Soshu Hiromitsu

period: Nanbokucho (ca. 1360-1375)
designation: NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago: ubu, 3 mekugiana, mumei
nagasa: 37.4cm
sori: 0.5cm
motohaba: 2.8cm
nakago nagasa: 10.3cm
nakago sori: 0.1cm
price: $55,000, on consignment

The Soshu tradition is the shortest lived of the five traditions of koto, yet in spite of its short life it generated some of the most talented and famous swordsmiths. The Soshu tradition developed the art of nie to its peak. It is founded by Shintogo Kunimitsu during the late Kamakura period, in Sagami province. He is a smith either of Awataguchi origin or else trained in Awataguchi technique by an Awataguchi master and possibly with some Bizen influence from another teacher. His blades done in Yamashiro style are very difficult to distinguish from the highest quality Awataguchi masterpieces. The sugata of his tanto though are somewhat more refined than his forebears as the earlier Awataguchi smiths experimented frequently with shape before the "traditional" elegant Kamakura shape we associate with smiths like Rai Kunitoshi and Shintogo seems to have been settled on.

The students of Shintogo Kunimitsu together with their teacher represent the highest degree of sophistication in sword craft. Yukimitsu, Norishige and Masamune are considered to have studied under him in that order of seniority. Their work styles are varied but Yukimitsu's work is closest to his teacher while Norishige's is a style unique unto himself and Masamune is the one who develops the Soshu tradition to the next level of artistry.

The most famous smith of all is of course Masamune, who remains a smith somewhat clouded in mystery in spite of his fame because of the lack of signed pieces. This lack of signed pieces is also a common curiosity of the Soshu tradition. The presence of a sizeable number of grand masterpieces from the Soshu tradition indicates the presence of smiths of the ultimate level of skill. Today these are generally attributed to smiths like Masamune, Sadamune, Norishige, Yukimitsu and Go Yoshihiro. Sadamune is considered to be the son of Masamune and Go Yoshihiro his top student of the famous Masamune Juttetsu, but no signed work exists of either smith today.

The common elements in Soshu master work tends to be beautiful jihada with fine nie in rolling mixes of notare with ashi, choji and gunome mixed in to various extents, and all types of nie activity. Common in the jigane is dark chikei as the Soshu smiths mixed various grades of steel to produce their work. Sometimes we see yubashiri in the jihada. It will be very natural and beautiful like a few small clouds on a lazy summer day. In the work of Norishige sometimes the activity is very explosive in the ji and it can be difficult to distinguish where the ji activity stops and the yakiba activity begins.

The subsquent generation of smiths centers around Hiromitsu and his younger brother Akihiro. These smiths represent the direct lineage from Masamune in the Nanbokucho period. His given name is likely Kurosaburo, and he most likely had a title of Sahyoemon no Jo. Hiromitsu is one of the primary and representative smiths of the Soshu tradition.

At the same time the smiths above are working, Hasebe Kunishige and Hasebe Kuninobu make swords in a somewhat similar style. The production of these two groups is distinct from the previous generation in moving toward ever more flamboyant hamon where the yubashiri have expanded, become more concrete tobiyaki, and multiplied all over the ji. The hamon has become extremely active o-midare with large choji. Together it is known as hitatsura, and is very famous and strongly associated with the work of these Nanbokucho period Soshu smiths. It is highly sought after by collectors as the final distinctive high water mark of the Soshu tradition.

The work of the Hasebe school is found a bit more often than the main Soshu line of Hiromitsu and Akihiro, but it too is rare. There are at my current count 28 Juyo and higher works of Hiromitsu with two Kokuho. Nine of the 28 above are Tokubetsu Juyo, showing the high regard this smith is held in. Akihiro's is even more rare with only 15 Juyo Token, four of which are Tokubetsu Juyo.

One oddity is that while katana that are cut down from tachi are found relatively frequently with the earlier Soshu smiths, for Hiromitsu, Akihiro and Hasebe, the number falls off dramatically. In the case of Hiromitsu there is one well confirmed and documented piece by the smith which is a signed and dated tachi found in the USA by Ralph Bell and also written up by Fujishiro. This piece is Juyo Bijutsuhin as well as Tokubetsu Juyo and features a more quiet form of hitatsura where the activities in the ji are a subdued and elegant mixing of steel that is, in my theory, a purposeful trait to prevent over-hardening of the tachi. The remainder of the works of Hiromitsu and Akihiro that are confirmed by the NBTHK are all tanto or wakizashi.

These works are most frequently a hirazukuri tanto with exaggerated sugata and some curvature, and violent hitatsura with horimono. In one case there is a suguba work by Hiromitsu, and some of his work is a more traditional tanto shape, but mostly they are extended sunnobi tanto that fall into the wakizashi category. Some are unsigned, some are signed nijimei, and others with a long signature and date or partial date (especially in the case of Akihiro). Sadamune tanto and wakizashi are similarly all unsigned, and unsigned works in this style are also seen in Hasebe. Why this is so frequent in the Soshu tradition is not currently a settled argument and as we don't have any solid evidence they mostly revolve around speculation.

The small number of surviving blades is another mystery. These smiths have been famous through the ages, but only a mere handful of blades have found their way to the present age. The lack of long work that has survived is theorized as an artifact of the destructive consumption of tachi during the Northern/Southern courts wars. Wakizashi and tanto being arms that would be weapons of last resort have been more likely to pass through the ages undamaged.

Whatever the reason may be, the vast majority of the small number of works left to us from the mainline Soshu tradition of the Nanbokucho period means that we know these smiths by this type of work. It can be resolved in kantei at a glance due to its fame and unique composition in spite of the fact that they are so rarely seen.

Hiromitsu works were given as gifts from Daimyo to Shogun and vice versa. For instance on April 18th of 1680 Inaba Mino no Kami Masayuki presented a Bizen Nagamitsu to the Shogun and receives in return an Awataguchi Hisakuni and a Soshu Hiromitsu wakizashi for his son Tango no Kami Masayuki (my note, good trade for the Inaba family!).

Both Hiromitsu and Akihiro are ranked at Sai-jo saku by Fujishiro, for grandmaster levels of artistry. After their passing, subsquent generations of Tsunahiro, Hiromasa, and Masahiro inherit the Soshu tradition but over time their skill fades and never reaches the Nanbokucho period levels again. The natural and violent hitatsura of Hiromitsu and Akihiro takes on a more self-conscious and conspicuously forced style. This seems to imply the smiths were trying to maintain the work of previous generations but had lost some of the understanding of how it was formed. By the end of the Muromachi period the Soshu tradition had become only a pale shadow of its former glory and it is not until the early Shinto resurgence that master smiths like Umetada Myoju and Horikawa Kunihiro would make copies of Soshu works that any remarkable achievement would be seen in this style again.

Hiromitsu Wakizashi

It is with great pride that I list this work on my website. I have sought out a work by Hiromitsu for a long time, and this is the first wakizashi I am aware of by this smith that has landed on North American soil. Mainline Soshu is one of my key areas of interest and having a work such as this to examine and document has been a joy.

This gorgeous work by Soshu Hiromitsu has been ranked as Juyo Token by the NBTHK. Dr. Honma Junji, the leading Soshu expert of the 20th century, has also appraised it personally as Soshu Hiromitsu and his sayagaki graces the shirasaya. The work style is in typical flamboyant hitatsura and fills the entire hamon and ji with activity of all sorts. The sword is absolutely packed with ji nie which glitter as it turns through the light.

There are some minor kitae ware on the sword, but nothing that is unexpected in an old koto blade.

Dr. Honma attributed this to Eiwa era which would be at the very end of Hiromitsu's production, which would make this one of his last works in his fully formed style. The Juyo panel cited an earlier span of work for the wakizashi. In all ways however, it lives and breathes the Soshu den, from the ji nie, to the hitatsura, to the mitsu mune.

I can't stress enough the rarity of main line Soshu work like this, especially of Hiromitsu and Akihiro. This wakizashi, ensuite with fine koshirae, would make a rare and significant contribution to a collection of any level. For a Soshu collector, it represents a difficult to achieve main line work from the Nanbokucho period and is highly recommended.


Koshirae

This piece is also accompanied by elegant koshirae featuring primarily the kiri mon that was used first by the Imperial family in the Kamakura or earlier periods, and most famously by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Secondarily featured is the kiku mon of the Emperor, so the flavor of this koshirae I think is established to show support for the Imperial dynaasty. The tsuba has also been papered to Hozon by the NBTHK and is attributed to Kenjo: 献上, which is a bonus in this package. To my limited tosogu knowledge this is Kenjo Shoami rather than the Goto smith of the same name (which would be higher level), so I am erring on the side of caution. Kenjo Shoami is a fairly rare attribution as far as I understand it.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 14th of April, 1989 - Session 35.

Wakizashi, Mumei, Den Hiromitsu

Shape

hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, wide mihaba, shallow sori.

Kitae

itame mixed with mokume which appears rather as ô-hada, in addition ji-nie and chikei

Hamon

nie-based chôji mixed with gunome, ashi, sunagashi, kinsuji and tobiyaki which appears altogether as hitatsura

Boshi

midare-komi with hakikake and a somewhat pointed kaeri on the ura side

Horimono

on both sides a futasuji-hi with kaki-nagashi

Nakago

ubu, kurijiri, unclear yasurime, three mekugi-ana, mumei

Setsumei

Hiromitsu and Akihiro (秋広) were after Sadamune (貞宗) the most representative Sôshû smiths of the Nanbokuchô period. Unfortunately, there are no signed tachi of Hiromitsu extant [Note: the signed tachi by Hiromitsu re-surfaced in the USA a bit more than ten years after the writing of this setsumei - db]. Most of his blades are large dimensioned tantô or wakizashi, reflecting the trends of the time.

His strong point was a hitatsura-hamon, a hamon interpretation which was up to Hiromitsu´s time not seen in Sôshû-mono. Extant date signatures range from Kan´ô (観応, 1350-1352) to the eras Bunna (文 和, 1352-1356), Enbun (延文, 1356-1361), Kôan (康安, 1361-1362), and Jôji (貞治, 1362-1368). This wakizashi is mumei but shows in terms of sugata and jiba undoubtedly the characteristic features of Hiromitsu. Apart from that, it shows a perfectly healthy (kenzen) deki.

Honma Sensei Sayagaki

  1. 粗州廣光
    Soshu Hiromitsu
  2. 永和代
    Eiwa dai
    Eiwa era (1375-1378)
  3. 刃長一尺二寸三分
    Hacho ishaku ni sun san bu
    Edge length 1.23 shaku (37.3 cm)
  4. date, signature and kao of Kunzan (Dr. Honma Junji)