Hôki no Kami Masayoshi’s (probably) last blade

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 four years later, he started with sign with the supplement “Satsuma-kankō” (薩摩官工, about “official smith of the Satsuma fief”), and reaching the age of 70, he started to add his age to his mei.


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 [1818], 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 Bunsei 15, 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, 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.


On the eve of another famous historical Japanese incident

About three years ago, I wrote a humble article here on sword-related “things” happening on the eve of on of Japan’s most famous historical events. Well, this time, we find ourselves a little earlier than the 47 rônin but the incident is of similar historic significance. But before we continue, let me introduce the sword that was the catalyst for this article.

The above picture shows a katana by Osafune Yoshimitsu (賀光) which was made in Kanshô five (寛正, 1464) for a certain “Monk Kenju”. The full signature is “Bishû Osafune Yoshimitsu – Kenju-bô – Kanshô gonen nigatsu hi” (備州長船賀光・けん志ゆ坊・寛正五年二月日, “on a day in the second month of Kanshô five”). Please note that the name of the monk (, 坊) is noted in an “archaic” manner, i.e. as “Ke-n-shi-yu” but which reads Kenju. Now who was this Kenju? None other than the famous Buddhist priest Rennyo (蓮如, 1415-1499) (see picture below). So let me explain in the following the context of Rennyo’s Kenju name, the things happening before and around this sword was made, and why it is therefore an important historic piece.



Now Rennyo was born in Ôei 22 (応永, 1415) as eldest son of the later 7th abbot of the Hongan-ji, Zonnyo (存如, 1396-1457), and this is kind of where Rennyo’s later problems already started: His mother namely wasn’t Zennyo’s wife, she was his grandmother’s  maid. Five years later, in Ôei 27 (1420), Zennyo eventually married, not the maid but Nyo’en (如円, ?-1460) from the Ebina (海老名) family. With this marriage, Rennyo’s biological mother had to leave the Hongan-ji and he never saw her again. It is said that most of his later “motivation” goes back to the trauma Rennyo had suffered being separated from his mother at the age of six (counting in Japanese years).

When Rennyo was 17 years old, that is in Eikyô three (永享, 1431), he became a yûshi (猶子) of Provisional Middle Councillor (gonchûnagon, 権中納言) Hirohashi Kanenobu (広橋兼郷, 1401-1446). Yûshi means literally “another child considered as one’s own”. It is similar to an adopted child (yôshi, 養子) but does not come with the legal obligations a yôshi does. The yûshi approach was mostly used for giving one’s child in the care of an influental person to develop good connections for its later career, and not to aim at a possible succession as head of that family. After becoming Kanenobu’s yûshi, Rennyo, then still bearing his youth name Hoteimaru (布袋丸), became a monk at the Shôren’in (青蓮院) in Kyôto whereupon he took the name Kenju (兼寿), the very name that is noted on the sword.

In Eikyô eight (1436), Rennyo’s grandfather Gyônyo (巧如, 1376-1440), the 6th abbot of the Hongan-ji, abdicated and his father Zonnyo became the 7th abbot. When Zonnyo died in Chôroku one (長禄, 1457), Rennyo’s step mother tried get her own son that she had with Zonnyo, Ôgen (応玄, 1433-1503), to become the 8th abbot but it was decided in favor of Rennyo. Well, probably because Rennyo was still the first born son of Zonnyo and already well-versed in all Buddhist things, being 42 years old whereas his step brother Ôgen was only 24 (or 25 if you count in the Japanese way). As abbot, Rennyo immediately started to expand the influence of the Hongan-ji in the Kinai provinces around Kyôto what was much to the displeasure of the Enryaku-ji, the head temple of the Tendai School located on Mt. Hiei. Funds and protection were mostly provided by artisan-class followers of Rennyo from congregations in Ômi province but Rennyo was refusing to pay obligatory funds to the Enryaku-ji which he was supposed to pay on behalf of the Shôren’in as the Enryaku-ji was then the head temple of Kyôto’s Shôren’in.

So issues began to build up and Rennyo must have known that some of them were probably ending in physical violence. Therefore he approached the Osafune master smith Yoshimitsu to forge him a sword for self-defense. And he turned out to be right: In the first month of Kanshô six (1465), i.e. the year after the sword was made, the Enryaku-ji declared Rennyo a butteki (仏敵), an “Enemy of Buddha,” and sent out warrior monks who destroyed Rennyo’s then base, the Ôtani-Hongan-ji (大谷本願寺) in Kyôto. Warrior monks were sent out again three months later and others followed and these “activities” of the Enryaku-ji went down in history as “Kanshô Presecutions” (Kanshô no hônan, 寛正の法難). Sometimes Rennyo was able to bribe the monk warriors due to the wealth of the congregations he had convered in the area, other times he was only able to flee at the last minute and due to timely assistance from a cooper who saw the attackers coming, leadinf Rennyo out through the back of the temple. In short, Rennyo was very well in need of a sword! This context and the notation of Rennyo’s Kenju name makes the very blade an important historical piece as mentioned and it is today designated as an Important Cultural Property of Ôsaka Prefecture (the blade is preserved in the Ôsaka City Museum).

After the attacks of 1465, Rennyo tried to gain more support from local followers but the Enryaku-ji with its ties to the court and the bakufu was too strong and a kind of a peace deal with the temple was made in the third month of Ônin one (応仁, 1467) that required Rennyo to retire from the post of abbot of the Hongan-ji. Also, the Ônin War broke out that month, significantly weakening the bakufu, and so Rennyo was realizing that he will not have any government support or outside forces to protect his congregations from the Enryaku-ji. So he left Kyôto and lived a nomadic life, eventually rebuilding the Hongan-ji in northern Echizen province, gaining many many followers, and returning to Kyôto in Bunmei seven (文明, 1475) with such a following that Mt. Hiei could no longer prose a credible threat to him and his Jôdo Shinshû School (quoting from Wikipedia).

I hope this was another interesting short excursion into Japanese history with a concrete sword as a starting point and I will continue to do so whenever I come across similar historically important objects that are related to the sword world.

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #29 – Nobukuni (信国) School 4

With this article, we are concluding the chapter on the Nobukuni School. Just to repeat, when it comes to traditional clasifications of works by this school, for example by the NBTHK, we are facing the following parameters:

  • Work of the 1st generation
  • Mid-Nanbokuchô work in the vicinity of 1st generation
  • Nobukuni work not later than late or end of Nanbokuchô
  • Nobukuni work from the transition between Nanbokuchô and Muromachi
  • Ôei-Nobukuni
  • Direct attributions to Saemon no Jô or Shikibu no Jô
  • Early Muromachi
  • Later generations Nobukuni

So far we have dealt with all of these classifications, except for the last two, which I am going to tackle in the following.

Now I have stated this already in my second chapter on the Ryôkai School: By the end of the Nanbokuchô period, the old-established Yamashiro schools were all fading and Sôshû had taken over significantly, even in the old imperial capital. There is the theory that everything Kyôto-based started to disappear with the Ônin War, which lasted from 1467 to 1477, and this is certainly true for that time because the war destroyed much of Kyôto and in particular the power of the office of shôgun. So it was surely not a good time for craftsmen like swordsmith who were depending on a steady supply of raw materials (e.g. there was no steel production in the capital itself). However, we already see a so to speak “Kyôto exodus” way before that time, for example with the Ryôkai School whose descendants moved down to Kyûshû where they founded the Tsukushi-Ryôkai group. We are able to date back their works to the 1440s. Also the Rai School had been well scattered into the four winds way before the outbreak of the Ônin War (Nakajima, Echizen, Higo/Enju). So that war can’t be the reason for why many swordsmiths left the capital in the early to mid 1400s but lets save these reasons for another time.

According to tradition, it was the second son of the 3rd generation Nobukuni who was hired in Eikyô twelve (永享, 1440) to work for the Ajimu (安心院) family that ruled the manor of the same name in Buzen province which was located just a little bit to the southeast of Usa (宇佐). Again we are facing here the “oddity” of the Nobukuni (and of the Ryôkai) School that their smiths were allegedly signing with several different names. So the second son of the 3rd generation is said to have signed with Nobukuni Yoshiie (信国吉家) and he might actually be the same person who signed with Nobukuni Yoshihisa (信国吉久), the 4th generation of the lineage. As you can see, the name of the school has turned into a family and brand name by then just like the later shintô-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni smiths all had their individual names but signed with the prefix Nobukuni. Anyway, in my article on Japanese Sword Trade With Ming China, I have introduced a Nobukuni blade that is dated with a Chinese nengô, namely “ninth month Chénghùa two” (成化二年九月), what corresponds to the seventh year of Kanshô (寛正, 1466). I will introduce this blade again here, in picture 27.


Picture 27: tachi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), date see text above, nagasa 67.9 cm, sori 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


The blade is suriage and has a relatively elegant sugata with a deep sori. The kitae is a dense ko-itame with ji-nie and the hamon is a gunome in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with angular gunome and with hint of yahazu. The nioiguchi is rather tight and clear and the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri. The haki-omote side shows a bôhi that is followed by a futasuji-hi and on the haki-ura side we see the opposite, i.e. a futasuji-hi that is followed by a bôhi.

Nobukuni Yoshisada (信国吉貞, ?-1640), the ancestor of the aforementioned shintô-era Chikuzen-Nobukuni School, still worked initially for the same Ajimu family, until they got defeated by the Ôtomo (大友) but Yoshisada’s career thereafter will be discussed in the corresponding shintô chapter. He counted himself as 12th generation Nobukuni and when we take all this into account, i.e. a continuous employment by Buzen’s Ajimu family and the 6th generation making swords with Chinese dates, I tend to think that the whole main line had moved down to Kyûshû with the 4th generation. That is, it would seem odd if the 4th and 5th generations worked on Kyûshû, the 6th generation back in Kyôto, and the 7th to 12th generation again down in Buzen. Well, maybe some of them were able to proceed to the capital once in a while.

Be that as it may, there were also Nobukuni smiths who stayed in Kyôto, what is proven by extant signatures like “Heianjô-jû Nobukuni” (平安城住信国) that date to the early to mid 1400s. It is assumed that one of the Nobukuni smiths signing that way was the son of Shikibu no Jô. When it comes to kantei points for later generations Nobukuni, well, it is difficult to name unique features. Basically it can be said that the characteristics of the school in hardening a nie or rather ko-nie-based Bizen-like koshi no hiraita gunome/midare with remnants of yahazu and the strong tendency of adding horimono can still be seen in early to mid-Muromachi period Nobukuni works but, as seen in other schools, the quality declined. Also the quantity declined and although some meikan list a few Kyôto-based Nobukuni smiths for the late Muromachi period, I would personally not go for Nobukuni at a Bizen-esque blade of that time. Early to mid-Muromachi yes, but not late Muromachi or end of Muromachi.

Picture 28 shows an uchigatana signed “Nobukuni” which is papered to “early Muromachi period Nobukuni” but whose signature (see picture 29) does not match any of the masters we have dealt with in the last part. The blade is short and classifies with its nagasa of 57.7 cm today as a wakizashi but I still think that it was made as an uchigatana which was worn as long side sword to a tachi and/or as main sword outside of the battlefield. Its kitae is a ko-itame that is mixed with masame-nagare and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a gunome in ko-nie-deki that has tendencies to koshi no hiraita and that is mixed with ko-midare, a few yahazu-like elements, some tobiyaki, ashi, and . The bôshi is midare-komi with a rather pointed and wide kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken and on the ura side a koshi-bi.


Picture 28: uchigatana, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 57.7 cm, sori 1.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Picture 29: Signature of the above blade

Last part that I want to introduce here is shown in picture 30. It is attributed to “later generation Nobukuni.” It has a nagasa of 49.0 cm and as we are here somewhat later in the Muromachi period, I think this one was indeed made as a wakizashi. It shows a kitae in itame that is mixed with mokume and that features ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-gunome-midare in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with kinsuji and sunagashi, The bôshi features much hakikake and thus tends to kaen. The blade shows a sô no kurikara on the omote and gomabashi on the ura side.


Picture 30: wakizashi, mei: “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 49.0 cm, sori 1.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


With this article we end the chapter on the Nobukuni School, the Tsukushi-Nobukuni (筑紫信国) branch that prospered later on in Buzen province and all the other offshoots like the Yamamura (山村) group of Echigo province will be dealt with in the corresponding chapters, and next time we will continue with the Hasebe School.