Miike Mitsuyo

period: Koto (late Heian / early Kamakura)
designation: NBTHK Juyo Token (Session 47, 2001)
nakago: o-suriage, 4 mekugiana, 2 filled
nagasa: 64.3cm
sori: 1.6cm
motohaba: 2.65cm
sakihaba: 2.05cm
kissaki: 3.1cm
nakago: 16.25cm

At the end of the chain of islands that forms Japan proper is Kyushu, and from ancient times it was a center for exchange of technology and culture with the mainland states in Korea and China.

It is thought that some of the first Japanese smiths working in steel and forging swords emerged in this area, exploiting the importation of metalworking techniques from the continent.

Denta Mitsuyo 典太光世 lived in Miike around the time of Shoho (1074), and is one of the grand masters of the old koto period. His Buddhist name was Genshin 元真 which can also be read as Motozane. Sometimes for roman character transliteration, one will see his name written as Tenta Mitsuyo, and he is equally referred to as Miike Mitsuyo after his place of origin.

The 5 Great Swords of Japan are known as the Tenka Go Ken. They are the Mikazuke Munechika (Sanjo), the Oni-Maru Kunitsuna (Awataguchi), the Juzu-Maru Tsunetsugu (Aoe), the Dojigiri Yasutsuna (Ko-Hoki), and the O-Denta Mitsuyo (Miike). The fame of the O-Denta carries forward to today, where it can even be found as an artifact in certain video games.

Most western collectors have not encountered these old schools very often, probably with the exception of Aoe. Most are rare, very old, and held in high regard... this group must be in order to achieve this kind of eminence given the prestigious blades made by the Soshu and Bizen schools, none of which make this very short list. The blades of the Miike in particular are extremely rare according to Albert Yamanaka, and on reading the Tokugawa Daybook one sees them as one of the prestigious gifts to and from the Shogun, keeping company with the likes of Masamune, Sadamune, and Mitsutada.

The grand master Mitsuyo gave his name to a line of smiths that extend all the way down to the Muromachi period before fading away. Their production also includes a famous sword which was the favorite weapon of Tokugawa Ieyasu and is now at the Kunosan Toshogu shrine.

In terms of construction, the classical Miike school worked in a very grand style which Nagayama notes is unusual for the late Heain period but similar to pieces like the meibutsu O-Kanehira so not out of place. They show a wide mihaba and wide shinogi-ji with a kissaki moving towards ikubi. This can be tricky for kantei, because the look is very similar to middle Kamakura pieces, however it is considered that this particular style was inherited from an earlier date from which we have no extant works. Given that some stylistic elements (jihada and hamon) are very similar to the Kogarasu Maru, even though the Miike school dates from the very beginning of the curved sword era, for their time they are probably very conservative rather than aggressively adopting a form which would come around again in the middle Kamakura.

Honami Takeo writes in the Nihonto Koza that "no matter which sword I look at, there is bohi," and truly the Miike school is very famous for their wide, shallow, and beautifully made hi. In fact, there is some theory that the hi were made by hammering rather than carving, as hammer marks have been seen in the hi in the nakago of Miike swords. The rest of the blade is made in Yamashiro tradition with some traits of Yamato. The hamon will be in chu suguba with notare mixed in, and many nie activities will be worked throughout.

Denta Mitsuyo is considered Sai-jo Saku by Fujishiro, a ranking of grand master. Dr. Tokuno also rates him very highly at 2,000 man yen, an elite club that embraces smiths such as Norishige and Rai Kunitoshi. Homma sensei writes that the work of the first generation probably does not exist at this point in time, and that the O-Denta Mitsuyo is from the Mitsuyo who was working concurrent with the Ko-Bizen smiths (at the end of the Heian and beginning of the Kamakura).

Miike Juyo Token Katana

The Kokuho Meibutsu O-Denta Miike is described as being wide throughout, having itame hada with some masame mixed in. It has fine ji-nie with jifu and some shirake. The hamon is hoso suguba with some midare, and ko-notare showing hotsure and kinsuji as well as some nijuba. It bears the wide and typically shallow hi made as master work. The nakago is ubu and signed on this blade and it is only 66.2 cm in length so was made as a wide and powerful kodachi.

It is interesting to note the description fits the conceptual mixing of Yamato and Yamashiro traditions. This too is seen in this Juyo Token example, with the hotsure and haki in the boshi being particularly exciting. I would take special note of the presence of jifu utsuri which helps anchor down the date of production to no later than the early Kamakura.

The sayagaki was made by Honami Choshiki of the Kozan line in Meiji 23 (1889), so the shirasaya itself is an antique at over 100 years old. Choshiki attributed the sword directly to Miike Mitsuyo.

The NBTHK attributed the sword to the Miike school of Classical Kyushu, which would be the earliest part of production and concurs with this reading. Most extant works of the Miike school come from the middle and late Kamakura, so it is possible that the presence of jifu and other early hallmarks on this blade explain the direct attribution to Miike Mitsuyo on the sayagaki.

The hi in particular on this blade make attribution to Miike very straight forward, due to their extremely wide and shallow presence. They also aid in placing the date, as they terminate along the ko-shinogi, and in later periods (very end of the Kamakura / beginning of Nambokucho) hi tended to move back somewhat in order to allow for room to reshape the kissaki in case of a broken tip.

For the condition, the sword bears a bit of roughness here and there as can be expected from these pieces of such extreme age but the construction is still very robust. The polish I believe is over a century old, dating to the time the sayagaki was made and before the appraisal by Choshiki was made. Towards the kissaki the hadori has been burnished from insertion and removal into the shirasaya. There is another burnishing mark in the hadori. These are only polish issues, and do not affect the enjoyment of the sword. However, a repair to the polish would be quick and inexpensive as the hadori is the only thing that needs to be restored.

The NBTHK has only designated 27 Juyo Token from this entire school (as of press time for the index), and since Miike work was of such high caliber this is clearly an artifact of rarity. Of the 27 Juyo, one is Tokubetsu Juyo, and only three are signed (bearing the signature of Mitsuyo). The NBTHK has not distinguished between the smiths of the Miike school in their attributions of Juyo Token, most likely because of the extreme lack of signed examples making it a most difficult task. With this blade being designated to the classical period and with much praise from the NBTHK, it is definitely the next best thing to having one of the handful of signed pieces by the grand master and certainly a rare and very distinguished piece to own for a collector.


Juyo Token

Appointed in 2001 - Session 47

Keijo

Shinogi zukuri, ihori-mune, wide mihaba, wide shinogihaba for the mihaba, high shinogi, slightly deep sori and hint of medium kissaki-tsumari.

Kitae

Itame mixed with a moku/o-itame style, hints of hadatachi, thick ji-nie particles, detailed chikei occasionally mixed with jifu, assuming a kanekuromi.

Hamon

Medium suguba, deep nioi with ko-nie, mixture of hotsure/kuichigai ha, yubashiri-style mixture on omote koshimoto, detailed kinsuji/sunagashi, hint of nioiguchi shizumi.

Boshi

Omote is sugu-style while ura is sugu, together with o-maru-style shallow sori, strong haki effect on tip.

Horimono

Wide bohi along both omote and ura.

Nakago

Osuriage, Saki Kurijiri, Kasurime Kiri, 2 of 4 Meguki ana filled, Mumei

Setsumei

Miike is the name of the school of swordsmiths that lived in the Chikugo no kuni Miike region, which was founded by a famous master craftsman of the end of the Heian era, Denta Mitsuyo, who was known for the Kaga Maeda family's heirloom, the famous "O-Denta" (national treasure). There was not only one Mitsuyo, as the name was subsequently inherited throughout the Kamakura and Muromachi eras. The Miike style is common to ancient work from Kyushu since the O-Denta, in which the flowing itame and ji-nie of the kitae; the thick, soft-looking hada; a hamon of ko-nie deki with suguba finish and hotsure; a hint of nioiguchi shizumi; and wide but comparatively shallow bohi horimono are marks of the school's originality.

This katana's kitae is itame mixed with a moku/o-itame style, has hints of hadatachi with thick ji-nie particles, detailed chikei occasionally mixed with jifu, and assumes a kanekuromi. In addition the hamon is a medium suguba finish with deep nioi and ko-nie, a mixture of hotsure/kuichigai-ha on the habuchi, detailed kinsuji/sunagashi, a hint of nioiguchi shizumi, and a boshi with a haki effect on the tip. From the above characteristics and width provided on the omote and ura, as well as the shallow bohi, the work can be determined to be certainly that of the Miike-school of classical Kyushu. These Miike-school characteristics are conspicuously expressed as a sign of excellent workmanship. In addition, the work in the hotsure and kuichigai-ha is of particular elegance.

Honami Choshiki Sayagaki

  1. 三池光世
    Miike Mitsuyo
  2. 長弍尺壹寸弍分方地理日
    Cho nishaku issun nibu kata chiri hi
    Length: 2 shaku 1 sun 2 bu, hi are kata chiri form
  3. 磨上無銘也
    Suriage mumei nari.
    It is shortened and unsigned.
  4. 明治二十三年庚虎三月鑑定回之
    Meiji niju sannen kanoe tora san gatsu kantei kai kore.
    Meiji 23 (1889), recorded this kantei in the 3rd month.
  5. 本阿弥長識
    Honami Choshiki