Many members of the BKA, including most of the most senior Yudansha, were
instructed in both Kendo and Iaido by Fuji Sensei. Fuji Okimitsu Sensei,
whose BKA number was No. 1, hailed from Saga City the capital of Saga-ken
in northem Kyushu and his Dojo there was called Kenseikai. Over the years
Fuji Sensei arranged for several students to have extended stays in Saga,
where they practised at Kenseikai. Whilst in the UK, Fuji Sensei named
several of the Dojo that he founded throughout the country by the same
name, hence there are a number of Kenseikai Dojo now practising both Kendo
and Iaido. I, myself, practised at Kenseikai Dojo in Japan on a brief visit
to Saga some years ago.
In the Tokugawa period, Saga was the capital of Hizen province and ruled
over by the powerful Tozama Daimyo family, the Nabeshima. It is their
heraldic crest or Mon, which is the crest appearing on Kenseikai Tenugui
and Do. The Nabeshima clan were very powerful and rich, their wealth being
based on several thriving industries, including the famous Nabeshima
pottery which is much sought after today. However, arguably of more
interest, was their highly successful manufacture and export of swords.
These swords are of excellent quality in both artistic and practical terms.
They are also well documented in Japanese books and because of their
prolific production, there have been a reasonable number obtainable in the
West without the necessity of re-mortgaging one's domicile.
It will be readily understood then, that the mixture of an albeit tenuous
connection with Saga through Fuji Sensei and my Kendo Dojo, the
availability of plenty of research material, the possibility of obtaining
examples and the intrinsic quality of these pieces, the collecting of
swords from Hizen province is a heady potion! For these reasons, my
personal sword collecting has concentrated on swords from Hizen province,
popularly known as Hizen-to.
At the beginning of the Tokugawa period (the Keicho period, 1596-1624), the
Nabeshima Daimyo retained a swordsmith named Hashimoto Shinsaemon who
adopted the professional name of Tadayoshi. The young Tadayoshi, who was
from samurai lineage, had been orphaned as a child and brought up by his
grandfather who himself was killed in battle. Before setting up his forge
in Saga for the Lord Nabeshima, Tadayoshi had previously studied under a
great teacher in Kyoto named Umetada Mioju, who was a genius metal worker
making superb Tsuba as well as making blades with highly artistic carvings
(Horimono) on them.
This was a time of renaissance in the history of the Japanese sword. It was
the end of the Sengoku Jidai (period of the country at war) and the
beginning of the Keicho period (1594) is recognised as the start of the
so-called Shinto (New Sword) period of Japanese sword manufacture. It was
not now necessary for swordsmiths to tum out large numbers of simply
practical swords, as was required during the Sengoku Jidai, and now they
could take more time to produce better quality blades emphasising the more
artistic properties of the Japanese sword. Tadayoshi produced many fine
swords many of which were carved with elaborate Horimono executed by a
fellow student of Umetada Mioju, named Munenaga.
Tadayoshi attracted many students and swords made by the Tadayoshi school
were exported by the Nabeshima clan all over Japan. The definitive Hizen-to
may be described as having a strong Sugata (form or shape) with a skilfully
controlled Suguha Hamon (straight quench-line) which is comprised of fine
Nie (crystalised martensite) and which ends in a Ko-maru Boshi (small
circular quenching pattern in the point). Further, Nie are sprinkled all
over the Jihada (surface) producing a unique surface pattern known as
Konuka-hada. Such swords had a reputation for being Saijo Wazamono
(supremely sharp) as well as being things of great beauty and as such
brought much credit both to Tadayoshi and the Nabeshima Daimyo.
In addtion to the main Tadayoshi line, of which there were nine continuous
generations, collateral family lines such as Masahiro, Yukihiro and
Tadakuni were prolific, all working in and around Saga for both the
Nabeshima clan and their relatives. By the middle of the 17th century, the
reputation of swords from Hizen province was well respected throughout
Japan and their export contributed greatly to the prosperity of the
Nabeshima Han. Unfortunately this fame led to many forgeries, the majority
of which are in the Tadayoshi Goji Mei (Tadayoshi's 5 character signature)
of HIZEN (no) KUNI TADAYOSHI.
Tadayoshi signed his work in many different ways throughout his career, but
the above Goji Mei is probably the most commonly used. This form of
signature was also used by the succeeding generations (except for the 2nd
generation who never adopted the Tadayoshi name and was called Tadahiro).
When Tadayoshi retired as the head of the family he was granted the title
MUSASHI DAIJO and he changed his name to Tadahiro.
The 2nd generation, who lived to be over 80 years old, produced many swords
throughout his lifetime. As previously stated, his name was Tadahiro, and
he is credited with perfecting the classical Hizen-to in terms of Suguha
Hamon and Konuka-hada. This is almost perfection in the Japanese sword,
being strong in shape and forging, clean and effective in the Hamon and
presenting a work of art which has great practical potential. Whilst the
first generation Tadayoshi experimented with several different old styles,
swords such as the above by Tadahiro were greatly inspired by the Yamashiro
tradition of the Kamakura period, especially the Rai group of swordsmiths.
Several of the collateral lines, whilst often producing blades with Suguha
Hamon (which incidentally is considered more effective when cutting) were
also skilled at other styles, particularly Bizen-den. Indeed the Choji
(clove shaped) Hamon that is characteristic of Bizen swords was adapted and
slightly altered by Hizen swordsmiths. This difference is readily
discernible to the practised eye. The line of smiths named Yukihiro
acknowledged this Bizen influence by including the character ICHI in the
inscriptions on their Nakago. This stood for ICHIMONJI (number one) which
the Yukihiro's sometimes also spelt out in their inscriptions.
Nagasaki is within Hizen province and this was the centre of foreign
influence throughout the Tokugawa period when the rest of the country was
closed to foreigners. Through Nagasaki it appears that some import of
foreign iron took place and was used by some of the swordsmiths. This may
be seen by inscriptions on Nakago such as Orande Tetsu Saku (made with
Dutch iron). It is also known that the 8th generation Tadayoshi (who died
in 1853 and who is rated as the 3rd most skilful Tadayoshi) experimented
with foreign iron in sword manufacture and cannon production for coastal
Although Hizen-to were produced for over 260 years (from 1594 to 1870-ish)
unlike many sword production centres over this period Hizen-to,
comparatively speaking, maintained a very high standard and tended not to
be affected by the passing fashions of the time but rather maintained their
integrity. Of course, there were certain generations and individuals who
were not as good as others, it would be impossible for all to be great
artists, but generally speaking a samurai could feel confident with a
Hizen-to in his Obi.
To-Ken Society of Great Britain
Reprinted with permission from the British Kendo Assoc.