Awataguchi Toshiro Yoshimitsu

period:mid-late Kamakura (ca. 1270)
designation:NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago:ubu, zaimei, one mekugiana
mei:“Yoshimitsu” (吉光)
nagasa:22.2cm
motohaba:1.95cm
nakago nagasa:10.7cm
nakago sori:none
price:-please inquire-

This Yoshimitsu was a master craftsman of a type rarely seen through all the ages, his reputation is very high, and it has been said since olden times that there was none under the heavens who could compare in exquisiteness and supremacy of his skills. Nihonto Koza

... the most famous of all the Awataguchi smiths is Yoshimitsu, who later was picked as one of the Nihon Sansaku which comprised of Masamune of Soshu and Go Yoshihiro of Etchu Province. Yamanaka - Nihonto Newsletters

[Yoshimitsu] is the rival of Shintogo Kunimitsu in competing for the highest reputation as a master tanto maker. He has long and always won the highest admiration. During the Edo period, his tanto was included among the ranks of the best three in entire Japan, along with Masamune and Go. He was even honored with the designation of being in the first place among [the three of] them. His works were most highly coveted and treasured. English Token Bijutsu

Awataguchi is one of the seven gates to Kyoto city in Yamashiro province. The school takes its name from this gate as no doubt they were located nearby. They served the Imperial Court which was resident in Kyoto, and the Awataguchi smihs have been hailed for centuries as some of the brightest lights in the world of Japanese swords. Their work represents the very top level of craftsmanship.

The roots of Awataguchi are a bit misty but it takes its place after Sanjo and Gojo schools of the end of the Heian period and begins somewhere around the middle to late 1100s, likely concurrent with Ayanokoji. Awataguchi seems to have been famous already in its time, as there is a 13th century book (i.e. from the 1200s, the time that Awataguchi was active) called the Ujijui-monogatari which mentions the school of smiths.

The founder is Kuniie, who belonged to the Fujiwara clan and had the family name Hayashi. He would have six sons, each of which would achieve great heights in the craft of sword making. They are Kunitomo, Hisakuni, Kuniyasu, Kunikiyo, Arikuni and Kunitsuna. Kunitomo represents the main line, having handed the school down to his son Norikuni, grandson Kuniyoshi, and great grandson the very famous Yoshimitsu. Rounding out the top Awataguchi smiths is Kunimitsu who is likely the younger brother of Kuniyoshi.

There are other Awataguchi smiths of great skill: working at the same time as Norikuni are Kunizane, Kunisuke, Tomosue, Kagekuni, Kunisue, Ienori, Kunihide and Kunihisa. At the same time as Kuniyoshi are Kuninobu and Masamitsu who are likely to be his brothers as he is said to be the oldest of six like his grandfather was. And following Yoshimitsu are Yoshimasa and Yoshikuni. Yamanaka goes on to mention several more peripheral Awataguchi students: Hisamoto, Masasue, Hisayoshi, Arimitsu, Arimoto and Arinaga.

Kunitomo, Kuniyasu and Hisakuni would serve Emperor Gotoba as three of the first twelve Go-ban Kaji (swordsmiths summoned to teach sword smithing to the Emperor). We can assume that these smiths were considered best in the land, and similarly honored were smiths of Fukuoka Ichimonji and Ko-Aoe. Hisakuni is considered to be one of the two principle organizers and captains of the first twelve and the administrator who arranged the next 24 swordsmith tutors. Among those 24, Kunitomo would again serve. The last group of six tutors after Gotoba was banished to the island of Oki included Awataguchi Kunitsuna and Awataguchi Norikuni. Kunitsuna would be summoned to Kamakura by the Hojo regent some time after this along with Ichimonji Sukezane and Saburo Kunimune. Together they would found the Soshu tradition.

Since Edo times, Soshu Goro Nyudo Masamune, Go Yoshihiro, and Yoshimitsu are the three master smiths who are called the “Tenka sansaku” (i.e. the three best swordsmiths in the world ), and among them Yoshimitsu was evaluated as the best smith, and his work was treated as the best. NBTHK Journal

Yoshimitsu of course is famous as one of the Nihon Sansaku (Three Great Smiths of Japan), along with Masamune and Go Yoshihiro. At the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the Muromachi period these three smiths were thought to represent the very pinnacle of the art form.

Presentation Swords

In the 1500s standards were laid out as to what smiths were acceptable for gifts to and from daimyo and shogun. From these lists it is possible to determine at the time which blades and makers were held to be the ultimate craftsmen. Markus Sesko documents several of these in one of his excellent books. The Sôgo-ôzô-shi (宗吾大艸紙) Kyōroku 1 (享禄, 1528) lists acceptable makers to be used as presentation items. Explicitly 23 makers are named, and include Hisakuni, Kuniyoshi, Arikuni, Yoshimitsu, Kunitsuna, Norikuni and Kunitomo of the Awataguchi school (comprising about 33% of the list). Also in the list are Kiku blades (those of Gotoba), Ko-Bizen Tomonari, Ko-Bizen Masatsune, Soshu Masamune, and Soshu Sadamune, among others.

Historical Forms

Awataguchi tachi come in two forms generally. One is a gentle sugata that comes from the earliest times and is similar to that made by Sanjo and Gojo schools. Later work has bôhi and ikubi kissaki and a wider blade. Beautifully forged jihada packed with sparkling ji nie is the hallmark of this school, as it is usually considered to be the very best of all swords and “it looks like Awataguchi” is a very high compliment to pay the kitae of any sword. The hamon is usually suguba with many small details including ko-choji and Kuniyoshi in particular is known for making nijuba. The nie activities and beautiful jigane of the Awataguchi school is the pathway from which we see the flowering of Soshu through the work of Shintogo Kunimitsu, Yukimitsu, Masamune and Sadamune. Nagayama in fact has Shintogo Kunimitsu as a son of Awataguchi Kunitsuna. This does make sense given that his work is extremely similar to Awataguchi and it fits name inheritance. Whether it is so or not, it is absolutely clear that Awataguchi is a major influence in the composition of the Soshu tradition.

There are many famous named blades from the Awataguchi school. An example of how this comes to pass is documented by Markus Sesko.

Once Hôjô Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263), regent in the name of the Minamoto, invited excellent swordsmiths to Kamakura to have them work officially for the bakufu. One of them was Kunitsuna who came originally from Kyōto´s Awataguchi school (粟田口). When Tokiyori was one day afflicted by a mysterious disease — a small demon appeared every night in his bed-chamber — he dreamed of an old man who said to him: “I am your sword of Kunitsuna. Someone touched me with dirty hands and now I can't be drawn out of my scabbard because I am so rusty. When you want to get rid off this demon, you should quickly free me from rust.” Right at the next morning Tokiyori cleaned the blade and stored it at its rack, but as if by magic it fell down, slid out of its scabbard, and cut off a foot of the nearby brazier. This foot was made of silver and shaped like a demon. From that day on Tokiyori was never again pestered by the small demon and so he gave the blade the name “Onimaru” [Demonblade]. Markus Sesko, Legends and Stories Around the Japanese Sword

Work of the Awataguchi school today is quite rare, and what exists almost always passes to the higher ranks beginning with Juyo. Awataguchi is very well represented at the highest ranks of Tokubetsu Juyo, Juyo Bijutsuhin, Juyo Bunkazai and Kokuho. 27 of the 313 blades of the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho (catalog of famous swords written in the Edo period) are from Awataguchi. At current count there are 77 Juyo works of Awataguchi and 39 Tokubetsu Juyo, in which there are only 15 Tachi and 43 Mumei katana to describe the entire school. This is also a very high percentage of Tokubetsu Juyo which speaks highly to the school. I count a further 37 Kokuho which is also quite remarkable. In total though, the work of the entire school numbers less than the Juyo blades made by Kanemitsu himself, which is something to keep in mind about Awataguchi. It represents the very topmost line for quality and appreciation in Nihonto and at the same time remains rare.

At the end of the Kamakura period, and just after one of its greatest makers Yoshimitsu put down his hammer, the Awataguchi school seems to have suddenly extinguished. This is a bit of a mystery, but after this period the Rai school assumes the dominant position in Yamashiro. It is possible that the schools were more strongly related than currently thought or that they merged. It's hard to say, though the Rai school uses the Minamoto clan name and the Awataguchi school uses the Fujiwara clan name so this muddies thoughts further. Shinto swordsmiths like Awataguchi Omi no Kami Tadatsuna trace their lineage back to the Kamakura Awataguchi school so we can speculate that somehow smithing continued though it never again reached the glory that it had in the middle Kamakura period.

Awataguchi Yoshimitsu

Yamanaka lists six smiths who were the masters of making tanto: Yoshimitsu, Rai Kunitoshi, Shintogo Kunimitsu, Norishige, Osafune Kagemitsu and Samonji. The chief among these is without a doubt Yoshimitsu.

Yoshimitsu is said to have been the most skillful smith for making tanto during the whole period from his days to the present. Sato Kanzan

Student A : Who do you consider the best of all master tanto makers in the entire history of Nihonto?

Kanzan: I believe the two foremost masters to be named first are Awataguchi Toshiro Yoshimitsu and Shintogo Kunimitsu, followed closely by others such as Rai Kunitoshi, Bizen Kagemitsu, Etchu Norishige, and Samonji in Chikuzen. They all were undoubtedly the most skillful. English Token Bijutsu

Yoshimitsu was a son of Awataguchi Kuniyoshi who lived around 1275 and supposedly born in Echizen. He was born around 1229 and died around 1292. He is known fondly by his given name Toshiro. This is used often, especially when naming his famous works. Alternatively he may have been the younger brother and student of Kuniyoshi and the fourth son of Awataguchi Norikuni. Honami Koetsu lists him as such in the Edo period, and this may make more sense.

Yoshimitsu is ranked Sai-jo saku by Fujishiro, but this is not particularly fair because his ranking is well beyond most others with Sai-jo status. We might say he is first among equals or Sai-jo among Sai-jo. His revered status is covered in books (Honcho Kajiko, Koto Meizukushi Daizen, etc.) since ancient times, as well as traditions that continue until today. Yamanaka himself preferred the works of Masamune and Sadamune, but we are still talking about the relative placement of the greatest smiths of all time.

[Toshiro Yoshimitsu] has been named as one of the Nippon Sansaku, and is a famous smith who has been ranked first in the koto period. Fujishiro Yoshio

At the end of the Muromachi period, Awataguchi Yoshimitsu was considered to be the top smith of all time: the lead smith of the Nippon Sansaku. Today he is still held in the highest regard, and is known as the number one maker of tanto to have lived. His work is serene and its form is perfect, it's the template that lies behind every tanto that has been made since his time. He is simply one of the most important figures in the field of Japanese Swords, and his tanto were pursued by Daimyo and Shogun for centuries.

This elegance is enhanced by his habit of making mirror image horimono on either side of the blade. These are usually gomabashi or suken on both sides. Many blades have none, but those that have suken on one side and gomabashi on the other have to be held in a little bit of suspicion because they may have been added later. Rai Kunitoshi and others of this school more often made horimono following the pattern of suken on one side and gomabashi on the other, so these horimono that mismatch on Yoshimitsu may have been added after looking at more frequently occurring Rai examples.

There are various types of his signature, which are all inscribed with a forceful chisel that makes a viewer feel relaxed and free. His signature is a masterpiece indeed. Because of blades of surpassing quality, he has been highly celebrated from his days to the present. Kanzan Sato

The signature of Yoshimitsu is one of the things that is particularly pleasurable to Japanese experts, as it evokes excellent brushwork and appears to be painted into the steel. This elegance is what pervades the work and the signature is something then that is one other note in harmony with the whole masterpiece. His steel is said to have much uruoi (wetness, Yamanaka says the feeling of "eyes filled with tears" in their appearance and says it is found only on the grand masters work such as Masamune, Sadamune and Yoshimitsu but is not to be found in the Rai school other than with Rai Kunitsugu who he believes got it from Masamune).

His work that has been left to us is primarily in tanto form. There is one uchigatana of wakizashi length by Yoshimitsu that passed Tokubetsu Juyo and other than this, just one tachi which is covered below. In his body of work there are a handful of ken as well, one of which is Kokuho (National Treasure) and Dr. Honma is clear on his thoughts regarding it.

This ken should be called the best masterpiece among ken swords. Dr. Honma Junji

Yoshimitsu's work style is composed generally of hamon in suguba and ko-nie with very fine workings, and ko-itame hada that is extremely well forged with chikei and ji-nie. The form is balanced, elegant and beautiful. Horimono best present themselves as mirror images on both sides or not at all present. The steel is blueish showing nashiji-hada. Often there is one gunome at the machi, and the hamon narrows slightly in the fukura. Fujishiro notes this and says it is an artifact of the age of the blade and comes out during polishing. Nie is bright, brighter than that of Rai and with more activities in the hamon. He uses a combination of thin and thick chisels to make his signature which is part of why it looks particularly like brushwork and is so very beautiful. His work is mostly modestly sized without the experimentation of his father or older brother Kuniyoshi, though there are some large tanto with the largest being 30cm (the Hirano Yoshimitsu).

Ichigo Hitofuri Toshiro (Present)

Ichigo Hitofuri Toshiro (Past)

The single example of a Yoshimitsu tachi unfortunately has only partially survived. Yamanaka conveys the story in order to indicate the special quality of the steel that Yoshimitsu made. This sword is the Ichigo Hitofuri Toshiro tachi and Yamanaka says it was the best of the blades owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The blade came to him by way of the Mori, who got it from Oda Nobunaga, who took it from the Asakura when he crushed them in Echizen. He makes a note that this was the best of all of Hideyoshi's swords... and I wish to point out that Hideyoshi had conquered Japan and as well had ended up with Oda Nobunaga's swords. He basically had all of the great blades at this time, many of which were Masamune and Go and Sadamune and Mitsutada and so on. All of the great names. Of them, this one stands out as a particular masterpiece.

Its name means means “Once in a Lifetime - One Strike”, referring to Hideyoshi never having a chance to use it more than once. Alternatively “Once in a Lifetime Sword” implying the fact that no other daito by Yoshimitsu exist. Regardless, either way it is making a point about the extreme rarity of the blade.

The Ichigo Hitofuri was burned and lost its hamon in the Osaka Castle fire during the siege by the Tokugawa forces. The tachi is clearly middle Kamakura period with stout width and ikubi kissaki which helps place Yoshimitsu in time. Echizen Yasutsugu retempered it and the hamon that came out on it was far beyond his skill level, which reveals the fact that hamon manufacture is first and foremost an artifact of the qualities of the steel forged by the swordmaker. Yasutsugu copied the blade after re-tempering it, as he frequently did with Masamune and Sadamune blades. An old oshigata exists indicating what it used to look like before it was burned. Since the time of the oshigata, the mei was lifted and placed higher up as a gakumei and the blade made suriage, possibly when Yasutsugu retempered it, though it may have been shortened by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to wear.

A very good example of this can be seen in the work of Awataguchi Yoshimitsu's famous blade known as Ichigo Hitofuri of the Imperial Collection. This blade was in the Owari Tokugawa Collection to whom it was given by [the first Tokugawa Shogun] Ieyasu. Ieyasu got it from Toyotomi [Hideyoshi] when the Toyotomi were defeated in their final battle, the Osaka Summer Battle of 1615, during which, when fire swept through Osaka Castle, this blade along with a great many of [the] Hideyoshi collection went through the fire.

Ieyasu later had the blade retempered by Echizen Yasutsugu (Shodai). [Toyotomi] Hideyoshi is supposed to have gotten it from Mori at the time when Mori was still at Takamatsu in Bitchu Province on Tensho 18 (1590). The blade was originally made in midareba, as recorded in old texts, however Yasutsugu retempered it into suguha.

It is originally is said to have been 2 Shaku 8 Sun 3 Bu, but presently is 2 Shaku 2 Sun [66.6cm]. Yasutsugu certainly is and never was considered a first class swordsmith, even during his time though he had the good patronage of Tokugawa Ieyasu. This fact is very much in evidence from the many example of Yasutsugu's work we see today. However, the hamon which Yasutsugu put on the Ichigo Hitofuri certainly is outstanding and if a person did not know the history of the sword he would never believe that it was retempered by Yasutsugu.

This is all the result of the fine steel which Yoshimitsu made. Certainly the quality of it may have been lost in the fire, but it still retained enough of the original qualities to give a fine hamon even after re-tempering. As such the hamon will take to it naturally in re-tempering if that steel was or has been forged correctly. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

There is an alternate story that this sword was moved from Owari to Edo in 1657 and burned in a fire there, and retempered by Yasutsugu. This is not likely true though as Yasutsugu died in 1621 and his copy of the blade exists.

Other Famous Swords

Yoshimitsu

Meibutsu Atsushi Toshiro (Kokuho)

There are many famous blades by Yoshimitsu with names. There are 16 of these in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho (list of 280 of the most famous blades in the country, published in the Koto period). Dr. Honma says though that some of these blades may not be truthfully work of Yoshimitsu and so does Yamanaka, who proposes that some of them are works of Tosa Yoshimitsu. This indicates the prestige granted by Yoshimitsu blades and that it might be a bit much to call out important daimyo who possessed them and insisted they were legitimate. Among the famous blades of the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho are:

  1. Hirano Toshiro (ex. Imperial Collection now property of the State of Japan)
  2. Okayama Toshiro (Owari Tokugawa Collection)
  3. Atsushi Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Shogunate now property of the State of Japan and National Treasure)
  4. Shimizu Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection, now privately owned)
  5. Ichigo Hitofuri Toshiro (Imperial Collection)
  6. Goto Toshiro (owned previously by the famous Goto family gold workers, later Owari Tokugawa Collection and National Treasure)
  7. Karasumaru Toshiro (Lost but found recently, now Juyo Token)
  8. Shinano Toshiro (Juyo Bunkazai, Sakai Collection)
  9. Masuda Toshiro
  10. Maeda Toshiro (Juyo Bunkazai, Maeda Collection
  11. Shumei Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection, now Lost)
  12. Mumei Toshiro (Owari Tokugawa Collection)
  13. Asakura Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection, now privately owned and Tokubetsu Juyo Token)
  14. Mori Toshiro (Imperial Collection)
  15. Nabeshima Toshiro (was lost after WWII, but is now located and ranked Juyo Token)
  16. Iwakiri Toshiro
  17. Midare Toshiro (private collection, Juyo Token)
Yoshimitsu

Tachibana Yoshimitsu

Though the Yoshimitsu owned by the Tachibana at the right is not technically a meito as it is without name, it is Kokuho. It has a famous origin story: It was a gift from Shogun Ashikaga Takauji to Otomo Sadatoshi to recognize his great contributions on the battlefield. Takauji's rise to power ended the Kamakura shogunate and so the Kamakura period. This tanto would have been maybe 50 to 100 years old at the time it was given and during this period great works were being made by Sadamune and Masamune's time would have just ended. It shows that already Yoshimitsu had risen to a high degree of eminence and this is probably something that had carried down from the founding of the Awataguchi school. Otomo went on to found the Tachibana clan and the blade was carefully carried down until today. It is a wide blade in hocho style with a 23 cm sugata.

Other famous named blades of Yoshimitsu are:

  1. Bungo Toshiro
  2. Akita Toshiro
  3. Mashita Toshiro
  4. Namazuo Toshiro (Owari Tokugawa Collection)
  5. Oyako Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection, now Lost)
  6. Hocho Toshiro (Juyo Bijutsuhin, Owari Tokugawa Collection)
  7. Ashikaga-Iizuka Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection, now Lost)
  8. Yagen Toshiro (ex. Oda Nobunaga, now Lost)
  9. Higuchi Toshiro
  10. Omori Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection)
  11. Shiokawa Toshiro (ex. Tokugawa Collection, now Lost)
  12. Sanada Toshiro
  13. Kitano Yoshimitsu
  14. Yonezawa Yoshimitsu
  15. Izumi Yoshimitsu
  16. Hakata Yoshimitsu (Juyo Bunkazai)
  17. Gokotai Yoshimitsu
  18. Honebami Yoshimitsu (Juyo Bunkazai Naginata Naoshi, unsigned)

The Atsushi Toshiro was the most expensive sale of the ancient times as 1,000 pieces of gold was given to buy this blade. In spite of this it is considered not to be as good as other Yoshimitsu works and is one of the suspected Tosa Yoshimitsu blades that got stuck in with the legitimate ones as the steel is just not right (according to Honami Koson).

The Owari Tokugawa ended up with a lot of the great blades from Hideyoshi's collection after the defeat of the Toyotomi family. This is because while the swords were being transported to Edo after the sack of Osaka Castle, a priest said it would be bad luck to bring these to Edo. As a result, they were diverted and held by the Owari branch of the Tokugawa. Apparently many of these had habaki made by Umetada Myoju which is quite a rare thing... but I digress.

These blades and many other by Yoshimitsu have pages of history where they have been handed around by the top figures of the time, going from Shogun to Daimyo to Emperor and back with some now being owned by the State of Japan. There are 38 signed Yoshimitsu tanto and ken left to us, according to the NBTHK Journal, including the famous blades above which appear to be in the majority. Of these 38 there are 20 that have been authenticated by the NBTHK, 16 of which are signed tanto and 3 are unsigned tanto.

One of the famous blades above, the Gokotai Yoshimitsu, was said to have been used to scare away five tigers which were harassing the owner. It is 27.2cm and follows his frequent use of mirror gomabashi. There is a story that follows when Emperor Meiji inspected the tanto, as at the time he was carrying his own Yoshimitsu.

At one point the Gokotai-Yoshimitsu was brought and handed over to the emperor. He was carrying a dagger by Awataguchi Yoshimitsu that he received from his predecessor emperor Kômei (孝明天皇, 1846-1866) and compared it with the piece from the Uesugi collection: “The length is the same, also the deki, what is the opinion of the Hon´ami expert?” When the latter joined the group and had examined the two blades carefully he turned to Meiji and said: “I think that the sword of Your Highness has to be rated somewhat higher.” And the emperor laughed and replied: “Well, then I should be able to ward off ten tigers with it!” Markus Sesko - Legends and Stories around the Japanese Sword


Yoshimitsu Tanto

That was certainly a lot of background information, but we are dealing with one of the most important makers of all time. Yoshimitsu is the equivalent in swords as Rembrandt and Da Vinci are to paintings, and Mozart to music. This represents the very best, and most important, that it is possible to obtain.

This is one of the 16 signed Yoshimitsu tanto that the NBTHK has authorized past Juyo. Believe me, any signed Yoshimitsu is going to pass Juyo without a second thought. This blade is extremely rare and at the very top of Nihonto collecting. Of these 16 that passed through the NBTHK, two are meibutsu (the Midare Toshiro and the Asakura Toshiro) and are not likely to be available to normal people.

This Yoshimitsu tanto is made in beautiful form, the slightly long furisode nakago is typical for him There is a misunderstanding that furisode nakago are always curved and this is not the case.

This style of mirror image gomabashi horimono founr on this tanto is seen on many old oshigata of Yoshimitsu blades, and is his trademark. Those that don't have mirror image horimono need to be inspected closely to see if the horimono were added in later periods, as he also frequently made no horimono whatsoever and those added may be patterned after the Rai school tanto which were more frequently seen. The signature is beautifully made and in keeping with everything great said about his signatures, and the jihada so well forged that it appears like silk. There is nie utsuri and the ji nie are very fine giving shimmering colors back to the eye as the blade moves through the light. Very fine chikei cause the surface to appear moist.

The blade is in very good condition for is age as Tanobe sensei stressed, with a single mekugiana that has only been very slightly elongated. Others among the Juyo have been punched through multiple times, or had their signatures partially erased. Five of the 16 signed tanto have severely compromised signatures through poor nakago condition or over-punching of the nakago. This one is beautifully intact with yasurime still visible. This makes it particularly important.

There is a slight bit of weakness in the ji as the blade moves to the kissaki, but this is similar the National Treasure blades in this regard and is better than the Tokubetsu Juyo examples I think.

It's been my own experience and I've seen it written that Awataguchi blades have very little inferior quality core steel to them (maybe none at all in tanto). I once owned an Awataguchi Kunimitsu tanto that had been polished so much its horimono were gone. That blade still showed skin steel in spite of so much material loss. In contrast, Rai works quite quickly reveal core steel when polished. This is cited as a reason that Awataguchi works may have been more expensive materials wise and time consuming to make, and may have contributed to the Rai school out competing them at the end of the Kamakura period. In any event this blade is still quite healthy in spite of its age and it's always a miracle to consider that these things can even survive for 700 or 800 years to the modern day when steel rusts so easily.

There is a solid gold two piece habaki on this tanto, which is of course a signal about the level of respect the previous owner had for it who had this made. The quality is very high and there is some wear on it indicating age, but it's hard to tell how far back this goes.

There is a notation on the sayagaki and also in Dr. Honma's book that this tanto was owned by George Sugimoto in the modern period. I unfortunately do not have any information on who he was, other than that he seems to have loved this tanto dearly and enthusiastically shared it with other NBTHK members.

A note on oshigata: The NBTHK when it makes its oshigata during the Juyo sessions, especially in sessions from around 20 to 35 where a lot of swords passed, is under a lot of time constraints to get the papers out and the volume of works published. Before this this time, oshigata have another issue in that the level of skill shown is a bit rudimentary. As a result it's not unusual to see in some older oshigata that fine level activities get glossed over. In the last 20 or so years the quality of oshigata has really skyrocketed at the NBTHK and they are now very carefully and beautifully done now. The oshigata for this tanto when it passed was done to show a pretty basic suguba, but when you look at the photos it's clear it has fine choji and ashi embedded in the hamon and is a feature of Yoshimitsu. Dr. Honma wrote this tanto up in his book Kanto Hibisho and made an oshigata for it at that time, and in his oshigata underneath the Juyo paper translation you can see he has captured all of the fine detail. The blade was also photographed and has a two page layout in Tanobe Michihiro's Nihonto Shubi (“Beautiful Swords”). Translations of their articles on this Yoshimitsu are included below.

This tanto is accompanied by fine quality gold makie aikuchi koshirae made at my request by Brian Tschernega and Gen Saratani. These are both modern craftsmen of the high reputation, trained in Japan and having received awards. It took the greater part of one year to make it. The results are quite stunning. This kind of lacquer is made from shavings of gold and is very difficult and time consuming to make, requiring very high levels of skill and some artisans won't make it as a result.

The menuki for the koshirae are by the 9th generation Goto master Teijo and date to around 1640. Only a Goto maker of this level of skill and fame is really appropriate for placement on a Yoshimitsu tanto. Teijo is said to be the most talented of the Goto line and he produced works like these for the Shogun. Teijo was also brought to Kaga province by the Maeda Daimyo clan who became his patrons.

These menuki are solid gold shishi with very thick plate and are in excellent condition. I found them in storage where they had lain for about 40 years with a dealer in Tokyo after a long hunt. I actually bought four other sets of menuki over the period of a year, attempting to correctly dignify this tanto, and each one after careful evaluation I felt did not pass the test. One was even fully mounted after the koshirae was completed, but the koshirae and the tanto were so good I had to go back and return to the hunt.

A year before buying these I had looked at about 300 different kodogu in one session. Going through old bags and boxes, trying to find the best of the best. When I saw these with their great detail, condition and quality they immediately struck me as high level Goto work though they were not yet papered. After I had sorted these out though the owner also remarked on the quality and would not sell them to me. Over a year later he had submitted and authenticated these as Teijo confirming what was pretty obvious otherwise. When I saw them again, this time available, I took them right away as I knew it would finally complete the set.

The koshirae were designed in to match an antique storage box which accompanies the set. This box is beautiful as it has an outer, humble exterior, and opens up to reveal a beautiful and fine black lacquer inner box with kiri and aoi mon. It dates to the late Edo period.

Yoshimitsu

Tokubetsu Juyo Reference Examples

Though some of the above famous swords are only Yoshimitsu by anecdote and others have been lost through the ages, what we have left to us are the 20 blades the NBTHK has accepted. Of those only 17 are signed. Of the 16 signed tanto, six are Tokubetsu Juyo. Several of these Tokubetsu Juyo blades are no longer in really good condition which indicates that it is very hard to get a hold of a Yoshimitsu that is intact. Please consider the reference pictures to the right. These blades all show signs of being polished considerably. The signatures are compromised by punching out extra mekugiana in the nakago and just from the effects of time in two of the three examples. The third has an intact signature but the nakago is double punched. Horimono in two of the three is worn down and the other looks unusual to say the least for Yoshimitsu. These are still rare and incredible blades, it's why they passed Tokubetsu Juyo. Importantly: condition issues are very normal for 750 year old blades and these blades deserve their status in spite of the issues. I only point out the condition on these Tokubetsu Juyo blades so that you can compare it to the one I have listed here to what is available at Tokubetsu Juyo Token levels, and I think this blade is superior to those.

As well as the 20 blades above, there are another 8 Juyo Bunkazai and 4 Kokuho. It's likely that the very famous blades for the most part will not be submitted to the NBTHK especially if the signature is a bit in doubt. These owners will just let sleeping dogs lie. Regardless of that, those blades will not be sold and exported outside of Japan but will remain closely held forever as many are owned by museums, foundations, and with families who will never let them go. The prestige and importance attached with Yoshimitsu is second possibly only to Masamune, if anyone.

In conclusion, this tanto would be the focal point of any collection. It's clear from the history above and the great regard held for this maker in modern days, that this is the kind of item for Daimyo, Shogun and Emperors. When it comes to a blade like this, I think something like Tokubetsu Juyo is a secondary consideration vs. the blade being healthy and well signed and having been handed down in good condition. The essential thing is, it is a great work, and legitimate, and beautifully made. That said, I think the blade stands very well against the Tokuju examples shown above and my opinion is that it will pass at some point because of this. Showing the examples makes it easy for you to compare and make your own judgment and I think you'll agree with me.

It took a year of time and effort to put this all together, and I hope the painstaking care and love of the subject matter comes through in this listing. For me it was a joy and a once in a lifetime thing. Now, for someone else it's a chance to own a significant part of samurai history and to have their own once in lifetime sword.


Juyo Token

Appointed on the 1st of June, 1971

Tanto, mei: Yoshimitsu

Keijo

hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, uchizori

Kitae

dense itame mixed with a little ô-hada, in addition ji-nie all over and a faint nie-utsuri

Hamon

hoso-suguha-chô to slightly undulating notare in ko-nie-deki with a rather tight nioiguchi and mixed with some sunagashi

Boshi

sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri

Horimono

on both sides gomabashi which run with kaki-nagashi into the tang

Nakago

ubu, kurijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, one mekugi-ana, the sashi-omote side bears centrally under the mekugi-ana a large niji-mei which was added with a fine chisel

Setsumei

This is a signed tantô with ubu-nakago of Awataguchi Tôshirô Yoshimitsu. Though the blade shows evidence of polish the jiba shows the characteristic features of Yoshimitsu very well. The gomabashi on both sides are skillfully engraved and this kind of horimono was also a specialty of Yoshimitsu. As mentioned, ubu-nakago and signed, and the mei is magnificently and fluently cut with a fine chisel.

Nihonto Shubi

Yoshimitsu

Reference article by Tanobe Michihiro from the book “Nihonto Shubi” featuring this tanto. Tanobe Michihiro is the retired head researcher of the NBTHK.

This tantô has an ubu-sugata and is a bit more elegant in shape than tantô of the Rai school, although both Yoshimitsu and the Rai smiths worked in the Yamashiro tradition. Both ji and ha are very healthy and taking the kasane of the tang as a basis we learn that the blade hardly lost any material due to polishing. Even the furisode shape of the tang is unaltered and in its original condition. The jigane is a very dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and the hamon is a noble suguha with a tight nioiguchi that shows an abundance of fine kinsuji and many other hataraki. A characteristic feature of Yoshimitsu’s horimono is that he added on both sides identical engravings and arranged them more towards the base of the blade. This feature is seen on this tantô too by gomabashi engraved on both sides of the blade.

The majority of the great and outstanding tantô masters were active in the Kamakura period and when it comes to elegance and exquisite beauty, Yoshimitsu is among the very top of them, so no wonder that so daimyô were reaching out for his tantô. To put it in other words, Yoshimitsu’s tantô had always been and still are today the pinnacle for every tantô connoisseur.

Kanto Hibisho

Yoshimitsu

Reference article featuring this tanto from the book “Kanto Hibisho” by Dr. Honma Junji, co-founder and first chairman of the NBTHK.

The kitae is a densely forged ko-itame that stands a little more out than at Rai Kunitoshi for example and shows plenty of ji-nie. The hamon is a hoso-suguha with beautifully sparking ko-nie whereas the ha is somewhat thinner along the fukura than at the rest of the hamon. The bôshi shows a ko-maru-kaeri and strongly sparkling nie. Long and thick gomabashi are excellently engraved on both sides. The deki speaks straightforward for Tôshirô [Yoshimitsu] so far but the hint of a yaki-otoshi at the machi is different what gave rise to thoughts of saiha [but this is discredited] by the excellence of the nie of the hoso-suguha and the thinning of the ha along the fukura. This is a feature that is so typical for this smith, and the skillfully tempered bôshi rather rule out any possibility of saiha.

Yoshimitsu was a famous smith since olden times and thus many gimei were and are going round, (even some works listed in the Kyoho Meibutsu Chô raise doubts, but the signature of this tantô is very typical and Shoshone). This brought and put on display that day by our Tokyo member, George Sugimoto. Blade comes with a sayagaki.

Sayagaki

This tanto bears a simple and refined sayagaki by Dr. Honma Junji, one of the founders of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK). He rarely made any comments on his sayagaki out of respect for the sword.

  1. 粟田口藤四郎吉光
    Awataguchi Toshiro Yoshimitsu
  2. 刃長七寸三分有
    Hacho nana sun san bu ari
    Length: 22.1cm
  3. Showa
  4. George Sugimoto
  5. Shirisu Kunzan (kao)
    Inscribed by Kunzan