A very special tsuba by and for Natsuo

This time I want to introduce a Natsuo tsuba which is not “just” a great masterwork like they all are but which is oustanding as it marks a very important stage in his career.

The above shown tsuba has the motif of the God of Luck Jurōjin (寿老人) riding a crane on the omote and young pines on the ura side. It is of shakudō, has a nanako ground, and makes much use of empty space. Jurōjin on his crane is interpreted in a quite three-dimesional manner, jutting out in a relatively prominent from the ground plate. Jurōjin is regarded as auspicious, as is the crane, as are young pines. So just from the motif of motif elements alone we have triple auspiciousness so to speak. Highly elegant is also how Natsuo plugged the one hitsu-ana with gold as part of the design and has the nanako and parts of the motif running over it. That is, to emphasize the optical or rather perceived fact that Jurōjin is indeed flying on a crane, a reference point is required. Now you can just add for example treetops to create a sense for height, i.e. flying, but often the perception of flying high in the sky was achieved via the sun or the moon in the background. But instead of merely adding a flush hira-zōgan of the sun or lunar disc, Natsuo so to speak made use of the common practice of plugging hitsu-ana and turned that into the sun so to speak, what is in my opinion a highly elegant approach as stated above.

So far, so good, very nice tsuba you will all agree on, but why is it sp special? Well, for this, we first have to take a look at the signsture, which reads: “Kōka san no toshi taisō shokyū – Ōtei-sōka Toshiaki + gold seal ” (弘化三暦大簇初九・鶯蹄窓下寿良), “humbly made by Toshiaki on the ninth day of the first lunar month, spring, of Kōka three (1846)”. First of all, the ninth day of the first lunar month is an auspicious day as it is the birthday of the Jade Emperor who is also revered in Buddhism, what adds quasi a fourth layer of auspiciousness to the tsuba (i.e. Jurōjin, a crane, and young pines being the other three).

The more advanced kodōgu enthusiasts, and readers of my book(s) on Natsuo may know, Toshiaki (寿良) was the early name with which Natsuo signed. Now let me introduce his career up to the time this tsuba was made so that we get some background for its importance. Natsu was born on the 14th day of the fourth month of Bunsei eleven (文政, 1828). In Tenpō ten (天保, 1839), he started an apprenticeship with the kinkō artist Okumura Shōhachi (奥村庄八). Okumura was a Gotō-trained guy and so he learned from him first and foremost the proper application of nanako, the making of menuki, gilding and silvering via techniques like kingise, ginsise, iroe or okigane, and the production of ground plates for kozuka. Training under Okamoto was not enough because after just about one year of learning, it was in Tenpō eleven (1840), he left his workshop and entered an apprenticeship with Ikeda Takatoshi (池田孝寿) from the Ōtsuki school (大月). The Ōtsuki school was a renowned lineage of kinkō artists founded in the mid-18th century in Kyōto. The school followed initially the classical style of the Gotō school but then became famous when its fourth master Mitsuoki (光興, 1766-1834) started to study painting under contemporary masters like Ganku (岸駒, 1749/1756-1838) and Nagazawa Rosetsu (長沢蘆雪, 1754-1799) from the Maruyama school (円山). This means that later in his career Mitsuoki applied more and more novel motifs and tried fresh interpretations strongly inspired by his training as a painter.

Takatoshi’s father Ikeda Kyūbei (池田久兵衛), who signed with Okitaka (興孝) and later with Takaoki (孝興), was a student of Mitsuoki but it is said that also Takatoshi studied directly with the fourth Ōtsuki master. Natsuo later said that under Takatoshi he spent two whole years, among other things of course, practicing katakiribori basics following copper plates designs given to him by his master. This practice helped him a lot and so his master decided it was time to grant him the character for Toshi from his own name whereupon Natsuo took the craftsman name Toshiaki (寿朗). He was 15 years old at the time.

While practising kinkō he also studied classical Chinese in the morning under Tanimori Shigematsu (谷森重松), and in the evening painting under Nakajima Raishō (中島来章, 1796-1871) from the Maruyama-Shijō school (円山四条). His master Raishō even suggested that Natsuo should become a painter but he stayed with the kinkō art which mas more to his liking. Well, as Natsuo was born rather weak, his adoptive mother Miyo (みよ・美代) was initially against his wish to become a kinkō craftsman. Instead she made him learn to play the shamisen but Natsuo later told his students that he stopped that very early because it was absolutely not his thing.

After five years of training under Takatoshi, the master realized the great progress his promising student had made and entrusted him for the first time with works for customers for which he could refine his takabori and kebori techniques, the first of them being menuki in the form of flying cranes, a fuchigashira set with a turtle motif, a kozuka with kebori of bamboo, and a tsuba showing young pines.

And now we arrive at where the tsuba introduced here was made. In Kōka two (弘化, 1845), i.e. when he was 17 years old (or 18 according to the Japanese way of counting years), Natsuo decided that his craft was advanced enough to leave his master Takatoshi, and just one year later he took the risk to open up his own business in the old cultural capital Kyōto. In other words, the tsuba in question was made by Natsuo when he was just 18 years old (or 19 according to the Japanese way of counting years) and most likely the piece with which he celebrated his going into business for himself. It is now possible that he was comissioned with it by an affluent client, so to speak as form of support to get his business started, and we know that often clients left the motif of the work to the artist. That is, maybe Natsuo’s very first client told him he is going to pay him good money for a nice tsuba, as support for his craft, and that it just should depict something auspicious, maybe something with the upcoming New Year in mind. Or, Natsuo came up with everything for himself and thus placed so much auspiciousness into it, i.e. as a relatively safe bet to find a paying customer as auspicious motifs of course never go out of fashion.

Be that as it may, after leaving his master Toshitaka, Natsuo was basically an autodidact. In Kaei two (嘉永, 1849), when he was 21/22 years old, he gave up the craftsman’s name Toshiaki in favour of Natsuo. His student Okabe Kakuya (岡部覚弥) later quoted Natso upon describing the times of his name change: “When I was twenty-two or twenty-three I experienced a first sense of maturity when carving kozuka with the motif of a tiger carrying his cubs over the river and fuchigashira showing hares and waves, as these pieces were so much praised by everyone who saw them.”

However, when he was twenty-five he had the feeling that Kyōto might not be the best place to unfold his talent as “so many people wore ceremonial court dresses and were just into fabrics and patterns.” So, he made plans to try his luck in Edo, the capital and the center of the bushi class. On the second day of the tenth month of Ansei one (安政, 1854) he borrowed 20 gold pieces from his adoptive mother and left Kyōto with his friend Chūshichi (忠七) and took with him a tsuba with the motif of the Oath of the Peach Garden into which he had put his entire heart and sold, to use as a demonstration piece to show his abilities in Edo. The rest of his career is described in detail in my book on Natsuo here.

Above is a picture of the young Natsuo. I do not know how old Natsuo was at the time it was taken but I assume it is pretty close to when the tsuba introduced here was made. So in conclusion I want to say that this tsuba would surely make a very very nice cornerstone of every Natsuo collection. I do not know who the owner of the tsuba is but he must be very proud of owning this, in my opinion very special by and for Natsuo.


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #37 – Heianjō (平安条) and Go-Sanjō (後三条) Schools 4

As mentioned in the previous chapter, evidence base for everything before the famous Muromachi period Nagayoshi master is very limited. For example, basically all we have on the first generation of that lineage is a depiction of a tang of one of his works in the Ōseki Shō (see picture 1). The blade in question is signed “Kyōto-jūnin Sugawara Nagayoshi” (京都住人菅原長吉) and comes with the comment “dated with a day of the twelfth month of Ryakuō three (暦応, 1340).” Please note that the era is mentioned in that document with the abbreviated characters (厂广) for (暦応). As that source is heavily focusing on tang finishes, no comment on the workmanship of the blade itself.


Picture 1: Nagayoshi ancestor as shown in the Ōseki Shō

So far the supposed first generation of the Nagayoshi lineage. Next we have a work, a real work, not just a picture in an old book, which is thought to go back to the hand of the second generation. Or rather, the NBTHK says: “Compared to the common, i.e. later generation Nagayoshi works, this blade has much more refined jiba and it appears that (in terms of its overall interpretation) it corresponds to the Nagayoshi whom the meikan list around Ōei (応永, 1394-1428), although further research on this issue is necessary.” In short, the blade “feels” different than all the other Nagayoshi works and its sugata and jiba suggests Ōei, what in turn would mean second generation.

The blade in question (see picture 2) has a rather wide mihaba, a thick kasane, and a noticeable sunnobi-sugata. The kitae is a dense ko-itame that is mixed with nagare and that features fine ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden, quite varied gunome-chō with a bright and clear nioiguchi and is mixed with chōji, ko-notare, tobiyaki, ashi, and . The bōshi is midare-komi with a roundish kaeri on the omote side and a somewhat pointed, later returning kaeri on the ura side. The omote shows a sankozuka-ken as relief in a katana-hi and the ura a relief of what appears to be a naginata within a katana-hi. The nakago is ubu, has a kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, and bears a sanji-mei which is chiseled to the right of the ubu-mekugi-ana.


Picture 2: jūyō-tōken, wakizashi, mei: “Nagayoshi saku” (長吉作), nagasa 34.95 cm, sori 1.1 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

As stated in my (preliminary) Heianjō genealogy (see previous chapter here), it appears that there was one more generation before it becomes more tangible. That is, it seems that there was a third generation who was active around Hōtoku (宝徳, 1449-1452). However, I was yet not able to find any blades that go back to the hand of this master. Now the fourth generation, who was supposedly active around Bunmei (文明, 1469-1487) is where Fujishiro jumps in. Well, he does list the Ryakuō era ancestor but then nothing in between him and the Bunmei master. He writes: “It is said that the first generation Nagayoshi was active around Eikyō (永享, 1429-1441) but as I have not seen any such old Nagayoshi work, I tend to think that the famous Nagayoshi lineage started with this (i.e. the Bunmei era) master.” So in short, he counts him as first generation and assumes that it was around his time that the Heianjō School got its momentum and rose to fame. Incidentally, the known dates from Bunmei twelve (文明, 1480) to Meiō nine (明応, 1500) are attributed to this Nagayoshi whom Fujishiro lists as first, and I as fourth generation.


Picture 3: mei: “Yoshinori no ko, Nagayoshi saku” (吉則子長吉作)

This brings us to the most famous master of the entire lineage, the fifth generation Heianjō Nagayoshi, whom Fujishiro lists as second generation. From him we know dated blades between Bunki three (文亀, 1501) and Eishō 13 (永正, 1516) and a signature that states “made by Nagayoshi, son of Yoshinori” (see picture 3) is attributed to him. So, he must have been adopted by the Bunmei-era fourth master but felt obliged at some point in time, to point out that he was the son of Yoshinori, probably emphasizing the close relationship of these two local lineages. In addition, there exists blades by the fifth generation Nagayoshi which are not signed with the Heianjō (平安城) but with the Sanjō (三条) prefix, underlining that local connection.

Before I go into detail about his life and career, I want to address his workmanship. Sources like the Nihontō Kōza keep it rather simple but I wanted to get a good grasp on his entire body of work before writing this chapter, which was one reason for why it took me so long to continue the series. That said, I have learned that this Nagayoshi was actually working in an amazing variety of styles, which I want to address in the following. So first of all, the brief entry of the Nihontō Kōza:

His tachi-sugata does not have a wide mihaba and has a deep sori, a medium thick kasane, and a high shinogi. The kitae is a dense and beautifully forged itame. The hamon feels somewhat “tight” and can be, amongst others, in midareba, notareba, and suguha, whereas the midareba interpretations are similar to the ha of Muramasa. The bōshi features a roundish kaeri in case of a suguha and is usually widely hardened in case of a midareba. Horimono can be ken, bonji, kurikara, etc., they are deeply engraved, and appear somewhat more “concise” than horimono of the Hasebe School.

Next I would like to quote Tsuneishi who goes much more into detail:

Early Nagayoshi works are very rare but it appears that the few existing pre-Eishō works have a hint wider mihaba than other Kyō-mono, a noticeable sori, and a somewhat elongated kissaki, i.e. a relatively sturdy shape and by trend of a more firm build than contemporary Sanjō Yoshinori blades. Some blades show a sugata similar to that of the Ōei-Nobukuni group and the hamon is usually gentle and features only little nie. The blades from around Eishō look like Naoe-Shizu at first glance but they feature a sakizori and are of a more gentle sugata than Naoe-Shizu works. They are hardened in gunome-midare or in a hako-midare-like ha with not so much nie whereas the midare elements are separated by long and gently undulating sections. We see a particularly large koshiba, a prominent feature which is referred to as Heianjō-koshiba (平安城腰刃) by experts (see picture 4). The midareba of later works is very similar to that of Muramasa. The bōshi is usually a widely hardened midare-komi with a pointed kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. The jihada is a ko-itame that is mixed with masame and that features ji-nie and is a little tigher than the hada of Sanjō Yoshinori blades. Horimono are very often found. We know if shin no kurikara as relief in a hitsu, of ken, bonji, etc., all of them deep and very skillfully engraved. Ken horimono are particularly long. Engravings may resemble Nobukuni horimono at first glance but are somewhat inferior in quality, and many are in fact more similar to Sue-Sōshū horimono. The majority of horimono is found on wakizashi and tantō, for example a compact but highly detailed sō no kurikara on the omote and a koshibi with soebi or gomabashi on the ura side which run as kaki-nagashi into the tang. The tangs shown in early meikan which bear date signatures from the eras Bunmei, Bunki, and Eishō tend somewhat to a tanagobara, although not as much as the tangs of Muramasa blades, with the nakago of tantō being exceptionally long. We find more tantō than katana as time progresses. These tantō are relatively wide, have a thin kasane, a hint of sakizori, and show a midareba, hako-midare, or yahazu-midare in nie-deki, and we see the same koshiba as at katana. The kitae is an itame that is mixed with some masame. There are also blades that feature a deliberately applied muneyaki which makes them look like Sue-Sōshū at first glance. Early tantõ that appear to date back to the end of the Ōei era are rather smallish like the tantō of Sõshū Hiromitsu (広光) and some rare examples show a very vivid midareba. Around Eishō and Tenbun also yari were made. The tangs tend more towards a tanagobara among later works and are then very similar to Muramasa or Sue-Sōshū tangs.


Picture 4: Heianjõ-koshiba

Now let’s take a look at some blades. The first blade I want to introduce (see picture 5) is regarded as one of the best Heianjō Nagayoshi blades out there. It is jūyō, has a relatively wide mihaba, a maru-mune, a sakizori, and a chū-kissaki. The kitae is a very dense ko-itame with ji-nie and a tendency towards shirake all over the blade. The hamon starts with kind of a 12 cm long yakidashi-style narrow ha and turns then into a hiro-suguha in ko-nie-deki with a clear and relatively tight nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-gunome, and ko-ashi. The bõshi is sugu with a rather pointed kaeri on the omote and an ō-maru-kaeri on the ura side, both sides with hakikake and the kaeri running back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see a very skillfully engraved sō no kurikara and on the ura gomabashi with below a rendai. The tang is ubu, has a funagata, a ha-agari kurijiri, kiri-yasurime (Satō says shallow sujikai), two mekugi-ana, and features a rather thickly chiseled goji-mei. There exist several more blades in this very style, which I would describe as classical Muromachi period Heianjō Nagayoshi style. That is, a nice katana shape with sakizori and a chū or somewhat elongated chū-kissaki, horimono at the base on both sides, a hamon in suguha-chō or with some ko-notare and/or ko-gunome, and a funagata-nakago which may tend to tanagobara. I include two more pics of blades in that style below of picture 5 (please click on the thumbnails to enlarge).


Picture 5: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi” (平安城長吉), nagasa 69.3 cm, sori 1.97 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 2.3 cm, kissaki-nagasa 3.95 cm, shinogi-zukuri, maru-mune


Another style where Nagayoshi goes more towards classical Yamashiro can be seen in picture 6. It is a katana with a rather slender mihaba, a noticeable taper, a deep koshizori, and a ko-kissaki. The kitae is a fine and densely forged ko-itame with a little bit of nagare, fine ji-nie, and a shirake-utsuri. The hamon is a suguha in nioi-deki with ko-nie that is mixed with many ko-ashi and with a fushi-like ko-gunome protrusion on both sides below of the monouchi. The bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri, there are no horimono, and the tang is ubu, has a ha-agari kurijiri, kiri-yasurime, two mekugi-ana, and bears a relatively thin and smallish rokuji-mei. So, the overall interpretation seems to aim at Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊) or Ryōkai (了戒), i.e. his local predecessors. A blade in such style can be seen at Darcy’s site here.


Picture 6: jūyō-tōken, katana, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi saku” (平安城長吉作), nagasa 67.4 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 2.75 cm, sakihaba 1.7 cm, kissaki-nagasa 2.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, mitsu-mune

Let’s go over to short swords and tantō, a category where it gets really varied as indicated earlier. Now I think that the Muramasa resemblance (more on that later) is more obvious on tantō than on katana. Let me introduce such a work. Picture 7 shows a somewhat smallish tantō that has for its short nagasa a relatively wide mihaba and thus a somewhat stocky appearance. There is a hint of uchizori and the kitae is a dense ko-itame that is mixed with some nagare-masame on the omote side and that features fine ji-nie and some faint shirake. The hamon is a gentle ko-notare in nie-deki with a somewhat tight, bright, and clear nioiguchi and appears identical on both sides, a characteristic that is typical for Muramasa as most of you know. The bōshi is ko-maru with a relatively wide turnback. The omote side shows a sō no kurikara and the ura side gomabashi. The tang is ubu, tapers in tanagobara-style to a ha-agari kurijiri, and the yasurime are very slightly slanting kiri-yasurime. So what differs from Muramasa is basically the sugata, the presence of elaborate horimono, and the finer jigane.


Picture 7: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi” (平安城長吉), nagasa 22.1 cm, very little uchizori, motohaba 2.2 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

The tantō shown in picture 8 is similar, although somewhat bigger. It shows a kitae in a rather standing-out itame that features nagare towards the ha and ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-notare in ko-nie-deki with some hakoba at the base. The bōshi tends to ō-maru and shows a little bit of hakikake on the ura side. On the omote side we see gomabashi and on the ura side a naga-bonji and a rendai. Again, the hamon being identical on both sides, and this time also the rather standing-out itame, bear a resemblance to Muramasa, although with the nagare towards the ha and the deep valleys we may also see a remote resemablance to Naoe-Shizu.


Picture 8: tantō, mei: “Heianjō Nagayoshi” (平安城長吉), nagasa 26.6 cm, sori 0.3 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

Next tantō style he produced aims at smallish but thick Sue-Sōshū or Sue-Bizen yoroidōshi. Picture 9 show such a tantō. It has a nagasa of just 18.9 cm, a takenoko-sori, and a thick kasane. The kitae is a dense itame with ji-nie and the hamon a ō-gunome in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with gunome and some tobiyaki. The bōshi is sugu with a roundish kaeri that runs back in a long fashion. On the omote side we see Fudō-Myōō as relief in a hitsu and on the ura side a shin no kurikara, also as relief in a hitsu. The tang is ubu, has a kurijiri, and shallow katte-sagari yasurime. I include two more pics of blades in that style below of picture 9 (please click on the thumbnails to enlarge).


Picture 9: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Sanjō Nagayoshi saku” (三条長吉作), nagasa 18.9 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, takenoko-sori


And then there is the Heianjō Nagayoshi tantō style where the ha tends to hitatsura or is a full-blown hitatsura in Sōshū style, in particular in the style of the Hasebe School with yahazu and prominent muneyaki all the way down. Picture 10 shows such a work. This tantō is again relatively small, has a hint of sori, and an overall rather stocky appearance. The kitae is a fine and densely forged ko-itame with ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden ko-notare with a rather tight nioiguchi and some mura-nie that is mixed with angular elements, yahazu, gunome, and sunagashi and where the ji between the ha and the muneyaki is filled with tobiyaki and yubashiri, i.e. resulting in a hitatsura. The bōshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri that connects with the muneyaki. On the omote side we see a kurikara as relief in a hitsu and on the ura side a sō no kurikara. The tang is ubu, tapers in funagata-style to a kurijiri, and features kiri-yasurime. As mentioned, this interpretation aims at Hasebe works. I include two more pics of blades in that style below of picture 10 (please click on the thumbnails to enlarge).


Picture 10: jūyō-tōken, tantō, mei: “Sanjō Nagayoshi saku” (三条長吉作), nagasa 23.8 cm, motohaba 2.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune



This is a relatively long chapter so I hope you made it until here as I want to conclude with some considerations on Heianjō Nagayoshi’s career and him being the master of Muramasa. First the facts: 1. From signed blades with supplements in the mei we know that Nagayoshi was temporarily also working in the provinces of Mikawa and Ise and there is the tradition that he even made it to eastern Sagami province (going there with his student Masazane (正真) with whom joint gassaku works exist). 2. Dated blades suggest that the fifth generation Heianjō Nagayoshi and the first generation Muramasa were active at pretty much the same time, suggesting that they were of the same age. Now it is not uncommon that a smith learned from a master of the same age, most common scenario of course at a later point in his career when it is about refinement of the craft, not so much about learning the craft from scratch.

Now there exists a copy of a sword document that the seventh Hon’ami main line head Kōshin (本阿弥光心, 1496-1559) presented shortly before his death to his employer, the sword loving shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利義輝, 1536-1565). Therein we read that it was the other way round, i.e. Nagayoshi learning from Muramasa. His entry reads: “He (Nagayoshi) was originally a smith from the Kyōto Heianjō group but who moved later to Mikawa province and who became around Bunki (文亀, 1501-1504) a student of Muramasa.”

So what is true here, who was the master of whom? I can think of a scenario where both traditions could kind of work. As you all know, the Ōnin War, which took place in the Ōnin era (応仁, 1467-1469) of the same name and which ushered in the Sengoku period, destroyed much of Kyōto and many swordsmiths were forced to the capital as working/local clientel conditions were no longer bearable. I now think that maybe already the famous Nagayoshi’s predecessor, i.e. the fourth generation went east to continue his work in Ise, maybe even also in farther east Mikawa province. There he trained the first generation Muramasa and his son, the fifth generation Nagayoshi. Then the master died there and I think maybe master-student Muramasa supported the fifth generation Nagayoshi in continuing the forge. In other words, they found themselves in a condition of two craftsmen helping each other refining both their crafts and fulfilling orders, hence the similarity in workmanship (and as mentioned, they were probably of the same age too). So the Hon’ami Kōshin entry may mean that around Bunki, i.e. after the fourth Nagayoshi master had died, his successor studied togeher with Muramasa the craft and did not learn it from him. What also plays a role here are the then social conditions, in particular those of craftsmen. The Heianjō smiths came from an established lineage, and from the capital. That is, it is rather unlikely that one of them went down to rural Ise to start an apprenticeship with a yet unknown smith with no famous background whatsoever. In short, I follow the approach that Muramasa learned from Nagayoshi in Ise, maybe from father and son Nagayoshi IV and V who had to leave Kyōto and found shelter/work in Kuwana.

Old sayagaki inventory

This is going to be a very brief post. Background is, I was asked about a certain sayagaki which I explained to my client but which I thought might be interesting for some of my readers.

Now as most of you know, a sayagaki is just something someone wrote on a plain shirasaya storage “mounting”, i.e. it can be anything from just barely mentioning what blade that storage mounting holds to an elaborate expert comment/praise of the blade in question. In other words, a sayagaki may add value, or at least additional info to the sword, but does not have to.

The initial purpose of doing a sayagaki was obviously of inventory reasons. That is, you write down what blade is stored therein and add a few notes so that you don’t have to draw it and take the hilt off all the time. In other words, the first sayagaki just mentioned something like “Masamune, shortened, unsigned, length X, written by X” or “Go Yoshihiro, shortened, unsigned, comes with a Hon’ami X evaluation to X gold coins, received by Tokugawa X on the X date on the occasion of X.”

As mentioned, most of you already know that. What I would like to explain a little bit in this post is the practice of adding an inventory number to a sword in shirasaya. Beginning with the Tokugawa family, every daimyō family had a more or less extensive sword collection that was usually stored away in some kind of kura (蔵・倉・庫), a special storehouse with thick earthenware walls that could withstand a fire for some time, usually located within the principal castle of each fief. In charge of managing that storage facility was the local koshimono-kata (腰物方), or koshimono-bugyō (腰物奉行) in case of the bakufu, i.e. a retainer who was responsible for keeping track of all the swords owned by the fief or the administration/lord of the fief in particular. So for example, when an important occasion was approaching, the daimyō called his koshimono-kata and told him to pick a proper gift sword for the wedding/inauguration/succession etc. person X.


Picture 1:


Picture 2:

And this brings us back to the actual topic of this post. In concrete term, I was asked about the sayagaki shown in pictures 1 and 2. The sword in question is an Ichimonji (一文字) from the possession of the Owari-Tokugawa family and both the hilt and the top part of the shirasaya mention the following:

Jin ichi no nanajū (仁一ノ七拾)

Note: The inscription on the hilt uses the old (拾) character for ten whereas the saya uses (十).

So, there is obviously a number here, “1-70” but which is preceded by the character (仁), jin, which means “benevolence.” So, and that was the question from my client, what has that sword, number, or sayagaki to do with “benevolence”?

Actually, not much and there is a relatively easy explanation. Benevolence, jin, was the highest ranking of the Five Confucian Virtues, which were:

jin (仁) – Benevolence
gi (義) – Righteousness
rei (礼) – Proper rite
chi (智) – Knowledge
shin (信) – Integrity

This system was of course known by everyone and as it was so omnipresent, it served as way of ranking, like ABCDE, with A being jin and the highest rank of that hierarchy. In other words, Jin ichi no nanajū means “Sword 1-79 from the highest category of our swords.”

Also, I have seen shirasaya inventory sayagaki that use the four directions of the compass – kita (北, north), minami (南, south) nishi (西, west), higashi (東, east) – which either refer to a certain section within a single kura storehouse or to a different storehouse within a fief.

So, “lection” for today: If you have like jin or gi or rei on a period sayagaki, this does not mean that the sword is benevolent, righteous, or of proper rite respectively. No, these Five Confucian Virtues were merely used as a ranking system of 1 to 5. I have written about a kind of similar topic here.

Oh, and for those who are curious about the sword in that shirasaya, it is the tokubetsu-jūyō Yoshioka-Ichimonji shown below 😉


Raikirimaru (雷切丸) – The Thunder Cutter

Whilst doing cataloging work for the Samurai Art Museum, Berlin, I came across a fuchigashira set by Gotō Ichijō (後藤一乗, 1791-1876) whose motif I had troubles with identifying. Now as you can see in picture 1 below, the set shows, embedded into thunder clouds and lightning, a fiercly looking guy wielding a sword, and although I am not yet 100% sure, I had the hunch that it might represents the story which I am going to share with you now. Or in other words, I might later find out that the fuchigashira set actually depicts something else, what is quite possible, but that hunch of mine about what it might show is a pretext for introducing that very story here.


Picture 1: fuchigashira set, mei: Ichijō + kaō (一乗「花押」)


Ok, let’s start. There exists a famous sword which is nicknamed Raikirimaru (雷切丸), lit. “The Thunder Cutter,” or short just Raikiri (雷切) (Note: Maru is a suffix that represents something valuable/beloved but it is hard to translate 1:1. So, the maru suffix often just represents the determiner “the”, i.e. Raikiri meaning “Thunder Cutter” vs. Raikirimaru meaning “The Thunder Cutter”.)

The year is Tenbun 17 (天文, 1548), a very hot fifth day of the sixth month, and the 35-years-old Tachibana Dōsetsu (立花道雪, 1513-1585) is taking a nap under large tree near his hown town of Fujikita (藤北) in Bungo province. (Note: That is according to the early Edo period Ōtomo Kōhai Ki (大友興廃記). The 20th century Yanagawa Shiga (柳川史話) says the incident took place on the fifth day of the sixth month of Tenbun six (1537) when Dōsetsu was 25 years old.) Suddenly, a storm came up and a big thunder woke up Dōsetsu, a thunder which was immediately followed by a lightning that struck the tree. But Dōsetsu swiftly jumped out from under that tree, drew his cherished sword Chidori (千鳥), “Plover” (named after its plover menuki), and cut the God of Thunder that came down on him in that lightning. So he survived but the lightning did struck him, although records vary on how much he got affected, that is, from “his legs constantly hurt throughout his life afterwards” over “his left leg was crippled” to “half (the left) of his body was paralyzed henceforth” is possible.


Picture 2: Tachibana Dōsetsu (also named Bekki Akitsura, 戸次鑑連). Note how the face with the fierce eyes just looks like the depiction on the fuchigashira.


Historic records mention that in his later years, retainers had to carry around Dōsetsu in a palanquin from which he gave orders wielding a long Bizen Katsumitsu (備前勝光) tachi with a nagasa of 82 cm in the one, and a teppō in the other hand, plus having a 3 ft long staff dangling from a cord attached to one of his hands which he used too to give orders. Now there is the tradition that Dōsetsu went like that, i.e. with the palanquin, into battle after the lightning hit him but when we look at other period records, we learn that he distinguished himself in consecutive battles (taking place in the years 1562, 1567, 1568, and 1569). None of these period records mention a palanquin and it is stated that in the 1567 Battle of Yasumimatsu (休松の戦い), he killed seven men with his sword and in the 1568 Battle of Tatarahama (多々良浜の戦い), he was riding right into the enemy lines from wherein he fought furiously. So, it is pretty unlikely that he did all that from a palanquin and it appears that he was doing pretty ok with what he suffered from that lightning stroke (it is said that throughout his life, he participated in 37 battles!) and that it only started to bother him in later years. In short, I think that people saw the old and then half-paralyzed Dōsetsu fiercely commanding his men from the palanquin and the legend was created that he had always been that way since he was struck by a lightning as a young man.

So far Dōsetsu but what about the sword? It is still extant and preserved in the Tachibana Museum (立花家資料館) in Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture. Well, this is the blade which was handed down as Raikirimaru because there is some discrepancy in measurements. The today extant blade has a nagasa of 1 shaku 9 sun 3 bu (58.5 cm), i.e. it was shortened at one point to become a compact uchigatana, or an ō-wakizashi if you will. The Tachibana family records however (Onkoshimono Yurai Oboe, 御腰物由来覚) mention the blade as measuring 1 shaku 6 sun 7.5 bu (50.7 cm) in nagasa. There is nothing wrong with period records not matching the present-day length of a sword as there is always the chance that it has been shortened since but this doesn’t work the other way around, that is, the blade can’t magically get longer and grow again 8 cm. A possibility is of course that the person who compiled the Onkoshimono Yurai Oboe just made a mistake and got the nagasa wrong.

Raikiri-BladePicture 3: The Raikirimaru, nagasa 58.5 cm, sori 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Back to Dōsetsu. When he died in Tenshō 13 (天正, 1587), the sword came into the possession of his adopted son and successor Tachibana Muneshige (立花宗茂, 1567-1643) who became the first Tachibana daimyō of the Yanagawa fief (柳川藩) of Chikugo province, the fief the family then ruled until the abolition of the feudal system. The ura side of the tang bears towards the nakago-jiri the kinzōgan-mei “Tachibana Hida no Kami shoji” (立花飛騨守所持), “owned by Tachibana Hida no Kami.” Hide no Kami was the honorary title of Muneshige but it is unclear if he himself had it added or if it was done later. Also unclear is if it was Dōsetsu who changed the nickname of the sword from Chidori to Raikirimaru or if one of his successors decided to better stick to that legend with the lightning and that the sword shall henceforth be referred to as Thunder Cutter. Even the Onkoshimono Yurai Oboe admits that is unclear from when on the nickname Raikiri was in use. As you can see, we are again facing one of these difficult cases where we have to work from one contradicting period source to the next and where we have little rock solid facts.

Be that as it may, Muneshige bequathed the sword to his successor Tachibana Tadashige (立花忠茂, 1612-1675) who gave it to his sixth son Tachibana Shigetoki (立花茂辰, 1656-1678). Shigetoki died only three years after his father and at the young age of 23 and so it was decided to give the sword to Yashima Iwami Yukikazu (矢嶋石見行和) who was Shigetoki’s younger brother, but an illegitimate child of Tadashige. However, Yukiazu promised that the sword will be treasured within his lineage and the Yashima were anyway closely related to the Tachibana main line. So the sword was still quasi in family possession.

Fast forward about one hundred years, the then head of the Yashima family, Yashima Suō (矢嶋周防), gave the Raikirimaru back to the Tachibana main line, that is, he presented it in Hōreki nine (宝暦, 1759) to the seventh Yanagawa daimyō Tachibana Akinao (立花鑑通, 1730-1798) on the occassion of Akinao was proceeding to Edo. By then, the Raikirimaru was appraised (by whomever) as Mihara (三原) work but as Akinao was going to Edo, plans were made to submit it to the Hon’ami family. For whatever reason, the blade was not submitted to the Hon’ami main line but to Kōho (本阿弥光葆, ?-1788) who was the 5th generation of the Hon’ami Kōtatsu lineage and who appraised it as a Sōshū work. As a return gift, Yashima Suō was given a chiisagatana by master shintō smith Yamato no Kami Yasusada (大和守安定).

Raikiri-Blade1Picture 4: Color photo of the Raikirimaru.

Then some time during the early Shōwa era, Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜, 1879-1955), whom I just dedicated an article recently here, was examining the swords in the Tachibana collection and in his 1942 published Tōken Kantei Hiwa (刀剣鑑定秘話), he noted the following on the Raikirimaru:

“I was respectfully examining the Tachibana treasure sword Chidori, which has been renamed to Raikirimaru. The blade measures just around 2 shaku and it appears that at one point, it had suffered some fire damage. However, it is in a very old polish so I am not really able to tell much about its workmanship/quality, but it looks quite promising.”

To wrap things up, I want to briefly address the workmanship of the blade. As you can see in picture 3 and 4, it features quite a deep sori and ends in a chū-kissaki, what suggests that it was once of a pretty magnificent tachi-sugata, probably end of Kamakura. The jigane is a ko-itame that is mixed with nagare and the hamon is a nie-laden suguha with a wide nioiguchi but the jiba is overall relatively calm and does not feature much prominent hataraki like chikei and kinsuji. So, although this is just a remote diagnosis without ever seeing the sword, I can both understand the Mihara and the Sōshū approach, the latter more like referring to early Sōshū like Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) or Yukimitsu (行光). The nakago is ō-suriage as mentioned, has katte-sagari yasurime, three mekugi-ana, and of the kinzōgan-mei, the gold has come off of the last three characters.

So, when I have the chance to travel to Fukuoka, I surely want to visit the Tachibana Museum and I then want to inquite beforehead if it is possible to see the Raikirimaru (not sure if it is on permanent display but hands-on study would be perfect of course).