To properly understand the foundation and beginnings of the Bitchû Aoe School (備中青江) we must first study geography and history. The old Kibi (吉備国) region of Japan covered an area of Western Honshu that is mostly included in today’s Okayama Prefecture. From ancient times until the Muromachi Era this area was comparable in cultural and political importance to that of the Kinai (畿内) and Kita-Kyushu (北九州) regions. This was largely due to the abundance of fine sand iron that was used not only for swords, but also to produce all kinds of iron tools for woodworking and farming since ancient times.
The Kibi (吉備国) region was divided into three almost equally sized areas by the presence of three major rivers that, starting from the Chugoku Highland, flowed southwards into the Seto Inland Sea. These rivers were the Yoshii, the Asahi, and the Takahashi. These rivers carried rich sand iron from the highlands down to the lower areas giving rise to the groups of sword smiths that eventually formed the major Bizen and Bitchû schools. These groups were the Fukuoka Ichimonji (福岡一文字) on the Asahi River, the Osafune (長船) on the Yoshii River and the Aoe (青江) on the Takahashi River.
The excellent workmanship of the Bitchû (備中) sword smiths was comparable to that of the smiths of the Bizen (備前),Yamashiro (山城), and Yamato (大和) traditions. Sword smiths mostly gathered around Aoe (青江), present day Kurashiki-shi in Okayama Prefecture, brought the prosperity of the Bitchû (備中)tradition forth. There were also known to have been some smiths scattered in adjacent areas of Masu and Seno.
The first artists of the Bitchû Aoe School (備中青江) came forth toward the end of the Heian period. The smith credited with starting this tradition is Yasutsugu (安次). Unlike the Bizen (備前) tradition that was prosperous until the end of the Muromachi era, the Bitchû (備中) School died out earlier. Some scholars say it ended with the end of the Nanbokucho era while others say it lingered on into the beginning of the Muromachi era. All agree, however, that no matter when in ended, the quality of the swords produced declined severely after the end of the Nanbokucho era.
The Bitchû Aoe (備中青江) tradition is divided into three major classifications, Ko-Aoe (古青江), Chu-Aoe (中青江), and Sue-Aoe (末青江). That is, old Aoe, middle Aoe, and late Aoe. One other important difference between the Aoe tradition and the Bizen tradition is that unlike the Bizen tradition it did not form into cliques or sub-schools. Rather, the names of individual smiths were handed down for several generations with each characteristic workmanship style continued by successive smiths of the same name. This phenomenon makes it most difficult pin down production dates for the works of artists whose name was used for too many generations to make definitive distinctions.
The quality of the Bitchû Aoe(備中青江) smiths of the Kamakura era was highly recognized and this is evidenced by the fact that three of the twelve kaji (smiths) invited by the Emperor Gotoba to come to Kyoto to forge swords were smiths from Bitchû (備中). They were Sadatsugu (貞次), Tsunetsugu (恒次), and Tsuguiye (次家).
Getting back to the divisions of the Bitchû Aoe (備中青江) tradition into beginning, middle, and late, it should be noted that these divisions of workmanship are not as clear-cut as one might think. While Ko-Aoe (古青江) and Sue-Aoe (末青江) are relatively distinct in their characteristics as manifested by their respective artists, Chu-Aoe (中青江) which is supposed to stand for certain characteristics born during the period between the beginning and end of the Aoe (青江) age, contains a considerably wide variety in its workmanship, making it difficult to give concise definitions as to the beginning and end of this period.
Ko-Aoe (古青江) is the term that refers to production from the late Heian to the middle of the Kamakura eras. The Sue-Aoe (末青江) (late Aoe) is the comprehensive name given to all Aoe (青江) smiths who worked around the Enbun (延文)days. This would include the Bunna (文和) (1352-1355), Enbun (延文) (1356-1360), and Joji (貞治) (1362-1367) eras. As for the Chu-Aoe (中青江), it is considerably more difficult to draw clear-cut lines at both the beginning and end of its time period because the artists and their workmanship did not reflect individual characteristics as much as the Ko-Aoe (古青江) and Sue-Aoe (末青江) artists did. However there are many dated blades from the end of the Kamakura around Showa (正和) (1312-1316) to beginning of the Nanbokucho era around Kenmu (健武) (1334-1335).
Nihonto.com is extremely proud to present this fine Tokubetsu Jûyô Tôken katana that dates to the period encompassing the end of the Kamakura Era and the beginning of the Nanbokuchô era. This would place it at the beginning of the Chû-Aoe period. It was awarded Jûyô Tôken status in the 51st Jûyô Tôken shinsa on October 13th, 2005. It was further awarded Tokubetsu Jûyô Tôken status by the NBTHK in the 19th Tokubetsu Jûyô Tôken shinsa held on May 16, 2006 and is considered to be one of the best blades surviving by the Aoe smith, Yoshitsugu (青江吉次). This opinion is substantiated by the fact that there was only a few months between it being awarded Jûyô status and being elevated to Tokubetsu Jûyô status. It is not uncommon for a blade to take several attempts over a period of years to reach the Tokubetsu Jûyô level. Most do not reach it at all. The translation of the Tokubetsu Jûyô Tôken zufu is as follows:
Tokubetsu-Jūyō-Tōken at the 19th Tokubetsu-Jūyō shinsa held on May 16, 2006.
Katana, mumei: Aoe Yoshitsugu (⻘江吉次)(w/ Hon’ami Kōchū origami from Kyōhō nine)
Measurements:Nagasa 70.0 cm, sori 2.0 cm, motohaba 3.35 cm, sakihaba 2.4 cm, kissaki-nagasa 3.85 cm, nakago-nagasa 19.6 cm, only very little nakago-sori.
Keijō: shinogi-zukuri, mitsu-mune, wide mihaba, no noticeable taper, relatively thin kasane, deep sori, somewhat elongated chū-kissaki.
Kitae: densely forged ko-itame that features plenty of ji-nie, some jifu mixed in places with the hada structure, and a faint midare-utsuri.
Hamon: chū-suguha-chō in ko-nie-deki with a bright and rather tight nioiguchi, the ha tends to a small and slightly undulating notare in places and is mixed with ko-gunome, ko-chōji, ko-ashi, yō, saka-ashi, and fine kinsuji and sunagashi.
Bōshi: sugu-chō with a kaeri that tends to ko-maru.
Horimono: on both sides a bōhi and soebi that runs as kaki-nagashi into the tang.
Nakago: ō-suriage, ha-agari kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, mumei.
Artisan: Aoe Yoshitsugu from Bitchū province.
Era: End of Kamakura to early Nanbokuchō period.
A basic distinction is made of the Aoe (⻘江) School from Bitchū province can be that date until around the mid-Kamakura period, which are referred to as Ko-Aoe (古⻘江), lit. “early Aoe”, and those that that thereafter and throughout the Nanbokuchō period, which are just referred to as Aoe. When it comes to works of the latter category, we can further distinguish between such made between the end of the Kamakura and the early Nanbokuchō period and those from the heyday of the Nanbokuchō period as their interpretations differ noticeably as well.
This blade shows a densely forged ko-itame that features plenty of ji-nie and a faint midare utsuri. The hamon is a chū-suguha-chō in ko-nie-deki with a bright and rather tight nioiguchi, with the ha tending to a small and slightly undulating notare in places and being mixed with ko-gunome, ko-chōji, ko-ashi, yō, saka-ashi, and fine kinsuji and sunagashi. This interpretation of the jiba reflects the characteristic features of Aoe School works from the end of the Kamakura to the early Nanbokuchō period, and in particular that of Yoshitsugu. The kitae is with its dense ko-itame and plenty of ji-nie of a particularly excellent forging quality and the massive and large katana-sugata with its abundance of hira-niku is truly admirable. Thus, we have here an outstanding work among all blades attributed to Yoshitsugu which is accompanied by an origami issued by Hon’ami Kōchū (本阿弥光忠, ?–1725) in Kyōhō nine (享保, 1724) that evaluates it at 350 kan.
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