Kanehira and the problem with the early smiths

Whilst doing some research on the meibutsu Ô-Kanehira (大包平), more on this later, I was once again confronted with the datings of early smiths. Many of the famous early smiths and school founders were frequently dated in pre-Edo period sword documents to eras like Ei´en (永延, 987-989). But going back that far is problematic because the transition from the 10th to the 11th century AD marks just the forming of the fully developed nihontô as we know it today. And by “fully developed” we speak of a single-edged blade in shinogi-zukuri with a deliberately added sori (i.e. not a sori which is caused by hardening). So late Heian would probably be better to date extant blades of the early smiths concerned. Experts assume that these early datings are mostly simply based on hearsay or on any early nengô which sounded appropriate for the author. These early datings would not be such a big deal if not later authors dealt with them in different ways. For example, a Muromachi-period author who was going to compile a meikan record had extant and dated blades and more recent records of sons, grandsons or students of famous smiths which did not comply at all with the early datings of earlier publications. So he had basicall three different options: Correcting the supposed nengô arbitrarily to a nengô more suitable with extant works and more recent records, keeping the old era and causing a gap of 200 or more years between an ancestor and his sons or students, or filling the gap with invented descendants and students. Well, from a historical point of view, all three approaches are problematic and maybe the best solution would have been the second approach with additional comments like “handed-down date is no longer tenable because …” The worst is of course the third approach and the first approach can cause significant problems too when namely later chroniclers were facing the old and initial records and the already corrected data of some predecessors. This resulted namely often in double-listings.

Another common practice of chroniclers was to justify very early nengô by claiming that the smith in question made swords for a certain high-ranking person or emperor of his time or that a person from then high-society wore a blade by this smith. And this brings us to Kanehira because my aforementioned research was about finding out who owned the Ô-Kanehira before the Momoyama-era Ikeda family (池田). For further details on the Ikeda and their relation to the meibutsu, please see Satô, The Japanese Sword p. 94ff. Well, Satô already points out that the previous history of the Ô-Kanehira is uncertain and so this article (with reference to Mamiya Kôji´s article published in Tôken-Bijutsu 483, April 1997) should serve mere as demonstration of how difficult and confusing cross-checking historic sword refereces can be. We know today that most pre-Edo period sword publications are more or less transcriptions of earlier documents whereat each copy was usually enlarged with comments. So it takes a chronological approach and we have to start with the earliest extant sword publication which is the Kanchi´in-bon mei-zukushi (観智院本銘尽) from Ôei 30 (応永, 1423). Therein we read:


Picture 1: The entry of the Kanchi´in-bon mei-zukushi.



Immediately noticeable is that the Kanchi´in-bon mei-zukushi quotes Kanehira (包平) with the characters (兼平) and that it uses the character (泰) for “Hata” (秦) (more on this Hata later). Then it reads that he was a resident of Kawachi province and that he made the futokoro-tachi (ふところ太刀) of Hôshô (ほうしやう). Futokoro-tachi means in this context “beloved sword” and must not be confused with the small and hidden futokorogatana (懐刀). And “Hôshô” is the Sino-Japanese reading of the characters for “Yasumasa” (保昌) and refers to the mid Heian noble and poet Fujiwara no Yasumasa (藤原保昌, 958-1036). Then we read that this beloved sword of Hôshô or Yasumasa respectively came eventually in the possession of the abdicated emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽院, 1183-1198), although it is possible that actually the abdicated emperor Toba (鳥羽院, 1103-1156) was meant, who nicknamed it “Kama no ha-kiri” (釜歯切). Kama no ha is a pot with an extra wide rim so it seems that the sword cut through such a thing. Then we learn that the sword was owned by the Udaishô family (うたいしやうけ). “Udaishô” or “Udaishôgun” (右大将軍) was another name of Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199). Each time Yoritomo was spending time on his hunting grounds, he put the sword in a special box (hako, 箱) and stored it away and so it got the nickname “Hakomaru” (箱丸). Later the sword was owned by lord Saimyôji (さいみやうじ), i.e. Hôjô Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263) who ordered the smith Tôhyôe no Jô Kuniyoshi (とうひょうえのぜぶ國吉) to make copy of the sword. “Saimyôji” (最明寺) is the posthumous Buddhist name of Tokiyori and with the smith, Awataguchi Kuniyoshi is meant. So the original was still called futokoro-tachi and the copy futokoro-tsurugi (ふところつるぎ).

Now lets tackle the next reference, the Ôseki-shô (往昔抄) from Eishô 16 (永正, 1519). The entry therein is insofar precious because it comes with a drawing of a nakago which is signed “Buzen no Kuni Kanehira” (備前国包平). Please note that the character for “Kuni” is not just abbreviated in this drawing because Kanehira actually signed that way, seen in the picture to the right which is the mei of the Ô-Kanehira. So the Ôseki-shô writes next to the tang:


Picture 2, left: The entry of the Ôseki-shô; right: mei of the meibutsu Ô-Kanehira


The blade has a kaku-mune with ko-niku, kiri-yasurime, shows two long (su)ken on the haki-omote and bonji over the characters of Hachiman-Daibosatsu and another (su)ken on the ura side. When lord Jizei´in (持是院), i.e. Saitô Myôjun (斎藤妙純, ?-1497), proceeded to Kyôto, he was presented with this sword by the noble Imadegawa family (今出川). Then it is stated that Kanehira lived in Kawachi province but that this tachi was made when he was in Bizen and that the smith worked also in other regions. And finally it is written that Kanehira was originally a Bizen smith and that he moved later in his career to Kawachi.


Picture 3: The entry of the Genki-gannen tôken-mekiki-sho.

Our next source is the Genki-gannen tôken-mekiki-sho (元亀元年刀劔目利書) from the first year of Genki (元亀, 1570). This source tells us the following:


Hata Kanehira, active during the reign of emperor Ichijô (一条天皇, 980-1011, r. 986-1011) and from Ei´en onwards. Note that the entry states dô-gyo´u (同御宇), lit. “same reign”, which refers to the previous entry. Then we read that he was a resident of Kawachi and of Bizen but that he did not sign with “Hata” when in Bizen province. His tangs taper from both the mune and ha side, show kiri-yasurime, and a somewhat roundish nakago-jiri. Tachi are signed above the mekugi-ana and katana below of the mekugi-ana, whereat katana refers here probably to koshigatana or similar smaller sized blades. One blade was the beloved sword of Fujiwara no Yasumasa with came then in the possession of the abdicated emperor Toba who nicknamed it “Kama no ha”. Then the same legend with Minamoto no Yoritomo follows but with the difference that the sword was stored away behind a bamboo screen (misu) and was thus caled “Misu-maru” (簾丸). And later on, Hôjô Tokiyori had Awataguchi Kuniyoshi make a copy of the sword which was called futokoro-ken and the original of Kanehira futokoro-tachi. So without a few exceptions, the Genki-gannen tôken-mekiki-sho follows faithfully the Kanchi´in-bon mei-zukushi.

 And last I want to introduce the data of the Kokon-mei-zukushi (古今銘尽) published in Manji four (万治, 1661). This work first separates Ko-Bizen Kanehira and Kawachi Kanehira strictly in its genealogy section but only to address later on both smiths again in one the the same entry. So in the first volume which deals basically with genealogies we find Kanehira in the Ko-Bizen genealogy in an individual entry next to Nobufusa (信房). In this entry he is listed with the nengô Jôhô (承保, 1074-1077), Jôryaku (承暦, 1077-1081), Eihô (永保, 1081-1084), Ôtoku (応徳, 1084-1087), Kanji (寛治, 1087-1094), and Kahô (嘉保, 1094-1096). And the other Kanehira is introduced several pages earlier along the Kawachi section but just with the comment yoko-yasuri (i.e. kiri-yasurime) and his successors being Arikuni (有國), who was originally from Yamato province, Arinari (有成), and Aritsuna (有綱) (see picture 4).


Picture 4: The genealogic entries from the first volume of the Kokon-mei-zukushi. Left the Ko-Bizen entry, right the Kawachi entry.

In volume 2 both Kanehira appear side by side in the section about smiths of the same name working in different provinces and not being the same persons. Then later in volume 2 we find some details on the Kanehira from Kawachi province. The entry in question reads:

秦包平 一条院の御宇河内國後に備前に住す永延の比より慶長

Hata Kanehira, active during the reign of emperor Ichijô, lived in Kawachi province but moved later to Bizen, from around Ei´en onwards which is about 615 years in Keichô eight (慶長, 1603) [i.e. when the data for the Kokon-mei-zukushi was copiled before it was pubished about sixty years later.]

So according to this entry, we are talking about the same smith who started in Kawachi but moved later in his career to Bizen province. An entry in volume 4 deals with the workmanship of Kanehira and in this entry, both smiths are again separated, but read it for yourself:


Picture 5: The entry of the fourth volume of the Kokon-mei-zukushi.

一、包平 永延比 太刀の姿ほそく切先つゞまやかに庵丘鍛

“Kanehira: Around Ei´en. His tachi-sugata is slender, tapers, and shiows an iori-mune. The kitae is a fine masame and the steel is blackish bit also purple. He tempered a ko-midareba with ko-ashi and the nioiguchi is rather subdued. The ha is white and shows nie. He signed with “Bizen no Kuni Kanehira” but it is also said that he was a Kawachi smith, but works signed that way are from the Ko-Bizen smith. All niji-mei must be attributed to Hata Kanehira from Kawachi province. He tempered a hiro-suguha with plentiful of nie and usually a midareba at the base. This interpretation is similar to Rai Kuniyuki. The steel is reddish and purple and the ha is white but the ha of Bizen Kanehira is more blueish white. The nie are also finer and he [Bizen Kanehira] has to be regarded as superior.”

What is my conclusion? Well, this is a case where not just one odd document forwards a different theory and all others are in unison about the origins of a certain smith. Here we have too many ambiguous entries on the basis of which we just can´t rule out one approach or the other. That means everything is possible, i.e. that Kanehira moved from Bizen to Hata in Kawachi province, that he originated in Kawachi and moved to Bizen and gave up there signing with “Hata,” or that we are facing two completely different smiths. Also I can´t say for sure of the Ô-Kanehira was the futokoro-tachi owned by Fujiwara no Yasumasa as it is suggested by some experts. But the Tôkyô National Museum which owns the blade today dates it to the late Heian period and says 12th century. So not middle Heian and close to Yasumasa. I hope though that I was able to illustrate how hard it can be to rely on old references and that sometimes like here you have to stop at a certain point because you can´t squeeze out more information from them. And now imagine how much work it was to compile my Index of Japanese Swordsmiths where I tried for the first time to bring in line all this data by keeping at the same time as much original content as possible. Sometimes it needed just a keyhole surgery, but sometimes three patients were lying side by side with their bodies opened and you just don´t know which organ to transplant where.


Picture 6: tachi, kokuhô, mei “Bizen no Kuni Kanehira saku”, meibutsu Ô-Kanehira, nagasa 89,2 cm, sori 3.5 cm, motohaba 3.7 cm. Please note that this blade has a thin kasane and weighs despite its length just 1.35 kg (usually tachi with such a nagasa weighs around 2 kg).


On the origins of Akasaka-tsuba

Well, Akasaka-tsuba need no introduction as they are so predominant when it comes to iron sukashi-tsuba, and most of you are probably also aware of the theories on their origins. So I want to touch these origins rather briefly as the main topic of this article is the Akasaka area itself. My aim is to give the reader as good as possible an idea of how the area where the Akasaka-tsuba artists worked looked like in the Edo period, thus the many images.

Akasaka was and still is a district of Edo or Tôkyô respectively, located in north of present-day Minato-ku and to the southwest of the Chiyoda-ku (see picture 1), but let´s go very back to where everything began. From local histories we learn that the area in question was cultivated for the first time in Eiroku ten (永禄, 1567) and a village called Hitotsugi (人継村, later written with the characters [一ツ木村]) was founded there but the whole region around the fishing-village Edo was rather unsettled. Ieyasu had made Edo Castle his stronghold after being offered eight Kantô provinces by Hideyoshi in 1590 and started to largely rebuid the castle three years later. Things were finally pushed after he won Sekigahara and decided to establish the Tokugawa-bakufu in Edo but the castle should be completed until 1636 and the time of his grandson Iemitsu. Back then, we are largely talking about the late Genna (元和, 1615-1624) and subsequent Kan´ei era (寛永, 1624-1644), town houses and warrior residences and a little later the houses of merchants and craftsmen mushroomed there and Akasaka turned gradually into an urban district. This initial urban Akasaka district is referred to as “Moto-Akasaka” (元赤坂) and forms still today a Tôkyô district of the same name. Incidentally, the name “Akasaka” appears for the first time in Meireki three (明暦, 1657). But even though Edo was gradually blossoming, the early Tokugawa-bakufu was struggling with a problem, namely that the new capital was so to speak too bushi-weighted. The art world was hesitant going there and cultured people from the old capital Kyôto called the Edo-residents “eastern barbarians” (azama-ebisu, 東夷) and the activities in the new capital were regarded with suspicion. And when the bakufu had stabilized and Edo had taken shape around Keian (慶安, 1648-1652) to Kanbun (寛文, 1661-1673), the lack of influental persons from art and culture who refused to leave Kyôto was still not solved. So the Tokugawa government responded by forced displacements and “offers” which came close to blackmail. For example, the Gotô main line first refused to go to Edo but was eventually “convinced” in Kanbun two (1662), and in the 1675 chronicle Enpeki-kenki (遠碧軒記) we read: “Once, no one from the Gotô family went to Edo, because they had for this duty their clerk Shôzaburô (庄三郎).” Anyway, the bakufu agenda of turning Edo into the new political and cultural capital of the country succeeded around early Genroku (元禄, 1688-1704).


Picture 1: Present-day Akasaka district in the very center of the map (© 2014 Google, ZENRIN)


Picture 2: Present-day Akasaka district as seen via © Google Earth.

Now to the district itself. The area to the south of Moto-Akasaka was called Akasaka-Tamachi (赤坂田町), or just Tamachi district. Its eastern boundary was the sotobori (外堀), the outer moat of Edo Castle. By the way, the present-day Sotobori-dôri follows basically this outer moat and that is also where it has its name from. To the north there was as mentioned the Moto-Akasaka district and the outer Akasaka-gomon Gate (赤坂御門), also known as Akasaka-mitsuke (赤坂見附). The bridge to the Akasaka-gomon Gate was actually a dike and interrupted the moat, and its southern continuation was also used as reservoir (tameike, 溜池). Leaving the castle grounds via the Akasaka-gomon Gate (see picture 5) and turning left, i.e. south, one passed successively the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Akasaka-Tamachi district. Right opposite to third and fourth district was the Hie-jinja (日枝神社). By Ieyasu´s definition of the outer moat, the Hie-jinja was now on the grounds of Edo Castle but his son Hidetada had moved the castle´s limits back a bit so the people could worship there.

“Akasaka” means literally “Red Slope.” Leaving Edo Castle via the Akasaka-gomon Gate and turning right, i.e. heading north to the Yotsuya district, one had to negotiate a slope to the east of which the Edo residences of the Kishû Tokugawa family were located. Because of this, the slope got the name “Kinokunizaka” (紀伊国坂, lit. “Kii Province Slope”). Today there are basically three explanations for its second name “Akasaka.” One says that madder  grew on top of the hill of which red dye was made. The hill itself was called Akaneyama (赤根山). This name means literally “Red Root Hill” but has its etymoligical roots in the Madder (akane, 茜). And so the slope to the Akaneyama was called “Akasaka,” “Red Slope.” The other explanation is that the name goes back to the red dyed silk hung up along the slope by local dyers. And the third explanation is based on the fact that the Kinokunizaka consisted to a large extent of red soil.


Picture 3: 1. Kinokunizaka, 2. Akasaka-gomon Gate, 3. Hie-jinja, 4. tamaike reservoir. Please note that the initial name of the area or village respectively, i.e. Hitotsugi, was still used for the district two districts west of the second Tamachi district. The third Akasaka-Tamachi district where the Akasaka school was located is marked in red.


Pictuere 4: The same places as they look today. The red line marks (to its right) the Akasaka-Tamachi districts (© Google Earth).


Picture 5: Leaving Edo Castle via the Akasaka-gomon Gate. The houses to the very left belog to the first and second Akasaka-Tamachi district. Picture predates Meiji 14 (1881).


Picture 6: View up to the Akasaka-gomon from an early Meiji-era photo.

Now let us take a look on the area as seen on ukiyoe, namely from Utagawa Hiroshige´s (歌川広重, 1797-1858) series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei, 名所江戸百景). Picture 7 shows a woodblock print titled “The Paulownia Garden at Akasaka” (Akasaka kiribatake, 坂桐畑) and we see Paulownia trees, the tamaike, and on the opposite shore the Hie-jinja. So Hiroshige was actually standing right in the third or fourth Akasaka-Tamachi district, the district where the Akasaka tsuba workshop was located, when making sketches for this woodblock print. Picture 8 is titled “Kinokuni Hill and Distant View of Akasaka and the Tameike Pond” (Kinokunizaka Akasaka Tameike enkei, 紀ノ国坂赤坂溜池遠景) and we have here basically the same view as in picture 5. Picture 9 is by the second generation Hiroshige (1829-1869). It is titled “View of the Paulownia Trees at Akasaka on a Rainy Evening” (Akasaka kiribatake uchû yûkei, 赤坂桐畑雨中夕けい) and is not always included in the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. There is the theory that it was a replacement print for “The Paulownia Garden at Akasaka”. Here the view is north towards the Akasaka-gomon Gate but seen from the very same spot as at the first generation. It is nice to see that the Municipal Garden Office of Tôkyô had Paulownia trees planted along the Sotobori-dôri so that the original Edo-period view was kept “as good as possible” (see picture 10).


Picture 7: Akasaka kiribatake (1856)


Picture 8: Kinokunizaka Akasaka Tameike enkei (1857)


Picture 9: Akasaka kiribatake uchû yûkei (1859)


Picture 10: South view along the Sotobori-dôri. The red dot marks the entry to the Hie-jinja (© Google)

But let me come back to the Akasaka school. In Bunsei seven (1824), the bakufu appointed the scholar Hayashi Jussai (林述斎, 1768-1841) as head of the project of the topography of Musashi province and the urban era (machikata, 町方) of Edo. With this project, all present historical reference materials were examined and consolidated. It contains among others the position and orientation of the city, its history of origins, its dimensions and area, the number of taxable households, the guardrooms, sewers, bridges, drains, the landowners, and so-called “old-established families” (kyûka, 旧家). This very detailed information is of paramount importance for studies on feudal Edo, and the original is preserved in the National Diet Library (Kokuritsu-kokkai toshokan, 国立国会図書館). The third district of Akasaka-Tamachi was tackled in the seventh month of Bunsei ten (1827) and the compiled document bears the signatures and stamps of each local myôshu (名主, taxable landowner). And from this document we learn that at the time of its compilation, the tsuba craftsmen Hikojûrô (= the 8th generation Tadatoki, 忠時) was living there, i.e. in the third Akasaka-Tamachi district, and that his family was old-established. Further we learn that the Akasaka-Tamachi districts were developed southwards, that means the first district right outside of the Akasaka-gomon Gate was, as the name already suggests, the first Akasaka-Tamachi district.There were 72 houses in the third district: 3 belonged to landowners, 8 to houseowners (Hikojûrô Tadatoki was one of them), 27 were rented, and 34 were rented as shops. Another house owner and kyûka was for example the dyer (kon´ya, 紺屋) Seizaemon (清左衛門), who moved there from Kaga province during the Manji era (万治, 1658-61) taking over a vacant dyer´s trade. At the time of the compilation of the document, the Seizaemon family was able to look back to eight successive generations just like the Akasaka family. By the way, the info on the Akasaka family reads as follows: “The former background of his [Hikojûrô´s] ancestor Shôzaemon (庄左衛門) is unknown but from around Kan´ei, first-class sukashi-tsuba were made from there, the Akasaka district, which are signed ´Akasaka Shôzaemon Tadamasa´ (赤坂庄左衛門忠正). This Shôzaemon died in the third year of Meireki (1657), year of the rooster, from illness. The second generation succeeded the name and signed in the very same way. The hird generation was called ´Shôzaemon Masatora´ (庄左衛門正虎), the fourth generation ´Hikojûrô Tadamune  (彦十郎忠宗), and the fifth generation ´Hikojûrô Tadatoki´ (彦十郎忠時). From the fifth generation onwards, the fourth generation´s first name ´Hikojûrô´ became the hereditary first name of the family which carried out the profession of tsuba craftsmen uninterruptedly from their ancestor to the present eighth generation. Tsuba which are called ´Akasaka-tsuba´ since earliest times and those which are signed ´Bushû-jû Akasaka Tadatoki´ or ´Akasaka Hikojûrô Tadatoki´ are their works.

To conclude, I want to go back again to the very beginning of the Akasaka school and the developments of early Edo. When talking about the origins of Akasaka-tsuba, one name appears inevitably: Kariganeya Hikobei (雁金屋彦兵衛). The reason why I bring him into play right at this point is the aforementioned founding of Edo. Kariganeya Hikobei was supposedly from Kyôto, and we have several indications that he was running an antique shop. It is said that he moved to Edo and started from new in the Akasaka district where he employed tsuba artists to make for him iron sukashi-tsuba on the basis of his sketches. The most obvious theory, which is forwarded in several documents, is that the first Akasaka generations were these tsuba artists but we don´t know for sure if this Kariganeya Hikobei was a real historic person or just a later fabrication by “Akasaka-affine” persons to draw a connection to Kyôto, the old cultural capital.

Let me introduce a sketch (or maybe it is an actual oshigata) of a sukashi-tsuba published in Yamane Yûzô´s (山根有三, 1919-2001) Konishi-ke kyûzô – Kôrin-kankei-shiryô to sono kenkyû (小西家旧蔵・光琳関係資料とその研究, “Studies on Kôrin-related Reference Materials from the Heirloom of the Konishi Family”) (see picture 11). Incidentally, Yamane was an art historian who specialized in the painters Hasegawa Tôhaku (長谷川等伯, 1539-1610), Tawaraya Sôtatsu (俵屋宗達), Ogata Kôrin (尾形光琳, 1658-1716), and the Rinpa school. The tsuba in question (see picture 1 in the following) was labelled as “after a sketch of Kôrin” and because it appears in the Konishi documents right next to sketches and patterns by Ogata Kôrin, we have here a strong circumstancial evidence for the theory that the roots of Akasaka-tsuba were in Kyôto. The painter Kôrin was the second son of the wealthy Kyôto draper Ogata Sôken (尾形宗謙) whose trade was namely called “Kariganeya” (雁金屋), had also the same name as Kariganeya Hikobei. The then high artistocracy of Kyôto was their customer, for example Yodogimi (淀君, 1567-1615), Hideyoshi´s concubine, or Tôfuku-mon´in (東福門院, 1607-1678), Tokugawa Hidetada´s daughter and wife of Emperor Go-Mizunoo (後水尾天皇, 1607-1678). But also the flourishing Kariganeya business run by the Ogata family was unable to follow the agenda of the bakufu and closed its gates in Kyôto in Genroku ten (1697) and moved to Edo.


Picture 11: Sketch labelled “after a sketch of Kôrin.”

So maybe Hikobei was a young and ambitious member of the Ogata family or employee at the Kariganeya who shared the – probably volitional – fate of Gotô Shirôbei to be one of the first to check things out in the new capital. There in Edo he worked as a representative of the business and was responsible for acquiring local clients and forwarding their orders to Kyôto. As there was a kind of gold-rush mood in young Edo, it is not hard to imagine that Hikobei was looking for something at the side, and as he was mostly surrounded by bushi back then, tsuba were the obvious option. So maybe he either asked likeminded and “adventurous” Kyôto-based tsuba artists to join his business idea, or hired local tsuba artists which had moved there earlier.

So I hope I was able to give you a basic idea of how the neighborhood looked like where the Akasaka masters worked throughout the Edo period. And when you take again a look at picture 5, this is about what the 9th and last Akasaka generation Tadatoki was seeing on a walk. From the extant data we can namely calculate that he was in his early or mid 80s when the Tokugawa-bakufu ended in 1868.

Update: Donate button

My dear readers. This blog is now almost a year old and I hope I was able to provide some interesting and/or new insights into the world of Japanese swords and sword fittings. For those who want to support this blog and me a little, I have set up a donate button at the very bottom of the page. This new feature will have no influence on the length, quality and intervals between articles. It is, as mentioned, just for those who want to say thank you, either for a helpful entry or for the site as a whole, as I am investing every week a considerable (working) time into this blog finding interesting stuff and presenting it in a comprehensive form. So if you want to support your blogger by buying him a coffee or beer, or maybe even a Japanese book for new input;), this is your chance. Thank you very much for your attention and assistance! I will be back Monday with an article on the origins of Akasaka-tsuba.


The Yakuôji School

Whilst working slowly but steadily on a project on Japanese swordsmiths schools, I would like to use this opportunity to write something on one of these schools on which info is very rare and which are usually left out in most publications. This time I want to talk about the Yakuôji school (薬王寺) from Mikawa province, a province which was not a “big player” when it comes to famous kotô era swordsmiths but which gained fame as it was the birthplace of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Mikawa (三河・参河, also called “Sanshû”, 三州・参州) was what is today eastern Aichi Prefecture, was located along the Tôkaidô, and bordered on Owari, Mino, Shinano, and Tôtômi. According to the records, the Yakuôji school was located in or around the town of Yahagi (矢作) in the provinces Hekikai district (碧海郡) (see picture 1). Before we continue I would like to point out that most of the information used for this article goes back to the studies of Kondô Hôji (近藤邦治) from the Gifu branch of the NBTHK, published in Tôken-Bijutsu 570 (July 2004). Also I would like to point out that I use “Yakuô-ji” for the temple, and “Yakuôji” without hyphen for the school.


Picture 1: The red dot marks where once Yahagi was located ( © 2014, Google, ZENRIN)

First of all, let´s take a look at the origins of the name of the school. “Yakuô-ji” means “Temple of Yakuô”, i.e. of the Bodhisattva Bhaishajya-rāja (jap. Yakuô-Bosatsu, 薬王菩薩), the Bodhisattva of medicine and healing. It is said that this name was used for the first time for a temple by the Nara-period Buddhist priest Gyôki (行基, 668-749). However, there are no pre-Heian records on Gyôki´s temple extant and the first document which mentions the existence of his Yakuô-ji is the Honchô-monzui (本朝文粋) which was compiled in the mid 11th century. About two hundred years later, to be more precise in Kemu two (建武, 1335), the temple was destroyed in the course of the fightings of Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞, 1301-1338) and Kô no Moroyasu (高師泰, ?-1351) at the Battle of Yahagi River. A document preserved in the local Shinmei-jinja (神明神社) from Tenshô 15 (天正, 1584) says that what was left from the Yakuô-ji was used right after the fightings to construct the Renge-ji (蓮華寺) which is located just about 2 km to the northwest of Yahagi. So according to this document, the Yakuô-ji lived quasi on as Renge-ji. But the records of the Renge-ji tell us something else, namely that the Yakuô-ji was rebuilt to the south of temple ruins in Kyôroku two (享禄, 1529) and that this new temple was renamed “Renge-ji.” However, it is rather unlikely that the ruins were left to lie fallow for two hundred years and then “out of nothing” it was decided to erect the Renge-ji through which also the former Yakuô-ji lived on. Also there is a blade extant which is dated Bunki two (文亀, 1502) and signed “Sanshû Yakuôji” (三州薬王寺) (see picture 2). That means the already about thirty years before Kyôroku two there were Yakuôji smiths which used the name of the initial temple in their signatures. Incidentally, it is not uncommon for relocated or rebuilt and thus renamed Japanese temples that their former name or a local “nickname” was for centuries continuously in use aside from the new name of the temple.



Picture 2: katana, mei: “Sanshû Yakuôji shu Shinsuke” (三州藥王寺 主真助, “made for lord Sinsuke”) – “Bunki ninen hachigatsu hi” (文龜二年八月日, “on a day of the eighth month Bunki two [1502]”), nagasa 69,1 cm, sori 2,0 cm

So far, so good, but what do the sword-related records say? From the Kotô-mei-zukushi taizen (古刀銘尽大全), the Honchô-kaji-kô (本朝鍛冶考), and the Kôsei kotô-meikan (校正古刀銘鑑) we gain basically two Yakuôji genealogies (see PDF below), namely one going back to Kaneharu (兼春) from neighboring Mino province who moved around Ôei (応永, 1394-1428) to Mikawa, and one going back to Nakahara Kunimori (中原国盛), who is said to be a descendant of Bizen Saburô Kunimune (備前三郎国宗) and who was active around Ôei too. The first smiths of these lineages who used the name “Yakuôji” in their signatures were the Eishô-era (永正, 1504-1521) Sadayoshi (貞吉), and the Shôchô-era (正長, 1428-1429) Suketsugu (助次), and this in turn is a further indication for the fact that the Yakuô-ji existed before Kyôroku two (1529) and that the erection or rebuilding of the Renge-ji did not mark the revival of the Yakuô-ji after two hundred years. The earliest extant dated blade from the Mino-based lineage is from Kaneharu and from Bunshô two (文正, 1467), i.e. not from Ôei as the genealogies suggest. As for Nakahara Kunimori, there is the theory that his family name “Nakahara” goes back to Bizen Saburô Kunimune´s temporary stay in Nakahara in Mikawa province. Others say that “Nakahara” was already Kunimune´s family name and that he actually stayed in Yahagi when forging in Mikawa province because there was no place called “Nakahara” in old Mikawa province. Another interesting thing is that all the smiths after Kunimori had names of famous Yamashiro smiths, i.e. Awataguchi Kunitsuna, Kuniyoshi, Yoshimitsu, and Heianjô Yoshinori. Similarily, we find two more famous name, Sadayoshi who bears the name of Sa Sadayoshi (左貞吉), and Sanemori, who bears the name of the famous Ôhara Sanemori (大原真守) from Hôki province who supposedly signed with “Ohara” (小原). Incidentally, there is a town called “Obara” written with the same characters which is located upstream of Yahagi River but it is unclear if we are talking here about the same place (it is not uncommon that place names had different pronunciations, e.g. “Aoe” was also pronounced and quoted as “Aoi”). So there is the chance that we are facing here one of the pretty common “genealogy embellishments,” i.e. schools and smiths tried to “pimp” their genealogy by referring to famous ancestors. But there are several signed Yakuôji blades extant and it is hard to imagine that most of them are gimei to support genealogic claims. So as so often, the two presented genealogies give basic clues and have to be taken with a grain of salt, although it seems, from the basis of extant signed blades, that the Mino-based Kaneharu lineage is more sound.


As mentioned, the sources point towards Ôei (応永, 1394-1428) as starting point of the Yakuôji school and we know that many of these smiths signed just with “Yakuôji”, that means without any individual smiths name. The most famous temple-affiliated swordsmiths where those of the Yamato Senju´in (千手院) and Taima (当麻) schools which also occasionally just signed with their school´s name which was also the name of the temple they were working for. It remains to be seen if the Yakuôji smiths belong to the same category of temple-affiliated swordsmiths (kônin-kaji, 候人鍛冶) as the Senju´in and Taima smiths. Also a religious background is possible as it was the case at the Gassan smiths (月山) who signed their swords with the name of the local holy mountain and used that name later even as family name. Well, at the beginning Muromachi period it was no longer common for temples to maintain swordsmiths but a religious background is not that off. We all know that long before praying for winning a battle or wealth for one´s family, people are first of all praying for recovery when they are ill and for health if they arent´t. As mentioned, Yakuô is the Bodhisattva of medicine and healing and so it is safe to assume that a temple where Yakuô is worshipped always has its followers, even if the temple was relocated and renamed. And a blade signed quasi “from the temple of the Bodhisattva of medicine and healing” has surely an auspicious connotation and goes well as a gift or lucky charm.

Let us come back to the local history. In Muromachi times, Yagami was a station of the Tôkaidô but but when the Hideyoshi-retainer Tanaka Yoshimasa (田中吉政, 1548-1609) was granted with the lands in Tenshô 18 (天正, 1590), he enlarged the local Okazaki Castle (岡崎城) and made it his main stronghold. Also he had the Tôkaidô improved and thus slightly relocated so that it goes now through his newly erected Okazaki castle town, making it the new local station of the main route instead of Yagami. But the Yakuôji smiths were in that area long before that time, i.e. the booming new castle town can´t be used to explain the origin of the school. Also the school predates Ieyasu´s conquering of Mikawa province in the 1560s and the establishment of his Mikawa-bushi (三河武士), a group of loyal retainers from Mikawa. Apart from that we have anyway no records that these Mikawa-bushi and their men wore and ordered specifically locally made Yakuôji blades.


Picture 3: Okazaki as station of the Tôkaidô by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重, 1797-1858)

With all that in mind, let´s see what we can learn on the origins and affiliation of the school from extant blades. There are works in nie-loaden gunome-chô with tobiyaki which suggest a connection to the Sue-Sôshû style. Many blades have their tangs finished with characteristic kata-sujikai yasurime, a feature which is peculiar to Mino-Senju´in smiths. Others in turn show Muramasa characteristics like a tanagobara-style nakago. The vast majority of the extant and individually signed Yakuôji blades go back to the Suketsugu smiths (助次) what makes some experts think that the school actually started with the 1st generation Suketsugu. And when we compare blades of the Suketsugu smiths which bear the prefix “Yakuôji” with blades which are just signed “Yakuôji”, we learn from the similarity in signature style (in particular the characters for “Yaku” and “ji”) that a certain amount of the latter go actually back to the hands of Suketsugu smiths (see picture 4). Anyway, most experts agree that the Yakuôji style is closest to the Sue-Seki style but interpretations in suguha-chô look more classy and show more Yamato characteristics.


Picture 4, signature comparison: Left two blades by Suketsugu, right a blade just signed “Yakuôji.”

Another interesting hint for possible affiliations of the Yakuôji school can be found in the Kôzan-oshigata (光山押形), namely an oshigata of a blade signed “Yakuôji Ôtomo Sukeyoshi” (薬王寺大友助吉) (see picture 5). Incidentally, the last character for “yoshi” was obviously somewhat weak what resulted in the listing of smiths like Ôtomo Sukeshichi (大友助七) or Ôtomo Sukehito (助士, also quoted as “Sukenori,” “Sukekoto,” or “Suketada”). Ôtomo was a neighborhood of Yahagi and according to the Bunka (文化, 1804-1818) and Bunsei era (文政, 1818-1830) local history Mikawa-sôshi-roku Yahagi-sonki (参河聡視録矢矧村記) by Kamo Kyûsan (加茂久算), a certain Ôtomo group of armor and swordsmiths was active in the western part of Yahagi until about Tenshô (天正, 1573-1592) and Keichô (慶長, 1596-1615) whose helmets were called “Yahagi-bachi” (矢矧鉢). Please not that “Yahagi” (矢作) is quoted in that reference with the characters (矢矧). So when we use the aforementioned oshigata of the Kôzan-oshigata as piece of evidence, than everything points towards that the Ôtomo smiths were a branch of the Yakuôji school.


Picture 5: From the Kôzan-oshigata.

Kondô now speculates in his article that the Ôtomo formed a major part of the Yakuôji school and that they used the Yakuô-ji or a fictitious (or bribed) monk in the temple´s administration as a way to sell sword blades at the side. The smiths´ guild had on the one hand certain privileges and also the permission to offer their works on the free market but on the other hand, they were strictly regulated and monitored so that they did not sell products at the side for which they did not have the license. But if this is true, it must had happened parallel to the actual swordsmiths like the Suketsugu family which fully signed their works and made them thus instantly retraceable. Well, Kondô brings into play the Nagasone school (長曽祢) of armorers which also made tsuba, harness, locks, small bells, or nails at the side and even signed them. But I guess they either had the permission to do so, or their sidelines were overlooked and tolerated as no swords, i.e. weapons were made. And in my opinion, we must not overlook the quality factor. All the Yakuôji blades presented by Kondô in his article are pretty high-quality or at least of decent quality. That means it needed a considerable amount of training and practice, even for an armorer, to turn out sword blades in that quality. So there must had been quite a “hidden enterprise” behind that business model just to sell sword blades at the side. But with the demand for swords throughout the Muromachi period we must bear in mind that the sword business was probably very lucrative. So if you were a (black)smith back then, temptation was surely great to make and sell sword blades at the side.

My personal opinion is that the Yakuôji school was founded by smiths emigrating from Mino province as a “mass exodus” from this center of sword production was a well-known phenomen of the Muromachi period. But as the Yakuô-ji was not one of those very influental and powerful temples, I doubt that smiths worked directly for it, so maybe the vicinity of the temple had some kind of infrastructure that made smiths settle after leaving their home town in favor of Mikawa. And yes, Mikawa and Yahagi were promising as the Tôkaidô passed through it. As for the Ôtomo armorer connection, this might be (if at all) a rather limited phenomenon as the meikan records list just Ôtomo Sukeyoshi and hardly any other blades apart the one depicted in the Kôzan-oshigata are known from that school/group. (However, this lack of data might go back to the under-the-counter sales suggested by Kondô.)

Sword-related Japanese Sayings

With my first article in the new year and back from my holiday, I want to take a look at some Japanese sayings still in use which have their roots in sword-related vocabulary. Some of the sayings might not be that common and I would be happy if someone (native speaker) can come up with a few more. So please enjoy the following list which is in alphabetical order:

daijôdan ni furikabutte (大上段に振りかぶって) – Literally “to raise the sword in the overhead position,” which is regarded as the most aggressive position in swordsmanship, it means also “fearless,” “daring”, “keen” or “reckless” and the like.

denka no hôtô o nuku (伝家の宝刀を抜く) – This term means literally “to draw the precious family treasure sword.” As the literal translation suggests it is today either used to say “to use extreme methods” or to “one´s last resort”, or also to say “to play/pull one´s trump card.”

fuda-tsuki (札付き) – see origami-tsuki

futokoro-gatana  (懐刀) – The futokoro-gatana (written with the characters [懐剣] also pronounced as kaiken) referred to a plainly mounted tantô worn in the belt or hidden (mostly by women) in the fold (the futokoro) of a kimono.  Due to this wearing close to the body when it can easily and swiftly be drawn in case of an emergency, the term was soon applied to a confidant or right hand man, or also to a secret advisor.

ittô-ryôdan ni suru (一刀両断にする) – Literally “cutting in two with one sword stroke”, this saying means also “to use decisive (drastic) measures” or “to make a clear decision.”

jigane ga deru (地鉄が出る) – Literally “the steel appears,” for example when a blade is polished so often that the shingane appears or the jigane shows more unrefined areas. As a saying, it means “to reveal one´s true character.”

kaitô ranma o tatsu (快刀乱麻を断つ) – Literally this term means “to cut through felted hemp threads with a sharp blade.” The saying is about equivalent to the English “to cut the Gordian knot.”

kireaji ga ii (切れ味がいい) – This term means literally “having a good/sharp cutting edge” or just “sharp.” But it is also like the ambigious English word “sharp” in the context of “sharp tongue”. “ For example, kireaji no ii bunshô o kaku (切れ味のいい文章を書く) means “to write in an incisive style.”

menuki-dôri (目貫通り) – Literally this term means “menuki avenue”. Menuki are, when on unwrapped tantô same-covered hilts, are the most eye-catching of all sword fittings so a menuki avenue refers to the most eye-catching place of a town or the center of its main street. But there is also another explanation of the etymological origins of this saying, namely by the term iki-uma no me o nuku (生き馬の目を抜く), “to steal a living horses eye” with the meaning is “sharp practice,” “to catch a weasel asleep”. However, it is unclear how this saying (menuki in the meaning of “eye stealing/pulling” in the context of being swift or sneaky) explains the use of the menuki in menuki-dôri to refer to the most eye-catching place of a town or the center of its main street.

mi kara deta sabi (身から出た錆び) – This saying means literally “rust from the sword blade itself” and refers to a blade which keeps rusting due to improper or no maintenance. It is nowadays used to refer to the natural consequences of one´s act, to reap what you sow, to get what one deserves, or to pay for one´s mistakes.

moto no saya ni osameru (元の鞘に収まる) – This term referred originally to the fact that each sword is different in terms of sori (and shape) and requires an individually made saya. Literally the saying means “fits like the original saya” if a blade fits by chance into another saya. Nowadays the term is used to refer to an old love which is renewed or when a married couple reconciles after a time-out.

mukashi no tsurugi, ima no na-gatana  (昔の剣今の菜刀) – This saying means literally “once a sword, now a vegetable knife” and refers to a once outstanding person or thing has turned into a John Doe or to something that just lies around and collects dust respectively. The English pendant to this saying would be “Hares may pull dead lions by the beard.”

namakura (鈍) – This character means originally “dull sword” but was also used to refer to a good-for-nothing or coward. But it also has pretty much the same ambiguous meaning as the English “dull”, although in this context mostly the on´yomi don” of this character is used.

nuitara saigo (抜いたら最後) – This term means literally “drawing the sword because this is the end” and is like the English “as if there were no tomorrow.”

nukisashi-naranu (抜き差しならぬ) – This term means “unable to either draw or resheath one´s sword.” So the saying is used to expressed “to be in a jam” and it is though to go back to the “problem” with a too rusty sword: Did it rust in the saya, you can´t draw it, and did it rust out of its saya, you can´t resheath it.

origami-tsuki (折紙付き) – Literally this term means just “(blade) comes with an origami”. It is now used to say that something comes with a guarantee, or applied to a person that he or she is recognized. But also a person with a bad reputation can be referred to by a saying from the sword world, namely fuda-tsuki (札付き), i.e. “(blade) comes just with a fuda (and not with a regular origami).” Please refer to my book The Honami Family for further details on the differentiation of origami and fuda.

saigo no dotanba de (最後の土壇場で) – This term means “at the last elevated area” and referred to place of execution (dotanba, 土壇場) where also swords were tested on criminals. As saying it means “at the very last moment” or “at the eleventh hour,” i.e. the last chance of a delinquent to say something standing or lying tied up on the elevated earth mound before the executioner did his job, testing a sword blade at the same time.

saya-ate (鞘当て) – Literally “hitting saya”, this term refers to the (inevitable) duel resulting from hitting saya of inattentive samurai passing each other. Today the term is used to refer to a rival in general or a rival in love, with the context in mind that hitting someone´s saya, intentionally or unintentionally, ended always in a duel or at least in rivalry.

seppa-tsumaru (切羽詰まる) – This term means “tight like a seppa” and refers to “be at one´s wits end”, “to be cornered”.

shinken ni (真剣に) – Literally “with a real sword” (not a bokken or a shinai), this term means just “seriously” or “in all seriousness.”

shinogi o kezuru (鎬を削る) – This term means literally “to scrape your shinogi” and referred to a fierce sword duel as a Japanese swordsman usually tries to parry an opponents blade with the shinogi or the mune and not with the cutting edge of his sword. Nowadays the term shinogi o kezuru is used in general to a fierce fight where sparks fly.

sori ga awanai (反りが合わない) – This term means “the sori of a sword does not match (with a certain saya)” as each sword has a different curvature and shape and needs thus an individually made scabbard. So sori ga awanai means today “to be unable to cooperate”, “they cannot agree,” or “they fight like cat and dog.”

tantô-chokunyû (単刀直入) – This term means literally “entering (the enemy lines) alone an just with one´s sword.” It is now used to express things like “to speak buntly,” “to ask point-blank”, “without beating about the bush” and the like.

tsuba-zeriai (鐔迫り合い) – The term means “to push each others sword guard,” that means a sword duel has gone close combat and the duellists standing tsuba to tsuba, both trying to push forward. So this saying stands for two opponents or competitors at the moment right before the decisive move for one of them to win.

tsuke-yakiba (付け焼き刃) – The term means literally “add a tempered edge”, namely to a dull or crudly made blade, i.e. when a swordsmith improved such a dull or crudly made blade by attaching a new cutting edge of higher-quality steel. As a saying the term refers to “overnight knowledge,” “pretension,” “affectation,” or someone “semi-skilled.”

yaki-naoshi (焼き直し) – As we know, this term refers to the process of retempering a blade which had lost its hardened edge for whatever reason. The verb “to retemper” is yaki-naosu (焼き直す). But the term means also “plagiarism,” “imitation” and “copy”, or “to imitate,” “to copy” or “to crib” in its use as verb.

yari ga futte mo (槍が降っても) – Literally “even though it is raining spears”, this saying means “no matter what happens.”