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).


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