Saeki Norishige (佐伯則重)

Modern researchers consider Norishige the middle one in age among Shintōgo’s three disciples: Yukimitsu, Norishige, and Masamune.

The history of Japanese smithing usually gives us an opportunity to trace the origin of a certain smith—that is, his so-called genealogical line. Smithing art in Japan has been based on hereditary apprenticeships from its inception up until modern times. Historically, it always involved a strong desire to follow traditions, and the clans of smiths, as well as appraisers, were quite closed structures. In the majority of cases, the genealogical line of a smith, or at least a version of it, can be traced for several generations down through history. However, the history of the Sagami School commemorates two names that probably do not originate from any smith clans, and therefore, their genealogical lines have not been reconstructed. In addition, these are not two ordinary names—these two “grand names” play a very significant role in the development of both the Sagami School and Japanese forging art as a whole. The smiths’ names are Saeki Norishige (佐伯則重) and Gō Yoshihiro (江義弘). Both masters were from the same province—Etchū (越中)—and, most likely, their origin and life paths were very closely related to each other. 

According to the Kotō Meizukushi Taizen (古刀銘盡大全), in the Gen’ō era (元応, 1319–1321) Norishige was about 30 years old. He was born in the 3rd year of the Shōō era (正応, 1290) and died in his 77th year in the 5th year of the Jōji era (貞治, 1366). The place of his birth is the settlement named Gofuku Gō (御 服 郷), located in Nei (婦負), Etchū Province. It should be noted that earlier, Gofuku was not written using the kanji 呉 (as it is in modern transcription), but instead it used 御. Later, the kanji 郷 was sometimes replaced by the homonymous but less complex 江. The same manuscript tells us that Norishige originated in the Saeki clan and that he was called Gorōjirō (五郎二郎) and Shingorō (新五郎). Moreover, it is necessary to note that in the original book, his first name is written using 二 as the third kanji. However, some sources (e.g., Kokon Kaji Bikō) say the master’s name was Gorōzaburō (五郎三郎). Most likely, the name Gorōjirō (“second son”) or Gorōzaburō (“third son”) was given to Norishige at birth. The name Shingorō was a nickname made from a combination of the name “Gorō,” which was given to Masamune, and “Shin,” meaning “new.” Thus, his nickname can be translated as “New Gorō”—that is, a new or second Masamune, a smith equal to Masamune‘s skill level. The birthplace of Norishige is easily confirmed when we look at the oshigata in old sources that display examples of his long signature. 

Figure 1 shows one of these long signatures by Norishige; this one translates as “Etchū Province, resident of Nei Gofuku, Saeki Norishige.” Further on in this chapter (Figure 9.7), you can find another version of the same oshigata but taken from the Kotō Meizukushi Taizen. It is interesting that in all the books mentioned, this signature of Norishige’s was written with an error. In the name of the master (Saeki), instead of the kanji “Eki” (伯), the kanji “Saku” (作) is written. This error seems to be duplicated in all subsequent books, which demonstrates the common source of these oshigata

Figure 1: Kokon Wakan Banpō Zensho (古今和漢万寶全書), 1694, Volume 12 (3), p. 115/2; Ōseki Shō (reprint, 1978), p. 91; Ōseki Shō adaptation book, p. 91.

It is possible to determine Norishige’s exact period of creativity because nowadays we have quite a lot of works with his authentic signature and date of manufacture. The period when the master actively worked can be established as the interval between the Enkyō era (延慶, 1308–1311) and the Kareki era (嘉暦, 1326–1329). In accordance with his dated works and information about his life, it is possible to conclude that only the earliest works Norishige created in his youth can be attributed to the Enkyō era.

These dates are of great importance when we determine Norishige’s teacher or teachers. The Kiami-bon Mei-zukushi manuscript (喜阿弥本銘尽, 1381) records that Norishige was Shintōgo Kōshin’s disciple (新藤五光心). We should recall that Kōshin was the Buddhist name of Shintōgo Kunimitsu. Consequently, it is most likely that Norishige began to learn smithing from this grand master. Modern researchers are unanimous on this matter and consider him the middle one in age among Shintōgo’s three disciples: Yukimitsu, Norishige, and Masamune. As an additional argument, it is often noted that Norishige’s tantō sugata is very close to Shintōgo’s. Moreover, Norishige’s tantō sugata did not undergo any serious changes with time. Therefore, we can conclude that Shintōgo immensely influenced Norishige’s smithing style.

Nevertheless, we must remember that Shintōgo was likely to have passed away in 1312. At that time, Norishige apparently was still at a young age. He still needed both mentors and new ideas to develop his skills. Thus, the Kotō Meizukushi Taizen contains very important information that Norishige

- Was Yukimitsu’s disciple during the Ōchō era (応長, 1311–1312) and the Shōwa era (正和, 1312–1317);

- Studied under Gō Yoshihiro, beginning in the Gen’ō era (元応, 1319–1321), continuing through to Genkyō (元亨, 1321–1324); and

- Was Masamune’s disciple during the Shōchū era (正中, 1324–1326).

Judging by this data, we see that Norishige managed to learn the secrets of forging from some of the best Japanese masters of all time: Shintōgo Kunimitsu, Yukimitsu, Masamune, and Gō Yoshihiro. It should be noted that modern researchers quite often simply miss this information, especially in regard to Norishige’s study under Gō. In this matter, they are often satisfied with stating that dates on Norishige’s works do not prove this information.

<.....> A common opinion is that Norishige often signed his works, and that most of his works are extant, including those dated. This opinion needs to be clarified, because it does not accurately reflect contemporary reality. Currently, there are 116 extant swords attributed to Norishige (which are classified Jūyō and higher). Among them, there are 70 Jūyō, 26 Tokubetsu Jūyō, 11 Jūyō Bijutsuhin, 8 Jūyō Bunkazai, and 1 Kokuhō. Only 39 of the total number of swords are signed. Of course, most of his signed works are tantō, but almost every source mentions two signed long swords made by the master. Both of these works (Jūyō Bunkazai) are signed in Norishige’s typical style of niji-mei, using two characters, 則 and 重. Here, we need to clarify something. In fact, presently there are four extant long swords made by Norishige. It is necessary to take into account two more tachi that have the status of Tokubetsu Jūyō (No. 14 and No. 18) and are signed as niji-mei. There are no dated works among these four long swords, but this does not mean that the master never dated his daitō. Some oshigata of Norishige’s long swords have survived. Considering the oshigata, their nagasa were about three shaku; thus, their size was as surprising as the very unusual way they were signed and dated. The Kōzan Oshigata and the Kotō Meizukushi Taizen present oshigata of two tachi, on the haki-omote side of which the year of manufacture is indicated at the top, while the name of the master (“Norishige”) is underneath it. On the first nakago, we can read that the sword was forged in the Shōchū era (正中, 1324–1326). On the second one, the date of manufacture is indicated in more detail: “on the day of the 8th month of the 3rd year of Kareki (嘉暦, 1328).” Such swords are said to have been made especially for offerings and gifts to temples and were stored there for long periods of time.

Regarding the signature of the master, we should immediately note that Norishige’s signature has two obvious features in the written kanji, which are its characteristic attributes. Moreover, when analyzing some examples of signatures attributed to Norishige and made on his extant works, we can find cases of a mekugi-ana located on those parts of kanji where the signature’s features should be present. Thus, it is quite natural for us to question why anyone would intentionally produce a mekugi-ana in a location that would make it difficult to identify the master’s signature, when it differs from the referenced one. 

1. When writing the “Nori” (則) kanji, Norishige always depicted its lower left part as a kind of separate stylized integral element, rather than as a separate bottom line of the square and the folding left “leg” of the radical. In the characteristic image of this element in the original signature is indicated with an arrow. This element was engraved with deep, thick strokes, as opposed to the thin, delicate strokes in the rest of the kanji, and these thick strokes stand out prominently from the background of the rest of the kanji

2. Concerning the writing of the “Shige” (重) kanji, it is a common misconception that the master did not make the uppermost line of this kanji oblique but parallel, without exception. However, Norishige featured the image of this element in the form of a horizontal “comma” (a crescent moon) or in the form of an almost vertical crescent moon. One of the written variants is marked with an arrow in Figure, and the second one is shown in the next Figure of his authentic signature. For example, Hon’ami Kōho specifically points out that the way the top line is written in the form of a “horizontal crescent moon” is indeed an important element when determining the authenticity of Norishige’s signature, despite the fact that the writing style of this upper line has changed slightly over time. In his notes, Hon’ami Kōho prefers the comparison with the crescent moon, because using a more obvious comparison with a “horizontal comma” would make sense only in modern times. In addition, both kanji in Norishige’s signature were engraved in a sprawling but elegant manner, with a large cutter. The second upper and lower lines of the 重 character were made thick and deep, so that they look like a frame for the inside of the kanji.

We should especially note that these are just general principles on which we can base only preliminary conclusions about the authenticity of the master’s signature. Norishige was one of the masters whose signatures varied a lot, and this must surely be taken into account. Fortunately, with respect to each variant of his signature at different stages of his smithing career, the relevant records and examples of its written form have survived. For example, the Tōken Kantei Hikketsu (Figure 2) provides examples of such records.

Figure 2: Examples of Norishige’s signature. Tōken Kantei Hikketsu, Volume 3 [6], p. 134.

<.....> It is necessary to point out the existence of another tantō, which, unlike the previous ones, has survived up to modern times: Tokubetsu Jūyō No. 9. It was also signed by the master in a slightly unusual way. Above the signature, the 勝 (Shō, Katsu) kanji is located on top of the only mekugi-ana. It has the following meanings: “win,” “victory.” The large space between the smith’s signature and this kanji emphasizes that there is no connection between these two elements. This kanji was known to be used in signatures of Hōki Ōhara Sanemori (伯耆大原真守). However, he placed it on the tachi on the haki-ura side, where the date of manufacture had to be located (e.g., see Sanemori’s tachi classified as Tokubetsu Jūyō No. 19). The appearance of this kanji in Norishige’s signature seems strange, especially since it was written in smaller strokes than the signature itself. NBTHK experts conclude that it is part of the master’s signature. Consequently, Norishige explicitly denoted his relationship with Sanemori, as well as with the Ko-Hōki (古伯耆) School. This school’s strong influence has always been reflected in the works of many smiths connected with the Sagami School and especially in Masamune’s swords. However, we should note that this blade was dated 1314. This sword was forged before Norishige started his training with Masamune, whose artistic works were most directly associated with Ko-Hōki. Therefore, as a result, the meaning of this kanji has not yet been clarified.

The next clarification we certainly need concerns Norishige’s dated tantō. There are very few of them, and up to now, only three extant tantō have dates of manufacture. These tantō are dated as follows: 

- On the 12th month of 1314 (正和三年十二月日), Tokubetsu Jūyō No. 9;

- On a lucky day of the 11th month of 1319 (元応元年十一月吉日), Tokubetsu Jūyō No. 24, (this tantō is described in detail below); and

- On the 10th month of the Monkey Year, 1320 (--申庚十月), Jūyō No. 31. 

<.....> To summarize, we should conclude that Norishige very often signed his works. Therefore, tachi have either niji-mei signatures without a date or niji-mei signatures and a date on one side—that of haki-omote. He also signed tantō in different ways: niji-mei without the date of manufacture; naga-mei with the year, according to the Chinese calendar; or naga-mei with the full name and using the expression “lucky day” in the date. Despite the fact that almost all of Norishige’s long swords have lost their signatures (as well as their dates) as a result of shortening, nowadays the extant tantō help us determine quite accurately the peak period of the master’s creativity.

<.....> The most characteristic feature of Norishige’s works is the so-called matsukawa-hada (松皮肌). It is distinguished by a very large number of dense, bright chikei, mixed in the texture of a tree that, for the most part, resembles pine bark. Sometimes it is compared with the ayasugi-hada (綾杉肌) that the Gassan School is known for. Both types have a specific combination of undulating structure and patterned lines that resemble a whirlpool. The way smiths could produce such a hada was unique and apparently very complex. Unfortunately, it had a few side effects, impurities and a slightly darker color in the hada itself. As for quality, Norishige’s jitetsu is second only to Sadamune’s, although they were based on different forging methods. The advantage of Norishige’s method was manifested in the hataraki (働き—a collective term denoting “activity”) of the jihada and hamon areas. The activity of the main elements, such as nie, kinsuji, and chikei, was, in general, much higher than that in Sadamune’s approach. 

<.....> Ōmura Kaboku (大村加卜), in his Kentō Hihō (劍刀秘宝), describes in great detail Gofuku Gō Norishige’s (呉服郷則重) method of forging. He compares the picture of its hada with gaseous patterns and indicates that it looks like Hiromitsu’s, as well as the Gassan School’s, hada (ayasugi-hada). In order to obtain such a pattern, Norishige forged ji metal made of Shisō metal five or six times to the state of a thinly stretched strip, which was subsequently cut into 3-, 6-, and 9-cm pieces. After that, he assembled the strips and did another forging. In the same way, but with a larger number of forgings (twelve to thirteen times), he prepared metal for other parts of the blade—for example, ha metal. Air bubbles, or blisters, and debris formed during this process were first scaled off and then cleaned with a special tool in the intervals between each new forging. This was how Norishige produced works in which the steel had such an interpenetrating, woven texture. It can be assumed that during the forging process, he made relatively fewer folds of metal strips. He achieved the required quality by making seven to eight orikaeshi, whereas other masters, including those who tried to copy him, needed about fifteen orikaeshi. In this case, the more foldings of the metal strips that occurred during forging, the shorter the hada pattern would be. In order to make the hada long enough, other smiths would have needed Norishige’s skills, which were unattainable for masters of a later period. 

Norishige’s works have the following distinguishing features:

Sugata: The long swords feature the usual-size kissaki and mihaba, among which there are both mitsu-mune and iori-mune. Tantō are characterized by small sizes: 24–25 cm; they have a hira-zukuri, a mitsu-mune, and an uchizori. Concerning most of Norishige’s tantō, it is impossible to determine where the fukura begins; that is, they are made in the fukura-kareru (膨枯れる) type, and sometimes there is a takenoko-zori form.

Jitetsu: This is the greatest distinguishing feature of Norishige’s work and the main area of his specialization. His tetsu is a combination of soft and hard metals, thick and large nie, chikei, and prominent itame, which are collectively called matsukawa-hada or Norishige-hada.

Hamon: His long swords usually have a ko-midare hamon of the classical type. In tantō, the hamon is intertwined with ji-hada because of the extensive interpenetrating activity and because of the large number and density of nioi and nie grains forming the nioiguchi. As a consequence, the border between the ji and the ha is unclear. It can be called “hitatsura nioiguchi.” Sometimes there is ko-midare with a distinct nioiguchi border. There is plentiful activity of nie, kinsuji, inazuma, and sunagashi. The term nie (沸) itself appeared in Masamune’s school; earlier, it was called by other names. This name was similar to “dried-up sea foam,” and this old term is quite suitable for describing Norishige’s nioiguchi.

Bōshi: The most common form is kaen (火焔), a “flame,” which means a very intense nie load and visible kinsuji. There are some midare-komi; some have ko-maru. Most of them have hakikake, but in this case, it is covered by the term kaen.

Nakago: All tachi are ō-suriage; the types of tantō nakago are diverse, often in the form of furisode, and most of them end with kurijiri, but there are kiri. Yasurimekiri or katte-sagari.

Horimono: Bō-hi, futasuji-hi, and bonji are rare.

Signature: The most common is niji-mei; sometimes it is naga-mei. The signature is written in gyōshotai (semi-cursive) style and is distinguished by its elegance. Chisels of different thicknesses were used to engrave it.

Figure 3. Norishige and Gō Yoshihiro's elements of activity layout. Kokon Meizukushi Taizen, vol. 5, p. 19/1.

(excerpt from Chapter 9, pp. 230-251, of the Japanese Swords: Sōshū-den Masterpieces )

Original content Copyright © 2019 Dmitry Pechalov