Compiling my Swordsmiths of Japan, I tried, as best as I could, to avoid double listings. That is, in case a smith had changed his name at some point in his career, I list him with both names, but with one entry referring to the other, the main entry, trying so a “cleaner” and not so confusing approach. For example, the smith Terukado (照門) had signed in early years with the name Kanekado (兼門) and so I have listed him both as Kanekado and Terukado, but with the former referring to the latter as follows:
I was only doing this, however, with open-and-shut and straightforward cases, and not when it was unclear if we are indeed speaking about one and the same person. Or, simetimes I did list a smith twice when, for example, he signed for many years with one name and then for as many years with another in order to better distinguish his most common signature variants.
I was once again reminded of that procedure when doing research on a tsuba in the collection of The Met, shown in picture 1 below, which is signed: “Nobuie” (信家) on one, and “Mosu Chikushū-jū Nobukuni Yukikuni” (模筑州住信国行国) on the other side, which translates as: “Copying/emulating Nobuie, Nobukuni Yukikuni, resident of Chikuzen province.”
Picture 1: Tsuba, H. 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm); W. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); thickness 1/8 in. (0.3 cm); Wt. 4.3 oz. (121.9 g); Accession Number 36.120.105; The Howard Mansfield Collection, Gift of Howard Mansfield, 1936.
As the more experienced realize right away, and as obviously stated in the mei, we have here a late Edo period Nobuie copy. Such copies and homages were very popular at that time and were produced by many renowned tsuba makers, swordsmiths, and armorers alike. For example, by master Naotane’s son-in-law Jirō Tarō Naokatsu (次郎太郎直勝, 1805-1858) and by numerous craftsmen from the Myōchin School.
So who was Yukikuni? As stated in the very signature of the tsuba, he was a member of the Chikuzen-Nobukuni School which had been thriving on Kyūshū since the beginning of the Edo period and their first generation Yoshisada (吉貞, ?-1640) who counted himself as twelfth generation Nobukuni after the famous Nanbokuchō-era founder of the same name.
Checking the meikan, we learn that Yukikuni’s real name was Nobukuni Mataza (信国又左), that he had studied in Edo with master Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀, 1750-1825), and that he died in the first year of Keiō (慶応, 1865) at the age of 77, which calculates his year of birth as Tenmei eight (天明, 1788). Knowing that the late Edo period Chikuzen-Nobukuni School was widely branched, I was checking for the maker’s family environment and realized that his name is also featured in the entry for Chikuzen-Nobukuni Shigekane (重包). Not the famous mid-Edo Shigekane from the same school who was one of the winners of shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751) sword making contest, but the later local Shigekane of the same name.
In Shigekane’s entry we read that he bore the first names Mataza (又左) and Matasuke (又助), that he was the son of Shimomura Shinpachi (下村信八) and got adopted (as a heir) by the 19th Nobukuni generation Yoshikiyo (吉清), that he studied with Suishinshi Masahide during the Bunka era (文化, 1804-1818), and that in Tenpō seven (天保, 1836), he was employed by the Kuroda family (黒田), receiving three fuchi (an annual stipend for the support of three persons). The Kuroda, by the way, were the daimyō of the Chikuzen Fukuoka fief (福岡藩) for which the Chikuzen-Nobukuni School worked. In Ansei three (安政, 1856), the fief granted him permission to work independently and in Man’en one (万年, 1860), his payment was increased by one fuchi. The death register of the Ankoku-ji (安国寺) where he is buried lists his posthumous Buddhist name as Honrai Tanken (本来鍛剣). Such names usually refer to the profession or to important stations in the life of the deceased, and this is totally true in this case because Honrai Tanken means lit. “swordsmith by nature” or “forging swords was innate to him.”
Interestingly, Shigekane is listed as having used numerous different names as a craftsman, namely Sadakuni (定国), Masayoshi (正義), Hisakuni (久国), and Yukikuni (行国), and as Shigekane is recorded as having died in the first year of Keiō as well, at the same age of 77, it appears that he and Yukikuni were indeed the same person.
That said, and on the basis of referenced dated works, I was able to chronologically trace these name changes as follows: His Shigekane mei is listed with an existing date of Bunka five (1808), the Masayoshi mei with Bunsei two (1819), the Sadakuni mei with Bunsei seven (1824), the Hisakuni mei with Tenpō eight (1837), Tenpō 13 (1842), Kaei four (1851), Kaei six (1853), and Ansei two (1855), and his Yukikuni mei with Ansei six (1859) and Bunkyū one (1861).
With this information, the following preliminary scenario comes to my mind. Nobukuni Mataza started his career by signing with the name Shigekane (重包), maybe in admiration of his famous local predecessor of the same name. Then some time between 1804 and 1808 he studied with Suishinshi Masahide from whom he received the Masa character, changing his name so to Masayoshi (正義). Then, for reasons unknown and at some time in the early Bunsei era (1818-1830), he changed his name to Sadakuni (定国). The Tenpō seven (1836) employment by the fief resulted in the name change to Hisakuni (久国) and at the latest in Ansei six (1859), he had changed his name one more time, and that is to Yukikuni (行国). The smith was already 71 years old at that time and so it suggests itself to link that last name change to a retirement. However, the meikan list his Yukikuni name with an 1861 dated blade, so he was still making swords at the age of 73 (and four years before his death). Well, we are already in daisaku-daimei territory here, but there was another incident that happened around this time, and that was the early death of his successor Sadakuni II (二代定国) on the 14th day of the eighth month of Ansei five (1858). Sadakuni II only lived to the age of 32. So maybe this stroke of fate triggered his name change to Yukikuni? However, Mataza had already signed with Hisakuni for more than twenty years at that time. That is, a possible stigma to the Sadakuni name due to the untimely death of his successor may be ruled out as the smith had not used this name for more than thirty years at that time.
Picture 2: Blade signed “Nobukuni Minamoto Hisakuni – Tenpō hachinen hachigatsu hi” (信国源久国・天保八年八月日) – “Nobukuni Minamoto Hisakuni, on a day in the eighth month of Tenpō eight (1837)”
As far as references are concerned, I could not find any oshigata or blade with his Shigekane, Masayoshi, or Sadakuni mei. Only very few Hisakuni signed blades (see picture 2 above or here), and the Yukikuni mei on the tsuba introduced here. Thus, it appears that his Hisakuni phase was his most productive one. Please note that in order to avoid repetition – there are two Kuni characters in his mei – the artist signed the first one, the one in Nobukuni, in a different manner as the second one, the one in Yukikuni. This is also the case on the tsuba, although the mei doesn’t come out that well on the quick shot I took of the piece with my iPhone.