This is the first time I post an article at the special request of a reader. I was namely asked to write a synopsis on the origins of Yagyû-tsuba or at least what we know about their origins today, so let´s get started right away. First of all it is essential to know that they go back to the famous swordsman Yagyû Ren´ya Toshikane (柳生連也厳包, 1625-1694) and thus we have to start to introduce him before we can start to talk about Yagyû-tsuba. Ren´ya was born in the second year of Kan´ei (寛永, 1625) as third son of Yagyû Toshiyoshi (柳生利厳, 1579-1650) and Tama (珠), the youngest daughter of Shima Sakon Kiyooki (島左近清興, 1540-1600). For whatever reason, he was raised by Hayashi Gorôdayû (林五郎太夫), the station master of Goyu (御油) in Mikawa province, and bore back then the name Hayashi Shinroku (林新六). Gorôdayû in turn was the husband of Toshiyoshi´s younger sister, which means Ren´ya was raised by his uncle. When he was nine or ten years old, he went to Nagoya whereas at that time he had returned to his mother´s maiden name calling himself Shima Shichirôbei (島七郎兵衛). There in Owari he was trained in the martial arts by his very own family, together with his two older half-brothers Kiyoyoshi (清厳, also reads as “Kiyotoshi”) and Toshikata (利方). It is said that he trained really hard and that he had distinguished himself already at the age of twelve or thirteen. When Ren´ya was 14, his eldest brother Kiyoyoshi died at the young age of 24 in the Shimabara Rebellion. Also at about that time, Toshikata became the official fencing instructor of Tokugawa Mitsutomo (徳川光友, 1625-1700), the future second daimyô of the Owari fief. It is said that Ren´ya kept training hard as he was anxious of being inferior in swordsmanship to his father. But it paid off, as he mastered his own style at the young age of 16, calling himself Yagyû Shichirôbei Heisuke (柳生七郎兵衛兵助). Two years later, i.e. in Kan´ei 19 (1642), the then Owari-daimyô Tokugawa Yoshinao (徳川義直, 1601-1650) gave him the post of a guard at audiences (o-tôri-ban, 御通番) when being in Edo in the course of the sankin-kôtai. During this post in Edo, Ren´ya was able to overcome some weakness in his swordsmanship, which preoccupied him for a long time. He was very pleased with that and won more than thirty fencing duels in the presence of Yoshinao without getting hit once. Later that year, he changed his name to Yagyû Shichirôbei Toshitomo (柳生七郎兵衛厳知), and in the subsequent year, his o-tôri-ban salary of 40 koku was raised by 30 koku. And in Shôhô four (正保, 1647) when he was 23 years old, he got another raise by 70 koku, meaning a total income of 140 koku at that time. In the following year, his father retired and he was appointed to the post of official fencing instructor of the Owari fief. One year later his father inaugurated him as fifth head of the Shinkage-ryû by writing at the end of the certificate: “This person [= Toshitomo] was the most outstanding among the students being taught so far in this school. This extraordinary praiseworthiness must be highly appreciated. The more, he is under obligation to show no negligence. The person described here is unequalled.”
Picture 1: Yagyû Ren´ya Toshikane
In Kei´an three (慶安, 1650), both Ren´ya´s father Toshiyoshi and his lord Tokugawa Yoshinao died. That means he inherited his father´s salary of 500 koku and the family residence and became a retainer of Tokugawa Mitsutomo who was of the same age. In the following year he fought in Edo at the presence of the shôgun a duel against Edo-Yagyû Munefuyu (宗冬, 1613?-1675). Munefuyu was smashed by Toshitomo with a single stroke of his bokutô and it is said that the Edo-Yagyû and the Owari-Yagyû branch broke ties since that time. In Kanbun eight (寛文, 1668) – Ren´ya/Toshitomo was 44 years old at that time – his salary was once again raised, namely to 600 koku. However, he expressed the wish to retire from his official post. Mitsutomo agreed, the salary was reduced to 200 koku, and a residence in Kobayashi (小林) right outside of Nagoya was granted to him. In the course of this early retirement, he changed his name from “Toshitomo” to “Toshikane” (厳包). Well, Toshitomo/Toshikane was neither ill nor weak at that time but wanted to focus somewhere off the family´s dôjô on the more spiritual aspects of swordsmanship not being busy with training students all day long. He had inaugurated Mitsutomo as sixth head of the Yagyû Shinkage school and later, i.e. in Enpô three (延宝, 1675), Mitsutomo´s son Tsunanari (徳川綱誠, 1652-1699) as seventh Shinkage-ryû master. Somewhat later, in the second year of Jôkyô (貞享, 1685), Toshikane entered priesthood and called himself “Ura Ren´ya” (浦連也). “Ura” was quasi his new family name and “Ren´ya” his first name. And thus it should just read “Ren´ya” and not “Ren´yasai” (連也斎) as quoted by many authors. The latter name does not appear before the bakumatsu era and it is assumed that it goes back to a mistake of Imaizumi Gennai Nobuharu (今泉源内延春) who thought it is a nyûdô-gô and not a name and added the nyûdô-typical suffix “sai” (斎). Incidentally, Nobuharu was a close friend to the Yagyû family and compiled the „Yagyû-tsuba zufu“ (柳生鐔図譜) which is explained later. And as Ren´ya was back then on his path to attaining enlightenment, he was referred to as “oshô” (和尚, meaning “Buddhist priest”). According to Mitsutomo, the samurai of the Owari fief called him respectfully “Kobayashi-oshô” (小林和尚, i.e. “the priest from Kobayashi”). Ren´ya died on the eleventh day of the tenth month Genroku seven (元禄, 1694) at the age of 70. Five years after his death, the Kobayashi residence was pulled down and the Shôjô-ji (清浄寺) was erected there.
Now we come to Yagyû-tsuba. As mentioned in the beginning, they go back to Yagyû Ren´ya and that is why they were called “Yagyû-tsuba” later. But also the term “Kobayashi-tsuba” (小林鐔) existed which goes back to Ren´ya´s place of retirement. Everything started with his granted retirement and the name change to “Toshikane”. Extant documents suggest that he was concerned about tsuba from that time on and that he also experimented with yakite-kusarakashi, i.e. a certain surface finish applied by a combination of acids and heat treatment. In late Edo-period tsuba related publications like the „Kokon-kinkô-benran“ (古今金工便覧), published in Kôka four (弘化, 1847), we read that Ren´ya and others tested back then their tsuba by smashing them in a mortar. None of them met the expectations of the swordsman except those with ground plates made by Kotetsu Gozaemon (古鉄五左衛門) from the Akasaka district of Edo which namely did not change their shape. Thus Ren´ya entrusted him with forging the ground plates of 36 tsuba into which a certain Gotô (後藤) cut the sukashi motif designed by Kanô Tan´yû (狩野探幽, 1602-1674). Well, it is very likely that the Gotô craftsman in question was not from the bakufu-employed Gotô family of kinkô masters as opening sukashi into iron ground plates was not really their métier. But we find an interesting entry in the „Ishikawa-mekiki-densho“ (石河目利伝書) which says: „Gotô Shôbei Mitsuteru (後藤庄兵衛光輝), lived once in Mino but moved later to Edo. He received from Yagyû Ren´ya a stipend for the support of three persons and went from time to time to Owari to work from there.“ Gotô Shôbei and the Seto potter Yanosuke (弥之助) were those craftsmen directly stipended by Ren´ya as the latter developed also a liking for pottery in his later years. Ren´ya also made some bowls himself, probably under the guidance of Yanosuke. And the fittings of his Yagyû-koshirae go probably back to a joint work of Ren´ya and Gotô Shôbei. We know notes for examples which say that Shôbei made fuchi according to the liking of Ren´ya and so it suggests itself that it was Gotô Shôbei Mitsuteru who was reponsible for the carvings and sukashi openings of the initial Yagyû-tsuba. The transmission of Kanô Tan´yû as designer of the sukashi motifs is doubted. Already the scholar Inaba Michikuni (稲葉通邦, 1744-1801) who was from the Owari fief himself wrote in his „Yagyû-tsuba-kata zenzu” (柳生鐔形全図): „The design goes back to Hata Kuninari (秦国成) and not to Tan´yû as it is mostly believed.“ Hata Kuninari was a painter employed by the Owari fief. He was later allowed to bear the family name „Kanô“ as he became a student of Kanô Yasunobu (狩野安信, 1614-1685). There is also the theory that Kuninari was the same person as Kanô Tsunenobu (狩野常信, 1636-1713) as there are namely also tsuba sketches extant of the latter. Well, here we are obviously in the then world of common embellishments. That means sketches of a certain Kanô painter mentioned in a certain document quickly became designs of master Kanô Tan´yû in the next publication.
Picture 2: Yagyû-tsuba with the kazeho motif. It is said that the mind of the practitioner of the Yagyû-Shinkage-ryû should advance by assimilating the teachings of the school just as the ship advances through the strength of the billowing sail.
So in the course of this tsuba project initiated by Yagyû Ren´ya Toshikane, 36 designs were created. Later, these 36 tsuba were called „kasen-tsuba“ (歌仙鐔) because the number matches with the „Thirty-six Immortal Poets “ (Sanjûrôkkasen, 三十六歌仙) from the Nara, Asuka, and Heian periods. Several designs were added later to this pantheon of Ren´ya´s tsuba, even some by Tokugawa Mitsutomo himself like for example the so-called “kazeho” (風帆, lit. “billowing sail”) motif (see picture 2). And by the Meiji period, the total number of Yagyû-tsuba motifs had arrived at more than 120. However, Yagyû-tsuba were not that famous at all back then and brushed rather aside as “something mid Edo from the lineage of Owari and Kanayama-tsuba”. Only slowly their historic value was recognized and it took until Sasano Masayuki (笹野大行) until Yagyû-tsuba were also appreciated for their artistic value. But from that on, they experienced a great demand, also from outside of Japan, as it is of course very attractive to own tsuba so obviously connected to swordsmanship in particular and martial arts in general. Anyway, there are only very few of the initial 36 kasen-tsuba extant but as the enjoyed a certain popularity right away, copies and hommages were made throughout the Edo and until the bakumatsu era. The Yagyû family called the 36 initial kasen-tsuba of Ren´ya either „Kobayashi-tsuba“, „ie no tsuba“ (家の鐔, lit. „our family tsuba“) or „Ren´ya-shikomi“ (連也仕込み, about „Ren´ya´s stock tsuba“). The later copies made around Hôreki (宝暦, 1751-1764) were referred to as go-ryûgi-tsuba (御流儀鐔), i.e. about „tsuba in the style of the Yagyû school“. Today these works are also called „second generation Yagyû-tsuba“. Towards the end of the Edo period, even more Yagyû-tsuba or Yagyû-style tsuba were made and they in turn are referred to as „third generation“ Yagyû-tsuba. The term „Yagyû-tsuba“ by the way appears for the first time in Inaba Michitatsu´s (稲葉通龍, 1736-1786) „Sôken-kishô“ (装剣奇賞) published in Tenmei one (天明, 1781).
Picture 3: mitsuboshi-sankaku no zu tsuba (三星三角図鐔, three stars in a triangle)
The tsuba shown above is probably one of the most representative of the 36 kasen-tsuba. Some say the motif represents the so-called „Three Basic Studies“ (sangaku, 三学) of Buddhism which are kaigaku (戒学, precepts), jôgaku (定学, contemplation and meditation), and eigaku (慧学, wisdom). But in Ren´ya´s teachings we find also the term „sanma no kurai“ (三磨の位), the „Three Ways of Learning“, which are narai (習い, learning), keiko (稽古, training), and kufû (工夫, to work actively on what you have learned and trained). According to Ren´ya, these three elements are essential when you want to make any progress in swordsmanship. Others in turn suggest that the mitsuboshi-sankaku motif stands for the so-called „sangaku´en no tachi“ (三学円之太刀), a group of sword kata of the Yagyû-Shinkage-ryû. And Yagyû Toshinaga (柳生厳長), the 20th head of the Yagyû-Shinkage-ryû, speaks in his „Shôden-Shinkage-ryû“ (正伝新陰流) of the mind/heart, the sword, and the body, embedded into a circle, which in turn stands for the desired ability to change techniques at will and to flow smoothly from one movement to another (as described in another context by Karl. F. Friday in his book Legacies of the Sword, p. 74, University of Hawai´i Press, 1997). Well, we can imagine that the mitsuboshi-sankaku motif comprises all of this. But the philosophical aspects of Yagyû-tsuba is another topic as I was asked to shed some light on the historical aspects of their origin. And in this sense I hope this article was of general interest.
And here the genealogy of the Owari and Edo-Yagyû branch as a reference: