Yamashiro Hasebe

period: Nambokucho
designation: NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon
nakago: O-suriage mumei, 4 mekugiana, 3 filled
nagasa: 71.9cm

The pictures of this sword are out of date, it has been repolished by Kenji Mishina and the slideshow does not reflect the new polish, though the black and white photos do.

Kunishige founded the Hasebe school in the Nambokucho period, coming from Yamato to Sagami, where he picked up the teachings of the Soshu den. From here he travelled to Yamashiro Kyoto and installed himself and made impressive swords in similar style to Hiromitsu and Akihiro.

It is thought that he is of the extended family of Shintogo Kunimitsu as this smith also shared the Hasebe surname and recorded it on one of his blades. Tradition has it that Hasebe Kunishige studied under Masamune in Kamakura, but from the time of manufacture it is not so likely that Masamune was his teacher.

Tradition also has it that Hiromitsu and Akihiro were students of Masamune, but an alternative theory (again, citing their names) is that they were students of Shintogo Kunihiro, one of the sons of Shintogo Kunimitsu. Certainly and even so they would have fallen under the dramatic influence of the master smith Masamune.

Following this thread, it is possible that the teachings of Soshu were given to Kunishige through Shintogo Kunihiro, who would have been part of his extended family and from whom he could have inherited one of the characters of his name. This is appealing because it would put Hasebe Kunishige as a peer to Akihiro and Hiromitsu, developing the hitatsura style which is famous and synonymous with the pure Soshu den.

Tachi and katana by the Hasebe smiths and by the Soshu smiths of this time in the Nambokucho are quite rare to find. This is a time of intense fighting as the country had split under two courts and was fighting a civil war. The long Soshu den tachi of the time were overflowing with machismo and the techniques of the time dictated these long swords being used from horseback. Keeping in mind that these were the gendaito of the day, and that older swords were not of the size to be useful for the current military state of the art, the swords that were made over this short period of time saw heavy use and there was no other supply than what the smiths of the day made.

As such, they were used, damaged, repaired, and if reused eventually they met their doom. So what we have today that represents such smiths as Hasebe Kunishige, Hasebe Kuninobu, Soshu Akihiro and Soshu Hiromitsu are mostly the short blades; wakizashi by current standards.

Nambokucho blades feature a sugata which is unique in the history of the Japanese sword. Not only were they the longest blades of all time, but they were often thin in kasane (to save on weight for the massive blade size), and they also tended to feature very long kissaki (O-kissaki). These kissaki were the end point of an evolution that began 100 years before in the mid Kamakura. Blades of this time featured a stout ikubi kissaki (boar's neck) that when broken did not leave much tempered material behind to reshape and repair the blade. As such, an expensive and otherwise perfectly good sword would be scrapped if it lost just a small amount of material due to a broken tip. Over time, longer and longer kissaki were developed that could allow a polisher much more tempered material to work with to reform a broken tip into a newly functional kissaki.

Sword polishers often worked in the camps of warriors to keep blades fresh and ready for battle, and no doubt it was considered an advantage to be able to rearm a warrior from a broken blade than to have him go into battle the next day without a sword.

The Nambokucho period also featured the rise of hitatsura as a new tempering style. As written above, this style begins with Akihiro, Hiromitsu, and Hasebe. What they did to cause this to happen is a bit of a mystery, but it is a natural expression of their tempering arts and as such has charm and beauty. Later generations would not inherit the same techniques, but more and more the hitatsura effect became forced and more of a decorative effect and so lost its charm. Within 200 years of its advent, hitatsura had mostly disappeared from the ongoing development of nihonto.

This sword was featured in the NBTHK publication The Influence of Masamune, and was exhibited in San Francisco in 2003 as work of Hasebe Kunishige (click on the image for the article). It is one of the rare examples of tachi from the Hasebe school to have survived into the modern day. There are 85 Juyo Token by the Hasebe school listed in the NBTHK index, of which only 19 are O-suriage tachi (none ubu). This testifies to the relative rarity of daito among smiths of this school. Please note that the papers in general for swords of this school will not attribute to the smith, so the NBTHK papers read as Hasebe only, which is what I have used in the designation. Further confusing things, Kunishige is also refered to as Hasebe in the same way that Shizu Kaneuji is refered to as Shizu.

This daito is a real treat for lovers of Soshu and Nambokucho. It still has an outstanding length, being well over 70cm and features beautiful tobiyaki floating above the hamon, demonstrating the hitatsura invented by the middle period Soshu den smiths. The jigane of mokume mixed with itame and some masame is outstanding. Chikei are easily seen throughout, and the gunome midare hamon is of nie and strewn with active sunagashi, inazuma and kinsuji. It bears hallmarks in all places of the Hasebe school, and is a wonderful and rare representation of their work. It is a good candidate for Juyo Token status.

In November of 2004, Christies sold a slightly shorter daito attributed to the Hasebe school but with no NBTHK papers, previously part of the fittings museum collection. It fetched a price of $77,000 at auction and after Christies commision the new owner paid a total of $92,000 for it. It went on to pass Tokubetsu Juyo in 2006.