Gotō Ichijō’s personal sword

Before we start, I want to apologize for my recent posts being more brief than usual. Those who follow my page know why and when things have calmed down, i.e. when I have settled in with my new job, and place, I will get back to more detailed and “substantial” articles.

Now this time I want to introduce the tantō that Gotō Ichijō (後藤一乗, 1791-1876) had received as a gift from the bakumatsu era master swordsmith Koyama Munetsugu (固山宗次, 1803-?) and which he owned for the rest of his life. So let’s portray the careers of these two artists.

Picture 1: tantō, mei: “Bizen no Suke Munetsugu kore o saku – Kōka sannen hachigatsu hi – Zō Ichijō Hokkyō” (備前介宗次作之・弘化三年八月日・贈一乗法橋) – “Made by Bizen no Suke Munetsugu on a day in the eighth month of Kōka three (1846) as a gift for Ichijō Hokkyō”; nagasa 31.2 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune

First of all, both Ichijō and Munetsugu were already renowned artists at the time the blade was made, which was in Kōka three (弘化, 1846), and very busy with fulfilling orders. That is, Ichijō was 56 and Munetsugu 44, following the Japanese way of counting. Let me begin with Koyama Munetsugu. Munetsugu started his career as smith for the Shirakawa fief (白河藩) of northern Mutsu province which was then ruled by the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira (久松松平) family. So far so good but in Bunsei six (文政, 1823), the bakufu decided that the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira needed to be transferred, and that is, to the Kuwana fief (桑名藩) of Ise province what basically cut their annual income by half. There are some theories why this happened but I don’t want to go into too much detail here and suffice to say, Munetsugu remained employed and was able to keep his job. However, he did not proceed to Kuwana right away but stayed for six more years in Shirakawa, i.e. his move down to Ise took place in Bunsei twelve (1829). Just two years later, he got the chance to go to Edo to work for the fief from its capital premises, which means that Munetsugu was now “where everything happened.” Well, there was a brief break from that as in Tenpō six (天保, 1835), Munetsugu worked for an unknow but short period of time for the Owari-Tokugawa family, i.e. directly from Owari province. We can only speculate why that employment did not continue (maybe it was a temporary contract in the first place) but the then Owari-Tokugawa head, Nariharu (徳川斉温, 1819-1839), tried to revive the economy of his fief but failed first badly as he was wasting so much money with his own ventures. In short, Nariharu eventually received a stern warning from his imperial tutor and obeyed so Munetsugu was probably laid off and that is why he returned to Edo and back into the employment of the Matsudaira.

Well, Munetsugu was just looking back at a very successful time in his career and one year before the blade introduced here was made, i.e. in Kōka two (1845), he had received the honorary title Bizen no Suke (備前介). In concrete terms, we are talking about the Tenpō era (天保, 1830-1844) and a large number of Munetsugu’s works and also of his greatest masterworks go back to that period. Or in other words, it was a few years in the Tenpō era when his career really took off. Incidentally, that was also the time when Munetsugu started his cooperation with the Yamada Asa’emon (山田浅右衛門) family of sword testers.

Picture 2: Gotō Ichijō

Back to Gotō Ichijō. The time the blade was made, the artist had been working for about two decades under his Ichijō name and that with holding the Buddhist priest rank of a hokkyō. He had received that rank after making in Bunsei seven (文政, 1824) the fittings for a tachi of Emperor Kōkaku (光格天皇, 1780-1817). When we look at Ichijō’s career through the lens of extant dated (and precisely datable) works, we recognize two small breaks, one from 1829 to 1832 and one from 1843 to 1846 (the year the very blade introduced here was made). As mentioned, this observation bases on dated/datable works so Ichijō may well have been very busy but did not finish works during these years, possibly working on too many projects at the same time. Also, the Gotō were going through kind of a difficult time right after 1845 as the bakufu discovered a major corruption scandal around one of them, Gotō San’emon Mitsumichi (後藤三右衛門光亨, 1796-1845), who was the 13th Gotō head of the bakufu mint and who was sentenced to death and decapitated in 1845 for his involvement. We don’t know if that incident affected Ichijō at all but it is surely not helpful if one of your relatives, and your family name, is – in that negative manner – all over the news.

This bring is right back to the blade. It is interesting to see that it was a gift as mentioned and we know that Munetsugu and Ichijō were working together on sword orders so this was not a one-time brief touching point of the career of these two artists. Also we know that Ichijō owned that sword until the end of his life, and wore it too (more on this shortly), so we may imply that it had a special meaning for him. So maybe this gift was Munetsugu saying “Hang in there!” and Ichijō was indeed going through difficult times. Or maybe it was all completely different and everything was perfectly fine and the blade was just a nice gesture on part of Munetsugu. Or, another theory, it marked the start of a successful cooperation and friendship.

Picture 3: koshigatana-koshirae with birch andfuemaki flute-style saya which is a work of master lacquer artist Hashiichi (橋市) who lived close to Ichijō, fittings en suite of polished oborogin with gold and silver hira-zōgan ornamentation (menuki and kozuka of shakudō with nanako ground)

In any case, Ichijō made his own fittings for the blade and the full koshirae can be seen in picture 3. The dashi-menuki on the unwrapped hilt depict pairs of 3-5-3 kiri crests for which the Gotō family became famous for, e.g. Tokujō (後藤徳乗, 1550-1631) designing it for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and on the kozuka we see kuyō crests, i.e. the crest of the Gotō family of kinkō artists worn by them since at least the time of their ancestor Yūjō (後藤祐乗, 1440-1512) (see picture 4)

Picture 4: Gotō Yūjō

Now we don’t know if Ichijō made the fittings, and had the koshirae parts made, right when he got the blade from Munetsugu, if he mounted it a certain way for the time being and redid everything at a later point, or if he had just kept the blade in shirasaya for some time and then decided to have it mounted with his own fittings at one point in his life. What we do know for certain is that he was wearing the blade in this koshirae as there exists “photo evidence” for that (see picture 6). A hint on when he made the fittings (and had Munetsugu’s gift blade mounted) may be hidded in the fittings as kurigata, kashira, and kojiri bear the inscription sen-kannin (専堪忍) (see picture 5) which basically means “forbearance/patience.” So, we can speculate that Ichijō chose these characters after going through some kind of difficult times in the mid-1840s, and Munetsugu did indeed present him with this blade to cheer him up, or much later when he was looking back on a very successful career and chose “forbearance/patience” as motto of life. As mentioned, just speculations, but it is so enjoyable and rewarding to reflect on these things.

Picture 5: kurigatga, kashira, and kojiri

Picture 6: Portrait of Ichijō wearing the sword in question.

It is assumed that picture 6 was taken when Kyōto Prefectural Governor Hase Nobuatsu (長谷信篤, 1818-1902) entrusted Ichijō in Meiji six (明治, 1873), i.e. three years before his death, with a post at the Meiji Restoration’s Encouragement of Industry venture which turned into the concrete first Exhibition for the Industrial Promotion of the Country (kokunai-kangyō-hakurankai, 国内勧業博覧会) two years after Ichijō died (and where subsequently many of the famous kinkō artists of the Meiji era participated).

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Alteration vs. Correction

I have written a couple of times about the issues of removing signatures from swords, for example here and here. Now in these two examples, the signature was removed due to lack of knowledge in the one case, and due to criminal activities in the other case. This time, I would like to introduce a blade where not its signature per se but a kinzōgan-mei attribution was removed, and that not because of ignorance but more as a correction, thus this title of this post.

The blade in question is a tachi that has been shortened to a katana and that was tested by the famous early Edo period sword tester Nakagawa Saheita (中川左平太, ?-1653), cutting with it with just one hand through a body (katate-dō, 片手胴). At the time the cutting test was performed, the blade was attributed to Rai Kunitsugu (来国次) and inlaid so in gold on the other side of the nakago. The blade is of quite an elegant shape, tapers noticeably, keeps despite of the ō-suriage a deep sori, and ends in a ko-kissaki, or a very compact chū-kissaki if you will. It shows a fine and densely forged ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie and a ko-nie-laden suguha-chō to slightly undulating notare with a wide nioiguchi that is mixed with ko-gunome, a few ko-midare elements, sunagashi, and small yubashiri. The bōshi is sugu and shows a ko-maru-kaeri and a bōhi is engraved on both sides which runs with kaki-nagashi into the tang.

Now Rai Kunitsugu is known as a Rai smith who incorporated more than his school colleagues the Sōshū tradition and so a blade like here with such a dense ko-itame and a calm suguha-chō is atypical for him. This was also recognized by the NBTHK when the blade passed jūyō in 1975 and the kinzōgan-mei attribution (not the cutting test and the information on the owner) was put in the certificate with reservation, i.e. as to kinzōgan-mei ga aru (と金象嵌銘がある). The state of the blade as it passed jūyō is shown below.

Picture 1: jūyō in 1975, nagasa 71.5 cm, sori 2.2 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.7 cm, moto-kasane 0.6 cm, kissaki-nagasa 2.3 cm, nakago-nagasa 19.2 cm

Two years later, the blade passed tokubetsu-jūyō, and here comes the part which this brief article is about. As you all know, you just don’t submit a blade for tokubetsu-jūyō because you are in a good mood. There are high chances a blade may not pass and it also has to be assessed if such a submission makes sense from an economical point of view. In short, some blades are strong candidates whilst with others more or less barely passed jūyō and it is better to save the money/hassles/time to opt for tokubetsu-jūyō. So, you have to decide case by case.

Here at this sword, the owner and probably experts he asked for advice must have recognized its quality and its chances to pass but I guess no one was happy with the period attribution to Rai Kunitsugu. As mentioned, even the NBTHK had reservations when they had awarded it jūyō status two years before. So ultimately it was decided to have the kinzōgan-mei removed and submit again. I already told you that it passed tokubetsu-jūyō, and it did so with the attribution “Den Awataguchi Hisakuni” (伝粟田口久国). Well, quite nice result if you ask me (don’t get me wrong, a Rai Kunitsugu attribution is not bad either). The NBTHK justifies its attribution as follows: “The shallow suguha-chō with its strongly sparkling nie, the densely forged ko-itame, and the very clear steel reflect very well the typical characteristics of this school,” i.e. Awataguchi. The state of the blade as it passed tokubetsu-jūyō is shown below.

Picture 2

Last but not least some info on the previous owner of the sword who is mentioned in the kinzōgan-mei as: “Matsudaira Uemon no Suke Tadamasa kyō shoji” (松平右衛門佐忠政卿所持), “owned by Lord Matsudaira Uemon no Suke Tadamasa.” Tadamasa is better known under his name Kuroda Tadayuki (黒田忠之, 1602-1645) who was the second Kuroda daimyō of the Fukuoka fief (福岡藩) of Chikuzen province (see picture 3) and son and heir of the famous warlord and daimyō Kuroda Nagamasa (黒田長政, 1568-1623), fathered with his second wife who was an adoptive daughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tadayuki participated in his first battle when he was just twelve years old (or 13 according to the Japanese way of counting), leading an army of about 10,000 men into the Ōsaka Winter Campaign in 1614. Tadayuki went to Ōsaka instead of his father as Ieyasu had made Nagamasa caretaker of Edo Castle at that time. To go into this battle, Nagamasa presented his son with the nanban-kabuto with golden fern maedate he had received from Ieyasu at Sekigahara.

Picture 3: Kuroda Tadayuki

When Tadayuki succeeded as head of the Kuroda in 1623, he received from Ieyasus’s successor Hidetada (徳川秀忠. 1579-1632) the character for tada (忠) and successively took the names Tadanaga (忠長), Tadamasa (忠政) (the name that is mentioned on the sword), and Tadayuki. Incidentally, up to that granting of the tada character, he went by the name Mantokumaru (万徳丸). After Ōsaka, he also fought in 1637 in the Shimabara Rebellion and died 1652 in Fukuoka Castle. Last but but not least, and kind of a coincidence considering the new attribution at tokubetsu-jūyu, Kuroda Tadayuki owned “another” Awataguchi blade. It is a tantō by Awataguchi Norikuni (粟田口則国) which is shown in picture 4 and which is today designated as a jūyō-bijutsuhin. He had once received it as a gift from the Tokugawa family, possible at the time he received the tada character.

Picture 4: jūyō-bijutsuhin, tantō, mei: Norikuni (則国), nagasa 24.8 cm

Mukansa/Ningen-Kokuhō List

Please note: Apart from swordsmiths, this list in work in progress and will be updated as soon as more detailed information is located. To the very left, the year the rank was granted is listed. The dates to the very right are the years of birth and death.

Swordsmiths (刀匠)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1958 – Takahashi Sadatsugu (高橋貞次) – 1902-1968
1960 – Miyairi Akihira/Yukihira (宮入昭平・行平) – 1913-1977
1967 – Gassan Sadaichi (月山貞一) – 1907-1995
1967 – Sumitani Masamine (隅谷正峯) – 1921-1998
1970 – Imaizumi Toshimitsu (今泉俊光) – 1898-1995
1972 – Kawashima Tadayoshi (川島忠善) – 1927-1989
1973 – Amata Akitsugu (天田昭次) – 1927-2013
1973 – Ōsumi Toshihira (大隅俊平) – 1932-2009
1981 – Endō Mitsuoki (遠藤光起) – 1904-1997
1981 – Sakai Ikkansai Shigemasa (酒井一貫斎繁正) – 1905-1995
1981 – Yakuwa Yasutake (八鍬靖武) – 1909-1984
1981 – Hokke Saburō Nobufusa (法華三郎信房) – 1909-2000
1982 – Yoshihara Yoshindo (吉原義人) – 1943-
1982 – Yoshihara Kuniie (吉原国家) – 1945-
1982 – Gassan Sadatoshi (月山貞利) – 1946
1985 – Tanigawa Moriyoshi (谷川盛吉) – 1920-1990
1985 – Kanbayashi Tsunehira (上林恒平) – 1949-
1986 – Yamaguchi Kiyofusa (山口清房) – 1932-
1987 – Kawachi Kunihira (河内国平) – 1941-
1987 – Ōno Yoshimitsu (大野義光) – 1948-
1989 – Takahashi Tsuguhira (高橋次平) – 1927-1996
1990 – Sō Tsutomu (宗勉) – 1926-2015
1995 – Mikami Sadanao (三上貞直) – 1955-
1995 – Miyairi Norihiro (宮入法広) – 1956-
1996 – Enomoto Sadayoshi (榎本貞吉) – 1908-2000
1996 – Seto Yoshihiro (瀬戸吉広) – 1945-
1996 – Hiroki Hirokuni (広木弘邦) – 1948-2013
2000 – Miyairi Kozaemon Yukihira (宮入小左衛門行平) – 1957-
2000 – Ōkubo Kazuhira (大久保和平) – 1944-2003
2003 – Yoshihara Yoshikazu (吉原義一) – 1967-2018
2006 – Ogawa Kanekuni (尾川兼圀) – 1925-2012
2006 – Sō Masachika (宗昌親) – 1954-
2010 – Furukawa Kiyoyuki (古川清行) – 1948-
2010 – Ogawa Kanekuni (尾川兼国) – 1953-
2010 – Matsuda Tsuguyasu (松田次泰) – 1948-
2014 – Matsuba Kunimasa (松葉国正) – 1959-
2017 – Kubo Yoshihiro (久保善博) – 1965-

Ningen Kokuhō (人間国宝)

1955 – Takahashi Sadatsugu (高橋貞次) – 1902-1968
1963 – Miyairi Akihira/Yukihira (宮入昭平・行平) – 1913-1977
1971 – Gassan Sadaichi (月山貞一) – 1907-1995
1981 – Sumitani Masamine (隅谷正峯) – 1921-1998
1997 – Amata Akitsugu (天田昭次) – 1927-2013
1997 – Ōsumi Toshihira (大隅俊平) – 1932-2009

Teishitsu-gigei’in (帝室技芸員)

1906 – Miyamoto Kanenori (宮本包則) – 1830-1926
1906 – Gassan Sadakazu (月山貞一) – 1836-1918

 

Polishers (研師)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

? – Sugihara Hiroshi (杉原弘) – ?-
2003 – Mishina Kenji (三品謙次) – 1951-
? – Yanagawa Kiyotsugu (柳川清次) – ?-
? – Saitō Tsukasa (斎藤司) – 1953-
? – Abe Kazunori (阿部一紀) – 1954-?
2012 – Sugihara Sōto (杉原宗都) – 1967-

Ningen Kokuhō (人間国宝)

1975 – Hon’ami Nisshū (本阿弥日洲) – 1908-1996
1975 – Ono Kōkei (小野光敬) – 1913-1994
1996 – Fujishiro Matsuo (藤代松雄) – 1914-2004
1998 – Nagayama Kōkan (永山光幹) – 1920-2010
2014 – Hon’ami Kōshū (本阿弥光洲) – 1939-

 

Tsukamaki (柄巻)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1997 – Mitani ‘Tsukashū’ Shūji (三谷「柄秀」修史) – 1935-
? – Sakairi ‘Tsukashin’ Masayuki (坂入「柄真」眞之) – 1947-
2003- Tōyama Yasuo (遠山康男) – 1946-

 

Tōshinbori (刀身彫)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1997 – Yanagawa Senju (柳村仙寿) – 1945-

 

Chōkin / Kinkō / Shirogane
(彫金・金工・白銀)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

? – Koyama ‘Jozan’ Yoshikazu (古山「如山」義和) – 1948-2017
? – Tamaoka Toshiyuki (玉岡俊行) – 1949-
1998 – Miyajima Hiroshi (宮島宏)
2009 – Naruki Issei (成木一成) – 1931-
? – Hagawa Yasuho (羽川安穂) – ?

 

Higo-zōgan/sukashi (肥後象嵌・透)

Ningen Kokuhō (人間国宝)

1965- Yonemitsu Mitsumasa (米光光正) – 1888-1980

 

Sayashi (鞘師)

Mukansa (無鑑査)

1983 – Takayama Kazuyuki (高山一之) – 1940-

Early sukashi motifs 1

A few weeks ago, I skimmed through a Japanese blog post and briefly had to halt at an expression, a kind of a tongue-twister, because I was sure I have read that somewhere before but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now after clearing a few things off my desk, I checked my archive, and as it is quite well organized, I did indeed find the very expression, and this is the whole background for this article.

Now some of you may have wondered about what the symbolism of the openwork design (sukashi, 透かし) of some very early tsuba, e.g. Ko-Katchūshi (古甲冑師) or Ko-Tōshō (古刀匠) might be. Well, in books, also in my own books as well as in some of my articles, these plain motifs, appearing to depict things from everyday life, are usually described as reflecting the then mindset of samurai facing uncertain times, death on an everyday basis, and all of that filtered through period Zen-Buddhism etc., you get the idea.

This is still all correct and in this article, I just want to take a closer look at one, or rather two of these simple early openwork designs, like I tried to shed more light on another, a similar aspect five years ago here. As it initiated the whole article, I want to start with the sickle, Japanese kama (鎌), as an early openwork design. Now the sickle is often depicted on early tsuba in combination with the gorintō (五輪塔), the five-story Buddhist pagoda usually seen along temples and in cemeteries. In short, and leaving out Buddhist and other context that you can find here and here, the gorintō may be equated with a gravestone. So, such a gorintō on a tsuba is associated with death. Imagine a medieval knight having his armor decorated with gravestones. There is not much range of interpretation as this is a pretty straightforward symbolism, and this is how a gorintō was understood in medieval Japan.

Back to the sickle. When someone was killed by a sword or edged weapon, people made comments like: “Toki-koto rikama no gotoki” (説き(利き)こと利鎌のごとき), which, when you try to read it out loud and fast, is the tongue-twister I was talking about at the beginning of this article (and which I found again in the Tōsō Kodōgu Kōza, Volume 1, p. 39). The comment literally means “effective like a sharp sickle” and may be interpreted in a similar way as the Western proverb “live by the sword, die by the sword.” In other words, sickles next to a pagoda on a tsuba represent death and the way you are gonna die, i.e. from an edged weapon. Very fitting for a medieval samurai, isn’t it? However, there is of course some scope for interpretation. The sickle is also an agricultural symbol. For example, after a rice harvest, Japanese farmers sometimes put one of the sickles used into the tokonoma alcove, after it was purified, together with like red rice beans and/ormochi, as an offering to the God of Agriculture, a custom that is referred to as kama-iwai (鎌祝い), lit. “sickle celebration/prayer.” There is also some religious context here. For example, Hachiman (八幡) is said to have been an agricultural deity before he became the God of War, and in the case of the deity Suwa (諏訪), it was exactly the other way round. Thus, the sickle on a tsuba may also be interpreted as representing the “choice” of a farmer becoming a warrior and accepting so his ultimate fate, death, or as the prayer of a warrior to maybe escape war and death and eventually being able to lead a peaceful agricultural life on the countryside.

Let’s check out another early openwork design, the so-called kukurizaru (括り猿), also sometimes seen in combination with a gorintō as shown below. Kukurizaru means literally “tied up monkey,” i.a. a monkey who is restrained by binding his hands and feet together with a rope. Often, the term kukurizaru is just translated as “talisman” but there is more to it, of course. The kukurizaru symbolism has to be understood as a mirrored reference, that is, although the monkey being the animal that is closest to us humans, it will be an animal at the end of the day and even if we are human, you just have to push certain buttons and we will fall back to the realm of animals. So, the tied up monkey means that you should remember that you should try to be above of that and supposed to control your desires and your lust. In other words: Never be caught off guard or loose control. In combination with the gorintō, this symbol quasi acts as a reminder for medieval warriors: If you are cought off guard or loose control, you die!

The kukurizaru charm left, the sukashi design right.

In conclusiuon, I just wanted to write this brief article to provide some further information, scratching the surface a little for those who are asking themselves: “Why is there a sickle?” or “Kukurizaru is just a lucky charm so what?” That said, I very much want to extend that topic in the future and go a little deeper when time allows as it is also very interesting for me because after all, nothing was applied to tsuba or sword fittings, or swords in general, for no reason. In other words, you can kind of compare the Muromachi-period sukashi symbolism with “old school” sailor tattoos, that is, there was a limited set of designs, born from superstitions etc., that everyone then understood and that you could choose from. So when I come across another interesting context, I will continue from here.

 

Setouchi City Crowdfunding #1

Some of you might be aware of the plans of Setouchi City trying to raise finds through crowdfunding to but the famous meitō Sanchōmō (山鳥毛). I am not directly involved in the crowdfunding but was approached by the city in order to share the project among possible donors outside of Japan. If you have a couple of minutes, please take the survey below that helps the city of Setouchi to plan in more detail their upcoming crowdfunding (will be announced separately here). Thank you!

 

 

 

 

@swordtranslator goes to NY

In a month from now, I will be visiting researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a full year, assisting the Arms and Armor Department with its vast collection of Japanese swords, fittings, and armor in terms of reorientation and future rotations of the items on display, although I can’t give any concrete info at this point in time. But I will keep you all updated. I am greatly honored by having this tremendous study opportunity and as this will be a full-time job, it comes with some changes of course.

First, things that remain unchanged. I will still accept translation inquiries in terms of certificates and texts as long as they are “straightforward,” that is, follow-up research and info will be very much limited. Also ongoing translations with the societies like NBTHK/AB-EB and JAS will continue without any change. Ongoing (book) projects will continue as well and will be finished accordingly and also articles will be published on my site on a regular basis.

So, basically the research part will have pretty much come to a halt for that year and I will also no longer be able to respond to inquiries about basic info and advice or tips. No more “can you take a quick look at this please” or “what do you think about that?” I don’t want to be mean and I am always very happy to give you my opinion on certain things, as most of you know, but there will just be no more time left at the end of the day for that. It already takes me a week or so sometimes to reply to an inquiry right now…

As the decision was made relatively late, I am still looking for a decent place to rent in NY for that year. So if any of my local friends has any tips in that regard, it would be very much appreciated!

That said, follow me here, via @swordtranslator on instagram or via facebook for updates and reports from the museum. Thank you all and a special thanks to all those who put in a good word for with the museum!

Sōei (宗栄) alias Usaku (右作)

Usually when it comes to details in a swordsmith’s career, we are dependent on written records which were either compiled by period sword scholars, by fief/government officials, or by the family/lineage of the swordsmith. As you can imagine, things get lost over the centuries and you can basically say what you like on paper. That is, on certain occasions, either the local administration or the bakufu required the craftsmen that it employed to provide them with a genealogy or a family history, for example in order to assess an employment status or a rank. Now when you are the head of a family of swordsmiths or tsuba makers and approached with this official task, you present your lineage of course from its best side.

So far, so good, but then there are works by artists extant on/via which they explicitly state that on this or that day a certain thing happened and that this thing was a game changer. In many cases, the discovery of such a work nixes written records, or at least sets them straight, e.g. a smith mentioning in the mei that he made a blade in year X and at the age of Y on the basis of which his year of birth can be calculated, not seldomly contradicing the year of birth that one of his descendants later wrote down for the bakufu. Or, scholars were just assuming when certain things happened until that one work popped up. The sword that I want to introduce here is auch a work.

Now we are talking about the Harima-based smith Sōei (宗栄), or to be precise, about the third generation of that lineage. To get that out of the way, his name is sometimes also read Munehide and that might have actually been the proper reading of his name as the Sōei lineage goes back to a group of smiths who shared the Mune (宗) character and who read it that way, i.e. Munenaga (宗長), Munetsugu (宗次), Muneshige (宗重), but more on this later. In short, Sōei has become the common reading for this smith, motstly to distinguish him from other Munehide smiths, like Chōgi (長義) is traditionally read Chōgi and not Nagayoshi, i.e. to set him apart from the other Nagayoshi smiths.

Before we come back to the third generation Sōei, some background on his lineage. It all started in the late 1500s when Akamatsu Masahide (赤松政秀, 1510-1570) was castellan of Tatsuno Castle (龍野城) in Harima province and needed some swordsmiths. So he hired master Munenaga (宗長) from Wakasa province whose ancestor was once a student of the second generation Nakajima-Rai Kuninaga (中島来国長). It appears that Munenaga took several smiths with him, maybe his students, or that Akamatsu Masahide hired more Wakasa smiths as we see a certain migration of Mune… smiths from Wakasa to Harima at that time. Be that as it may, the Sōei lineage goes back to that relocated Mune… group.

Fast forward to the early Edo period. The Akamatsu have been defeated and Harima province was split up into several fiefs after Sekigahara, with Himeji (姫路藩) being the most powerful one and being successively ruled by the Ikeda (池田), the Honda (本多), the Matsudaira (松平), and the Sakakibara (榊原). These relatively quickly changing rulers of Harima/Himeji might be a reason for why there are hardly any works of the first two generations Sōei extant, who are dated around Meireki (明暦, 1655-1658) and Kanbun (寛文, 1661-1673) respectively by the way. However, we know of worse situations and still plenty of swords being produced, so the issue of the circumstances of the first two Sōei generations needs further study.

Back to the third master, whose real name was Suzuki Gorō ́emon (鈴木五郎右衛門) and who was born in Kan ́ei eleven (寛永, 1634). It is said that his employment with the Matsudaira, the then daimyõ of Himeji, was confirmed when he was 15 years old, which would be Keian one (慶安, 1648) (according to the Japanese way of counting). The year after however, the fief was given to the Sakakibara who ruled in until 1667 when it was given back to the Matsudaira. The Matsudaira ruled Himeji again until 1682 and then the Honda took over. For a better overview, this was all the back and forth between those clans:

Ikeda (池田) (1600-1617) → Honda (本多) (1617-1639) → Okudaira-Matsudaira (奥平松平) (1639-1648) → Echizen-Matsudaira (越前松平) (1648-1649) → Sakakibara (榊原) (1649-1667) → Echizen-Matsudaira again (1667-1682) → Honda again (1682-1704) → Sakakibara again (1704-1741) → Echizen-Matsudaira one last time (1741-1749) → Sakai (酒井) (1749-1871)

The earliest extant dated work of the third generation Sōei is from Enpō one (延宝, 1673). It is signed as being made in Harima province and we find dated blades made in Harima until Tenna two (天和, 1682). A little later, he came to the attention of Ikeda Tsunamasa (池田綱政, 1638-1746), the daimyō of the Bizen Okayama fief (岡山藩), who hired Sōei to work for him locally. We know two dated blades made with a reference to Okayama in the mei, one from Jōkyō two (貞享, 1685) and one from Jōkyo three (1686). Apart from that, we know of a blade that is signed “Suzuki Sōei saku” and “made with nanban-tetsu in Ōsaka” but it is undated and so we don’t know when he made that trip Ōsaka and how long he stayed there.

Anyway, it was this relationship with Ikeda Tsunamasa which earned Sōei his later name, U or Usaku, and this name change goes back to the following anecdote: It was in Genroku five (元禄, 1692) when Tsunamasa asked Sōei to make a copy of a Samonji treasure sword (or several such copies, records vary in this respect) that the Ikeda owned. The copy turned out to be quite excellent and Tsunamasa was so pleased that he said: “This work is better than the Sa (左), so you may better call yourself U (右)!” This has to be understood in the context of period Japanese hierarchy, i.e. U (lit. “to the right”) ranks above Sa (lit. “to the left”). Sōei did so and signed henceforth with U in the following combinations:

  • U – Fujiwara Sōei (右 藤原宗栄)
  • Fujiwara Usaku (藤原右作)
  • Fujiwara U kore o saku (藤原右作是)
  • Ugorō Sōei (右五郎宗栄) (he also changed his first name from Gorō’emon to Ugorō)

And now we come to the blade that I want to introduce in this article. Up to its discovery (I think it was in 2013), it was unclear when Sōei took the U name but the very blade (see picture below) makes it clear, it was in Genroku seven (1694). The full signature reads:

Suzuki Sōei rokujūissai nite aratamete U to tsukusu (鈴木宗栄六拾一歳ニ而改右ト作ス) – “Suzuki Sōei at the age of 61 who is henceforth working under the name of U.”

Genroku shichi kinoe-inudoshi nigatsu hatsu-uma no hi renkan nijūdo kore o kitaeru (元禄七甲戌年二月初午ノ日錬貫廿度鍛之) – “Forged with twenty folds on the first day of the horse of the second month of Genroku seven (1694), year of the dog.”

Now the inscription does not explicitly say that this was the very day Sōei got that name change recommendation from Ikeda Tsunamasa but from experience I can say that such very detailed mei usually commemorate an important occasion. That is, it is in my opinion unlikely that the ancedote with the Samonji copy took place one or two years earlier and that “all of a sudden,” Sōei decided in 1694 that it is now time for a name change. In other words, I think the anecdote took place right before, most likely during the first month of that year and Sōei decided to wait for the auspicious day of the first day of the horse of the second month, a day which on which special prayers and shrine visits are taking place all over the country, to make this commemorative sword. Or at least it was finished and signed that day, forging obviously started earlier, so Sōei was working towards that auspicious date. Incidentally, it is unclear if the “forged with twenty folds” makes sense in metallurgical terms but it may not be interpreted literally, i.e. Sōei more or less stating here that the blade was forged with utmost care.

One interesting thing is that the blade is a rather long wakizashi, measuring 54.9 cm in its nagasa. This leaves room for speculation, like if Sōei actually made a daishō back then and only the shō has survived (was discovered) so far. There is another dated blade extant which Sōei made that very month. It is signed “U – Fujiwara Sōei” and just dated with “a day of the second month of Genroku seven, year of the dog.” This blade, like some others that are known, shows a certain practice/opportunity of Sōei, namely that he was able to work with the famous high-quality Chigusa (千種) steel made in Shisō (宍粟) in his home province of Harima. The very reference to this steel is usually signed by Sōei in the following way: “Banshū Shisō Chigusa eitetsu maru’ichi o motte renkan kore o kitaeru” (播州宍粟千種丸一以英鉄錬貫鍛是), which means “thoroughly forged by using solely exquisite Chigusa steel from Shisō in Harima province.”

As mentioned, we don’t know how long Sōei stayed in Bizen Okayama. The numerous works with a reference to Chigusa steel, e.g. one dated Genroku twelve (1699) don’t necessarily means that he was back home by then as Ikeda Tsunamasa could have arranged that the steel was brought from Harima to Okayama where Sōei processed it locally (via oroshigane). The earliest known dated blade that states it was made again in Harima is from Hōei one (宝永, 1704). The mei says “Ban’yō Tegarayama no fumoto ni oite” (於播陽手柄山麓), “made on the foot of Mt. Tegarayama in Harima province.” Now this blade is a special order blade, for a certain Yuguchi Sukeyori (湯口祐頼), and the syntax with ni oite (i.e. “at” and not “resident of”) differs from his earlier Harima-based mei where Sōei just signed with “Harima ni Kuni…” That is, he may have returned to Harima just on certain occasions and may have spent the rest of his life in Okayama? His successors however worked again in Himeji/Harima.

According to tradition, Sōei died on the 27th day of the second month of Hōei five (宝永, 1708). Taking the mei of the blade introduced here as a basis, he lived to the age of 75 (and not to the age of 99 as stated so in the Kokon Kaji Bikō). The latest known blade that bears his age in the mei is from Hōei three (1706), stating that he made it at the age of 73, what is a match. There is a blade form his successor extant which is signed “Yondai-me Sōei jūsan-sai kore o tsukuru” (四代目宗栄十三歳造之), “made by the fourth generation Sōei at the age of 13”). As far as I know, this blade is not dated and we don’t know when the fourth generation Sōei was born. Tsuneishi says that the fifth and sixth generations died shortly after another, that is in Meiwa four (明和, 1767) and Meiwa eight (1771) respectively. The sixth generation is usually dated around Kyōwa (享和, 1801-1804) and all three, i.e. the fourth, fifth, and sixth masters, signed with “Harima no Kuni…” (播磨国…), “Banshū-jū…” (播州住…) or “Ban’yō Himeji-shin…” (播陽姫路臣…, “retainer of Himeji in Harima province”). So as mentioned, we know that they all worked again in Himeji/Harima.

I hope this article gave you an interesting insight into the life of Sōei and I have a few more blades in my references that mark special occasions in the career of a swordsmith and which I would like to introduce in the future.

Altering tsuba signatures

If you are following me for a while, you may remember my article from a few years ago here about Muramasa signatures being altered after they have become “unpresentable” with the Tokugawa coming to power. Now in this brief article I would like to tell you that this was not only done to sword but also to tsuba signatures.

Before I want to introduce a tsuba signature altered that way, I must begin with the history of the artist who made the piece in question, Myōju (明寿), and that is, the Umetada (埋忠) family.

Now I want to keep it relatively simple here because on the one hand, the issue we are talking about is just about the name itself and not about anything the Umetada family “did wrong” or about someone having bad luck with Umetada works, and on the other hand, I want to write a book about Myōju with all the detailed info, just like my book on Kanō Natsuo.

So as always, we have several traditions about the name origins of the Umetada family. One just says that the Umetada were descendants of the famous swordsmith Sanjō Munechika (三条宗近) and that the name goes back to lands in Kyōto located to the northeast of the Imperial Palace of the same name, Umetada (梅多田), which were granted to the family. Another one says that during the reign of Emperor Ichijō (一条天皇, 980-1011, r. 986-1011), the Kawarasaki Pond (Kawarasaki no Ike, 河原崎ノ池) was filling up with dirt but instead of cleaning it out, the emperor just gave orders to have the pond filled up completely. This task was gratuitously taken over by the very family which thereupon assumed the name Umetada (埋忠) which means literally “to fill up (umeru) (something) free of charge (tada).” Another theory also refers to a filling-up-a-pond tradition, although much later, in the early Muromachi period during the reign of Emperor Shōkō (称光天皇, 1401-1428).

To return to our concrete subject, we have to fast forward to the early Edo period, to the time of the Kyōto shōgun deputy Itakura Suō no Kami Shigemune (板倉周防守重宗, 1586-1657). Shigemune was about to proceed to Edo and wanted to bring some nice gifts with him so he chose sukashi-tsuba made by the Umetada School but at that time, Edo warriors were taking everything literal and so he thought he better consult the Umetada family with what he thought would be an issue. That is, the characters Umetada (埋忠) mean literally interpreted “to bury (umeru, 埋める) (i.e. umeru does not only mean to fill up but also to bury something) loyalty (chū, 忠)” and so the family was changing the first character with the “harmless” homonymous ume (梅) which means “plum.”

Umetada1

Now Umetada Myōju died on the 18th day of the fifth month of Kan’ei eight (寛永, 1634) at the age of 74 and Itakura Shigemune was Kyōto shōgun deputy from 1620 to 1654, so it is assumed that the suggested name/character change took place some time after the famous Umetada grandmaster had passed away. The tsuba that I want to introduce here though is a work by Myōju and it was originally signed with “Umetada” (埋忠) on the right and with “Myōju” (明寿) on the left side of the nakago-ana. As you can see in the detail above, someone erased the first Ume (埋, “to bury”) character with chisel strokes or small hammer blows because he was superstitious and did not want to have the literal “to bury loyalty” context on his tsuba. Or, what I think is a more likely scenario, the then owner was picking this tsuba as a gift and maybe he knew that the person who was going to receive it was very sensitive regarding kanji context. In other words, if you are about to choose an important (return) gift in order to establish some kind of alliance or freshly pledged loyalty and the receiver is known to be a jerk when it comes to things like hidden messages in characters, you don’t necessarily want to give him something that says “to bury loyalty”…

Umetada2

Picture 1: jūyō-tōsōgu, tsuba, mei: “…tada Myōju” (◯忠明寿), kawari-mokkō-gata, brass, shakudō hira-zōgan, one hitsu-ana (plugged), uchikaeshi-mimi

 

Nasu no Yoichi’s Sword

Many of you may know Nasu no Yoichi (那須与一, 1169-1190/1232), the famous Minamoto warrior who shot down the fan the Taira put atop a pole on one of their ships with a single shot during the Battle of Yashima in 1185. For this and other great military achievements, he received from Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199) a fabulous tachi by Ko-Bizen Naritaka (古備前成高).

Nasu1
Nasu no Yoichi

Now through very lucky circumstances, that very sword was handed down within the Nasu family for about 800 years, and is still extant today. Yes, you heard me correctly, 800 years in the possession of the same family! The tachi is depicted and described in the first volume of the Nasu Ke Gunki Zu (那須家軍器図), the arms and armors in the possession of the Nasu family, compiled by Yoichi’s descendant Nasu Sukeaki (那須資明) in Tenmei seven (天明, 1787). It is also featured in the Kansei twelve (寛政, 1800) publication Shūko Jisshū (集古十種) (see pictures below).

Nasu2a

Nasu2b

Nasu2c

Illustrations from the Shūko Jisshū.

Fast forward about 150 years from Nasu Sukeaki, that is to December 18, 1935, the blade and its koshirae, which is contemporary to the blade, was designated to a jūyō-bijutsuhin. Then owner was Nasu Suketoyo (那須資豊), another descendant of Yoichi. The picture below shows the pictures from the jūyō-bijutsuhin designation.

Nasu3
From the jūyō-bijutsuhin designation.

Forward another roughly 50 years, to June 6, 1987, the sword was elevated to jūyō-bunkazai status. Then owner, and you may already guess it, was another member of the Nasu family, Nasu Takashi (那須隆, 1924-2008). Today the sword is owned by the Nasu Yoichi Denshōkan in Ōtawara, Tochigi Prefecture.

Nasu4
From the jūyō-bunkazai designation. Nagasa of the blade is 79.8 cm, overall length of the koshirae is 104.0 cm.

Now let me describe this historically so important sword. Why it is so historically important? Well, it has a pretty rock-solid provenance, it dates back to the late Heian period, it is completely ubu, signed, has one mekugi-ana, and still has its original koshirae, so we are pretty much in supreme unicorn levels of Japanese swords. The tachi is slender and of a very elegant shape, as it is typical for that time, having a quite shallow sori along the blade section but which gets very pronounced in the tang and from where the tang starts. Incidentally, this peculiar blade/tang sori distribution is sometimes described as “he shape” as it resembles the hiragana syllable he (へ). And due to this curved (magari) hilt (tsuka), this sword got the nickname Tsukamagari-Naritaka (柄曲がり成高), lit. “curved hilt Naritaka.” The kitae is a rather standing-out itame to ko-itame that is mixed with mokume and that shows ji-nie. The steel is blackish and the hamon is hardened in ko-nie-deki and appears as suguha-chō with a rather tight nioiguchi along the top, and as a ko-midare-chō with a somewhat subdued nioiguchi along the bottom half. The bōshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri.

The koshirae features a hilt that is covered with black-lacquered same and wrapped with black-lacquered leather. Towards the cutting-edge side, a menuki like ornament in the form of a long and thin yamagane plate is inserted which shows engravings of a nine-coins crest and karakusa. The saya is covered with thin black-lacquered leather with an additional layer of greenish fabric whose pattern is no longer discernible. The fittings are of yamagane too and show the same ornamentation as the menuki. Unfortunately, the tsuba, fuchi, and kojiri are missing. In terms of prominent kabutogane, tapering and noticeable thinness of the saya, the mounting is typical for the late Heian period.

So far, so awesome, 800 years old as mentioned, and I want to conclude by mentioning that there is the tradition that Minamoto no Yoritomo explicitly chose Ko-Bizen Naritaka for making the swords he was awarding to his closest retainers. Apart from the one introduced here, there are two more of these “Yoritomo-reward-Naritaka” extant. By the way, we know of less than ten signed works of Naritaka that are extant today, but let’s introduce the other two.

One (see picture below) was given by Minamoto no Yoritomo to Kudō Suketoki (工藤祐時, 1185-1252) some years after his father Kudō Suketsune (工藤祐経, 1147-1193) was killed in the course of the Revenge of the Soga Brothers. Later, one of Suketsune’s descendants, Kudō Naritaka (工藤就堯), presented the sword to his new master, the Masuda (益田) family, who were the shugo-daimyō of Iwami province. The Masuda later became karō elders of the Chōshū fief and owned the sword until recent times. On June 6, 1980 it was designated as a jūyō-bunkazai and eventually bought by the state which put it into the custody of the Kyōto National Museum, This blade too is completely ubu, signed, has one mekugi-ana, a nagasa of 80.4 cm, and shows a kitae in itame and a ko-midare hamon that is mixed with ko-chōji.

Nasu5

The other one was presented by Yoritomo to his general Sawara Yoshitsura (佐原義連) who was fighting for him in the northern Ōshū region, eventually receiving the lands of Aizu. Yoshitsura gave the sword later to his grandson Mitsumori (光盛) who changed his family name to Ashina (蘆名) and it was the Ashina who handed it down for the years to come. The blade (see picture below) has a nagasa of 82.4 cm, a sori of 2.7 cm, is completely ubu and signed in niji-mei too, and has two mekugi-ana. The jigane is an itame that tends to nagare and that features ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a nie-laden chōji-midare with a rather subdued nioiguchi that is mixed with nijūba, many ashi and , and with kinsuji and sunagashi. The ha gets wider and more flamboyant along the monouchi. The bōshi is sugu and has a ko-maru-kaeri with a few hakikake on the omote side.

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The last blade is a bit different as it is noticeably more flamboyant and a hint healthier than the other Naritaka works. The NBTHK noticed that already and also commented on it that also the signature differs a little bit but that all the differences may go back to a somewhat later production time. The meikan date Naritaka around Jō’an (承安, 1171-1175), an era which leaves room for Naritaka also working into the early Kamakura period. Well, we don’t know the years of birth and death of its alleged former owned Sawara Yoshitsura but we do know that Minamoto no Yoritomo died in 1199. So if it is indeed true that he ordered Naritaka to make this sword for Yoshitsura, then it was probably towards the very end of his life, what equals very very early Kamakura. As for Yoshitsura by the way, records say that he either died in 1192 at the age of 75, in 1203 at the age of 78, or in 1221 at the age of 82. Possible scenario: The blade is early to mid-Kamakura and goes back to the hand of a successor of Naritaka, maybe even made for the Sawara, who then later “suggested” that this is the sword that was once given by Minamoto no Yoritomo to their famous predecessor…

 

 

A very special tsuba by and for Natsuo

This time I want to introduce a Natsuo tsuba which is not “just” a great masterwork like they all are but which is oustanding as it marks a very important stage in his career.

The above shown tsuba has the motif of the God of Luck Jurōjin (寿老人) riding a crane on the omote and young pines on the ura side. It is of shakudō, has a nanako ground, and makes much use of empty space. Jurōjin on his crane is interpreted in a quite three-dimesional manner, jutting out in a relatively prominent from the ground plate. Jurōjin is regarded as auspicious, as is the crane, as are young pines. So just from the motif of motif elements alone we have triple auspiciousness so to speak. Highly elegant is also how Natsuo plugged the one hitsu-ana with gold as part of the design and has the nanako and parts of the motif running over it. That is, to emphasize the optical or rather perceived fact that Jurōjin is indeed flying on a crane, a reference point is required. Now you can just add for example treetops to create a sense for height, i.e. flying, but often the perception of flying high in the sky was achieved via the sun or the moon in the background. But instead of merely adding a flush hira-zōgan of the sun or lunar disc, Natsuo so to speak made use of the common practice of plugging hitsu-ana and turned that into the sun so to speak, what is in my opinion a highly elegant approach as stated above.

So far, so good, very nice tsuba you will all agree on, but why is it sp special? Well, for this, we first have to take a look at the signsture, which reads: “Kōka san no toshi taisō shokyū – Ōtei-sōka Toshiaki + gold seal ” (弘化三暦大簇初九・鶯蹄窓下寿良), “humbly made by Toshiaki on the ninth day of the first lunar month, spring, of Kōka three (1846)”. First of all, the ninth day of the first lunar month is an auspicious day as it is the birthday of the Jade Emperor who is also revered in Buddhism, what adds quasi a fourth layer of auspiciousness to the tsuba (i.e. Jurōjin, a crane, and young pines being the other three).

The more advanced kodōgu enthusiasts, and readers of my book(s) on Natsuo may know, Toshiaki (寿良) was the early name with which Natsuo signed. Now let me introduce his career up to the time this tsuba was made so that we get some background for its importance. Natsu was born on the 14th day of the fourth month of Bunsei eleven (文政, 1828). In Tenpō ten (天保, 1839), he started an apprenticeship with the kinkō artist Okumura Shōhachi (奥村庄八). Okumura was a Gotō-trained guy and so he learned from him first and foremost the proper application of nanako, the making of menuki, gilding and silvering via techniques like kingise, ginsise, iroe or okigane, and the production of ground plates for kozuka. Training under Okamoto was not enough because after just about one year of learning, it was in Tenpō eleven (1840), he left his workshop and entered an apprenticeship with Ikeda Takatoshi (池田孝寿) from the Ōtsuki school (大月). The Ōtsuki school was a renowned lineage of kinkō artists founded in the mid-18th century in Kyōto. The school followed initially the classical style of the Gotō school but then became famous when its fourth master Mitsuoki (光興, 1766-1834) started to study painting under contemporary masters like Ganku (岸駒, 1749/1756-1838) and Nagazawa Rosetsu (長沢蘆雪, 1754-1799) from the Maruyama school (円山). This means that later in his career Mitsuoki applied more and more novel motifs and tried fresh interpretations strongly inspired by his training as a painter.

Takatoshi’s father Ikeda Kyūbei (池田久兵衛), who signed with Okitaka (興孝) and later with Takaoki (孝興), was a student of Mitsuoki but it is said that also Takatoshi studied directly with the fourth Ōtsuki master. Natsuo later said that under Takatoshi he spent two whole years, among other things of course, practicing katakiribori basics following copper plates designs given to him by his master. This practice helped him a lot and so his master decided it was time to grant him the character for Toshi from his own name whereupon Natsuo took the craftsman name Toshiaki (寿朗). He was 15 years old at the time.

While practising kinkō he also studied classical Chinese in the morning under Tanimori Shigematsu (谷森重松), and in the evening painting under Nakajima Raishō (中島来章, 1796-1871) from the Maruyama-Shijō school (円山四条). His master Raishō even suggested that Natsuo should become a painter but he stayed with the kinkō art which mas more to his liking. Well, as Natsuo was born rather weak, his adoptive mother Miyo (みよ・美代) was initially against his wish to become a kinkō craftsman. Instead she made him learn to play the shamisen but Natsuo later told his students that he stopped that very early because it was absolutely not his thing.

After five years of training under Takatoshi, the master realized the great progress his promising student had made and entrusted him for the first time with works for customers for which he could refine his takabori and kebori techniques, the first of them being menuki in the form of flying cranes, a fuchigashira set with a turtle motif, a kozuka with kebori of bamboo, and a tsuba showing young pines.

And now we arrive at where the tsuba introduced here was made. In Kōka two (弘化, 1845), i.e. when he was 17 years old (or 18 according to the Japanese way of counting years), Natsuo decided that his craft was advanced enough to leave his master Takatoshi, and just one year later he took the risk to open up his own business in the old cultural capital Kyōto. In other words, the tsuba in question was made by Natsuo when he was just 18 years old (or 19 according to the Japanese way of counting years) and most likely the piece with which he celebrated his going into business for himself. It is now possible that he was comissioned with it by an affluent client, so to speak as form of support to get his business started, and we know that often clients left the motif of the work to the artist. That is, maybe Natsuo’s very first client told him he is going to pay him good money for a nice tsuba, as support for his craft, and that it just should depict something auspicious, maybe something with the upcoming New Year in mind. Or, Natsuo came up with everything for himself and thus placed so much auspiciousness into it, i.e. as a relatively safe bet to find a paying customer as auspicious motifs of course never go out of fashion.

Be that as it may, after leaving his master Toshitaka, Natsuo was basically an autodidact. In Kaei two (嘉永, 1849), when he was 21/22 years old, he gave up the craftsman’s name Toshiaki in favour of Natsuo. His student Okabe Kakuya (岡部覚弥) later quoted Natso upon describing the times of his name change: “When I was twenty-two or twenty-three I experienced a first sense of maturity when carving kozuka with the motif of a tiger carrying his cubs over the river and fuchigashira showing hares and waves, as these pieces were so much praised by everyone who saw them.”

However, when he was twenty-five he had the feeling that Kyōto might not be the best place to unfold his talent as “so many people wore ceremonial court dresses and were just into fabrics and patterns.” So, he made plans to try his luck in Edo, the capital and the center of the bushi class. On the second day of the tenth month of Ansei one (安政, 1854) he borrowed 20 gold pieces from his adoptive mother and left Kyōto with his friend Chūshichi (忠七) and took with him a tsuba with the motif of the Oath of the Peach Garden into which he had put his entire heart and sold, to use as a demonstration piece to show his abilities in Edo. The rest of his career is described in detail in my book on Natsuo here.

Above is a picture of the young Natsuo. I do not know how old Natsuo was at the time it was taken but I assume it is pretty close to when the tsuba introduced here was made. So in conclusion I want to say that this tsuba would surely make a very very nice cornerstone of every Natsuo collection. I do not know who the owner of the tsuba is but he must be very proud of owning this, in my opinion very special by and for Natsuo.