From the life of a rural Edo period swordsmith



Whilst checking my archive for historic sword orders in another context, I came across an article published by Fukaminato Kyôko (深港恭子) – editorial member of the documentary archives section of the Reimeikan Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historic Material – in Tôken Bijutsu No 543 (July 2001). This article contains very interesting information that I want to share with my readers as it gives a good insight into the life of a rural Edo period swordsmith, a facet of the Japanese sword that is still hardly addressed in relevant sources. The information Fukaminato forwards goes back to the collection of historic documents that was handed down within the local Nakamura family (中村), in particular the diary of the swordsmith Kiyotomo (清巴), but one after another.

The Nakamura family of swordsmiths is said to go back to the Muromachi-era Satsuma smith Kiyotomo (清友) who was active in the early decades of the 16th century and who had been a student of the Osafune-trained master Kiyosuke (清左). I want to skip the genealogy right after Kiyotomo and start in the early Edo period. Suffice it to say, the Nakamura smiths worked in a hereditary manner for the Kimotsuki family (肝付) who were retainers of the Shimazu clan and who were in control over Kiire (喜入) which was estimated with an annual income of 5,500 koku. Administrative center of the Kiire territory was the small town of the same name that is located about 15 miles (25 km) to the south of Kagoshima (and which was merged with expanding Kagoshima in 2004). See pictures below to get an idea of where the Nakamura family worked. They were actually not that far away from Kagoshima but as they were not employed by the Shimazu family, i.e. the Satsuma fief, and in view of the declining sword order situation at the time of Kiyoyasu (清保) and his son Kiyotomo (清巴), I address themhere as rural swordsmiths.


Picture 1: The southwestern tip of Kyûshû with the Sakurajima volcano to the east of Kagoshima. Kiire somewhat to the south is easy to recognize due to its huge coastal oil storage facilities. © Google Earth.


Picture 2: The view from Kagoshima south towards Kiire. © Google Earth.


Picture 3: From Kiire north towards Kagoshima. © Google Earth.


Picture 4: The town of Kiire and mountains beyond as seen from the seaside. © Google Earth.

This family of swordsmiths might not be on everyone’s lips by the name Nakamura but it gave rise to the famous master Ippei Yasuyo (一平安代, 1680-1728) who was, as everybody knows, one of the winners of the sword forging contest held by shôgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751) in the sixth year of Kyôhô (享保, 1721). But our journey starts somewhat later, with the aforementioned Kiyotomo (清巴, 1784-1867), whose extant diaries cover (with a short interruption between the years 1796 and 1799) the time from Kansei seven (寛政, 1795) to Bunsei nine (文政, 1826). That means he started to write a diary at the age of eleven and stopped when he was 42 years old, or rather that is what is extant. He lived to the venerable age of 83, so we are facing about the first half of his life. Well, times had changed by then, of course also for swordsmiths, and the most famous child of the family, Ippei Yasuyo, had lived about a century ago. Incidentally, Yasuyo was the son of Yasusada (安貞) who was the son of Kiyosada (清貞). Kiyosada in turn was, if you start counting with Kiyotomo (清友), the 7th generation Nakamura main line. “Our” Kiyotomo (清巴) was the 13th head of the family (click here for a brief genealogy of the Nakamura family). The vast majority of the diary is about fulfilling certain official duties, annual events, temple or shrine visits, and reports on being sick and sword-related entries are actually rather rare. This is on the one hand only natural as these diaries were meant as, well, personal diaries, and not as minute business records but on the other hand, we find therein records on the production of farming tools like sickles and axes they made mostly on the basis of annual contracts and what neighboring towns he, his father, and his uncle went to deliver them. Actually, there are only two entries found in Kiyotomo’s diary that explicitly mention sword orders: One blade made for a private customer and a wakizashi that was ordered by his employer, the Kimotsuki family. However, we learn that Kiyotomo received from his employer in the tenth month of Bunsei one (1818) an order for 78 forked karimata arrowheards to be used in a yabusame event. The order said that 24 of them should come with an ornamental inome-sukashi and that those were paid 100 mon (文, copper coins) each. For the less elaborate arrowheads without an opening, Kiyotomo received 72 mon. So the whole order earned him about 6,300 mon, i.e. a little more than 1 ½ ryô. That’s about it when it comes to “samurai equipment” as all extant records, i.e. not only the diaries, and the utmost rarity of extant blades of Kiyotomo, his father Kiyoyasu, and his grandfather Kiyonari point towards the fact – and Fukaminato sees it that way too – that the Nakamura were merely making a living as smiths for agricultural and other tools by the start of the 19­th century. We learn from the diary that Kiyotomo bought the raw material iron from local sources like Kawanabe (川辺), Shinmaki (新牧), and Yukimaru (雪丸), all mining areas located in the mountain ranges to the west and south of Kiire. But from other Nakamura documents we know that at the glory days of the family, i.e. at the time Ippei Yasuyo’s uncle Kiyoyuki (清行) and grandfather Kiyosada (清貞) had been active, i.e. around Genroku (元禄, 1688-1704), and when sword orders were plenty, expensive and high-quality steels like Shisô Steel (宍粟鉄) from the upper reaches of the Chigusagawa (千草川) in Harima province and Izuha Steel (出羽鉄) from Iwami province were imported via a specialized Ôsaka-based trader named – nomen est omen – Tetsuya Gorôbei (鉄屋五郎兵衛).


Picture 5: Kiyotomo’s diaries.


Back to Kiyotomo. He writes in his diary that he became a page to the Kimotsuki when he was 16 years old and had to do service at their facilities on the ninth, 19th, and 29th day of each month. But he expressed the wish to end this duty and quit only two years later. Fukaminato assumes that his termination of the job might be connected to some health reasons as the diaries are full of reports of being ill but he must had been in the need for extra money because just three months after he had quit his page job, he started to work one evening a month as a clerk for the local Yamano family (山野). Before I finally introduce something indeed sword-related, I think it might also be interesting to let you know about the three major ceremonies or celebrations in the annual life of an Edo-period swordsmith that are also found in Kiyotomo’s diaries. The first was the so-called saiku-hajime (細工始め), the first craftwork of the New Year made on the second day of the first month. Blacksmiths make for example in a ceremonious manner a small sickle at that day and decorate with it the front pillar of the house or workshop. Next was the Kanayama-matsuri or fuigo-matsuri (金山祭・鞴祭), the Kanayama or Bellows Festival respectively, held each year on the eighth day of the eleventh month. And shortly later, on the 28th day of the eleventh month, the so-called kajiko (鍛冶講) ceremony was held where smiths presented offers to their protective deity Kanayamahiko (金山彦).


What about swords? As mentioned, extant works of Kiyotomo, Kiyoyasu, and Kiyonari are very rare. What we find in the Nakamura archive is an undated sword order from a certain Nomoto Suke’emon (野本助右衛門) that is addressed to a not further specified Nakamura Sei’emon (中村清右衛門, first name also reads Kiyo’emon). Well, Sei’emon was the hereditary first name of the Nakamura main line and thus born by several smiths, e.g. by the 6th gen. Kiyomitsu (清光), the 7th gen. Kiyosada (清貞), the 9th gen. Kiyofusa (清房), the 10th gen. Kiyomasa (清方), and the 12th gen. Kiyoyasu (清保), and also not much is known about the orderer Nomoto Suke’emon. So Fukaminato leaves this question to which Nakamura generation this order is addressed open but the order that I will introduce in the following shows the name Shirao Kinzaemon (白尾金左衛門). I did some research on this person and found out that his name appears on a list of retainers that followed in death lord Shimazu Mitsuhisa (島津光久, 1616-1694), the second Satsuma daimyô, by committing junshi (殉死). As the sword order states “like at the sword made for Shirao Kinzaemon,” I think we can narrow down Nomoto’s order to the time of the 7th gen. Kiyosada (清貞) and let me explain why. Kiyomasa was not yet born when Shirao committed junshi and his predecessor Kiyofusa was only 27 years old. Kiyofusa’s father Kiyoyuki would come theoretically into question but he did not bear the first name Sei’emon and when we assume that Shirao did not order his sword from a very young Kiyofusa, we arrive at Kiyosada who was a contemporary of Shimazu Mitsuhisa. So even if the records just mention “Nakamura Sei’emon” in this respect, I will take for granted for the time being that Kiyosada received this very order but will just refer to “the smith” in the following.


Picture 6: Nomoto Suke’emon’s sword order.


刀壱振 但かうぶせ作 
一 長サ弐尺四寸五部 一 本ハヽ壱寸弐部但先ニ◯部をとる 
一 重ねしのきの上ニ而四部 一 むねのあつミ部 
一 切先横手ゟ上壱寸弐部 但はる出たる切り先ニして刃しゝをつよく 
一 切先刃之かゑりひきへ、白尾金左衛門殿江作被遺候刀之 
一 刃ミだれ刃 但大刃ニ無之様ニ 
一 そり三部半 但そり過たるハ承知不申上候間、三部半ゟ四部迄間ニそりを御作可被下候、◯◯もそり不申 
一 中子長八寸 
Katana hitofuri tadashi kôbuse saku
• nagasa 2 shaku 4 sun 5 bu • motohaba 1 sun 2 bu tadashi saki ni ? bu o toru
• kasane shinogi no ue ni shikamo 4 bu • mine no atsumi 2 bu
• kissaki yokote yori ue 1 sun 2 bu tadashi haridetaru kissaki ni shite ha shishi o tsuyoku
• kissaki-ha no kaeri hiki e, Shirao Kinzaemon dono e saku-okusare sôrô katana no kissaki no gotoku, kaeri o gyosaku kudasarubeshi-sôrô
• ha midareba tadashi ô-ha ni kore naki yô ni
• sori 3 bu han tadashi sori sugitaru wa shôchi môshiagezu sôrô-aida, 3 bu han yori 4 bu made-aida ni sori o gyosaku kudasarubeshi-sôrô, ?? mo sori mosazu-yô tanomizonji-sôrô
• nakago nagasa 8 sun
Migi no chûmon no tôri gyosaku totonoe kudasarubeshi-sôrô, banji-tanomu môshi-sôrô, ijô
Nomoto Suke’emon
jûnigatsu nijûnichi
Namakura Sei’emon dono
One katana in kôbuse.
• nagasa 74.2 cm • motohaba 3.6 cm and at the tip ? cm
• kasane at the shinogi 1.2 cm and at the back 0.6 cm
• as for the kissaki, from the yokote upwards 3.6 cm and with a pronounced fukuraplease make the kaeri like on the kissaki of the sword you made for Shirao Kinzaemon
• the ha should be a midareba but not too wide
• sori 1.0 cm, please inform me in the case the sori is noticeable deeper but everything between 1.0 and 1.2 cm is fine and you can leave it that way without further notifying me
• nakago length 24.2 cm
Please make the sword according to these points, everything else I leave in your hands.
Nomoto Suke’emon
20th day of the twelfth month
to Mr. Nakamura Sei’emon

Very interesting is also the correspondence after the order was placed. Just eight days later, the letter is dated with the 28th day of the twelfth month, Nomoto inquires about his order as he has heard from a certain Iwanaga (岩長) that his blade turned out to have a not further specified kizu and how this might have an effect on the delivery. Reason for that is not Nomoto panicking but we learn from other letters that it is him who has to make arrangements with the polisher and all the other artists involved making a koshirae and that all this has to be done in a certain time frame as he wants to have his sword finished at the latest by the seventh month of the coming year when he has to proceed to Edo. He informs the smith about that in a letter dated with the twelfth day of the first month. So we learn that it was not necessarily the smith who did all this arrangements necessary to deliver a completed sword to the client. It is possible that this was the case at forges operating in the larger castle towns with an arranged infrastructure between all the craftsmen themselves (see pictures below), or more likely, there were agents doing all this for the clients. But from the fact that Nomoto makes kind of pressure right at the beginning of his sword being made, we can assume that seven months was just enough time to make arrangements with the togi-shi, habaki-shi, saya-shi, tsukamaki-shi, and so on, that means coordinating the entire process on the basis of the time each craftsman estimates for doing his job, taking into account his order situation and so on. Well, it would be interesting to know how it happened that Nomoto was informed about that kizu and that just about a week after the order was placed. Maybe the smith, i.e. Kiyosada, was handling this order with priority and started to work on the blade the very same day he received the order. Or he and Nomoto had been in touch before and Kiyosada had things prepared, e.g. already did some foundation forging, and just waited for the “official” order to come in to forge out from there the sunobe and so on. Because when we deduct the time for mailing, i.e. one day for the letter from Nomoto to the smith and one day for the letter or the personal talk of Iwamoto to Nomoto, six days sound pretty short for forging a blade. From another case found in the Nakamura archive we learn that such kizu must had been quite common. There is an undated letter extant where the blade was returned to the smith after the polisher had discovered a kizu, that means it the flaw was not visible with the foundation polish done by the smith himself. This letter too is undated and just addressed to Nakamura Sei’emon but the name Shirao Shirôbei (白尾四郎兵衛) appears on it and after some research I found in a Shimazu-related document a Shirao Shirôbei Kuniyoshi (白尾四郎兵衛国芳) in an entry from the fourth year of Enkyô (延享, 1747), mentioning him as yari fighting instructor. So if this is our man, then probably the 10th Nakamura generation Kiyomasa (清方, 1698-1782) was the smith. Also a wakizashi ordered by their employers, the Kimotsuki, to be granted to an unnamed young “man” at a genpuku ceremony had to be returned from the polisher as a kizu was revealed. This is mentioned in a document from Hôreki three (宝暦, 1753) and so here too Kiyomasa is meant. But Kiyomasa was not a nobody. He even studied in Kyôto with Iga no Kami Kinmichi (伊賀守金道) and received the honorary title Ise no Kami (伊勢守).


Picture 7: Smith and polisher.


Picture 8: saya-shi

This makes me think that even for a (rural but) renowned master like Kiyomasa, turning out a flawless blade was not taken for granted, also taking into account that he surely put extra effort into a blade made according to an official order from his employer. It was just a more or less common thing in this “league” and no whatsoever “harsh words” from any of the clients are found in these documents. Surely, we are not talking about the greatest masters of their time where customers paid a fortune to get one of their blades, and bearing in mind the humble order situation for a mid to later Edo period rural swordsmith, I think we should duly respect their work even if their blades might not be able to keep up with the high expectations we place today in art swords. So although rural, the Nakamura smiths were still held in high regard by local samurai as Nomoto writes in another letter that he places his order with Kiyosada (a blade of him can be found here) because really badly forged, “amateurish” blades are made in and around Kagoshima whose cutting edges are chipping even when cutting soft targets. Further he writes that this sword should accompany him for the rest of his life, so no wonder when he was much concerned about everything, also having in mind the humble salary of a simple hanshi (藩士) that I addressed in an article I wrote a while ago (download here)…

I hope I was able to provide with this article an interesting insight into the life of a rural Edo period swordsmith and another one is in work that has a historic sword order as a basis.


2 thoughts on “From the life of a rural Edo period swordsmith

  1. The Nakamura family smiths and their sideline cousins, the Tamaki, are still today still remembered in Kiire-cho, Kagoshima prefecture as working exclusively for the local 5500 koku Kiire Kimotsuki Lords (pronounced Kimotsuki not Kimotsuke) of which I have the honour to be a member of this family. Thank you for mentioning this episode Mr. Markus.

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