Cutting ability nicknames of swords

By a recent inquiry of a collector I came across a blade´s nickname that had given me a little headache a time ago in another context. This other context was a blade by Kotetsu (虎徹) I introduced in my Kantei volumes (No 237.621, Shinto & Shinshintô-kantei pages 124-125; Shintô & Shinshintô-kantei zenshû pages 198-199) (see picture 1). The mei of the blade reads: “Dôsaku horu kore (同作彫之) – Nagasone Kotetsu Nyûdô Okisato” (長曽祢虎徹入道興里), and the kinzôgan-mei: “Konkaidan (坤皆断) mitsu-dô, futatsu-dô setsudan no sono hoka shosho muichifu tameshi no yue gô Konkaidan” (三ツ胴二ツ胴截断之其外処々無一不試之故号坤皆断, “because of the cutting test where the blade cutted through two, three bodies and also because it never failed, it shall be named ´Konkaidan´”) – “Yamano Ka´emon no Jô Nagahisa + kaô” (山野加右衛門尉永久).

 KotetsuKonkaidan

Picture 1: katana by Kotetsu, nagasa 71.2 cm, sori 1.2 cm

Konkaidan is, as mentioned in my Kantei volumes, a term from the divination system of the I-Ching, and after sending an inquiry to Japan, I was told that the konkaidan trigram also stands for the Dainichi-nyorai (大日如来), the Vairocana Buddha. Well, I was not that satisfied with that because of the lack of connection. A reference to the Vairocana Buddha alone would have been ok for me but the wording of the tameshi-mei “because of the cutting test … it shall be named ´Konkaidan´” made me doubt as if there is a better explanation. Now the Kantei volumes had to come to an end but this inscription preyed upon my mind. And some months later, it fell like scales from my eyes when browing through my Kantei volumes on the search for a certain blade by Kotetsu´s successor Okimasa (興正). The nickname of the blade has not so much to do with the Vairocana Buddha and the konkaidan trigram, or to be more precise the kon trigram (坤), has to be taken “literally” as a symbol. As seen in picture 2 it is composed of three broken lines which just look like three severed bodies positioned atop of each other for a cutting test! So the nickname of the blade Konkaidan translates roughly as “cut through three bodies like the kon trigram.”

 dotanbarai

Picture 2: The kon trigram and three bodies positioned at the dotanbarai.

The second blade I addressed was shortened to a wakizashi. It shows a flamboyant Bizen-style hamon with utsuri and has old tokubetsu-kichô papers to Heki Mitsuhira (日置光平), although the midare-komi bôshi and the workmanship in general made me and the owner of the blade also think that it might be a work of Tatara Nagayuki (多々良長幸). Anyway, the shortened nakago was inlayed with the nickname Konkaidan and interesting is, that this wakizashi comes with a habaki onto which the kon trigram is engraved (partly visible in picture 3).

 Konkaidan2

Picture 3: The nakago of the supposed Mitsuhira wakizashi with the kinzôgan-mei “Konkaidan”

 Konkaidan3

Konkaidan4

Picture 4: Flamboyant hamon of the supposed Mitsuhira wakizashi, nagasa 54.0 cm, sori 2.0 cm

So much for the supplements to the kinzôgan-mei “Konkaidan.” Now I want to introduce some more nicknames of swords which go more or less back to their cutting abilities, namely such nicknames which do not necessarily refer to the cutting ability of a single special blade but which are more “general” and thus might also be found inlayed on more than one blade.

Asaarashi (朝嵐): Asaarashi means literally “morning storm” and refers to strong storms in the morning which make it impossible for fresh snow to remain on mountain peaks. But it can also refer to a heavy storm which makes you slip and fall from a wintery mountain, so we have here basically the same allusion as the nickname → Sasanoyuki.

Daiyagawa (大谷川) Taki no mizu (滝之水)

Funabashi (船橋) → Tanahashi (棚橋)

Fusenaikyô (無布施経・布施無経): This term means literally “no offering at Sutra reading” and refers to the practice that monks usually received offerings (fuse, 布施) when paying a visit and reading Sutras. But sometimes the parishioners did not give any offerings and so the monks had to show up the next time without their kesa robe to quasi remind the parishioner of their poverty so that they provide some money. In sword terms, fusenaikyô just means to perform a kesa-kiri (袈裟斬り), i.e. a cut diagonally over the chest following theoretically the seam of a monks kesa robe. A saying namely developed from this monks practice which was “take off your kesa when going to read Sutras with no offerings” (fusenai-kyô ni kesa-otosu, 布施ない経に袈裟落す) and with this context, the blade nickname could also mean “Here, I take the kesa off for you with my sword!” For example, there is supposedly a blade by the Kan´ei-era (寛永, 1624-1644) Owari smith Ujikumo (氏雲), and one by the Osafune Sanenaga (真長) bearing the nickname Fusenaikyô.

Gibôshi-fusetsu no todomarazu (擬法珠風雪不溜): “Snow does not accumulate on a gibôshi.” A gibôshi is the onion-shaped ornament on a bridges handrail and so this nickname refers to a blade so sharp that it cuts through an object as easily as a snow slides from such a gibôshi.

Hachimonji (八文字): This nickname goes back to a legend which says that Satake Yoshishige (佐竹義重, 1547-1612) cut with his Chôgi blade (長義) in the tenth year of Eiroku (永禄, 1567) in a battle a mounted enemy into halves. Because the blow went through the helmet down to the saddle, both body halves slided down to the left and right of the horse. This “sliding” resembled the character (monji, 文字) for “eight” (hachi, 八) and this is why the blade got its nickname “Hachimonji.”

HachimonjiChogi

Picture 5: The meibutsu Hachimonji-Chôgi, nagasa 78.5 cm, sori 2.1 cm

Hatchô-Nenbutsu-dango-zashi (八丁念仏団子刺し): There is the legend about Suzuki Magoichi (鈴木孫一, 1534-1589) who cut with his sword at a monk but who kept reciting the nenbutsu and walked away from the scene as if nothing happened. Magoichi was so perplexed and wondered about the sharpness of his sword so that he stabbed angrily on the ground several times. After he had calmed down he looked down at his sword which had skewered stones (sashi/zashi, 刺し) like dumplings (dango, 団子). Then he followed the tracks of the monk and found him dead, cut intwo two halves, at a distance of eight chô (hatchô, 八丁 ~ 870 m). Thus he nicknamed his blade by Bizen Yukiie (行家) Hatchô-Nenbutsu-dango-zashi, about “if you cut somebody with this blade, the person doesn´t notice it because of the sharpness and can still make eight chô, and apart from that, you can skewer stones with it like dumplings.”

Jigokuzue (地獄杖): This term means literally “hell cane.” It is found for example as kinzôgan-mei on a Bungo-Takada blade and stands for the sword in general, i.e. the sword being a “cane” which sends you to hell.

Kagotsurube (籠釣瓶): This term is found on quite many blades. It means “woven bamboo basket (kago, 籠) as sinking bucket (tsuruba, 釣瓶).” A woven bamboo basket can´t hold water of course and as easy the water leaks out from such a basket, as easy cuts a blade with that nickname. An about identical nickname is Kotsurube (古釣瓶), i.e. a lit. “old basket” which can´t hold water. It is found as kinzôgan-mei on a wakizashi by Osafune Motoshige (元重) which was once a heirloom of the Tsuyama-Matsudaira family (津山松平).

KanesadaKagotsurube

Picture 6: katana by No-Sada with the kinzôgan-mei “Gô Kagotsurube” (号笭釣瓶), nagasa 66.8 cm, sori 1.7 cm. Please note that a different character for “Kago” was used for this inscription.

Kokesa (古袈裟): This name has basically two meanings. One alludes again to the kesa cut and the other one goes back to the symbolism of a very old kesa robe, i.e. a ko-kesa, which tears by itself and without any further force, quasi cutting through something so easily as if doesn´t need any extra force to do so. There is a blade by the Sue-Seki smith Kanemine (兼峯) which bears the ginzôgan-mei “Kokesa” (古けさ). A similar nickname is → Yaregoromo.

Kotsurube (古釣瓶) Kagotsurube (籠釣瓶)

Kusarinawa (腐り縄・クサリナワ): Kusarinawa means literally “rotten straw rope.” This nickname is found as kinzôgan-mei and in katakana syllables on an Aoe blade and refers like → Kokesa to an easily tearing rope, i.e. in the figurative sense to a very sharp blade which cuts through things easily.

Matsukaze (松風): This nickname is used for a sword which cuts through things as if nothing had happened, just making the sound of the wind soughing through pine trees. The kinzôgan-mei “Matsukaze” is for example found on a blade of the Sue-kotô Sakakura-Seki smith Masatoshi (酒倉正利).

Michishiba no tsuyu (道芝の露) Sasanoyuki (笹雪・篠雪)

Odoributsu (踊仏): Literally “dancing Buddha”, this term alludes to Buddha or a monk starting to dance and taking off the kesa from the shoulder. So again we have here a reference to the kesa cut. This nickname is found for example on a katana by Etchû no Kami Masatoshi (越中守正俊).

Oni-Hôchô (鬼包丁): A wakizashi in kata-shinogi-zukuri – a shape where one side is in shinogi-zukuri and the other one in hira-zukuri – by Hata Mitsuyo (秦光代) with a nagasa of 42,4 cm was the favourite sword of the famous Shinkage-ryû (新陰流) swordsman Yagyû Ren´ya Yoshikane (柳生連也厳包, 1625-1694). When Ren´ya was surprised one night by an assassin, he drew this short sword and killed his opponent with one single blow. Due to this incident, the blade received the nickname “Oni-Hôchô” (鬼包丁), lit “devil´s kitchen knife.” The peculiar shape was copied later by other smiths too whereas the nickname “Oni-Hôchô” was kept for such blades.

OniHocho

Picture7: Oni-Hôchô-style blade attributed to Hata Mitsuyo, nagasa 62.2 cm, sori 0.7 cm

Sasanoyuki (笹雪・篠雪): Literally “snow on a bamboo leaf,” this term alludes to no force needed to cut with such a blade just like snow slips from a bamboo leaf without further ado when too heavy. A similar nickname is Michishiba no tsuyu (道芝の露). It alludes to the dew (tsuyu, 道露) on roadside grass (michishiba, 道芝) which also slips from the leaves without any further ado. This rather uncommon name was used for a blade of Kimura Shigenari (木村重成, 1593-1615) who fought an all-out battle at the Siege of Ôsaka but was caught and beheaded. And the same allusion is used by the nickname Take no ha no arare (竹葉霰・竹の葉のあられ), lit. “hail slipping from bamboo leaves.”

Sotto-hasamibako (ソット挟箱): This nickname is found for example as inscription on a blade by Kanefusa (兼房). It refers to a certain storage box (hasamibako, 挟箱) for spare clothes worn by a servant via a stick over the shoulder. At this certain form of such a box, clothes were pinched between two bamboo sticks and carried over the shoulder to let them dry. But they sometimes fell down, silently and unnoticed (sotto, ソット) as the weight did not much decrease and not making any noise when hitting the ground. So a sword nicknamed that way is so sharp that the enemy doesn´t even notice that he had been hit.

Take no ha no arare (竹葉霰・竹の葉のあられ) → Sasanoyuki (笹雪・篠雪)

Taki no mizu (滝之水): Nickname for a blade which is so sharp that a severed body part falls off like the water (mizu, 水) of a waterfall (taki, 滝). A blade by the Kan´ei-era (寛永, 1624-1644) Owari smith Bungo no Kami Masamitsu (豊後守正全) is named that way. A nickname with the same meaning is Daiyagawa (大谷川). It refers to Kegon Falls (華厳滝) along the Daiyagawa in the Nikkô National Park.

Tanahashi (棚橋): A tanahashi is a bridge without any railing, i.e. a bridge from which one can fall from easily. The Yamano family used this term to mark a very sharp blade, for example found as kinzôgan-mei on a blade of Yamato no Kami Yasusada (大和守安定). A similar term is Funabashi (船橋), a “bridge” made out of aligned boats. Crossing a river via aligned and moving boats without any railings is of course dangerous and one can slip easily. The nickname Funabashi is for example found on a blade by Tanba no Kami Yoshimichi (丹波守吉道).

Tôrinuke (通抜): This term means as verb torinukeru (通り抜ける) “to cut through, to go through,” i.e. it refers to a sharp sword which cuts through things easily.

Unomi (鵜呑): A sword which cuts through things as easy and fast as a cormorand (u, 鵜) swallows (nomi, 呑) fish. A blade by Hachiya Kanesada (蜂屋兼貞) for example bears this nickname.

Yaregoromo (弊衣・破衣): The term means “worn out clothes”, i.e. so worn out and thin that they tear easily. It is said that Tokugawa Mitsukuni (徳川光圀, 1628-1701) nicknamed his blade by Onizuka Yoshikuni (鬼塚吉国) that way when punishing a dissolute priest with it. That means the sharp blade cut so easily through the poor monk like worn out clothes tear apart. Another nickname with the same meaning is Yareginu (破絹), lit. “worn out silk.” It is found on a blade by Harima no Kami Teruhiro (播磨守輝広).

Yume no aida (夢の間): This term means “as in a dream” or “like dreaming.” It is found for example on a blade by Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀) which with a wakige (脇下) test cut through the armpits went through the body as if nothing had happened, i.e. just like everything was a dream.

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2 thoughts on “Cutting ability nicknames of swords

  1. Hi Markus,

    Thank you for another great post (not to mention I’ve been a fan of your translation work for a good while). When I noticed this post in my news feed I was thinking there must be something very interesting for me in there. Because almost a decade ago I acquired a sword with a signature which included some sort of a nickname (at least it was my best guess at the time). And I was right as one of the nicknames in your article is Odoributsu (踊仏). Please have a look at my sword: http://nihontoclub.com/swords/0000-0160 and at its signature in particular: http://nihontoclub.com/sword-images/13288/14549. I’ve been looking for an explanation all this time and it’s great to finally find some concrete information on the matter.

    There is one difference though: ‘Odoributsu’ is not inlaid but cut, in front of the owner’s name. Do you think it may mean it’s the nickname of the person rather than the sword?

    Also, just out of interest, where did you get such a detailed list of nicknames?

    Regards,
    Stan Nazarenko

    • Hi Stan,
      Thank you for your kind words and I am happy that my article is of help for you. As for the nicknames, I had a brief list of them in my drawer and thought that this might be something worthwile to translate. So I put that list in order and added some nicknames which I had stumbled over before.
      When looking at your blade, I tend to think that “Odoributsu” is nickname of the owner of the sword. Maybe some incident of “wild dancing” or a kesagiri sword wound over his shoulder earned him this nickname. I found out that Asahina Genzaemon fought in the Shimabara Rebellion by the way.
      Best regards,
      Markus

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