Kuji-kiri – A very special koshirae

About six years ago, my friend from the japanische-schwert-galerie (see blogroll) and I were classifying a koshirae to a blade by the 5th generation Hizen Tadayoshi (肥前忠吉, 1696-1775). Please note that all pictures of the blade and koshirae shown in this article are copyright of the japanische-schwert-galerie so please do not resuse them. Right at this point I would like to thank the owner for allowing me to present the pictures on my blog as this koshirae was kind of special and remained in my memory over all the years. At a glance, the mounting looks like a tachi-koshirae from the mid or second half of the Edo period (see picture 1), but on a closer look it turns out that firstly, all the fittings are en suite of mokumegane and decorated with different golden characters, and secondly, the ashikanamono hangers have hinges and can be removed so that the sword can be worn as handachi thrusted through the belt. Of course the first thing to do is to decipher the characters and find out what is their context. The fuchi shows at the lower end a grid pattern which gives about the direction to where the context is to be found. Such a grid pattern is namely known as kuji-kiri (九字切り), a symbol deepy interwoven with the esoteric Buddhism (mikkyô, 密教). So when we sort and read the characters which are found on the fuchi, the kabutogane and the metal fitting of the saya (see picture 2), we get „rinpyô-tôsha-kai-jinretsu-zaizen“ (臨兵闘者皆陣烈在前), a saying or rather prayer from a Taoist lyrical text from the 4th century AD with about the following meaning „May the presiders over warriors be my vanguard!“ Later this line got more and more a religious connotation and was eventually used as mantra. That means the original characters were still used when writing down or as mnemonic when reciting the mantra but should not be taken literally any more.


Picture 1: Blade in shirasaya and its koshirae


Picture 2: The inscriptions on the fittings.

Many associate the kuji right away with ninjutsu but this is not what it is all about. The kuji-kiri grid was known long before certain ninjutsu teachings emerged, namely for warding off  dangers. The grid was painted or written over the potential danger, for example seafarer and fishermen wrote the grid over the character for „sea“ (umi, 海) or „water“ (mizu, 水), but mostly it was written over the character for „demon“ (oni, 鬼) to act as a general protection. Quite early certain mudra (hand seals/gestures) were asssociated with the nine characters or syllables respectively. A mudra is a very old spiritual gesture and used among others for meditation or to support the mantra. There are hundreds of them and they did not have the magical powers modern ninjutsu interpretations read into them. But of course we can ascertain connections. When esoteric Buddhism was introduced to Japan at the beginning of the Heian period, it found fertile ground in certain and similar shintô rituals and folk-traditions connected with sacred mountains and the like. This gave soon rise to the shugendô (修験道), a mysitcal-spiritual interpretation of mikkyô and shintô approaches of understanding the world and with a focus on ascetism, preferably practiced in the mountains. Only centuries later when the turmoils of the Sengoku era gave rise to a continuous need for espionage and assassinations, families organized themselves and established an early form of curriculum and body of thought which in turn was inspired by esoteric Buddhism. However, we can agree that the commissioner and/or owner of the koshirae was somehow involved either in shugendô or maybe also in ninjutsu as at the peaceful time the mounting was made, the few remaining families which preserved the ninjutsu focused more on spiritual aspects and thus formulated a more sophisticated philosophical and spiritual background of their teachings.

But there is more to it than that at this koshirae. As seen in picture 3 we find on the menuki and on the habaki two family crests. One is the so-called „fundô“ (分銅, weight), the other one the so-called „futatsu-hikiryô“ (二つ引両, two crossbars). The former was used among others by the Horio family (堀尾). The Hideyoshi-retainer Horio Yoshiharu (堀尾吉晴, 1542-1611) switched sides after his lord´s death and became a follower of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Well, because of an injury he was unable to participate at Sekigahara but as his son Tadauji (堀尾忠氏, 1578-1604) did, Ieyasu granted them lands in Izumi province worth 240.000 koku and the new Toda fief (富田藩) was founded. But Tadauji died young and so Yoshiharu´s underage grandson Tadaharu (堀尾忠晴, 1599-1633) became the successor of the Horie family. Shortly before Yoshiharu´s death, i.e. in 1611, Matsue Castle (松江城) was completed whereupon the administration of the fief moved there and it was renamed to „Matsue fief“ (松江藩). Now also Tadaharu died young and without heir and as the Horie family asked the bakufu for the permission to adopted his older cousin Sôjûrô (宗十郎) as successor, this was not granted and the government decided that the Horie main line should end at this piont. The Matsue fief was given to the Kyôgoku family (京極) for the time being but four years later in 1638 finally to the Matsudaira family (松平). With this the bakufu sent the remaining Horie family members on the one hand into service of the Matsudaira, that means they remained Matsue-retainers, and on the other hand into the service of the Hosokawa family (細川), the daimyô of the Kumamoto fief (熊本藩) of Higo province. And now we come back to the koshirae. The futatsu-hikiryô crest was namely used by the Hosokawa, but also within the line of Matsudaira Naomasa (松平直政, 1601-1666), the daimyô who received the Matsue fief from the Kyôgoku family. It was a customary practice since oldest times that the two cross bars-crest was given to the second son of a family. Ieyasu did the same and thus it came to be used by Naomasa as Naomasa´s father Yûki Hideyasu (結城秀康, 1574-1607) was the second son of Ieyasu. The tsuba shows the tsuta crest (蔦紋, ivy) which was used by several Matsudaira branches too as it is very similar to the aoi crest of the Tokugawa but officially not the same. In conclusion we can say that the owner of the koshirae wanted to display that he was a retainer of the Matsudaira or Hosokawa (there are not enough facts to rule one of them out) but in the context of having Horio origins. So all in all we have a very well thought out mounting you don´t see every day.


Picture 3: menuki and habaki with the two family crests

One thought on “Kuji-kiri – A very special koshirae

  1. Pingback: Habaki: Construction and Design of the Blade Collar • Sword Encyclopedia

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