By Fred Weissberg 9/15


When we search for the foundations of the Rai school, we must first consider the Awataguchi school. This was the premiere Yamashiro tradition from the end of the Heian era to the latter part of the Kamakura era.  The Awataguchi school was supposedly founded by Kuniie who moved to Kyoto (Yamashiro) from Yamato around the early 1100's. There are no exact dates. The Awataguchi school flourished throughout the Kamakura era with no fewer than four swordsmiths from this school being chosen by the Emperor Gotoba around 1200 to be his sword making companions and teachers.

The Rai school got its name because the smiths, in most cases, precede their signatures with the kanji "Rai". One account as to the founding of the Rai school says that towards the end of the Kamakura era circa 1260, Kuniyoshi of the Awataguchi tradition is said to have founded the Rai tradition. However, no documented works of Kuniyoshi exist today so his son, Kuniyuki, is generally said to have founded the Rai school.

Another interesting theory is a slight departure in that old texts such as the Meijin Taizen say that Kuniyoshi was an immigrant from Korea who was born in 1199 and moved to Kyoto, living there until his death in 1281. Again, there are no existing works by him so his son Kuniyuki is popularly given the credit of being the founder of the Rai school.

Kuniyuki was followed by two smiths called Kunitoshi. One signed his name with the two characters Kunitoshi and the other signed his name as Rai Kunitoshi. For as long as there have been serious studies of the history of Japanese swordsmiths, there has been a divergence of theories as to whether the smiths, Niji Kunitoshi and Rai Kunitoshi are two distinct smiths or just varying signatures of the same smith. Michihiro Tanobe formerly of the NBTHK proposed the following explanation:

When we look at the extant Niji Kunitoshi works we see that those signed with a niji-mei have a magnificent tachi-sugata with a broad mihaba and an ikubi-kissaki in combination with a chôji-based midareba that reminds somewhat of the Bizen-Ichimonji school. Blades with the signature "Rai Kunitosh" are narrow and elegant and show a suguha or a suguha mixed with smaller midare elements that mean they are calmer. So from the point of view just of the workmanship I would not assume at a glance that they go back to the hand of a single smith.

As we can see from the notes of Tanobe Sensei and others, the works of Niji Kunitoshi resembled those of his father Kuniyuki. Some of Niji Kunitoshi's works are even more imposing than those of his father. There are constant references to the fact that his sugata and forging characteristics will, in many ways, resemble the Bizen Ichimonji school of the middle Kamakura era. While there are some zaimei blades by Niji Kunitoshi that bear a resemblance to the general works of Rai Kunitoshi and vice versa; there exist enough signed examples to clearly show a significant divergence of styles in the workings of both of these smiths.

Rai Kunimitsuis conventionally understood to have been the son or student of Rai Kunitoshi. He worked from the end of the Kamakura era into the Nanbokucho era. The earliest signed work by him has a date of Karayku 1 (1326) and the last known dated example has a nengo of Kano 2 (1351).

Rai Kunimitsu's workmanship is quite diversified. He produced the typically classical suguha as well as suguha mixed with ko-gunome and ko-choji, notare mixed with gunome, gunome-midare, and others. Rai Kunimitsu made tachi and tanto in a variety of shapes thus making him by far the most talented among the Rai smiths in terms of broadness of repertoire and applicability.

The style and characteristics of the works of Rai Kunimitsu changed over his lifetime. In fact, the changes toward the end of his career have caused some scholars to postulate that there might have been two generations of smiths by this name. This theory will require much more study in the future as there is no strong evidence to date to support it. That aside, there can be no argument that he worked in a variety of styles and produced swords with varying characteristics over his lifetime.

SUGATA: We will break down into three periods of production:

Early stage: They were made in the style of the mid-Kamakura period of the Yamashiro tradition. They have torii-zori with a hint of saki-zori.  The mihaba was a little narrow, but they have hira-niku. Kasane is thick and the kissaki is made small and short. The hamon is in nie in chu-suguha, choji-midare with nie and nioi ashi.

Middle stage: The tachi will be the style of the late-Kamakura period with the sori made shallow. Hiraniku will be lacking and the kissaki will be made long. The hamon will be in nie in chu-suguha hotsure or chu-suguha hotsure with ko-midare and ashi. Nijuba will also be found and on occasion hiro-suguha with ko-midare. In such cases the nie will have a blotched effect in places.

Late stage: The tachi will be in the style of the Nanbokucho period with torii-zori with the sori made shallow. There will be < em>hiraniku and the kasane will be thick and the kissaki long. The hamon will be in nie in midare or in notare-midare and the nie will have a blotched effect in places. There will be midare in the shape of hako-midare around the monouchi area.

Tanto: Many different styles of tanto were made by Rai Kunimitsu. Standard length in hira-zukuri with a takenoko-zori. The hamon will be made in chu-suguha with ko-nie.  The hada will be a beautiful ko-mokome. Some of the different styles are as follows:

-Hira-zukuri with mu-zori. Katana hi or suken and gomabashi or bonji carvings. The hamon will be in nie and in chu-suguha or chu-suguha with midare or in o-midare in which case the nie will be very rough. There will be ashi from the nioi and profuse nie.

-Hira-zukuri with saki-zori with the length being made a little longer than the first two described above. The characteristics of the blade itself will be about the same as above.

-Hira-zukuri and sun-nobi in length. They will have the sugata of tanto of the Nanbokucho period. The hamon will be made in chu-suguha and the boshi will be made in ko-maru. The steel is made exceptionally fine and will be in ko-mokume hada.

-Rarely one will fine a tanto is the shoku-zukuri or u-no-kobi-zukuri sugata.

JITETSU: Generally the hada of Rai Kunimitsu will be a refined and beautiful hada done in a ko-mokume or ko-itame hada. The ji-nie will be thick and contain chikei as well as powerful nie-utsuri. This will be especially true on his tantô. Occasionally what is known as “Rai hada” will be found. The term "Rai hada" refers to an area of weak jigane with a color and pattern different from the ordinary hada. This is not to be confused with openings in the blade due to excessive polishing.

HAMON: In addition to the individual hamon characteristics mentioned in the sugata section above, I would like to add the following general comment.  His midare-ba tempered in his tanto consists of markedly stronger nie than on his tachi. There will also be much more profuse ji-nie on his tanto than his tachi. Just like in the works of Rai Kunitsugu, there are a great deal of Soshu traits added to the Yamashiro tradition thus creating a powerful impression. The nie utsuri in the ji showing somewhat like yubashiri make his works powerful.

BOSHI: It will be in proportion to the hamon and will become nie-kuzuri , hakikake or kaen with abundant nie. Longer kaeri is sometimes seen.

NAKAGO: In tachi, the nakago features hira-niku and a little sori with the tip becoming narrow.  Tanto nakago are without sori unless they are of the furisode type.  The tip is a shallow kurijiri. The yasurime is kiri or a gentle katte sagari.

MEI: The signature usually has three characters with the first character being “Rai”. Occasionally the date of forging is shown.












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