If you are following me for a while, you may remember my article from a few years ago here about Muramasa signatures being altered after they have become “unpresentable” with the Tokugawa coming to power. Now in this brief article I would like to tell you that this was not only done to sword but also to tsuba signatures.
Before I want to introduce a tsuba signature altered that way, I must begin with the history of the artist who made the piece in question, Myōju (明寿), and that is, the Umetada (埋忠) family.
Now I want to keep it relatively simple here because on the one hand, the issue we are talking about is just about the name itself and not about anything the Umetada family “did wrong” or about someone having bad luck with Umetada works, and on the other hand, I want to write a book about Myōju with all the detailed info, just like my book on Kanō Natsuo.
So as always, we have several traditions about the name origins of the Umetada family. One just says that the Umetada were descendants of the famous swordsmith Sanjō Munechika (三条宗近) and that the name goes back to lands in Kyōto located to the northeast of the Imperial Palace of the same name, Umetada (梅多田), which were granted to the family. Another one says that during the reign of Emperor Ichijō (一条天皇, 980-1011, r. 986-1011), the Kawarasaki Pond (Kawarasaki no Ike, 河原崎ノ池) was filling up with dirt but instead of cleaning it out, the emperor just gave orders to have the pond filled up completely. This task was gratuitously taken over by the very family which thereupon assumed the name Umetada (埋忠) which means literally “to fill up (umeru) (something) free of charge (tada).” Another theory also refers to a filling-up-a-pond tradition, although much later, in the early Muromachi period during the reign of Emperor Shōkō (称光天皇, 1401-1428).
To return to our concrete subject, we have to fast forward to the early Edo period, to the time of the Kyōto shōgun deputy Itakura Suō no Kami Shigemune (板倉周防守重宗, 1586-1657). Shigemune was about to proceed to Edo and wanted to bring some nice gifts with him so he chose sukashi-tsuba made by the Umetada School but at that time, Edo warriors were taking everything literal and so he thought he better consult the Umetada family with what he thought would be an issue. That is, the characters Umetada (埋忠) mean literally interpreted “to bury (umeru, 埋める) (i.e. umeru does not only mean to fill up but also to bury something) loyalty (chū, 忠)” and so the family was changing the first character with the “harmless” homonymous ume (梅) which means “plum.”
Now Umetada Myōju died on the 18th day of the fifth month of Kan’ei eight (寛永, 1634) at the age of 74 and Itakura Shigemune was Kyōto shōgun deputy from 1620 to 1654, so it is assumed that the suggested name/character change took place some time after the famous Umetada grandmaster had passed away. The tsuba that I want to introduce here though is a work by Myōju and it was originally signed with “Umetada” (埋忠) on the right and with “Myōju” (明寿) on the left side of the nakago-ana. As you can see in the detail above, someone erased the first Ume (埋, “to bury”) character with chisel strokes or small hammer blows because he was superstitious and did not want to have the literal “to bury loyalty” context on his tsuba. Or, what I think is a more likely scenario, the then owner was picking this tsuba as a gift and maybe he knew that the person who was going to receive it was very sensitive regarding kanji context. In other words, if you are about to choose an important (return) gift in order to establish some kind of alliance or freshly pledged loyalty and the receiver is known to be a jerk when it comes to things like hidden messages in characters, you don’t necessarily want to give him something that says “to bury loyalty”…
Picture 1: jūyō-tōsōgu, tsuba, mei: “…tada Myōju” (◯忠明寿), kawari-mokkō-gata, brass, shakudō hira-zōgan, one hitsu-ana (plugged), uchikaeshi-mimi