Ko-Yamashiro Gojo TachiKo-Yamashiro Gojo

periodHeian (ca. 1053 AD)
designationNBTHK Juyo Token Tachi
ratingJo-jo saku
nakagoo-suriage
meiKane[ ] · 兼[ ] (second character illegible)
nagasa69.9 cm
sori1.4 cm
motohaba2.3 cm
sakihaba1.45 cm
kissaki2.0 cm
nakago nagasa15.1 cm
nakago sorislight
price -sold-

Yamashiro province in the early Heian period was known as Yamase. Emperor Shomu in 784 AD made plans to develop a new capital here which became Kyoto. The first notable smith to appear in swordsmith records and having signed extant works is Sanjo Munechika (三条宗近) who worked in Kyoto.

Munechika came from Kawachi province according to some records and had the name of Arinari at the beginning of his career. He is said to have been born in 964 and lived to 70 years old. He worked in the mid Heian period, and around 987 he arrived in Kyoto and made his home in the Awataguchi district. Until this period, or shortly before, Japanese swords were locked in the stagnant form of the straight chokuto which was a style imported either from Korea or from the Chinese mainland. Munechika is recognized as the founder of the Sanjo school, and is known to have signed his swords either Munechika or Sanjo but never both.

Munechika's Sanjo school flourished in Kyoto, however there are not many extant works from this period in time. Munechika made several famous swords, being credited with the Kokuho Mikazuki (the crescent moon Munechika, named for patterns in the hamon and jihada), and the lost Taka-no-So (Hawk's Nest Munechika, which was said to have been found in the nest of a falcon).

Kokuho Mikazuki Munechika
Kokuho Mikazuki Munechika

Around the time of Munechika's arrival, the Japanese sword went into a period of development, and the curved shape of the tachi we are familiar with arose. The Yamashiro swords of Munechika's time are gentle and elegant, reflecting the period of peace and tranquility in which they were made. These swords are also referred to as Ko Kyo, or Old Kyoto pieces.

Kyoto is nestled into an area surrounded by hills with a lake nearby, and the people of this time had dug out small canals to bring water into the town. This no doubt provided all the conveniences running water always brings people, and these same canals that exist today were probably used by swordsmiths in their art. Even today in Kyoto, Sanjo street still remains where the Sanjo school was. If you take the subway which runs parallel to two of these canals (one larger and probably more modern, and one very small and quite old), about five minutes from Sanjo station you can find Gojo.

Gojo Kanenaga

This Gojo school was founded by Kanenaga was either one of Munechika's sons, or his grandson by way of Arikuni. In reality these Gojo works are all grouped into the greater Sanjo school, but we maintain the tradition of separating the schools.

Gojo Kanenaga starts his work time frame around 1028 and had three students or sons, Kaneyasu (ca. 1037), Kanetsugu (ca. 1044) and Kuninaga (ca. 1053). Some stories put Kuninaga as his younger brother. There are other smiths of the Gojo school listed in swordsmith directories, and they are: Sadatoshi, Chikamura, Munetoshi, Muneyasu, Munenori, Munetada and Munenobu. All of these work before the end of the Heian period and before the founding of the Awataguchi school.

Tokubetsu Juyo den Gojo with KANE character
Tokubetsu Juyo den Gojo with KANE character

Kanenaga did not leave behind many signed pieces. The NBTHK accepted two works of his, and both of them have the last character of the mei illegible. The first by way of suriage and the second by erosion from time. The second of these is ubu and passed Tokuju (easily). Apart from these there is one Juyo Bijutsuhin and one Juyo Bunkazai blade which preserve his signature.

The Gojo smiths signed with two characters and we have only clearly identifiable signatures of Kanenaga and Kuninaga left to us. With Kanenaga, old books have placed him both in Chogen (1028-1037) AD and in Kempo (1214-19) so it is likely that his name was handed down through a few generations of smiths. The Juyo Bunkazai Kanenaga is now owned by the NBTHK after being donated by Kimura Tokutaro.

Gojo Kuninaga

In Kuninaga there are several variations. Fujishiro dismisses these due to changes in time, but Kuninaga is also said to have made a sword for Emperor Go-Shirakawa who reigned from (1155-1158). It's not possible for him to have more than a 100 year work span, so these along with the signature changes would seem to indicate that the Gojo school continued down through him and his name was handed down to two or three generations, all of which had the same level of skill. Kuninaga as well has a sword signed with Awataguchi in the mei which lets us understand the Gojo school as being the ancestors of the Awataguchi school which would rise to such great fame in the Kamakura period.

There are three different styles of mei by Kuninaga. In any case, his sword shows a workmanship of early Yamashiro swords. It is very difficult to conclude that the difference of the mei comes from his age or that two generations of Kuninaga existed. Honma Junji, History of Koto

Detail of Juyo Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi

Fujishiro ranks Kanenaga at Sai-jo saku for top level of skill and Kuninaga at Jo-jo saku, however most modern experts place one of the works of Kuninaga as the finest sword in existence. This sword is called the Tsuru-maru Kuninaga (Rounded Crane, named after fittings on its koshirae) and the blade is in the Imperial Collection. This kind of thing is something to keep in mind when people get a bit too focused on Fujishiro's ranking system.

This sword is in the Kyoho Meibutsucho and its provenance is known all the way back to Hojo Sadatoki who lived around 1285 in the Kamakura period, and handed down through this clan. It eventually went to Oda Nobunaga, and then on to the Date clan, and in the end they gave it to Emperor Meiji. The Date explored its history prior to being owned by the Hojo and found it had a Heian period owner by the name of Murakami Taro Nagamori.

During the Hoten Era (1156-1159) it belonged to Murakami Taro Nagamori. Later it went to Kiyono Saburo Nyudo and then to Adachi Yoshikage and during the Battle of Koan (1281 - Mongol Invasion) the blade was lost.

Later, Hojo Sadatoki, the 9th Hojo Regent (1270-1311), had the blade searched for, then it again went to Adachi. Adachi later changed his name Akita. Akita Hidesuke was very intimate with Oda Nobunaga. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

Tsurumaru Gojo Kuninaga
Tsurumaru Gojo Kuninaga

This sword is always referred to with the highest praise possible as one of the top swords that exists, and usually is considered the best of all Yamashiro swords.

It has a highly elegant tachi shape and a flamboyant ko-midare hamon. The perfection of this work makes it without a doubt an outstanding sword amongst famous works. NTHK English Novice Course

There is no doubt that meibutsu Tsuru-maru Kuninaga is his best work. The jihada is beautiful ko-itame-hada that is finer than that of Munechika and the hamon is ko-midare mixed with ko-choji in ko-nie-deki accompanied with bright and snow white nioi-guchi then many ashi and yo are seen inside the hamon. I believe that the Tsuru-maru Kuninaga shows the highest level of forging technique amongst the extant works of the Sanjo school. Incidentally there are also extant works by Kuninaga of which the hamon looks hazy and looks like sai-ha at a glance. Anyway, the workmanship of the Sanjo school was eventually succeeded by the Awataguchi school of the Kamakura Period. Honma Junji, History of Koto


Among the extant Yamashiro blades, this tachi is the top-ranking masterpiece in quality (i.e. the work of the oldest smith in perfect state of preservation and with distinguished skill in execution). Honma Junji, Great Masterpieces of Japanese Art Swords

This Tsurumaru KUNINAGA is the masterpiece of this smith as well as all the smiths of his time... this blade is probably one of the best preserved blades from the Heian period, if not the best one... If one were to be asked to pick the five best blades in existence, this KUNINAGA would be one of the five. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

Four signature types of Kuninaga
Four signature types of Kuninaga

The above mei chart represents four different types of signature for Kuninaga, and the discussion is a bit complicated.

  1. Meibutsu Tsuru-maru
  2. Juyo Bunkazai Ken
  3. Ise Jingu shrine tachi (no paper)
  4. Ito Miyoji Juyo Bijutsuhin tachi
  5. Bizen Ikeda daimyo tachi (no paper, however top quality)

At the time these were discussed in the English Token Bijutsu, swords ② and ③ were considered nearly identical in signature and that of the set of five swords, ③ was the most ancient looking blade.

Though the signatures of ①, ④ and ⑤ are all different, they could possibly be one smith working and changing his mei over time. I find this a bit hard to swallow and I think it is more likely that the set of signatures represents three smiths. I think the article above represents an intermediary stage between the first statement that it could all be one smith but needed further study, and Dr. Honma's final notes in Masterpieces of Japanese Art Swords which indicates that there are three generations of Kuninaga.

Bizen Ikeda Gojo Kuninaga
Bizen Ikeda Gojo Kuninaga

I have had the pleasure of handling the Ikeda daimyo tachi myself and I can confirm that it is exquisite. From these two examples book-ending the span of Gojo Kuninaga we can see that the quality did not change throughout this time period and this is why Fujishiro simply dismissed the signature changes as evolution of one smith's signature.

Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi Hisakuni Kuninaga

An interesting aspect of the Kuninaga signatures is that one set has a Kuni that kind of resembles a leaf rotated. This habit is also found in some Awataguchi smiths, and may be another indication of a connection between the end of Gojo and the beginning of Awataguchi. Furthermore Tanobe sensei has noted that the hazy nioiguchi in sword ④ is the same as is seen in Awataguchi Kuniyasu and Ayanokoji Sadatoshi. Kuniyasu shares this same habit in his Kuni where the normally horizontal strokes on the right orient downwards and creating this leaf effect.

Both Kanenaga and Kuninaga are highly rated swordsmiths. Kanenaga is Sai-jo saku in Fujishiro, and 2000 man yen in the Toko Taikan (20 million yen for an excellent condition daito), while Kuninaga is considered Jo-jo Saku, but also 2000 man yen.

Both smiths are considered among the leading swordsmiths of the period of the earliest Japanese swords. Their work can be found amongst the Juyo Bunkazai, and Juyo Bijutsuhin, as well as featured as one of the top blades in the collection of the Emperor of Japan. The Tsurumaru would easily classify as Kokuho but in this case it was never submitted as the Emperors seem to have not been as worried about papers as the average Nihonto collector is these days.

Detail of Juyo Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi

Gojo Kaneyasu and Kanetsugu

Kaneyasu and Kanetsugu from the meikan would be the older two brothers of Gojo Kuninaga. In the above Kuninaga mei example, the Tsuru-maru is shown with a unique signature and is thought to be the oldest of the Kuninaga works. So out of the three brothers or fellow students only one blade surely survived, and that is the Tsuru-maru. The other existing Kuninaga works are all excellent but they do not share the same signing habit of the X in the middle of the Kuni that is on the Tsuru-maru, so as mentioned above, represent a second and third generation Kuninaga. As a side note some of the signatures look similar to Awataguchi's form of making the Kuni character.

Kaneyasu is set about 20 years ahead of Kuninaga, and Kanetsugu about 10 years. Since these smiths did not date their works we have to rely on old documents to piece these things together.

There are 16 works in total at this point in time that the NBTHK authenticated as Gojo and are ranked Juyo and higher. Gojo is basically an automatic pass at Juyo should one be found and authenticated. So, by this one needs to understand the extreme rarity of Heian blades in general and the Gojo school as a whole. If we look at the Sanjo and Gojo schools combined the count is now 38 with a further 2 blades that are listed as Ko-Kyo meaning the NBTHK couldn't settle on them being Gojo or Sanjo school. So we are looking at a total of 40 blades only among existing Ko-Yamashiro pieces that are available to those outside of Japan and on these 20 over both schools combined bear a signature of some sort.

Detail of Juyo Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi

These works are broken down as such:

  1. Gojo Kanenaga: 1 zaimei (KANE, with 2nd character gone), 4 mumei
  2. Gojo Kuninaga: 1 zaimei, 3 mumei
  3. Gojo as a school: 2 zaimei (KANE, with 2nd character gone), 6 mumei

In the case of the signed blades with Gojo school attribution, we can see that the NBTHK had the option of classifying it with the two other under Kanenaga that has a missing second character. That they refused to do this but placed them as Gojo blades means that the most likely attribution would be to Kanetsugu or Kaneyasu. This attribution cannot directly be made however since no signed works exist by either of them nor is an oshigata immediately available. So this work is quite rare even among rare things (and documented herein). I confirmed this much with Tanobe sensei directly that there are no existing reference materials for either smith, other than the historical recording of their existence in the Gojo school (i.e. all works have now been lost to time).

And we can see from the count above that signed pieces in the Gojo school amount only to 5 for those the NBTHK has documented. There are another 6 Gojo works, 3 each for Kuninaga and Kanenaga that are Juyo Bijutsuhin (so not always reliable with this paper) and two more Juyo Bunkazai for Kanenaga and one Juyo Bunkazai for Kuninaga.

Thus in the world we currently have no more than 25 Gojo school works left to us, with a third of those being illegal to export from Japan.

Among the school attributed works may fall those that belong to Kuninaga or Kanenaga but cannot be determined, and as well the works of Kaneyasu and Kanetsugu which no longer can be found. Past these makers, knowledge about the school consists only of names and a faint thread that connects up to the Awataguchi school in Kamakura.

Detail of Juyo Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachikoshirae rightkoshirae left
Juyo Token Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi

Juyo Token Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi

This blade as mentioned above is one of those signed Gojo works that took a school attribution in spite of one clear character Kane on the nakago being legible. This means that it is one of only three smiths, Kanenaga, Kanetsugu and Kaneyasu. The last two are difficult to name on a paper because there are no references left.

As the NBTHK has in the past designated Gojo Kanenaga on a one character mei on a Gojo they do feel capable of stating this if they are sure and when it felt was appropriate.

The one other blade with this same condition of the second character being eroded passed Tokubetsu Juyo. At Juyo in the setsumei they only spoke about Kanenaga, and it passed in the same session as this one. In this one's setsumei though they brought up Kaneyasu and Kanetsugu. So I feel that there was a lean towards Kanenaga on the first one and this one they are leaning toward Kaneyasu and Kanetsugu hence bringing it up. If it is one of these two makers then this is the only one and so they stayed conservative on the judgment.

The other one in the shinsa with this blade was submitted and passed Tokubetsu Juyo. When it passed Tokuju it took the same designation as this one, which is Tachi, Kane[ ] (den Gojo) (i.e. attributed to one of the Gojo smiths). In this case the signature is more clear than that one, the second character is just on the boundary of being legible. In this case if it is Kanetsugu the second character will be 次 and if it is Kaneyasu the second character will be 安. These two characters share similar basic shapes and so one can see the problem in trying to differentiate if only the boundaries are available to read as in this case. It is worth continuing to investigate and potentially use some technology to get to the answer.

No matter how you look at it, a signed Gojo work is extremely rare and precious. The attribution as made allows it to be adjusted in the future should a fully signed example of Kaneyasu or Kanetsugu turn up. There are no other Gojo smiths who signed with Kane, so we know it is one of these three yet not a good match for Kanenaga so it means the most likely answer is the the latter two. As both the NBTHK and Tanobe sensei took pains to list out Kaneyasu and Kanetsugu as possibilities (in my past experience with Ko-Yamashiro, these makers have not come up for discussion), it means that this is a very real possibility for this one.

For me personally, this kind of sword is what collecting is all about. Heian blades are not common at all and Ko-Yamashiro is the least common of all of them. Given the number of cut-down mumei and the fact that many Heian blades due to age simply got exposed to fire and retempered as a result, to get one fully intact with a signature on it is a coup. This sword was made around 77 cm originally so it did not need to get shortened very much to come down to about 70 cm where it currently is. So just about the bottom half of the nakago is the original surface from when it was made, and the signature got to stay in place after the suriage.

This blade shows a lot of chikei in clear and wet looking steel. The hamon is in ko-nie and exhibits many hataraki we desire in Heian works, and is a ko-midareba with choji, sunagashi and kinsuji throughout. Some of the Gojo works that are attributed have a bit more bulky size and look like they are closer to Kamakura as a result. This blade is very slender with a small ko-kissaki and makes it very easy to recognize at a glance that it is from a thousand years ago in the Heian period. One other thing to note, is to look at the area where the signature is and see how the shinogi is not present in this part of the sword. Old tachi from Heian should have a rounded nakago without a shinogi-ji present. Above the mei the shinogi is present in the upper third due to suriage, and in the middle third due to refinishing the nakago during shortening. The original surface of the nakago begins at the middle hole and goes down, and the shinogi was filed in as low as the smith who did the shortening could go without impacting the mei. So there is in total about 25% original nakago surface on the signed side, though the shinogi was refinished deeper into the tang right up until the mei. This original shape and surface where the mei is, is a strong confirmation for age and authenticity of the blade.

tsuka lefttsuka right

This tachi also is accompanied by a koshirae from the Tokugawa Shogunate. It appears to be from the late Edo period and has some wear and tear which is commiserate with its age. Trying to get good tachi koshirae like this has now become difficult in Japan. Given the age, signature, rarity, and status of this blade, it is a collection-in-one item and would be a treasure in any collection.

Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi OshigataKo-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi Origami

Juyo Token Tachi

Appointed on the 2nd of March, 1979 (Session 26)

Tachi, Mei, Kane[ ], Den Ko-Yamashiro Gojo

Keijo

shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, slender mihaba, noticeable taper, shallow sori, ko-kissaki

Kitae

ko-itame that features plenty of ji-nie and a nie-utsuri and that is mixed along the bottom half of the blade with ōhada, the steel is overall clear

Hamon

hoso-suguha that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-ashi, ko-chōji, and fine sunagashi and kinsuji, and that shows plenty of ko-nie embedded into the nioiguchi

Boshi

a little bit notare with a ko-maru-like kaeri which is somewhat pointed on the ura side

Nakago

suriage, kirijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, one character of the mei is preserved at the nakago-jiri and towards the nakago-mune, there are traces of a second character but which is illegible

Setsumei

The Gojō School got its name from the fact that the Sanjō Munechika (三 条宗近) student Kanenaga (兼永) resided along the Gojō axis of Kyōto. Apart from Kanenaga, the school consisted of the smiths Kuninaga (国永), Kanetsugu (兼次), and Kaneyasu (兼安) but only signed works from Kanenaga and Kuninaga are known.

This blade is with its slender mihaba and ko-kissaki of an elegant sugata. It shows a dense ko-itame and a ko-nie-laden suguha-chō that is mixed with ko-midare and that is interpreted in a very classical manner. Therefore, we clearly recognize the characteristic features of a Kyō-mono. Only the first character, Kane, in the mei is legible and an individual smith can thus not be determined, but the attribution can be narrowed to the Gojō School.

Ko-Yamashiro Gojo Tachi Sayagaki

Sayagaki

This sword bears an extensive inscription (sayagaki) done at my request by Tanobe Michihiro sensei. He is the retired former head researcher of the Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK). The front side of the shirasaya had an older inscription to Gojo by Dr. Honma Junji in 1977, the founder of the NBTHK so I asked him to put his comments on the back.

  1. 磨上ゲテ茎先ニ兼⼀字ガ残存シ五条物ト傳フ⼀類ニハ兼永ノ他兼次・兼安ラノ名ヲ銘鍳ニ所載スモ兼永以外ハ作例ハ未⾒也
    Suriagete nakago-saki ni Kane ichiji ga zanson-shi Gojō-mono to tsutau ichirui ni wa Kanenaga no hoka Kanetsugu, Kaneyasu ra no na o meikan ni shosai-su mo Kanenaga igai wa sakurei wa miken nari.
    This blade is suriage with one character, Kane, remaining at the tip of the tang. It is attributed to Gojō as (apart from Kanenaga) the meikan also lists Kanetsugu and Kaneyasu as Gojō smiths who signed with the Kane character. However, no signed works other than Kanenaga from that Kane group still exist.
  2. 本作ハ細⾝・⼩鋒ノ古典的姿態ヲ呈シ地沸ヲ敷ク温潤美麗ナル⼩板⽬ノ肌合ニ⼩沸付ク直刃⼩乱ノ刃⽂ヲ焼キ古京物ノ典雅ナ趣ヲ釀成スル優品哉
    Honsaku wa hosomi, ko-kissaki no koten-teki shitai o tei-shi ji-nie o shiku onjun birei naru ko-itame no hada-ai ni ko-nie tsuki suguha ko-midare no hamon o yaki Ko-Kyō-mono no tenga na omomuki o jōsei-suru yūhin kana
    This blade is with its slender mihaba and ko-kissaki is of a classical shape. It shows a beautifully forged and “wet” looking jigane in itame and is hardened in a suguha ko-midare in ko-nie-deki and so this masterwork truly reflects the graceful aesthetics of early Kyoto works.
  3. 刃⾧弐尺参⼨分半有之
    Hachō ni-shaku san-sun bu han kore ari
    Blade length 69.9 cm
  4. 第⼆⼗六回重要⼑剣指定品
    Dai nijūrokkai jūyō-tōken shitei-hin
    Jūyō-tōken at the 26th jūyō shinsa.
  5. 時在⼰亥霜⽉ 探⼭識「花押」
    Jizai tsuchinoto-i shimozuki Tanzan shirusu + kaō
    Written by Tanzan in November of the year of the boar of this era (2019) + monogram