Nidai Oku Motohira

Over the years, I have seen several inscriptions on sword tangs that refer to the use of a special supplements/raw materials used for making the blade. Most well-known supplement is of course nanban-tetsu (南蛮鉄) but others I have come across are for example old temple nails, old ship nails, old temple bells, and steel from the battleship Mikasa (三笠) as pointed out here by Arnold, just to name a few. I don’t want to go into detail about the availability/shortage of raw materials or the various reasons for incorporating other steels to make a sword. This time I want to introduce two swords with a very interesting inscription about the supplement that was used but first I want to start with the smith.

We are talking about the 2nd generation Oku Motohira (奥元平, 1833-1905). Motohira was born into a lineage of swordsmiths that worked for the Satsuma fief since the 1640s and if you start counting from their ancestor, Tadakiyo (忠清), then Motohira II was the 7th generation of that lineage. Now his grandfather, Oku Motohira I (1744-1826), was the most famous master of the Oku family of swordsmiths and when his son Motohiro (元寛), i.e. Motohira II’s father, died young and unexpectedly in Tenpô 14 (天保, 1843), the then only ten years old Motohira II was nominally declared head of the family. He was trained by the 2nd generation Motoyasu (元安, 1793-?) who was the son of his grandfather’s younger brother Motoyasu I. Well, there are many unclear points when it comes to the career of the 2nd generation Motohira. Swords of him are rare and dated ones are even more rare, but I know of at least two blades dated Keiô three (慶応, 1867) and one from Meiji 30 (明治, 1897) which will be introduced in this article. He signed in his early years with Motomitsu (元光) but I haven’t come across a blade signed that way yet, neither one that bears his Ju’an (寿安) under which he entered priesthood in his late years. Anyway, he was 34 years old in Keiô three and thus it is safe to assume that he already had been active at least 15 or so years at that time, assuming that he started his profession in his late teens, i.e. somewhere shortly after 1850. In Meiji 30 he was 64 years old and he died eight years later, in Meiji 38 (1905) at the age of 73. When it comes to his employers, Motohira II has actively experienced the rule of the last three Satsuma daimyô who were Shimazu Narioki (島津斉興, 1791-1859) who ruled from 1809 to 1851, Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬, 1809-1858) who ruled from 1851 to 1858, and Shimazu Tadayoshi (島津忠義, 1840-1897) who ruled from 1858 to 1871. He also witnessed the career of Tadayoshi’s son Prince Shimazu Tadashige (島津忠重, 1886-1968) who became a rear admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy and also that much of the ruling/upper class of his fief dominated the new Meiji government.

Anyway, now to the sword, or rather the swords, and why I wrote this post because the supplement that was used to make them is quite interesting. The first one (see picture 1, blade pictures courtesy of is signed the following way:

Satsuyô Oku Motohira (薩陽奥元平)
Seishin no yaku Meiji nijûhachinen ichigatsu Ikaie ni oite Kakakushi-hôrui ni eta nijûyon-senchi tsutsu no hen o motte kono katana o kitaru en (征清之役明治廿八年一月於威海衛鹿角嘴堡塁以所獲之廿四珊礮片鍛此刀焉) – “This blade was made by using a fragment of a 24 cm howitzer that was obtained from the Fort Lujiazui Battery of the Battle of Weihaiwei during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895.”


Picture 1: katana, Oku Motohira II, nagasa 63.6 cm, sori 0.9 cm

And the second blade (see picture 2) is signed the very same way, except from that we have here an actual date when it was made, which was the fifth month of Meiji 30 (1897), when Motohira was 65 years old, and also we have here a reference to where it was made (the otherwise identical signature omitted):

Meiji sanjûnen gogatsu Iso Shûsei-jo ni oite (明治卅年五月於磯集成所, “fifth month of 1897 at the Shûsei place in Iso”)


Picture 2: katana, Oku Motohira II, nagasa 70.7 cm, sori 1.4 cm

The Battle of Weihaiwei is dealt with in detail in Wikipedia so I am not goint to ruminate it here. Interesting is that we have actual artistic reference to and photographic evidence of what is stated on the two nakago. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article, the Chinese troops were defending their fortifications for about nine hours before abandoning them largely intact. However, several of these forts were seriously devastated as historic photographs show. The Fort Lujiazui Battery (in period Western publications often quoted as Lukeutsuy) was equipped with four 24 cm Krupp coastal howitzers of which one was indeed damaged (see picture 3). An intact one from the Lujiazui Battery can be seen in picture 4. So basically the whole barrel was blown off at the one and had later been tied with ropes and chains to the howitzer (see picture 5), probably in order to repair or recycle it. So far the historic facts. But there is also an artistic rendering of this incident where the whole howitzer is blewn from its firing platform, “effectfully” also blowing away the whole Chinese operating staff (see picture 6). Well, we can book this as artistic freedom.


Picture 3


Picture 4


Picture 5


Picture 6: 1895 print by Kobayashi Kiyochika (小林清親, 1847-1915) titled “Attack on the Lujiazui Battery at Weihaiwei” (威海衛鹿角嘴砲臺攻撃之圖)

Now back to the making of the sword. I am not sure if the entire broken-off barrel was taken and/or if some of these howitzers were disassembled and transported to Japan. But here maybe the supplement of the second blade comes into play. It mentions that the sword was made at the Shûsei place and refers to the Shûseikan (集成館) (see picture 7), an industrial complext that was initiated by Shimazu Nariakira in Iso, on the outskirts of Kagoshima. It was the first western-style industrial enterprise in Japan with factories that produced machines, textiles and other products and, lo and behold, steel for ship building and casting cannons.


Picture 7: The Shûseikan

There are now several possible scenarios about how these two blades (maybe there are even more out there?) came into existence. One could be that indeed the damaged howitzer was transported to the Shûseikan in order to be repaired or to salvage it. Maybe it was then decided to commemorate this successful attack on the Lujiazui Battery, and/or the win of the First Sino-Japanese War, by having a local smith, Oku Motohira II, make swords out of what was left of the barrel. Or maybe the idea with the swords came right on the spot when the battery was conquered to use that barrel and make some commemorative swords out of it, maybe for the actual commanding officers of the attack? Maybe some of these officers were from Satsuma, or maybe one was a friend of Oku Motohira II. The former is quite possible as we know that one famous Satsuma man, Major General Ôdera Yasuzumi (大寺安純, 1846-1895) (see picture 8) died at Weihaiwei when leading his infantry regiment against the land fortifications guarding the naval base. His position was hit by an artillery shell fired by the defenders. He was the only Japanese general killed in combat during that war and the highest ranking casualty on the Japanese side.


Picture 8: Print by Ogata Gekkô (尾形月耕, 1859-1920) titled “Major General Ôdera Attacking With All His’ Power From the Baichi Cliff” (大寺将軍揮全力襲撃百尺崖之圖)

Very interesting pieces of history these two Motohira blades! If I am in the area, i.e. Kagoshima, I want to do some more research in this direction at the Shôko Shûseikan Museum into which the Shûseikan main building has been turned in 1923.

Update: Dec 22 2016.

I have received a rubbing of another blade by Oku Motohira II that he made by incorporating a fragment of that howitzer. The mei is identical to the blade seen in picture 1, with the difference that the inscription is distributed over three and not two colums. So now we have three of these blades. Very interesting!



3 thoughts on “Nidai Oku Motohira

  1. Very interesting history indeed. They made some very beautiful and might I add functional swords down in Satsuma during the end of the 18th and beginning of 19th century. I have a wakizashi made made by above mentioned Motoyasu I. A very heavy blade going along with the Satsuma tradition. The three “first generation” smiths in this family worked a lot together, with most effort going into the work of the most famous Motohira brother.
    That later generations made these interesting swords just confirms their skills and it also shows their martial traditions. Using recycled material is also a tradition in an area plagued by financial hardship and a samurai population amongst the poorest in Japan during the Edo period.
    Good read, Markus!


    • Dear Jan

      I read your previous post on the NMB on your Motoyasu Wakizashi which I found of great interest. I own a large wide sword by Oki Motoyasu katana dated 1787 and a rare blade sword illustrated in Toko Taikan by Motohiro dated Tenpo 11. Hope to meet your acquaintance one day.

      Kimotsuki Kaneyoshi

      • Dear Kimotsuki!
        Nice hearing from a fellow connoisseur of Satsuma swords. Sounds like you have some beautiful swords in your collection. If You like, please send a PM on the forum so we can talk more. Might have a nice Masayoshi katana lying around somewhere 🙂


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