READING SAMURAI SWORD SIGNATURES
The Samurai sword can have a series of markings in the tang(Nakago) area. These markings are known as the signature(MEI). While a large number of swords bear some form of signature, it is important to notice that not all Samurai swords are signed.
Translating the signature found in the Samurai sword can be a challenging task. This section explains the basics of how to decypher the characters.
TYPES OF SIGNATURES
Most of the signatures are carved into the metal itself. In some of the World War Two period swords the markings are painted. Most of the time in red or white paint. Some blades will contain both types of signatures, painted and carved/punched. Additional markings may include arsenal stamps or the Showa (WWII) era stamp.
LOCATION OF THE SAMURAI SWORD SIGNATURES
The Samurai swords are signed in the area known as the tang. The tang is covered by the handle of the sword, which is normally secured to the tang via the use of one or two wooden pegs. Once the pegs are removed the handle comes off easily revealing the signatured.
Swords can be signed in one side or in both sides of the tang.
unfortunatelly some of the signatures in the Samurai sword may be forgeries. The signatures that may be faked are normally those of renouned sword makers. Some of the forgeries may date back to the time when the master sword maker was alive. In other cases the origin is more modern. The forgeries are normally perpetrated by an individual wanting to increase the value of the sword.
INFORMATION PROVIDED BY THE SIGNATURE
The information that can be obtained from interpreting the signature in the Samurai sword includes the following: Date, Swordmaker's name (Master), City in which the sword was made, etc.
Additional stamps in the same area provide the arsenal and period.
The signature is generally composed of 5 or 7 characters. The following section provides a breakdown of each type.
FIVE CHARACTER SIGNATURE
The following is an example of a tamg that has 5 characters in the signature.
Where the five character signature:
HI - Usually Province name
ZEN - Usually Province name
TADA - Usually the title
KUNI - Usually the makers name
SAKU - Usually the makers name
SEVEN CHARACTER SIGNATURE
The following is an example of a tamg that has 7 characters in the signature
TRANSLATING SAMURAI SWORD DATES
Some of the Samurai swords are dated. The dates are found in the tang of the sword. There were different methods that the swordsmith employed to date the blades. Some of them are discussed in this section of the website.
Dates are read from the top down. Dates are most commonly written on one side of the tang while the other side holds the master's signature. However, this is not always the case. there are times when the signature and date are located in the same side of the tang.
The characters employed to write a date consisted of numbers, written in kanji, and the symbols for year, month and day. See the following chart.
Additional characters such as those used to describe the different seasons of the year may have also been added to the date in order to indicate when in the year the sword was produced.
SOUTHERN COURT EXAMPLE
The following is an example of how a sword is dated using the Southern Nengo method. This is a sword from the Showa period, starting in 1926, which covers the WWII period. The dates were based on a period plus the number of years into the period where the sword was made. The date inscriptions on the sword are read from the top down.
The following picture illustrates the Japanese names for the different date components.
The following table provides a list of the different periods for sword making and the year it represents in the Western calendar.
Here are some examples of the arsenal markings stamped in the tang. The stamp shown on the left photo was placed on the spine area. The stamp shown on the right photo was placed at the base of the tang.
As discussed earlier, there are times when the sword has engraved and painted markings. These are usually either production markings from the factory or arsenal markings. The following is an example of such case.
ADDITIONAL CHARACTERS IN THE SIGNATURE
There are examples where more characters than normally expected are found. The signed tang featured here is one of those instances. One side of the tang has been marked primarily with date related information. The upper section of the inscription refers to the 2,604th year from the foundation of the empire. It was common for the Japanese to refer to years in terms where you had to add two numbers to come up with the proper date.
The other side of the tang includes a small saying: "I gladly give my life". Probably a refernce to the willingness of the soldier to commit to battle until death. The next section of the signature bears the name of the maker. What is interesting to note is that "Ikansai" was actually the middle name of the maker. However, it appears that in this case is being used as a first name. His last name was "Kunimori".
The entire set of characters basically states that Kunimori was a resident of Tokyo and he made the sword.