From the very end of the kotô era onwards, we start to get more reliable information on the biographical data of swordsmiths, for example the dates of birth and death and what year honorary titles were received etc. This “tendency” does not only go back to the obvious fact that more data is extant the later, i.e. younger we find ourselves in history but also to the relatively massive bureaucratic apparatus the Tokugawa bakufu brought along. In addition, shintô and shinshintô smiths, or at least the renowned masters, signed in greater detail than their kotô colleagues, generally speaking. In this article, I want to introduce such an example.
So when we look into the meikan, we often read things like: “Smith X died in the fifth year of D and we know dated blades from B to C,” at least when it comes to the more well-known shintô and shinshintô masters as mentioned. Or we read for example: “There exists a blade dated C that is signed with the supplement ‘made at the age of Y’ what calculates his year of birth as A.” This all gives us a pretty decent idea of when the smith worked but also tells us about what were his early years, when did he have his zenith, and which blades can be regarded as late works. The blade that I want to introduce goes “a step further” in what it states about when it was made and under which circumstances so to speak. But first of all, let me introduce the very smith we are dealing with.
Picture 1: Portrait of Hôki no Kami Masayoshi
It is Hôki no Kami Masayoshi (伯耆守正幸, see picture above), the 3rd generation of Satsuma’s Masayoshi (正良) lineage. Masayoshi was born in Kyôhô 18 (享保, 1733) as son of the 2nd generation Masayoshi, whom he succeeded under that name, but when he received his honorary title “Hôki no Kami” in Kansei one (寛政, 1789), he changed the yoshi character of the hereditary name from (良) to (幸). Masayoshi was in his mid 50s when he received that title and reaching the age of 70, he started to add his age to his mei. Apart from that, he signed with the supplement “Satsuma-kankō” (薩摩官工, about “official smith of the Satsuma fief”), which is already found on blades from his earlier Masayoshi (正良)-phase.
Picture 2: katana, nagasa 70.1 cm, sori 1.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Now the blade shown above is very special because it is signed the following way:
“Hôki no Kami Taira Ason Masayoshi” (伯耆守平朝臣正幸)
“Hachijûroku-sai botsuzen shinren no saku” (八十六歳没前真錬之作, “carefully made before his death at the age of 86”)
“Bunka jûgonen tora nigatsu” (文化十五年寅二月, “second month of Bunka 15 , year of the tiger”)
Taira Masazane kore o shirusu” (平正真記之, “recorded by Taira Masazane”)
In short, Masazane, one of Masayoshi’s students, recorded on the tang that Masayoshi carefully made that blade before his death and when the master was already 86 years old. We know that Masayoshi died on the 22nd day of the fourth month of that year. At first glance, this would mean that the blade was made two months before his death but here we have to weigh in a custom of swordsmiths to date blades by default with the second or the eighth month of a year unless it is a special date signature where the exact day and month the blade was made is recorded. Masayoshi followed this custom as the vast majority of his dated blades either show the second or the eighth month in the mei, in particular the second month. That said, the blade in question could have been theoretically made anytime between the first day of the first month and the 22nd day of the fourth month of Bunka 15 (= Bunsei 1), the day that Masayoshi died. Well, Masazane’s supplement is quite a rarity and therefore I tend to think that this was maybe the very last, or one of the last few blades, that Masayoshi made. In other words, it was something special that compelled Masazane to add that info to the mei.
When it comes to Masayoshi’s latest works for comparison, we know a kogatana signed with the supplement “made at the age of 82,” a katana dated Bunka twelve (1815) and signed with the supplement “made at the age of 83,” a katana dated Bunka 13 (1816), and a katana dated Bunka 14 (1817), all of them papered. So far I was unable to find another example that was made in the same year as the one introduced here, in Bunka 15 (= Bunsei 1), the year of his death.
Now when author and expert Fukanobu Yasumasa (深江泰正) introduced this blade back in Token Bijutsu #240 (January 1977), he interpreted the mei in the literal way, i.e. that Masayoshi pesonally made this blade before his death and that Masazane recorded that fact after the master had passed away. However, he also notes that the yasurime are katte-sagari, the tyical file marks of his students, whereas Masayoshi himself finished his tangs in katte-agari yasurime with kiri at the beginning (or just with kiri-yasurime). Thus Fukanobu sensei forwards the possibility that the tang was indeed finished and signed by Masazane but that the blade was probably completely made by master Masayoshi, maybe even down to the horimono.
Well, I think I respectfully disagree with this theory. To understand why, I recommend you watch the excellent recent BBC documentary Handmade in Japan linked above that shows kind of a similar case. It portrays the Komiya (小宮) family of swordsmiths and shows how nearly eighty-eight years old grandfather Komiya is overseeing his two sons and his grandson making swords. Grandfather Komiya says himself in the documentary: “I’m unable to do it anymore because of my age,” what is understandable when you take into consideration the physically hard work it requires to forge-fold the steel bundle and to forge out the blade. Even if Masayoshi was super fit at the age of 86, I have my doubts that he did the whole forging work. Maybe he did the yakiire himself, that’s quite possible. Also taking into consideration the fact that master Masayoshi trained more than 40 students, that several of them were allowed to do daimei for him (and the best of them also to do full daisaku-daimei), and that the finish of the tang speaks for a student’s work, I am thinking of the following “cause of events,” although of course this is all nothing more than pure speculation:
The local forge in Satsuma must have been quite a bustling place and as master Masayoshi was famous throughout the country, the order situation was surely pretty good. When Masayoshi got really old, let’s say 80+, he was basically doing the same thing as grandfather Komiya does in the BBC documentary, and that is talking to customers, to the administration of his fief, and walking around in the forge giving orders and tips. As the sword production was probably still in full swing in early 1818, some students were busy making daisaku-daimei works for the master, Masazane being one of them. Then Masayoshi passed away towards the end of the fourth month and I think that the sword introduced here was the very daisaku-daimei blade that Masazane was working on at that time. So after the funeral and everything, Masazane maybe feld obliged to commemorate that context on the blade, implying that it was the last sword Masayoshi “made” before he died. However, it is absolutely possible that a few other blades that were just finished or in production at the time of Masayoshi’s death were signed this way by the students who were making them as daisaku-daimei and that maybe this is the only one that is extant today (or has been discovered yet).
Anyway, it is a very interesting and rare inscription and I literally came across that blade the day before I watched the BBC documentary for the first time. So I thought I have to share this with you.