The case of Kiyomaro

There was a recent NMB discussion on Kiyomaro which I enjoyed a lot, also rereading the one year old discussion on this smith. Thus I thought I might share the chapter of my 2012 published Legends and Stories around the Japanese Sword 2 dealing with Kiyomaro. Minamoto Kiyomaro (源清麿) was born under the civilian name „Yamaura Kuranosuke“ (山浦内蔵助) on the sixth day of the third month of Bunka ten (文化, 1813) as the son of Masatomo (昌友) in the village of Akaiwa (赤岩) in Shinano´s Komoro fief (小諸藩). Besides „Kuranosuke“ he also bore the first name „Tamaki“ (環) in his younger years. With his older brother Masao (真雄) he entered apprenticeship with the local smith Kawamura Toshitaka (河村寿隆) in Bunsei twelve (文政, 1829) and signed from then on with the names „Ikkansai Masayuki“ (一貫斎正行), „Hidetoshi“ (秀寿), and again with „Masayuki“.

His father Yamaura Ji´emon (山浦治右衛門, ?-1845), besides „Masatomo“, also used the name „Nobukaze“ (信風) and was, according to transmission, the eighth generation village head of Akaiwa. His posthumous Buddhist name „Kai´un-Tessen“ (海雲鉄船) gives rise to the speculation of his main profession. Such names usually try to allude with one or two characters to the person´s life, and as the character „tetsu“ (鉄) for „iron“ was used it is assumed that Masatomo was a swordsmith too.

Kiyomaro´s wife was from the village of Ōishi (大石) which lied about 1,5 km to the east of Komoro. She was the daughter of a certain Nagaoka Kume´emon Masanobu (長岡久米右衛門政信, ?- 1816) and was born in the seventh year of Bunka (1810), i.e. she was three years older than Kiyomaro. It is said that it was a love marriage, then why did he leave his wife and kid shortly later, as his gravestone bears an inscription that says that he left the Nagaoka family in the second year of Tenpō (天保, 1831) at the young age of 19?

Some assume it was „just“ an arranged marriage from which he tried to escape. Others say that the young Tamaki was a pretty boy and that he wasn´t able to settle down. And others speculate that he left the house because of a dispute with his mother-in-law who was against the marriage because she feared he couldn´t feed the family as a swordsmith in those years. What is certain is that there are no official documents extant where he is listed with the family name „Nagaoka“ nor which mention that the young couple were actually divorced. But the Yamaura family was also not satisfied with the lifestyle of the young Kiyomaro and disinherited him so it was impossible for him return to Akaiwa anyway. For reasons unknown today he first visited Shinano´s castle town of Matsushiro (松代). This can be proved by extant blades, for example a tantō signed „Yamaura Masayuki – Kaizu-jō ni oite – Tenpō sannen hachigatsu-hi“ (山浦正行・於海津城造之・天保三年八月日, „made by Yamaura Masayuki on a day of the eighth month of Tenpō three [1832] in Kaizu Castle“). Incidentally, „Kaizu“ was the old name of Matsushiro Castle. It is assumed that he might have visited his friend Tsuge Kahei (拓植嘉兵衛) who was a master nagamaki fencer of the Matsushiro fief.

Anyway, two extant blades from the fifth year of Tenpō (1834) are signed with the name „Hidetoshi“ (秀寿). As mentioned above, it is transmitted that he had studied with his older brother for about five years under Kawamura Toshitaka. But this apprenticeship is doubted by some experts because of the name „Hidetoshi“. If he was the student of Toshitaka, his master would surely have not granted him the smith name „Hidetoshi“ because it is composed of the characters „Hide“ (秀) and „toshi“ (寿) which means in this combination „the one who surpasses the Toshi“. The same experts assume that he was „just“ a student of his older brother who signed back then with „Toshimasa“ (寿昌). And when the latter recognized the great talent of Kiyomaro, it was him who gave him the name „Hidetoshi“ (i.e. „better than Toshi[taka]“). Another theory says that Kiyomaro was taught by the great master Taikei Naotane because the latter visited the daimyō of the Matsushiro fief, the castle town of the same same, on invitation of the Sanada family (真田) in Tenpō four (1833). So, at least from a chronological point of view, this master-student relationship can´t be ruled out.

However, in winter of Tenpō five (1834) Kiyomaro arrived at Edo. A transmission suggests that he first made a small detour to Ōishi to visit his wife and his son Umesaku (梅作) but he was turned away by his wife´s family which made his new start in Edo easier. There, on recommendation of Tsuge Kahei, he visited Kubota Sugane (窪田清音, 1791-1866) who gave him some advice in sword forging and instructed him in martial arts. Besides the Nakajima-ryū (中島流) of shooting, the Yamaga-ryū (山鹿流) of strategy and tactics, and the Tamiya-ryū (田宮流) of iaidō, Sugane was well versed in ten more styles. Later he became one of the instructors at the kōbusho (講武所), a military training facility of the bakufu founded in 1854 where the sons of hatamoto and other high-ranking officials were trained. Kubota Sugane was not a swordsmith and so his „advices“ lie somewhat in the dark, but from documents of Kiyomaro´s student Saitō Kiyondo (斎藤清人) we learn that his advice consisted mainly on supplying famous blades which served Kiyomaro as models and study objects. It is said that Sugane motivated Kiyomaro with the words: „Take as much time and raw material as you need and forge as long as you like until you are satisfied with the result.“

Another anecdote – which has surely nothing to do with the art of forging or metallurgy – is about how Kiyomaro was able to reproduce utsuri (映り). Utsuri (lit. „reflection“) is a more or less visible temper effect on a blade which appears above the hamon and which can reach the shinogi ridge (or even go beyond it). Not every blade shows utsuri and first and foremost it was a characteristic feature of Bizen blades from the Kamakura to the early Muromachi period. Successive smiths of the shintō era (新刀), i.e. from the Edo period onwards, had serious problems reproducing utsuri and the „secret technique“ had almost fallen into oblivion by the time of Kiyomaro. He went to great lengths, day and night, but without success. So he asked Sugane: „Master, I need your advice again. How am I able to reproduce utsuri?“ He told him of all the attempts he had tried so far until Sugane interrupted him: „That is actually the problem. You want it too much. Forge your blades without forging in mind, like the old Bizen masters did. Then you will be able to reproduce utsuri.“ And the anecdote says that his mentor was right and soon he was able to apply a controlled utsuri.

With the support of Sugane and his older brother – who, from the eighth to the tenth year of Tenpō (1837-1839), was in Edo too – Kiyomaro was eventually able around 1839 to go into business by himself. His forge, which was at close quarters from Iga-machi (伊賀町) in Edo´s Yotsuya district (四谷), was called according to transmission „Yamashiro´ya“ (山城屋). It is said that a certain dealer called „Bizen´ya Kihei“ (備前屋喜兵衛) made him the offer to pay his start-up capital if he arranged for Sugane to teach him martial arts. But the latter refused and instead paid the start-up sum. To advertise the up and coming Kiyomaro, and to earn some money, Sugane initiated in the same year a kind of „lottery“ called „Buki-kō“ (武器講). From total of 100 participants 3 ryō (両) were collected frome each one and once a month the finished blades were divided up among the drawn winners.

The very first Buki-kō blade is still extant. It is a katana measuring 71,2 cm, designated jūyō-bijutsuhin, bearing the following signature: „Yamaura Tamaki Masayuki – Tenpō jūnen hachigatsu-hi – Buki-kō ichihyaku no ichi“ (山浦環正行・天保十年八月日・武器講一百 之一, „a day in the eighth month of Tenpō ten [1839], one blade of one hundred of the Buki-kō“). Whilst Kiyomaro was working to capacity – he forged three to four blades a month – Sugane praised him in his „Tanki-yoron“ (鍛記余論), published in Tenpō twelve (1841), with the following words: „at the moment there is none who ranks above him.“ But something went wrong and Kiyomaro fled to Nagato province. This escape took place somewhere in the first half of the 13th year of Tenpō (1842) because a dated blade of the eighth month of that years is extant which bears the supplement „Hagi-jō ni oite“ (於萩城, „at Hagi Castle“) in the mei. This means that in the summer of that year he was already working at the western end of Honshū (see picture 1). Sugane was of course facing a huge problem now because was becoming more and more behind with his Buki-kō.


Picture 1: katana, mei „Hagi-jō ni oite Yamaura Masayuki kore o tsukuru – Tenpō jūsannen hachigatsu-hi“ (於萩城山浦正行造之・天保十三年八月日, „made by Yamaura Masayuki in Hagi Castle on a day in the eighth month of Tenpō 13 [1843]“), nagasa 81,8 cm, sori 2,1 cm

There are several theories on Kiyomaro´s escape to Nagato. One says that he was just overstrained with the project and others assume that he was offended as an artist to mass produce blades. But there are also some voices which think that this was just a marketing trick of Sugane who tried to increase Kiyomaro´s market value by constructing a kind of „enfant terrible“ repute for his artist. Three ryō for a blade was then quite favourable. Suishinshi Masahide for example took 7 ½ ryō, Taikei Naotane 5 ryō, and Kiyomaro in his later years even took 10 ryō from a hatamoto for a katana. There are also different theories on this pricing. One was, as mentioned, that Sugane simply tried to boost the business. Another speculates that he tried to keep Kiyomaro tight so that he wasn´t able to waste all the money on drinking. Another possibility is that the whole thing was in the end just unprofitable for both of them and so the plan was born to sweep it under the carpet by the „escape“ of the smith.

A historical context is also assumed. At about the same time, the so-called „Tenpō Reform“ (Tenpō no kaikaku, 天保の改革) took place which goes largely back to the bakufu elder Mizuno Tadakuni (水野忠邦, 1794-1851). This radical reform tried to tackle all the defects in the economy, the army, agriculture and even religious institutions. The bakufu appealed to the warrior class to remind them of the old samurai virtue of bunbu-ryōdō (文武両道), i.e. the literary and military arts. This resulted in a higher demand for swords and higher prices. But when the bakufu was also confronted with the newly introduced celebrations and the acquisition of swords for presents and armours for parades and the like a decree was issued on the 27th day of the third month of Tenpō 13 (1842) which set a fixed lower price for weapons and military equipment. As a countermeasure draconian penalties were threatened and so it is possible that Sugane feared that the works of his smith might remain unprofitable, even in the future, and so both made the plan of the escape before the financial situation became more than they could handle.

Because Kiyomaro also made in Nagato some blades for important local royalists, a royalist background for his escape is also assumed. For example, there are blades extant made on order of the painter, writer and emperor-sympathizer Hazama Seigai (礀西涯, 1811-1878) or of the agitator Tamura Seifū (田村清風) which nourish this assumption. But Nagato´s royalist boom took place when Kiyomaro was already long back in Edo or dead respectively. Anyway, the last blade he made in Nagato is a nagamaki from the 14th year of Tenpō (1843). He didn´t return to the capital straightaway but visited his home village before. A blade from the eighth month of Tenpō 15 (1844) namely bears the following signature „Shin Komoro-jō sei Minamoto Masayuki“ (信小諸城製・ 源正行, „made by Minamoto Masayuki in Shin[ano´s] Komoro Castle“). The genealogy of the Yamaura family says that he stayed there until the twelfth month of that year. His older brother Masao was also in Komoro at that time and so we can assume that he stayed in his house and that both forged together. Incidentally, after the 15th year of Tenpō, Masao worked more and more in the style of Kiyomaro. We can speculate that he was so impressed by his younger brother´s improvement at this meeting that he adopted his forging techniques. Shortly later, on the 29th day of the third month of Kōka two (弘化, 1845), their father died and some months later Masao went to Edo where he worked from the residence of the Komoro fief. Kiyomaro accompanied him and did not return to his old forge. Some say that he went to Edo too to apologize to Sugane and that he had chosen to stay with Masao at the Komoro residence because he feared reprisals from the disappointed Buki-kō participants. From that time there exists a very carefully made sword that he made especially for Kubota Sugane (see picture 2). Maybe this was a kind of „compensation work“. It is, by the way, the earliest extant blade which bears his smith name „Kiyomaro“. Experts assume that this name goes back to a reverence for his friend the scholar Saitō Masamaro (斎藤昌麿, 1802-1866) – for whom he forged several blades – and Sugane (音), as the first character (清) can be read, among others, as “Kiyo” and “Suga” in names.


Picture 2 jūyō-bijutsuhin, tachi, mei „Kubota Sugane-kun no tame – Yamaura Tamaki Minamoto Kiyomaro sei – Kōka hinoe-umadoshi hachigatsu-hi“ (為窪田清音君・山浦環源清麿製・ 弘化丙午年八月日, „made by Yamaura Tamaki Minamoto Kiyomaro for Kubota Sugane on a day in the eighth month of the year of the horse of the Kōka era [1846]“).

Kiyomaro committed suicide on the 14th day of the eleventh month of Kaei seven (嘉永, 1854). Here, too, several theories and transmissions exist of which I would like to eleminate those which can be ruled out for historical reasons. One of them says that he sympathized with scattered survivors of the revolt of Ōshio Heihachirō (大塩平八郎, 1793-1837). So he fell under suspicion of the bakufu and killed himself out of fear of punishment. Ōshio was a low-ranking samurai, Neo-Confucianist and bitter opponent of the Tokugawa. He and his men were able to burn down almost one fifth of Ōsaka in 1837. But this was seven years before Kiyomaro´s suicide, which means he would have been interrogated and – if ever – punished by the bakufu much earlier. So we can dismiss this transmission that he killed himself out of fear of the bakufu troops.

Others assume that he was involved in Takasugi Shinsaku’s (高杉晋作, 1839-1867) arson of the British embassy in Edo´s Shinagawa district (品川). Shinsaku was indeed a militant royalist from Nagato but he set the building on fire in the second year of Bunkyū (文久, 1863), i.e. nine years after the death of Kiyomaro. A connection with Shinsaku can also be ruled out because the latter was only four years old when the swordsmith left Nagato.

Saitō Kiyondo´s son Eishirō (永四郎) forwarded a transmission which is connected with Dewa´s Shōnai fief (庄内藩). Shortly before the end of the Edo period the samurai of this fief were so worried that they constantly sharpened their blades in fear of an imminent seppuku. This lead to a kind of contest of who had the sharpest blade. The poorer samurai were jealous because they were not able to keep up with fancy swords but Kiyomaro had compassion for them and forged them durable and sharp blades for a cheap price. Of course they were no art swords and because this was a secret he had to leave them unsigned. One of the „customers“ was Kiyokawa Hachirō (清河八郎, 1830-1863, see picture 3), a very patriotic samurai, student of the old classics, and master of the Hakushin-Ittō-ryū (北辰一刀流) of swordsmanship. Kiyokawa was a sword lover too and was not very fond of having a „cutter“ so he asked Kiyomaro to forge him a slightly superior blade than for the others. In addition, he asked him to sign the tang at least with red lacquer so that his sword stood out from the others. Well, the efforts of Kiyomaro were not approved by the fief and so the bakufu ordered the then Shōnai-daimyō Sakai Tadayoshi (酒井忠良, 1831-1884) to take legal action. But Kiyomaro had luck because Kiyokawa was in Edo at that time and informed the smith of what was going on. Eishirō reported further that, from that day onwards, Kiyomaro always had a drawn blade by his side when he was working in his forge. According to this transmission, he was caught by a group of Shōnai retainers on the 14th day of the eleventh month of Kaei seven (1854) whereupon he committed seppuku right on the spot.


Picture 3: Kiyokawa Hachirō

And the speculations continue. Some say that Kiyomaro´s seppuku was an apology to Sugane who had lost face when he ran away from the Buki-kō program. Rather puzzling is the fact that Kubota Sugane´s name does not appear in any of the documents of Kiyomaro´s student Saitō Kiyondo. This namely indicates that both did not have any more personal contact from the time Kiyomaro returned to Edo. That means the former „partners“ parted ways.

Let us now turn to the more likely explanations of his suicide. Yamaura Torao (山浦虎男), the grandson of Kanetora (兼虎, 1825-1895) – who was in turn the son of Masao – once wrote: „My grand-father didn´t like to talk about the death of Kiyomaro.“ But if Kiyomaro died as a faithful royalist or because of his royalist convictions, this would not have been kept quiet during the Meiji era and the stronger Imperial power. But as we have read, the sonnō-jōi movement was still in its infancy when Kiyomaro died so he would be one of the first who sacrificed himself for the matter. The adoptive daughter of Kurihara Nobuhide (栗原信秀, 1815-1867), one of the best students of Kiyomaro, said later that the master was suffering from chronic pain in his chest.

If you take the symptoms and think about the time Kiyomaro lived, then tuberculosis would be a possibility. But it is unknown if any tuberculosis patient had so much pain that he committed seppuku. And Nobuhide wrote that his master damaged his health by his excessive consumption of alcohol. Often he was unable to wield the hammer and when he received advance payments for blades, he spent it on sake. Two years before his death it was particularly bad when he suffered symptoms of paralysis like after a stroke. He was working on orders from Shinano´s Ueda fief (上田藩) back then and said: „I have a mountain of work and debt. Maybe it is better if I die…“ So it was said by Masao´s great-grandson Yamaura Kōji (山浦貢治). Nobuhide wrote that in the end his master cut open his belly on the lavatory in seppuku style on the 14th day of the eleventh month of Kaei seven because he reached a point in life where he didn´t have a clue what to do. Kiyondo said later that he had to forge 30 blades just to pay off Kiyomaro’s debts which were 300 ryō in the form of advance payments for ordered swords.

2 thoughts on “The case of Kiyomaro

  1. Photo of my Kiyomaro/Users/CR/Desktop/personale/token foto/kiyo1.jpg/Users/CR/Desktop/personale/token foto/kiyo.jpg

  2. my sensei’s grandfather was an official from shinano. kiyomaro made his sword. the blade and tsuba have been remounted a few times but are still remarkably beautiful and sharp respectively. it’s dated to 1853, iris, double pinned and i even have the order slip for it. even through all this time, it stands out as afinely made weapon.

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