Oei-Bizen and Sue-Bizen

By Dr. Honma Junji, Edited for study by Elliott Long


There are the terms Oei-Bizen and Sue-Bizen. The former is a favourable naming and the latter is somehow a derogatory one. Most of Bizen smiths who had been active in the Muromachi Period belong to the Osafune school and others to the Yoshii school. Osafune of Bizen Province and Seki of Mino Province were the biggest sword production sites during the Muromachi Period. Tachi made in the early period came to have an elegant sugata similar to that of the early Kamakura Period and differing from the grandiose sugata of the Nambokucho Period. They tempered gorgeous gunome mixed with choji differing from continuous ko-gunome and notare which had been in fashion during the Nambokucho Period.

Morimitsu, Yasumitsu, Iesuke, Moromitsu and Tsuneie are the leading smiths of the early Muromachi Period. eKoto Mei Zukushif says gThe first generations of Moromitsu, Morimitsu, Iesuke and Tsuneie were active from the previous period up to the beginning of the Oei Period. The second generations were active from the Oei to the Shocho Era.h However, we hardly ever see the works of their first generations. The first generation of Yasumitsu is believed to have signed eUemon no Jo Yasumitsuf and it is said that there is an extant work of this Yasumitsu, with the production date of Oei 2. If the theory of eKoto Mei Zukushif were affirmed, the five leading Oei-Bizen smiths could be the second generations. These smith names were succeeded to after that, but it is extremely difficult to differentiate the different generations by the chiselling style of their mei. Swordsmith directories say that Moromitsu was active between the Eiwa and Hotoku, Morimitsu between the Oan and Daiei, Yasumitsu between the Oei and Eisho, Iesuke between the Bunwa and Tenbun, and Tsuneie between the Oei and Eisho. As a whole, there are few extant works of them after the Kakitsu Era. The typical and unique hamon by the Oei-Bizen smiths was described above, but they tempered sugu-ha on tanto and wakizashi in hira-zukuri which looks like Aoe at a glance. In any case, they produce traditional Bizen-utsuri on the ji. In addition, skilfully carved horimono of ken with sanko and bonji are seen on the works of Morimitsu and Yasumitsu. Toshimitsu, Sanemitsu and Iemori are not as famous as the five leading Oei-Bizen smiths, but they left a few masterpieces that are never inferior in quality to the works of the five leading Oei-Bizen.

There is not any particular definition of the term for eSue-Bizenf. Though, it is quite obvious that the term is used for the Bizen smiths who demonstrate a different workmanship from that of the Oei-Bizen smiths and it can be said that their workmanship became more characterised entering the Sengoku Period. The production of tachi was on the decline in the Sengoku Period. Meanwhile, uchigatana became normal use instead of tachi and tanto in moro-ha-zukuri became popular. They favoured tempering the unique gunome-midare, so-called ekani-no-tsume-midaref (crab-claw-shaped midare) and produced more powerful jigane than that of Oei-Bizen smiths. Though, they did not produce clear utsuri and tempered hiro-sugu-ha, o-notare and hitatsura the nie is more emphasised in their works. They favoured to add elaborate horimono of kurikara, occasionally in ranma-sukashi (openwork). Sukesada, Katsumitsu, Munemitsu, Tadamitsu, Kiyomitsu, Norimitsu, Sukemitsu and Morishige are the leading smiths of this period. eMeikanf says that their first generations, except for Sukesada, trace back to the end of the Kamakura Period (Norimitsu, Tadamitsu, Munemitsu and Morishige) and the Nambokucho Period (Sukemitsu and Kiyomitsu). However, we have not confirmed any extant work of these smiths of which generations were active in the Oei Era. There are some extant works of their early generations with production dates of the Kamakura and Nambokucho Periods but their works are inferior to those of the leading Bizen smiths of the Kamakura and Nambokucho Period. It is very interesting to know that the descendants of these smiths came to thrive entering the Sengoku Period and left many masterpieces. Norinaga. who is said to be a student of Nagamitsu, was inferior to Kagemitsu in skill, Tadamitsu and Kiyomitsu of the Enbun and Joji Eras are inferior to Kanemitsu and Rin-Tomomitsu. Early generations of Munemitsu and Sukemitsu existed in the lineage of the Osafune school as well. Morishige is in the lineage of the Omiya school and demonstrated a different workmanship from the smiths of the Osafune school founded by Mitsutada. Though, his workmanship became to have a close resemblance to that of the other Sue-Bizen smiths entering the Sengoku Period. Norimitsu, Munemitsu and Tadamitsu maintained the tradition of Oei-Bizen smiths and left masterpieces in this style. The smith group of Norimitsu was active a little earlier than the one of Sukesada. It can be said that the smith group of Norimitsu existed in the transitional period between the Oei-Bizen school and the Sue-Bizen school

The disturbances of war continued between the Oei Era and the end of the Muromachi Period and the mass production of the Japanese sword was developed in order to meet a great demand. At this time a smithfs name became to be used as a factory name (for instance, the smith name of Sukesada was used by more than 50 smiths in this period). Also it is speculated that a system of the division of labour was employed in sword forging factories. When the were specially commissioned to make an elaborately-made sword (so-called eChumon-uchif or custom-made), they added their personal name and tile to their mei in order to differentiate it from mass-produced swords. Sukesada and Kiyomitsu left the largest number of chumon-uchi. The following is the examples of the mei of chumon-uchi. Sukesada : Yosozaemon no Jo, Genbei no Jo, Hikobei no Jo, Hikozaemon no Jo, Jiro Kuro, Yozaemon no Jo, Shinjuro, etc. Kiyomitsu : Gorozaemon no Jo, Magoemon no Jo, Hikobei no Jo, etc. Needless to say, chumon-uchi meets the practical criteria and also possesses the beauty of the traditional Japanese Arts and Crafts. There are particular callings to praise these smiths; Kansho Norimitsu, Eisho Sukesada, Yosozaemon (Sukesada), Jirozaemon (Katsumitsu), Sakyo no Shin (Munemitsu), Gorozaemon (Kiyomitsu), Mune-Katsu (collaboration by Munemitsu and Katsumitsu), Genbei (Sukesada), etc. I agree with the callings to praise these smiths considering their forging skill. There is another reason for that. All of them left a relatively large number of extant works. There are more masterpieces of other Sue-Bizen smiths who are not so famous, but only few extant works of them have been confirmed. For instance, Jiro Kuro Sukesada of the Eisho Era (some of his works are equal to Yosozaemon Sukesada in quality) also Harumitsu, Ho-Norimitsu, Ga-Yoshimitsu and Yukimitsu left some masterpieces that are equal to the works of the top-class Sue-Bizen smiths mentioned above. Incidentally, Yukimitsu occasionally made a sugata in Nambokucho style. After all, it can be said that Yosozaemon no Jo Sukesada is the best smith amongst Sue-Bizen smiths considering his forging skill and workmanship. The chumon-uchi of the top-class Sue-Bizen smiths are superior to the mediocre works of the top-class Oei-Bizen smiths in quality.

The examples that Osafune smiths engaged in sword forging in neighbouring provinces are seen in the works of Kagemitsu and Kagemasa as described before. There are extant works of Munemitsu and Koremitsu of the Sue-Bizen school with the production site of Harima Province too. Munemitsu was invited by Akamatsu Masanori, who was a powerful war lord of Harima Province, and engaged in sword forging there. It is well-known that Akamatsu Masanori himself engaged in sword forging and tempered different hamon from that of Munemitsu (this means that Masanori practised quenching by himself). It is very interesting to know that he was never inferior to Munemitsu in forging skill even though he was a faithful war lord to the Ashikaga shogunate and the sword forging was a kind of his spare time job. One theory says that Kiyomitsu was retained by Akamatsu Masanori and engaged in sword forging in Harima Province too. Mimasaka is one of neighbouring provinces of Bizen Province and it is believed that many Bizen smiths visited there and engaged in sword forging. There are many extant works of them with production sites of Mimasaka Province like Jirozaemon no Jo Katsumitsu, Saemon no Jo Norimitsu (Kansho Norimitsu), Hikobei no Jo Tadamitsu, etc. Norimitsu left one of his masterpieces with the production site of eTakatoriori So Kuroitaf. Whenever smiths engaged in sword forging in other provinces, there is no doubt that they were invited by influential persons and worked for them. There is an interesting document (a diary called eInyoken Nichirokuf written on August 2, 1488) that describes the journey of Katsumitsu and Munemitsu to Kyoto, who were called up by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinao. gSanjo Yosaburo says; a group of Osafune Katsumitsu and Munemitsu from Bizen Province arrived in Kyoto the day before yesterday. The group consists of about 60 smiths and two carts of eChigusa-tetsuf (a kind of tamahagane) ccc..h






This document explains that Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinao ordered the war lord Uragami, to have Katsumitsu and Munemitsu come up to Kyoto and engage in sword forging. Incidentally it becomes clear that Katsumitsu was an elder brother of Munemitsu from the inscription of a tanto collaborated by them. eTsuchiya oshigataf lists a katana with the inscription of eBizen no Kuni Ju Osafune Ukyo no Suke Katsumitsu Toshi 37 Osafune Sakyo no Shin Munemitsu Toshi 35 Saku Koref eBunmei 3 Nen 2 Gatsu Hif. Shogun Yoshinao was staying at the Anyoji Temple of Omi Province to subjugate Rokkaku Takayori who governed Omi Province. It is quite understandable that shogun Yoshinao needed such a large convoy of the swordsmiths to provide swords for his army at that time. There is an extant tanto by Katsumitsu with the inscription of eThis was made in the position of the campaign.f and the production date of March, 2, 1472. Also there is a tanto collaborated by Katsumitsu and Munemitsu in Kyoto in the following year. It is speculated that not only Katsumitsu and Munemitsu, but also Osafune smiths, were under the protection of Lord Uragami. There is an extant katana by Jiro Kuro Sukesada with the inscription of eTame Uragami Yoshiro Masamune Saku Koref. There are more extant swords with the inscriptions as this sword was made for Lord Uragami cc and Lord Ki ccc. (the Ki family is another family name of the Uragami family).

There are certain numbers of smith names of Yoshii-Bizen listed in eMeikanf and I have seen the works of Yoshinori, Sukenori, Noritsuna, Naganori and Kiyonori. The smiths before the mid Muromachi Period tempered hamon similar to that of Osafune smiths. Most of them tempered continuous gunome in tight nioi-deki. The smiths of the end of the Muromachi Period tempered hamon similar to that of Sue-Bizen smiths and gunome with tight nioi-guchi in a regular pattern. The smiths of the beginning of the Muromachi Period occasionally tempered hamon inclined to be in nie-deki differing from that of Osafune smiths of the same period.

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