Etchu Saeki Norishige

period:Very End of Kamakura (ca. 1332)
designation:NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token
nakago:o-suriage, mumei, three mekugiana
kissaki nagasa:4.7cm
nakago nagasa:21.5cm

Some preliminary notes: I am offering a 10% refund in case this blade does not pass Juyo in the first two tries, 5% each time. I think it is a good candidate for Juyo. As well, the preamble here is the same as on the Norishige tanto, so scroll to the sword details if you've read that. But the style of this blade fits very well with the documented features of Norishige so the commentary provided by books and experts dovetails nicely with the embedded photos in this listing, so I encourage you to read it again, especially due to the importance of this smith.

Etchu province is on the northern shore of the main island of Japan, in the provinces referred to as Hokkoku (the Northern Provinces). There were local smiths in the area and some known groups, but nothing in the way of true master craftsmanship before the Kamakura era. However two of the all time greats arise around 1300 AD. These are Go Yoshihiro in Matsukura and Norishige in Gofuku (sometimes known as “The Two Go” because of this).

The two smiths, Go Norishige and [Go] Yoshihiro, are placed at about the same time period [...] they later made incomparable sword masterpieces that must be said to be unparalleled.

When looking at a masterpiece by Go Yoshihiro by holding up a lantern in the middle of the night, or when drawing a dagger made by Norishige from its sheath and viewing it, you cannot help but automatically reach a serenity of mind which is like a dream. These two smiths were bright morning stars in the northern sky at around the end of the Kamakura period. Nihonto Koza

Go and Norishige do have a lot in common, with a dark color to the steel and expressive use of nie. Through history there have been stories of one being the other's student and vice versa, and both being the students of Masamune. Today the issue is mostly settled with Norishige considered a student of Masamune's teacher Shintogo Kunimitsu, and senior to Masamune. Go Yoshihiro is considered the top ranked student in the Masamune Juttetsu (the 10 great students of Masamune). This list of 10 students has some that are certain, some that are certainly not, and some that are unsure when we examine their credibility with the modern eye. They are all highly regarded artisans on their own, regardless of their association with Masamune, and all show influence of the Soshu tradition in their work.

Norishige has the personal name of Kurosaburo according to Fujishiro who also ranks him at Sai-jo saku, for grand-master skill. He is inevitably and frequently compared to his fellow student Masamune, and his work stands up very well against the greatest Soshu artisan of all time. Fujishiro called some work of Masamune into doubt, but said there is none held for Norishige, as his works are “superb” with a remarkable hada.

Norishige is superior to Masamune in the hataraki [activities] of nie and forges a unique jihada called matsukawa-hada. He is superior to Masamune in the hataraki of jihada and hamon, though he yields to Masamune in the clearness of jigane and the brightness of hamon. It is another feature of Norishige that the border of the hamon and ji is not conspicuous. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Norishige was working at the end of the Kamakura period, between about 1308 and 1328 given his dated work. The close of the Kamakura period is marked by the outbreak of a nasty war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto (Yamashiro) and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino (Nara). This resulted in two different dating systems, a change in weapons manufacture and tactics, and the movement of swordsmiths and schools. Echizen and Etchu provinces saw the arrival of smiths from the Rai school (Echizen-Rai) and Yamato traditions (Uda). Uda is said to have taken teaching from Norishige, and as well Kashu Sanekage, another northern smith, and the techniques of Norishige and Soshu can be seen in their works though the sophistication and quality drops off considerably.

There was a lot of smith movement in these times due to the struggles which would only get worse in the Muromachi period. There is another Echizen smith, Tametsugu, who is the son of Go Yoshihiro. After the death of his father, he is said to have been adopted by Norishige. We can see the emulation of both of his parents in his work, and his is the closest to their skill that came after the two. There are 68 Juyo Token blades attributed to Tametsugu (making him number 26 on the list all-time). He was apparently born in and later returned to Mino a bit later than Shizu Kaneuji in the Nanbokucho period. Since Go died very young (age of 27 to 30), possibly Tametsugu was an adopted son as well, as he seems to have been old enough to pick up some of the style and cues from Go, but not long enough to learn to eclipse his master.

Norishige has various names, he left us two signed pieces with the signature Saeki Norishige, and we take this to be a family name or a neighborhood name in Gofuku-go. Old books have him with the title Shingoro (“New Goro”, in effect, the new Masamune), and with the given name Gorojiro (similar meaning). These are most likely posthumous nicknames as he was thought to appear after Masamune as one of his students. However, since the citation is extremely old it indicates that already Norishige, Masamune and Shintogo had achieved very high fame, and this nickname for Norishige would indicate that Masamune was already preeminent.

Norishige's given name is Gorojiro and [he is] a student of Shintogo Kunimitsu of Kamakura. His personal title is Shingoro. He is an expert of jigane forging and his jihada consists of varied grains with numerous hataraki. 喜阿弥本銘尽, Kiami-bon Mei Zukushi (around 1381 AD)

The Kiami-bon is a transcription of an earlier work that was written in the Kamakura period, and is the first recording of Norishige as a student of Shintogo Kunimitsu. The two works we have today with the Saeki signature are both tanto, and have dates but one is eroded away. The other though places him at 1319 and there is one other existing dated blade with a date of 1314. When we add in old oshigata that look reasonable we expand his work period from 1308 to 1328. All of this is the correct time period for working under Shintogo, so we have both tangible evidence today which confirms the old books and changes the commonly held perception since Edo times that he was a disciple of Masamune. There also exists old oshigata of him writing that he was a resident of Soshu and of Kamakura as well.

The Okinsho Kokon Meizukushi (a historic book) includes a list called kokin-kajimei hayamidashi (old and new sword smith names), which shows Norishige as Sagami-no-kuni junin Norishige [note I corrected 'Norimune' from the translation to be 'Norishige'] NBTHK Token Bijutsu

When we look at the style of the early dated tanto they do not depart very far from Shintogo Kunimitsu, all of this combines to indicate that he was one of the disciples of Shintogo learning Soshu craftsmanship in Kamakura and is a little bit older than Masamune, though they would be working side by side.

Today Norishige is most famous for a style of forging that he developed later on in his career, which combined a large patterned jihada with hard and soft steels which combined into many interesting nie effects. Old books comment on it, aside from the NBTHK . This large pattern and combination of steel is something that he took and perfected from the Ko-Hoki smiths that were three centuries in his past, and also worked in the north.

The jihada is o-itame-hada combined with itame and whirlpool like hada in large grain in company with abundant ji-nie and a lot of thick chikei which then stands out. This unique jihada is so-called matsukawa-hada or Norishige-hada. An old book says “Norishige is good at forging iron material and his jihada looks complicated.” Norishige combines soft and hard iron materials and produces unique jihada and jigane looks black [and] that is one of characteristics of Hokkoku swords. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

His work in this regard is peerless and distinctive. Nobody before him or since him was able to replicate it and in examining the works of Hankei, a famous gunsmith turned master swordsmith in the Shinto period who attempted to copy Norishige's work, the high degree of lamination failures indicates that this was very difficult to successfully achieve. Norishige's work as a result will tend to have some flaws in it when he developed this style due to the presumed difficulty of working this material.

The steel has been worked very well, so the grain results in ko-mokume hada with o-hada mixed in. There will be an ayasugi-hada effect steel, or whirlpool effect steel and within it will be chikei. This is popularly called the Matsukawa Hada of Norishige, one of the main trademarks of this smith.

The grain of the steel will stand out within the hamon and there will be sunagashi as well as violent inazuma which in entering the ji becomes a chikei. This particular occurrence is seen most from the middle of the blade towards the fukura area.

In the case of Norishige, steel having been well worked the result is very much in evidence in the Hamon as well as in the Ji with various 'workings' resulting from the Nie such as Chikei and Inazuma and Kinsuji.

Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

The matsukawa hada of Norishige is very easy to recognize once you've seen it and hard to forget due to its unique character.

Student A: How about the matsukawa-hada produced by Norishige?

Kanzan: The chikei is formed by mixing hard and soft steels in the process of forging which primarily derives the overall texture or hada on the metal surface. The chikei appears in the hada as an outstanding additive to it. The name matsukawa-hada was probably given to it owing to the appearance of the hada containing this particular kind of chikei making it look like the bark of old pine trees. English Token Bijutsu

Chikei are formed by ji nie which cluster together tightly and then overlap, making for patterns of harder steel embedded into softer steel. This is difficult to achieve forging wise and for heat hardening, not to have the whole thing fail. It achieves beauty when polished because of the contrast in the materials, and the chikei tend to shine brightly or look black as you move the sword through the light. Crossing into the hamon chikei become inazuma (lightning) and also entirely inside the hamon become kinsuji (gold lines).

Norishige is known for his particularly broad and violent nie hataraki (activities) that are contained with in the jihada and the hamon and cross back and forth between the two. This makes large areas of the sword have uncertain borders between these two zones. There is so much activity in both that it is just not clear where one begins and where the other ends. The descriptions of his activities are usually long because everything nie-related with a name can be found in his work.

[Norishige] left many zai-mei tanto that have shorter ha-watari and uchi-zori. He appears to have challenged Ko-Hoki and Ko-Bizen swords also demonstrated a creative workmanship of nie-deki like Masamune. Hataraki of his nie is more vigorous and lively than Masamune's. Hataraki of ji may exceed Masamune's but his jigane is somewhat inferior to Masamune in clearness and looks darker. The nioi-guchi of Norishige is not so bright and the border between ji and ha is not clearly defined [...]

As for the hamon, its border line is usually misty and unclear because of the density and thickness of both nioi and nie grains forming the nioiguchi, but the hamon consists of notare mixed with compact midare and gunome, and plenty of ashi together with kinsuji and sunagashi. The boshi depends on the kind of hamon and jihada in the lower portion and appears in various patterns such as midare-komi embellished with hakikake, and yaki-kuzure (deformed) or togari-gokoro (almost pointed). Horimono is rarely found on his works. The tip of the nakago is either kurijiri with very little curvature or almost kiri. The yasurime is almost horizontal katte-sagari. The mei is always given in two Chinese characters incised powerfully with a big chisel. The elegant style of writing is also characteristic of this artist. English Token Bijutsu

As for the jitetsu of Norishige, the hamon appeared in the hada and was entwined by the hada with sunagashi majiri. Fujishiro Yoshio

The shapes of his nakago change from time to time, with Dr. Honma commenting that this is likely due to requirements from the koshirae it was intended for. One of these shapes is kiri (straight cut), which is something also found in Yamato works such as the Hosho school. I've read that these were not so much cut, but probably chiselled and then broken off to create the straight edge.

Norishige has long been considered one of the master tanto makers. He is known for a shape of tanto called takenokozori which refers to a bamboo shoot. This type of shape has what they would call “scarce fukura” and by this they mean that the very end of the tanto is quite sharp without much roundness in the kissaki area. This is one of the traits you would use to identify Norishige during kantei.

In the Koto Period, among the few smiths who were skilled at making tanto, the outstanding smiths are: Awataguchi Yoshimitsu of Yamashiro Province, Rai Kunitoshi of Yamashiro Province, Shintogo Kunimitsu, of Soshu Province, Norishige of Etchu province, Osafune Kagemitsu of Bizen Province, and Samonji. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

A further trait for Norishige and Soshu tanto in general is mitsu-mune (three sided spine). In this we look for the flat area to be fairly wide and the edges to be quite steep. Not all works have it or are required to have it, but it is considered one of the good features to have when it's there.

Norishige left us a good number of masterpieces and his signature has continued to exist for us. These are almost all items that come from his time after Kamakura, probably he returned to Etchu after the death of Shintogo. Whatever habits were going in Kamakura, it resulted in very few works being signed. Tachi lost their signature by shortening but seem also to have been made unsigned, and ko-wakizashi were often not signed until we get to Hiromitsu. But for Norishige we have 94 blades that have passed Juyo and higher of which two are signed tachi and are two of the three that exist today. He has 22 Tokubetsu Juyo Token, which places him third after Rai/Niji Kunitoshi and Kanemitsu (keep in mind there are two Kunitoshi and two and a half Kanemitsu for every Norishige left)

In this count 35 are tanto, 23 of which are signed. Six of those tanto are also Tokubetsu Juyo. Two of the signatures are long signatures, another three show some unusual characteristics, with the rest being considered the standard signature of Norishige. As well as the NBTHK blades there are another eight Juyo Bunkazai and one Kokuho, all of which attests to his immense skill and reputation. The Kokuho tanto is referred to as “Nippon Ichi”, the best in Japan.

Norishige Katana

This Norishige is accompanied by Honami Chikayoshi origami written in May 7th of 1895. He was the son of Honami Choshiki and was the 7th master of the Kozan line, working for the Baron Ogasawara Nagayoshi. He is the author of the book Shinto-kaji-ko “Discourse on Shinto Smiths” but died before completing it in 1916. This book is a companion to Honami Nagane's Kosei-koto-meikan on koto works. One of the interesting things about this book is that it restores the use of the word kantei which we use today in the game/lesson of determining the maker of mumei swords.

Due to financial pressure during his life Chikayoshi was forced to sell the Kozan oshigata which was authored at the beginning of the 1700s by the line founder Kozan. In 1917 the Chu-Token-Kai (a sword club) borrowed these oshigata and published them, which was a good move as some of these old books that the Honami had hoarded were singular copies and as a result were easily lost or burned in house fires. The actions of this club preserved the knowledge for everyone, and today the Kozan oshigata are available to everyone and are a critical resource for researching old swords. Many swords documented in the Kozan oshigata are now lost, but sometimes they turn up unexpectedly in the USA (one critically important tanto documented in this book appeared on eBay as a Japanese knife!). This book is a first stop for researching swords that are signed and we think might be an important lost artifact.

After Chikayoshi's death his widow sold off the remaining Kozan line's accumulated sword documentation and as a result this effectively ended the Kozan line.

Honami Chikayoshi in this origami noted the bohi and soebi, and gave the sword a very high value of 300 gold coins. By the Meiji period gold coins had devalued somewhat and there had been some inflation on the gold valuation of swords, but even with that factored in it is a very high ranking (I haven't seen any higher).

This sword received its torokusho in Showa 26 (1951), and this sword has a very low serial number of 1141 showing just how early it was processed. Showa 26 is the first year that swords were licensed with the official licensing scheme in Japan. During this year Daimyo were approached and their collections were handled first, as a means of setting an example that this was not a scheme to round up and confiscate swords (as had happened multiple times in Japanese history). So when we see these 1951 dated torokusho we know that the blade was most likely from a daimyo collection. Since Chikayoshi had an association with the Ogasawara Baron, that is a likely candidate for the origin of this sword.

In spite of its early registration this sword remained off the radar in Japan until the summer of 2015. It was with several other blades that went to the NBTHK at the same time and I was able to round up after they papered. They had not been properly cared for, with identical spider rust patterns growing on several of them (one had been touched up already), and some others also had old Honami attributions to good smiths or were signed.

The NBTHK confirmed the attribution to Norishige then and I acquired the blade shortly thereafter, brought it in for sayagaki, and had it polished afterwards. I am in the process of bringing this blade back to Japan for Juyo in September, and it has not been submitted as of yet.

Norishige is a smith who resides at the very top level skill wise and historically among sword craftsmen. Recently the price to acquire Juyo katana by this smith, along with Muramasa, have been going up with the last two I saw sell in Japan averaging $100,000. I think this is a good candidate for Juyo and I am including a contract with the sale that if it doesn't pass Juyo on the first or second try, I will refund 5% each time from the purchase price as a way of standing by the candidacy of this sword.

This is a work from the very end of Norishige's career so I put it to the Kamakura/Nanbokucho boundary. It features an elongated kissaki which predicts the o-kissaki of the Nanbokucho period and these are found from time to time in Norishige's end of career works. It is a good length, just slightly under 70cm, and is wide at the moto as we would expect with very end-of-Kamakura blades, with just the right amount of tapering to have a nice shape with deep sori. The sword also has very flamboyant jihada as can be seen in the photos throughout this listing, the activities of which intertwine with those of the hamon. This is one of the major kantei points of Norishige. The jihada is very complex with itame as its base and chikei laid overtop in matsukawa and as well wavy patterned activity that is hard to determine if it is kinsuji or chikei as they exist in this area which Norishige played with between hamon and jihada. It is a gorgeous sword to look at with bright nie from shinogi to ha. There are some weak spots in the ji where the sword shows its age, but I don't think they detract from its Juyo candidacy.

The boshi and monouchi of this sword are particularly packed with activity, which is also something found in Go Yoshihiro, where his hamon moves up to the shinogi in the most typical works and forms ichimai boshi which is a fully tempered boshi. This boshi... is so complex I have trouble finding the right terms to explain it. This is made difficult in part with Norishige's blending together of hamon and jihada activities, but it is either ichimai or as close to it as is possible which would be the midare-komi with thick hakikake as is one of his typical styles. Boshi is one of the key aspects of passing Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo, and this sword does not disappoint in the brightness of nie or density of activity in this area. That the work bears similarities to Go Yoshihiro in this design is not accidental, as Go and Norishige both come from Etchu and work closely in the Masamune group. Since Go Yoshihiro died early Norishige adopted his son Tametsugu and we find influence of both Go and Norishige in Tametsugu's work, of which there are many Juyo Token examples.

Great early generation Soshu work is getting harder and harder to find. Every time I go to Japan I ask and usually there are none available with most sources. Getting a chance to own one of the pinnacle smiths of the Soshu tradition is something that shouldn't be passed up. This sword also would make a great daisho with the Juyo tanto I have for sale, and I would make a combination price for someone who would like to acquire both pieces.


This sayagaki was done by Tanobe Michihiro, the retired head researcher of the NBTHK.

  1. 越中國佐伯則重
    Etchu no Kuni Saeki Norishige
  2. 大磨上無銘而
    ô-suriage mumei hatashite.
    It is shortened and unsigned.
  3. 同工ノ作ト傅フ地刃厚ク沸付キ地景・金筋・湯走ナドノ働キヲ露ハニ織成スナド
    Dôkô no saku to tsutafu jiba atsuku nie-tsuki chikei, kinsuji, yubashiri nado hataraki o arawa ni shokusei-su nado
    However, it shows the characteristic nie-laden jihada and hamon with interwoven chikei, kinsuji and yubashiri activities, which is so typical of this smith [Norishige].
  4. 同工ノ気質ガ窺ハレ所傅ハ首肯シ得ル者也
    Dôkô no kishitsu ga ukagaware shoden wa shikô-shi eru mono nari.
    In this the hand of this smith [Norishige] is clear, so I agree with this attribution.
  5. 長貮尺二寸九分余有之
    Nagasa 2 shaku 2 sun 9 bu yo kore ari
    Blade length ~ 69.4 cm
  6. 干时丙申泰月探山邉道識
    Kanji hinoe-saru taigetsu Tanzan Hendô shirusu + kaô
    Written by Tanzan Hendô in January of the year of the monkey of the current era (2016) + kaô