Forgotten Masters – Haruakira (治剣)

Sometimes you come across a wonderful work by an obscure maker who has either fallen through the cracks of historic swordsmith recording (such an unrecorded smith is referred to as meikan-more, 銘鑑漏れ), or who appears to have been an one-hit wonder. Of course, the earlier the maker, the more difficult it is to make assumptions on his output and on how many of his works have been lost over time.

This time, we are talking about a work by a smith with the name Haruakira (治剣), which likely many of you have never heard of. To begin with, I would like to introduce one of his extremely rare works, a wakizashi, which has passed Jūyō in 1997.

Wakizashi signed: Chōshū Haruakira saku – Ōan yonen sangatsu hi (長州治剣作・応安二二年三月日) – “Made by Haruakira from Nagato on a day in the third month of Ōan four (1371).”

The blade is in hira-zukuri, has a mitsu-mune, a wide mihaba of 3.05 cm, a nagasa of 35.0 cm, and a hint of sori. Thus, we have here a typical hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi from the mid-Nanbokuchō period. The kitae is a prominently standing-out itame that is mixed with mokume and towards the mune with nagare-masame and that features ji-nie and much chikei. The hamon is a gently undulating notare-chō in nie-deki that is mixed with gunome, togariba, kinsuji, sunagashi, and many ashi. The elements of the ha are relatively small dimensioned and the nioiguchi is rather subdued. The bōshi is midare-komi and displays a Jizō-style kaeri on the omote, and a pointed kaeri on the ura side. Kinsuji and hakikake appear on both sides in the bōshi and the kaeri connects with the muneyaki, which runs all the way down to the mune-machi. The nakago is ubu, has a ha-agari kurijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, and bears anaga-mei and date.

In the write-up of the Jūyō paper, the NBTHK mentions that the workmanship bears strong resemblance to the style of the Sa (左) School, but showing more rustic hataraki in the jiba, although being overall of a bold make and of an excellent deki. Now, the similarities to the Sa School is logical for geographic reasons, i.e., Nagato, the westernmost province of Honshū and present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, was only separated from Chikuzen province (present-day Fukuoka Prefecture) by the narrow Strait of Shimonoseki (and a little bit of Buzen province). In addition, several Sa School smiths had migrated to Nagato over time. The vertically compressed signature, i.e., cramped looking signature, however, also bears some resemblance to the mei of the Hasebe (長谷部) Scool. Whilst we are talking about the signature, please note that Haruakira signed the second character of his name, akira (剣), in the variant (剱).

Kōzan Oshigata

Well, this Jūyō blade was the only work by Haruakira that I was able to find in my references. Interestingly, it is featured in the Kōzan Oshigata (光山押形), which was compiled in the late 17th to early 18th century. Since the time that source was compiled, the second mekugi-ana had been enlarged. Please note that although the signature is fairly faithfully copied, the Kōzan Oshigata got the date wrong. That is, one stroke for the month was overlooked by Hon’ami Kōzan (本阿弥光山, 1634–1714) and therefore the second (二月) instead of the third month (三月) was written into the oshigata. Compared to the rest of the signature, which is fairly faithfully copied as mentioned, the entire part of the month and day is noticeably off. Maybe Kōzan did not pay much attention to the lesser important parts of the date here?

So, Haruakira was a swordsmith from the middle to somewhat later Nanbokuchō period based in Nagato province who was likely related to the Sa School. This is as much as we can say about this maker. When we look into the meikan, we find two more Nagato smiths with this name: A Haruakira who was active around Eishō (永正, 1504–1521), and another one who was active around Keian (慶安, 1648–1652). It therefore appears that local swordsmiths revived that name, in both cases roughly 150 years after their predecessor.

I was not able to find works by any of the later two Haruakira either, but one blade of the Eishō-era smith is featured in the Tsuchiya Oshigata (土屋押形), which was compiled from existing oshigata taken by Tsuchiya Harunao (土屋温直, 1782–1851). The blade appears to be a katateuchi-style uchigatana, which became increasingly popular around the time that Haruakira was active, and features tobiyaki and very prominent muneyaki. The yobiyaki, however, look a bit “disorganized,” and if you zoom in on the habuchi, it looks like that the ha is nie-laden. Interestingly, this Haruakira used the character (釼) instead of (剱) for the character akira (the difference is in the left-hand radical).

From the Tsuchiya Oshigata.


I would like to conclude by reflecting on the local historical context. With the exception of the influx of Sa School smiths around the mid-Nanbokuchō period and of Niō (二王) School smiths migrating from neighboring Suō province throughout the 15th century, Nagato province never had been a notable production center for swords. It is interesting to observe that the meikan do not list any Nagato smiths before the Nanbokuchō period. This is insofar odd as the Kamakura Shōgunate installed a local commissioner in Nagato (Nagato Tandai, 長門探題) in 1276 to oversee coastal defense after the Mongols had invaded two years prior. Seems as if this did not have any impact on local sword production, meaning that the troops employed there were likely sourcing their swords from other provinces (or merely brought them with them).

That spike in Nagato sword production around the mid-Nanbokuchō period is very likely linked to the Ashikaga campaign against Kyūshū that took place at that time, and that increase in recorded Nagato-based smiths throughout the 15th century likely to the then expansion of one of the local rulers, the Ōuchi (大内) family. The low number of recorded Nagato smiths throughout the subsequent Sengoku period suggests that local samurai were sourcing their swords once again from elsewhere.

Now, the continued lack of significant numbers of Nagato swordsmiths during the Edo period might be explained by the background of its rulers, the Mōri (毛利) family. Due to their allegiance to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu transferred them from their lands in Aki province to Nagato once he had won Sekigahara, which came with a significant decrease of annual income. In a nutshell, the Tokugawa remained suspicious about the Mōri, ranking them tozama daimyō (外様大名, lit. “outside daimyō), and the Mōri held a grudge against the Tokugawa until the end of the Edo period. Accordingly, and despite the fact that military infrastructure already greatly suffered in Nagato due to the decreased income, it is safe to assume that the Tokugawa did not want to see a major weapons production site operating down there. However, the Mōri boosted local tsuba production, resulting in a myriad of makers and works, referred to as Chōshū-tsuba (長州鐔, named after the Chōshū fief that the Mōri were ruling) that reached every nook and cranny of Japan.

I hope I did not go off too much on a historical tangent and I want to continue this “Forgotten Masters” series whenever I come across such in course of my research.

Naotane’s odd aging habit

The famous shinshintō master Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778–1857) needs little introduction, but I would like to briefly recap his career before I come to the actual topic of this post.

Born in An’ei seven (安永, 1778) (some sources say An’ei eight) in Yamagata (山形) in Dewa province (present-day Yamagata Prefecture) into a family of blacksmiths that produced agricultural tools, Naotane, his real name was Shōji Minobei (荘司箕兵衛・庄司美濃兵衛), felt destined for greater things. Accordingly, some time towards the end of the Kansei era (寛政, 1789–1801), he left his home town for Edo to study with the arguably most famous swordsmith at that time, Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀, 1750–1825). We do not know who or if someone arranged this apprenticeship, but maybe it had helped that Masahide was originally from Dewa province as well.

Portrait of Naotane he had commissioned with a certain Takada Enshū (高田円洲) at the age of 72. It had remained with the Shōji family until it was unfortunately destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.

Naotane learned fast as he had entered his teacher’s forge with existing skills from his upbringing as a blacksmith, and so he was able to become independent in Kansei 13 (1801) at the young age of 23. Naotane married the daughter of a charcoal wholesaler, how practical, and moved several times (one time he lost his house due to a fire that had ravaged the Kanda district).

In Bunka nine (文化, 1812), and through the agency of his former teacher Masahide, Naotane was employed by the Akimoto (秋元) family, which ruled, until 1845, the Yamagata fief in Dewa province, and then the Tatebayashi fief in Kōzuke province. For the time being, Naotane worked from Edo, receiving the honorary titles of Chikuzen Daijō (筑前大掾) around Bunsei four or five (文政, 1821~1822), and that of Mino no Suke (美濃介) in Kaei one (嘉永, 1848), when he proceeded to Kyōto to present the aristocratic Takatsukasa family (鷹司) with a tachi.

Naotane’s fame grew and his outstanding skill allowed him to produces blades in any style, although his main artistic focus were the Bizen and Sōshū traditions. Naotane not only trained almost as many students as his teacher Masahide, he travelled extensively all over Japan and instructed local smiths in many of his temporary working locations. Naotane married his daughter to his best student Jirō Tarō Naokatsu (次郎太郎直勝, 1805–1858), who had been sent to train with him by the Tatebayashi fief and who later took over the workshop as Naotane’s official successor. Naotane died in the fourth year of Ansei ( 安政, 1857) at the age of 79. He is buried at the Honnen-ji (本然寺) in the Asakusa district of Edo/Tōkyō.


Now to the actual topic. As surely most of you know, some swordsmiths and sword fitting makers inscribed certain works with the age they were when producing it. This practice is known as gyōnen-mei (行年銘). Naotane was one of these swordsmiths, and he started to add gyōnen-mei to some works from the age of 50 onwards.

In many cases, inscribing one’s age was often linked to an auspicious occasion, for example, turning 61 being celebrated as Kanreki (還暦), turning 70 as Koki (古希), turning 80 as Sanju (傘寿), and, very auspicious, turning 88 as Beiju (米寿). There are even more special birthdays after the age of 90, but such ages were rarely reached in post-modern times. Thus, such “milestone birthdays” if you will were seen as a starting point to inscribe one’s age to a work on a regular basis, although we also know fairly many cases where artists inscribed gyōnen-mei in their late teens, twenties, thirties, etc.

Another issue that we have to take into consideration is the different way age was counted in Japan. That is, up to some time after WWII (in practice; rendered obsolete by law in 1902), the Japanese used a method referred to as kazoedoshi (数え年), which started with the age of 1 when being born and which incremented on New Year’s Day. For example, if you were born, let’s say on October 12, 1818, you were 1 year old and turned 2 “suddenly” on Jan 1, 1819 (using the Gregorian calendar here for demonstration purposes). This way of counting then continued for the rest of your life, i.e., you turned 3 in this case on Jan 1, 1820, and not on your actual birthday October 12.

Back to Naotane. As mentioned, he started to inscribe gyōnen-mei at the age of 50. When he was 74, however, something happened as all of a sudden, he upped his age by one year. That is, in Kaei five (嘉永, 1852), when he was 74 kazoedoshi years old, he inscribed certain blades with “made at the age of 75.” He continued to do so throughout Kaei six, seven, and Ansei two (安政, 1855), but in the very same year of Ansei two, when he was actually 78 kazoedoshi years old, he occasionally upped his age by two years even, inscribing certain blades with “made at the age of 80.”

Left: Wakizashi dated Ansei two and inscribed “made at the age of 79” and right a wakizashi dated Ansei two and inscribed “made at the age of 80.” Both blades are Tokubetsu-Hozon.

This oddity is referred to as kirō-heki (喜老癖). I am not 100% sure about the reading, so I chose a standard Sino-Japanese reading for the term, which may best be translated as “habit of greatfully accepting one’s old age,” or “habit of being delighted about one’s old age.” Incidentally, I was only able to find this term in connection with swords and sword fittings, not Japanese art in general, but want to do more research in the future. Also, I am not sure if this term was coined in reference to Tang dynasty Chinese poet Bái Jūyì (白居易, 772–846) as Jūyì left a poem with the title Lǎnjìng Xǐlǎo (覧鏡喜老, Japanese: Rankyō Kirō). In this poem, 64-years-old Jūyì looks into the mirror and is delighted about having avoided premature death and having become that old.

Anyway, once again back to Naotane. Now why did he do this kirō-heki thing? Well, we do not know for sure, but there are several hypotheses. One speculates that something must have happened at age 74 when he used kirō-heki for the first time. That is, maybe he got sick and worried that he won’t life to 76, the age his teacher Masahide died, whom he greatly admired, but whom he also tried to surpass. Another one puts forward that Naotane may have tried to leave a legacy through his works of living a long life, which may also explain the “double jump” to 79 when he was 77 years old. In other words, when people will come across such a work in the future, and not knowing when he was actually born, they might admire that the smith had enjoyed a particularly long life. Or it is nothing more than a playful wish of, or encouragement for the artist to reach these ages when inscribing them on certain works (Occam’s razor may favor this approach). By the way, there exists a blade which is dated “on a spring day in the year of the snake of the Ansei era (1857).” This blade is inscribed with the kirō-heki “made at the age of 80,” so only a one year jump again. Naotane died on the 27th day of the fifth month that very year, so this blade can be considered as one as his last works.

Blade dated with a spring day in the year of the snake of the Ansei era and inscribed “made at the age of 80.” The blade is Jūyō.

Wrapping up this post, I would like to point out that Naotane was not the only artist who used kirō-heki (I had mentioned sword fittings earlier). There exists a tsuba by the first generation Niwa Norisuke (丹羽則亮, 1781–1852) which is inscribed “made at the age of 72” when the artist had actually died at the age of 71. In addition, there exists a tsuba by Tsuchiya Kunichika (土屋国親, 1788–1852), which is dated Kaei three (嘉永, 1850) and which is inscribed “made at the age of 66.” In Kaei three, Kunichika was actually 63 years old, so we are facing here a considerable kirō-heki jump of three years. Kunichika seems to have used that (at least) three-year-jump several times as the Kinkō Jiten (金工事典) mentions that works inscribed “made with the age of 68” even if the artist had died at the age of 65.

Tsuba by Tsuchiya Kunichika dated Kaei three and inscribed “made at the age of 66.”


Why? Trying to connect the dots…

As some of you know, identifying obscure motifs and solving demanding inscription puzzles is one my fortes. Sometimes, however, you have to throw the towel, or put the issue on the back burner for a while. I would like to introduce such a case here.

Tsuba, signed: Shihō Hōen isshi horu (紫峰芳園作逸士鐫) – “Carved by the hermit Shihō Hōen.” Gift of Mrs. George A. Crocker (Elizabeth Masten), 1937 (38.25.48).


To be clear, it is not about the motif of the object in question, which you will see is relatively easily identified. It is about the inscription. Now, we are talking about a tsuba in the collection of The Met. It is a work of Ōkawa Teikan (大川貞幹, born 1828) and depicts the elderly couple of the auspicious Nō play Takasago (高砂). With broom and rake, the couple (seen in a print below) sweeps the area under a pine which is referred to as Takasago Pine, after the town of the same name located in present-day Hyōgo Prefecture. This pine is paired with the Suminoe Pine growing in distant Suminoe (住之江), present-day Ōsaka, and together the two trees are called Aioi-no-matsu (相生の松 , Wedded Pines or Paired Pines).

Except for little more than an indicated shore line, the reverse of the tsuba is undecorated. However, it bears the following inscription, which I have difficulties with bringing in line with the depicted motif:

Taezu Hōōzan no shimoji sude ni, shūfū wa musai, kaiha wa samui. [Reading uncertain, corrections welcome.]
“The shadowy road under the Phoenix Mountain, where the autumn winds are endless and the sea waves are cold.”

This inscription is actually a poem, which goes back to the hand of Chinese poet Yuán Hàowèn (元好問, 1190–1257). And this is where the mystery starts. How is this old poem connected to the Nō play Takasago? Is it at all? Why is it inscribed on this tsuba?

Yuán Hàowèn (元好問, 1190–1257)

Now, the above mentioned poem is actually half of one of two couplets in which Yuán Hàowèn references, in his own words, to a humble painting of pines in the wind. Maybe that’s it, i.e., Ōkawa Teikan using Yuán Hàowèn’s half couplet referring to pines as a reference to the Paired Pines in the Takasago play? I do feel, however, that this explanation attempt might be too far-fetched. That is, although references and allusions are highly sophisticated in Japanese art, I think that Taikan using that half couplet, which does not even have pines in it, as starting point for you to connect the dots and arrive at Yuán Hàowèn preface, and this being the reference to pines is just one step too much if you know what I mean. Also, although Yuán Hàowèn’s poems were fairly popular during the late Edo period, the two couplets in questions are buried in an anthology of Hàowèn’s works that consists of 45 volumes, the volume in question alone containing more than 200 poems. So, we are not talking about THE lines that Hàowèn is most famous for. In addition, there are far more famous poems by Hàowèn that reference pines.

Another approach of explaining this conundrum would be to see if Yuán Hàowèn is known for a long and loving marriage, or being separated from his wife as that is the major theme of the Takasago play. Well, Hàowèn had an eventful life, but again, he is not THE symbol of long-standing marriage or of a husband being separated from his wife. However, practicing due diligence, I want to do more research in this direction.

The next approach would be talking the poem literally, that is, is the play Takasago known for a shadowy road, fierce autumn winds, and/or cold waves? Not really, I would argue. Well, in the play, a priest does travel by sea from Takasago to Suminoe (see map), but there is no mention of rough seas or of particularly cold temperatures. In the opposite, the play is set in pleasant spring weather. So, I would rould out this approach for the time being.

Last approach, for now: Maybe the artist, Ōkawa Teikan, just had a fondness for Yuán Hàowèn and was well familiar with his poetry? Or, his client was, and had Teikan engrave that very poem on the tsuba? Well, we will very likely never be able to confirm any of that, if it is the case at all.

This is where it stops, for now, and if I ever find out what the context here is, I will post a follow-up of course.