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Everything You Need to Know About Mei Signature on Blades

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: January 12, 2024

NO AI USED This Article has been written and edited by our team with no help of the AI

The mei, an inscription or signature on a Japanese sword tang, typically displays the swordsmith’s name and other information about the sword. However, not every Japanese blade bears a signature, as a swordsmith only inscribes those that meet standards. Additionally, the owner of a new sword may request the inclusion of their mei and other details.

Both old and newly-made Japanese blades that meet the swordsmith’s standards often feature a signature (mei) on the tang.
A swordsmith may use various types of mei, typically including one’s name, title, and address.
The signature on the tang may also include an owner’s mei, date of manufacture, and other information.

What Exactly Is a Mei?

Wakizashi Blade Mei
A wakizashi blade bearing the swordsmith’s signature and its owner’s name on both sides of the tang (above); a mei featuring a smith’s name and title, 越前住河内藤原義稙 translates as Kawachi Fujiwara no Yoshitane, residing in Echizen Province (below); a mei consisting of the owner’s name and other details, 丹波大掾藤原吉房 translates as Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, the Senior Secretary of Tanba Province – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The mei (銘) may include only the swordsmith’s name or other details such as the smith’s title, place of residence, and manufacturing date. In some cases, it may even feature the sword owner’s mei, the name of the person who ordered the sword, and other information about their family.

There are several types of mei used in historical swords. In Japanese sword appraisal, the signature is crucial as it not only identifies the swordsmith, but can also help in dating the blade. 

Organizations like NTHK and NBTHK conduct formal appraisal (shinsa) on Japanese blades, and those that bear false signatures may not pass shinsa. Since false signatures or forgeries are common, the blade’s authenticity should not be based solely on its mei. 

The Mei on Custom-Made Japanese Swords

The mei or signature is carved into the tang of Japanese blades. When ordering custom-made blades, the owner may request the inclusion of their mei—an inscription featuring their name and other information about their family. An owner’s mei is typically inscribed on the back, inside, or reverse side of the tang, while a swordsmith’s signature is on the outside or front side. For example:

  • Tachi – Worn with its cutting edge down and suspended from the belt, the owner’s mei is typically located on the tang side facing the wearer 
  • Katana – Worn with its cutting edge up and threaded through the belt, the owner’s mei is typically found on the tang side facing the wearer.
A wakizashi signed by swordsmith Yasutsugu
A wakizashi blade signed by swordsmith Yasutsugu. The inscription 越前康継 translates as Echizen Yasutsugu or Yasutsugu, Echizen Province (present-day Fukui Prefecture) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

On the other hand, the swordsmith’s signature is typically placed on the outer or front side of the blade when the sword is worn. A swordsmith can use various mei, typically including their name, title, and address. Signatures vary from one swordsmith to another and may appear in either cursive script or block-like printed styles.

Tanto Blade Mei
A tanto blade made by swordsmith Gassan Sadakazu featuring the date of manufacture. 以金城古刀鍛之月山貞一 translates as Gassan Sadakazu forged this out of an old blade from the golden castle (above); 慶應四辰年初夏 translates as Fourth year of Keiō (1868), the year of the dragon, early summer (fourth month) (below) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

For instance, master swordsmith Yoshindo Yoshihara simply uses the following: 

  • His name, ‘Yoshindo’ in two characters
  • ‘Yoshindo saku’ (made by Yoshindo)
  • ‘Kokaji Yoshindo’ (swordsmith Yoshindo)
  • ‘Takasago ju Yoshindo’ (made by Yoshindo living in Takasago)

When the date of manufacture is included, it is often inscribed on the reverse or back side of the tang.

Inscribing the Mei Onto the Tang

Wakizashi blade with mei yasurime and rivet hole
A wakizashi blade featuring a mei, file marks, and rivet hole – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The mei or signature is inscribed on the tang after the swordsmith finishes the yasurime (file marks) and the mekugi-ana (rivet hole). After deciding what to write, the swordsmith brushes the inscription on the tang in red ink. The mei is then carved using a chisel and hammer, closely following the inked guide.

The swordsmith must ideally be skilled in calligraphy and follow the inked inscription precisely to create a permanent mei. A unique signature can be created using a fine or thick chisel and a light or heavy hammer. Also, the number of chisel strokes per inch can vary. These details, along with a swordsmith’s individual calligraphy, produce a distinctive signature.

Sources Cited
  1. Exquisite Sword Characteristics – Nihonto. (n.d.). NBTHK American Branch. Retrieved November 23, 2023, from https://nbthk-ab2.org/sword-characteristics/
  2. Harada, K. (2009). Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868 (M. Ogawa, Ed.). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  3. Kapp, L., Kapp, H., & Yoshihara, Y. (2012). The Craft of the Japanese Sword. Kodansha USA.
  4. Nagayama, K. (2017). The Connoisseur’s Book of Japanese Swords. Kodansha USA.
  5. Nihonto Kanji Pages – Commmon Nihonto Kanji. (n.d.). JSSUS. Retrieved November 23, 2023, from http://www.jssus.org/nkp/common_kanji.html
  6. Satō, K. (1983). 刀剣 (J. Earle, Trans.). Kodansha International.
  7. Sesko, M. (2014). Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords. Lulu.com.
  8. Tsuchiko, T. (2002). 日本刀21世紀への挑戦: The New Generation of Japanese Swordsmiths 英文版 (K. Mishina, Trans.). Kodansha International.
  9. Yoshihara, Y. (2012). The Art of the Japanese Sword. The Craft of Swordmaking and its Appreciation. Tuttle Publishing.
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