9| Middle Kamakura Period —Yamashiro School

Yamashiro school swords have the characteristic as below.

Sugata(shape)—–Generally the width of the blade is narrow, especially around yokote line.  The bottom of the blade has funbari(A line shape).  Thick Kasane. The type of the curvature is usually kyo-zori (highest curvature comes around the center).  Small Kissaki with fukura (rounded).  Shinogi is high with gyo-no-me or sin-no-me.

9 鎌倉中期刀姿

Horimono(Engraving)—–The tip of a Hi (樋,groove) is the exact proper shape.  Sometimes you may see Bonj (Sanscrit) and suken (sword illustration).

9 Hi, Suken, Bonji

Nakago(中心)—–Long and thin with curvature

Hamon(刃文)—– Mostly suguha (straight line), double straight line, straight line with the irregular line.  Sometimes thin gold line like lightning shape faintly appears.  The temper line is Nie Base.

picture for 8

Sano Museum catalogue (Bungo-no-kuni-Yukihira)

Boshi(鋩子)—–   Small round and large round.

9 Fukura


Jitetu(地鉄)—–     Well forged fine surface.  Small burl pattern.  Lots of Jinie(地沸) on the surface.

Names of the swordsmiths during the middle Kamakura period

Awataguchi group —– Awataguchi kunituna (粟田口国綱)

Ayanokouji group —–Ayanokouji sadatoshi (綾小路定利)

Rai group —————-Rai kuniyuki (来国行) Rai Nijikunitoshi (来ニ字国俊)

Other provinces who made Yamashiro style at this time

Sagami-no-kuni-Yamanouchi-Kunituna (相模国山内国綱)

Bungo-no-kuni-Yukihira (豊後国行平)

Higo-no-Enjyu (肥後の延寿)


Sano Museum Catalogue (Rai-kunitoshi)








8|Kamakura Period Swords

Introduction Of The 5 Main Sword School

There are five main sword schools. They are Yamashiro school (山城), Bizen school (備前), Soshu school (相州), Yamato school (大和) and Mino school.  During Heian period, Yamashiro school was the main school.  There was Ko-Bizen, but their style was a little different than Bizen school we see later.  They were somewhat close to Yamashiro school.  During Heian period, Yamashiro school was the most active sword school. Swordsmiths lived around Yamashiro area in Kyoto, the capital city.  Early Kamakura period, Yamashiro school continued their style similar to the one during the Heian period.  Bizen school apperared in middle Kamakura period. Soshu school appeared in late Kamakura period.  In Kamakura area. Mino school appeared Muromachi period.

Early Kamakura Period (鎌倉) (1192 – 1218)

We divide Kamakura period into 3 stages. early Kamakura, middle Kamakura, late Kamakura period.  Early Kamakura period, sword style is almost same as the one during the Heian period, the previous time.   Yamashiro school was the active sword school in an early part of the Kamakura period.


Middle Kamakura Period (1219 – 1277)

In middle Kamakura period, we have three different styles to talk about. Yamashiro school, Bizen school, and Ikubi kissaki style(猪首切先) sword.  Ikubi Kissaki is a new style.  We say there are no mediocre swords among the Ikubi-Kissaki(猪首切先) swords.  As I described in the previous section, Kamakura government(鎌倉幕府) had political and military power, yet the Emperor was still in Kyoto(京都).

Emperor Gotoba raised an army and attacked Kamakura government in order to regain the political power back. This war(1221) is called Jyokyu-no-Ran(承久の乱). The live experience from this war changed the shape of the sword t sturdier looking shape, that is what we call Ikubi-kissaki style.


Late Kamakura Period (after Mongolian Invasion— (1274 and 1281)

In this section, adding to the Yamashiro school and Bizen school, Soshu school started to appear.  After Mongolian invasion, that is called Genkou(元寇) in 1274 and 1281, longer Kissaki and longer swords started to appear.







7| Kamakura period history(1192 – 1334)

Kamakura period was the golden age of the sword making. Many valuable swords now exist were made during Kamakura period.  The war between Genii family and Hei-shi family at the late Heian period demanded more swords and more sword smiths.

After the Gen-pei(源平) war, the results of many precious live experiences led to improving in sword making techniques.  Also, the emperor Gotoba encouraged sword making and treated sword smiths very highly.  As a result, they created large numbers of the valuable swords during Kamakura period.

The style of the swords during this period varies considerably, we usually divide into three stages; early Kamakura period, middle Kamakura period, late Kamakura period.

The Kamakura period was called Kamakura period because the center of the political power which is Kamakura Bakufu(鎌倉幕府) was established at Kamakura area by Minamoto-no-Yoritomo(源頼朝).  He was a head of the Genji.

At the end of the Heian period, Genji(源氏) attacked Hei-shi(平氏) but failed.  As a result, a direct line of Genji, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo(源頼朝) was sent to Izu(considered far away then).  There, he met Hojo Masako(北条政子) who was a daughter of a small local official, Hojo family.  Eventually, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo overthrew Hei-shi family with the help of his wife Masako and her father, Hojo Tokimasa.

At the end of the Heian period, Hei-shi family was the top of the society.  It was said, “if you are not a part of Hei-shi family, you are not a human being”. A society like that created too many enemies.  Yoritomo raised an army, attacked Hei-shi family, and won the war, that end Heian period.  The power of the Kamakura government(鎌倉幕府) spread all over Japan.

Yet the imperial court and aristocrats still existed in Kyoto.  Kamakura Bakufu had military, police and political power.  The imperial court was the department of public administration.  Thus those two big rivals controlled the country in the different field and kept the balance between them.




6 |Heian Period Swords

This is the time, the shape of the swords changed to curved shape.  Until this time, swords were straight.

The study of swords is the swords made from Heian period on.  Elegant and graceful taste of Fujiwara culture reflects on the swords made during the Heian period.  Their preference of their life style appeared vividly on the swords.  A group of the sword smiths in Kyoto area was called Yamashiro school.  Their style of the swords had a graceful shape.  During the Heian period, Yamashiro school represents the Heian period sword style.

6aHeian period sword style

General Heian period sword style

  • Shape———-Lengths of the swords are approximately 30 inches ± a couple of inches.  Elegant and graceful shape.  The width of the blade is narrow.  Small Kissaki(小切先), Kyo-zori(京反り)and deep curvature.  Kyo-zori means the highest curvature comes around the halfway of the blade.  A line shape that is called——funbari,踏ん張り style.  Deep curvature.

6 A line bottom

  • Hamon(刃文)———-Hamon means tempered line.  The Heian period tempered area is narrow,  and usually, suguha (直刃), means straight hamon.  Nie (沸)base.  Nie is a tiny granule like a particle on the border of the tempered line.  Sand like particles is not so visible. 6 Straigh tempered line(Suguha)
  • Jitetu (地鉄) ———- fine wood grained tone.
  • Nakago (中心)———- Nakago is a hilt area.  Sword makers inscribe their names here.  The shape of the nakago during the Heian period is often Kijimomo shape(雉腿), that means pheasant thigh shape.6 Kijimomo-nakago
  • Hi and engrave ———- Hi (樋) means an engraved straight line.  Hi and engraved design is rare in Heian period.  It became more common later time.
  • Kissaki (切先)———– Ko-kissaki (small kissaki). Boshi (Hamon around kissaki) is usually with komaru (小丸) means small round with a little return.6c Boshi Hamon

Names of the Heian period sword smiths

  • Yamashiro school——–  Sanjo Munechika(三条宗近) Sanjo Yoshiie(三条吉家)    Gojo Kanenaga(五条兼長) Gojo Kuninaga (五条国永)
  • Yamato school ——–Senju-in (千手院)
  • Bizen school ———– Bizen Tomonari(備前友成) Bizen Masatsune(備前正恒) Bizen Kanehira (備前包平)
  • Hoki (伯耆) ———–Yasutsuna (安綱) Sanemori (真守)
  • Buzen (豊前) ——— Cho-en (長円) Sinsoku (神息)
  • Satsuma (薩摩) ——-Naminohira (波平)

5 | Heian period (平安時代) 794 – 1192

Heian period (平安時代)   794 – 1192

Heian period(平安時代)started when the Emperor Kanmu(桓武天皇) moved the capital city to Heian-kyo(平安京) at 794, that is Kyoto(京都) today.

5 time line diagram

During Heian period, the Emperors ruled the country, yet early part of the Heian period, the political power shifted to Fujiwara family.  Fujiwara family managed their daughters to marry the Emperors.  This is called “Sekkan-ke” (摂関家), that means a guardian and a representative of the Emperor.  Around this time, their life style was elegant, refined and they had a graceful culture.  This is called Fujiwara culture.  Many essays and novels were written by females during this time.  Most famous one is “Genji Tales(源氏物語)” by Murasaki Shikibu(紫式部).  The Imperial court held ceremonies quite often, followed by elaborate and extravagant banquets.  Imperial social life became important.  Women had participated actively in those occasions.  Many high officials had several huge homes.  Those homes were inherited by daughters.  Mating procedures were different then.  First, a young woman and a man exchanges poems carried by their servants as a messenger.  Eventually, a young woman allows him to visit her for a short time from some distance.  Little by little, longer stay and closer.  When they decided to marry, a groom moves into the wife’s house.  Children are raised by wife’s family.  Those days (and next Kamakura period also), wife’s side of the family were considered important.  Female status was not low then.  The middle part of the Heian period, the Emperors regained their power over the imperial court, because their mothers were not from the Fujiwara family.  The latter part of the Heian period, the political power shifted to Heike family by managing their daughters to marry to the -shi became tyrannical and arrogant.  Genji joined with Fujiwara family and started a war against Hei-shi with Imperial court force, chased them and won the war at a place called Dan-no-Ura(壇ノ浦) at 1185.  This is called Genpei-Gassen (源平合戦).  This is the end of the Heian period.

This is the time, the shape of the swords changed to a curved shape. Until this time, swords were straight.  The study of swords is the swords made after the Heian period.  During this time, the elegant and graceful taste of Fujiwara culture reflects on the swords.  Their preference of their lifestyle appeared clearly on the swords.  The swordsmiths in Kyoto area were called Yamashiro School.  Their shape of the swords shows graceful line.  Yamashiro School represents the Heian period swords.

3 | Joko-to(上古刀)

Jomon (縄文)period     9000 B.C.

Jomon period goes back to 9000 B.C.  This is the time of Paleolithic and Neolithic times. The characteristic of the time was the rope design (Jomon 縄文) on their earthenware.  We found a stone sword made during this time.  They are one piece stone swords, about 27 to 31 inches (70 to 80cm) long, not the Neolithic type scrapers.  They were made for the ceremonial purpose2a Timeline diagram

Yayoi (弥生) period        300B.C —300A.D (approximately)

Around 300B.C. Yayoi culture replaced Jomon culture. Yayoi characteristics show on their earthen wares. They are rounder, smoother, simpler design, and the techniques were greatly improved.  They were named Yayoi culture because of the location they were found at, Yayoi-cho area near Tokyo University.  They found bronze items such as a bronze sword (銅剣), bronze pike(銅矛), bronze mirror(銅鏡), bronze musical instrument(銅鐸).  Those were imported from China and Korea but Japanese started to make their own later part of Yayoi period.  Iron wares were seldom excavated but they have evidence of usage of Iron wares.

3b time line with circle


According to the Chinese history book,”Gishi wajinden” (魏志倭人伝), around 300 A.D. there was a country called Yamataikoku (邪馬台国) that controlled about 30 small countries in Japan.  The head of the country was a female called Himiko (卑弥呼) who served God (shamanism).  She sent a messenger to China at 239 A.D. and received a title as a head of Japan(親魏倭王), a bronze mirror, and a long sword(5feet long).  Today, we still don’t know exactly where Yamataikoku was located.  This Chinese history book “Gishi wajinden”(魏志倭人伝) explains how to get to Yamataikoku, but if we follow the book’s directions exactly,  we end up in the middle of the ocean, south of Kyushu(九州).  We are still debating where Yamataikoku was located.

Yamato (大和) period        300 A.D. — 593 A.D

At the end of the Yayoi period, there were many small countries called Go-zoku(豪族).  Around 400 A.D. most powerful Go-zoku united the country and called it Yamato-chotei (大和朝廷).  This is the imperial court, the Emperor’s ancestor. They had the power to build an enormous size tomb, called Kofun (古墳).  Inside of the famous kofun, Ougonzuka kofun (黄金塚古墳) in Osaka, we found swords.  Its hilt was made in Japan and blade was made in Chine.  On the surface of the hilt, they depicted a design of a house.  Also, we found items like armor, mirror, iron tools, jewelry. Those are called Haniwa (埴輪).  Outside of Kofun, they placed Haniwa.   Those Haniwa are smiling people, animals, houses, and soldiers wearing swords.  Also, they placed tube shape haniwa (埴輪) outside of Kofun as a retaining wall.   Judging from the writings on the back of mirrors and swords, they were using Kanji (characters) by 5, 6th century.

3c time line with circle


Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

After a long power struggle, Shotoku Taishi(聖徳太子) became a regent in 593.  He established the political system and set up the first Japanese constitution(憲法17条).  Shoutoku Taishi protected and encouraged Buddhism and built Horyuji temple(法隆寺).  He had been on 10,000 yen bill for a long time.  During Asuka time, we see Kantou Tachi (環頭太刀).  The shape of the hilt had a ring shape.  Kan(環) means ring and tou(頭) means head.  Also, on the ring shape hilt, we see some inscriptions.  Such as the name of the emperor, location and numbers were written.  The number indicates a number of years a particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords

3d time line with circle


Nara (奈良) period        710 —794


In 710, The capital city was moved to Nara, called Heijokyo(平城京).  The shape of Joko-to was straight, usually 25 inches (60 –70 cm) long.  They were suspended from the waist belt. Some swords came from China and others were made in Japan.  Many swords were found from Kofun and Shoso-in(正倉院) during Nara period.  Shoso-in is a storage place where articles of Shoumu Emperor were placed.  Among other items, 55 swords were found from here. Those swords were called Warabite tachi.  Warabi is a name of a Japanese vegetable, its stem grows circle at the top.  They were called Warabite- Tachi, because of the hilt shows warabi shape.

3e time line with circle

2 | Time line


Let’s look at the diagram below. It may be easier to understand what I am describing by referring with this diagram.2a-timeline-diagram1.jpg

This is the time line divided according to the historical period.  The top short line is the time of Joko-to period (上古刀).  When we mention Japanese swords, we indicate swords made after Heian Period(平安). Swords made before Heian period are called Joko-to(上古刀). Usually, Joko-to is in the category of the archaeological study.  In the next section, Joko-to and pre-Heian period will be described.  The bottom time line is the way we see on history books and school history books. The middle time line and the bottom line are almost same, but the middle time line is more useful for the sword study.  My blog will follow the middle line. Please keep checking back with this diagram occasionally.  We group together the swords by trends of the time of shape and style.

Tachi(太刀),  Katana(刀),  Wakizashi(脇差), Tanto(短刀).

Swords made before Muromachi period (before 1392) are called Tachi (f太刀).   Swords made after the Muromachi (室町) are called Katana(刀) and wakizashi (脇差).  Tanto is a short dagger. Tanto was made through out the time.  Difference between Tachi and Katana is how they were worn.  Tachi was suspended from the waste belt, the blade side facing down.  Swords maker’s name was inscribed facing outside on its hilt when it was worn.   Katana and Wakizashi (called Daisho -大小- means large and small) were worn inside the belts, the blade side up.  Swords maker’s name was inscribed facing outside on its handle when it was worn.  When you face the maker’s inscription, if the blade comes on the right, that is Tachi.  When you face the maker’s inscription, if the blade comes on left, that is Katana and Wakizashi.

2b Tachi & Katana difference

Ko-to(古刀)Shin-to(新刀) Shinshin-to(新々刀) Gendaito (現代刀)

Ko-to is the swords made from Heian period(794-1192) to the beginning of Keicho Era(1596-1615).  Shin-to is the swords made from around Keicho Era (1596-1615) to Tenmei Era(1781- 1789).  Shinshin-to is the swords made during Bakumatu time (幕末期1781-1868).  Gendai-to is the sword made after Maiji revolution(明治1868) until now.


1 | Preface

1.| Preface

The Japanese sword was basically designed as a weapon, but Japanese sword smiths imbued qualities of grace and beauty into the blades as well as functional superiority. The intricate patterns of surface and texture formed by their highly developed forging and tempering technique were done only in Japan.  In the past, the Japanese looked at swords as a spiritual symbol of temples, shrines, and samurai.  Nowadays, the Japanese regard the sword as a cultural art object made of steel.

Varieties of the appearance of swords are closely related to historical events.  Texture, contours and tempering designs are characteristics of a particular school of swordsmiths.  This is a series of lectures that discuss the history of each period then talk about the swordsmith school that was active in a particular province at the time. Because of that, each section starts with the history of that time.   It is necessary to discuss the history to show the flow of the events that affect the shape and style of the swords.

Because the subject matter covers many centuries, I will concentrate on “Koto” (古刀) that is from the Heian period(平安時代  794 – 1133) until the end of Sengoku period(戦国時代16th century).  These lectures will be discussed with my illustrations and photos of my father’s sword* and others.

*Photos of swords were taken by my father and they were his swords at the time the photos were taken. But after his death, they are no longer owned by my family.