Banzuke (番付)

I know, the two articles a week have become quite rare lately on my site as I still try to catch up on things big time. So in order to avoid posts slackening completely, I want to briefly introduce an interesting item that I came across the other day in course of an ongoing translation.

Some of you might be familiar with the banzuke (番付, lit. “ranking list”), the posters or flyers published before each sumô tournament that list the rankings of the participating wresters. As mentioned in the Wikipedia entry here, this kind of banzuke document can be traced back to the 1700s. Entering the 1800s, banzuke started to find its way into other fields, almost everything, as we know banzuke rankings for Onsen hot springs, famous poets  and song writers from the past, plants, gardens, craftsmen, famous swordsmen, and scenic views for example, and from the Meiji era onwards also for millionaires (or the richest people of each province/prefecture) which kind of became the Japanese Forbes list after WWII.

Now I have seen some banzuke on swordsmiths but the one I want to introduce here is the first on tsuba makers that I recall coming across. But before we continue, I briefly want to explain how these banzuke “work,” or rather how they are structured. Usually, the sheet contains the name and date of the tournament followed by a list of referees and promoters/sponsors. This information forms the mid section and the wrestlers are divided into East, which is printed on the right, and West, which is printed on the left. The top row with the largest characters always marks the highest ranking wrestlers, starting in descending order from right to left for each division. It starts thus with the Ôzeki (大関), the current champion, who is followed by the ranks of Sekiwake (関脇), Komusubi (小結), and Maegashira (前頭). After the first Maegashira or first row of Maegashira, the rest of the wrestlers of that rank are only marked by the character (同), which just means “ibid.” or “the same.” As for swords (see picture below), there are banzuke that list kotô smiths on the right and shintô/shinshintô smiths on the left side, or vice versa, or specific kotô, shintô/shinshintô, or even WWII era gendaitô banzuke where the East and West division is kept by just following the then provinces (or prefectures), e.g. everything east from Kyôto on the right side and everything west on the left side (which was not always strictly followed).


So what should one make of such a swordsmith banzuke? Well, first of all, they seem to appear at a time when sword publications had been widely available for a certain time. Ranking was very much a thing in Edo period Japan and so the already well-known banzuke format perfectly fitted the need of a sword collector or enthusiast for a simple and easy to understand list in a handy format, i.e. a folded or rolled up poster (or just a larger sheet of paper). These swordsmith banzuke were exactly seen as what they were, that is a useful guidance for one who is not that deep into swords to get a basic overview of where the skill of a smith of interest is placed within the sword cosmos. That said, they were not understood as set in stone and legally binding rankings on the basis of which you can start a lawsuit against a dealer, e.g. if you wanted an Ôzeki ranked smith and he sold you a Maegashira.

And this brings us to the tsuba makers banzuke that I was talking about (see picture below). It is titled Tôken Tsuba Kagami (刀剣鍔鏡) and was compiled by Noda Takaaki (野田敬明, 1759-1825) some time during the Bunsei era (文政, 1818-1830). Noda was an expert of sword fittings and wrote amongst others the Edo Kinkô Meifu (江都金工名譜, 1810) and Kinkô Kantei Hiketsu (金工鑑定秘訣, 1820). The mid section has to be taken with a grain of salt, i.e. Sanjô Tachibana Munechika (三条橘宗近), Umetada Myôju (埋忠明寿), Yamashiro Kanesada (山城金定), and Myôchin Nobusada (明珍信貞) are quoted as “referees” (gyôji, 行司) for this “tournament.” Below of that referee section we find two names, Sôheishi Sôten (藻柄子宗典) and Hizen Jakushi (肥前若芝). This is interesting as they are listed as kantei-moto (鑑定元), hinting at the term kanjin-moto (勧進元, promoter/sponsor) that is found on sumô banzuke. The term kantei-moto implies to me that Sôten and Jakushi works, which were produced in very large numbers and thus found in every corner of Japan, were used by Noda as basis (moto) for his judgement (kantei) of the ranking.

To conclude, I want to quote the important top section (also because the lower parts of the banzuke are illegible anyway on the picture. This gives you a good overview of which tsuba makers were regarded as best at that time, i.e. the early 1800s. The two undisputed grandmasters (Ôzeki) were Kaneie (金家), listed on the right, and Nobuie (信家), listed on the left. Please note that Nobuie is quoted as “Kôfu Nobuie” (甲府信家), i.e. back then it was still assumed that it was the Myôchin armorer based in Kai province who made the tsuba. The two Sekiwake were Bishû Yamakichi (尾州山吉), i.e. Yamakichibei on the right, and Chôshû Mitsutsune (長州光恒) on the left, the founder of the Nakai family. The right side Komusubi is Higo Shigeharu (肥後重治), i.e. Matashichi (又七), and the one on the left side is Bishû Sadahiro (尾州貞広). Please note that we find Bishû, i.e. Owari artists on the left and right side, so this list doesn’t seem to be divided into an East and West division. Also please note that at the very left another Komusubi rank was added, that is Nanban-tsuba (南蛮鐔). So Nanban-tsuba must have been pretty highly regarded back then. The top section Maegashira are listed below:

Right: Yamashiro Kôten (山城弘天), Umetada Shigeyoshi (埋忠重吉), Saotome Iesada (早乙女家貞), Yamashiro Masatsugu (山城正次), Itô Masatsune (伊藤正恒), Seishû Nobuaki (勢州信秋), Chôshû Yukishige (長州幸重), and Bushû (Akasaka) Tadamasa (武州忠正).

Left: Yamashiro (Umetada) Jusai (山城寿斎), Saotome Ienori (早乙女家則), Sôshû Masatsugu (相州正次), Yamashiro Masatomo (山城正知), Chikushû Shigeyoshi (筑州重吉), Okamoto Tomoharu (岡本友治), Karatsu Masayoshi (唐津政善), and Umetada Narishige (埋忠成重).

It is also interesting to learn that two Saotome artists are found within the top ranks. Anyway, it becomes clear that this banzuke focuses on tankô (鐔工), i.e. tsuba craftsmen, and does not include kinkô (金工) but I’m pretty sure that Noda also made a kinkô banzuke in parallel. So if someone comes across the kinkô twin to this banzuke, please let me know.



2 thoughts on “Banzuke (番付)

  1. Hello Markus – I read your posts and follow your blog , I also watch Japanese Yahoo Auctions This Muramasa has come up for sale with an interesting story attached – perhaps one that you would like to translate for your blog ?

    I have a small collection of interest ; including a Yasuchika Elephant Kanamono exactly the same as the menuki pair on your blog – a small waterbug chiseled by Kano Natsuo a very nice Jakushi tsuba and also 40 pitch copies/castes of sword fittings attributed to the Otsuki school very much the same as the ones in one of your blog entries –

    an ecclectic small bunch of things but a fun connection to a very fascinating society and unparalleled craftsmanship

    anyway – greetings from New Zealand

    AL Brown

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