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 it 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).
Around the beginning of the Nanbokucho era we find the start of what is known as the Sue-Aoe period. Scholars disagree on exactly when this period of sword manufacture ended. Most feel it ended with the end of the Nanbokucho era.
The blade offered here is an excellent example of the Aoe school of the Nanbokuchô Era from the late 1300’s. This is a naginata-naoshi blade which means that it was originally made as a naginata and later re-shaped and shortened to be mounted and used as a katana. This was a quite common practice with the large, oversized naginata of the Kamakura and Nanbokuchô Eras. These blades were treasured and they achieved warfare usage for additional hundreds of years by being altered for use by Samurai fighting battles throughout the warring period of the Sengoku jidai.
This blade was awarded the coveted status of Jûyô Tôken in 1971, over 50 years ago. The translation of the Jûyô Tôken papers is as follows:
Showa 46 (1971) June 1st 20th Juyo Token
Naginata Naoshi Katana Mumei Aoe
Length 67.6 cm. ( 26.625 inches), sori 1.5 cm. (0.59 inches), motohaba 3.0 cm. (1.19 inches),
sakihaba 2.85 cm. (1.12 inches). Nakago nagasa 18.6 cm. (7.32 inches), nakago sori none
Kissaki nagasa 15.6 cm. (6.125 inches)
Shape: shinogi zukuri, iorimune, shinogi takaku (high shinogi), Kasane oshite mune usuku (thin mune), osuriage ( greatly shortened) with sori asaku (gradual curvature), okissaki (large point).
Kitae: itame ni moku majiri (itame mixed with mokume), hadadachi gokoro to naru
Hamon: A shallow notare mixed with gunome, ko-choji and plenty of ashi and yo. Some places have flowing sunagashi, and the nioiguchi is of fine nioi
Boshi: gentle notare, hamon is without a turn-back.
Nakago: 3 mekugiana, yasurimei done later
This katana is an unsigned shortened naginata blade with a large point. The shape indicates the blade is from the Nanbokuchô period. The attribution is Aoe. The jigane is strong. The hamon is nioi deki suguha and in places are reverse ashi. The bôshi is a gentle curve. The blade is healthy and a good representation of Aoe style.
Additionally, this blade comes in a shirasaya with a solid gold habaki. There is a lengthy sayagaki written on the shirasaya by Tanobe Sensei formerly of the NBTHK. Tanobe Sensei is without a doubt the most knowledgeable expert on Japanese swords living today and his sayagaki should be treasured. His sayagaki can be read and translated as follows:
Dai-Nijukai Juyo Token Shitei
Bichu Kuni Aoe O-naginata suriage te saki kata o munekata yori sogi kasane o oroshi Ima nao haba hiro no gokinaru taihai o teiseri, itame ni moku, jifu-cho no hada io majie sojite hada me no tatsu, kitae ni suguha cho ni, ko choji ya, kogunome majiri no hamon o yaki, ashi yo shigeku, saka ashi mo ari, nioi guchi, konie tsuki, nioi kuchi shimatte, batsugun no sae o mise, bôshi wa tsuki age fu ni yaki tsumeru nado. Nanbokuchô ki doha no daihyo teki sakuiki o shimeshi, katsu deki kusshi nari
20th Juyo Shinsa
Bitchu Kuni Aoe. Large naginata suriage with a thin kasane with the thickness tapering down more at the point then the mune. The width continues to display its powerful feeling in the shape of the blade. The hada is itame mixed with mokume with a mixing in of jifu style hada having a prominent hada pattern. The hamon is suguha with a mixing in of small choji and small gunome tempering. There are ashi and yo, as well as reverse slanting ashi, with a tendency to be nioi based. There is a covering in ko-nie and the nioi guchi is tight. The activity is conspicuously brilliant. Regarding Nanbokuchô Aoe blades, this is among the top or foremost examples.
This blade is in excellent polish and is ready to be treasured for many years to come.