After five years we had our second NBTHK-EB meeting in Salzburg last Saturday. The subject was „Renowned shinshintô masters“ and in the following I would like to forward a brief outline of my introductory lecture on shinshintô for those unable to attend (and for those interested of course). After that I give you also a brief introduction of the fine blades we were able to see.
For a better understanding of the shinshintô era, we have to start at shintô. We know that with the execption of the Shimabara Rebellion of the years 1637 and 1638, peace had been restored by the Tokugawa all over Japan. Of course swords were still made but by the end of the 17th century, all the fiefs learned that the peace is a lasting one and by the strict regulations of the bakufu which tried to minimize the chance that certain indiduals are raising larger armies, the demand for swords decreased drastically. At about the same time, i.e. we are in the first decades of the 18th century, the unsound financial policy of the fiefs in particular and the bakufu in general became apparent. That means even if a daimyô wanted, there was in general just not enough money to hire master smiths and support upcoming talents on a large scale or systematically.
The eighth Tokugawa-shôgun Yoshimune (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751) was unhappy with declining craft of sword forging and ordered in 1719 his elder to get in touch with every fief with an income of more than 10.000 koku so that their best smiths could participate in a forging contest. As we know, the contest took place in 1721 and winners were Mondo no Shô Masakiyo (主水正正清), Ippei Yasuyo (一平安代), the 4th generation Nanki Shigekuni (南紀重国) and Nobukuni Shigekane (信国重包). Yoshimune´s goal was to breath new life into the then stagnating sword world and indeed, the winners were great master smiths. But with the tense financial situation of the country, the plan was not successful and most of the local smiths and their students and descendants continued to muddle along in a sufficient but not breathtaking niveau.
Another measure of Yoshimune to arouse more interest on swords amongst daimyô was the compilation of the famous „Kyôhô-meibutsu-chô“ (享保名物帳). This was a list with the most famous swords all over Japan and the project forced the local rulers quasi to deal with their old sword collections and sort out the famous pieces so that they could be published in the meibutsu-chô. This list had of course not a direct influence on the craft of sword forging, but an indirect one. Over time namely, treatises on the great masters of the Heian, Kamakura and Nanbokuchô period were written and old sword publications were discussed and reprinted. And with the upcoming new bourgeoisie in the transition from the 17th to the 18th century, for the first time something like „sword as a hobby“ was born. That means most were of course not able to afford a meibutsu of have them luxurious blades made, but at least one was able to indulge in books and discuss with others about swords. This trend was accompanied by another sub-trend, namely the rise of wealthy merchants, who were namely in the position to support contemporary smiths and order fine blades from them. And it wasn´t long before new books like the „Shintô-bengi“ (新刀弁疑) were published which introduced contemporary swordsmiths and presented their merits.
The „Shintô-bengi“ praised first and foremost the Ôsaka-shintô smiths and their tôranba, but this is only natural as Sukehiro (助広), Inoue Shinkai (井上真改) and their kinds were still the best the shintô era had produced so far. Thus the contemporary smiths, the book was published in 1777, tried first and foremost to orientate towards their inpretations. But one master was not satisfied with this trend. It was Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀) who tried quasi alone by studying old blades and all publications available to reproduce and revive the old forging techniques. His approach, which was supported and continued by his master students like Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤) and Hosokawa Masayoshi (細川正義), is known as fukkotô (復古刀). The focus was especially placed on the good old Bizen and Sôshû traditions but basically all five gokaden were studied and reproduced. However, when Masahide died in 1825, he had not seen himself the swing to the Nanbokuchô-esque shinshintô.
With the bakumatsu era, Japan was in a difficult situation. More and more foreigners appeared at the coasts, the fiefs were bankcrupt and the bakufu was regarded as totaly incompetent. Everyone felt that something was going to happen soon, most likely in combination with fightings. As it is common for such times, the fiefs and atists tried to restore old values and swordsmiths tried to make stout and durable blades for the upcoming fightings. And back then, the Nanbokuchô blades were considered to the best choice for that. So the daimyô were quasi forced to arm and spend money on the employment and training of good swordsmiths. This in turn resulted in a noticeable quantitative but also qualitative increase of fine blades. By the time the bakufu was overthrown by the imperial troops, Japan was again able to present a considerable number of ambitious mastersmiths. As we know, the modernization lead eventually to the ban on swords in 1876. This was such a radical measure that the shinshintô era which started with Suishinshi Masahide is considered to be over with this ban. Emperor Meiji was fortunately a great sword lover and so he tried to save the craft of sword forging, even the demand for newly made swords tended with the ban over night quasi to zero. All this is well known but without Masahide, his master students and the fukkotô movement, the swordsmiths of Japan probably would have continued to work to the end of the feudal era like they did in the 18th century. In other words, there would not have been a shinshintô and not much to rescue for emperor Meiji when he came to power. Of course swords still would have been made as they played such an important role in Japan, but without the fukkotô movement, probably no one would have been able to reproduce the great kotô works in the way Masahide and his descendants did. And when you take it one step further, the gendai and shinsaku smiths would not be what they were or are respectively without the fukkotô movement.
Now to the blades we appreciated at our meeting. The picture above shows the table and the blades were, from right to left: katana by Tairyûsai Sôkan (泰龍斎宗寛), katana by Shizu Saburô Kaneuji (志津三郎兼氏) presented to see what Kiyomaro was copying, naginata-naoshi-zukuri by Minamoto Kiyomaro (源清麿), tantô by Taikei Naotane (according to Tanobe-sensei a Bizen-utsushi but with Nobukuni elements), wakizashi by Taikei Naotane (Bizen-utsushi), wakizashi by Taikei Naotane (Bizen-utsushi). Quite a bunch of high-quality blades, isn´t it?
Last but not least I want to thank all those participating and a big thank you to those bringing their blades!