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Suishinshi Masahide and the Functionality of Nihonto

Translated material provided by

Suishinshi Masahide is known as the founding father of the Shinshinto era. Early in his career, he aimed to recreate Sukehiro's beautiful toranba style hamon. Masahide devoted all his effort to mastering it. However, around the middle of his career, he changed his approach totally. The reason for the change is known from Masahide's published research. He observed that swords with a "Hade" (wide and gaudy) style hamon tend to break. Masahide wanted to abandon the artistic mentality that focused on the cosmetic beauty of the blade and return to the original function of Nihonto. His new approach was called "Fukko-to". The aim of it was to recapture the practical excellence of Kamakura period works. He wanted to make blades that cut well and were durable. In his book, Token Buyurai, the following statement is made.

"Needless to mention rather we are discussing the o-midare hamon of Tsuda (Sukehiro), Sakakura (Terukane), choji or kikusui, if a blade has a wide hamon pattern it tends to break when in use".

Masahide gained this knowledge empirically through repeated eye-witness accounts and reliable sources concerning swords in actual use. The following are 25 incidents that Masahide mentioned, in which blades with a "Hade" style hamon were broken. It is a direct translation.

1. Suishinshi was at the house of an Akimoto retainer. There was a thief that night. The retainer used the mune of a blade to strike the thief. The blade broke in the middle and the kissaki was knocked off. As a result, it landed on the rooftop of a neighbor’s house. This was a katana by Mizuta Kunishige with an o-midare ba hamon.

2. A younger friend of the Akimoto retainer used the mune of a wakizashi to hit a dog. The blade broke in the middle and the dog escaped. It was a mumei wakizashi by Etchigo no Kami Kanesada with an o-midare ba hamon.

3. In the Shitatani area, a retainer was fighting a merchant. The retainer's blade broke and his arm was cut. The retainer used a Shinto katana by Omi no Kami Tsuguhira with a wide hamon. The merchant used a Bizen Sukesada katana. Masahide witnessed this himself.

4. A Shitatani fencing teacher named Fujigawa was testing a blade by cutting a kabuto. The katana broke about 24 cm from the kissaki. It was a Satsuma blade. 5. In the Shiba area, a martial artist named Akamatsu tested a katana on a kabuto and the sword broke. This was a blade by Ishido Korekazu.

6. In Inaba, a retainer was arguing with a Shinto priest, a katana was involved and broken. It was a Inaba Shinto sword.

7. Satsuma area smiths tested their katana on thin metal plates and the blades were broken.

8. Kobayashi Masaoki, a student of Suishinshi, made a katana with big hamon pattern for a retainer of Etchigo. The blade broke when hitting stone statures in the garden on the mune side. It shattered like an icicle.

9. An Awa retainer was testing blades by the order of the lord of the Hachisuga family. He tested blades made by Shinkai, Etchigo Kanesada, Osafune Sukesada, and Suishinshi Masahide. During the mune testing, the blades that had big hamon patterns were all broken. The ones with small hamon pattern developed ha-giri (On the battlefield, this id highly preferable to breaking in half). However, some of these were broken too.

10. A family in Shinano had collected more than 150 pieces of broken katana, yari, and naginata of from battlefields in the koto period.

11. An Okayama retainer named Watanabe was doing a cutting test on the lower part of a corpse. The katana broke at the monouchi area. It was a Seki blade.

12. A bandit attacked the leader of Okayama retainers. The leader used the mune side of a katana to fight the bandit but it broke. He then picked up a bamboo stick and continued to fight. Eventually, he was able to defeat the attacker and used a rope to tie him up. When the retainer checked the bandit he found wounds caused by the bamboo stick but none by the katana. He couldn't help but to laugh at the situation.

13. An Okayama retainer got into an argument with a person on a ferry. He drew his katana and made a cut. The blade caught the wooden pole of the boat and broke at the monouchi.

14. A Bushi from Mito was doing a cutting test on a skull. The katana broke. A Mito swordsman was fighting with a Bushi. His katana broke about 27cm from the kissaki. It was a Hizen mono with hiro (wide) suguha. Suishinshi Masahide documented the above examples.

Takehiro Yasuhide, an Oshu retainer and a student of Suishinshi Masahide recorded the following examples. He worked with Suishinshi on developing the theory of Nihonto Functionality and the publishing of Masahide's research.

15. Five newly made Yari by Edo smiths were broken during a wild hog hunt.

16. During a fight in Gunma, one combatant used a Mizuta Kunishige katana and his opponent used a well-made naginata by Satsuma Mondonosho Masakiyo, as a result, both were broken.

17. In the Fujioka area, a Mito family ken was tested with a katana and the katana broke. It was a Tsuda Sukehiro.

18. A Bushi named Nagai used the mune of his katana to hit the shikii of a house entrance. The blade broke into three pieces. It was a katana with big hamon pattern by Kawachi no Kami Kunisuke.

19. An Etchigo Takeda retainer hit his katana on a stone lantern in the garden of a Shinto shrine. The kissaki broke off.

20. A Bushi Saito in Oshu was in a fight. His katana hit the door pillar and broke into three pieces.

21. A Higo retainer practiced fencing with his son who used a ken. The retainer's katana broke. It was an Ishido Korekazu.

22. A Higo retainer used the backside of the kissaki to hit the hand of one of his servants. The monouchi part of the katana broke off. It was a Mizuta Kunishige.

23. A Higo retainer fell from a horse and his blade broke in two. It was by Setsu no Kami Tadayuki.

24. An Oshu retainer was paying respect in a temple and for some reason his blade bumped the Ishidon (stone/rock steps) and the blade broke in two. This sword was from the Nao Yamashiro no Kami family. It was a koto Bizen with choji midare hamon. The retainer had the remaining part of the blade made into a wakizashi about 40cm long.

It is interesting to note that among these 25 accounts there is a disproportionate number of broken shinto blades from Osaka and Mizuta followed by Ishido and Satsuma. The text does not mention the exact ji-ha of these blades and the extent to which they were typical for the given school/smith. However, perhaps it is important to understand that blades do break and we can take steps toward judging functional excellence from Masahide's research.
It is true that there are many Saijo Wazamono smiths that made a hade style hamon. Kiyomaru, Kotetsu, Tatara Nagayuki etc..... Koyama Munetsugu should be mentioned as a maker of a very functional choji hamon in Shin-shinto times. (A nioi deki hamon is not as brittle as nie deki) Also, with koto there are a great many famous cutters with a wide hamon. The core steel of the blade has much to do with its ductile properties, thus its durability. A very skilled smith could overcome the brittle nature of a widely tempered nie deki blade by introducing other durability promoting elements into the construction of the blade. Masahide's observations are hard to put into context but none the less, they are enlightening.
Another thought is that some of the above examples may lead the occidental to uneasy preponderance. Especially the striking of stone with a blade or the use of the mune offensively. This is not something we hear much about in Western texts. Perhaps cultural differences are at work here? Lore of blades cutting unsurpassable objects is not uncommon in the east. This leads me to believe that it is not at all unthinkable that some Samurai, especially one of lower rank without formal education, may attempt to cut stone to display the quality of his sword. As for the use of the mune side of the blade in combat, this was a common tactic that was very effective in delivering a non lethal blow. Much like a "warning shot" in our frontier days or simply a mild punitive action. In many documented sword tests the mune as well as the sides of the blade were given specific and deliberate attention to make certain it could withstand the abuse of being used this way. Thus the sword is to be a complete weapon able to used in a variety of ways depending on the situation at hand.