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Types of Japanese Sword Tang (Mei) Signatures

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

Signatures and inscriptions on the tang of Japanese swords are called mei. These are often seen in Japanese swords that fully meet the swordsmith’s standards. While it usually features the swordsmith’s name, other information such as the town or province of the maker may be included. In sword appraisal, this helps in dating the blade and determining the swordsmith.

A mei (signature) on a Japanese blade is inscribed using a chisel and a hammer. This varies from swordsmith to swordsmith and may appear in block-like printed styles or cursive scripts. 
The mei usually varies in location between tachi and katana. In some instances, the mei can be preserved in various ways when a blade is shortened. 
Since forgeries are common, a Japanese blade is never assessed solely based on its mei. Instead, experts translate the mei and use it to help determine the authenticity of the sword in appraisals.

Examining the Mei and the Tang in Sword Appraisal

A wakizashi signed by Kanabo Hyoe no jo Masatsugu
A wakizashi blade signed by swordsmith Kanabō Hyōe-no-jō Masatsugu (金房兵衛尉政次) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The tang of a Japanese sword (nakago) contains various information about the blade, particularly the mei (signature). However, only blades that fully meet the standards are signed. The mei can consist only of the swordsmith’s name or may include additional details such as the:

  • Smith’s title
  • Smith’s location
  • Date the blade was made
  • Name of the blade’s owner

Inscribed using a chisel and a hammer, the signature hints at the characteristics of a swordsmith. This includes factors such as the:

  • Type of chisel used (e.g., thick or fine chisel) 
  • Type of hammer employed (light or heavy) based on the strokes on the metal
  • Additional distinguishing features like the depth and number of chisel strokes per inch.
A tanto signed by swordsmith Heianjo Yoshifusa
A tanto (dagger) blade signed by swordsmith Heianjō Yoshifusa (平安城吉房) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Signature styles are unique and vary just as much as different handwritings. The inscribed characters may be cursive scripts or block-like printed styles. Unfortunately, forgeries are common. Therefore, a blade should never be judged solely based on its mei in Japanese sword appraisal. 

When examining a sword’s tang, there are several factors to look for:

  1. Since the tang of a Japanese sword is never cleaned or polished, the rust that builds up on the tang over time becomes an important indicator of the sword’s age. 
  2. The color of the rust, clarity of remaining mei, and yasurime (file marks) help to date the sword and determine its authenticity. 

Therefore, cleaning the tang of an old Japanese blade can diminish much of its value.

The tang of a Japanese sword holds the mei, revealing the swordsmith’s name and potentially other details. Only blades that meet the smith’s high standards are signed. Authenticating a sword involves examining the mei’s and various details on the tang.

The Various Types of Mei on Sword Tangs

The mei (銘) is chiseled into the tang. Blades that still have their original mei are known as zamei. Those without signatures are called mumei, likely due to the absence of signing or the mei being lost when the blade was shortened. Meanwhile, gimei are blades with a false signature.

Here are the different types of mei found on Japanese swords and daggers:

1. Tachi-Mei

A tachi blade signed by swordsmith Norikuni
A tachi blade signed by swordsmith Norikuni – Credits: e-Museum

A tachi-mei (太刀銘) refers to a signature inscribed on the obverse of the tang (haki-omote side)—the side that face outwards when the tachi is worn suspended from the belt with its cutting edge facing down. Swords from the early Muromachi period, except for wakizashi and tanto, often featured tachi-mei.

Swordsmiths of the Ko-Aoe and Yukihira school inscribed their mei on the inner side, facing the wearer when the sword was worn edge-down.

2. Katana-Mei

Daisho signed by different swordsmiths
The katana blade is signed Muneyoshi (宗吉) and the wakizashi blade is signed Bishū Osafune Sukesada (備州長船祐定), which can be translated as Sukesada from Osafune (village) in Bizen (province) – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

A katana-mei (刀銘) is a signature of a sword carved on the sashi-omote side—the side that face outwards when the sword was worn thrust through the belt with its cutting edge facing up. The katana, wakizashi, and tanto often had a katana-mei. Therefore, it is the opposite of a tachi-mei. Most swords produced after the Muromachi period often had a katana-mei.

Some swordsmiths, especially those of the Tadayoshi and Suishinshi school often signed their swords with tachi-mei. The renowned swordsmith Yamashiro no Kami Kunikiyo also signed many swords regardless of length, including wakizashi, with a tachi-mei. Therefore, the swordsmith’s signature, including the name and title is inscribed on the left side, typically reserved for tachi worn edge down.
Kunikiyo Wakizashi Tested by Yamano Kaemon
A wakizashi made by swordsmith Kunikiyo with tachi-mei. On the left side with chrysanthemum: Yamashiro no Kami Fujiwara Kunikiyo (山城守藤原國清), translated as Lord of Yamashiro [Kyoto] province, Fujiwara Kunikiyo; On the right side with gold lacquer: Kanbun 6th year, 5th month, 4th day” (寛文六年五月四曰), translated as (May 4, 1666.). With name of a famous sword tester, Yamano Kaemon no Jô Nagahisa (山野加右衛門尉永久). With inscription: Futatsu do setsudan (貳ッ胴截断), translated as “Cut through two torsos with one stroke – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

3. Omote-Mei and Ura-Mei

Sukesada Uchigatana
An uchigatana with an omote-mei on the front and ura-mei on the back. On omote-mei: Bishū Osafune Sukesada (備州長船祐定). On ura-mei: Daiei 3rd year 8th month (大永三年八月日) – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Omote (表) is a generic term for outside, exterior, or front side. An omote-mei refers to the signature on the front side of the blade, typically featuring the swordsmith’s signature. Blades forged after the Muromachi period usually included the swordsmith’s title and address – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Depending on how the sword is worn, it can be differentiated between:

  • Haki-omote – refers to the outside of the blade when the sword is worn tachi-style (suspended from the belt with its cutting edge down) 
  • Sashi-omote – refers to the outside of the blade when the sword is worn katana-style (thrust through the belt with its cutting edge facing up)
Katana by swordsmith Masazane
A katana made by swordsmith Masazane. On the front (omote-mei): Fujiwara Masazane Saku, translated as Masazane made this. On the back (ura-mei): Daiei Rokunen Hachigatsu Jūninichi, translates as August 12, 1526 – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Ura () is a generic term for inside or reverse side. An ura-mei refers to the inscription on the back side of the blade, usually featuring the date of manufacture and the blade owner’s name.

Depending on how the sword is worn, it can be differentiated between:

  • Haki-ura – refers to the inside of the blade when the sword is worn tachi-style (suspended from belt with cutting edge down)
  • Sashi-ura – refers to the inside of a blade when the sword is worn katana-style (thrust through the belt with cutting edge facing up)
tanto blade with omote mei Uda Kunimitsu
A tanto blade with omote-mei Uda Kunimitsu (宇多國光) and ura-mei Genkō san-nen jūichi-gatsu hi (元弘三年十一月日), translated as Third year of Genkō [1332], eleventh month, day – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

4. Niji-Mei

tanto blade with niji mei
A tanto blade with niji-mei 康近 (Yasuchika) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum
Another tanto blade inscribed with niji mei
Another tanto blade inscribed with niji-mei 信秀 (Nobuhide) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The term niji-mei (二字銘) or “two-character signature” is a short signature with two Chinese characters, mentioning just the name of the swordsmith. Niji-mei were often seen on Koto swords, especially during the Heian and Kamakura periods. It was used by swordsmiths Muramasa, Masamune, Masatsune, Nagamitsu, and others.

Some swordsmiths such as Rai Kunimitsu and Masamune-saku also used sanji-mei or three-character signatures. Other short signatures are referred to as yoji-mei (四字銘), meaning four character signature, and goji-mei (五字銘), meaning five character signature.
tanto masterpiece of master swordsmith Muramasa
A tanto masterpiece of master swordsmith Muramasa with niji-mei – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques
A tanto blade with inscribed niji mei 信國 Nabukuni 1
A tanto blade with inscribed niji-mei 信國 (Nabukuni) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

5. Naga-Mei

katana blade signed Hizen no Kuni
A katana blade signed Hizen no Kuni Iyonojō Minamoto no Munetsugu (肥前国伊予掾源宗次), translated as Iyonojō Minamoto no Munetsugu, Hizen Province – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The term naga-mei (長銘) means long signature. This type of mei usually consists of six or more characters, usually including the swordsmith’s title, middle name, and address. 

However, there is no rule specifying differentiation at six characters. Terms such as rokuji-mei, shichiji-mei, or hachiji-mei also refer to signatures with exactly six, seven, or eight characters, respectively. The nagamei became the standard after the Shinto era.

6. Zuryo-Mei

katana with zuryo mei
A katana with zuryo-mei: Kōzuke no kami Fujiwara Kanesada (上野守藤原兼定), translated as Lord of Kōzuke (province), Fujiwara Kanesada – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Some swordsmiths received their titles from the imperial court, such as suke (Third Lord or Second Assistant Lord), daijo (Second or Assistant Lord), kami (Lord). A zuryo-mei refers to a signature that includes such titles and frequently appears on Shinto and later swords.

Katana blade by famous swordsmith Kanewaka
A katana blade by famous swordsmith Kanewaka, who signed his blade with the name Takahira. With zuryo-mei: Etchū no Kami Fujiwara no Takahira (越中守藤原高平), translated as Fujiwara no Takahira, the Governor of Etchū Province – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

7. Kaki-Kudashi-Mei

A kakikudashi mei of swordsmith Tegai Kanetsugu
A kakikudashi-mei of swordsmith Tegai Kanetsugu, dating Genkô three (元弘, 1333) – Credits: Markus Sesko

A kaki-kudashi-mei (書下し銘) refers to a signature in which the entire inscription is carved in one line on one side of the tang. It usually includes the swordsmith’s name, place of residence, and date of manufacture. Sometimes, a small space between the smith’s name and date is present.

The kaki-kudashi-mei was first used by Yamashiro and Bizen swordsmiths. The Yamato smiths also signed their blades (usually tanto and ken) on just one side throughout the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods. Additionally, the Aoe swordsmiths used this type of signature mainly in the Nanbokucho period.

8. Tameshi-Mei

tameshi mei on a blade with the name of the sword cutter
A tameshi-mei on a blade with the name of the sword cutter. The inscription: “Kanbun 6th year, 5th month, 4th day” (寛文六年五月四曰), translated as May 4, 1666. Yamano Kaemon no Jô Nagahisa (山野加右衛門尉永久). Futatsu do setsudan (貳ッ胴截断), translated as “Cut through two torsos with one stroke” – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

A tameshi-mei (試し銘) is an inscription on the tang commemorating a cutting test (tameshigiri). It often includes the name of the sword tester and notes the blade’s sharpness demonstrated during tameshigiri. It sometimes includes the statement that a target or body was completely cut through.

A tameshi-mei is often chiseled (kiritsuke-mei) or inlaid in gold (kinzogan) on the opposite side of the swordsmith’s signature. The practice of recording cutting test results on sword tangs was standardized during the Shoho (1644-1648) and Joo (1652-1655) eras.

9. Kiritsuke-Mei

wakizashi blade with kiritsuke mei
A wakizashi blade with kiritsuke-mei. With inscription: Shu Andō Denjū – Kono saku Izumi no Kami, Umetada kore o ageru (主安藤伝十・此作和泉守 埋忠上之), translated as “Owner Andō Denjū, work of Izumi no Kami, shortened by the Umetada” – Credits: Markus Sesko

The term kiritsuke-mei (切り付け銘) means added signature. It is inscribed later on the tang, probably after the blade has left the swordsmith’s forge. It also replaces the original signature when the tang is greatly shortened (o-suriage).

A kiritsuke-mei may include the blade’s history, sword’s owners, its nickname, and cutting test results. It can also contain information about the original signature if it had been greatly shortened and the name of the person who shortened the tang.

10. Damei

A damei refers to a substitute signature when a swordsmith’s mei is inscribed on the blade by one’s son or student with permission. It is regarded as an equivalent of the real signature. For instance, the Rai smiths or Rai-ichimon lack signed works, but they served as assistants to their masters Kunitoshi and others. Thus, it is likely that several Kunimitsu and Kunitoshi blades are damei by these Rai smiths.

Some students also produced blades in their guardian or teacher’s style, with permission. This is a substitute production known as daisaku. However, such blades were typically signed by their guardian or teacher, rather than the student. These signatures are also considered authentic.

11. Shu-Mei

Tanto blade signed with niji mei 信国 Nobukuni
(Above) A tanto blade signed with niji-mei 信国 (Nobukuni). (Below) Features a shu-mei: Genroku jûyonen gokugetsu origami dai-kinsu roku-mei (元禄十四年極月折紙代金子六枚), translated as “(Hon’ami) origami from the twelfth month of Genroku 14 (1701) evaluating the blade with six gold pieces” – Credits: Markus Sesko

A shu-mei (朱銘) refers to the red lacquer inscription of an appraiser. It was primarily done by members of the Hon’ami family, the official sword appraisers of the shogunate. An appraiser may provide the name of an attributed swordsmith on an unaltered tang or shortened tang without signature. Other information may include the blade’s nickname and cutting test result. Generally, a red lacquer was used to avoid carving directly onto the tang.

12. Kinzogan-Mei

katana blade with kinzogan mei
A katana blade with kinzōgan-mei. Translated as ‘January 9, 1991, year of the sheep, Hon’ami Nisshū – Worn by Imaizumi Tajima no Kami Shirōzaemon no Jō Takamitsu during service for the Utsunomiya family in Ōsaka’ – Credits: Markus Sesko

A kinzōgan-mei (金象嵌銘) refers to a gold inlay inscription, usually made by members of the Hon’ami family. Their kinzōgan-mei usually featured the characters “Hon’ a” (本阿) for “Hon’ami” and the personal seal (kaō) of the appraiser. It also often included the name of the attributed swordsmith, owner’s name, blade’s nickname, and cutting test result.

13. Chumon-Mei or Tame-Mei

wakizashi blade with a chumon mei
A wakizashi blade with a chumon-mei. With the inscription (出羽大掾藤原国路・元和五年十二月日、主大橋松節入重政), translated as “Yamashiro Daijō Fujiwara Kunimichi (swordsmith), on a day in the twelfth month of Genna five (1619), for Ōhashi Shōsetsunyū Shigemasa (owner)” – Credits: Markus Sesko

Both chumon-mei (注文銘) and tame-mei (為銘) refer to an inscription that bears the name of the person who ordered the sword. The terms chumon and tame are translated as order and for, respectively. The blade may also be described as chūmon-uchi (注文打), meaning custom made or special order sword. However, the term chūmon-uchi was coined to differentiate custom-made Sue-koto blades from mass produced ones.

A chumon-mei or tame-mei is not the same as shoji-mei (所持銘), which refers to the name of any owner (shoji) of a blade being carved on the tang. A chumon-mei or tame-mei specifically refers to the initial owner who placed an order for a sword to be made.

14. Kinmei or Taimei

katana blade with tachi mei and featuring an aoi crest
A katana blade with tachi-mei and featuring an aoi crest. With kinmei Mondo no Sho Fujiwara Masahiro (主水正藤原正清) and “made in the year of the dragon of the Kyoho era [1724] on orders of the shogun in Satsuma province” (遥奉鈞命扵薩刕作之・享保甲辰年) – Credits: Markus Sesko

Both kinmei and taimei denote that a high-ranking individual such as an aristocrat, shogun, member of the Imperial family, or the emperor ordered the sword. These blades are known as kinmei-uchi (鈞命打) or taimei-uchi (台命打).

Several kinmei-uchi or taimei-uchi blades were signed tachi-mei, out of respect for the high-ranking customer. Therefore, some katana and wakizashi ordered by high-ranking persons had their inscription on the inside of the blade (haki-ura) when the sword is sword tachi-style.

15. Orikaeshi-Mei

Wakizashi Kaneyoshi Orikaeshi Mei
Wakizashi: Kaneyoshi ‘Orikaeshi-Mei’ – Credits: Japanese Sword Online Museum

When a blade is shortened, the mei can be lost, but it can also be preserved by various means. An orikaeshi-mei (折り返し銘) means turned-back or folded-over signature. The part of the tang originally bearing the signature is thinned and folded back onto the opposite side to shorten the tang. As a result, the orikaeshi-mei appears upside down on the opposite part of the tang.

Unfortunately, the practice of transferring the original signature to the shortened tang has been exploited for the production of counterfeit blades. In some cases, the forgery may involve obtaining a genuine mei from a different blade and attaching it to an inferior blade. Therefore, a careful examination of the nakago is recommended in a blade with an orikaeshi-mei.

16. Gaku-Mei or Tanzaku-Mei

Gaku mei
Instance of gaku-mei, preserving the original signature – Credits: Northern California Japanese Sword Club

Gaku-mei (額銘) or framed signature is another method of retaining the original signature after shortening the blade. It is also known as tanzaku-mei (短冊銘) due to its resemblance of the small vertical poem cards (tanzaku).

The gaku-mei is often found on blades that have been greatly shortened (o-suriage), in which the rectangular part of metal containing the original signature is cut from the discarded tang and inlaid onto the newly reshaped tang.

17. Hari-Mei or Haritsuke-Mei

Hari Mei
Instance of hari-mei where the signature is patched at the bottom of the new tang with small rivets – Credits: Usagiya

Hari-mei (貼り銘) or haritsuke-mei (貼付け銘) means patched signature. It is commonly found on greatly shortened blades (ō-suriage), where the part of metal bearing the original mei is cut out and attached to the newly formed end of the tang (nakagojiri) using small rivets.

Translating and Assessing the Authenticity of Mei

For the specific translation of a mei and signature assessments, Mr. Markus Sesko is an expert in Japanese arms and armor and a member of NBTHK (Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords). A mei can be assessed to help determine if it is authentic (shôshin) or a forgery (gimei). However, Japanese blades are never appraised based solely on their signature.

katana signed by swordsmith Musashi Taro Yasukuni
(Above) A katana signed by swordsmith Musashi Taro Yasukuni. (Middle) Mei (Musashi Taro Yasukuni shin jūgomai kōbuse saku) translated as ‘Made by Musashi Taro Yasukuni in real 15-layer kobuse.’ (Below) N.B.T.H.K. Hozon papers confirming the authenticity of the signature – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

In Japan, recognized organizations like NBTHK and NTHK conduct shinsa, the formal appraisal and evaluation of swords. For instance, swords assessed by the NBTHK may be granted appraisal papers known as kantei-sho, documenting the judges’ opinions on their quality and value. Some blades may not pass shinsa if they bear a false signature or if they are in poor condition, have poor polish, and such.

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