Despite having lost its original signature to the reforging process whereby the tang of the sword was shortened and thinned, the outstanding workmanship that went into this sword has allowed experts to identify its maker as Norifusa, one of the most prominent swordsmiths of the Ichimonji school. Named for the character ichi (one) often carved onto the swords, which mark them as tenkaichi (best in the world) the Ichimonji (lit., “the character ‘one’”) school was established in the early Kamakura period in the Fukuoka area of Bizen Province (present-day Okayama). Its founder, Norimune, was renowned for being one of the swordsmiths handpicked by Emperor Gotoba from all over the nation to join the royal forgery. Early Ichimonji swords conformed to the olden Bizen style, with plain straight blade patterns (Jp. suguha). Later in the mid-Kamakura period, the school began producing swords with bold, clove-shaped blade patterns (Jp. chōji-midare). Norifusa, alongside Yoshifusa, and Sukezane, were particularly well known even within the Ichimonji school itself for producing the most elegant of such patterns. Aside from this work, Norifusa has only one other work (signed, owned by the Fukuyama Museum of Art, Hiroshima) that has been designated a National Treasure.
The Ichimonji school has long enjoyed a reputation for outstanding craftsmanship, and produced many masterpieces that later became famous as swords treasured by the shogunate family and other powerful daimyo clans. Some examples of historically prominent Ichimonji swords include:
1) An unsigned tachi nicknamed the “Hōjōtachi” (Important Cultural Property; owned by the Tokyo National Museum): first offered to the Mishima Shrine in Shizuoka by the Hōjō clan, and later to Emperor Meiji;
2) An unsigned katana nicknamed the “Nansen-ichimonji” (Important Cultural Property; owned by the Tokugawa Art Museum, Aichi): once owned by the Ashikaga shoguns of the Muromachi period, passed through the hands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and later came into the ownership of the Tokugawa shogunate family; and
3) An unsigned tachi nicknamed the “Nikkō-ichimonji” (National Treasure; owned by the Fukuoka City Museum): gifted by Hōjō Ujinao to Kuroda Yoshitaka in honor of the Odawara peace arrangement.
This sword has been shortened from a tachi into a katana, losing its signature in the process. Nevertheless, it retains its distinguished form gained from when it had been forged, which, when considered alongside the elegant blending of compact and large chōji-midare blade patterns, makes it an excellent piece worthy of association with the name of one of the Ichimonji school’s most distinguished swordsmiths. Furthermore, the high-quality gold openwork double-layered collar that came with the sword features the crest of the Tokugawa clan, tying it to the Tokugawa shogunate family. That alone accords the sword prestige even without determining its authorship.