the Soshu style on their own, we do see a wandering away from Bizen particularly in Suketsuna as he would have been very young at the time his father left Bizen and had more time to be influenced by the changes going on in Kamakura during his lifetime. What we do see though is that their nie are more intense than we would expect from Fukuoka Ichimonji smiths, which makes it easy to separate out their work from ordinary Fukuoka Ichimonji. Their signatures do match each other with the Suke character being similar. However, signed work is extremely rare, especially for Suketsuna with only four examples left in the world.

Suketsuna

Juyo Bijutsuhin Suketsuna

The work of these smiths now is not commonly seen, only Saburo Kunimune seems to have left blades in any great quantity of them all. Even so we're talking about less than a hundred blades for Kunimune. There are 26 blades of Sukezane that passed Juyo and higher, 10 of which achieved Tokubetsu Juyo. There are another 9 Juyo Bunkazai and 2 Kokuho together which is a staggering quantity for one smith, especially given his rarity. There are another eight Juyo Bijutsuhin Sukezane. These works can be partitioned into purely Bizen, and then Bizen with some hints of development from his time in Soshu.

Suketsuna has only nine known blades at Juyo and one of these has passed Tokubetsu Juyo. This is not due to a lack of skill but due to extreme rarity of the blades. Of these nine only one is signed (one of the Juyo). There are another three Juyo Bijutsuhin by him which again points at a very high reputation. Two of those are signed, and there is one more that is Juyo Bunkazai. Kokuho, Juyo Bunkazai and Juyo Bijutsuhin are all levels that are illegal to export from Japan and are cultural treasures. When you look at blades by smiths that have achieved these levels you need to understand the smith as having played a really essential role in sword history. These are more than just pretty blades, they are at the core of what makes Japanese swords special as an art form.

In terms of date, some sources put him in the 1320s and Yamanaka puts him at 1312 (he writes Seiwa era, but this is around 870 and is a typo, he means Showa, 1312). Markus Sesko's Swordsmith Genealogies are in agreement with my analysis, placing him at 1264-1275. If Sukezane is from 1249-1275 and, then I'm in agreement with Sesko's sources. The year 1324 is too late then for a son of Sukezane (a 50 year gap is a bit hard to accept). These kind of contradictions are usually seen in Japanese sword literature because what was handed down is reported verbatim and not usually adjusted based on modern theory. So for this we tend to get eras moving around a bit in time and we need to put things in perspective to properly assign a time period. There is one signed blade in the Kozan Oshigata which has the signature “Kamakura Yamanouchi ju Suketsuna” but this sword is lost and it's not clear if the signature is accurate. If Sukezane is indeed working around 1264 and Shintogo is making the first true Soshu blades around 1290 as a young man, then Suketsuna has to be fitting somewhere between his father's middle period and the rise of the first clear Soshu works. 1324, as mentioned above, leaves a 50 year gap between the prime of his father's life and his own output. The NBTHK has described him (below) as resembling middle Kamakura period Fukuoka Ichimonji work which would make sense as this is what his father was making. So it ties him again to an earlier date than 1324. I feel comfortable as putting him as a contemporary of Shintogo working around 1280 or 1290, which I think then is in keeping with his father's work period and his own roots in Fukuoka Ichimonji.

Lastly there is a brother appearing in references dated around 1293 who has to be junior as he is never mentioned as having made the trip with his father and brother from Bizen to Kamakura. His name is Sukesada, and it will make sense to place Suketsuna before him in time. Suketsuna had a student Sukemitsu who is also documented as having signed Soshu Yamanouchi ju Sukemitsu and his brother Sukesada seems to have had a few students, Suketoki, and Sukenaga, while there are a few more that come after this as well. When we read old accounts like this it shows how many swords had to have been made by the lesser generations and used up and destroyed, that we no longer find today. We have to think then that the works of the masters that were preserved had to be singled out early on as particularly important heirlooms and set aside rather than put into every day use and abuse. There are many other Soshu smiths that we don't speak about as we have lost the work today, and sometimes these are found as dated pieces and it is an interesting job trying to insert them into the genealogies. I know of a Masahiro work with the alternate character for Masa that is Juyo and very nice. It is dated from the time period of Hiromitsu and is clearly genuine but we don't know very much about him. Possibly it is an early or alternate signature for Akihiro. Sword study is still very much an open topic.

Kanzan groups Suketsuna in with the four founding fathers of the Soshu kaji:

There were no indigenous sword makers in Kamakura. And those who founded the Kamakura school did not arrive until after the middle of the Kamakura period. The founders, such as Sukezane, Suketsuna and Bizen Saburo Kunimune from Bizen, and Awataguchi Kunitsuna, whom I mentioned earlier kept their initial mei in the same manner as they used them while they were in their home town. Suketsuna however was exceptional, and he sometimes signed in katana-mei style when he incised large letters with the use of thick chisels. We also know that Kunitsuna signed his odachi work with a mei reading Kencho Ni-nen Kamakura Kunitsuna but we lost track of it during the post-war confusion. Sato Kanzan, English Token Bijutsu

There is one other curious blade which is a tanto that is signed Kunitsuna but doesn't match so well with the work of Awataguchi Kunitsuna and seems to come later in the Kamakura period. This work is ascribed to a “later generation” Awataguchi Kunitsuna but the second character of the name is very similarly executed to Suketsuna's work. I think it's possible that this then is an extension of the Kamakura-Ichimonji line, as the work also resembles Suketsuna and is much more close to Soshu in style than anything else.

Dr. Honma also advocates a possible theory that Sukezane never did leave Bizen province but that Suketsuna went in his place. He says it is possible that some of the signed Sukezane output then was Kamakura work from Suketsuna signed in his name.

On the basis of his workmanship, we can confirm that Sukezane was a smith of the Fukuoka-Ichimonji school and there was the old theory going round that he also stayed in Tôtomi province (found in the Ki'ami Bon). The Sukezane I have seen show an adequate mihaba and an interpretation of the jiba that doesn't link with Bizen-Ichimonji at a glance. The signatures are large and strong and thickly chiselled. Occasionally also katana-mei are seen and the yasurime are ô-sujikai, and when we thus just look at the nakago, we might think of Ko-Aoe. But there is also a slender blade whose signature style and position shows more the hand of Suketsuna and which displays a workmanship that can be seen as having left Bizen and becoming a forerunner of the Sôshû tradition. However, it is also possible that the blade goes well back to Sukezane but was made at a different time in his career. Dr. Honma Junji

Yamanaka describes his work as follows:

Tachi style of the Mid Kamakura Period as well as the very sturdy and rugged type of tachi style known as the IKUBI KISSAKI TACHI. The length of' the blade will be a little short compared to others of that time. Also made KODACHI. HI and Carvings such as BO HI are seen on rare occasions. The width of the YAKIBA is made a little narrow and in NIOI, the pattern in SUGUHA CHOJI MIDAREBA with little NIE and the grain of the steel in the HAMON will show up. INAZUMA are seen along the HAMON and from the deep NIOI, ASHI will run towards the cutting tip.

BOSHI: MIDARE-KOMI with slight KAERI.

JITETSU and HADA: The JITETSU will be strong with the pattern in O-MOKUME HADA and the grain will stand out. CHIKEI will show in places.

Suketsuna Katana

I was presented this great sword in Japan a few years ago at the Tokubetsu Hozon level. I was really excited to see a Kamakura Ichimonji work as they are really rare, and Suketsuna in particular I had only ever seen one in my life (the signed Juyo one, which is owned by one of my clients). I was surprised that the sword hadn't gone to Juyo shinsa yet and any time you get a chance to see or own Fukuoka Ichimonji or the Kamakura branch of this school you should really jump at the chance.

One of my clients was interested and bought the blade immediately. The sword had an old sayagaki that was very hard to read so we sent the blade to Tanobe sensei who read it into Japanese and wrote it up for me and values the blade at 200 gold coins. Tanobe sensei confirmed that the sword should go to Juyo and said it was an excellent candidate, and it passed Juyo in the 60th session. Recent Juyo have been extremely difficult to pass... possibly session 58 was the hardest session of all time to get successful passing. Juyo is a competition and every year the standards tend to shift a bit with the political environment. Recently the NBTHK has been tightening the criteria for Tokubetsu Hozon and Juyo, making them harder to achieve. Getting a Juyo through in session 58 was just about impossible for anyone, as there are sometimes more Tokubetsu Juyo blades that have passed than what went Juyo in 58. Regardless, to get any blade through Juyo in the last 5 years speaks very highly of the blade considering the tighter criteria.

The NBTHK wrote of this blade that it showed a linkage to middle Kamakura Fukuoka Ichimonji work which goes hand in hand with my analysis above in terms of Suketsuna's work period. The hamon is typical for this smith, who's work style shows a hamon that has a variable height, dipping close to the ha and then coming up high again.

The blade has seen battle, and shows a scar alone the mune (a kirikomi). This is preserved and shown in the oshigata as well. We know a lot of these swords were used to fight, but not many of them actually show the scars to testify to their service. So whenever we see these it's a good and lucky day.

I'll add one other thing. After suriage we see some things which are real travesties. Sometimes a blade was shortened with care, and the finishing is beautiful and the new nakago is in good form to serve the blade. The care taken in doing the suriage shows a certain degree of respect as well as skill. Some blades that pass Juyo have horrific nakago after suriage and that's just how it is, an unfortunate thing. A sword like this was finished correctly and the state of the nakago is a compliment to the overall form. I appreciate the care that the craftsman took when doing this work. The fact that the bohi run right through and out the end without so much as tapering indicate that this blade had to be quite huge when it was made. It's still a good size at 70.1... generally anything over 70 cm we consider to be premium and the average length is more like 68 cm which seemed to reflect the desires of Edo period swordsmen who would be using the blade. The nakago is not exactly a reason to be buying or not buying a piece, after suriage it is what it is and we are just here to care for these blades. But I have had Japanese dealers take out one of my koto period suriage blades in the past and look at it and their first comment was, "good nakago" reflecting that the aesthetics of the finishing and the state of the nakago is indeed important in overall appreciation of such a blade. Rather, we just hope that it was done in such a way so that it's not a blemish and something to feel sad about every time we take the blade out I think.

This blade is in old polish that has some hazing from uchiko but is enjoyable as it is. I think a shiage might be a good option though to clear up the uchiko marks and clarify the jihada. I can arrange this for the next owner at a discounted rate (I will cover part of the charge out of my pocket). However classical blades like this do need to be carefully preserved going forward so some thinking needs to be done on this issue. The jihada of this sword is gorgeous itame with chikei showing the direction of Soshu at the time of its make. The hamon though is Fukuoka Ichimonji with strong utsuri floating above it like smoke over a forest fire. There is a lot of fine detail with gunome mixed with ko-choji as well as small tobiyaki torn off the heads of the choji throughout the blade... ashi and yo are throughout as well. It's a fairly wide blade that lost maybe 20 cm due to suriage, so it would have been about 88-90 cm when it was made. The width at the ha is still 3 cm, and the blade tapers elegantly in keeping with Suketsuna's reputation.

Chikei

The NBTHK points out that one of the differences of Kamakura Ichimonji blades is the presence of chikei. Chikei are black lines of ji nie in the steel which combine and overlay the jihada. This is formed from some combination of higher carbon content steel, and maybe certain impurities and special processes. The master of chikei is Masamune, closely followed by Norishige. This mastery of chikei and hataraki of nie is essentially what made Masamune as famous as he is, the top smith in most books and the most famous of all time. His shapes in his blades were not particularly elegant or powerful, they stood out though because he mastered the texture of the steel and brought out all possible activities. The most typical of his work can be seen on the cover of the Sano museum exhibit which I have illustrated here as it is a great example of chikei for people who are not familiar with this activity. You can see the black lines like snakes entwined throughout the jihada. This feature is particularly associated with Soshu den and we will see it in Go and in Norishige and Yukimitsu and Shizu particularly. So it's clear that at this time there is some combination of workmanship and material that brings it out. When we get to the Muromachi and Shinto periods it seems that nobody can really do it anymore and certainly not to this extent.

Whatever it was for chikei it starts with the material because we do see it in Suketsuna and Sukezane. And the chikei are quite obvious too, they form a network throughout the blade, and in some areas are nearly as strong as those in the textbook Masamune work above. One of the strongest areas in this blade is featured to the left.

Utsuri

Kamakura Ichimonji Sukezane and Suketsuna continue to temper with utsuri, a trait they carry over from their study in Fukuoka. This blade has clear and strong midare utsuri. If you have not seen utsuri before or don't know what it is, the word refers to it being a misty reflection of the hamon in the ji. The most typical form is on Bizen blades but there are other forms that can occur. But true utsuri is quite a beautiful sight and to have an example that features it strongly is a real win. Utsuri is usually close to impossible to photograph but when it's strong you can see the ghost image showing up on the frontal formal shots as can be seen to the left. The image is always very faint when shot straight on like this, for the strongest examples. Medium examples and less won't show up at all from the front angle. With the camera at an angle to the light, strong utsuri clearly pops out as a white mist above the hamon, clear as a bell.

Suketsuna who was a successor of Sukezane forges powerful jigane but tempers a quiet hamon. Honma Junji

The dark area below the utsuri and above the hamon is called the antei. In my experience photographing swords, sometimes the NBTHK has written into the setsumei that a piece shows utsuri and I can never see it let alone photograph it. I try different lights, different strength and distance, everything and sometimes I just do not see what they're talking about. There is no problem here, the utsuri is obvious. But most of the time, utsuri is very subtle and can be hard to find. This is why a clear example is particularly precious and it's one of the features I trigger on when I'm looking for an item to acquire.

So from the chikei and the utsuri we can see that this blade is clearly Bizen Fukuoka style work but has hybridized with Soshu den likely because of the native materials and probably a shift in workmanship. Kunimune, Kunitsuna, Sukezane and Suketsuna probably shared materials in the beginning as it would make very little sense for four smiths to move to one place and have to completely parallelize their operations when they are coming at the call of the Shogun. We don't usually see chikei in Bizen pieces though sometimes it's there, but it is seen on Awataguchi pieces usually with very fine forging. This kind of mix of o-mokume with itame in this Suketsuna is another Soshu feature. So what we see in this piece is a very interesting hybridization of Fukuoka Ichimonji and Soshu, and it's really quite rare to get a chance to see such a thing as so few exist from this time period with work existing now only by these two smiths we call Kamakura Ichimonji.

The blade also comes with koshirae that have no papers but would be worth submitting at least for the tsuba. The tsuba is shakudo with a dragon on waves. This theme is popular and not easy to find at all. I've been on the hunt myself and located only two nice ones in a year of looking. School wise it is probably a Goto branch and likely late 1700s to early 1800s in manufacture. The menuki are also black shakudo dragons, and probably the assembly dates to the end of the Edo period and the tsuka wrap may be fairly recent as it doesn't look to have too much age on it.

Overall it is really quite a nice package and it's easy to recommend to anyone on its strengths and rarity. Blades of this age, over 700 years old, come with their flaws and this one is no exception. They were used in battle, repaired, left to rust, repaired, and so on. That the exist at all today is a miracle, especially one like this with a kirikomi illustrating it went through hard use and someone either died holding it or killed someone with this blade. It's something to have on your mind when you are holding this piece that it has seen blood and lived to tell the tale. Ichimonji blades in general have their reputation in the stratosphere for a reason, the Ichi symbol means ONE and the meaning of that is pretty universal on its face. It also means muteki which means that nobody can stand against someone who holds such a blade. The Kamakura-Ichimonji branch of the Fukuoka-Ichimonji school is as rare as you could hope for, with only about 35 blades in total that are accessible to westerners. And the record of Juyo Bijutsuhin through Kokuho speaks for itself in terms of their importance in sword history. I highly recommend this blade if you are in the market for something old, rare and significant.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 16th of October, 2014

Katana, Mumei, Den Suketsuna

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, wide mihaba, noticeable taper, relatively deep sori, chû-kissaki

Kitae

itame mixed with mokume, in addition plenty of ji-nie, much chikei, and a midare-utsuri

Hamon

ko-nie-laden ko-chôji-based hamon mixed with ko-gunome, ko-midare, ko-ashi, and yô

Boshi

a little midare-komi with a short maru-kaeri

Horimono

on both sides a bôhi that runs with kaki-tôshi through the tang

Nakago

ô-suriage, kirijiri, kiri-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, mumei

Setsumei

Fukuoka-Ichimonji Suketsuna moved, according to tradition, with his colleague Sukezane to Kamakura in Sagami province and thus they are both also referred to as Kamakura-Ichimonji. They continued creating an Ichimonji-style chôji hamon [in Kamakura] but with more nie [than the other Bizen smiths]. Other characteristic features of these two smiths are that their jigane shows more ji-nie and chikei, and the ha is full of hataraki like kinsuji.

This blade shows a kitae in itame mixed with mokume that comes with plenty of ji-nie, much chikei, and midare-utsuri. The hamon is based on ko-chôji and is mixed with ko-gunome and ko-midare, and furthermore is of a very ko-nie-laden deki. The jiba shows the characteristic features of a mid-Kamakura Fukuoka-Ichimonji work. However, as the nie are both more emphasized in ji and ha, and as the blade shows on top of that the qualities of Suketsuna, it must be attributed to him [rather than to a different Fukuoka-Ichimonji smith]. In addition to this, the blade has a favorable condition and is of an excellent deki.

Honami Koson Sayagaki

Honami Koson was one of the great experts of the 20th century.

  1. 鎌倉一文字助綱
    Kamakura Ichimonji Suketsuna
  2. 長貮尺参寸壹分但シ大磨上無銘也表裏棒樋有之
    nagasa 2 shaku 3 sun 1 bu, tadashi ô-suriage mumei nari, hyôri bôhi kore ari
    blade length ~70.0 cm, is ô-suriage and mumei and has a bôhi on both sides
  3. 昭和拾八年癸未六月下浣 本阿弥光遜(花押)
    Shôwa jûhachinen mizunoto-hitsuji rokugatsu gekan Hon’ami Kôson + kaô
    Last third of June 1943, year of the sheep, Hon’ami Kôson + kaô
  4. 代金子貮百枚(花押)
    dai-kinsu 200 mai + kaô
    value 200 gold pieces + kaô