Chūmon-mei: An example with interesting historic context

Well, this will be another dry and rather history-heavy post, and comes with a few open questions. So, if you are more into blade characteristics and backgrounds on schools and smiths, you might want to skip.

Before we begin, I need to clarify I few terms. The sword I am going to introduce in this article is not only signed and dated by the smith, but also bears the name of the person who ordered it in its mei. Such an inscription is referred to as chūmon-mei (注文銘) or tame-mei (為銘), chūmon meaning “order” and tame meaning “for.” The blade itself may be described as chūmon-uchi (注文打), lit. “custom made,” but this term comes with some ambiguity, or “historic baggage” if you will. That is, this term was explicitly coined to differentiate mass produced Sue-kotō blades, kazuuchi (数打), from custom made Sue-kotō blades. Also, a chūmon-mei or tame-mei is not the same as a shoji-mei (所持銘). The term shoji-mei refers to the name of any owner (Japanese shoji, 所持) of a blade being inscribed on the tang, i.e., “any owner” (shoji-mei) vs. “initial owner who actually placed the order for the sword with the swordsmith” (chūmon-mei or tame-mei).

So, let me start with an oshigata of the blade in question and a translation of its signature.

Wakizashi, signed: Dewa Daijō Fujiwara Kunimichi – Genna gonen jūnigatsu hi, Shu Ōhashi Shōsetsunyū Shigemasa (出羽大掾藤原国路・元和五年十二月日、主大橋松節入重政) – “Yamashiro Daijō Fujiwara Kunimichi, on a day in the twelth month of Genna five (1619), for Ōhashi Shōsetsunyū Shigemasa.” Jūyō-tōken, nagasa 31.4 cm, sori 0.4 cm, motohaba 3.3 cm.

The maker, Dewa Daijō Kunimichi, needs little introduction, but I would like to briefly recap the career of this master. Kunimichi was born in Tenshō four (天正, 1576) and it is believed that he initially trained with the Mishina smith Iga no Kami Kinmichi (伊賀守金道, ?-1629). Around Keichō 14 (慶長, 1609) and being in his early thirties, he refined his craft by studying with master Horikawa Kunihiro (堀川国広, 1531-1614), whose arguably best student he became, and some time between Keichō 18 and 20 (1613-1615), he was given the honorary title of Dewa Daijō. We do not know when Kunimichi died, but there exists a blade dated Meireki three (明暦, 1657) that is inscribed with the supplement “made at the age of 82” (Note: Japanese way of counting years of life), and supposedly one that is dated Kanbun two (寛文, 1662) when he would have been 87 years old. At this age, most masters were merely overseeing the forge and had students doing most of the actual work, except from hardening and signing, although that was very often left to the students as well. Due to this very long active period, the theory has been forwarded that there were two generations Kunimichi, with the second generation succeeding under that very name around Jōō (承応, 1652-1655) (although Satō Kanzan sensei was opposing this theory, just FYI).

And this, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the actual topic of this article, the ordering client of this blade. As stated in the mei, the blade was made for a certain Ōhashi Shōsetsunyū Shigemasa (大橋松節入重政, more on that pen name Shōsetsunyū later), and to let the cat out of the bag right away, Ōhashi Shigemasa certainly did not order that blade himself as he was a tender innocent toddler at that time, being born in Genna four (元和, 1618) and the blade being finished in the twelfth month of Genna five (1619), as stated above.

This brings us, inevitably I would say, to his father, Ōhashi Shigeyasu (大橋重保, 1582-1645), who had an interesting career throughout the Momoyama and early Edo period. As mentioned, this will be a history-heavy post. Who was Ōhashi Shigeyasu? Well, first of all, he was born into a samurai family that served the Miyoshi (三好) clan. His father Shigeyoshi (重慶) died in the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute fighting on the side of Hideyoshi’s nephew Hidetsugu. Shigeyasu was just two years old at that time and so he was put in care of his aunt. Six years later, in 1590, Hidetsugu thought that the eight-years-old Shigeyasu (Note: This was pre-genpuku, so he did not bear that name yet. His childhood name was Katsuchiyo, 勝千代) should get a proper education, so he had him enter the Nanzen-ji (南禅寺) where he was taught by monk Ishin Sūden (以心崇伝, 1569-1633). Ishin was quite a figure in then Japanese politics, but introducing his actions would be beyond the scope of this article, so I just link to his Wikipedia page here.

Now this three-years training with Ishin marked a vital point in Shigeyasu’s career as he was introduced, among calligraphy and other things, to the world of fine arts. After that, it appears that he returned to his family, and when Hidetsugu died in Bunroku four (文禄, 1595), Shigeyasu went into the service of Katagiri Katsumoto (片桐且元, 1556-1615) who then “commuted” between his lands scattered over the provinces of Settsu, Ise, and Harima.

Then in 1598, Hideyoshi died, and two years after that, Ieyasu won Sekigahara. However, the Toyotomi were not yet off the political scene and Katsumoto had become the chamberlain of their household. Shigeyasu remained in his service for the time being until he was appointed yūhitsu (右筆, samurai who was responsible for the management of records and documents) of Hideyoshi’s son Hideyori (豊臣秀頼, 1593-1615) in Keichō 17 (慶長, 1614). In other words, Shigeyasu was now in charge of the Toyotomi archive, but only very briefly as he left his work place, Ōsaka Castle, the same time Hideyoshi’s widow and Hideyoshi’s mother, Yodo-dono (淀殿, 1567-1615), kicked Katsumoto out of the castle under the suspicion of siding with the Tokugawa. You all know what happened next, Ōsaka Castle was besieged, and finally fell in 1615, which resulted in the disbanding of the entire Toyotomi family.

So, Shigeyasu found himelf as a rōnin, but he acted in a proactive manner, went to Edo in Genna three (元和, 1617) and submitted the request of being exonerated and willing to serve within the new Tokugawa bakufu. As he was well-educated and respected in the fields of calligraphy and everything document-related, his request was granted, he was made hatamoto under Tokugawa Hidetada (徳川秀忠, 1579-1632) and given lands around the villages of Kugenuma (鵠沼村) and Ōba (大庭村) in Sagami province which earned him an income of 500 koku. In addition, he also became Hidetada’s yūhitsu, a post which he also fulfilled for Hidetada’s successor, the third Tokugawa Shōgun Iemitsu (徳川家光, 1604-1651).

Things went well for Shigeyasu, but he became ill in Kan’ei ten (寛永, 1633) and had to hand over his post of yūhitsu first, and the ownership of the Ōhashi lands the year after to his son Shigemasa, the person whose name is mentioned on Kunimichi’s blade if you remember. Before we come to Shigemasa, let me briefly recap the final years of his father’s life. Even after retiring, and having entered priesthood under the name Ryūkei (龍慶), Shigeyasu remained a close confidante of the Shōgun and was given an income-yielding “retirement estate” in Ushigome (牛込), then located in the north-eastern corner of Edo’s outermost moat. In Kan’ei 18 (1641), on the occasion of his 60th birthday, Shigeyasu paid for restoration work done to the Konda-Hachimangū (誉田八幡宮) in Kawachi province, the family shrine of the Ōhashi and located where the family originated from. Three years later, Shigeyasu donated parts of his sword collection to the shrine (the entire donation consisted of 36 objects and contained items other than swords as well). He died the year after, in Shōhō two (正保, 1645) and at the age of 64.

With this, we shall return to his eldest son and heir, Ōhashi Shigemasa. As mentioned, he was born in Genna four (1618), the year before the blade introduced here was made. His father taught him calligraphy early on (Shigemasa later also learned from the famous calligrapher Shōkadō Shōjō [松花堂昭乗, 1584-1639]), and the two developed their own calligraphic style named Ōhashi-ryū (大橋流). Shigemasa became Tokugawa Iemitsu’s yūhitsu at the young age of 14. Two years later, he already had to succeed his retiring father as head of the Ōhashi family and estates. In Keian two (慶安, 1649), four years after his father had passed, Shigemasa donated nine koku of his annual income to the Kūjō-ji (空乗寺) in Kugenuma, the temple he was then buried in Kanbun twelve (1672) at the young age of 55.

So, back to the sword in question, and a few thoughts. The date the order was placed makes it quite likely that Ōhashi Shigeyasu had approached Dewa Daijō Kunimichi to celebrate the birth of his first born son Shigemasa. Also we have learned that Shigeyasu entertained a decent sword collection, so we can assume that was into swords beyond the mere fact of being a samurai and hatamoto. Thus, it is possible that he had some more blades commissioned, which are either no longer extant or just somewhere out there. In this sense, I would be very interested in seeing other early Edo period blades that bear the name Ōhashi in their mei.

Well, then there is this odd pen name Shōsetsunyū (松節入) in the inscription. At such an infant age, Shigemasa certainly did not use a pen name. So what are we facing here? Disclaimer: I am not 100% about the correct reading of this name/supplement, and away from the library, I could not find any solid leads online. Now there is the term shōsetsu (松節), lit. “pine knot,” which refers to the knot a pine forms after an injury or a pest infection. Medicine made from these knots is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine since earliest time, e.g., to ease joint pain and rheumatism. Then there is also the term setsu-iri (節入り), lit. “entering the time/season,” which marks the beginning of each month on the lunar calendar.

So, does the term Shōsetsunyū/Shōsetsu-iri (松節入) have to be taken literally as “entering the pine season”? Or, with the last character iri (入り) being taken by its other meaning “containing,” should the interpretation be “containing/having pine knots”? Did baby Shigemasa suffer from some kind of (skin) desease and the blade with this explicit inscription was ordered by his father as a form of prayer for recovery? Perhaps, and what I currently tend more towards to, Shōsetsunyū/Shōsetsu-iri is some rare period term that refers to a certain age/passage in an infant’s life, like for example, when the child has survived its first year and has been out of the woods so to speak. Hence, the order for the blade a little bit after Shigemasa was born? Following this approach, the interpretation of the inscription could be: “For Ōhashi Shigemasa, who has entered the ‘pine season’!”

If you are still with me, there is a reason for why I researched and wrote this lengthy post, and that is to point out, once again, how fruitful studying Japanese swords can be, studies which can bring you far beyond just hamon here and jigane there. And, if possible, I am of the opinion that every collector who has a sword with a chūmon-mei or shoji-mei should absolutely research it (or have it researched). It might come with some very interesting insights and historic context as seen here.

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