The rise and fall of the Bingo smiths

With this article, I want to shed some light on the rise and fall of the Bingo smiths, as both aspects are usuall just briefly dealt with in most of the known sword publications. First of all some basics on the province of Bingo itself. As some might now, Bingo was once part of the larger Kibi province (吉備) which was divided into Bizen, Bitchû and Bingo in the late 7th century. All new provinces took the character „Bi“ from the former Kibi and added „zen“ (前), „chû“ (中) and „go“ (後), i.e. „near“, „middle“ and „far“ respectively, according to their distance from the Kinai heartland. There was a road passing through Kibi (more on that later) called „Kibi no michi“ (吉備道), and as Bingo was later the last of the new provinces on this road, it was also called „Kibi no michi no shiri“ (吉備道後, lit. „the end of the Kibi road“). So if you remove the first and the third character from this name, the characters (備) and (後) remain, and you arrive again at „Bingo“. Before the so-called „goki-shichidô“ (五畿七道) administrative units and highways were established with the Taika Reform in 645 and the subsequent ritsuryô system, there were of course already roads to get from A to B. These ancient roads, or at least the major and official ones, were called „kandô“ (官道, lit. „government road“). One major kandô connected Kyôto with Dazaifu (太宰府) on Kyûshû, the hub of the exchanges between the Yamato court and China and Korea. As Dazaifu was so important for the court, it was strictly controlled and administered, mostly by artistocrats and even members of the imperial family in the higher offices. So there was a lot of coming and going between the Kinai heartland and „the distant capital“ as Dazaifu was often called. The distance is more than 500 km and Bingo province is right half way in between. Therefore some experts assume that the large number of shôen (荘園) in Bingo goes back to the numerous „business travellers“, i.e. aristocrats and clergy, who needed safe places to stay on their way to Dazaifu. Shôen were namely private, tax-free, often autonomous estates or manors granted by the emperor.

And now we come to swordsmiths. The „Kokon-kajimei-hayamidashi“ (古今鍛冶銘早見出) says that Masaie (正家), the ancestor of the Mihara school (三原), was active in Bingo province in the Tenpyô era (天平, 729-749) and further that the later, i.e. late Kamakura-period Masaie of the same name revived the school of his local predecessor. Well, of course there are no works by the Nara-period Masaie extant but at least from the historical context, his existence is possible. We know namely that the workmanship of the late Kamakura-period Masaie, who is today regarded as the actual founder of the Mihara school, shows undeniably strong Yamato features. Thus it is possible, although highly speculative, that the Nara-period Mihara ancestors came once to that area in the retinue of official temple travellers going from Yamato province to Dazaifu and stayed half way in their own shôen manors in Bingo. Maybe the smiths stayed there as Mihara was a logistically favourable location for their craft, that means it was located on a main road and on the Nutagawa (沼田川), along which iron could be transported out of the mountains from the north of Bingo province. As mentioned, this is just speculation but the spreading of the later early Mihara smiths to other places in Bingo at the beginning of the Muromachi period matches with the decline of the shôen system when namely these lands came mostly under the administration of shugo (守護, military governors) and their vassals.

New centres of sword forging in Bingo province were now, apart from Mihara and among others, the Ashida district (葦田), Tomonoura (鞆の浦) and Onomichi (尾道). There they were quite active throughout the entire Muromachi period and schools like Kai-Mihara (貝三原), Kinashi-Mihara (木梨三原) Tomo (鞆), Go´ami (五阿弥) Tatsubō (辰房) or Hokke-Ichijô (法華一乗) emerged. But virtually none of them made it into the shintô era. Only some Bingo smiths are known from early 17th century whose names allude of kotô-era predecessors. A reason for the lack of shintō smiths from that area might be that most of the daimyō along the San´yōdō were on the side of the defeated at Sekigahara and thus classified by the Tokugawa-bakufu as tozama-daimyô (外様大名). That means they were kept on a short leash by, for example, transferring some of them to remote fiefs with a lower income. In Genna five (元和, 1619), Fukuyama (福山藩), the one and only fief of Bingo province, was founded with an annual income of 11.000 koku. It was given to the faithful Tokugawa-follower Mizuno Katsunari (水野勝成, 1564-1651). As all the heirs of the Mizuno died in infancy towards the end of the 17th century, the fief became bakufu-owned (= tenryô) from 1698 to 1700 until it was decided that Matsudaira Tadamasa (松平忠雅, 1683-1746) should be the new daimyô. Well, Tadamasa was again transferred, namely in Hôei seven (宝永, 1710) to the Kuwana fief of Ise province. After him, the Fukuyama fief of Bingo province was ruled by the fudai-daimyô family of the Abe (阿部) until the end of the Edo period. But the most important regions of eastern Bingo like, for example, the port city of Onomichi and the town of Mihara had already been turned over to the neighbouring Hiroshima fief when Fukuyama was founded in 1619. Large regions in the north of the province also remained tenryô or entrusted to the control of other fiefs as enclaves. In short, Bingo province was during shintô times only a shadow of its former self in kotô times, at least from the point of view of swordsmiths.


Picture 1: Map of the area ( © 2013, Google, ZENRIN). Kusano-Sengen is where the letter “k” of “Fukuyama” is on the map.

I want to demonstrate the decline of late kotô-era Bingo smiths by an example. We know from extant signed blades that Hokke Ichijô and some other smiths worked in a village called “Kusado” (草土). It is assumed by experts that this Kusado referred to what are nowadays the ruins of Kusado-Sengen (草戸千軒). It was often the case that place names were written with different characters and pronounced differently over the time. So Kusado was also noted as (草津), (草井地) and (草出). The Kusado-Sengen ruins are insofar interesting as they are sometimes referred to as “Japanese Pompeii” or “Pompeii of the East”. A long time the whereabouts of this medieval village was only known from records, for example from the local history “Biyô-rokugun-shi” (備陽六郡志) written by the Fukuyama-retainer Miyahara Naoyuki (宮原直倁, 1702-1776). He writes that “there was once a village called Kusado-Sengen which was destroyed by a flood in Kanbun 13 (寛文, 1673).“ Kusado Sengen was discovered in 1931 when a large quantity of pottery, porcelain and gravestones were discovered while attempting to re-route the Ashida River. Many historians believed that it was the site of Kusado-Sengen. Excavation was not carried out, and the site was buried by a sandbank in the re-routed river. But in 1961, the excavation was started by the Fukuyama Municipal Board of Education and several items dating back to the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods were found, and it became obvious that the site was indeed Kusado-Sengen. Among the items there were also remnants of a bellows, polishing stones, slag and sunnobi-tantô found, so there were obviously swordsmiths working there. But why was Kusado-Sengen given up after a flood? Well, we know from records that there was an earlier major flood of the Ashida river, namely in Genna six (元和, 1620), which even caused a halt in the ongoing construction of Fukuyama Castle. The latter was completed two years later and even had an inlet which led to via the Ashida river to the Seto Inland Sea. So with Fukuyama Castle as new capital of the Fukuyama fief of the same name, Kusado-Sengen lost more and more its importance as commercial port and. And with the second devastating flood in 1673, probably no more efforts were made to reconstruct it.


In picture 2 I want to introduce a blade quasi from the golden age of Kusado-Sengen. It is a wakizashi signed „Bingo no Kuni Kusado Ichijô – Eikyô sannen gogatsu-hi Saneie saku“ (備後国草土一乗・永享三年五月日実家作). It measures 47,3 cm, shows an itame-hada with ji-nie, chikei and a fain utsuri, a hamon in ko-gunome mixed with togariba and ko-midare in nioi-deki with a bit ko-nie and some sunagashi. The bôshi has a kaeri typical for Bingo-mono. According to transmission, Saneie was the son of the 1st generation Ichijô.


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