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On the subject of sugata


Janrudolph
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Friends, the subject of sugata has me fully engrossed at the moment. And perplexed. Other concerns aside, please allow me to give you the measurements (correctly taken, to my knowledge) of my katana blade, plus two pics taken with as much care as I can. I ask you to give me your kind thoughts concerning what these measurements tell you about the blade.

Total length: 828 mm

Nagasa: 629 mm

Sori: 11 mm

Motokasane: 6,3 mm 

Sakikasane: 4,2 mm

Motohaba: 30,1 mm

Sakihaba: 19,1 mm

Hamon: suguha

Hi: double bohi.

I'm going to try posting the two pics correctly (point up). 

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Three remarks by me while waiting for your kind contributions:

1) I mistakenly called the hi on my blade "double bohi". I believe it should be "Fatasuji-hi", two parallel grooves that run alongside each other.

2) I see the one blade in my picture is longer than the other one. That is my erroneous adjustment of the pic size. Sorry! That's one blade, both sides.

3) The blade's "naked" weight is 583 gram.

Thank you. Johan  

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Thank you, Jean, Steve S and Ken. Well, Ken, Steve S has kindly suggested shinto from the blade's sugata, so yes, I am most definitely interested in what the sugata can tell us about the blade's place in the Japanese historical  timeline. This sugata is a new area of investigation for me, and I know little about "reading" sugata. What I can add to the measurements already given above, is that the nakago seemingly has a ubu nakago form, the sori is of the type called torii sori, the blade has two shallow grooves called futasuji, the tip of the nakago looks to me like kuri jiri, the kissaki is chu kissaki, the boshi is komaru, the hamon is suguha, and there is a kiku-mon with 16 petals above what I must assume is gimei.

So, if Steve S's guess is not spot-on, what do all these measurements and extra info tell me otherwise? Can one place this blade somewhere in time, or province, or smith, or school? Your help will be of great importance in my quest for a better understanding of nihonto.  Thanks, guys! Johan   

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We will need to ssee more photos with close ups to offer better opinions, Johan. Understanding nihonto better is a great undertaking and lots of fun, enjoy!

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Forgive me, Steve S, but your request has made me a little bit confused. I was of the opinion that in discussing sugata it's going to be all about the shape of the blade, and a number of accurate measurements is of great importance. We know the sugata or overall form is the first thing to be considered when appraising a blade. In my post #2 I photographed the blade both sides and my blade measurements are in #1 and #3. I will most readily provide extra photos if you could specify what you would like to see. If you are referring to file marks on the nakago, there are none whatsoever. And the nakagi is ubu. Please advise about extra photos! 

I see many ideas (in other threads) have been expressed about sugata: for instance: "The shape tells you the period".  "The fact is it can only really do that if it is ubu and all it can tell you is that it wasn't made before xxxx".  "The shape can't tell you how old a sword is, but it can tell you how new it is." 

As I indicated to Ken: I am wondering if, through sugata, we can place this blade of mine somewhere in time, or province, or smith, or school? 

Johan

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What i also think is always a usefull information but not visible on most pictures is if the shinogi is low or high.

 

The first examples here show one with low and the 2nd with high shinogi.http://www.ksky.ne.jp/~sumie99/styles.html

 

This can help attribution to a school but i would say you check the "Connoisseurs Book" on that subject.

Also check out the kantei series of sesko if you dont have already https://markussesko.com/kantei/.

 

I think Useful could be a picture of the kissaki with the yokote visible.

 

I think your blade has a kanbun shinto sugata and from sesko "a Kanbun-shintô-sugata is one of the more easier recognizable sugata". https://markussesko.com/2015/04/03/kantei-1-sugata-6/

 

Without the blade in hand i would say it is easier to show hada and hamon for more than the time frame.

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Christian, I am overwhelmed! You have really put me on the right track and I'm going to have to really dig in into those references! I thank you - you don't how much I am indebted to you!

I'll post a pic of the shinogi  as soon as possible, as well as the kissaki as you request.

You further suggest  kanbun shinto sugata, and on that suggestion I need now to point out that the mei, which I have agreed to assume is gimei, gives the smith as Shinano (no) kami Fujiwara rai Nobuyoshi, who was active during the years 1673-1704 (Hawley's #NOB 592). The date, probably as unreliable as the mei, dates to 1680. That's more recent than kanbun shinto 1661-1673.

Logic tells me that the blade cannot be older than 1680, because why would a faker take an older mumei blade and put this smith's name and 1680 date on it??? Would it not make more sense (from a faker's point of view) to take a younger blade and try to make it look like the work of an earlier smith? Unless my logic fails me, it means I must accept that my blade is necessarily post-1680. 

Or must I rather think that the faker has taken an older mediocre blade (perhaps kanbun shinto age) and put a good smith's name and date on it to make it look more desireable?

 I need coffee now! Johan.:bang: :)

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Johan -

"Or must I rather think that the faker has taken an older mediocre blade (perhaps kanbun shinto age) and put a good smith's name and date on it to make it look more desireable?" this is most likely - the better fakers try to match workmanship in a blade to a known artists work - this is why we see swords with gimei getting papered to the "fake" name that was previously on the nakago. When you think of shape you have to consider how such fads travel across the country -  as we approach Kanbun in time the shape begins to "level out", in and around Kanbun the fad for straight swords was at its peak thanks to the popularity of shinai kendo - after Kanbun the curve slowly creeps back into blades - these features occur in Edo and Osaka which are the centers of culture and sword-making - they occur later in the "provinces". Obviously a Kanbun smith is not going to sign Nobuyoshi on a Kanbun blade cause he had not made his reputation yet, so the blade could easily be before Nobuyoshi but the faking has to have been afterwards.

 

As to your other questions - tradition, school, and smith - these cannot be determined by shape alone and that is why folks are requesting more photos. If shape/era are the only questions, you have provided us with enough information, if you want folks to hazard a guess as to the rest you will need more close-ups...

-tch

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Thomas, to you my sincere thanks. I would wholeheartedly agree to your notion as you expressed it: "If shape/era are the only questions, you have provided us with enough information."  I think it best if I confine my questions to shape/era, and get what information I can from the contribution of all you knowledgeable guys out there! So please, what can be said about the shape/era of my katana sword?

(Look, I know I'm doting on this sword of mine, like a proud dad over his rather unattractive baby, but with my pensioner budget, this is the only Nihonto katana I possess. I have not even séén another nihonto katana in my 75 years, outside of pictures. That is how isolated I am here in my coastal town. I realise the energy I'm spending on this sword is wasted (in a sense). But this is the only one I have to enthuse over.)

Thanks, guys. Please let your info to me be forthcoming! Johan  

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Thomas, thank you! I am hoping that other forum members will chime in here, not because I doubt your kind opinion in any way, but it would do me good to hear a few words of concurrence from other sources also. 

On the matter of the faker, in my case the one who wrote Nobuyoshi as the smith and inscribed the 8th year of Enpo as the date, I would like to know if my hunch is correct, that those we call "fakers", those who create gimei, are not necessarily bladesmiths in their own right?  Is it at all possible that someone with devious intent can take a mumei blade and inscribe smith and date on the nakago without being a smith? Would such a faker be the norm or the exception? Would any faker on the street in Kanbun era times be literate, or would our faker perhaps employ a literate henchman to do the inscribing for him?

Johan  

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Could be either. But I suspect that most gimei are done at the time of manufacture. Obviously fraudsters take advantage of mumei swords, and I guess more of that happens nowadays. But in most cases gimei was done by a smith, sometimes maybe at the request of a customer.

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Johan, the straight , komaru boshi is likely at best Shinto (the straight hamon line in the kissaki). Another indication is that there is plenty of boshi (also on the balance of things, more likely Shinto) as there is simply too much of it. Kissaki usually gets chipped, reworked, boshi decreases etc. Here you have too much boshi, ceteris paribus. 
Furthermore, as Thomas said, the relatively straight, almost stick-like but not overly long (65-69cm) also normally indicates Kanbun. That shape is the most widely recognised on average, after the Koto koshizori of Bizen. 
 

Please do not overrely on existing sugata to tell the age of a sword. A lot of fakers rely on exactly that approach to pass off forgeries with multiple ana or “artificially shortened” (while in fact ubu) nakago.  Sugata is useful when you have a definitely ubu nakago or a nakago with a genuine mei, even if overall shortened, so that you can estimate what the original sugata was like. 
 

So, by all means look at the sugata first as the books say, but then consider the hada (old hada tends to have a distinct, intricate look, irregularity in its own charming way) and boshi and kasane (how frequently polished the sword has been especially vis-à-vis the nakago). Also, in the Shinto shinogi, the hada also was often masame (albeit not always). 

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Thank you, Brian and Michael S. Sorry for my late reply, I've been running around trying to obtain a piece of poplar wood to make a shirasaya from. (This is just by the way, I've decided I want to put this katana in a shirasaya and the only practical and affordable way to do this is to make it a project of my own. I've got the wood now and am in the planning stage.)

Yes, Michael, I trust that my nakago is ubu, and that is why I'd like to get all possible knowledge out of the sugata that I can. The ubu also tells me that no one over the centuries has tried to get an alternative tsuka to fit the blade, or more possibly, that any blade alteration has been done, necessitating a second mekugi-ana. My katana has been "left alone" with its tsuka all these years.

I will soon post more pics in order to enquire about aspects like tradition, school, and smith, after no more thoughts are given through to me on sugata by you fabulous guys! Thanks. Johan.

 

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Dear Johan.

 

Brace yourself, making shirasaya is a tricky activity.  I'm sure you know this already but absolutely no sanding, all finished from the tool edge to avoid debris scratching the blade and rice glue to avoid modern adhesives staining or rusting the blade.  Might I recommend 'The Craft of the Japanese Sword' as a very useful book.

 

As you are about to find out it is perfectly possible to  make a new tsuka fit an existing nakago, including the mekugi ana so an unaltered nakago does not confirm that it has only had one tsuka in it's life.  Shortening is done for a variety of reasons but only in rare cases to allow a blade to be mounted in a specific type of koshirae or a new koshirae.

 

All the best.

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Thank you, Geraint, it would not take much admonition to make me shudder & draw back from the shirasaya project, like in "Fools rush in...!" So I'll have to steel myself and sally forth. Yes, what you say is true, and the first thing I will have to do is get all my planes & chisels properly sharpened. 

But getting back to sugata, it now does seem as if my blade is kanbun, and that's before enpo, the era (eighth year) inscribed on the tang (fraudulently, it seems). However, from end of kanbun (1673) to the 8th year of enpo is a measly seven years. Surely that can't make a great difference. According to Paul Martin, "Changes in the shape of the Japanese sword" (2017), this type of construction my blade has, usually referred to as kanbun, was generally produced around the middle of the kanbun 1661-1673 to the enpo 1673-1681 eras.

So who can criticize me (lightheartedly, of course) for asserting that the dating on my blade (whether fraudulent or not) is actually spot-on? The actual swordmaking era that the blade can be assigned to, and the dating coincide. So what does that imply? There seems not to be evidence whatsoever that my blade has to be older than 1680. Can anyone give me a reason to suspect that the blade is necessarily older?

Please forgive this bantering, I'm just trying to think logically. Maybe I should have my wits sharpened at the same time as my planes & chisels! :laughing::lipssealed:   

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Hi Johan,

 

Just to add a bit more grist to your mill, some discrepancy in dating has been put down to the time-lag between the death/ abdication of an emperor and the edict naming the new nengo period reaching the town or village where the swordsmith worked. So the dating discrepancy might be caused by happenstance rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive.

 

Another word of warning regarding shirasaya - choose a wood that has naturally low sap content and low tannin levels or non-acidic sap - I've no idea if poplar fits this description. Japanese magnolia wood (honoki) is chosen for this reason but is hard to come by.

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Thank you, John! Your comment about the discrepancy in dating is noted. Still, our sugata considerations are clouded by the possibility of the dating being incorrect, for whatever reason whether coincidental or fraudulent. If the dating is believed to be correct, the establishment of the swordmaking era is in a sense irrelevant. If the dating is suspect, everything revolves around the placement of the blade in its swordmaking era. It seems to be a bit of a catch-22 situation. Important to me is that you guys seem to agree that the blade sugata clearly points to kanbun era. If that is the fact, then all our thoughts and  considerations about the dating seem only to have entertainment value. Anyhow, that's why I attach so much importance to what you all say about the my blade's sugata. If we have not done with that yet, please chime in!

John, concerning the wood for shirasaya, I have it on good authority that poplar (Populus deltoides, the Eastern Cottonwood or Necklace Poplar) is the best choice for scabbard-making if magnolia (ho wood) is unavailable. Some say Alder also works. I have purchased poplar imported from North America. Cheers. Johan

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Don't get into the "little boxes" fixation.
Many newcommers go there, and assume that if X = Y, then the sword is Z, and if sugata is X then the era must be Y.
There are guidelines. A shape like xxxx MAY point to xxx. Combine that with many other factors, and you have a probable smith of yyy.
That assumes the sword is in full polish and you can see everything. What I am saying is don't expect to discuss the aspects of your sword and come down to a smith or era. It will all be guesswork. That's why shinsa exists, and they can only do it because they have seen thousands of swords. It's natural to want to know who made a sword. But with over 25,000 swordsmiths over the centuries, the handful that come to mind are really just a guideline.
Not to discourage you. But want to warn against thinking you will pin it down significantly. Sometimes we have to just accept that our sword is just that....a sword. Made around xxx by one of the many smiths. Putting schools and smiths and features into neat little boxes is a natural inclination, but just doesn't work with handmade swords where things are not 100% consistent.
Otherwise we'd have computer programs replacing shinsa.

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Brian, I accept that a warning such as you have given is necessary, as well as noteworthy, and it is your place to offer such words of advice to all who believe that the origin of swords can be pinpointed without doubt just by looking at the shape. However, if at the time of procuring my "Nobuyoshi" katana, I had thought I would not have a chance of engaging with other collectors and knowledgeable forum folks about the possible place of the blade in Japanese history, and that I would be unwise to become engrossed in countless days of conjecture, then I would not have taken possession in the first place. You say yourself that it is a natural inclination to put things in neat boxes. So I'm being my natural self, and loving doing just that.

If my friends come to visit me in my man cave and ask me about my katana, I don't say "It's just a sword. Leave it at that. It's no use wanting to know about the unknowable." I say, "This is a samurai sword. The blade is probably in excess of three centuries old. It harks back to a time called kanbun or perhaps even enpo because of its shape and configuration....." Great fun, all this guesswork. Love it. Live it. Johan. :thumbsup:

      

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So, taking Brian's advice to heart, and doing a lot of assuming and guessing, and keeping in mind that the guidelines used are not exact, then what I have gleaned from you all, is that my katana blade shape indicates probably the kanbun/empo era. The smith that made it is not one of the good smiths, the reason being that little "islands" of inner core are peeking through the outer skin. That's the mark of poor forging. It seems the blade had not undergone multiple polishing. (The one proven instance of polishing being the work of Gus Vollmer in the 90's.) The dating on the tang, although probably false, is surprisingly accurate against the background of the kanbun/empo assumption. The Nobuyoshi mei cannot be entertained as genuine, seen against the poor forging signs on the blade. Nobuyoshi's working years, however, also surprisingly fits into the assumed era.

I had wanted to post more pics in order to find opinions on matters like tradition, school, and smith, but that does not seem to be worthwhile under the circumstances.

If my optimistic assumptions above are marginally correct, this may be the end of the thread...? Johan 

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Gus, like most amateur polishers, removed too much metal. Plus there is every chance the sword was rusted and required a lot of polishing. Nothing suggests poor forging here.

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Brian, the areas of pitting visible on the blade corresponds with your notion that the sword could have been rusted. I think I might venture a little bit further in my quest and prepare a number of pictures as best I can. Pictures bring out more than can be described by mere words. Let me get to it. Cheers. Johan  

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2 hours ago, Janrudolph said:

 The Nobuyoshi mei cannot be entertained as genuine, seen against the poor forging signs on the blade. 

 

I wouldn't draw this conclusion based on the condition of the shingane alone, especially given the amateur polish the sword was apparently given.

The shape, the date, and the smith are all pointing in the same direction, and all support one another. I think I would be cautiously optimistic about the mei.  I don't know recall if there was much discussion about the hamon or the tip, but those are also necessary to understand and appreciate.

 

Ideally, you would have other swords from this smith to make a comparison. Or photos of swords from this smith and his contemporaries. That would be my next step, although with obscure smiths there are often no examples available, so it can be difficult. 

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