Chikuzen Samonji

period: Early Nanbokucho (ca. 1340)
designation: NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago: ubu, 2 mekugiana
nagasa: 25.1cm
sori: 0.1cm
motohaba: 2.35cm
nakago nagasa: 7.65cm
nakago sori: very slight
price: -sold-

Chikuzen province is on the far southern and western region of Japan. It was a region that had military activity for the defense of the nation against external forces (i.e. Mongol and Toi Invasions). Facing Korea, it had to deal with external realities and far from the capital, military outposts here had to rely on local manufacture for supplies and weapons.

There is likely sword manufacture going back deep into time, but the most famous products of Chikuzen are from the school of Samonji. This nickname of Samonji comes from the habit of signing his swords with the single character “Sa” (左). The signature of “Sa” is itself thought to be a nickname, short for his given name “Saemon Saburo.” Samonji would sign the “Sa” character on the omote side of a tanto, and sometimes on the other side he'd write “Chikushu ju” (meaning: a resident of Chikushu). This is an interesting habit of his and somewhat unique to his school. On the two signed tachi that exist (please note: other reference books will say there is only one, this is outdated information), he signed all on one side. There are however oshigata remaining of swords now lost, destroyed or now suriage mumei where he signed on both sides similar to tanto. His style of signature is held to be very beautiful, similar to brushwork calligraphy and so very aesthetically pleasing. It is compared in the old book Kokon Mei Zukushi to Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, which was claimed to be the model for his style of signing.

Samonji lived in Hakata Okinohama of Chikuzen province and was a true giant in the craft of the Japanese sword, and this respect for him is shown in a further nickname of “O-Sa”, meaning “The Great Sa”. Today we use the names Sa, O-Sa and Samonji interchangeably which may be confusing to beginners.

Preceding Samonji in Chikuzen was his father Jitsua, grandfather Sairen, and great grandfather Ryosai who is considered now to be founder of this line. Samonji's predecessors however worked in a traditional and somewhat rustic local style. It was neither flashy nor flamboyant but these smiths retained considerable skill and are ranked Jo-saku and Jo-jo saku for superior to greatly superior levels of craftsmanship. Jitsua worked at the end of the Kamakura period and Samonji has dated work that has been discovered through time starting around Karyaku (1326) though these older works no longer exist now.

The early works dating up until 1339 resemble work of his teacher and father Jitsua and are in the old Chikuzen style. Starting around 1340, something changes and his work quite quickly becomes infused with the Soshu den. His last dated work is only known from old oshigata and is 1347. It is fair to believe his work period beginning a few years before 1326 and extending a few years past 1347, making him a man of the late Kamakura and early Nanbokucho periods, probably concurrent with Go Yoshihiro, Shizu and coming a bit before Sadamune. His students' dated work take precedence starting at 1350 so this would likely be the end point of his career. So we have Soshu works appearing from Samonji for only approximately a 10 year period of time, making them quite rare overall.

He went up to the east and became a pupil of Soshu Masamune, and it is said in various books that have been handed down from the Muromachi period that his technical skills exceeded those of his teacher. [...] Denial of the story about the Masamune Mon is difficult... Nihonto Koza

Samonji brought about a revolution in sword smithing in Chikuzen as his own style is the Soshu style founded in Kamakura by Shintogo Kunimitsu and perfected by Masamune, Yukimitsu and Norishige. In this his work features clear and beautiful steel with bright hamon, chikei and ji nie, which is not found among his predecessors. Because of this Samonji has since the Muromachi period been included in the Masamune no Juttetsu (10 great students of Masamune) in books like the Hidansho. Among these great smiths he is outranked only by Go Yoshihiro.

Samonji

Yoshimoto Samonji

Sa is listed at the very top of the [Masamune no] Juttetsu and there is no one who can doubt this, as it is very much evident from the many works of Sa that we see today.Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

Samonji's work was highly sought after and considered very precious throughout history. For instance, Takeda Shingen requested a work of Samonji for his coming of age ceremony, and gave one to Oda Nobunaga's son Nobutada. Oda Nobunaga when he killed Imagawa Yoshimoto, captured and took his tachi, the Yoshimoto Samonji tachi for himself, and sadly made it suriage, cutting it down from 78cm to 65cm. He had the Honami place a reference to his defeat of Yoshimoto in kinzogan on the new nakago. Like many other things made by Nobunaga, this sword eventually found its way into the hands of Tokugawa Ieyasu and handed down through the Shoguns. The Tokugawa in the Meiji period donated it to the Takeisao shrine which honors the spirit of Oda Nobunaga.

Samonji

Kosetsu Samonji

The Kosetsu Samonji tachi (which is one of only two surviving signed tachi by Samonji) was another famous tachi, this one owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi before ending up with Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Kosetsu Samonji was handed down through the Shoguns and the Kishu Tokugawa branch of the family, and today is a National Treasure (Kokuho). As a side note he also has additional works at Kokuho, Juyo Bunkazai, and Juyo Bijutsuhin levels, which further indicates the reputation and regard in which this smith is held. That these blades are found with Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, the three central warlords in the struggle to unify Japan illustrates the mystique surrounding Samonji in this time period.

Markus Sesko quotes one of the stories about Samonji and Masamune in one of his books:

A legend says that Samonji's blades soon became sharper than those of his master which resulted in Masamune heading for an official post at the bakufu in order to expel Samonji from Kamakura. Well, Samonji returned to Sagami province and secretly forged from the outskirts of Kamakura, but as it was dangerous for him to be there without permission he left his blades unsigned. Legends and Stories around the Japanese Sword

There is some modern argument about whether or not Samonji learned Soshu directly from Masamune, given the distance to Kamakura from Chikuzen. If we assume he did not, it leaves a gap where we need to explain the transmission from the grandmaster Masamune to some unknown smith to the grandmaster Samonji without any loss of skill or technique. If this were to happen then the unknown smith would be of equivalent level to his teacher Masamune and his student Samonji. The only credible alternative would be Sadamune but even so the same counter arguments apply. I don't believe in leaving an empty gap in there for the Soshu teacher of Samonji. So, I agree with Yamanaka and accept the historical chronicle in this case, especially given the fact that Samonji very suddenly replaced the traditional Chikuzen style with Soshu den which we need otherwise believe happened out of nowhere.

This description certainly fits the description of Masamune in every detail. Many of the finer mumei tanto of Sa had been passed off As Masamune in the olden days. [...] From the description we have made above, there is no reason to doubt that Sa was not a student of Masamune. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

The style of the two signed tachi by Samonji show work that retains the traditional Kamakura shape and predates the excessive sugata of the middle to late Nanbokucho period. These shapes we do see in the work of his students. His early tanto have very little to no sori and resemble Kamakura period tanto, and he is well regarded as a master craftsman of tanto, similar to Soshu Yukimitsu, Masamune, Norishige, Shintogo Kunimitsu and Sadamune. This is another strong element that ties Samonji to Masamune I believe, as this is something very distinctively associated with the Soshu den leading up to and including Sadamune. Like Sadamune, the later work of Samonji in tanto form changes and becomes slightly curved. Though, he does not seem to work as late as Sadamune as his tanto never grow to the larger middle Nanbokucho period styles. The largest Samonji tanto is only 27.4cm and this one is almost 2cm larger than the next, which is one of several that are around 25cm long. This to me also places him in time as a little bit earlier than Sadamune and makes Masamune a more likely conduit to Samonji for the source of Soshu techniques.

Samonji himself was also a master teacher, with several great sons and students. The sons are Sa Yasuyoshi, Sa Yoshisada, Sa Yoshihiro. These sons were so talented that they have made swords that have reached Kokuho and Juyo Bunkazai levels. All of these smiths continued working in the Soshu style brought to Chikuzen by their teacher Samonji. The students are Sadayuki, Yukihiro and Sadayoshi. Fujishiro ranks Samonji at Sai-jo saku for highest level of skill, while all six of the sons and students and are also ranked very highly at Jo-jo saku. Together these six carried the Samonji school through the Nanbokucho and left many excellent students of their own. The line would diminish in the Muromachi period and finally any smiths of note conclude quietly with Sa Oishi around 1500.

It is a repeated habit of smiths in this line to occasionally sign only with the “Sa” character (左), so when encountering these works we must be particularly careful about attribution as it may be a reflex to consider them to be works of O-Sa himself. They are however fairly straight forward to separate based on period cues and technical ability as none of the descendants of the school were able to replicate the great skill of Samonji. Smiths who would come much later in the Horikawa school in early Shinto, all the way to the famous Kiyomaro in the Shinshinto period, took inspiration from and tried to copy the works of Samonji.

Probably due to their popularity, most works that are left of Samonji now are often tired from being polished so many times over the centuries. A major sword dealer in Japan was just recently mentioning to me how even in old books the condition of many Sa pieces were already compromised. Many of the tanto have been shortened, probably to retrofit them into high level mountings that were handed down in daimyo families. Even somewhat tired, signed Juyo tanto by Samonji can fetch prices well reaching up to and also well over six figures in US dollars and sometimes into the $200,000 range (or over in the case of Tokubetsu Juyo works). Unsigned Tokubetsu Juyo katana will run in excess of $150,000 and exceeding $200,000. Healthy blades do not often appear on the market and are very much in the minority. Since there is only one signed tachi that is not Kokuho, it's not possible to generalize on the price range of this category as the blade is entirely singular.

Lastly, during the Edo period a list was made of the most famous swords in the country. Almost 200 blades are in the list, 11 of which are Samonji, accounting for about 6% of the total. Today we can find Samonji blades in the collection of the Emperor of Japan. The NBTHK by my count has accepted 47 works of Samonji as Juyo and higher, so his work is quite difficult to come by. Of these 47, 16 are unsigned katana, one is a signed tachi, one is a tachi cut down to wakizashi, one is a naginata naoshi and 28 are tanto. Of those 47 blades, 6 katana and 8 tanto went on to pass Tokubetsu Juyo. There are an additional 9 Kokuho by Samonji, a very high number.

Samonji Tanto

The hallmarks of Samonji include the clarity of the steel, and its slightly bluish or occasionally blackish color. Samonji at the end of his times is known for long turn backs in the boshi and sometimes features muneyaki.

This tanto is a type that is clearly described in the Nihonto Koza. This is an intermediate style where Samonji has stopped working in his native Chikuzen style and is beginning to absorb the Soshu techniques. These transition works are patterned off of Shintogo Kunimitsu and Soshu Yukimitsu. They are in suguba and have beautiful, fine jihada with chikei, and a bright hamon with clear nioiguchi. This is the same description we would have for Yukimitsu when he is working in Shintogo style, and this is the original style of Soshu so it would make sense that he would begin here when learning the Soshu tradition. He would later move on to the midareba that Masamune made famous.

The Nihonto Koza says that these works compare well to Kyo-mono which are the Rai and Awataguchi schools of Yamashiro province. Shintogo Kunimitsu is likely associated with Awataguchi some way, either as a son of one of the smiths or having trained under one of them. His style is very close to Awataguchi and this association with Kyoto underpins all of the Soshu tradition and is the origin of the beautiful jihada, chikei and nie that we see in Soshu. The fine forging techniques are handed down through Shintogo and Yukimitsu to Sadamune and Nobukuni, and we see them too with Samonji. This type of transition work of Samonji is quite rare and as the Nihonto Koza says, they are quite beautiful.

[In works of Samonji] Gunome, and midare with a notare tone are the most common. There are some that are nioi fuka, ashi iri, with ko-nie. There are some in which the nie is strong, and there is a tinge of sunagashi and hakikake. All of them are bright. There is an impression of pointedness, and rarely, there is a hoso-suguba that is beautiful which looks like a Kyoto [Yamashiro] work. Works of the previous period were also tempered with a suguba, but in these the nioi-guchi was like that of Jitsua and is not clear.Nihonto Koza

The NBTHK in attributing this blade with no doubts to Samonji indicates as well that it is from his formative period where he is mastering the Soshu tradition. They point out the hoso suguba, pointed boshi and the particularly refined and beautiful jitetsu of this tanto, which are all are referenced in the Nihonto Koza as noted above. At first glance it reminds me of Soshu Sadamune which is to whom I would have attributed it, and also the work of Shintogo Kunimitsu. The NBTHK however in their analysis though points out the key kantei points of Samonji which this tanto possesses and differentiates it from the work of Sadamune. If it were to be Sadamune as well, it would also be a larger Nanbokucho period type of work rather than the mid to small size of tanto that Samonji always makes.

Though this blade was tempered with a narrow hoso suguba, something that allows for a sharp edge while keeping the blade as robust (i.e. not brittle) as possible, the boshi is in fact quite wide. Fujishiro refers to this in documenting Samonji:

The fact that the yakiba of the boshi is wide is thought to have been due to paying attention to the fact that the tempering of the boshi was easily lost.Fujishiro Yoshio

Many swords that have seen battle have seen damage to the kissaki area. It seems to be the most frequently damaged area in swords. What Fujishiro is pointing out above makes sense, in that a hoso suguba blade that gets damage to the kissaki will become instantly useless since any repair of the damage will lose the tempering in the boshi. By tempering the boshi wide, as in this blade, a chipped kissaki has enough hardened material left to reshape and create a new kissaki, thereby extending the life of the blade. As Samonji continued to refine this style this wide tempered boshi would become a long turnback extending down the mune. There are other transition blades similar to this one that are signed, making the attribution of this one straight forward.

Though this tanto is not signed, it is ubu and in a very good state of health unlike many other Samonji tanto. It bears a kengyô nakago-jiri which is also strongly represented in the Soshu works of Masamune, Go and Sadamune. This in fact looks quite like a good quality Sadamune in the kitae. It also has mitsu-mune which is a feature we find frequently in the top works in Soshu tanto. It is a beautiful reference for Samonji, illustrating his first steps into the Soshu style and emulating work of Yukimitsu most likely due to the fine quality steel, forging, and suguba hamon. Healthy Samonji are very hard to find and usually prohibitively expensive. In 15 years, this is the first Samonji I have had.

The fact that it is unsigned is in my opinion due to the time of manufacture and his residence in Kamakura. This is work that emulates Yukimitsu and Sadamune in technique and their works are almost all unsigned (there are only a handful of signed Yukimitsu works, and none at all of Sadamune). Sadamune also made nakago in this shape, as did Masamune, and as well we see only three signed works of Masamune with many unsigned tanto again. For whatever reason, Soshu tanto were made mostly unsigned starting with Yukimitsu and this one follows suit. It is likely that the customers in Kamakura were high ranking and so the works went unsigned out of respect for the customers. After Samonji leaves Kamakura and returns to Chikuzen, his work is all signed and he teaches what he has learned about the Soshu tradition to his students. We sometimes see unsigned works in their output as well.

This tanto is also accompanied by fine quality antique gold makie lacquer koshirae bearing the kiri mon and a gold family mon on the shakudo and gold kozuka. This type of lacquer is made by sprinkling flakes of solid gold onto wet lacquer, then building it up by layers which creates a beautiful three dimensional matrix of randomly oriented gold flakes. These then catch the light and sparkle as the koshirae moves. The menuki are gold and shakudo as well. It is in excellent condition though there is a little bit of damage to the socket for the kozuka. It compliments the blade very well and makes this a complete and very attractive package.

Though this tanto passed Juyo 9 years ago, yet its previous owner misplaced the Juyo paper. This happens from time to time in Japan, often when swords are sold by an estate and the papers have been kept separately from the sword. In this case the NBTHK issues a replacement paper certifying it is Juyo. The replacement paper is a different style from the original paper and is pictured below. It has the original oshigata and commentary though.

It is not every day that we get to see healthy works of Samonji become available to purchase, so I recommend this tanto highly. Samonji is one of the true masters of tanto manufacture and one of the greatest smiths to have worked in the Soshu tradition, or at all. To own a blade by O-Sa is a lucky occasion for any collector.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 13th of October, 2005

Tanto, Mumei, Samonji

Keijo

hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, wide mihaba, rather elongated for its width, somewhat thicker kasane, shallow sori, rather small dimensioned, scarce fukura

Kitae

dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, many chikei, and a nie-utsuri, the steel is clear

Hamon

hoso-suguha in ko-nie-deki mixed with some fine hotsure here and there, the nioiguchi is bright and clear

Boshi

sugu with a maru-kaeri on the omote and a somewhat pointed kaeri on the ura side, on both sides with plenty of hakikake, the kaeri leans a bit towards the ha

Nakago

ubu, kengyô-jiri, katte-sagari yasurime, 2 mekugi-ana, mumei

Setsumei

Samonji, also known as Ô-Sa, got his name as he abbreviated his first name “Saemon Saburô” (左衛門三郎) and just signed with the character (monji) Sa. According to tradition, he was the grandson of Sairen (西 蓮) and the son of Jitsu´a (実阿). The Kyûshû style up that time was known for its subdued jiba and rather rustic suguha but Samonji broke free from these interpretations and locally introduced a new style which stands out through a bright and clear jiba with conspicuous chikei and midare-chô with conspicuous kinsuji. He trained many students, including Yasuyoshi (安吉), Yukihiro (行弘), Yoshisada (吉貞), Kunihiro (国弘), Hiroyasu (弘安), Hiroyuki (弘行), and Sadayoshi (貞吉), who all continued their master´s style, were all very skilled smiths, and who greatly prospered over the Nanbokuchô period. Signed tachi of Ô-Sa are extremely rare but there are relative many signed tantô extant. Almost all of them are small dimensioned with a shallow sori and a thin kasane, but there is also one tantô in kanmuri-otoshi zukuri known.

This tantô shows a dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, fine chikei, and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a hoso-suguha in ko-nie-deki mixed with some fine hotsure here and there and the bôshi is strong, displays many hakikake, and appears in a pointed manner (on the ura), and so we have all typical characteristics of Ô-Sa. This blade can be dated in the transitional period from when he gradually broke free from the traditional Kyûshû workmanship until the perfection of his own style. The jiba is bright, clear, and beautiful and the deki is excellent.

Sayagaki

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

  1. 第五十一回重要刀剣指定品
    Dai gojûikkai jûyô-tôken shitei-hin
    Designated as jûyô-tôken at the 51st jûyô-tôken shinsa
  2. 筑前國左文字
    Chikuzen no Kuni Samonji
  3. 長八寸二分余
    Nagasa 8 sun 2 bu-yo
    Nagasa 24.8cm
  4. 季甲午霜月探山邉道識生茎無銘也
    Toki sarudoshi shimotsuki, Tanzan Hendô shirusu + kaô
    written by Tanzan Hendô in November of the year of the monkey of this era (2014).
  5. 生茎無銘也
    Ubu nakago mumei nari.
    It has an unaltered nakago, and is unsigned.
  6. 直刃出来ナレド精妙ナル鍛錬ヤ明ルク冴ヘ渡ル地刃ノ状ヨリスレバ革新的ナ作域ニ移行シタ直後ノ所作トミラル
    Suguha deki naredo seimyô naru tanren ya akaruku sae wataru jiba no jô sureba dentô-tekina te yori kakushin-teki na saku´iki ni ikô-shita tokoro saku to miraru.
    From the workmanship in suguha, the fine and exquisite forging, and from the brightness and clarity of the steel, it can be assumed that this blade was made some time between leaving his inherited, traditional workmanship [in Chikuzen] and the full development of his own style.
  7. 珍々重々
    Chinchin-chôchô
    Especially rare, especially precious.