Osafune Saburo Kunimune KatanaOsafune Saburo Kunimune

periodMiddle Kamakura (ca. 1270)
designationNBTHK Juyo Token
nakagoo-suriage, one mekugiana
meiHonmei Kunimune shikarishikōshite Sukesada wa kore o suriageru nari (bore originally a signature of Kunimune but which was lost by the shortening carried out by Sukesada)
nagasa66.3 cm
sori1.9 cm
motohaba3.1 cm
nakago nagasa16.6 cm
nakago sori0.1 cm

Bizen Saburo Kunimune is the third son of Kunizane, who in turn is the son of Naomune, for whom the lineage is named. Kunimune was the greatest smith of this lineage and has been famous as Saburo (“Third Son”) Kunimune since the writing of the old sword books many centuries ago. Naomune is either a Ko-Ichimonji or Ko-Bizen smith, while Kunizane is likely an early Fukuoka Ichimonji or Ko-Ichimonji smith. There is also a competing analysis that places Kunizane as a student of Sanemune, but this is weaker I think by analysis of the smith's names.

Kunimune however is a luminary artist of very high reputation, ranked Sai-jo saku by Fujishiro, and at 1800 man yen in the Toko Taikan. His work style is interesting and easily identifiable among those of Bizen smiths. Though he originates near Osafune in Nitta-sho Wake, he is not grouped with the Osafune smiths. Rather, he is a peer to Mitsutada and Moriie, founding smiths of Osafune and Hatakeda schools. Kunimune is famous not only for his quality of work, but that he was one of the founding smiths of the Soshu tradition.

The work of Kunimune has been appreciated at the highest level from the time of his life until the current day. It has been used as gifts among daimyo and shogun, and there are 13 Kokuho, 18 Juyo Bijutsuhin, and 6 Juyo Bunkazai pieces among the items he left. This is a very impressive count. The NBTHK adds a further count of 7 Tokubetsu Juyo and 45 Juyo Token, of which all are either tachi, or suriage tachi, with one exception (this sword, more on that later). This helps us also understand his work period as coming before the emergence of the popularity of tanto in the late Kamakura. His work is overall fairly rare though many of these are signed, and this allows us good insight into his work style. One can see by the very high percentage of the above blades that are Kokuho and Jubi/Bunkazai the level of importance of this smith.

The first two sons of Kunizane were Taro Kunizane (nidai Kunizane) and Jiro Kunisada, and the fourth was Shiro Kuniyasu. Works of these smiths are not seen other than Kunisada. Kunizane, though he seems to have been an Ichimonji smith, is said to have lived and worked in Kyoto for some time. This is interesting as the Nihonto Koza marks the beginning of Saburo Kunimune's work period as 1232, but Yamanaka puts his birth date as 1179 and states that he supposedly first went to Kamakura at 20 years old in 1199. He is then said to have returned to Bizen in 1238, and then was ordered back to Kamakura in 1261. He would have been 82 at this point in time, and I think it's the early part of this time-line that has since been moved up in disagreement with the old books, making his work span the middle Kamakura rather than being active right at the beginning. Regardless there seems to be some wandering in this family and potentially this is what results in some incorporation of regional technologies that end up in making Kunimune's work so distinctive.

While it's not clear about the earlier dates, we do know that Kunimune is one of the three grand master smiths who took the call of the 5th Kamakura Regent Hojo Tokiyori to set up forges in Kamakura (the others being Ichimonji Sukezane, and Awataguchi Kunitsuna). Kunimune is recorded to have set himself up in Yamanouchi, Kamakura as a result of this. Fujishiro writes that this summoning was to arm the warriors of the Kamakura Bakufu in preparation for the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. Since these three were very top level smiths of high reputation, it would indicate that Kunimune had to be in his prime and top of his craft before this time.

These three smiths are what I call “Soshu Generation Zero” as they are the technical founders of the Soshu den, but they never change their traditional work styles into what we now consider to be the Soshu den. It is not until the appearance of Shintogo Kunimitsu who is in some works considered to be a son of Kunimune, that the Soshu den becomes something new and separate from its originators. As such, we call Shintogo the founder of Soshu as a tradition, though he is not of the founding generation of Soshu smiths. Yamanaka writes his theory that Generation Zero founded the Soshu tradition between 1230 and 1240.

These three great smiths continued working in their normal traditions, and it is not until the appearance of Shintogo Kunimitsu that the first true Soshu den blades appear. Shintogo Kunimitsu is recorded in the Showa Hon as the son of Saburo Kunimune, but there is a competing theory that he is a son of Awataguchi Kunitsuna. His work looks very much like Awataguchi, but Fujishiro casts some doubt on an association with Awataguchi, saying that suguba is the style of his time and he did not inherit this from Yamashiro. I think this is worth thinking about, as we know that the father of Kunimune lived in Kyoto (Yamashiro) for some time, and that Shintogo signed with Hasebe sometimes. Hasebe Kunishige moved to Kyoto and made swords there as well, so it makes me wonder if there was an ongoing relationship with Kyoto. I don't think it is a coincidence that the work of Kunimune is particular among Bizen smiths and his best work shows the same kind of forging skill as the better Awataguchi smiths, and Shintogo Kunimitsu's work seems at times to be interchangeable with them.

Yamanaka places Shintogo as a son of Kunitsuna, though Fujishiro places him as a son of Kunimune. It's difficult to know which theory holds the most weight. We do know though that the most famous student of Shintogo is of course Masamune, and the small number of signed pieces left by Masamune show a Mune character that is cut in the same manner as Kunimune. The Soshu den takes aspects of the Ko-Bizen, Ko-Hoki, and Awataguchi schools and brings them together. The presence of senior smiths predating the creation of the Soshu den who represent the Bizen and Yamashiro traditions in Kamakura then should really not be a surprise. My own suspicion is that the relationship between these groups of smiths was fairly close, they after all were working as neighbors under the call of the Regent for the defense of the country. It is possible that Masamune was a young smith of the Kunimune school to begin with, and after the death of Kunimune began his work under Shintogo. This would explain both his name containing one character of Kunimune's name and in his chiseling style, as well his historical placement under the mon of Shintogo. Since Shintogo's work looks to me to be much more like Yamashiro, as does Yukimitsu's, I believe that these two have closer ties to Awataguchi than Bizen. It's not until Masamune that we see the tie-in between Ko-Hoki, Ko-Bizen and Awataguchi that becomes the evolution of the dynamic Soshu den. So, my own theory is that Kamakura was a bit of a melting pot, and with all these ingredients inserted, a bit of stirring and a lot of fire, out popped the Soshu den.

There have been several generations of Kunimune, with the shodai signing his work in two characters, and other (later) generations signing in longer signatures. There is specifically a Hoki Kunimune and a Nakahara Kunimune which arrive in the late Kamakura and are considered to be students of the first or second generation. Of the Nakahara Kunimune works, one is a particularly good Tokubetsu Juyo with a 1306 date, and it's possible that he is a follower and student of Saburo Kunimune. This is a bit confusing, because at times it was thought that there is a "nidai Saburo" Kunimune who was the teacher of Nakahara Kunimune, where it now appears that Saburo Kunimune has a direct relationship with Nakahara Kunimune. The NBTHK in the first 20 Juyo sessions have ascribed work to the "nidai Saburo" smith, but seems no longer to follow this practice. They have since that time written that scholarship indicates there to be only one Saburo Kunimune instead of the two previously thought. Fujishiro also dismisses the "nidai Saburo" theory. For my counts above, in order to be perfectly accurate, I excluded works absolutely ascribed to the nidai in the Juyo index (of which there are four). Regardless, those specifically ascribed to Saburo Kunimune do indicate first generation work as Saburo is a nickname for this smith.

Due to the age of the works he made, not many are left in good condition, and those that have seen extensive polishing show a blurred and whitish area in the habuchi which is a kantei point in works of this smith. We can generally then estimate the preservation level of his works by careful examination of the border between the hamon and ji. The Nihonto Koza writes, the habuchi on healthy works of Kunimune tend to be very lively and which make them popular among collectors.

The finest work of Kunimune, a famous Kokuho that was in the Terukuni shrine, caused a sensation in Japan in the 20th century. It was found in the USA by Dr. Walter Compton, and he elected to return it to Japan in 1953 at his own expense and sought no compensation. For this gesture, he gained permanent great respect among sword collectors in Japan and throughout the world. This sword before Compton found it was bought at a military base junk sale for $10 USD by an antiques dealer who marked it up to for what he probably thought was a very expensive $50 USD. Dr. Compton was in the practice of employing runners to find swords and bring them to him, and it was one of these runners who bought and brought in the Kunimune. Adding to the story, one of Albert Yamanaka's friends arrived in the shop shortly after the transaction was concluded and narrowly missed out in purchasing the sword. This of course is something that all collectors know, being a little bit late or a dollar short and forever missing that one sword that got away.

Juyo Token Osafune Saburo Kunimune Katana

Juyo Token Osafune Saburo Kunimune Katana

The existence of this sword is unique. The shape is a naginata naoshi: this is what is left when a naginata is cut down and re-shaped for use as a katana. It is a the only blade among those made by Saboro Kunimune left to us based in naginata form among the Juyo and higher works. The rest are either tachi or katana made from modifying tachi. As such, this sword gives us important information about naginata from his time and about those made by his hand, as well as being a precious artifact. We do say that there are no tanto found by Kunimune, so it is likely that he did not make tanto. We might also be encouraged to say he made no naginata, if not for the existence of this sword. So it is possible too that all of his tanto met the same fate as the rest of the naginata, with this one being the sole survivor of them all. There could be another that is ranked less than Juyo or not yet discovered, but so far there are none published.

It's thought that one reason we don't see tanto from earlier than the end of the Kamakura period is cultural, in that they did not have the same reverence attached to them as tachi did. As such, they were used, abused, discarded and replaced. Something changes in attitudes towards the end of the Kamakura period and we see an inverted relationship in regards to tanto manufacture. In several smiths tanto become frequent and in some cases predominant examples of their work (for instance, Shintogo Kunimitsu's work is mostly tanto). The three most famous tanto makers (Shintogo, Rai Kunitoshi and Awataguchi Yoshimitsu) all hail from this time period. Naginata are also known to exist from this period of time, but are quite rare for possibly the same reasons that tanto were previously rare. Naginata were heavy and primary weapons on the battlefield and did not have any court use. As such they were used for fighting, damaged, and repaired, and eventually destroyed. Very few remained, and probably not a lot of thought was given to this at the time. So the handful of examples that we have are quite precious as can be seen by this (possibly lone) surviving example from Kunimune.

If a naginata has a flared head, this is often cut back when converting into katana use as it will make a better shape for a sword. The result will be a boshi in yakitsume (the hamon runs straight out without turning back). Since this naginata naoshi possesses a kaeri (turnback) and the shinogi runs out the tip, I think it has not been modified at the kissaki. Furthermore the NBTHK refers to it only as o-suriage in the setsumei, which may indicate agreement with this observation. So I think in terms of naginata naoshi, this one is particularly close to the original shape and may have been in nagamaki style koshirae. It would have been a fairly large naginata, as the new machi is above some horimono that would have originally been displayed above the habaki. I think it is minimally 10 cm that would need to be added in order for this horimono to be displayed and it's not clear if some of the horimono was filed down in creating the new nakago (this is most likely the case). So we are looking at a naginata that would have had a 76 cm to 82 cm blade at the end of a long pole, and would have been a frightening thing indeed.

sword pictureAnother interesting piece of history associated with this blade is its conversion from naginata to katana use sometime in the Muromachi period in the Osafune Sukesada workshop. Sukesada took the time to record the fact on the new nakago that it bore the signature of Kunimune before it was cut down. A large number of works at later periods (frequently in the Momoyama) were cut down by the Umetada workshop for mounting and use as katana. These smiths were talented at gakumei and orikaeshimei, which were techniques used in order to preserve the signatures on important blades. I have a feeling that this work, coming a lot earlier, predates this practice. Certainly the Sukesada workshop was a very successful one that had a great impact on their times, and several grandmaster smiths of their own. So it is interesting to see that someone brought this naginata to them and asked them to transform it to a katana, when certainly there were swords of all levels produced in this workshop, from throw-away items to masterpiece swords, depending on what you wanted to spend.

To me it indicates a degree of reverence for his Bizen tradition ancestor and when the smith made this notation in order to preserve the information for the future. And without this information recorded, maybe future generations would not have been so kind to preserve in the kind of condition it's in.

There is a study case here in order to determine which of the Sukesada smiths performed this suriage. It is not likely that someone would bring in a respected and treasured Kunimune for this type of shortening and hand it to a low level student and ask him to do the work, any more than one would bring a Ferrari to a $19.99 oil change shop and ask them to tune the engine. The most likely suspects then are Hikobei-no-jo, Yosozaemon-no-jo and Genbei-no-jo Sukesada. Complicating matters a bit are that there is a second generation Yosozaemon, and a few other high level Sukesada, but I think this question can be answered within the scope of these three.

The mei on this nakago is finely made in smallish characters, and a fairly blocky orientation with a very slight slant to the characters. The tagane is laid down fairly heavy. This combination of features leads us to Yosozaemon over the other two. In particular, when we compare the mei of these three, we can see that Yosozaemon tends to have the heaviest lines and the least slant to his characters, while both Genbei and Hikobei have fairly light characters with a greater degree of slant. Genbei has faint atari while Hikobei seems to adorn his light characters with a contrasting strong atari. The feeling then of looking at Hikobei's signature is somewhat like looking at slightly embellished handwriting, while looking at Yosozaemon's signature is more like looking at block printing.

nakagoWe can also note that Yosozaemon has slightly steeper yasurime with both Genbei and Hikobei having slightly flatter yasurime. This is an important note of consideration, because it is natural for a smith's signature to drift over his work years. What tends to stay stable though is his handedness and how he places the sword to chisel in the yasurime. Sometimes a smith makes a deliberate change in his nakago finishing technique but for the most part it stays more stable than the signature. So we need to look at the file marks on the nakago basically as a second signature and use that to verify the conclusions we make.

Yosozaemon is known famously for using three different versions of the “Yo” character (). Some theories are about it being simple signature drift, some say that it represents three generations of Yosozaemon. There are some additional marks to note in his signature though, one important one is the “Kuni” character (). In the case of Yosozaemon, he has two habits with this character, one is a very square Kuni, and one in which the two vertical lines of the external box flare out as they go to the bottom as shown in the comparison example here. In contrast, the examples from Hikobei and Genbei have Kuni characters that look more like a rhombus due to the slanted angle of their writing. This flared Kuni in the Yosozaemon example matches well with the Kuni in the signature placed on the nakago of this sword.

When it comes to Yasurime, this sword also matches up very well with the work of Yosozaemon. I have done photographs of a Yosozaemon Sukesada Juyo katana, and as this comes off my photo rig they are at the same resolution as the photos of this Kunimune. I can thus make a side by side comparison with a Yosozaemon signature. The Yosozaemon in this case has the square Kuni rather than the flared Kuni from the previous example. Note that this Kunimune also has the flared Kuni. But when placed side by side, we can see that the yasurime are an exact match, and the characters are written in the same size and script in terms of strength of lines and angles. The nakago in general seems like a good match in terms of dimensions, and the signatures start at the same distance under the rust line from the habaki. Stylistically it appears to be a very good match for Yosozaemon Sukesada. The Yasurime are too steep to match with either Hikobei or Genbei and the characters are also more blocky than slanted and light as would be expected from either of these smiths. If you look at the high resolution photo as well, when you compare the atari at the ends of some of the characters, they seem to have the same style and weight. Playing devil's advocate to myself, the characters are not an exact match with this Yosozaemon example, but there is definitely a fair amount of drift in his signature. I would maybe expect the signature to be a little bit more neat, but in terms of matching up with the well known Sukesada, I think Yosozaemon looks like the best bet. So, my theory here is that it is Yosozaemon Sukesada who was responsible for the shortening of this sword, which would place the timing of the shortening around 1520-1530.


oshigata This sword is in immaculate condition, with an extremely healthy and beautiful jihada and all the hallmarks of Saburo Kunimune in its construction. The NBTHK stated that the condition is outstanding and that it is a remarkable masterpiece of the smith, very high praise indeed. Furthermore the work is of such high level that Tanobe Sensei drew a comparison to one of the Tokubetsu Juyo examples of this same smith in the sayagaki, which is the first time I've encountered such a statement in his sayagaki. The particular example he compares it to is pictured to the right. I think if you are to compare the oshigata with this naginata naoshi, you may find yourself in agreement with me that the hamon on this naginata naoshi is superior.

I have seen as well as photographed a number of Saburo Kunimune blades in the past, and I have not encountered one of this degree of beauty. His work in the hamon in particular has always been different from any other smith, and it positively glows in this piece. This naginata naoshi has jifu utsuri, which is usually found on very old Bizen and Aoe pieces, as well as dan utsuri which is the combination of midare utsuri layered on top of suji utsuri. The NBTHK writes that the habuchi is tight, which as above indicates the great degree of health of this blade.

Osafune Saburo Kunimune Katana OshigataOsafune Saburo Kunimune Katana Juyo

Juyo Token Katana

Appointed on the 12th of November, 1998, session 44

Naginata-naoshi-zukuri, iori-mune, wide mihaba, relatively deep sori.


Very well forged itame mixed with mokume and in addition ji-nie, and jifu. A midare-utsuri where the utsuri appears partially and towards the ha in a linear manner which results in a graduated dan-utsuri.


Suguha mixed with ko-gunome, ko-notare, ko-ashi and yō, the habuchi is rather tight and some nijūba-like elements appear in places in the ha which resemble stripes.


Midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri.


On the sashi-omote side, there are faint traces of a slender hi seen along the upper half of the nakago.


ō-suriage, kirijiri, sujikai-yasurime, one mekugi-ana, the sashi-omote side bears towards the nakago-mune a long kiritsuke-mei.


Bizen Kunimune belonged to the lineage of Naomune (直宗). He is famous since olden times under the nickname “Bizen Saburō” (備前三郎) as he was the third son (Japanese “Saburō”) of Naomune´s son Kunizane (国真). Later in his career he was invited by Hōjō Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263), the regent of the Kamakura-bakufu, and moved therefore to Kamakura where he and Sukezane (助真) from Bizen´s Fukuoka-Ichimonji school and Kunitsuna (国綱) from Kyōto´s Awataguchi school laid the foundation for the Sōshū tradition. So at least it is mentioned in various records. Anyway, there are relatively many works of him extant which range from wide and magnificent tachi with a flamboyant chōji-based hamon to rather slender and elegant tachi with a more calm suguha-based hamon. That means Bizen Saburō Kunimune was quite a diversified smith. A very peculiar feature especially of his interpretations in midare-ba are whitish spots (hajimi) in the ha which is also known since olden times and often described as “Bizen Saburō´s white stains.”

Here we have a naginata which was shortened and reworked into a katana. It has a wide and magnificent sugata and shows an itame mixed with mokume and a clearly visible midare-utsuri which is partially and towards the ha accompanied by a linear utsuri, i.e. results in a graduated dan-utsuri. The hamon is a ko-gunome mixed with ko-notare, ko-ashi and yō. The habuchi is rather tight and quite ko-nie-laden and some nijūba-like elements appear in places in the ha which resemble stripes. Also we see some cloudy parts along the nioi-guchi but which are thought to be intended and remnants of Kunimune´s characteristic feature, the hajimi. The condition of the blade outstanding and although ō-suriage, it is a remarkable masterpiece of Bizen Saburō Kunimune which shows all of his characteristics. And the fact that it was shortened by Osafune Sukesada who mentioned this via a kiritsuke-mei on the tang makes it atop of that an important reference.

Osafune Saburo Kunimune Katana Sayagaki

Tanobe Sensei Sayagaki

Tanobe sensei seems to have enjoyed this sword. He wrote so much on this particularly long sayagaki that he ran out of room and had to put his signature on the opposite side. Click here to view the signature side image. Please note the changes in color on the shirasaya are because it is an old shirasaya that needed to have its surface cleaned in order for the sayagaki to be laid down. The sayagaki was done at my request, so was performed very recently and the wood has not yet re-patinated. It will naturally darken in the cleaned areas with exposure to light and air and will have a uniform patina once again.

  1. 第四拾回重要刀剣指定品
    Dai yonjūkai jūyō-tōken shiteihin
    Designated as jūyō-tōken at the 40th jūyō-shinsa
  2. 備前三郎国宗
    Bizen Saburō Kunimune
  3. 元来同工ノ在銘ナリシ薙刀ヲ室町期ニ長船祐定ガ磨上ゲタ旨切付銘有之
    Ganrai dōkō no zaimei narishi naginata o Muromachi-ki ni Osafune Sukesada ga suriage-ta mune kiritsuke-mei aru kore.
    This blade was once a signed naginata of that smith which was shortened in the Muromachi period by Osafune Sukesada but who added this information via a kiritsuke-mei.
  4. 同工ニハ丁子主調ノ華ヤカナ手ト直刃調ノ温和ナ作域デ青江気質ノ混在スル手ガ存在セリ
    Dōkō ni wa chōji shuchō no hanayaka na te to suguha-chō no onwa na sakuiki de Aoe-kishitsu no konzai suru te ga sonzai seri.
    Kunimune worked in a flamboyant chōji-based and in a gentle suguha-based hamon mixed with some Aoe characteristics.
  5. 本作ハ後者デ第拾回特重太刀ニ結バレル者ガアリ所傅ハ首肯サル出来宜敷ク味ワイ深矣
    Honsaku wa kōsha de dai jūkai tokubetsu-jūyō tachi ni musubareru mono ga ari shoden wa shukō saru deki-yoroshiku ajiwai fukai.
    This blade belongs to the latter category and matches very well a tachi of Kunimune which passed Tokubetsu Jūyō at the tenth shinsa.
  6. 出来宜敷ク味ワイ深矣
    Deki-yoroshiku ajiwai fukai.
    The deki is excellent and the work is very tasteful.
  7. 惟時甲午端月探山邉道追而識
    kore toki kanoto-uma tangetsu Tanzan Hendō tsui ni shirushite + kaō
    Written by Tanzan Hendō (pseudonym of Tanobe Michihiro) in the first month of the year of the horse of this era (2014) + kaō