The reading of the characters for Mino province

This time I want to introduce an aspect of signature readings which is probably not widely known. We all agree that the alternative notation (濃州) of Mino province (美濃) is read “Nôshû” but Kondô Hôji (近藤邦治), the president of the Gifu branch of the NBTHK, presented in Tôken-Bijutsu 613 an interesting view on a different reading of this notation which I would like to share with you. By the way, loyal readers of my blog will have noticed that I often come back to Kondô san, and indeed, his articles are of particular interest to me as they very match my own approach, namely providing additional and elsewhere usually not found insights into the world of the Japanese sword. In this sense let me take this opportunity to thank Kondô san for his great work!

First of all let me refer to the use of the suffix shû (州) to refer to provinces. The name goes back to the historical political divisions of China established during the Han Dynasty (漢朝, 206 BC – 220 AD) and were introduced in Japan with the ritsuryô system and its definition of administrative units and geographic regions, i.e. provinces. The ritsuryô was based on the philosophies of Confucianism and Chinese legalism as the Nara-period empire tried to replicate China´s rigorous political system from the then “in charge” Tang Dynasty. In Japan, the provinces were referred to as kuni (国), e.g. Bizen no Kuni (備前国), but with the introduction of the Chinese system, official texts tended to use the Chinese notation which was composed as a rule of the first character of the Japanese naming by adding the suffix shû, e.g. Bizen no Kuni became “Bishû” (備州). Incidentally, this ritsuryô system of the official definition and naming of provinces (ryôseikoku, 令制国) was actually in effect until the Meiji period. There were also exceptions to the aforementioned rule of taking the first character, for example for the Chinese-style notation of Ôsumi province (大隅) the second character sumi/gû (隅) was traken to create “Gûshû” (隅州). Mino province is such an exception as it used the second character for the Chinese style notation too but we know from Heian and Kamakura-era documents that in very olden times, also the notation “Mishû” (美州) existed for Mino.

Kondô now found out that the reading “Nôshû” for Mino province was not common before the late Edo period. A very important factor for us to know how certain names were pronounced in olden times is the practice of furigana, reading aids of smaller kana syllables written next to a kanji character. As for sword-related publications, the Ôseki-shô (往昔抄) from Eishô 16 (永正, 1519) is the oldest one to show furigana for signed Mino blades. Well, the famous Kanchi´n-bon mei-zukushi (観智院本銘尽) from from Ôei 30 (応永, 1423) ist a century older but does not show any Mino-related furigana. On the other hand, Bizen province for example is noted therein with the furigana “Hinsen” (ひんせん) or “Binzen” (びんぜん) what is a further indication of different readings of provinces in olden times. But back to the Ôseki-shô. Therein we find four Mino blades whose signatures start with (濃州), i.e. “Nôshû”, but all four are accompanied by the furigana aids “Jôshû”, noted in the old hentaigana (志やう志う). And in the Shinchô-kôki (信長公記), the chronicle of Oda Nobunaga compiled about a hundred years after the Ôseki-shô, Mino province is also quoted with the furigana “Jôshû”, although noted as (ぢょうしう). And even late Edo period textbooks for the education of children of samurai and commoners still quote the Chinese-style (濃州) notation of Mino province with the furigana “Jôshû” (じやうしう), for example the Tôkun-warai shintai-sei (童訓往来新大成) from Bunkyû two (文久, 1862).

Our reading “Nôshû” used today seems to have appeared around Kaei (嘉永, 1848-1854). For example there exist collections of warrior portraits of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳, 1798-1861) of which some Mino-related titles are furigana-aided “Jôshû” (じょうしゅう), and others “Nôshû” (のうしゅう). And it is now assumed that the quick acceptance of “Nôshû” goes back to the ambiguity of the readings of the Chinese-style notations of the provinces. The reading “Jôshû” in spoken Japanese can namely also refer to Yamashiro province (城州), Kôzuke province (上州), and Hitachi province (常州). This ambiguity of the Japanese language also resulted in colloquial but so-to-speak grammatical incorrect names to refer to certain smiths. For example if one wants to refer to Nagamitsu (永光) and doesn´t want to be confused with the famous Osafune Nagamitsu (長光), he says “Eimitsu” using not the Japanese but the Sino-Japanese reading ei for the character naga (永). The same applies to Norimitsu (法光) who is often referred to as “Hômitsu” or Rai Tomomitsu (来倫光) to as “Rinmitsu.” And the most famous example is probably Chôgi (長義) whose characters are, read Japanese-style “Nagayoshi”, rather ambiguous. So I hope this short discourse on ancient Japanese readings was of interest and if you ever travel back in time, say “Jôshû” and not “Nôshû”. 😉


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