This time I would like to talk about a peculiar nickname for a sword, Ningen-Mukotsu (人間無骨), which translates as “humans have no bones.” I have come across this topic recently twice, the first time because the Department of Arms and Armor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a sword that is inscribed with this nickname, and the second time whilst doing research on another sword that has this inscription inlaid in gold (kinzōgan), but let’s start with the former.
The blade in question is a naginata-naoshi with an ō-kissaki and an overall quite magnificent sugata which is inscribed on the omote side “Kaneuji age” (兼氏上ヶ) and on the ura side “Ningen-Mukotsu.” So, at first glance, it appears that we are facing here an ō-suriage blade by Shizu Saburō Kaneuji which someone had either shortened and the original maker plus the information that it was shortened recorded, or appraised it as a shortened work of Kaneuji. Be that as it may, the blade is not a work of Kaneuji but a shinshintō work, most likely by Kurihara Nobuhide (栗原信秀, 1815-1880), or by another smith from the Kiyomaro School.
The second one is a shinshintō Naminohira (波平) katana that was once worn by a member of the famous Shinsengumi, Ōishi Kuwajirō (大石鍬次郎, 1838-1870) which is currently with Nihonto Australia – Samurai Gallery Australia. Apart from the nickname in question, the provenance of the blade was once inlaid in gold (kinzōgan) and was confirmed recently by a descendant of Ōishi Kuwajirō.
That all said, I would like to introduce the background of this nickname, or to be precise, its two alleged backgrounds.
The first starts with Oda Nobunaga (織田信長, 1534-1582). One day, Nobunaga was witnessing one of his retainers testing his Osafune Kiyomitsu (長船清光) katana on a criminal. The sword was cutting through the body so well as if the poor guy “had no bones” whereupon Nobunaga literally had the sword confiscated to wear it himself, giving it the nickname Ningen-Mukotsu. Nobunaga then have the sword to his son Nobukatsu (織田信雄, 1558-1630) who subsequently gave it to his fourth son Nobuyoshi (織田信良, 1584-1626). The young Nobuyoshi managed to survive the downfall of the Toyotomi, the Battle of Sekigahara, the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, and the Battle of Ōsaka, and was eventually installed as daimyō of the Obata fief (小幡藩) in Kōzuke province. This lineage of the Oda family that handed down the sword changed fiefs two times throughout the Edo period, that is, in Meiwa four (明和, 1767) from the Obata to the Takahata fief (高畠藩) in Dewa province, and in Tenpō one (天保, 1830) from the Takahata to the Tendō fief (天童藩), which was also located in Dewa. The last trace we have of this sword is the report of a bakumatsu-era samurai named Komatsubara Jinzaemon (小松原甚左衛門) from the northern Morioka fief (盛岡藩) who was a tameshigiri student of the Yamada Asaemon (山田浅右衛門) family of sword testers and who stated that he had seen it with his own eyes. After that, the trail went cold.
The second origin story of the nickname Ningen-Mukotsu is more tangible, and is, although loosely, also connected to Oda Nobunaga. This story, which is quite brutal, goes back to Mori Nagayoshi (森長可, 1558-1584) who became a retainer of Nobunaga at the age of 13. Four years into his service, Nagayoshi entered his first battle for Nobunaga which was against one of the Ikkō-ikki groups that the latter tried to wipe out. Nagayoshi was wielding a jūmonji-yari by Izumi no Kami Kanesada (和泉守兼定, No-Sada). Legend has it that he decapitated 27 enemies with this yari. That is, Nagayoshi allegedly stabbed the enemies in the throat and kept pushing until the crossbars of the yari decapitated the person. After that, he had the words Ningen and Mukotsu engraved on the base element (kerakubi) of the yari because, well, it really appeared that his enemies didn’t have bones when he cut through them. Now Mori Nagayoshi fought many more battles and was so ruthless that he was nicknamed “The Devil” (Oni, 鬼) That is, his honorary title was that of Musashi no Kami, so they called him Oni-Musashi (鬼武蔵).
Now the jūmonji-yari was handed down within the Mori family and it is said that every time the family had to proceed to Edo in course of the sankin-kōtai system, they were proudly showing off that yari during the procession. In this course, the spear became pretty famous and was published in several of the most widely circulating period sword books. For example, the Honchō Kaji Kō (本朝鍛冶考) from 1796 and the Kokon Kaji Bikō (古今鍛冶備考) from 1816. Incidentally, one day an outpost storehouse used by travelling members of the Mori family burned down, with the Ningen-Mukotsu yari allegedly in it. However, it was reported that a replica was carried on processions and that the real yari has always been stored safely in the castle of the fiefdom…
In 1940, the Ningen-Mukotsu yari was exhibited at the Yūshūkan Museum with the credit line “owned by Viscount Mori Toshinari (森俊成, 1887-1956).” Toshinari was then a member of parliament and belonged to a sideline of the Mori that had branched off at the end of the 17th century when the clan was removed from its Tsuyama fief (津山藩) in Mimasaka province and relocated to the Nishiebara fief (西江原藩) in Bitchū province. That is, Toshinari was initially from the Seki (関) family, but got adopted by the tenth generation of that Mori sideline, obviously somehow ending up with the Ningen-Mukotsu yari.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find information on the current owner of the yari, apart from that it is in private hands. It also has to be mentioned, as indicated, that several historic replicas, and more or less faithful copies of this piece exist, some of them were made on orders of the Mori family, others just on the basis of the pictures featured in the said publications. For example, one replica was ordered by the Mori to be given as an offering to the Ōishi-jinja (大石神社) in Akō, the fief the family ruled from 1706 until the end of the Edo period.
In conclusion I would like to point out that apart from these copies, the nickname also made it over to swords, as the Shinsengumi example has shown. In the context of swords, the name Ningen-Mukotsu does not refer to the famous yari but to cutting ability in general. I have introduced some of such references a while back here.