June 5th 2007, swordsmiths from all over Japan converged at the NBTHK sword museum in Yoyogi for the Awards ceremony of the 2007 Shinsaku-Meitoten. However, this year’s competition is different to previous years. Due to the ongoing troubles of the NBTHK the Bunka-cho and the Sansho kai, the Bunka-cho withdrew the Takamatsu Award and the Agency for Cultural Affairs Chairman's Award. In addition to this they have withdrawn funding for the training of swordsmiths at the Tatara in Shimane prefecture, leaving the fate of licensing new smiths in limbo at the moment. One has to wonder if the upcoming National election in Japan has had some influence on these severe decisions. Undoubtedly, the withdrawal of these two special prizes can have a long-term effect of the annual competition. Most of the usual entries were accepted with a few familiar names missing and the usual amount of abstainers. Without the two special prizes the chance of becoming Mukansa is decreased, and is clearly detaining the elevation to such a rank for the time being of the next in-line.
There were 79 accepted entries this year. 18 of which were Mukansa, producing the standard and styles of workmanship that we have come to expect from them. A tachi by Amata sensei, a Yamashiro tachi by Osumi sensei, the choji-midare of the Yoshihara smiths, a Yamatorige utsushimono by Ono Yoshimitsu, an utsushii-mono of the kogarasumaru by Hiroki Hirokuni and a Sukehiro style toranba by one of last years nominated Mukansa Ogawa Kanekuni (father). One blade that stood out to me amongst the Mukansa group was not particularly because of its aesthetic quality, but for its technical skill. It was a Kamakura Ichimonji style tachi with a flamboyant choji-midare hamon that in some places was reached up towards the shinogi whilst displaying a strong utsuri throughout its length. In fact, I have said before that I personally find the current times among gendai smiths very exciting and innovative in a competitive research sense. They are obviously in strong competition with each other and this is displayed in the subtleties and skill of their workmanship illustrated by the fact that a suguha blade took the highest position on this occasion. Another observation was, although was a usual high amount of choji-midare entries, there does seem to be a Soshu den trend creeping in.
With only four special prizes this year there were two winners of the NBTHK chairman’s award. I have to wonder if this was an effort to counter the effect of losing two prizes or if in fact they did attain the same amount of points during judging. Placed in first position in the museum’s display cases was a Kamakura style tachi by Kubo Yoshihiro of Hiroshima. The hamon was a suguha-based gunome that continues into the boshi and ends in ko-maru. It had a well-forged hada achieving its aim of the elegant style suguha blades of Osafune Nagamitsu. However, the special feature on this blade was the subtle choji-midare utsuri running throughout. A very classy piece of workmanship by this former student of the Yoshihara School. It was a good year for Kubo as he also took an Award for Excellence in the short sword category with a bitchu style saka-choji tanto that also displayed a strong saki-choji utsuri. In addition to this, his former student, Myochin Munehiro also took an Award for Effort in the long swords category.
Following on the heels of his AJSA Chairman's award from last year, the other person to share the NBTHK Chairman’s award is another relatively young smith Takami Kuniichi. This promising smith is a former apprentice of Mukansa smith Kawachi Kunihira. This year he produced a large Kamakura Ichimonji style tachi with a large choji-midare hamon. It was a good result in general for the Kawachi School, with Kiyota Jiro Kunietsu taking an Award for Effort. Ishida Kunihisa just missing out on the Award for Effort being placed at the head of the nyusen awards. Last years Newcomers Award and Award for Effort Komiya Kokuten and Kawachi Kunihira’s son, Ippei were accepted for entry, whilst Kokuten’s uncle of the Komiya School, Komiya Shiro Kunimitsu II, took an Award for Effort.
The winner of the Kunzan prize went to Takehana Ikkansai Shigehisa. It was good to see this former prize-winner and head of the Tokyo chapter of the All Japan Swordsmiths association return to form and to the special prize category. His blade was a recreation of the sue-Bizen workmanship of Katsumitsu or Yosozaemon Sukesada, with a horimono of a kurikara in the lower part of the saki-sori blade and a bohi in the upper part. Shigehisa was also successful in the tanto category taking an Award for Effort.
The Kanzan prize went to a young smith from the Miyairi School who is fast becoming no stranger to first prizes. Kawasaki Akihira from Saitama prefecture produced a lovely Soshu den Nambokucho shaped blade of even curvature with a notare hamon on velvety itame-hada with an abundance of well-controlled nie. I expect we’ll see more of the same from him in the future.
The All Japan Swordsmiths Association Chairman’s award went to Ogawa Kanekuni (son of Mukansa smith Ogawa Kanekuni) Like his father he too produced an Osaka Sukehiro style toranba blade with a deep and controlled nioi. Ogawa from Gifu prefecture like Kubo Yoshihiro is a member of the Murakumokai. Another of their colleagues Matsuba Kunimasa, from Kyushu, took the Award for Excellence in both the long and short sword categories.
There were 6 prizes for excellence and at the head of these was a gorgeous tachi by Matsuda Tsuguyasu. It was aimed at early Rai School work with a quiet choji-midare, profuse ji-nie and displayed nie-utsuri in places. The hada on this blade is outstanding. One cannot but be full of sympathy for this excellent smith. His placement at the head of the Yushusho (Award for Excellence) category was a clear indication that he would have been a recipient of the special prizes had they not been withdrawn. Matsuda probably holds more special awards than most Mukansa smiths. On two previous occasions just when he has attained the required amount of special awards to become Mukansa, the requirements were raised. When he had won six, the requirement became 8, then when he won eight, the requirement was lifted to the current 10. The withdrawal of the top prizes must be a crushing blow to this superb craftsman. Matsuda san has the reputation for producing blades that even the most experienced have trouble deciding if they are a healthy meito or a gendaito. He is known to produce all the qualities of ko-Bizen and Kamakura Bizen blades including activities such as antai.
In addition to the 6 awards for excellence there were 6 awards for effort. This welcomed the return to the arena of another seasoned smith –Furukawa Kiyoyuki another big prize-winner in the past. In addition to the two NBTHK Chairman’s Awards there were also two Newcomers Awards won by Gassan Sadanobu (son of Sadatoshi) and the 26th Generation (Kato) Kanefusa. Sadly, some up and coming smiths were missing amid the problems of being a smith in the current climate and trying to sell swords. It was a shame not to see the work of Kawashima Masaki a very talented young smith from Okayama prefecture, who is apparently researching juka-choji very seriously at the moment for future entries.
Despite all of the problems surrounding the sword world at the moment the competition was a resounding success. The standard of workmanship on the whole was excellent. The cream on the sword world were there appreciating new swords with the same vigour as appreciating old ones. A lesson we may have to heed in the west if we wish to help sustain the craft through these troubled times into the future.