Suishinshi Masatsugu

period:Late Edo (1850)
designation:NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token
nakago:ubu, zaimei, one mekugiana
mei:水心子正次 (Suishinshi Masatsugu) (kao)
uramei:嘉永二月日 (A day in the 2nd month of Kaei; 1850)
nagasa:76.1cm
sori:2.1cm
motohaba:3.2cm
price:-sold-

The Shinto tradition rose in Japan from the ashes of the wars of the Muromachi period. During this time masterpiece swords became rare as workshops put emphasis on mass production techniques in order to arm the ever larger and ever less skilled armies that sought to win the field through outnumbering their opponents.

When the dust settled and the Tokugawa Shogunate was established, the old patterns of swordsmiths locating themselves in villages with access to good raw materials gave way to swordsmiths locating themselves in cities. With the country at peace, raw materials could be obtained and transported over increasingly stable roadways and into markets. Economically this had great benefits as swordsmiths could concentrate on production of their goods instead of gathering raw materials. The downside was that the raw materials no longer had local characteristics that became defining hallmarks of the old koto schools. Instead as the Edo period reached its midpoint steel most often became quite generic. With peace came economic prosperity and contractions, similar to what we go through today, but the product of the swordsmiths were no longer being purchased for and consumed in war. The result was a general loss of skill and technique, and even in some cases, the pursuit of function. Artistic hamon with no real purpose and overly elaborate signatures and finishing on the nakago became commonplace as the Shinto tradition matured and lost its connection with the old warriors of the past.

Past the midpoint of the Edo period a talented smith by the name of Suishinshi Masahide (born Kawabe Gihachiro) made swords in the Osaka Shinto style. He began to invest himself in the study of koto works and began attempts to emulate them and rediscover their means of production. He began to travel the country and advocate strongly for discarding the Shinto tradition and encouraged swordsmiths to develop their own steels and to study and emulate the works of the koto period. In this he was highly successful and accumulated many students, and the result of his work is the dawn of the Shinshinto period in which the koto styles underwent revival.

One of his best students was Taikei Naotane, and along with Kiyomaro and Sa Yukihide, these smiths represent the greatest artists of the Shinshinto tradition of the late Edo period.

Masahide before he died changed his name to Amahide, but after he died his son Sadahide chose to take up the name Masahide as the second generation head master of the school. Though he did not achieve the levels of skill of his father, he was an excellent swordsmith and ranked Jo-saku. Sadahide did not enjoy a long period of work under the name Masahide as he died within a year of his father's death, leaving his young son Kawabe Hokushi to inherit the school. Possibly because of the tragic early death of his father after changing his name to Masahide, the third generation Suishinshi master never took on the Masahide name but instead made swords as Masatsugu.

As he was very young at the time of his death, he was taken under the wing of Taikei Naotane who instructed him primarily in Bizen and Soshu styles, the second of which Masatsugu became quite talented in. Yoshitane, the famous engraver of horimono on Naotane's swords also did engraving for Masatsugu. He is said to have been fluent in all the koto traditions. His style essentially follows Naotane and as a result he inherits from two of the most famous of the Shinshinto smiths.

Upper: Suishinshi Masatsugu, Lower: Saeki Norishige (Soshu)

The highly talented Shinshinto smiths never did entirely solve the riddle of the old koto masterpieces but made great strides towards building a new tradition based on emulating the old styles of manufacture. As such we can say he was fluent in these techniques but the Shinshinto smiths actually built something new based on what they could observe from old swords.

Masatsugu worked for the Akimoto clan. This was the daimyo family that held the Tatebayashi domain which had been previously held by the Tokugawa and the Matsudaira clans and produced close to 70,000 koku. This family was quite powerful and after the Meiji restoration were ennobled, taking on the title of Viscount for the head of the family.

Masatsugu was quite talented himself, and Fujishiro rates him Jo-saku though I have read many flattering comments that put his skill on a level of Naotane. Masatsugu seems to have been close to Naotane because he went on to marry Naotane's daughter. Their child was said to be the swordsmith Hidekatsu. Masatsugu died in 1860 and Hidekatsu at this time took up the Masahide name, becoming the 4th generation Suishinshi master, though he is the sandai (third generation signing Masahide) since the name skipped one generation during Masatsugu's headmaster-ship.

Tokubetsu Hozon Masatsugu

This is a large tachi by Masatsugu which is clearly aimed at the work of Norishige both in the jihada and in the hamon. The hamon is ko-gunome with choji mixed in, featuring a lot of kinsuji and nie kuzure. Black ji nie combine and make thick chikei which intertwine into the hamon in the style that made Norishige famous. In this style the activities of the ji and ha combine frequently. In the ji, matsukawa hada is formed and the steel is blackish in keeping with Soshu work of the Echizen smiths (Norishige and Go) while bright clusters of nie streak through above the hamon forming yubashiri true to the Soshu tradition. Another hallmark of Norishige's work, and that of the top Soshu smiths, is the frequent appearance of futasuji hi which we see again in this sword. The hi terminate without going past the yokote and are excellently shaped with the same geometry as the Soshu masters of old.

It is unusual work for a time when muji hada was frequently seen, and he has clearly done his best attempting to bring out the technique of Norishige, a smith notoriously hard to duplicate (in fact, no smith ever has been able to faithfully and completely replicate the work of Norishige).

The sword itself is massive at 76cm long, wide throughout and with deep sori. It is signed tachi mei, all of which further signifies his target as the emulation of the koto smiths. The nakago is finished exactingly but without overdoing it, and the relationship to Naotane is clear from the finishing while his signature follows similarities to his grandfather which is something he must have trained himself to do as his father would not have been alive long enough to teach him much of this art.

This sword is in its original polish or the next one after, so there are some blemishes and marks on it. This is par for the course for a piece of steel that was last polished so long ago. The state of preservation can be shown because the sword features ubu-ba, which is a short area of unsharpened steel just above the machi. Checking for this, we can tell if the sword has seen multiple polishes as this area is very thin and will become sharp very quickly on re-polishing. There is some staining on the boshi which I think can be removed without polish and I've asked Ted Tenold to look into this. After it is cleaned up I will put new photos in place. Because this sword is at or very close to its original condition my recommendation is to not alter the polish but to accept the condition as part of it being a period-perfect antique. Health wise it is very healthy having seen little abuse, there are a couple of areas of weak tetsu in the ji but these are hard to avoid when making copies of Norishige (even Norishige had them) and Hankei, the smith most famous for copying Norishige had them on almost every sword he made in this style.

Masatsugu does have three swords that have passed Juyo Token, and they all follow the Soshu tradition as this one does. It is extremely difficult to pass a Shinshinto sword through Juyo Token, so for the smiths outside of the top five or six smiths of the period, it is a strong confirmation towards any smith's skill to receive Juyo Token in this period.

Though this sword was made as a tachi in 1850 it comes with its original koshirae set up as a katana (as tachi were not worn as working swords at this time). The koshirae feature gold dragons on black shakudo with cloud motif. It's not clear what the school is on the kodogu, as at this time there were a lot of talented metal workers though it is likely they are some offshoot of the Goto family. They are well executed. There is a signature on the tsuba of Ishiguro Masatsune, a top craftsman, but this signature is false in my opinion and I think it was added some time after the sword ban in order to enhance the value of this sword. After the sword ban and in the lead-up to WWII many daimyo families sold off most of their swords and this continued after the war as well. Regardless the koshirae are confident and beautiful and compliment the sword quite nicely.

Shinshinto Taikan

Though this blade is not Juyo Token, it was singled out for publication in the Shinshinto Taikan, one of the essential reference works for study of Shinshinto swords, as representative work of Masatsugu. This confirms it to be one of his masterpieces, and this is easily seen by appreciating all of the beautiful activity Masatsugu was able to pull out of the steel. It can easily stand with a good koto sword.

In summary, this is a fine sword and I think represents very well the Shinshinto tradition at its heart, where the Suishinshi family was central to the restoration of koto techniques. As a copy of Norishige it is very admirably done, mixing the types of steels required to make swords in his style was very difficult to forge successfully. With its large size and ensuite with koshirae, and published in the Shinshinto Taikan it will be a fine addition to anyone's collection.