Rai Kunizane Katana with NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Certificate mounted in Handachi Koshirae







By Markus Sesko


Now I want to talk about some of the Rai smiths who worked under master Kunitoshi and then deal in separate chapters with the Nakajima-Rai lineage, Ryôkai, and the Nobukuni School that goes back to the Rai offshoot that was established by Ryôkai. Due to the relative large number of active Rai smiths, all these chapters will be divided into several parts. Again, I want to create a useful reference and don’t want to rush through all the schools just because we are running out of time, and there are anyway no limitations of space here in the net. Or in other words, I want that later on, one can find also some of the more unknown smiths being dealt with and their workmanship described in this series. But let’s continue with the Rai School.

Now when we take a look at the traditional genealogies of the Rai school, we learn that Kunitoshi had supposedly several sons, namely in chronological order: Ryôkai (了戒), Kunimitsu (国光), Kunizane (国真), Tomokuni (倫国), and Kunitoshi (国歳), whilst some also see Kuniyasu (国安) as his son but more on him in the corresponding chapter. Now Ryôkai is said to have been born when Kunitoshi was 17 years old, what would mean in Shôka one (正嘉, 1257). He entered priesthood (more on this in the corresponding chapter) so his second son, Kunimitsu (born in Bun’ei one, 1264) became his heir. His third son Kunizane was born in Bun’ei five (文永, 1268), his fourth son Tomokuni in Bun’ei nine (1272), and his fifth son Kunitoshi in Kenji two (建治, 1275). Again, all these dates go back to the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen, which is questionable in this context, but I nevertheless want to use the dates here for the sake of comparison.


Kunimitsu has been dealt with and Ryôkai will get a chapter on his own so let’s continue with Kunizane (国真). So his father (and master) Kunitoshi was 28 years old when he was born and according to the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen, Kunizane died in Bunpô two (文保, 1318). The meikan traditionally date him around Shôwa (正和, 1312-1317) and some say “active before Kenmu (建武, 1334-1336),” what would both match with the aforementioned life data of 1268-1318. Problem with this date is that quite a number of his works, or at least works that are attributed to him as signed blades are very rare, speak clearly for Nanbokuchô, i.e. to a noticeably later production time. Thus it has been forwarded that he lived much longer than said or that there was a second generation Kunizane. A later Rai Kunizane appears in the meikan who is dated around Bunna (文和, 1352-1356) what would match (also because he is listed as grandson of Kunitoshi). But there are also some few more classical blades extant, i.e. such which do come close to Kunitoshi if you want, or in other words, we know some few more Kamakura-Rai and several Nanbokuchô-Rai works of Kunizane and so both could be true, that he was a master who lived long and who changed his style of the years, becoming also more productive in his later years, or that there were just two generations. If you ask me, I tend towards the latter approach. Anyway, signed works are very rare as mentioned and as far as I know, they count less than a handful, or to be precise, we are talking about 1 tachi, 2 hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi, and 1 tantô. And whilst we are talking about figures, there are no blades of Kunizane that are designated as a kokuhô or a jûyô-bunkazai and 18 of him passed jûyô (no tokubetsu-jûyô) to this day. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the tachi, which seems to be, with a (only very slightly shortened) nagasa of 61.1 cm, more a kodachi than a “real” tachi. It is preserved in the Ise Shrine’s Jingû Chôkokan Museum. Satô Kanzan describes it as having a normal mihaba with a thin kasane and a ko-kissaki and showing an itame that is a little tired, stands out, and shows some masame and fine ji-nie. The hamon starts in the lower half as ko-midare mixed with tobiyaki and develops in the upper half to a hitatsura, running into a midare-komi bôshi with a ko-maru-kaeri with hakikake. There is a bôhi on both sides that runs with kaki-nagashi into the tang and the blade bears a finely chiseled tachi-mei. So with the thin kasane and the hitatsura, it looks like we are facing here a later, i.e. a Nanbokuchô work.

Picture 1 shows one of the two extant signed hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi. It has a nagasa of 38.4 cm and does show a sori, namely one of 0.3 cm. And with the thin kasane, we have here really a blade whose sugata says Nanbokuchô, and not early but heyday Nanbokuchô. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-notareashi, and sunagashi and that tends, like the above mentioned tachi/kodachi, in the upper blade section to hitatsura. The bôshi is midare-komi with hakikake and shows a long and wide kaeri that runs as midare-komi back to form a part of the hitatsura approach. On the omote side we see a suken as relief in a katana-hi and on the ura side a futasuji-ji. The tang is ubu, has a kurijirikiri-yasurime, and shows centrally a rather finely chiseled sanji-mei.


Picture 1: wakizashimei “Rai Kunizane” (来国真), nagasa 38.4 cm, sori 0.3 cm, hira-zukurimitsu-mune, preserved in the Tôkyô National Museum

Picture 2 shows the other extant signed hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi. The nagasa is with 35.7 cm a little shorter what makes the sori of 0.4 cm a hint more prominent. This blade too is thin and wide and truly Nanbokuchô. The kitae is an itame with ji-nie and chikei and the hamon is a shallow notare in ko-nie-deki and a rather wide nioiguchi that is mixed with gunome. The bôshi is notare-komi on the omote, and midare-komi on the ura side and shows a ko-maru-kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. There is a katana-hi engraved on both sides and we can see traces of a tsurebi on the ura. The tang is ubu, has a kurijirikiri-yasurime, and bears again a rather finely chiseled sanji-mei. This blade doesn’t show any approaches to hitatsura.


Picture 2: jûyôwakizashimei “Rai Kunizane” (来国真), nagasa 35.7 cm, sori 0.4 cm, hira-zukurimitsu-mune

How about his long swords? The signed kodachi/tachi aside, I first want to introduce a blade that was designated as an Important Cultural Property of Ôgaki City (Gifu Prefecture) in 1961 and was just recently submitted to the NBTHK in 2012 to authenticate its attribution inlaid via a kinzôgan-mei. It passed and got tokubetsu-hozon papers and it might be a very good candiate for jûyô. Well, the kinzôgan-mei does not come with a kaô but Tanobe attributes it in his sayagaki for the blade to the 12th Hon’ami main line generation Kôjô (本阿弥光常, 1643-1710). He also writes that the workmanship is very typical and also that the jiba of this very blade might well be used as a reference for future attributions to Rai Kunizane. Now the blade itself shows a ko-itame that is mixed with ko-mokume and that features ji-nie and a clearly visible nie-utsuri. The hamon is a ko-gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with some chôji-midare sections, plenty of ashi, and with sunagashi and kinsuji. The bôshi has a ko-maru-kaeri and shows nijûba and rather prominent hakikake. So in terms of the sugata, i.e. the fact that the kissaki is not that prominently large, and the ji with the nie-utsuri, I would place this work before the Nanbokuchô period, i.e. more towards to when Rai Kunitoshi was still alive or just had died, what essentially means late to end of Kamakura.


Picture 3: katanakinzôgan-mei “Rai Kunizane” (来国真), nagasa 71.2 cm, sori 1.5 cm, motohaba 2.94 cm, sakihaba 2.18 cm, kasane 0.54 cm, shinogi-zukuriiori-mune

The next blade that I want to introduce is an ô-suriage mumei jûyô katana that is rather wide, does not taper much, and that shows an ô-kissaki but the thick kasane and the rather deep sori place it not into the heyday, but right before the heyday of the Nanbokuchô period. It shows a ko-itame with ji-nie that is mixed on the omote with some ô-hada and also a nie-utsuri appears. The hamon is a suguha-chô in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-chôjiko-gunomeashi, and some few hotsure. The nioiguchi is clear and rather tight and the bôshi appears on the omote side with a little midare, on the ura side as sugu-chô, and runs back with a brief ko to chû-maru-kaeri and a hint of hakikake. Now when you read the description and take a first look at the oshigata, everything would speak for Rai Kunimitsu, but please note the smallish and densely arranged hataraki along the habuchi that appear on the ura side’s lower monouchi area. So these smallish hataraki are one hint that identifies the hand of Kunizane but the NBTHK usually orientates towards the quality aspect. That is, if the workmanship speaks for Kunimitsu at a glance but the quality is just a hint inferior, they might go for Kunizane. And if you have Nanbokuchô hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi, i.e. with Enbun-Jôji-sugata, that shows a tendency to hitatsura but which still says Rai at the end of the day, it is also a recommendable option to go for Kunizane.


Picturre 4: jûyôkatanamumei, attributed to Rai Kunizane (来国真), nagasa 74.0 cm, sori 1.9 cm, motohaba 3.05 cm, sakihaba 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuriiori-mune

While we are on the topic of quality and the differentiation of Rai smiths, I want to quote Tsuneishi at this point, who writes:

The term “Rai-ichimon” (来一門) is a generic term for all Rai smiths like Kunizane, Kuniyasu, Kunisue, Kunimune, Kuninaga, or Kunihide of whom relative few signed works are extant and whose skill is noticeably inferior to that of the main line masters Kuniyuki, Kunitoshi, Kunimitsu, and Kunitsugu. That is, compared to main line works, their sugata is not so perfectly in harmony, their hamon is usually calm, unobtrusive, suguha-based and lacks nie what makes their blades sometimes look like Aoe at a glance. But compared to Aoe, their suguha is not as tight, there is less hira-niku, the hada stands more out and is overall not that tight, and there appears Rai-hada, what identifies them as Rai works in the end. But on the other hand, these Rai-ichimon works are in terms of overall dignity and quality, i.e. hardening and forging of the steel, still more close to the Rai main line than the works of contemporary Rai offshoots (like Ryôkai, Ko-Uda, Enju, Fujishima, Chiyozuru). Accordingly, higher quality works that are shortened and/or unsigned might therefore well bear attributions to Rai Kunitoshi. Tantô can be interpreted in the classical Rai style, i.e. with takenoko-zori and hardened in nie-deki, but some show a suguha-chô with less nie that is mixed with densely arranged gunome-midare, whilst wide and thin sunnobi-tantô or hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi respectively often show a large midare and a tendency to hitatsura. Works of the latter category show thus the then (i.e. Nanbokuchô) influence of the much thriving Sôshû tradition and might be difficult to identify as Rai as they often resemble contemporary Hasebe or Nobukuni works. However, the nie-hataraki like the appearance of the sunagashi and the forging technique are not Sôshû but remain always Rai. And incidentally, also Rai-hada that is mixed with masame might appear on these Rai-ichimon works.

Also Tsuneishi assumes that the lack of signed works of these Rai-ichimon smiths does not go back to the fact that they were not very productive but rather to that they were most of their life busy working for the Rai manufacture and as assistants or “suppliers” to the successive masters. Thus it is just safe to assume that a certain share of the so numerously available Kunitoshi and Kunimitsu blades are actually damei by these Rai-ichimon smiths.