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Exploring The Myth


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As with many other similar fields much of what we believe about swords is based on opinion. Such opinion can be established on study and research or just on picking up on some previously held view point. If an opinion is repeated often enough it is converted in our minds to fact. Over many years I have carried numerous opinions in the firm belief that I knew about something rather than just had an opinion about it. This can cause a lot of misinformation to be accumulated over time and can create a great deal of confusion.

So every now and then it is worth challenging some of my long held views to see if they hold up in the light of later research.

In the hope to hear others ideas and points of view I have listed a number below:


1. I believe that in general Koto blades are superior to Shinto. This is because the raw material was made locally and had regional variations which enabled smiths to produce work which differentiated it from others and they learned how to use their local materials to enhance the quality and features of their work. In addition many of the Gokaden works that have survived were made for the higher levels of society enabling the smith to use superior materials and take longer in the manufacture.


2. As the production of steel centralised the regional differences were greatly reduced. To differentiate their work Shinto Smiths started to experiment with the production of more florid and showy hamon. This had little or at least nominal effect on performance. It was pure marketing. In addition because many were made in times of relative peace a much broader range of quality has survived in good condition whereas good quality Koto blades tend to be the top end of production.

There is a view, which I think carries some weight that Shinto Smiths were as skilled as koto smiths, the differences we see are a result of

a.) raw material used

b.) customer requirement

c.) useage during their working life.


3. Shin-Shinto smiths attempted to recapture some of the finer and more subtle features seen in works of the kamakura period. However their limitation as with shinto smiths was in the raw material available to them. Some of the characteristics which epitomise the Gokaden could only be produced as a result of the chemistry of their raw material and this was not available to shin-shinto smiths. Thus they struggled to reproduce activity within the ji such as utsuri , chickei and the like.


These are broad assertions and as said are opinion (not necesarilly original but I have picked them up over the years). There are exceptions throughout history and we can all quote examples of masterworks produced in each and every era. But as a general starting point this works as an explanation to variations in quality we seen in surviving swords.

I know that my views are heavily weighted towards koto swords, but I am glad to say I keep being challenged in this view by see some exceptional later work. I increasingly believe that the differences we see have less to do with individual skills but the raw material available and the demands of the market at any given time.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

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I agree with what Paul says. Should I collect Shinto/shinshinto swords, I'll go for : Kotetsu, Shinkai, Mondo no Sho Masakiyo, Satsuma smiths: Motohira, Masayoshi, Hankei, Nobuhide... Sorry for Masahide and Naotane


My Koto dreams: Shintogo Kunimitsu, Awataguchi daito, Go Yoshihiro/Norishige/Kaneuji, Fukuoka Ichimonji, Mitsutada, Rai Kuniyuki ...

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Ho Peter

My path has been similar to Jean's I have reduced my collection down over recent years to focus on specific areas of interest. As a result the majority of my small collection is focussed on Yamashiro and Yamto work. I do have one Mino blade but that has more to do with where it came from than what it is. I also have a shin-shinto blade copying Rai work.

So I have really focussed on the old and conservative and have greatly enjoyed the process. I did (maybe still do) believe that the absolute zenith of this art occurred in the kamakura period and originated with Yamashiro smiths. However in the past two years I have seen examples of Shinto and more especially shin-Shinto work that I would absolutley love to add to my collection.

At the NBTHK meeting in Bonn in July we saw a Tokubetsu Juyo sword by Yasutsugu that stood up to anything I have seen elsewhere and was stunningly beautiful. More recently I have spent a little time looking at a Sa Yukihide blade that I thought incredible.

I have no doubt these smiths were every bit as skilled as their predecessors. Therefore if the koto blades are superior then it must be related to material. Of course you also have to define what you mean by superior, if it is just in the aesthetic then it is totally subjective and has nothing to do with quality but fashion and taste at any given time.

I think we need to accept that there were masterworks made in all periods. while I think most collectors do specialise in one area we shouldnt ignore the masterwork from elsewhere if it comes along.

I think we should collect good swords, where and when and by whom they were made should be a secondary consideration after we have established the quality and the fact we like it.

If I was to be starting again (which I am not) I hope I might be able to put this in to practice.

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Hi Arnold

To be honest I havent seen enough in hand to make a valid judgement. I have seen  a couple of gendaito by Sadakatsu  in which I thought the shape was superb. Of the two I remember best my favourite was one he produced in itame hada rather than  ayasugi which I always feel looks contrived and lacking spontaneity (totally subjective I know) But on both of them the steel seemed flat and lacking depth and activity. the hada was very tight and without fault but it really lacked any life.

Shinsaka-to I have only viewed briefly while in Japan. They had the great advantage of being just as they left the smith, so you were seeing exactly what he wanted you to see. There was some very fine workmanship, impressive and magnificent shape reminiscent of both Nambokucho and Shin-shinto work but like Shin-shinto the steel seemd to lack character.

As said above I have based this viiew on a very small sample and if others can point me towards examples that show something different I would be very happy to look.

While I think there are some very fine works from all periods and most schools I believe that certain koto traditions produced consistently high quality work which has not been equalled by later smiths. These include the Awataguchi School, early Soshu work, Ko-Bizen and Ko-Osafune and Yamato-Shizu.

Because of my own interest and that shared with other collectors in Europe I have had more opportunity to look at really good koto than anything else, so my opinions are hugely influenced by what I have studied in depth here. If I was to take Jeans lead and try and list blades I would like to add to my collection, based on work I have actually seen in hand (and assuming unlimited funds and time) I think in terms of priority they would be:


1. Soshu Yukimitsu or Shintogo Kunimitsu

2. Rai Kunimitsu

3.Osafune Nagamitsu

4. Unji

5 Shinkai

6. Nanki Shigikuni

7. Sandai Tadayoshi

8. Shodai Yasutsugu

9. Sa Yukihide

10 Kiyomaru (school)

These are based only on swords I have seen in hand so there are some big names missing that I simply havent been lucky enough to hold and look at closely (but thinking about it tell me any other interest where you could physically examine work by such highly rated masters of their art?)


Not sure how well this has answered your question. I think in summary if we believe that much of the activity in jigane is a result of the compostion of the raw material rather than what the smith does with it, then the skill level is close but the material isn't as good. If the smith does influence the activity then I have to conclude later smiths lack the skill of the earlier masters.

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collecting Nihonto with the true words " das Bessere ist des Guten Feind " gives us only only One direction,



Loose translation: "the better thing is the enemy of the good thing"


What is good? What is better?


Disclaimer: The following ideas are my ideas and I maybe totally wrong with my conclusions.


To be honest, I prefer good Koto over good Shinto/Shinshinto. But it is only a matter of taste: I like hataraki wich may be the result of impurities in the steel (for example chikei, I believe are). And I like well forged hada, which do not look "perfectly smooth" but shows lots of flowing, burling etc.. I find this mostly in (good) Koto blades.


BUT: I really do like very good Shinto, too.

I remember my jaws dropping to the table while seeing three superior katana of Sukehiro, Shinkai and Tadahiro (all three in suguha!).

These smiths never intended to produce the hataraki formerly found in blades of Koto masters.

They used a very uniform hada als canvas to bring up a PERFECT shaped hamon, which the pefect width of the habuchi and size of the nie, exactly like they intended to burn into these blades.  And their hada is art as its own: not flat and liveless, but "perfectly shaped".


Maybe some of you say "oh, they tried to copy Awataguchi or Rai".

I think you maybe wrong: They intended to copy the IDEA / ideal of Awataguchi/Rai or whateverlike. But in a perfected form/result.

Do you thing they would have had problems to aquire some rusty swords or nails as material source to make a closer copy by using material closer to the original one used in Koto?


I guess they would have had no problems to work some ware into their blades or mix some roughness into or create  some fancy hardening effects by adding high carbon bits into their blades.

They did not want to do that.

They wanted to create perfection and used the best availiable material of the time.





sorry, I got carried away: but I do not like the discussion "what is better koto, shinto or shinshinto" anymore. DON'T compare them. You can't compare a Go to a Shinkai. Enjoy both for what ever merits they have.

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I must say that even though I can understand why you say what you say in my view there was no centralized system for tamahagane at all during the early Edo period and also not during the later period. Yes there were officially Shogunal approved Tatara but in each han there still were smiths making swords with local ore/iron sand or even later imported Nanban-tetsu.

So why the Shinshinto work is considered less good in quality as the Heian period works is in my view purely subjective and not objective.

That might be total nonsense to those of you who are deeply into the study of the sword as an art-item, but as a historian I cannot look at only that but must see the bigger picture. so also take into account the Historic, social and political factors which were part of the Japanese Samurai-led era.

Therefore I cannot fully agree with your statement on the difference in quality of swords when comparing original Gokaden works to the works of later smiths emulating the earlier works.

In general Samurai looked at their swords as usefull or not useful. sharp or not sharp (Wazamono ideal) And indeed later in the Edo period when battles were less frequent the art and aesthetics become more important. However I think that when we would put a Smith or even Samurai from that era into our present day lives and ways that we appreciate swords, they would be amazed and not necessarily agree with the aesthetic over-valuing of swords many of us adhere to.

Maybe some other historians could butt in here who have read more contemporary works on swords from the period 700 - 1876.


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A couple of points regarding comments so far

Andreas wrote:


"sorry, I got carried away: but I do not like the discussion "what is better koto, shinto or shinshinto" anymore. DON'T compare them. You can't compare a Go to a Shinkai. Enjoy both for what ever merits they have."


Firstly comparison is not necessarily saying one is better than the other, better for what? cutting? better looking? or what?. However comparison to identify different features that may appear clearer or better defined in one or other is perfectly valid. Also regarding comparing Go and Shinkai, if there is one comparison you could make it is this one. I was always told that many of Shinkai's works were copies or at least attempts to emulate Go. likewise it is well documented that Hizen smiths DID produce copies of both Rai and Enju work. In his early days Shodai Tadyoshi also made copies of Bizen and Soshu work as well.


I think your view may be too broad and simplistic. Swords were certainly held in high regard as valuable aesthetic works of art not just functional cutting tools. I can fully accept for a lower level Samurai functionality far outweighed art, But appreciation of swords as fine art has existed for a very long time within the Samurai community. This is why they became used as rewards fro service and also why so many have been so well preserved. If they were only seen as weapons I suggest this would not be the case.

I agree 100% with you saying which is better is a pretty much meaningless thing, however by making such comparisons it is possible to identify those features which appeal to you most. I would not buy a sword because it had a famous maker (I dont think but have never put it to the test) I have seen swords by top makers I felt were uninspiring. The cheapest blade I bought was the Shin-shnto sword I mentioned above and that is a very beautiful piece of work. Buy swords because you like them regardless of when they were made. I have seen a lot that I would love to hold for a while, it just happens that most of them are Kamakura period koto and thats just because their particular features appeal to me.

From a functional point of view I can fully accept that there is no difference between Koto and  later copies of them. I cannot prove it one way or the other but can believe any performance difference would be minimal. However I do think there are considerable differences in the aesthetic, does that make them better? well for me yes because the older swords show features that I enjoy and are lacking from the later works.

I think part of the challenge here is that we are caught between two measures the first as a functional weapon and the second as an art object. It is true that the features that make a sword a work of art are a result of pefecting it's perfomance as a cutting weapon. But I think in these older masterworks these differences are taken to a completely different level.

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Hello Paul,

I selected the Go-Shinkai and Tadahiro-Rai "couples" because they were always regarded as original-copy.

Maybe my selection of vocabulary was poor, english is not my native language.

I used the "compare" in the sense of "better/worse" which is often the way to look at these couples and which is wrong in my oppinion.

But I like to emphazise that I think, there are not merely "copies", but idealized works by the later smiths.




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Hi Andreas

Yes I agree with you. I think they were trying to embody the style and features rather than create a slavish copy. The Shinkai blades I have seen i have admired greatly and before going down the Yamashiro road I was a keen Hizen collector so can appreciate the points you make

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