Bizen Osafune Motoshige (備前長船元重)

Motoshige was one of the “Sadamune no Santetsu” (貞宗三哲), Three Brilliant Disciples of Sōshū Sadamune, his work style is somewhat distinct from the other Osafune smiths, showing strong influence from Aoe and Sōshū schools after his transition from Kagemitsu style.

The juncture of the Kamakura and Nanbokuchō periods is one of the crucial times for the Japanese sword. There was a great amount of change in the air, as the tachi sugata began to lengthen and widen, and the kissaki elongated. Tanto also stretched into wakizashi, and the Sōshū-Den spread out from Sagami province and down the roads into almost every forge in the land. Because of the dramatic change in the style, it becomes difficult to determine generational information for smiths who may have one leg in one period, the the other in the next. Long lived smiths can be easily mistaken for two generations, or vice versa. 

Bizen Osafune Motoshige (備前長船元重) is one of these examples, and it is claimed that he worked as a swordsmith for over 50 years running. The oldest Motoshige work is found in the late Kamakura period. There is a Jūyō Tōken tantō bearing a date of 1316, and the youngest Jūyō work has a date of 1365 and this fully supports the claims of a 50 year work span. Fujishiro says that he used the name Ōkura no Suke (大蔵允) in his works but we don't see this on any remaining swords. 

There is some confusion over how many generations there are of Motoshige. Thus, is generally thought that he was the son of Hatakeda Morishige (畠田守重), however, some other manuscripts, say that he was the son of Hatakeda Morizane (畠田守真). Despite this, most experts have a common point of view that Osafune Motoshige was the grandson of 2nd generation of Hatakeda Moriie (畠田守家) who moved later from Hatakeda to Osafune. This variant of Osafune Motoshige genealogy line can be indicated as followed: 

According to another theory, based on the extant tachi dated on the 2nd year of the Kagen era (嘉元, 1304) and signed with a niji-mei, there were two generations: Ko-Motoshige (古元重) and Osafune Motoshige (長船元重). The earlier swords by Ko-Motoshige are done in true Kamakura period style that is of a slender sugata with suguba of tight nioi with ashi bearing a resemblance to the works of the Aoe (青江) School. Additionally, the signatures are always done in niji-mei with the size of the mei being rather large and two parallel horizontal strokes of the «Moto» kanji slant somewhat to the upper right. The later works from the time around the Kan ́ō (観應, 1350-1352) era are signed with a much smaller signature. According to opinion of Tanobe sensei, Ko-Motoshige is most likely an Aoe smith and has nothing to do with the Osafune line. This thinking is shown in a kantei item in the NBTHK Token Bijutsu fairly recently.

          ... it is believed today a smith called Ko-Motoshige who signs in large two characters

          has nothing to do with Osafune Motoshige. Please make a notice that this is to be the

          last time to have given "Atari" to the votes for "Ko-Motoshige"

                                                  — NBTHK Token Bijutsu

The two generations theory can be illustrated as followed:

Authors such as Fujishiro and Nagayama have made this mistake as well, but the extended number of study pieces available in the current day have allowed us to separate out Ko-Motoshige from the Osafune line and it is just coincidence that these names overlap.The fact that Ko-Motoshige does exist and was conflated with the earliest work of Osafune Motoshige is what gave energy to the theory that there were two Osafune generations at work. Once we remove Ko-Motoshige from the Osafune line, we are left with what seems to be a single smith with a long work span. He begins work a bit before Kanemitsu and works just as long.

All of these Nanbokuchō period Bizen smiths saw a radical change in style between in the early Nanbokuchō period as they began to make wide, magnificent blades with ō-kissaki (大鋒). That style change in past centuries was fuel for various theories about second-generation smiths. Out of that we got a nidai Kanemitsu and a nidai Motoshige and so forth. With more examples available to study in public it has become clear that this is most likely a style change that swept through many swordsmiths around the same time in a need to make these swords which were originally very large tachi. This coincided with the peak uniqueness of the Sōshū tradition and its spillover into Yamashiro and Bizen traditions. Smiths like Kanemitsu and Motoshige were affected if not directly connected to the Sōshū revolution.

Dr. Honma seems to have made the first efforts to try to sort out this Motoshige problem though he continued to back two Osafune generations as a theory contrary to Fujishiro. He continued to think of Osafune Motoshige as two generations however, as well as Ko-Motoshige being a third and unrelated smith. The most modern thinking however is that there is Ko-Motoshige, and Osafune Motoshige, two smiths only with no connection between them. The question of whether Motoshige should be split into two generations in Osafune is marked down as debatable, but without direct evidence for two generations other than a style change (found in many smiths) and a long work span (found in many smiths), the best thinking is that it is simply one long lived smith who made these Motoshige blades.

          Different from this, there is a tantō with a nenki of Shōwa Gonen (正和, 1316) in which both the

          deki of the jiba and the mei style resemble those of Kagemitsu, and this is considered to be the

          shodai. Also, there are nenki of Kan ́ō (観應, 1350-1352) and Enbun (延文,1356-1361) in items

          that are thought to be by the nidai. As for the rare sighting of the Sōshū-Den in the jiba, these are

          by the nidai.

                                              — Dr. Honma Junji, Nihonto Koza

          This tantō has an early date for his work, and is dated Shōwa 5 nen. It shows his typical style and

          this is an important piece for the study of Motoshige’s work. Motoshige’s father Morishige has a

          tantō similar to this tantō, and at the top of the hamon there are long kaku-gunome (square

          gunome) and it is dated Showa 5. Also, Moriie who is supposed to be Morishige’s father (and

          Motoshige’s grandfather) has a tantō with a midare hamon similar to these with kaku-gunome

          mixed with kataochi-gunome and gunome.

                                                    — NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Figure 1. Late Morishige and early Motoshige in Kagemitsu style 1316 dates.

Due to the long work span of Motoshige, older work has sometimes been thought to be done by a shodai Motoshige and these resemble the work of Bizen Kagemitsu in general. Later work is Sōshū and Aoe influenced and these works have a more magnificent shape and have been thought to be a nidai. Fujishiro however supports the single smith theory and as of late Motoshige and Kanemitsu have both been considered to be a single generation affected by changes in the general style of the Nanbokucho period. The mei size changes that support the two smith theory are actually explained with the shrinking width of the shinogi line in Nanbokucho work that adopts Sōshū styles. Since the mei did not shrink on tantō and wakizashi it is best explained as being related to sugata change rather than generational change of smiths.

          Osafune Motoshige has blades dated from Shōwa 5 (1316) to Jōji 2 (1363), and because 50 years

          is a long working lifetime, there are two opinions: one is that he was one person, and another

          opinion is that he was actually 2 smiths working over two generations, and we still do not have a

          clear conclusion. There are some examples however: the Yamashiro smith Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊)

          signed a blade stating that he was 75, and the Yamato smith Shikkake Norinaga (尻懸則長)

          signed stating that he was 69, and from these, Motoshige’s half century of work might not be

          unusual. His hamon from the beginning to his last work were a continuous regular square gunome

          hamon, and there are not very big differences from early his work to his later work. Because of the

          different sizes of his signatures (large and small), there are opinions that his work was made by a

          shodai and nidai smith. However, around the Kōei (康永, 1342-1345) to Jōwa (貞和, 1345-1350)

          eras, there was a transitional period, and the usual tachi shape changed to have a wide mihaba, a

          long kissaki shape, and the width of the shinogi ji changed from wide to narrow, and the size of the

          signature also changed along with the change in the shape. There are examples of this change in

          the work of other smiths from the same area: Kanemitsu, Chikakage, and Motoshige’s young

          brother Shigezane changed the size of their signatures, and from this, it would be a sound opinion

          to believe that Motoshige’s work represents that of a single smith. There is a book the Kanchi-in

          Bon Mei Zukushi which was written in the same era as Morishige and Motoshige’s active period

          (there were three generations of smiths: Moriie, Morishige, and Motoshige), and around

          Morishige’s time the book mentions “Goro Moriie” and Motoshige was described as “the son of

          Morishige”, and from these comments, Motoshige’s line of ancestry seems to be correct.

                                 — NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Motoshige had a younger brother Shigezane, and his father was Morishige, the son of Hatakeda Moriie, one of the great middle Kamakura smiths. The Hatakeda and Osafune schools seem to have merged at the end of the Kamakura period and Morishige became a student of Nagamitsu. Since Nagamitsu's son is Kagemitsu, young Motoshige would have been in the same workshop as Kagemitsu when Kagemitsu was at his peak and likely studied under him given the similar styles they had at the end of the Kamakura period. 

In the case of Motoshige, his work style is somewhat distinct from the other Osafune smiths, showing strong influence from Aoe and Sōshū schools after his transition from Kagemitsu style. A small number of his works seem to be entirely in Sōshū-Den without a trace of Bizen. These later period works were made larger in Nanbokucho style so almost all of them have been shortened and lost their signatures. Tanto are in the minority as well, and among these the greater portion are the elongated works of the Nanbokuchō period that are over one shaku in length.

The work style of Motoshige also tends to show jifu mixed with midare-utsuri which means with the later work of Motoshige, it is possible to see a combination of features normally found in Ko-Bizen, Osafune Bizen, Sōshū and Aoe all mixed together. The Sōshū elements and the rare pure Sōshū works are cited as evidence supporting the old stories that Motoshige was one of the “Sadamune no Santetsu” (貞宗三哲) — Three Brilliant Disciples of Sōshū Sadamune, which included the following craftsmen: Bizen Motoshige (備前元重), Yamashiro Nobukuni (山城信国), and Tajima Hōjōji Kunimitsu (但馬法城寺国光). The Kotō Meizukushi Taizen gives the birth and death dates for only one of Sadamune’s disciples: Hōjōji (1289–1355), which means that he was as much as ten years older than his teacher. In addition, the same source names Shigezane (重真), Motoshige’s elder brother, instead of Nobukuni, as being among Sadamune’s disciples and also adds Sōshū Akihiro (相州秋廣) to that circle, thus bringing the total number of Sadamune’s disciples up to four. 

Figure 2. Koto Meizukushi Taizen, vol. 2, p. 12/1.

This information can be interpreted as follows: most likely, due to the great popularity of the Sagami School and Sadamune in particular, this master had a lot of disciples. The most famous and talented were united under the name of the so-called Sadamune no Santetsu, however, the list of Sadamune's students did not end there. Because of this, in different sources one can find references to other students of Sadamune. Among the disciples of Sadamune, according to information from various sources, at one time there were the following masters: Akihiro (秋廣) Arimasa (有正), Shigezane (重真), Sukenaga (助長), Sadaoki (貞興), Toshinaga (俊長), Shigeari (重有), and Takahiro (高弘). 

It is difficult to make an unequivocal conclusion as to whether Motoshige was a direct disciple of Sadamune. Arguments supporting this assumption, include information about Motoshige's membership in the Sadamune no Santetsu, contained in almost all old manuscripts, as well as the persistent influence of the Sōshū style in many of his works. Some experts rightly point out that during the time of the creative activity of Motoshige, Sōshū style was already quite widespread, and was at the peak of its influence on swordsmiths fashion. However, Motoshige in his works demonstrates a very deep understanding of the nature of Sōshū-Den techniques, which is beyond the reach of a smith who simply copies the style. This requires training directly from some high-skilled Sagami School master. 

According to opinion of the two-generations theory followers, Motoshige was direct Sadamune disciple around Jōji era (貞治, 1362-1368). After Motoshige studied under Sadamune, his works became especially interesting, due to the strong influence of the Bizen School in his craft. This inspiration came from his grandfather Moriie (守家), who was one of the most prominent smiths of that school. The works that Motoshige made during the latter part of his life were distinguished by a combination of styles taken from two schools: Bizen and Sōshū. He was one of the first smiths who started working in the so-called Sōden Bizen style, which later became quite widespread.

Viewing the oshigata of one of these works like the Jūyō Bunkazai one to the Figure 3, which even includes mitsu-mune, makes it very hard to deny his Sōshū connection and this particular piece speaks strongly toward study under Sōshū Sadamune. In these Sōshū style works his nie are quite prominent and sometimes we see works with clear chikei and this also shows some connection to the smiths of Sōshū. He is known as well for powerful and perfect shapes in his blades, as well as an excellent balance between the hamon and mihaba in his work.

Figure 3. Osafune Motoshige Jūyō Bunkazai #549.

Unlike the other Osafune smiths inheriting the style of Kagemitsu, the and the flat-topped saka-gunome found in his hamon are connected like they are dashes made in an extended line. In comparison, those of Kanemitsu and Kagemitsu tend to be somewhat slanted and clustered closer together. While the early NBTHK seemed to lean towards the “two smith” theory on Motoshige, Fujishiro usually sides with “one smith” theories and does in this case. As of late, NBTHK documents and articles also have settled on the single smith theory for Motoshige. Fujishiro rates Motoshige at jōjō-saku (上々作—a very high level of skill). Motoshige is also legendary for the cutting prowess of his blades, and is one of only fourteen smiths to have achieved a rating of Saijō-ō-wazamono (swords with supreme sharpness: they completely cut the target) for supreme level of sharpness when assessed by the Edo period cutting testers. Yamanaka notes that the oldest blade with a cutting test on it that he encountered, is a Motoshige. 

The wazamono rating first appeared in the Kaihō Kenjaku (懐宝剣尺), a study that was conducted in 1797 by Yamada Asaemon Yoshimitsu, in conjunction with well-known expert Tsuge Heisuke Masayoshi (柘植平助方理). The list of masters whose works were attributed as saijō-ōwazamono originally consisted of 12 smiths. The list was limited to and included the following masters: Osafune Hidemitsu, Tadayoshi (3rd), Kanemoto, Nagamichi (1st generation), Nagasone Okisato, Sukehiro (1st generation), Tadayoshi (1st generation), Mihara Masaie, Tatara Nagayuki, Kunikane (1st generation), Nagasone Okimasa, and Osafune Motoshige (the names are listed in the same order as in the original). 

As of today, 136 swords are known (Jūyō and above) to be Osafune Motoshige’s work. Of all his works known to us, 3 swords (1 tachi, 1 katana and 1 wakizashi) are Jūyō Bunkazai; 18 swords are Tokubetsu Jūyō Tōken; and 111 are Jūyō Tōken. Another 4 swords (3 katana and 1 wakizashi) were awarded Jūyō Bijutsuhin status in their time. His work is found as well in the Tokyo National Museum, and all of this testifies to his great skill and fame as a master swordsmith. As well in the Tokugawa Jikki there are noted Motoshige gifts to and from the Shogun to prominent daimyo, which indicates the appreciation for his work during the Edo period.

It is said that another one Motoshige was active around Jōji era (貞治, 1362-1368) in Hōki province. He is listed with the first names Magokurō (孫九郎) or Yakurō (弥九郎) and indicated as Hibara Motoshige (檜原元重). Some sources indicate Hibara Motoshige as the son of Ko-Motoshige and disciple of Sadamune, however, most likely he was the son of Osafune Motoshige (2nd generation).

The main characteristics distinguishing Motoshige’s work are as follows:

Sugata: early swords have the graceful slender sugata of the Kamakura period while later blades are done in true Nanbokuchō sugata. The later swords are long, the mihaba is wide, the shinogi is high and have extended and often very large ō-kissaki. Tachi are most common and they have koshi-zori. Wakizashi are few and they tend to be hira-zukuriTantō are rare and the style varies between hira-zukuri ones with a wide mihaba, sun-nobi length, and saki-zori; and those that are musori and small.

Kitae: itame hada mixed with tight mokume. There are ji-nie. Occasionally one can find masa-gokoro where the itame mixes with masame. Dark spots or jifu and midare-utsuri will also be found.

Hamon: displays a workmanship with strong ha-nie as well as kinsuji and sunagashi, that means we can see clearly the influence of the Sōshū tradition. The hamon will be nioi-based, as is the case with Bizen works. It will consist of square shaped kaku-gunome and kataochi-gunome mixed in with the suguha. One of the important kantei points regarding to Motoshige is that the inner outline (tops) of the midare hamon will make a seemingly straight line. Further the hamon is mixed with more compact midare patterns than the works of Kagemitsu or Kanemitsu. Saka-ashi which strongly resembles works of the Aoe School will be seen.

Bōshi: is ō-maru or ko-maru with a short kaeri are the most common, and occasionally, there is also one that is midare-komi with a hint of togari. His average bōshi has a pointed tip with kaeri.

Nakago: the tip of the nakago will be kurijiri and the yasurimei will be katte-sagari or sujikai.

Horimono: Bō-hi and futatsu-hi on tachi and suken and bonji on ko-wakizashi are seen.

Mei: Bishū Osafune Motoshige (備州長船元重); Bishū Osafune-jū Motoshige (備州長船住元重); Bishū Osafune-jū Motoshige saku (備州長船住元重作).

Authors: Darcy Brockbank and Dmitry Pechalov (previous version was published on

Original content Copyright © 2019 D. Brockbank

Original content Copyright © 2019 Dmitry Pechalov