Rai Kuniyuki

period: Early to Mid Kamakura (ca. 1250)
designation: NBTHK Tokubetsu Juyo Token
nakago: o-suriage, mumei, 3 mekugiana
nagasa: 70.25cm
motohaba: 2.9cm
sakihaba: 1.95cm
kissaki: 3.5cm
nakago nagasa: 20.2cm
price: -sold-

The Rai school was founded in legend by a smith named Kuniyoshi, who is considered to have come from Korea. The character Rai means "come", and the implication is that this relates to the founder coming from overseas to Japan. There are no extant works by Rai Kuniyoshi though, so in practical terms the founder of Rai is considered to be Rai Kuniyuki.

He is thought to be the son of Kuniyoshi, and Fujishiro states that he is called Raitaro. His style is purely mid Kamakura, making majestic broad blades with dense choji hamon. Kuniyuki never used the Rai character in his name, though there are some claims to a three character signature existing according to Fujishiro. Dr. Honma writes that in the old swordsmith directories there is a Kuniyori smith listed in the Awataguchi school (though not noted as a swordsmith for some reason), and he had seen a tanto with beautiful Yamashiro jihada which he remarks as being top-class Awataguchi. It bears the signature Sama Chin Minamoto no Kuniyori and an 1185 nengo (Bunji). The Chin character resembles the Rai character and he theorizes this could have been mis-copied in later ages which is an alternate theory to the name of the school, especially as the later Rai smiths sometimes used Minamoto in their signatures.

His work period begins in the Shogen period (1207) according to Fujishiro. There is some fuzz in the dates regarding Awataguchi and Rai as the number of dated works are quite scarce, so in checking various old references you will encounter dates to the best knowledge of the authors of that time. In my opinion, the most reliable form of dating the Rai school comes from the work of Rai Kunitoshi where he signed he was 75 years old in 1315. This makes it most likely that Niji Kunitoshi and Rai Kunitoshi are the same smith, and he was born to Rai Kuniyuki then in 1240.

By moving backwards from this point in time, we could assume that Rai Kuniyuki would be between 20 and 40 years of age most likely at this point, and 1207 would be probably a little bit early for the beginning period of his work. I would think a better start date would then be between 1220 and 1240. Niji Kunitoshi's work then seems reasonable to start around 1260 and the first dated Rai Kunitoshi work comes along at 1289 (a work I once owned). This coincides with the dated work of Awataguchi Kunimitsu, and would indicate then that Rai Kuniyuki is probably working at the same time as Awataguchi Kuniyoshi who is the teacher of Kunimitsu, and Rai Kuniyoshi if he existed would probably be working at the same time as Hisakuni and this Kuniyori mentioned by Dr. Honma. This then leaves open a possibility that the legendary Kuniyoshi of whom we have no work is actually Kuniyori and that Rai is branched off of the very early Awataguchi work. This would seem to make some sense to me and erase a mystery.

Rai Kuniyuki is a smith of great renown, famous both as the founder of Rai and for his highly skilled work for all time. One of his works was presented to a temple in Kyoto by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and this blade is called the Tsuriganekiro (the Hanging Chain Cutter). Yamanaka says that the blade appears never to have been polished since it was made, though it is now suriage and privately owned. He has left to us many Kokuho, Juyo Bunkazai, Juyo Bijutsuhin, and Tokubetsu Juyo blades, as well as signed examples. There are 83 swords that have passed Juyo and of these 17 are ranked Tokubetsu Juyo. His work is quite precious and held in high regard, with such a large percentage passing Tokubetsu Juyo. Though he did not make tanto very often there is one oddball signed wakizashi which is similar in form to the type found in the Oei period and is actually a long tanto of 30.7cm. One other mumei tanto has been attributed to him, but the rest are all daito.

Fujishiro writes that his style of work usually featured choji as a base with suguba layered on top of it, and compares it to a levee that prevents the yakiba from rising. The works that appear to be in suguba are like this which are actually of choji with ashi in the yakiba, and sunagashi is quite frequent in his work. Yamanaka says that his style covers blades that look like late Heian to early Kamakura in appearance and that they have the full elegance of the Yamashiro tradition. He also makes note of suguba-choji with ashi running to the ha, and to look for Warabide Choji especially in the monouchi along with inazuma and sometimes nijuba (which is similar to Awataguchi). Of note, his earlier work has a narrower hamon with chu suguba hotsure and choji midare mixed in, in accordance with the general style of the times. His later work appears with larger, more flamboyant choji which is similar to what we see in the development of Ko-Ichimonji to the Fukuoka Ichimonji schools. An additional kantei point of Rai Kuniyuki is muneyaki appearing as if it were yubashiri which is softer in look than that which would appear to be tobiyaki. His ji nie is so strong according to Yamanaka that yubashiri and chikei will come out of the blade, and otherwise the jihada will be ko-itame with o-hada mixed in. As with the other Rai smiths the skin steel is quite shallow and most of the blade will be formed of core steel. This means that during polish the core is often exposed in places which reveals what we call Rai Hada and is common on Rai blades left to us many centuries down the road from their time of manufacture.

Several schools spring from the teaching of Rai Kuniyuki, Enju though his student Kunimura, and the Rai school through Niji and Rai Kunitoshi (who are likely the same smith). The Rai school would later fork off the Nakajima Rai smiths as well as the Ryokai subschool. As well, its influence would echo down through the ages; though the Rai school died out towards the end of the Nanbokucho and beginning of the Muromachi, the elegant style was revived by Hizen Tadayoshi and made the basis and typical work of his line that would extend right into the Shinshinto period. Today, the elegant work of the Rai school is still held in the highest regard and is one of the high points of the art form of the Japanese Sword.

Kuniyuki Katana

Simply put this is one of the most beautiful swords I have ever seen, and I am including masterworks of Masamune, Go, Norishige and so on in this list. The NBTHK when it passed Juyo called this one an outstanding masterwork amongst all blades by Rai Kuniyuki, who already stands out as one of the top smiths of all time. Viewing the sword makes it impossible to disagree.

This blade is heavy and healthy, in unusually good shape for its age. This blade represents the upper end of Tokubetsu Juyo. The jigane above the hamon is as fine as silk and shows where Rai Kunitoshi learned his craft. Many Kuniyuki are now polished down considerably due to their age and so seeing intact fine kitae is not so common in this work which predates Rai Kunitoshi.

The NBTHK also points out that this sword has the widest hamon of any Rai Kuniyuki known. It is extremely bright and filled with a wide variety of activities. Rather than list them all, you will see them in the translations of the Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo papers below. As usual with oshigata of top blades, detailed camerawork often reveals fine sprays of nie that were not captured at the time of drawing. You will enjoy the slideshow below.

This sword is a single sword collection for someone who wants the best. This kind of sword is what shows us that the Kamakura period was truly the golden age of sword making.

You can choose to own a lot of lower grade items, or just one sword like this (unless you're very lucky and can have a few like this). If you choose this sword, you will find that you will never have time for anything less. It is a wonderful tour de force of skill and a small miracle of preservation.

I asked Tanobe sensei to write a sayagaki for this blade and he concurs to the impressive nature of this blade. For beauty and condition, it is the top grade, especially in regards to its age. One could wish for an ubu nakago and signature, but if you were to do this with this kind of blade, it would be Juyo Bunkazai certainly and possibly Kokuho. So in realistic terms, this is as good as it gets.

I'm proud of this sword, and I know for sure it will bring similar pride and pleasure to the person who chooses it for their collection.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 24th of October, 2007

Katana, Mumei, Rai Kuniyuki

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, wide mihaba, not that much taper, relative deep torii-style sori, rather compact chû-kissaki

Kitae

very dense and overall very beautiful ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, the steel is clear

Hamon

nie-laden hiro-suguha-chô mixed with shallow notare, ko-chôji, ko-gunome, a little ko-midare, connected ashi and yô, sunagashi, and kinsuji, the nioiguchi is wide, bright and clear

Boshi

almost entirely sugu with a short ko-maru-kaeri

Horimono

on both sides a bôhi with kaki-nagashi

Nakago

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

Setsumei

Kuniyuki is regarded as the de facto founder of the Rai School. There are relative many zaimei tachi extant of him but only one signed tantô is known. Also we don’t know any date signatures but as we do so from his alleged son Niji-Kunitoshi, for example from Kôan one (弘 安, 1278), the handed down active period Kôgen (康元, 1256-1257) for Kuniyuki seems to be appropriate. Kuniyuki made tachi with various shapes, e.g. such with a slender, with a normal, and more magnificent ones with a wider mihaba. But in any case, his tachi show an ikubi-style kissaki.

This katana is ô-suriage and mumei but as it is wide, has a deep torii-style sori, a rather compact chû-kissaki, shows a beautiful ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, a nie-laden hiro-suguha-chô mixed with shallow notare, ko-chôji, ko-gunome, a little ko-midare, connected ashi and yô, sunagashi and kinsuji, a bright and clear nioiguchi, and comes with a sugu-bôshi with a ko-maru-kaeri, we can clearly see the characteristic features of Rai Kuniyuki. There is an abundance of various hataraki and the jiba is clear and magnificent and as it is kenzen, we have here an outstanding masterwork among all blades attributed to this smith.

Tokubetsu Juyo Token

Appointed on the 23rd of April, 2010

Katana, Mumei, Rai Kuniyuki

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, relative wide mihaba, no noticeable taper, despite the suriage a deep koshizori that increases towards the tip, rather compact chû-kissaki

Kitae

dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and fine chikei

Hamon

rather wide and nie-laden chôji mixed with gunome, ko-midare, plenty of ashi and yô, kinsuji and sunagashi, the yakigashira are arranged in a uniform manner and th nioiguchi is bright

Boshi

on both sides a little midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri

Horimono

on both sides a bôhi with kaki-nagashi

Nakago

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

Setsumei

Kuniyuki is regarded as the de facto founder of the Rai School. There are relatively many zaimei tachi extant of him but only one signed tantô is known. Also we don’t know any date signatures but as we do so from his alleged son Niji-Kunitoshi, for example from Kôan one (弘安, 1278), the handed down active period Kôgen (康元, 1256-1257) for Kuniyuki seems to be appropriate. Kuniyuki made tachi with various shapes, e.g. such with a slender, with a normal, and more magnificent ones with a wider mihaba.

This katana is ô-suriage and mumei but as it has a rather wide mihaba, a torii-zori, shows a fine ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, a nie-laden hamon in choji mixed with gunome, ko-midare, plenty of ashi and yô, kinsuji and sunagashi and that comes with a bright niogiuchi, and a bôshi with a ko-maru-kaeri. With this we can clearly see the characteristic features of Rai Kuniyuki along the jiba and can thus agree with the old attribution to this smith. The kitae is a beautiful, bright and dense ko-itame that features Rai jihada and the hamon is the largest dimensioned chôji of all works attributed to Kuniyuki. And with the abundance of hataraki in the ha, we have here an overall very flamboyant work with an excellent deki.

Sayagaki

This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagak) by Tanobe Michihiro is the retired head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK) done at my request.

  1. 第二十一回特別重要刀剣指定
    Dai nijûikkai tokubetsu-jûyô-tôken shitei
    21st Tokubetsu Juyo
  2. 城刕来國行
    Joshu Rai Kuniyuki
  3. 大磨上無銘也
    Ô-suriage mumei nari.
    The blade is shortened and unsigned.
  4. 幅廣・猪首鋒ノ雄健ナル形態ヲ呈シ鍛 錬細密而地沸一面
    Mihaba, ikubi-kissaki no yûken-naru keitai o teishi tanren saimitsu shikamo ji-nie ichimen.
    The wide mihaba and ikubi-kissaki are of a powerful shape. The forging is finely detailed and completely covered with ji-nie.
  5. ニ付キ刃文ハ焼高ク丁子ヲ主調ニ互乃目ヲ交ヘ厚ク沸付キ足頻 リニ入リ匂口明ルク冴ヘ小丸状ノ帽子ニ結ブナド一派ノ頭領タル同工ノ特色ヲ顕
    Ni tsuki hamon yaki takaku chôji o shuchô ni gunome o majie atsuku nie-tsuki ashi shikiri ni iri nioiguchi akaruku sae ko-maru-jô no nôshi ni musubu nado ippa no tôryô-taru dôkô no tokushoku o kengen-suru ippin.
    The widely hardened hamon is based on a nie-laden chôji and is mixed with gunome and plenty of ashi. The nioiguchi is bright and clear and when we combine this all with the ko-maru-style bôshi, we learn that we have here an article of rare beauty that displays the characteristic features of this smith and head of the Rai School very well.
  6. 現スル逸品而健ヤカサト相俟ツテ貫録十分也
    Shikamo, sukoyakasa to aimatte kanroku jûbun nari.
    In addition to this, the blade is healthy and extremely impressive.
  7. 長貮尺参寸二分
    nagasa 2 shaku 3 sun 2 bu
    Blade length 70.3cm
  8. 于时乙未極月探山邉道識
    kono toki kinoto-hitsuji gokugetsu Tanzan Hendô shirusu + kaô
    Written by Tanzan Hendô in December of the year of the sheep of this era (2015) + kaô