Bizen Saburō Kunimune (備前三郎国宗)

One of the predecessors of the Sagami School and supposed Masamune's teacher.

Bizen Saburō Kunimune (備前三郎国宗) is the third son of Kunizane (国真), who in turn is the son of Sanemune (真宗) and grandson of Bizen Naomune (備前直宗), for whom the lineage is named. Kunimune was the greatest smith of this lineage and has been famous as Saburō (“Third Son”) Kunimune since the writing of the old sword manuscripts many centuries ago.

 Sanetsune (真恒), Ninpyō (仁平, 1151-1154)                    Naomune (直宗), was born in the                                                     

                                                                                                    Kahō era (嘉保, 1094-1096) 

 Yoshifusa (吉房), Eiryaku (永暦, 1160-1161)                                            |                                           

                                                                                 ________ Sanemune (真宗), was born in the

  Sanesada (真定), Yōwa (養和, 1181-1182)                            Gen ́ei era (元永, 1118-1120) 


  Kanesue (包末), Genryaku (元暦, 1184-1185)                   Kunizane (国真), was born in the

                                                                                                      Ninpyō era (仁平, 1151-1154) 


             |                                       |                                     |                                            |

   Kunizane (国真)            Kunisada (国貞)           Kunimune (国宗)               Kuniyasu (国安)

     Tarō (太郎)                      Jirō (次郎)                  Saburō (三郎)                   Shirō (四郎)

Figure 1. Naomune line. Kotō Meizukushi Taizen, vol. 3, p. 18/1.   

The first two sons of Kunizane were Tarō Kunizane (nidai Kunizane) and Jirō Kunisada, and the fourth was Shirō Kuniyasu. Works of these smiths are not seen other than Kunisada. Kunizane, though he seems to have been an Ichimonji smith, is said to have lived and worked in Kyōto for some time. Naomune is either a Ko-Ichimonji (古一文字) or Ko-Bizen (古備前) smith, while Kunizane is likely an early Fukuoka Ichimonji (福岡一文字) or Ko-Ichimonji smith. Kunimune however is a luminary artist of very high reputation. 

Figure 2. Kunimune in Sagami line. Kotō Meizukushi Taizen, vol. 2, p. 12/1.

                                                                 Kunimune’s brothers

Kunizane (国真) - during the Shōji era (正治, 1199-1201), he was about 30 years old, Tarō (太郎) or Gonnokami“ (権守), he also worked in Kyōto ́s Rokuhara district (六波羅) and it is said that he also signed as Kuninao (国直).

Kunisada (国貞)- during the Shōji era (正治, 1199-1201), he was about 25 years old, Jirō (次郎), it is said that he also signed Kuniyoshi (国吉). 

Kunimune Bizen Saburō (備前三郎) - lived in Yamanouchi. Came at the age of 20 to Kamakura, which was around Shōji era (正治, 1199-1201). Returned to Bizen when he was 59 years old, which was around Ryakunin (暦仁, 1238-1239). Became the master of Shintōgo at the age of 83, i.e. around Kōchō (弘長, 1261-1264). Was hired by Hôjô Tokiyori. Was born in Jishō four (治承, 1180) and died in Bun’ei seven (文永, 1270) at the age of 94 (arithmetic error). 

Kuniyasu (国安) - called Bizen Shirō (備前四郎), it is said that he went later to Kamakura as his older brother did, he was in the 2nd year of the Genryaku era (元暦, 1185) and died in the 3d year of the Kenchō (建長, 1251) at the age of 68 (arithmetic error).

Figure 3. Fujishiro Yoshio.

According to the Fujishiro Yoshio (藤代義雄) rating, Kunimune’s works ranked saijō-saku (最上作, the superior level of workmanship) and at 1800 man yen (i.e. 18,000,000 yen as man is equal 10,000) in the Toko Taikan by Tokuno Kazuo. His work style is interesting and easily identifiable among those of Bizen smiths. Though he originates near Osafune in Nitta no Shō Wake (新田荘和気), he is not grouped with the Osafune smiths. Rather, he is a peer to Mitsutada (光忠) and Moriie (守家), founding smiths of Osafune (長船) and Hatakeda (畠田) schools. Kunimune is famous not only for his quality of work, but that he was one of the founding smiths of the Sōshū tradition.

The work of Kunimune has been appreciated at the highest level from the time of his life until the current day. It has been used as gifts among daimyo and shogun, and there are 13 Kokuho, 18 Jūyō Bijutsuhin, and 6 Jūyō Bunkazai pieces among the items he left. This is a very impressive count. The NBTHK adds a further count of 7 Tokubetsu Jūyō and 45 Jūyō Token, of which all are either tachi, or suriage tachi, with one exception (this sword, more on that later). This helps us also understand his work period as coming before the emergence of the popularity of tanto in the late Kamakura. His work is overall fairly rare though many of these are signed, and this allows us good insight into his work style. One can see by the very high percentage of the above blades that are Kokuho and Jūbi/Bunkazai the level of importance of this smith.

The Kokon Meizukushi Taizen (vol.3) indicates the middle of Saburō Kunimune’s activity as around Ryakunin era (暦仁, 1238-1239). This is interesting as the Nihontō Koza marks the beginning of Saburō Kunimune’s work period as 1232, but Yamanaka puts his birth date as 1179. The Kotō Meizukushi Taizen, Volume 2, p. 12/1 tells us that he supposedly first went to Kamakura at 20 years old in 1199. He is then said to have returned to Bizen in 1238 at the age of 59, and then was ordered back to Kamakura in 1261. He would have been 83 at this point in time, and it looks like the early part of this time-line that has since been moved up in disagreement with the old books, making his work span the middle Kamakura rather than being active right at the beginning. Regardless there seems to be some wandering in this family and potentially this is what results in some incorporation of regional technologies that end up in making Kunimune’s work so distinctive.

Figure 4. Kokon Meizukushi Taizen, vol. 1, p. 9/1.

While it's not clear about the earlier dates, we do know that Kunimune is one of the three grand master smiths who took the call of the 5th Kamakura Regent Hojo Tokiyori, who was a regent at that time and a famous connoisseur of the art of sword making (the others being Ichimonji Sukezane, and Awataguchi Kunitsuna). Kunimune is recorded to have set himself up in Yamanouchi, Kamakura as a result of this. Fujishiro writes that this summoning was to arm the warriors of the Kamakura Bakufu in preparation for the Mongolian Kublai Khan invasions of 1274 and 1281. Since these three were very top level smiths of high reputation, it would indicate that Kunimune had to be in his prime and top of his craft before this time.

These three smiths are so called Sōshū Generation Zero as they are the technical founders of the Sōshū-den, but they never change their traditional work styles into what we now consider to be the Sōshū-den. It is not until the appearance of Shintōgo Kunimitsu who is in some works considered to be a son of Kunimune, that the Sōshū-den becomes something new and separate from its originators. As such, we call Shintōgo the founder of Sōshū as a tradition, though he is not of the founding generation of Sōshū smiths. Yamanaka writes his theory that “Generation Zero” founded the Sōshū tradition between 1230 and 1240.

These three great smiths continued working in their normal traditions, and it is not until the appearance of Shintogo Kunimitsu that the first true Sōshū-den blades appear. Shintogo Kunimitsu is recorded in the the Showa Hone as the son of Saburō Kunimune, but there is a competing theory that he is a son of Awataguchi Kunitsuna. His work looks very much like Awataguchi, but Fujishiro casts some doubt on an association with Awataguchi, saying that suguba is the style of his time and he did not inherit this from Yamashiro. I think this is worth thinking about, as we know that the father of Kunimune lived in Kyōto (Yamashiro) for some time, and that Shintōgo signed with Hasebe sometimes. Hasebe Kunishige moved to Kyōto and made swords there as well, so it makes me wonder if there was an ongoing relationship with Kyōto. I don't think it is a coincidence that the work of Kunimune is particular among Bizen smiths and his best work shows the same kind of forging skill as the better Awataguchi smiths, and Shintōgo Kunimitsu's work seems at times to be interchangeable with them.

Figure 5. Kunimune sword in Imamura Oshigata, vol.1.

Figure 6. Kunimune sword in Imamura Oshigata, vol.1.

Yamanaka places Shintōgo as a son of Awataguchi Kunitsuna, though Fujishiro places him as a son of Kunimune. It's difficult to know which theory holds the most weight. We do know though that the most famous student of Shintōgo is of course Masamune, and the small number of signed pieces left by Masamune show a Mune character that is cut in the same manner as Kunimune. The Sōshū-den takes aspects of the Ko-Bizen (古備前), Ko-Hoki (古伯耆), and Awataguchi (粟田口) schools and brings them together. The presence of senior smiths predating the creation of the Sōshū-den who represent the Bizen and Yamashiro traditions in Kamakura then should really not be a surprise. 

The relationship between these groups of smiths was fairly close, they after all were working as neighbors under the call of the Regent for the defence of the country. It is possible that Masamune was a young smith of the Kunimune school to begin with, and after the death of Kunimune began his work under Shintōgo. This would explain both his name containing one character of Kunimune's name and in his chiseling style, as well his historical placement under the mon of Shintōgo. Since Shintōgo's work looks to me to be much more like Yamashiro, as does Yukimitsu's, I believe that these two have closer ties to Awataguchi than Bizen. It's not until Masamune that we see the tie-in between Ko-Hoki, Ko-Bizen and Awataguchi that becomes the evolution of the dynamic Sōshū-den. So, my own theory is that Kamakura was a bit of a melting pot, and with all these ingredients inserted, a bit of stirring and a lot of fire, out popped the Sōshū-den.

There have been several generations of Kunimune, with the shodai signing his work in two characters, and other (later) generations signing in longer signatures. There is specifically a Hōki Kunimune and a Nakahara Kunimune which arrive in the late Kamakura and are considered to be students of the first or second generation. Of the Nakahara Kunimune works, one is a particularly good Tokubetsu Jūyō with a 1306 date, and it's possible that he is a follower and student of Saburō Kunimune. This is a bit confusing, because at times it was thought that there is a "nidai Saburō" Kunimune who was the teacher of Nakahara Kunimune, where it now appears that Saburo Kunimune has a direct relationship with Nakahara Kunimune. The NBTHK in the first 20 Juyo sessions have ascribed work to the "nidai Saburō" smith, but seems no longer to follow this practice. They have since that time written that scholarship indicates there to be only one Saburō Kunimune instead of the two previously thought. Fujishiro also dismisses the "nidai Saburō" theory. For my counts above, in order to be perfectly accurate, I excluded works absolutely ascribed to the nidai in the Jūyō Indexs (of which there are four). 

Regardless, those specifically ascribed to Saburō Kunimune do indicate first generation work as Saburō is a nickname for this smith. Due to the age of the works he made, not many are left in good condition, and those that have seen extensive polishing show a blurred and whitish area in the habuchi which is a kantei point in works of this smith. We can generally then estimate the preservation level of his works by careful examination of the border between the hamon and ji. The Nihontō Koza writes, the habuchi on healthy works of Kunimune tend to be very lively and which make them popular among collectors. 

Markus Sesco in the Index of Japanese Swordsmiths, 2012, indicates Kunimune’s genealogy as follow:

 Kunimune (国宗), 2nd gen., Shōwa (正和, 1312-1317), Bizen – „Kunimune“ (国宗), „Kunimune Bizen no Kuni Osafune-jū Shōwa...“ (国宗備前国長船住正和...), „Bizen no Kuni Osafune-jūnin Kunimune saku“ (備前国長船住人国宗作), he is listed as son of Saburō Kunimune, there exist date signatures of the Enkyō (延慶, 1308-1311) and Shōwa era, blades with dates of the Shōwa era show common features with other contemporary Osafune smiths like Chikakage (近景) and Sanenaga (真長), he made blades with an elegant tachi-sugata hiro Yoswith a ko-kissaki, that means which have the shape of the late Kamakura era, the jigane is mostly more prominent as at the 1st gen., the hamon is a simple suguha with ko-ashi and ko-midare in nioi-deki, the hajimi so typical for Saburō Kunimune and the standing-out hada his not that obvious at this Kunimune which speaks for an approach to the Osafune main line 

Kunimune (国宗), 3rd gen., Enbun (延文, 1356-1361), Bizen – „Bishū Osafune-jū Kunimune saku“ (備州長船住国宗作), according to transmission the grandson of the 1st gen. Kunimune and student of Kanemitsu (兼光), called „Kozori Yagorō“ (小反弥五郎).

The Token Kantei Hikketsu tells us that In his later years, Kunimune moved to Kyôto where he settled in the Rokuhara (六波羅) district and where he signed with Kuninao (国直). This was around Jōei (貞永, 1232-1233). Before his move to Kamakura he hardly engraved horimono. It is said that he had a son who signed with Masamune (政宗) and who later used the Kunimune name too. But it is very hard to distinguish works from his alleged son, although those which are obviously inferior in quality may well be attributed to the son. Anyway, these works should always feature hajimi. Thus, it is probably that 2nd generation of Bizen Kunimune was invited to Kamakura by Tokiyori and became Goro Masamune teacher.

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The finest work of Kunimune, a famous Kokuho that was in the Terukuni shrine, caused a sensation in Japan in the 20th century. It was found in the USA by Dr. Walter Compton, and he elected to return it to Japan in 1953 at his own expense and sought no compensation. For this gesture, he gained permanent great respect among sword collectors in Japan and throughout the world. This sword before Compton found it was bought at a military base junk sale for $10 USD by an antiques dealer who marked it up to for what he probably thought was a very expensive $50 USD. Dr. Compton was in the practice of employing runners to find swords and bring them to him, and it was one of these runners who bought and brought in the Kunimune. Adding to the story, one of Albert Yamanaka's friends arrived in the shop shortly after the transaction was concluded and narrowly missed out in purchasing the sword. This of course is something that all collectors know, being a little bit late or a dollar short and forever missing that one sword that got away.

Kuninune’s forging method 

Saburo Kunimune was the greatest master of making swords in the style of Ko-Bizen and swords with little sori. For preparing the core (shingane) ji steel he used 5-6 orikaeshi (“foldings”) and mixed it to reach the masame condition. Metal of the ha is mixed according to the itame method. After performing 6-7 orikaeshi steel is plated to a thickness of 5-7 mm, then it undergoes strengthening heat treatment with intermediate cooling in water. The resulting steel band is chopped into squares of 60 mm; hagane steel is added in proportion 1/10 and after that it alloys and undergoes 5 orikaeshi. Kunimune achieved the required quality of the surface steel by making 12-13 and sometimes up to 15 orikaeshi of the hagane steel. The core steel is edged with surface steel using a secret technology transmitted directly from the teacher to the student by verbal form. The fusion is carried out by welding and forging in such a way that nicks and creases do not fall on the edge of the blade. As a result, a patterned structure resembling a cloud of gas is obtained in the ha area.

                          Kunimune’s works have the following distinguishing features:

Sugata: His tachi-sugata has a long nagasa, tapers noticeably, and has a medium dimensioned mihaba and kasane. The kissaki is usually a ko-kissaki and the iori-mune is low. Ko-wakizashi are very rare, or rather virtually non-existent. Some swords have a mitsu-mune and a thick kasane at the base which thins towards the tip. 

Jitetsu: The kitae is an itame-hada which may tend to be rough and shirake. The kitae is excellently forged and does not feature much nie, and there are blades which do not have nie at all. The nioiguchi is usually wide. The steel being blackish and having a blueish hue on top of it. 

Hamon: The yakiba starts with a prominent midare-koshiba and turns into a notare towards the tip. Some blades show a hiro-suguha with deep ashi. There are some wide chōjiba but usually Kunimune’s chōjiba is relatively small dimensioned. An utsuri may appear which looks like a spider’s thread. Many blades show hajimi

Bōshi: The bōshi is roundish. Kissaki interpretations with a pointed and brief kaeri are usually entirely blueish and make the ha looks like floating on top of the ji. The kaeri of the bōshi is not particularly long. 

Nakago: The back of the tang has niku. The yasurime are sujikai, and the tip is a kurijiri. The nakago-mune is roundish and the yasurime are kiri. The mei is a niji-mei that is chiseled below of the habakimoto area on the shinogi. There are also naga-mei.

Horimono: All of Kunimune’s blades bear some kind of horimono, for example a ken, bonji, or some kind of hi. Often a ken is engraved on the omote side, or also a bō-hi on both sides is seen. The horimono are relatively deeply engraved and by trend arranged towards the base. Many blades bear a horimono of a shin no kurikara

Authors: Darcy Brockbank and Dmitry Pechalov (previous version was published on

Original content Copyright © 2019 D. Brockbank

Original content Copyright © 2019 Dmitry Pechalov