Thoughts on the earliest known sword experts

Whilst working off my backlog and working parallel on some projects, I once again came across the question: To whom is all this information we know about swordsmiths today going back? This means, consulting the older sword publications is becomes soon obvious that they all copied from each other over time and go more or less back to the same sources. And to shed a light on these sources by going back as far as possible, so to speak to the Big Bang of extant sword publication, is the aim of this article.

The oldest extant publication that deals solely with swords is the so-called Kanchi´in Bon Mei Zukushi (観智院本銘尽) from the 30th year of Ôei (応永, 1423). From its imprint and comments along the text we learn that it was actually a fair copy of older relevant sword records, gathered until the fifth year of Shôwa (正和, 1316) and done so by a certain Kôzôbô Kôjun (行蔵坊幸順). The initial title of the compilation was shortly Mei Zukushi (銘尽) what might best be translated as “Signature Almanac” or “Signature Overview.” The name under which it is known today goes back to the fact that the book (hon or voiced bon) was preserved in the Kanchi´in temple which belongs to Kyôto´s Tô-ji temple complex. Incidentally, it is thought that the part “Kôzôbô” in the compiler´s name is not a name but indicated that the monk (, 坊) was yet not living in retirement or seclusion, a roaming or more wordly stage in a monk´s life which was circumscribed as kôzô (行蔵). Anyway, the information found in the Kanchi´in Bon Mei Zukushi is quite basic. We see drawings of lower parts of sword tangs and underneath the name of the particular smith, the province, and in the best case his affiliation, the time he worked, his workmanship, and other characteristics (see picture 1 left). The nakago drawings are highly stylized. Some of them bear a mei, or rather just the name of the smith and not a 1:1 copy of an actual signature, and we see indicated yasurime. The tang drawings are followed in the book by a section that we would call today a meikan, i.e. a list of smith names with brief details starting with “Smiths of Ancient Times,” e.g. Amakuni (天国) and the like. Next follows a large genealogic section (see picture 1 right), “interrupted” by a list of Ex-emperor Gotoba´s goban-kaji.


Picture 1: Two pages from the Kanchi´in Bon Mei Zukushi.

The small book of a little over fifty pages looks simple and naive at a glance, but apart from the tang drawings, the information therein is pretty detailed and far away from something someone had made solely up in his leisure time. Question is, where did a humble monk from Kyôto had all this information from? It is totally unclear if and how swordsmiths and their works were recorded at a central location at that time, e.g. at a governmental institution or something like that. But it seems unlikely that temples were responsible for that, i.e. it is safe to assume that the Kanchi´in or Tô-ji did not act as “contact point” for all Kamakura period sword matters. What makes the Kanchi´in Bon Mei Zukushi so interesting is on the one hand that it was written at a time, if we take the Shôwa five date for granted, when the great late Kamakura period masters we appreciate today so much were still active, and on the other hand that it marks the transition from heresay to systematic sword studies. This means, the vast majority of pre-Nanbokuchô references to swords consist of lists of subjective reports of various swordsmen, sometimes accompanied by superficial descriptions of the outward appearance of a blade. The Kanchi´in Bon Mei Zukushi and subsequent publications followed so to speak an opposite approach to this issue, that is to say from the converse argument that certain features on blades meant certain features in their construction and/or cutting ability and in a next step, that blades can be attributed to certain smiths on the basis of these features. Very early sword records consisted basically of subjective reports that were going round and were based on (a warriors) personal experience of the sharpness, the durability, and handling of a blade, accompanied by stories about auspicious or unfortunate swords of certain smiths. This laid the foundations – which was back then very superstitious in character – for a first kind of sword appraisal or evaluation. It was called mekiki (目利) which means roughly: the effect (kiku, 利く) of the outward form/shape (me, 目), or: the ability (kiku, 利く) to make (an) evaluation(s) based on the outward form/shape (me, 目). The Muromachi period is now the time where the mekiki, i.e. an appraisal or evaluation of a blade based on its outward appearance (kensô, 剣相), was replaced by the so-called kantei (鑑定). Unlike the mekiki, which rather judged the quality of a blade based on the kensô and only gave an attribution in second stance, the attribution to a certain smith or school was the kantei´s main goal.

Back to the early sword experts. We don´t know much about Kôjun except the temple he worked for and that he was active at the very end of the Kamakura period. Apart from Kôjun, the early, i.e. pre-Muromachi sword experts that left us their writings can be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of them was Nagoya Tôtômi Nyûdô Shûki (名越遠江入道崇喜). Incidentally, I quoted his family name wrongly as “Nagoe” in my Genealogies and Schools of Japanese Swordsmiths based on the modern reading of the place name to which this name goes back, that is somewhat to the east of Kamakura´s Tsuruoka-Hachimangû. I learned that the area and name was read “Nagoya” in earlier times what I could confirm by checking the chronicle Taiheiki in which his name is quoted as “Nagoya no Tôtômi.” It is assumed that Shûki was a descendant of Hôjô Yoshitoki´s (北条義時, 1163-1224) second son Tomotoki (北条朝時, 1193-1245) who was the founder of the Nagoya-Hôjô line by adopting the name of the Hôjô residence that was located in Nagoya and that he inherited as his family name. Experts assume that “Shûki” was the priest name of one of Tomotoki´s grandsons, Hôjô Atsutoki (北条篤時, ?-1292), or of Atsutoki´s son Kimiatsu (北条公篤, ?-1333) as both bore the honorary title “Tôtômi no Kami.” We know that several of the prominent Hôjô heads of the time that were regents of the bakufu in Kamakura were also sword experts, for example Hôjô Yasutoki (北条泰時, 1183-1242) and Hôjô Sadatoki (北条貞時, 1271-1311). Apart from that, we know of the so-called Chûshin Mono (注進物), a list of sixty of the best swordsmiths all over the country that was compiled by the Nagoya family and presented to the bakufu, then under Hôjô regency, quasi as an orientation guide of what swords to have or give as presents. This too suggests that the Nagoya were closely related to the Hôjô, also because the aforementioned Hôjô regents were working smiths from that very list into their own lists of recommended swordsmiths. So we don´t know exactly who Shûki was but we can confirm that his knowledge was held in high regard and the bakufu welcomed his expertise.


Picture 2: The relevant section of the Genki Gannen Tôken Mekiki Sho referring to Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô and the source of his data, Nagoya Tôtômi Nyûdô Shûki.

Then there was Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô (宇都宮三河入道) who was the foremost sword expert in service of the Ashikaga-bakufu. The Genki Gannen Tôken Mekiki Sho (元亀元年刀剣目利書) from the first year of Genki (元亀, 1570) states (see picture 2) that its data goes back to a Ôan two (1369) copy of Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô that bases in turn on data compiled by Nagoya Tôtômi Nyûdô Shûki in Shôwa three (1314). A somewhat later work, the Shinkan Hiden Shô (新刊秘伝抄) published in the Tenshô era (天正, 1573-1592) by the then sword expert Takeya Rian (竹屋理安), says that Utsunimoya was a direct student of Nagoya. So when Utsunomiya indeed made a fair copy of the documents he had received from his teacher, he did so long after Nagoya had died as there is a time difference of 55 years between Shôwa three and Ôan two. But this is quite plausible as Utsunomiya probably did all this, i.e. making fair copies of what he had inherited from his teacher, when he was approaching his later years and decided that is now time for him to hand over information to the next generation of sword experts. Who was Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô? The conventional tradition says that he was a member of the Utsunomiya family that held the hereditary function of high priest of the Nangû Grand Shrine (南宮大社). The Nangû Grand Shrine was the head shrine of Mino province and is dedicated to the deity Kanayamahiko (金山彦), the patron saint of all metalworkers and swordsmiths. The shrine has always been an important place of pilgrimage for these craftsmen and, already the tenth century Engi Shiki (延喜式) mentions sword offerings to this shrine by smiths from various regions. So it is also natural that the shrine was in the possession of information dealing with sword and other smiths making offerings to the enshrined deity on a regular basis. The lineage records of the Utsunomiya family that are preserved in this shrine lists a certain Motoshige (根重) with the following details: “Utsu Mikawajirô (宇都参河二郎), Tetsudô Nyûdô (鉄道入道), is very knowledgeable concerning steel goods and swords.” Experts assume that this Motoshige entry refers to Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô but interesting is that the entry right to the right of him about Masafuji (正藤), what would be his cousin, quotes the nyûdô-gô “Mikawa Nyûdô” and says that he died in Bun´an two (文安, 1445) at the age of 79. Motoshige´s mother is listed with having died in Ôei 28 (1421) at the age of 76 what leaves doubt that Motoshige was a direct student of Nagoya. That means when his mother was born in 1345, he must had done the aforementioned fair copy from Ôan two (1369) when he was only 24 years old. And also Masafuji can´t be Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô because he was only three when the fair copy of Nagoya´s data was made. So the sword expert were a looking for was either their father, Fujishige (藤重, ?-?) for Motoshige and Naofuj (直藤, ?-1381) for Masafuji, or their common grandfather Yasufuji (泰藤, ?-1358). Interesting is that Yasufuji´s mother was a Hôjô and that again like in the case of Kôjun, a person related to a religious institution did all the compilation and copying work of the sword records. And probably Nagoya too did all his research after entering priesthood under the name Shûki. Certain traditions say that Nagoya was from Mino but it now seems that this local connection goes back to confirming a master-student relationship with Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô. This means, either Utsunomiya came from Mino to Kamakura to learn from Nagoya or Nagoya spent later in his life some time at the Nangû Grand Shrine, as mentioned hosting the patron saint of all swordsmiths, and taught Utsunomiya there.


Picture 3: The Utsunomiya Genealogy preserved in the Nangu Grand Shrine.

Another sword publication, the Yana Shi Shôchô Mei Zukushi (簗氏正長銘図) states that Utsunomiya Mikawa Nyûdô learned sword appraisal from Yana Gyôbuzaemon Nyûdô En´a (簗刑部左衛門入道円阿). The Yana was a branch family of the Utsunomiya that had adopted the place name of Yana as their family name way before the time of En´a, who is otherwise mentioned as Kamakura-period general. The Yana Shi Shôchô Mei Zukushi continues the genealogy of appraisal and says that Utsunomiya handed over his knowledge to a certain Jun´a (順阿), from whom the teachings were taught over Kô´a (順阿) and Jû´a (重阿) to Saitô Toshinaga (斎藤利永, ?-1460). Toshinaga in turn was the father of Saitô Toshiyasu (斎藤利安, ?-1530) who is regarded as author of the famous Muromachi period sword publication Ôseki Shô (往昔抄), which was published by the way by his son Toshitada (利匡) in Eishô 16 (永正, 1519). With this, we are entering the time of the emergence of the later dominating lineages of sword experts, that is to say the Takeya and the Hon´ami families, and how they went on from there can be looked up in relevant publications, for example my very own The Honami Family.


Picture 4: Page from the Ôseki Shô.

So what we learn from trying to understand the early days of systematizing sword knowledge is that there was a strong connection to temples and shrines. But relevant publications were probably not commissioned by these religious institutions but tackled by former warriors who were studying swords for their whole life but who only had the time and leisure to do so in their later years after retiring and entering priesthood. In this course it is possible that, apart from the direct students and family members who inherited the documents of these experts, copies were made by and left in the temple or shrine the swords experts had retreated to work. Also conceivable is that much of the written bequest of an expert was given to the temple or shrine as there had been a more or less deep connection between the religious institution and the deceased. Just like here where many people bequested their belongings to the church. Anyway, one day I want to write a complete and extensive chronologic overview of all known historic sword publications so that certain connections and lines of thought become evident.


Picture 5: The Nangu Grand Shrine in the present-day town of Tarui, Gifu Prefecture.

In this sense, I wish all of you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2015! This blog will be closed until some time after New Year but you can get in touch with me at any time via mail (see imprint).

One thought on “Thoughts on the earliest known sword experts

  1. I have read this essay twice and loved it both times. Thank you very much for original and skilled research.

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