Yosozaemon Sukesada

period:Muromachi (1537)
designation:NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago:ubu, one mekugiana
mei:Bizen no kuni ju Osafune Yosozaemon-no-jo Sukesada saku
uramei:A lucky day in August, the 6th year of Tenbun (1537)
nagasa:67.8cm
sori:2.85cm
motohaba:3.1cm
sakihaba:2.25cm
kissaki:3.5cm
nakago nagasa:17.1cm
nakago sori:0.1cm
price:-sold-

The setting is Japan, in Bizen province. The time-frame is near the end of the Muromachi period. The country has been at war for decades, and will be at war for decades to come. The great artistry of the past, which began to decline in the Nanbokucho period, was on a continuing downward spiral. The seemingly endless war had sapped finances and desires for artistic and showy weapons. Instead, the rule of the day was for simple, quickly made, and almost disposable utilitarian weapons. Groups of smiths were working as teams in a near assembly line effort to crank out cheap weapons quickly in order to meet demand. Thus, in the haste of producing swords cheaply, and quickly as the Muromachi period unfolded, the old skills that made the finest swords in the past were lost.

It was a time of fierce fighting, and gave birth to the one handed katate-uchi, a shorter version of the uchigatana from the previous age, it was worn edge up. For these, the drawing motion translates into a striking motion, and he who struck first with these sharp swords inevitably would win. It was a simple man's sword for fighting on foot, worn thrust through the belt, and it along with the increased presence of naginata and yari on the fighting field sounded the death knell for the noble horse borne tachi. It was too large, too slow, too bulky, and so the tachi surrendered its place in history to what would develop into the katana.

However, even in this time of darkness there were bright lights. Kanemoto in Akasaka, Mino held a brilliant rivalry with his brother-by-choice Kanesada of Seki. Both made interesting and powerful blades, with Kanemoto developing the seeds of what would be a new hamon, the famous sanbonsugi that became synonymous with the line of smiths that would bear his name well into the future. Works of his hand often represent the highest degree of sharpness a sword can attain. Kanesada, perhaps more artistic, was able to grasp elements of the waning Soshu and Yamashiro traditions. Working in these styles as well as his native Mino, he made swords that remained beautiful and were also renowned for their sharpness. Of swords and smiths tested and ranked in the Kaiho Kenjaku (pub. 1797), and Kokon Kaji Biko (1830) , there are sixteen smiths granted the highest rating (Sai-jo O-wazamono: supreme sharpness). Kanesada and Kanemoto each belong to that elite club.

This is also the era of the very famous Muramasa in Ise. He is a smith cloaked in mystery and myth; a maker of famous swords, often considered evil, cursed and deadly to the owner as well as the target.

Standing above them all in skill was the best of the many Sukesada smiths, Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada in Bizen province. His father was Hikobei no jo Sukesada, a great smith in his own right, eclipsed as a Sukesada only by the skill of his son.

The craft of Yosozaemon was a throwback to earlier times; his is a unique artistry for the Muromachi period, and he stands as the last truly great Bizen smith before this tradition too fades into history. As such, he is considered the representative smith of his period and school, together commonly referred to as Sue Bizen.

Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada had two sons, the nidai Yosozaemon and Genbei no jo Sukesada, both smiths of excellent skill and workmanship. There is a daito in Japan signed both by Yosozaemon and Genbei, and is the only one of its kind that I am aware of. Swords like this are particularly important because they prove a chronology, a similar sword signed both by Hikobei and Yosozaemon names Yosozaemon as the son. Similarly this daito implies a teacher/student relationship at least, if not a filial one, between Yosozaemon and Genbei.

There exists a sword dated Tenmon Rokunen (1538) Nanaju Issai (age 71), and since Yosozaemon died at the age of 76, we know the date of his birth and death, 1467 and 1542 respectively. Yosozaemon continued making swords right until he died, encompassing 54 Juyo Token in his work, and is rated Sai-jo Saku by Fujishiro for greatest quality of workmanship, and O-wazamono for great sharpness. He is valued at 1,000 man yen in the Toko Taikan, but in practice, pieces by him do not often come onto the open market (especially daito). A Juyo Token example by Yosozaemon Sukesada tends to command prices starting at $120,000 USD.

Work Style

There are many interesting elements in the work of Yosozaemon. Though his skill is unusual for his period, his work conforms to the style of Sue Bizen. This, we should look to the elements of the late Muromachi period in his work with superb execution. The representative tanto of the period tend to be short, with a shape that evokes thoughts of yoroi-doshi (Fujishiro p. 603 ko-shimarishita tanto), or otherwise those of the moroha-zukuri shape (pictured at the right). Katana were rather short, tending to be katate-uchi, so one would expect a shortish and stout nakago, with typical Bizen style nakago-jiri. One will expect the mune to be normal iori mune, and his mei will be confidently chiseled in smallish characters, with a slightly right leaning hand.

The nakago will have a typical Bizen shape as well, and one would expect the nakago mune to be a bit rounded at the machi, which will then slowly flatten out as it proceeds to the nakago-jiri. It is often somewhat elongated in terms of its relationship to the cutting edge. As the uchizori shape is a throwback to Kamakura times, this elongated nakago becomes a good kantei point in determining period.

The katana sugata that is traditionally associated (somewhat erroneously, sugata is determined by period more than school) with Bizen has most of the curve near the nakago. Beginning with Nambokucho the sori began to creep up the sugata, and in the Muromachi period you see saki sori, where the curve is evident near through the monouchi to the kissaki.

Utsuri is commonly associated with Bizen works, but by the late Muromachi utsuri had mostly disappeared, so we would not necessarily expect to see it in the work of Yosozaemon. He is well known for a fine mokume and itame kitae, and has produced works in an active gunome choji, gunome midare, suguha, notare, and hitatsura hamon all nioi deki. His work will appear bright and silvery. Ji nie are present, and can form hada hataraki such as chikei. Yosozaemon is famous for a hamon he invented, which is scarcely seen, called kani-no-tsume or kani-no-hasami (crab claw, pictured in the following oshigata) as it looks like the pincers of a crab. The boshi will generally be a continuation of the hamon, most often with very deep kaeri.

His kitae is considered to be the best of his time, so when considering a piece that is extremely well forged, with otherwise typical Sue Bizen characteristics, Yosozaemon should come to mind. His work do not often bear horimono though some are present.

The consideration of mei is particularly important in Sue Bizen work. There are various forms of signature that one sees in the Osafune smiths. One tends to see the niji-mei signatures, and signatures of the form Bishu Osafune Smith in the earlier Osafune periods.

In the Sue Bizen times, a tradition began to be held on the signatures which can indicate the quality of the work. Using Sukesada as an example, lowest quality would probably be mumei, and then Bishu Osafune Sukesada, which are often considered mass produced works (kazu-uchi "mass produced" or taba-gatana "bundled swords," from being sold wrapped as a bundle rather than individually). They will most likely not have a date associated with them. As the signature becomes longer, moving to Bizen Kuni Ju Osafune Sukesada (Saku). These will usually have a date. The highest form will combine this signature with the name of the person ordering the work to be done, and these are considered chumon uchi (ordered works). They will most often have a date. Often on these, or without the client's name, one will see a zokumei (personal name), in the case of this smith it will read, Bizen Kuni Ju Osafune Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada. Sue Bizen swords with zokumei are almost always considered chumon uchi, and almost always will bear a date. Generally, the rule of thumb is that the more information there is on the nakago, the better, when it comes to Sue Bizen smiths.

The mei is something that is important to note, as the names Hikobei, Genbei, and Yosozaemon are very often forged. If one sees a sword with zokumei by one of these smiths, it is a signal that the swordsmith has "signed off" on what he considers to be his best quality of work, special ordered for a client. Such a work will not contain forging flaws or low quality work. So if a lack of skill is evident on such a sword, one should be thinking it is gimei.

Furthermore, the signature form where Ju (lives in) precedes the town name Osafune is irregular in general, but it is the rule for Sue Bizen smiths. The English grammatical equivalent would be a sentence that says, "In California state, lives Los Angeles John Smith." Because it is peculiar and specific to Sue Bizen, many forgers of these names make the mistake of placing Ju after the town name of Osafune, which would be normal for most everything else. However, in this case, it is a very strong clue to the sword being gimei, no matter what the rest of the sword might say to you.

Another note is to valuation. A sword with zokumei, in effect, already has the blessing of the swordsmith so would be given an easier path to Juyo papers than one bearing no zokumei. This does not mean that lacking a zokumei implies that a sword is lesser quality, as there are many that are Juyo without zokumei, and in one case there is even a Juyo katana by Hikobei no jo Sukesada that is signed Bishu Osafune Sukesada, one of the lowest forms of signature. There are rarely hard and fast rules in regards to Nihonto; one has to internalize as much information as possible and then make a judgment call according to one's experience.

Because of all of this, Sue Bizen swords in general have signatures with implication far and above those of other periods and schools.

Yosozaemon Katana

In this blade we definitely have a situation where a picture is worth a thousand words. It is simply a tour de force of skill: a demonstration put on by Yosozaemon about who the top smith in the country was. He has executed hitatsura with a quality not seen since Hiromitsu and Akihiro laid down their hammers, and blows away the Soshu smiths of his era while playing their game.

This style of manufacture for Yosozameon is rare, of the 54 items he has made that have passed Juyo, there are 8 katana in hitatsura, with another 3 showing partial hitatsura elements. There are a further 3 tanto in hitatsura. Most of his work is in gunome midare with some suguba type works mixed in, but it is the hitatsura works that show the full range and ability that he was able to muster. Though this is done in hitatsura, careful study reveals that it is based on his famous crab claw form, and this can be seen most clearly in the monouchi.

That this is a masterpiece is confirmed by the NBTHK in their commentary, and again by Tanobe sensei when he compares this blade to the most famous work of all Yosozaemon, the Yamanaka Yukimori katana ranked Juyo Bijutsuhin. After viewing photographs of the Yamanaka blade, I believe this one to be higher quality and definitely in better condition.

This sword with zokumei indicates it was a custom order made in the Muromachi period, and at this time we can expect these swords to be made for severe fighting. It is highly curved, with a deep sori. The blade is very wide for its length and the appearance overall is formidable. At the time it was made it appeared the owner may have had his name added to this blade, or some time afterwards, but at a later date this was removed from the nakago. Probably this was felt to add to the dignity of the blade, but now we might wish to know who the owner was.

These Muromachi blades were made for fighting styles that involved a slightly shorter blade. For its time period it is exactly what it should be, and remains heavy and without obvious flaw, feeling as if it has just come out of the shop. It is true masterpiece, by the top smith of his era, in a refined and restrained old style sashikomi polish which stands out of the way and lets the blade present itself in all its glory. It really needs to be seen, as photography of sashikomi blades is completely different from those with hadori. These blades require special equipment and techniques and the time expenditure is about quadruple (and I theorize some of the development of hadori as modern polish is due to the rise of sword photography when camera development came about in Japan, but I digress).

As Tanobe sensei writes about it, this sword represents the highest level of skill of Yosozaemon. As noted below, this sword was also selected for the prestigious publication Nihonto Shubi which is a new book documenting many of the very finest blades in Japan.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 24th of October, 2007

Katana, Yosozaemon-no-jo Sukesada

Keijo

Shinogi-zukuri with mitsu-mune. A relatively wide mihaba with a noticeable difference between the width at machi and the width at yokote. A relatively low shinogi-ji and a high shinogi ridge. A thick kasane and a deep sori with saki-zori [i.e., a stronger curve toward the tip] and a chu-kissaki.

Kitae

Ko-itame in a relatively tight overall hada with lots of ji-nie, and fine chikei in some areas.

Hamon

Gunome with slightly wider bottoms mixed with choji like hamon, small notare and some togari-ba inside, which are presenting a complex midare in different areas. There are quite a bit of ashi and yo, as well as much ko-nie, kinsuji and suna-nagashi. There is a mixture of tobi-yaki and mune-yaki that are collectively forming a hitatsura with brilliant nioi-guchi.

Boshi

A deep temper line in midare that is forming a ko-maru toward the tip with the kaeri connected to mune-yaki and running down to reach the machi section at yokote.

Nakago

Ubu with a slightly expanded kuri-jiri end. Katte-sagari file marks with one mekugi hole. On the sashi-omote side, there is a relatively large and long mei carved relatively closer to the mune with the first three characters carved above the mekugi-ana. On the ura side, there is a date inscription with the first character carved above the mekugi-ana.

Setsumei

There were many Sue-Bizen smiths who called themselves Sukesada [祐定] as their art name, and thus we see many swords made by [art name] Sukesada [祐定] with various given names. Amongst those [Sukesada] smiths, this “Yosozaemon-no-jo Sukesada [与三左衛門尉 祐定]” is indeed top-ranked for the number of excellent blades he produced. Though there were actually two “Yosozaemon-no-jo Sukesada,” the sho-dai [i.e., 1st generation] and the ni-dai [i.e., 2nd generation], this particular blade is a work of the sho-dai. Based on an existing tanto blade by this smith with a mei that reads “Made in the 6th year of Tenbun [AD 1537] at Age 71,”1 we can calculate that he was born in the 1st year of Onin [AD 1467]. Therefore, it is evident that this particular blade was made when he was 67 years old2.

Yosozaemon forged blades in a variety of [hamon] styles, such as gunome with slightly wider bottoms, sugu-ha, hitatsura, and etc., in every one of which, he demonstrated his superb forging skills This particular sword is forged in ko-itame to have a relatively tight overall hada with lots of ji-nie and fine chikei in some areas. Its hamon shows gunome with slightly wider bottoms mixed with choji like hamon, small notare and some togari-ba inside, presenting a complex midare in different areas. There are quite a bit of ashi and yo, as well as much ko-nie, kinsuji and suna-nagashi. There is a mixture of lots of tobi-yaki and mune-yaki that are collectively forming a hitatsura with a brilliant nioi-guchi.

It very well presents a masterpiece work of hitatsura by this smith. Especially, the tall midare temper line combined with the yaki-gashira of midare touching the mune-yaki in areas presents such a dynamic hamon.

On a side note, there are some new chisel and file marks added to the date inscription on its nakago. However, it is speculated that these were done when the owner's name, which commonly appeared on Sue-Bizen blades, was removed at some point. As such they do not distract the beauty of the blade.

Translation Notes

  1. The old Japanese system to count one’s age was called kazoe-doshi. In this system, a new born baby was understood as 1 year old at birth and at his/her first New Year’s Day, s/he would become 2 years old, and then at his/her second New Year’s Day s/he would become 3 years old and so forth. When converting the old Japanese kazoe-doshi age to the modern biological age, therefore, normally 2 years will be subtracted from the kazoe-doshi age. For instance, the “Age 71” in the date inscription actually translates to 69 years old in his actual biological age as we count our age today.

  2. Given the explanation above, it still does not make sense to say that the smith was only 67 years old (in today’s biological age) when he was in fact 69 years old in the 6th year of Tenbun (i.e., AD 1537) when both of those swords were supposed to be made. Therefore, this translator tends to suspect that the “67 years old” statement in the Commentary section is likely a typographical error (unless the “6th year of Tenbun” part in the description of the tanto blade in question is a typographical error).

Nihonto Shubi

This sword was chosen by Tanobe sensei as one of the reference works shown in the new book Nihonto Shubi. It is a great honor to be included in this book, as it uses a selection of the very finest swords from Japan. This sword was acquired before the publication of this book, and Tanobe sensei was impressed with it during the creation of the sayagaki.

Sayagaki

This sword bears a detailed inscription (sayagaki) by Tanobe sensei. Tanobe Michihiro is the retired former head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK), and still presides over the Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo sessions.

  1. 第五拾参回重要刀剣指定品
    Dai goju-san kai juyo token shitei hin
    Designated on the 53rd Juyo Token session
  2. 備前国長船與三左衛門尉祐定
    Bizen no Kuni Osafune Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada
  3. 十五字ノ長銘及天文六年紀有之。精妙ナル鍛錬ヲ見セ得意ノ複式互乃目乱ニ棟焼ト飛焼ヲ加ヘテ皆焼刃ヲ形成ス。
    Ju-go ji no chomei oyobi Tenbun roku nen ki kore ari. Seimyo naru tanren wo mise, tokui no fukusiki gunome-midare ni mune-yaki to tobi-yaki wo kuwaete hitatsura wo keisei su.
    There is a fifteen character long mei with Tenbun 6th year (1537) inscription. Refined forging is demonstrated with his favorite composite gunome-midare hamon combined with mune-yaki and tobi-yaki that are forming hitatsura.
  4. 部分的ニ重美ノ山中鹿介□?佩ノ同工作ニ酷似セリ。出来保存共ニ同工ノ最高ノ水準ヲ示ス代表作也。
    Bubun teki ni Jubi no Yamanaka Shika no Suke hai no doko saku ni kokuji seri. Deki, hozon tomoni doko no saiko no suijun wo shimesu daihyosaku nari.
    Certain areas of this blade strongly resemble his Juyo Bijutsuhin blade that had been worn by Yamanaka Shika no Suke. This is a masterpiece of the smith’s work showing the highest level of execution and preservation of the blade.
  5. 刃長弐尺二寸四分有之。
    Hacho ni-shaku ni-sun yon-bu kore ari.] (Blade length 2-shaku 2-sun 4-bu
    Blade length 2-shaku 2-sun 4-bu
  6. 惟時壬辰暦葉月
    Kono toki, Mizunoe tatsu reki, Hazuki
    August 2012
  7. 探山邉道識 (花押)
    Tanzan Nobemichi(Hendo) shiki (kao))

Juyo Bijutsuhin Reference Katana

Mei: Bizen (no) Kuni ju Osafune Yosozaemon (no) jo Sukesada saku (Kiri-tsuke-mei) Yamanaka Shika no Suke wakizashi ken nari namazue Sakyo no Suke Shoji kore
Ha-watari: 64.1cm
Sori: 2.1cm
Motohaba: 3.1cm
Sakihaba: 2.25cm
Motokasane: 0.7cm
Kissaki: 4.1cm
Sakikasane: 0.5cm
Nakago: 17.8cm

The blade is in shinogi-zukuri with iori-mune and has relatively wide mi-haba, deep sori with saki-zori, narrow shinogi-ji, high shinogi, a little thin kasane and extended chu-kissaki. The jihada is fine and well-forged ko-itame-hada combined with mokume in company with chikei and ji-nie, and the jigane is clear. The hamon is wide koshi-no-hiraita-gunome mixed with ko-gunome and togari-ba consisting of thick nioi and ko-nie with bright nioi-guchi then ashi, yo, sunagashi and kinsuji are seen inside the hamon. Also many tobi-yaki and mune-yaki are seen in the monouchi area. The boshi is wide and deep midare-komi with long kaeri in irregular pattern and looks like ichimai-boshi. The nakago is ubu and has kuri-jiri, katte-sagari-yasuri and two mekugi-ana.

There are many smiths who call themselves Sukesada at the end of the Muromachi Period and some of them add secular names to their signatures. Amongst them, Yosozaemon Sukesada demonstrated the most distinguished skill and left many masterpieces. He shows himself at his best in this katana and the kiri-tsuke-mei, which proves that the sword was owned by Yamanaka Shika no Suke, increases its value further. The katana is one of representative swords of the period and has been highly appreciated since old days.

In this period, traditional Bizen-den started to change from hamon in nioi-deki and jigane with clear utsuri to hamon consisting of nioi and nie and jigane with very faint utsuri. Yosozaemon Sukesada tempers various hamon in his swords: full of fukushiki-gunome, fukushiki-gunome in the lower part and sugu-ha in the upper part, sugu-ha in the lower part and fukushiki-gunome in the upper part, sugu-ha, hitatsura, fukushiki-gunome in the lower part and hitatsura in the upper part like this katana, and so on. He then demonstrates formidable forging skill in every case.

It is speculated that there was originally a date of the Daiei Era on the ura of the nakago. However, an unidentified samurai called Namazue Sakyo no Suke obtained this katana that was said to be owned by Yamanaka Shika no Suke. He was very proud of the sword and had the date removed without hesitation and the kiri-tsuke-mei added on the nakago. It is believed that Yamanaka Shika no Suke was a big man and speculated that he used this sword as wakizashi and wore a very long sword as katana too.

Yamanaka Yukimori is a famous and dauntless commander served for a war lord Amako and changed his name to Shika no Suke later. He escaped to Kyoto and made every effort to restore the Amako family after the family surrendered to the powerful war lord Mori in Eiroku 9 (1566). Lord Amako and Shika no Suke joined a campaign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the Chugoku District and defended the Kozuki Castle of Harima Province. Unfortunately they were attacked by the army of Lord Mori and he was captured. Shika no Suke was sent to Mori Terumoto as a war prisoner but killed at a ferry of River Kobe on the way to the castle of the Mori family. He was 34 years old.

(From Token Bijutsu, Oshigata and explanation by Tanobe Michihiro)