Ningen-Mukotsu (人間無骨)

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. 




Picture 1: naginata-naoshi katana, nagasa 68.4 cm, sori 1.9 cm; bequest of George C. Stone, 1935; 36.25.1676a–c


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.


Picture 2: Oda Nobunaga


Picture 3: Oda Nobukatsu


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). 


Picture 4: Mori Nagayoshi



Picture 5: Sankin-kōtai procession (please note the spear bearers).

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…


Picture 6: Honchō Kaji Kō, 1796


Picture 7: Kokon Kaji Bikō, 1816


Picture 8: The Ningen-Mukotsu jūmonji-yari

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.


Picture 9: Viscount Mori Toshinari


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. 


Picture 10: Copy of the Ningen-Mukotsu yari by the local smith Noriyuki, signed: “Akō-jū Noriyuki gojūissai kitae-utsushi – Tenpō yon mi nigatsu kichijitsu” (赤穂住則之五十一歳鍛写・天保四巳二月吉日) – “Copied by Noriyuki, resident of Akō, on a lucky day in the second month of Tenpō four (1833), year of the snake, at the age of 51.”

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.

Who “wore” it better?

This time, I would like to introduce two tsuba from the collection of the Met, which share the same motif and which are interpreted in a very similar manner, both made by artisans from Mito, former Hitachi province. It is evident at first glance that both tsuba are very late works, dating to the Meiji era, and can be placed, in terms of style, within a trend which is referred to as hamamono (浜物). The broader context of hamamono should be omitted here, but being close to the source so to speak, I want to quote from Ogawa Morihiro’s (小川盛弘) catalog Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156–1868:

Appreciated as ornaments and paperweights, hamamono are often decorated with fanciful designs in fine inley. (The term “hamamono” probably derives from the fact that most of them were exported from Yokohama.) Most hamamono tsuba are inscribed with the names of great Edo-period sword fittings makers, such as Yokoya Sōmin, Nara Toshinaga, Tsuchiya Yasuchika, Hamano Shozui, and Ishiguro Masatsune, but their style of manufacture suggests that they were more likely made by Mito artisans, such as Okawa Teiken [sic] and the metalworkers of the Edo Hamano group. Although large numbers of hamamono can be found in American and European collections, there are comparatively few in Japan,suggesting that they were made largely for export.

One detail in this quote, the reference to Mito artisans, brings us back to the tsuba introduced here. The first one (see picture 1) is signed: “Zuiryūken Hidetomo” (随柳軒英友). And the second tsuba (see picture 2) is signed: “Suifu-jūnin Ichiryūken Shujin kizamu/koku” (水府住人・一柳軒主人刻) – “Carved by Ichiryūken Shujin, resident of Mito.”



Picture 1: Tsuba; H. 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm); W. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); thickness 3/8 in. (1 cm); Wt. 7.1 oz. (201.3 g); bequest of Edward G. Kennedy, 1932; 33.40.16



Picture 2: Tsuba; H. 3 7/16 in. (8.7 cm); W. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); thickness 3/8 in. (1 cm); Wt. 7.4 oz. (209.8 g); H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929; 29.100.964


Now consulting Haynes, we find the first maker listed as follows:


The second maker, however, is a little bit of a mystery. Haynes interprets the suffix shujin in a literal way, meaning “lord/master,” which is understandable. Full quote below.


I did some very superficial digging, no in-depth research, but found a person who might have been behind this art name, i.e., the “full” art name in the form of Ichiryūken Shujin, and that is because of the local connection. The Ibaraki Prefectural Library namely holds a publication titled Meiji Kyōiku Kawa Dai 1 Shū (明治教育佳話・第1集, Good Stories From Meiji-era Education – Volume 1), which was compiled by a certain Ichiryūken Shujin with the very same name. Now the library adds in parenthesis the real name of this person, Shimonō Shigeyasu (下生成安), and here the aforementioned local connection comes into play.

This Shimonō Shigeyasu was from Hitachi, and coincidentally, from the same town of Kashima (鹿島) as Kajihei from my previous article here. In other words, he was a “Mito guy,” Mito only being 30 miles from Kashima. Shigeyasu was born in Ansei five (安政, 1858). According to the Ibaraki Kyōikuka Ryakuden (茨城県教育家略伝, 1894), his father was a Confucianist and his mother was from the Shimonō family that held an important hereditary religious post at the Kashima Shrine. His maternal grandfather, a Shintō priest, was Shimonō Shigenobu (下生成信, 1804-1879), who is said to have had a chivalrous spirit and settled many violent disputes of local rōnin, proudly wearing a sword with a red-lacquer saya. Do we see here a hint of a connection to sword fittings?

Well, Shigeyasu was a teacher, school principal, and an important figure in the local education system of the Meiji era. He published a few books on this topic and also worked for a while for the Ministry of Education. Now the million-dollar question: Is this our man? Did Shimonō Shigeyasu study with a local kinkō artist and then made tsuba as a pastime (or as a side job) under the pseudonym Ichiryūken Shujin?

When you take a closer look at picture 2, you could argue that the tsuba has indeed a certain “crude” character (punches towards the bottom that represent shade, not very uniform and aesthetically pleasing concentric engravings on the upper left and right that represent the texture of the tea kettle, also not really uniform greek key pattern along the lid of the kettle, crude nakago-ana recess, etc.) which would support the approach of facing an amateur work here. However, you could also argue that the majority of hamano is not really sophisticated in general, and the slight “crudeness” of this tsuba does not necessarily mean it was made by a teacher on his weekends.

That said, there is a certain number of Ichiryūken works out there, mostly represented in Western collections (also see Ron’s thread on the NMB here). So, if these are works of Shimonō Shigeyasu, it is safe to assume that he was running that tsuba-making venture as a side job rather than a hobby. Or, this all is just a coincidence, and there is no connection between the Mito-based tsuba maker Ichiryūken, who signed with the supplement shujin, and the also Mito-based teacher Shimonō Shigeyasu who used the very same art name combo Ichiryūken Shujin…

Anyway, I would like to conclude with the actual motif of the two tsuba introduced here, a motif which is referred to as bunbuku-chagama (分福茶釜・文福茶釜), “The Magic Tea Kettle.” This is a folktale about a shapeshifting tanuki (raccoon dog); the tale has its origins at Morin-ji (茂林寺) Temple in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture. There are different variants of this folktale but the bones of it concern Shukaku (守鶴), an old and wise monk who, in the late 1500s served several successive abbots of the Morin-ji. Shukaku was in possession of a magic tea kettle which was never empty despite having been filled only once, even at a large New Year’s banquet where tea was made for a huge crowd. Later, another monk peeked into Shukaku’s room when the old monk was taking a nap and he saw that Shukaku had a tanuki tail. So, the monks learned that their colleague was actually a tanuki who had transformed into a monk and that the capacity of the kettle arose in the magic powers of the tanuki. Shukaku had to leave the temple. Later this legend turned into a folktale about a monk who bought a tea kettle and set it over the fire to boil water, only to see it sprout tanuki legs, and run away. In another variant of the story, the tanuki does not run away but returns into its transformed state as a kettle. The shocked monk decides to leave the tea kettle as an offering to the temple where he lives, choosing not to use it for tea again.

That should do it for today, enjoy the two tsuba introduced here, and an article on a gory reference to the cutrting ability of a sword found on a few blades should follow shortly.