From the life of Unno Shômin

By way of an introduction, I would like to present one of my favourite tsuba (see picture 1). At this point I would also like to thank to owner for allowing me to study this fantastic work hands-on. The tsuba has jûyô papers, is of oborogin, depicts Kanzan (寒山), Jittoku (拾得) and a tiger, and is signed „Hôshû Unno Shômin“ + seal (芳洲海野勝珉). It has a slight tsuchime surface and Kanzan and Jittoku are represented by to the combined application of sukidashi-usunikubori and shishiai-bori. The gentle and rather sketchy tiger is done in katakiribori (see detail picture 2). It was made according to a special order of the Kôbe millionaire Ryûshidô Mitsumura Toshimo (龍獅堂光村利藻, 1877-1955) who had an especially profound appreciation of sword fittings. Shômin made it in Meiji 36 (1903), meeting his 60th birthday. It was made at a time when he was way out of the woods, having left behind the difficulties of the haitôrei, the Sword Abolishment Edict. In the eleventh and fourteenth year of Meiji (1878 and 1881), at the first and second „Exhibition for the Industrial Promotion of the Country“ (kokunai-kangyô-hakurankai, 国内勧業博覧会), he won prizes for his metalworks. And for the fourth exhibition held in Meiji 28 (1895), he was already appointed as a judge. Five years earlier, i.e. in 1890, Unno Shômin had entered the Tôkyô School of Fine Arts and studied there under Kanô Natsuo. One year later he became assistant professor and in November 1894 he was a regular professor. And in 1896, he finally became a teishitsu-gigei´in (帝室技芸員, lit. „Imperial craftsman“), the forerunner of the later ningen-kokuhô. To demonstrate the exciting but hard times back then for Japanese metal workers I would like to translate from the records of Mukai Katsuaki (向井勝明, also read „Shômei“), one of Shômin´s students.


Picture 1: Kanzan, Jittoku and tiger


Picture 2: Detail of the tiger

„My master to was faced with the Meiji-era haitôrei and had to see to make somehow his living. At certain times he even runned a wheeled oden stall (a classical winter dish of different ingredients stewed in a light broth) or performed shinnai songs (新内) at various stages in Asakusa. But he was one of the first kinkô artists who expanded his repertoire by making vases, okimono ornaments, tee utensils, jewelry, accessories and the like and so he was able to survive these difficult times. At the time I became his student, one hour lesson was 50 Yen, an amount not easy to find for an extended family like mine. That means the kitchen often remained cold and my master also had to go to the pawnbroker on a regular basis. There was even a special wall closet at the pawnbroker just for my master.

When times improved we moved from Komagome (駒込) to Banba-machi (番場町) in Edo´s Honjo district (本所). The new house and workshop was so stately that we jokingly called it ´the Banba palace´. At that time, bonsai were the hobby of our master. Every morning they had to be moved out on the veranda and every student was instructed by Shômin in thir care and handling. When he became professor at the Tôkyô School of Fine Arts he took the horse-drawn carriage every day, also back home for lunch. He often dressed-up like a bushi back then, wearing the montsuki-hakama (紋付き袴), the formal wear consisting of a crested kimono and a hakama. He also had got into the habit to stalk with a demonstratively stretched-out elbow. All this set tongues wagging of course.

During his last years my master had a high blood pressure and from time to time he suffered from paralysis symptoms because of his swollen arms and legs. He also drank a lot and his wife and all persons around had to take care of him when he drank his bottle of sake every evening. And when there were guests or customers, this habit regularily developed into a drinking bout but there were also days where I had to ´play´ the guest to initiate a drinking bout. From about the second or third year of Taishô (1913/14) the paralysis worsened and if I did not help him with his work, sometimes nothing would have moved on. Often he had to take a nap during working hours and we had to be quiet. That means in fact we had to pause or work for one or two hours. When he woke up it was my job to hand him the chisels or sometimes even to guide his hands to carry out certain chisellings. That means one can imagine that there were times when you were not even able to work on your own projects for more than one our without interruption.

But our master pointed out again and again that he has ´tough Mito bones´ [Translator´s note: Shômin was born in Mito in Hitachi province.] But one day he collapsed in the lavatory, probably because of his high blood pressure. He was able to get eventually out by his own and the doctor said that he rarely has such tough patients but regardless of what he tried, our master died two days later on the sixth of September 1915 at the age of 72.” [Translator´s note: The sources vary in this respect and quote also the eighth or tenth of October as his day of death.]


Picture 3: Calligraphy of Shômin: „Mutsu tose wa yume to sugoshite ashita-naru tagane no oto ni haru o mukahen – rokujûichi-ô – Shômin“ (むつとせは夢とすごしてあしたなる鑽のをとに春をむかへん 六十一翁    勝珉, „Six decades are nothing but a dream when I am awakened by the morning sound of the chisel in the approaching spring – The 61-years-old Shômin.“)

Later, I would like to present parts from an extant correspondence of Shômin and Mitsumura Toshimo´s manager Matano Kagetaka (俣野景孝). Some info on Toshimo can be found here.

Kantei Reference Book out now

I would like to introduce the announced Kantei Reference Book – Hamon & Boshi and quote from the blurb:

“Towards the end of 2012, I published the two-volume project Koto-kantei and Shinto & Shinshinto-kantei, depicting 358 blades from all schools and styles. Recently, I was able to continue with the first Kantei Supplement 1 introducing another 61 blades. In between I received feedback which suggested that a kind of „reverse version“ would be practical. This means a guidebook where specific examples of hamon and boshi are depicted instead of more or less detailed schematic representations. The result is this small publication which shows about 400 hamon and 230 boshi interpretations. I hope this humble guide will be helpful for identifying specific works, or at least guide you on the right track enabling you to look for further information and confirmation. It also might come in useful for oshigata-based kantei riddles where only the hamon and the boshi are provided.”

It is available at via this link.

And the eBook version can be found here.



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