Notable Swords from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston includes about 600 Japanese swords. While many museums abroad hold Japanese swords in their collections, the MFA surpasses them all in both quality and quantity.

The oldest swords in the collection are the by Yasutsuna of Hōki no Kuni from the mid-Heian period. The MFA has both tachi (long swords) and kodachi (small swords) in its collection. On view in this exhibition is the longest of the Yasutsuna swords. Before the Edo period, Japanese swords were fabricated in Kyoto, Nara, Okayama, Kanagawa, and Gifu, from which many schools and skilled swordsmiths emerged. In Kyoto, Kunimune is of the Rai school, the same school as the rare swords from the Nanbokuchō period. Sanjō Yoshinori was active during the Muromachi period; the rare and brilliant hamon (temper pattern) on the blade of his sword can be seen in this exhibition. This tachi also comes with its mounting from the late Edo period/early Meiji era including peony fittings fabricated by metalsmith Kanō Natsuo. From Nara (Yamato), there is a tantō by Norinaga with the inscription “四十八作之” (indicating it was made at the age of forty-eight) and a date indicating the Bunpō 3 (1319). Blade inscriptions that indicate the age of their creator are rare, making this an extremely valuable object. Okayama (Bizen) was the most prolific with sword production, and the schools of Kobizen, Ichimonji, Osafune, and others thrived between the Heian and Muromachi periods. Shigehisa is an early example of a sword made in the Fukuoka Ichimonji school. The blade on view here by Ichi Bishū Osafune Jū Sukeshige, presumed to be of the secretive Yoshioka Ichimonji group, represents the only extant example of an Osafune and is thus extremely rare. This exhibition features an impressive lineup of master swordsmiths from the Osafune school including Founder Mitsutada, his great-grandson Kanemitsu, and Nagayoshi of the same generation.

All swords produced following the Keichō era (1596–1615) of the Edo period are referred to as “shintō” (literally, “new swords”), and the origins of the shintō can be traced to the later works of swordsmith Horikawa Kunihiro, which are on view in this exhibition. Also on view are an outstanding sword by Nagasone Okimasa, second generation successor of Nagasone Okisato of Edo who was known to produce swords of superb sharpness, as well as an early sword by late Edo period swordsmith and theorist Suishinshi Masahide who wrote about the subject and left behind many publications.

The selection provides an excellent overview of Japanese swords through the works of exceptional swordsmiths from the Heian period through the end of the Edo period.

Fukuoka Ichimonji Naganori, “Sword of the tantō type”, Kamakura period, 1300 (Shōan 2), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Osafune Kanemitsu, “Sword of the tachi type”, Kamakura period, 14th century, Charles Goddard Weld Collection

“Mounting for a sword of the itomaki no tachi type with design of family crests”, Edo period, 17th century, Charles Goddard Weld Collection

Osafune Mitsutada, “Sword of the katana type”, Kamakura period, 13th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Sanjō Yoshinori, “Sword of the tachi type”, Muromachi period, 15th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Kanō Natsuo, “Uchigatana mounting with a polished black lacquer sheath”, Edo period-Meiji era, 19th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Horikawa Kunihiro, “Sword of the katana type”, Edo period, 1610 (Keichō 15), 1610, Gift of the W. A. Compton Oriental Arts Foundation

Suishinshi Masahide, “Sword of the katana type”, 1791, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Swords from Japanese Collections

Special display of swords from Japanese collections that are related to the musha-e
Famous Sword Related to the Story of Slaying the Earth Spider

Chōen, “Sword of the katana type (Usumidori)”, Heian period, 12th century, Private Collection

*Tokyo venue and Hyogo venue only

When this long sword was shortened, the tang was folded back to preserve the signature. Chōen was a swordsmith in Buzen or Bungo province in northern Kyūshū. Since ancient times it has been said to be the tachi known as Usumidori, a treasure of the Genji clan. According to the Tsurugi no maki (Scroll of Swords) of the Heike monogatari, when the sword Hoemaru, which had been donated to Kumano Gongen shrine by Minamoto no Tameyoshi, was given to Minamoto no Yoshitsune by the Kumano Bettō (chief priest), Yoshitsune renamed the sword Usumidori (Pale Green) because the summer mountain is deep green, but the color would be paler in spring.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “The Earth Spider Slain by Minamoto no Yorimitsu's Retainers”, Edo period, about 1839–40 (Tenpō 10-11) , William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Cherished Sword of Uesugi Kenshin

Rai Kunitoshi, “Sword of the tachi type”, Kamakura period,1321 (Genkō 1), The Japanese Sword Museum

*Tokyo venue and Niigata venue only

This sword was one of the favorite swords of Uesugi Kenshin. It is a work by the famous swordsmith Kunitoshi of the Rai school in Kyoto. From the inscription of “the 1st year of Genko” (1321) we can see that he was 81 when he made this sword. Rai Kunitoshi’s tachi often feature close, small itame(wood) grain textures of the steel surface and essentially straight-edge patterns on elegantly shaped relatively narrow blades with deep curvature. This tachi, too has a graceful shape with deep curvature. The wavy temper pattern is unusual for Rai Kunitoshi, and the wide tempered line is flawless. The sword demonstrates excellent workmanship, surprising for a maker at the age of eighty-one.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi “The Great Batle at Kawanakajima in Shinano Province”, Edo period, about 1845 (Kōka 2), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

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