How honorary titles were conferred

As it is widely known, honorary titles of swordsmiths did not come with any special rights or functions. They were as the name suggests „honorary“ titles and I don´t want to elaborate on this context in this article. When I started my studies on swords, I was well satisfied with the knowledge that certain swordsmiths had honorary titles. Period. Later I had to do some historical research on old Japanese court and feudal titles and in a nutshell it can be said that the topic is extensive and very complex. Anyway, I would like to explain how it was actually handled that a swordsmith received his honorary title because I think this might be a new information for most collectors.

I want to start with the first generation Iga no Kami Kinmichi (伊賀守金道, ?-1629) of the Kyôto Mishina school. Sometime before the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered 1.000 tachi from Kinmichi and as he performed to the full satisfaction of his customer, Ieyasu managed it that the court bestowed him the title „Nihon-kaji-sôsho“ (日本鍛冶惣匠), lit. „Master Swordsmith of Japan“ or „Head of all Swordsmiths of Japan“. With this he also got the permission the engrave the imperial chrysanthemum onto his tangs and the title was not just a honorary title but came with certain rights and with a concrete function. Apart from that, Kinmichi also had the honour to forge a sword for the then emperor Ôgimachi (正親町天皇, 1517-1593). The right or rather function connected to this title was that the Kinmichi line acted now officially as liaison at court for matters concerning honorary titles of all swordsmiths. Incidentally, it was only the second generation Kinmichi who actually started to sign this title onto his sword tangs and the third generation changed the characters of „sôsho“ from (惣匠) to (宗匠). The title itself is thought to be a hommage to the post of „Nihon-kaji-sôchô“ (日本鍛冶惣庁) granted by the retired emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽院, 1180-1239, r. 1183-1194) to Bizen Nobufusa (信房) when the latter worked as goban-kaji for him.

All this is well known and so I want to come to the actual procedure about how a smith received his title. Well, the starting point varies. Often when a smith reached a certain level of craftsmanship he approached to the fief with an application and said that it was time to receive the title of his father or predecessor, or that the conditions were met that he received a title for himself or that an existing title was „upgraded“ (i.e. from „Daijô“ [大掾] to „Kami“ [守] for example). But the initiative could also come from the side of the fief, that means they suggested that the time and conditions were right for a honorary title. Another possibility was that a smith had a certain patron or wealthy customer who beared for him the costs of the procedure. However, when the decision to obtain a honorary title was made, an application was sent to the office of the Kinmichi line and a certain fee was paid. But it was also often the case that smiths submitted their application when they were for whatever reason in Kyôto (the place where the Kinmichi office was located). The Nihon-kaji-sôsho now collected and sorted the applications and brought them into a form which was presented to the liaison officer at court, the so-called „benkan (弁官). The latter forwarded the list to the geki (外記), the so-called „Outward Secretary Office“. From there the shôkei (上卿), the executive secretary of the „Bureau of Records“, handed it over to the kurôdo-dokoro (蔵人所), the „Imperial Bureau of Archivists“. The kurôdo-dokoro was in charge of the emperor´s personal storehouse which included the imperial archives. It is also translated as „Chamberlains´ Office“ and „Repositors´ Office“ but with the Edo period more the term „Imperial Bureau of Archivists“ is appropriate. Head of the kurôdo-dokoro was the kurôdo of the same name who acted apart from his post of chief archivist also as personal secretary of the emperor.

When finally the emperor approved (chokkyo, 勅許) an application for granting a honorary title, he notified the kurôdo orally. The latter made now a written memo of this approval. This written memo is called „kuzen-sho“ (口宣書) and it had to be handed back to the shôkei. If this was for whatever reason impossible – i.e. not the right time or day or the shôkei was out of business – the kurôdo made a fair copy of the memo which is called „kuzen´an“ (口宣案). The details on this are insofar important as I want to present such an extant kuzen´an later. These fair copies are very interesting for historians because they were often preserved in the imperial archives whereas the original, i.e. the actual approval or granting document which was handed over to a craftsman or artist got mostly lost. We all can easily imagine how such a paper got dirty, damaged or destroyed in a forge or workshop over the years, decades or even centuries. The shôkei forwarded the kuzen-sho or kuzen´an to the geki where the actual document was issued. As smiths sometimes submitted the application whilst in Kyôto, it was fairly common to visit the old capital when they got the notification that their request was granted to receive it personally from the geki Outward Secretary Office or from the Nihon-kaji-sôsho office.

As mentioned, I want to present such an extant kuzen´an. It is the fair copy of the granting of the honorary title „Musashi no Daijô“ (武蔵大掾) to the swordsmith Miyoshi Nagamichi (三善長道). It goes from right to left and consists of six lines. The part on the left side is an additional memo of the kurôdo for the geki officer. I translate the document line by line:


上卿 正親町大納言
萬治元年八月十三日 宣旨

shôkei Ôgimachi Dainagon (1620-1703)
13th day of the eighth month Manji one (1658), by imperial decree
Miyoshi Nagamichi
granting of the title Musashi no Daijô
presented by the head of the kurôdo office Udaiben Fujiwara no Sukehiro

And the memo on the left side reads:

此口 宣写鍛冶三好藤四郎道長受領望ニ付、従奥州會津住上洛、今川刑部大輔許ヨリ予方ヘ状給、即此仁持来而頼申之間、以右大弁資熈朝臣令入魂。道長御堂殿御名字也。依有其憚、令請合、打反改長道ト小折紙差上、即勅許也。

„One certificate goes to the applicant, the smith Miyoshi Tôshirô Michinaga from Aizu of Mutsu province who visited Kyôto for this. The application was submitted by Imagawa Gyôbu no Suke (今川刑部大輔). The certificate shall be handed over to the latter. [Note: It is assumed that Imagawa was some kind of official of the Aizu fief who accompanied Nagamichi to Kyôto.] In confidence, the Udaiben Sukehiro. The dear applicant is called ´Michinaga´ like the former regent Godô [Fujiwara] no Michinaga (御堂長道, 966-1028) and thus I suggest with the issuing of this certificate a name change to ´Nagamichi´. With this [document] the smith has the Emperor´s permission to do so.“

One thought on “How honorary titles were conferred

  1. One may ask why Michinaga had to change his name to Nagamichi on receiving the title. In Japan during olden times it was not the done thing to receive a name from the fount of honour (in this case from the Emperor himself) with the same characters of an exalted personage or superior so the receiver had to have an alternative name given or had to change the characters given. As for me, now I now know for the first time why Michinaga had to change his name to Nagamichi!

    For example in the Kimotsuki family, males who are all descended from the main line head or else descended from the collateral branches descended from the founder will have the character KANE conferred on them by the head of the family which is the same character used by the Mino smiths. In my case, my father and grandfather consulted the genealogy tables of my family and chose a second Yoshi not used by anyone in the past.

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