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.

One thought on “On the origins of Akasaka-tsuba

  1. Great article Markus. Interesting information about the origins of the Akasaka school and good to see how the area looked in the early Edo period. Thanks for sharing. Cheers, Justin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s