Many of you who follow the “sword news” have surely heard that the city of Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, is currently attempting to purchase the famous national treasure sword Yamatorige/Sanchōmō-Ichimonji in order to bring it home to where it was once made more than 700 years ago. The city has started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and please follow the links below (the second one is to the official Facebook page) if you want to contribute and know more details about the project.
I also want to link below to the article Paul Martin, who is on board with the project, has written for JAPAN-Forward (Sankei Shinbun) that also gives you an overview of what it is all about.
Now in my humble article here, I would like to provide some more historical background and sum up the provenance of the sword. The first time the sword appears on the scene, as far as extant historic records are concerned, is the mid-16th century. The sword register of the Uesugi (上杉) namely, the Uesugi-ke Tōken Daichō (上杉家刀剣台帳), states the following on how it came into the possession of the family:
“When Uesugi Kenshin (上杉謙信, 1530-1578) (then named Nagao Kagetora, 長尾景虎), set out in the tenth month of Kōji two (弘治, 1556) to Kōzuke province where the local castellan of Shiroi Castle (白井城) and relative of Kenshin, Nagao Norikage (長尾憲景, 1511-1583), presented him with a sword by Kanemitsu (兼光). The sword was nicknamed Sanshōmō/Sanchōmō, either because its hardening pattern resembles a forest fire (shō, 焼) on a distant mountain (san, 山), or because it resembles the beautiful tail feathers (mō/ge, 毛) of a copper pheasant (yamadori/yamatori/sanchō, 山鳥).”
Uesugi Kenshin (left), Uesugi Kagekatsu (right)
So, already the Uesugi records are aware of the ambiguity of the blade’s nickname and some even interpret it as “mountain that appears to be on fire due to the evening sun” or as “resembling the controlled burning of dead grass on a hillslope (yamayaki/sanshō) in spring (in order to stimulate growth).” However, that ambiguity goes to a certain extent back to how Kenshin’s son Uesugi Kagekatsu (上杉景勝, 1556-1623) recorded the blade when he made his famous list of the 35 greatest treasure swords in his possession (he had inherited the blade afer his father’s death). That is, Kagekatsu used the archaic way (山てうまう) (see picture below) to note the term Sanchōmō, i.e. teu (てう) being an archaic hiragana variant of chō(ちょう) and mau(まう) of mō(もう). So without kanji characters, the exact meaning is unclear.
The red arrow marks Kagekatsu’s Santeumau notation.
In short, Sanshōmō became Sanchōmō and the latter then also became Yamatorige, with no one being able today to say with certainty what the actual origins of that nickname are. To me personally, the hamon of the blade sure looks more like fire but with some imagination, I can also see the resemblance to the staggered, graded tail feathers of a copper pheasant (see picture below). Also, as you may have noticed in the above quote, the blade was once attributed to Osafune Kanemitsu and handed down within the Uesugi family as such. When Emperor Meiji visited the Uesugi on their lands in Yamagata in Meiji 14 (1881), he was shown the Sanchōmō/Yamatorige as he was known to be a great sword lover, which was then still labeled as Kanemitsu.
Then in 1937, when Count Uesugi Noriaki (上杉憲章, 1876-1953), the then head of the Uesugi family, received the satus of a jūyō-bijutsuhin (Important Art Object) for the sword plus its mounting, it got attributed to the Ichimonji School, which is appropriate because the blade does indeed look much much more like an Ichimonji/Fukuoka-Ichimonji than a Kanemitsu work (well, Kenshin and Kagekatsu had a liking for Kanemitsu so this may have played into the provenace but that is a topic for another post). Three years later, the sword was designated as a jūyō-bunkazai (Important Cultural Property) and finally in 1952 as kokuhō (National Treasure). Now in the kokuhō designation, the owner of the sword is listed as Okano Taromatsu (岡野多郎松, 1900-?). Okano was one of Japan’s biggest sword collectors in the mid-1900s and owned a large number of jūyō-bunkazai and kokuhō blades. So Uesugi Noriaki, or his family, obviously sold the sword some time between 1940 and 1952 to Okano. The sword was then featured in the catalog to Okano’s collection, the Bizan Aitō Zufu (備山愛刀図譜), published in 1958 by Satō Kanzan in. Ten years later, in 1968, it was on display at the National Treasure special exhibition of the NBTHK where it was introduced as being owned by Okano Mitsuhiro (岡野光弘), who I assume was Taromatsu’s son.
The Sanchōmō in its present condition.
The Sanchōmō when it was designated as a kokuhō in 1952.
Koshirae of the Sanchōmō.
In recent years, maybe three or four years ago if I remember correctly, the current owner (of whom I do not have any information) made the attempt to sell the sword to a museum, institution, or facility located either where the blade was made or were the former lands of the Uesugi were. Eventually negotiations were made with the city of Jōetsu, Niigata Prefecture (former Echigo province and thus historical Uesugi territory), but the deal was cancelled in 2017. And this is where Setouchi City comes into play as one of the owner’s desired destinations of where the sword should be preserved for posterity. As indicated at the very beginning of this post, please refer to the links to get the first-hand information of Setouchi City and all parties involved.
For some additional reading on the Sanchōmō/Yamatorige and its place within the Uesugi family, please see my alternative Sword Legends site here.