Destructive Sword Testing

In my book on Tameshigiri, I am describing a destructive sword testing session, ara-tameshi (荒試し, lit. “rough testing”) in Japanese. I would like to quote from this passage in my book and introduce two “rough tested” blades from that background that have survived.

It was the 24th day of the third month of Kaei six (嘉永, 1853) when Kaneko Chūbei Haku’on (金児忠兵衛伯温, 1818-1888), the arms and armor officer (bubu-bugyō, 武具奉行) of the Matsushiro fief (松代藩) in Shinano province held his ara-tameshi session at his premises. About 120 retainers of the fief had gathered at Kaneko´s residence. Ten of them were selected to act as witnesses and seven to perform the actual tameshigiri. Also present were two sword polishers (to fix bent blades etc.) and, in case someone got injured by a blade snapping, a doctor.


Twelve blades were subjected to ara-tameshi that day, and the testing commenced with Tsuge Kahei (柘植嘉兵衛), a naginata teacher, wielding an ara-nie-deki katana by Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778-1857) made in Tenpō six (1835). Two bamboo sticks were wrapped together and used as the testing object. The circumference of each bamboo stick was about 15 cm. When the blade struck the target, it penetrated about 80%. Obviously, this was not a complete cut. Then a retainer named Saitō Masukichi (斉藤増吉) tested this katana on a piece of metal that was 0.24 cm thick and 9.0 cm wide. The blade broke in two at an area of about 7 to 8 sun (21~24 cm) from the tsuba. The broken edges looked similar to that of an icicle, very brittle. This katana had been considered well made from its outward appearance…


Taikei Naotane

The second blade tested was another a katana by Naotane. This blade had a nioi-deki hamon. It should not break as easily as the first one. After several cuts by Tsuge Kahei on straw wrapped bamboo sticks, a hagire developed and the blade bent. Five other people also tested the katana but none of them could make a complete cut on the straw wrapped bamboo targets. Takano Kurumanosuke (高野車之助) then took over the testing and used the katana to cut a jingasa helmet filled with iron sand. Another bend developed upon the first cut. Two more cuts introduced another hagire. Deer antlers were used as the next target and three cuts were performed. A piece of forged iron was also used for two cuts. This cutting of hard objects produced many hagire. After that, Kaneko Chūbei cut a kabuto with it and another severe bend was introduced. He then used the blade to hit an anvil, seven times on the mune and four times on both sides and the blade broke.

The third, fourth and fifth blades, tested on dry makiwara, were all nagamaki made by Naotane. They all bent and hagire developed after several cuts. The hagire on the 5th nagamaki, which was additionally tested on deer antlers, caused a big chunk break out of the cutting edge . However, the test continued and the blade was used to hit an anvil, three times with the mune and two times with both sides, and although it had this big opening, it just bent and did not break. Incidentally, these five blades by Naotane were made for the armory of Matsushiro Castle, i.e., they were not special order blades. As only the first blade “survived” the ara-tameshi test in a proper manner, Naotane blades were treated with suspicion amongst bushi for many years.

The sixth blade tested that day was a katana by Tatara Hirokazu (多々良弘一), a contemporary smith who worked for the Matsushiro fief. It was used to cut a piece of forged metal and the blade broke. The seventh blade was also a shinshintō, made by a smith named Asahi Kiichi (朝日喜市). It broke when cutting a kabuto. The eighth blade was a kotō nagamaki and the ninth was a kotō katana from the northern Ōshū region. These two were only tested on straw wrapped bamboo. The first performed well but the second bent strongly. Blade number ten was an unsigned Ōsaka-shintō katana. It was used to cut an ō-sukashi tsuba made of shibuichi with a thickness of 1 bu 3 ri (~ 4 mm). The blade broke in two upon impact at the monouchi section. The 11th blade was a katana by Tanenaga (胤長), a student of Naotane. A hagire developed after three cuts on the body section of an iron armor covered in leather. Thus, the crowd took away from that session that the brittleness of Naotane´s blades had been passed on to his student.


Yamaura Masao

The twelfth and last blade was a katana made by Yamaura Masao (山浦真雄, 1804-1874). Like the Naotane above, it had a hamon hardened in ara-nie-deki. Now an ara-nie-deki was neither the strength nor corresponded to the style of Masao but it is recorded that such an interpretation was dictated by the Sanada (真田) family, the daimyō of the Matsushiro fief, upon the entrance examination for every smith seeking to be employed by them. Side note: Masao was eventually employed by the fief five years later, i.e., in Ansei five (安政, 1858). By the way, Masao was present at that cutting session and it is said that he wore a white kamishimo under his regular kamishimo because in case his blade failed, he would have taken off the regular kamishimo and committed seppuku on the spot.

The Masao blade was used to cut wrapped straw eleven times and each cut went about 80 – 90% through the target. Secondly, bamboo staffs were used for six cuts. Each cut penetrated 70 – 80% through the target. Thirdly, an old piece of iron that was 0.3 cm thick and 2.12 cm wide was used as a cutting target. The piece of old iron was cut in two pieces upon a single stroke of the sword. In the fourth step, deer antlers were used for six cuts. The fifth test conducted was to cut straw wrapped bamboo twice and the cuts went in about 60%. Then two cuts were executed on a jingasa filled with iron sand, an old iron , and a shibuichi-tsuba. For next three tests, again a shibuichi-tsuba, a piece of forged iron and a kabuto were each cut once. The blade bent upon hitting the kabuto but was straightened with an iron hammer, and the crowd was amazed that this blade had not yet broken. So far these tests were for testing the cutting ability and durability, but now it was time for the final destructive test phase. For that an iron bar was used to hit the mune seven times and a munegire developed. In the final test, the same iron bar was used to strike each side six times and the mune was used to hit an anvil thirteen times. The munegire became bigger upon the last test. The side of the blade was then used to hit the anvil three times and the blade finally broke in two. This demonstration showed how well Yamaura Masao´s blade withstood the harsh tests. It is said that they also had a nioi-deki blade by Masao ready to be tested next, but after they saw that his work in ara-nie-deki, which, as mentioned, did not even correspond to his preferred forging technique, did so well, it was decided that there was no need to test the other blade. And the very next day Masao received orders from the fief´s karō elder Sanada Shima (真田志摩) for one hundred nagamaki as Naotane´s had to be replaced…



Takase Ukō Shinkei testing a blade on a makiwara. Please note that he is using a kiri/tameshi-tsuka as introduced here.

Well, Naotane’s reputation was rehabilitated later by the publisher, author, hobby swordsmith, and swordsman Takase Ukō Shinkei (高瀬羽皐真卿, 1853-1924), who learned at a tameshigiri event that the Naotane blade he had at his disposal at that day actually cut pretty good – 8/10ths into a makiwara – and was not anywhere near of breaking at all.

In any case, the blades that I would like to introduce are shown below. They are both works of Naotane and were handed down within Sanada family, although they are not the ones used for the 1853 ara-tameshi session.. The first one, see below, is dated Tenpō six (1835) and is made in the Sōshū tradition. As you can see, the cutting edge has suffered pretty badly but the blade appears to be still pretty much usable, and is probably even restorable to a certain extent.


The second blade, shown below, is interpreted in the Bizen tradition. Here too, the cutting edge took some hits but it appears that apart from that, a nasty hagire had developed in the monouchi area, and maybe another one somewhat down (if I interpret that vertical line at the bottom of the oshigata correctly).



Attempt of Retracing a Career

Compiling my Swordsmiths of Japan, I tried, as best as I could, to avoid double listings. That is, in case a smith had changed his name at some point in his career, I list him with both names, but with one entry referring to the other, the main entry, trying so a “cleaner” and not so confusing approach. For example, the smith Terukado (照門) had signed in early years with the name Kanekado (兼門) and so I have listed him both as Kanekado and Terukado, but with the former referring to the latter as follows:


Fade-out Effect:

I was only doing this, however, with open-and-shut and straightforward cases, and not when it was unclear if we are indeed speaking about one and the same person. Or, simetimes I did list a smith twice when, for example, he signed for many years with one name and then for as many years with another in order to better distinguish his most common signature variants.

I was once again reminded of that procedure when doing research on a tsuba in the collection of The Met, shown in picture 1 below, which is signed: “Nobuie” (信家) on one, and “Mosu Chikushū-jū Nobukuni Yukikuni” (模筑州住信国行国) on the other side, which translates as: “Copying/emulating Nobuie, Nobukuni Yukikuni, resident of Chikuzen province.”


Met6Picture 1: Tsuba, H. 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm); W. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); thickness 1/8 in. (0.3 cm); Wt. 4.3 oz. (121.9 g); Accession Number 36.120.105; The Howard Mansfield Collection, Gift of Howard Mansfield, 1936.


As the more experienced realize right away, and as obviously stated in the mei, we have here a late Edo period Nobuie copy. Such copies and homages were very popular at that time and were produced by many renowned tsuba makers, swordsmiths, and armorers alike. For example, by master Naotane’s son-in-law Jirō Tarō Naokatsu (次郎太郎直勝, 1805-1858) and by numerous craftsmen from the Myōchin School.

So who was Yukikuni? As stated in the very signature of the tsuba, he was a member of the Chikuzen-Nobukuni School which had been thriving on Kyūshū since the beginning of the Edo period and their first generation Yoshisada (吉貞, ?-1640) who counted himself as twelfth generation Nobukuni after the famous Nanbokuchō-era founder of the same name.

Checking the meikan, we learn that Yukikuni’s real name was Nobukuni Mataza (信国又左), that he had studied in Edo with master Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀, 1750-1825), and that he died in the first year of Keiō (慶応, 1865) at the age of 77, which calculates his year of birth as Tenmei eight (天明, 1788). Knowing that the late Edo period Chikuzen-Nobukuni School was widely branched, I was checking for the maker’s family environment and realized that his name is also featured in the entry for Chikuzen-Nobukuni Shigekane (重包). Not the famous mid-Edo Shigekane from the same school who was one of the winners of shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751) sword making contest, but the later local Shigekane of the same name.

In Shigekane’s entry we read that he bore the first names Mataza (又左) and Matasuke (又助), that he was the son of Shimomura Shinpachi (下村信八) and got adopted (as a heir) by the 19th Nobukuni generation Yoshikiyo (吉清), that he studied with Suishinshi Masahide during the Bunka era (文化, 1804-1818), and that in Tenpō seven (天保, 1836), he was employed by the Kuroda family (黒田), receiving three fuchi (an annual stipend for the support of three persons). The Kuroda, by the way, were the daimyō of the Chikuzen Fukuoka fief (福岡藩) for which the Chikuzen-Nobukuni School worked. In Ansei three (安政, 1856), the fief granted him permission to work independently and in Man’en one (万年, 1860), his payment was increased by one fuchi. The death register of the Ankoku-ji (安国寺) where he is buried lists his posthumous Buddhist name as Honrai Tanken (本来鍛剣). Such names usually refer to the profession or to important stations in the life of the deceased, and this is totally true in this case because Honrai Tanken means lit. “swordsmith by nature” or “forging swords was innate to him.”

Interestingly, Shigekane is listed as having used numerous different names as a craftsman, namely Sadakuni (定国), Masayoshi (正義), Hisakuni (久国), and Yukikuni (行国), and as Shigekane is recorded as having died in the first year of Keiō as well, at the same age of 77, it appears that he and Yukikuni were indeed the same person.

That said, and on the basis of referenced dated works, I was able to chronologically trace these name changes as follows: His Shigekane mei is listed with an existing date of Bunka five (1808), the Masayoshi mei with Bunsei two (1819), the Sadakuni mei with Bunsei seven (1824), the Hisakuni mei with Tenpō eight (1837), Tenpō 13 (1842), Kaei four (1851), Kaei six (1853), and Ansei two (1855), and his Yukikuni mei with Ansei six (1859) and Bunkyū one (1861).

With this information, the following preliminary scenario comes to my mind. Nobukuni Mataza started his career by signing with the name Shigekane (重包), maybe in admiration of his famous local predecessor of the same name. Then some time between 1804 and 1808 he studied with Suishinshi Masahide from whom he received the Masa character, changing his name so to Masayoshi (正義). Then, for reasons unknown and at some time in the early Bunsei era (1818-1830), he changed his name to Sadakuni (定国). The Tenpō seven (1836) employment by the fief resulted in the name change to Hisakuni (久国) and at the latest in Ansei six (1859), he had changed his name one more time, and that is to Yukikuni (行国). The smith was already 71 years old at that time and so it suggests itself to link that last name change to a retirement. However, the meikan list his Yukikuni name with an 1861 dated blade, so he was still making swords at the age of 73 (and four years before his death). Well, we are already in daisaku-daimei territory here, but there was another incident that happened around this time, and that was the early death of his successor Sadakuni II (二代定国) on the 14th day of the eighth month of Ansei five (1858). Sadakuni II only lived to the age of 32. So maybe this stroke of fate triggered his name change to Yukikuni? However, Mataza had already signed with Hisakuni for more than twenty years at that time. That is, a possible stigma to the Sadakuni name due to the untimely death of his successor may be ruled out as the smith had not used this name for more than thirty years at that time.



Picture 2: Blade signed “Nobukuni Minamoto Hisakuni – Tenpō hachinen hachigatsu hi” (信国源久国・天保八年八月日) – “Nobukuni Minamoto Hisakuni, on a day in the eighth month of Tenpō eight (1837)”


As far as references are concerned, I could not find any oshigata or blade with his Shigekane, Masayoshi, or Sadakuni mei. Only very few Hisakuni signed blades (see picture 2 above or here), and the Yukikuni mei on the tsuba introduced here. Thus, it appears that his Hisakuni phase was his most productive one. Please note that in order to avoid repetition – there are two Kuni characters in his mei – the artist signed the first one, the one in Nobukuni, in a different manner as the second one, the one in Yukikuni. This is also the case on the tsuba, although the mei doesn’t come out that well on the quick shot I took of the piece with my iPhone.

A Kyōto Collaboration

In view of the upcoming Met’s exhibition Kyōto: Capital of Artistic Imagination, organized by Diane and Arthur Abbey Assistant Curator of Japanese Decorative Arts, Monika BincsikI would like to introduce a tsuba that will be on display and that can be described as joint project between three persons from Kyōto’s large pool of culturally involved figures. Fortunately, we know about this sword guard’s genesis from provenance research carried out by Fukuda Kenryū (福田顕龍), a sword scholar from the mid to late 1800s. Fukuda recorded his finds on the lid of the wooden outer storage box of the tsuba, which made it into the collection of The Met as well (picture 2).

Kentoku1Picture 1: Tsuba by Umetada Shigeyoshi (36.120.124); Diam. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); thickness 3/16 in. (0.5 cm); Wt. 6.6 oz. (187.1 g)

Kentoku2Picture 2: Outer wooden storage box of the tsuba. Transcription of the inscription below.


ユ乃傑作尓阿 散斗盤并せく古れを
辛酉冬日 福田顕龍

On the outside of the box (picture 2, left) we read: “Favorite ‘Sword and Virtue’ katana-tsuba of Itakura, Lord of Suō province.” The inscription found on the inside (picture 2 right) translates as follows:

At the request of Itakura, Lord of Suō province, while Shogunal Deputy in Kyōto, Umetada Shigeyoshi designed this guard on which are written two characters – “Sword” and “Virtue” by the master calligrapher Seki Jōzan. It is said that Umetada (埋忠) (literally “burying fidelity”) was changed to Umetada (梅忠) (literally “plum loyalty”), the former being considered a taboo in Edo and the latter being of the same pronunciation yet very good in meaning. Because of its quality, its calligraphy by a famous scholar, and its name/character changing, this guard is outstanding in three different ways.
A winter day in the year of the rooster (1861), Fukuda Kenryū

With this information given by Fukuda, I want to elaborate on the participating figures and the historic context of this tsuba. First the artist, Umetada Shigeyoshi, who signed his work the following way: “Umetada Shichizaemon Tachibana Shigeyoshi saku” (梅忠七左衛門橘重義作), “made by Umetada Shichizaemon Tachibana Shigeyoshi.” Shigeyoshi, who was active in the mid-1600s, belonged to a family which had worked for many generations, i.e. since the early 1400s, for the family of the Ashikaga Shogun. Their initial profession was that of sword and yari (spear) smiths but later they also specialized in adding engravings (horimono) to sword blades and in the production of habaki, seppa, tsuba, and fuchigashira. Apart from that, the Umetada were responsible for the shortening of blades and adding, via a gold inlay, a sword blade’s appraisal performed by the Hon’ami (a family of sword appraisers and polishers to the Shogun). The greatest Umetada master war Myōju (埋忠明寿, 1558-1631) who worked at the beginning of his career for the 15th and last Ashikaga Shogun Yoshiaki (足利義昭, 1537-1597), then for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and later as an independent artist, being thoroughly taken up in the art world of Kyōto.

Next person in this trio is Itakura Shigemune (板倉重宗, 1586-1657) (picture 3) who is referred to by Fukuda as by his honorary title “Lord of Suō Province.” Incidentally, Shigemune’s actual title was that of Suō no Kami (周防守, Governor of Suō) which Fukuda chose to quote in an alternative manner, Bōshū kō (防州侯, Lord of Suō Province), but which transports the same meaning. Also, Fukuda refers to Shigemune’s title of Kyōto Shoshidai (京都所司代), Shogunal Deputy of Kyōto, by its Chinese equivalent Keichō no In (京兆尹, Chinese Jīng zhào yǐn). (Note: When Japan replicated China’s then more advanced political system in the 8th century AD, the offices, posts, and ranks received Japanese names but the original Chinese names never became entirely obsolete. By the Edo period, people from the world of art and culture started to use the Chinese names again as they were now considered to sound more poetical than the by then antiquated and starchy sounding Japanese names.)


Picture 3: Itakura Shigemune

Shigemune had participated in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) and in both the Winter and the Summer Campaigns of Ōsaka (1614~1615) and took over the post of Kyōto Shoshidai from his father Itakura Katsushige (板倉勝重, 1545-1624) in 1620 who had held that office since 1601. Shigemune took his job as Shogunal Deputy of Kyōto very seriously and was praised by men from all ranks for his impartiality and fairness in the lawsuits he oversaw as a judge. Some of the important tasks of the Kyōto Shoshidai were to maintain good relations between the Shogunate and the Imperial Court, to ensure the personal security of the Emperor, and to act as a liaison between the Imperial Court and daimyō who requested access to it for whatever reason. Shigemune held this post for more than thirty years and when he retired in 1654 at the age of 68, Makino Chikashige (牧野親成, 1607-1677) was named Kyōto Shoshidai, whose Sekiyado fief (関宿藩) Shigemune then took over two years later. Incidentally, Shigemune was so thorough in his job that when he realized he was going to leave office with five difficult lawsuits open on his desk, he wrote guidelines on how to best handle them and handed these over to Chikashige when he retired. Unfortunately, Shigemune became ill three months after taking over Sekiyado and died a few weeks later at the age of 71.

This brings us to the third associated person, Ishikawa Jōzan (石川丈山, 1583-1672) (picture 4), whom Fukuda refers to as by his abbreviated name Seki Jōzan. As stated above, Jōzan did the calligraphy of the two characters which Umetada Shigeyoshi transferred to the tsuba. The characters ken (劔), “Sword,” and toku (徳), “Virtue,” are executed in a powerful manner, occupying the entire and otherwise undecorated iron ground plate of the piece whose rim is set off via a circumferential carving.


Picture 4: Ishikawa Jōzan.


Picture 5: Calligraphy by Jōzan.

The calligraphic style seen on the tsuba is referred to as “flying white” (hihaku, 飛白) and was one of the preferred styles of Jōzan. It was created in the 2nd century AD in China and its poetic name alludes to the streaks of white, i.e. paper, that the forcefully but swiftly applied brush leaves behind. An example of Jōzan using this style can be seen in picture 5 which shows the calligraphy Matsukaze (松凮), “(Sound of) the wind through pine trees,” designed for being used as a henkaku (扁額), a framed picture or motto hung over gates or lintels. Please note how skillfully Umetada Shigeyoshi recreated the “flying white” effect via golden accents on the silver inlay. Now the interpretation via hihaku is as bold as it is direct and effective, with the two characters chosen unambiguously alluding to the “model samurai” who lives by the sword but who uses such in a virtuous manner.

Ishikawa Jōzan so to speak knew what he was talking about and the very two characters were not chosen randomly, but more on this aspect later. Jōzan was born into a family of samurai who served for generations that branch of the Matsudaira (松平) family of which Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged. Being taught martial arts by his great uncle, Jōzan managed to become a close retainer of Ieyasu by the age of 15, fighting for him subsequently in the Battle of Sekigahara and in the Ōsaka Campaigns, as Itakura Shigemune did. However, in the second, the summer campaign against Ōsaka, Jōzan attacked the enemy before the official command to do so had arrived, an act that Ieyasu did not condone, especially as Jōzan was such a close and trusted retainer of his. So, Jōzan ended up as a rōnin, a masterless samurai, either by choice or by being dismissed by Ieyasu.

Jōzan secluded himself for the following couple of years and studied Confucianism with the Neo-Confucian philosopher Fujiwara Seika (藤原惺窩, 1561-1619) but then his mother became ill and so he went into the service of the Asano (浅野) family as a tutor. When his mother passed away thirteen years later, he asked for permission to retire from his post but which was not granted and so Jōzan left Hiroshima, the fief of the Asano, on his own to return to Kyōto and to return to his secluded life. In 1641, he erected the Shisendō (詩仙堂) temple in the northwest of Kyōto, on the southwestern slopes of Mt. Hiei, where he spent his remaining years writing calligrapy and poetry and studying Confucianism and the Chinese classics until he died in 1672 at the advanced age of 90 (according to the Japanese way of counting years of life).

This brings us back to the reason for why the characters in question were chosen for the tsuba. At the time when Itakura Shigemune was Kyōto Shoshidai and Ishikawa Jōzan immersed himself in his studies, we are talking about the early and mid-1600s, Neo-Confucianism was thriving. The humanistic and rationalistic philosophies of Neo-Confucianism left it “up to man to create a harmonious relationship between the universe and the individual” (Craig, Edward, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 7; Taylor and Francis 1998) and were thus well suited as a general guideline for the then still relatively new Tokugawa Shogunate to formulate its principles. Shigemune had experienced first hand the birth, the initial difficulties, and the eventual stabilization of the Tokugawa Shogunate through Neo-Confucianism, paired with cementing the samurai as the ruling class of the country. Therefore, it is no wonder to see him choosing the characters “Sword” and “Virtue” written by a Confucian-scholar-turned-samurai to be banned in a bold manner on his tsuba. That said, I would like to add a fourth layer of interest to the three qualities pointed out by Fukuda, and that is the aspect of the tsuba providing us a glimpse into the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate and warrior principles which became later known as bushidō (武士道), “The Way of the Warrior.”

One of the former owners of this tsuba must have realized its contextual value, quoting here from Stephen V. Granscay’s essay The Howard Mansfield Collection – Japanese Sword Furniture from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 1937:

The Umetada School, whose work ranks high in the eyes of Japanese, is exceptionally well represented […] The name of Shigeyoshi, who was among the most distinguished masters of this school, appears on eight guards. One of them was evidently considered a treasure by its former Japanese owner, as it has been fitted into a lacquered box protected by a deerskin case and enclosed in a plain wooden box. The psychology of such care is interesting and reflects the importance of the piece.



Picture 6

Picture 6 above shows that storage ensemble. On the bottom the tsuba in the leather-padded lacquered inner box, on top the green dyed deerskin case, and to the left and right the outer wooden storage box with its inscribed lid.


Picture 7: John La Farge


Picture 8: Howard Mansfield

Granscay also states in this essay that the tsuba “was one of the masterpieces in the collection of the late John La Farge, sold at the American Art Galleries in 1911.” La Farge (1835-1910) (picture 7), an American painter, muralist, and stain glass window maker, started to collect Japanese prints in the late 1850s and 1860s and had them flow into his art. Incidentally, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Schools, a series of educational programs established by The Metropolitan Museum of Art to provide vocational training in the late 19th century, hired La Farge in 1892 for holding advance courses for students in New York City. The tsuba eventually ended up in the collection of Howard Mansfield via whom it came into the possession of the Museum in 1936, partly by purchase from the income of the Rogers Fund and partly as a gift of Howard Mansfield himself. Mansfield (1849-1938) (picture 8) was a lawyer, collector, and for thirty years trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and became its first acting curator of Asian art until a staff curator – Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz (1860-1938) – was appointed in 1915. In the Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume XXXII, Number 1, January 1937 we read that altogether 488 pieces of Japanese sword furniture came into the possession of The Metropolitan Museum of Art this way, “the most notable gift of its kind ever received by the Museum.”


Picture 9 above shows the preliminary setup for the tsuba (plus three others) in the exhibition, and it is really nice that the angled wedge brings out the shine of the inlaid character. (picture 10).


Picture 10: Top left (Umetada) Hisanori (久法), top right Kaneie (金家), bottom left the tsuba introduced here, bottom right Bairyūken Kiyotatsu (梅龍軒清辰).

Signature supplements of Satsuma Masayoshi

Whilst correcting a certain information relevant to the career of Satsuma Masayoshi (薩摩正幸) here – I had erroneously stated that he signed with the supplement Satsuma-kankō (薩摩官工, about “official smith of the Satsuma fief”) only later in life (still trying to find the source where I got that from, and thank you Kimotsuki Kaneyoshi for pointing that out) – I thought it might be of interest if I address two more supplements which the smith occasionally added to his mei.

The first one is Chitenmei (知天命), as seen for example here. This is not a pseudonym (, 号) but actually a reference to the smith’s age, going back to The Analects of Confucius. In Book 2, Good Government, Confucius says:

“At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I was unperturbed; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.”

(Translation by A. Charles Muller, Link)

So, Chitenmei (知天命), read Tenmei o shiru in the Japanese transcription, refers to Confucius’ age when he “knew the mandate of heaven,” i.e. the age of 50. How does it compare to the blade in question? Well, the blade is dated Tenmei five (天明, 1785), and when we calculate (the Japanese way) from Masayoshi’s year of birth, Kyōhō 18 (享保, 1733), we arrive at the age of 53. This then brings us to another interpretation of The Dialects, namely as a general guideline for a man, and that is, a man should be set on learning as a teenager, should stand firm at the latest in his thirties, should be unperturbed at the latest in his forties, should know the mandate of heaven at the latest in his fifties, should have an obedient ear at the latest in his sixties, and should follow his heart’s desire without transgressing the norm at the latest in his seventies. In other words, the Chitenmei/Tenmei o shiru supplement can be applied to a person at the age of 50 or to a person in his/her 50s as well.

Another supplement we occasionally find in Masayoshi’s mei is that of Chichibu matsuyō (秩父末葉), as seen for example here. It means literally “late descendant of the Chichibu family,” and its context is as follows. Masayoshi was from the Ijichi (伊地知) family which was founded at the end of the Heian period by Ijichi Shigemitsu (伊地知重光), who was ruling the lands of the same name, Ijichi, in Echizen province. Shigemitsu was the eldest son of Hatakeyama Shigeyoshi (畠山重能) who in turn was the son of Chichibu Shigehiro (秩父重弘), and voila, here you have the Chichibu origins Masayoshi was referring to. Incidentally, the Shimazu connection of the Ijichi goes back to Ijichi Suemichi (伊地知季随, ?-1351) who was a descendant of Shigemitsu. Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358) imprisoned Suemichi and confiscated his lands on the basis of a false charge but Shimazu Sadahisa (島津貞久, 1269-1363) stepped in and mediated in favor of Shigemitsu as Suemichi was a close friend of his son Ujihisa (島津氏久, 1328-1387). That is, Sadahisa helped Takauji winning in 1336 the Battle of Tatarahama (多々良浜の戦い) against the Kikuchi (菊池) clan whereupon he released Suemichi. Suemichi then repaid this favor by sacrificing himself for Ujihisa when the Shimazu lost against the Kikuchi in a later local battle.

Recently added kinzōgan-mei

A while ago, one of my readers asked me about the most recently added kinzōgan-mei that I am aware of. Well, I remember coming across a few by Hon’ami Kōson (本阿弥光遜, 1879-1955), whom I have introduced here, and Honma Kunzan (本間薫山, 1904-1991), but I was interesting in finding some that can be dated to after Honma had passed away. So, I was doing some digging and found a blade that bears a kinzōgan-mei by the late ningen-kokuhō polisher Hon’ami Nisshū (本阿弥日洲, 1908-1996) which does not only record the date when it was added, which is very rare, but which has an interesting history as well, and so I would like to introduce this blade here.

The blade in question is a work of late Muromachi period Osafune smith Shinjūrō Sukesada (新拾郎祐定) of whom not much is known, apart from that he was active around Genki (元亀, 1570-1573) and Tenshō (天正, 1573-1592) and that he is ranked wazamono (Yamada) and jō-saku (Fujishiro). He obviously produced very high-quality blades as our candidate here passed jūyō, and with this lies one of the interesting aspects of this blade. As you can see in picture 1, i.e. from when the blade passed jūyō in 1971 at the 20th jūyō-shinsa, it did not yet have its kinzōgan-mei.


Picture 1: katana, mei “Bizen no Kuni-jū Osafune Shinjūrō Sukesada saku – Tenshō jūnen hachigatsu kichijitsu” (備前国住長船新拾郎祐定作・天正十年八月吉日) – “Made by Osafune Shinjūrō Sukesada, resident of Bizen province, on a lucky day in the eighth month of Tenshō ten (1582)”, nagasa 70.6 cm, sori 2.1 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, sakihaba 2.2 cm, kissaki-nagasa 3.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, maru-mune, ubu-nakago

Now some time after the blade had passed, provenance research must have been done because the owner had the paper reissued along the 49th jūyō-shinsa from 2003 (see picture 2 below). Obvious reason: The tang had changed as the result of the provenance research was inlaid via a kinzōgan-mei, which reads: “Heisei sannen hitsuji shōgatsu kokonoka, Hon’ami Nisshū + kaō – Imaizumi Tajima no Kami Shirōzaemon no Jō Takamitsu, Utsunomiya-ke Ōsaka-zume karō zaikin no toki kore o shoji” (平成三歳未正月九日、本阿弥日洲「花押」・今泉但馬守四郎左衛門尉高光、宇都宮家大阪詰家老在勤時之所持) – “January 9, 1991, year of the sheep, Hon’ami Nisshū – Worn by Imaizumi Tajima no Kami Shirōzaemon no Jō Takamitsu at the time when serving as an elder for the Utsunomiya family in Ōsaka.”


Picture 2: New oshigata after kinzōgan-mei had been inlaid some time prior to jūyō-shinsa 49.

More on that provenance in a second. Now Honma died on August 29 that year, so it is possible that he had some of his appraisals inlaid via kinzōgan-mei in these eight months between the kinzōgan-mei of this Sukesada (January 9 as stated above) and his death, but as his are not dated, Nisshū’s kinzōgan-mei introduced here was the most recent one that I was able to find that can be reliably dated. I haven’t been able to locate one that goes back to his son Kōshū (本阿弥光洲, 1939- ), so if someone knows a Kōshū kinzōgan-mei, you know where to find me.

Last but not least, some information on the provenance of the blade. Imaizumi Takamitsu (今泉高光, 1548-1597) was a Sengoku-period warrior who served, as mentioned in the kinzōgan-mei, the Utsunomiya family of Shimotsuke province, to be more precise, the 22nd Utsunomiya generation Kunitsuna (宇都宮国綱, 1568-1608). When Kunitsuna returned from the Korean Campaign in 1595 and Hideyoshi stationed him in Ōsaka, he was facing the fact that whilst already in his late 20s, he still had no male heir. Thus, Asano Nagamasa (浅野長政, 1547-1611), then one of Hideyoshi’s Five Commissioners (go-bugyō, 五奉行), suggested that his third son Nagashige (浅野長重, 1588-1632) could be adopted by Kunitsuna in order to later succeed as 23rd head of the Utsunomiya clan.

Kunitsuna consulted with Imaizumi Takamitsu and Hōjō Shō’an (北条松庵) and Takamitsu suggested that Hideyoshi should be informed about this issue and give his permission for the adoption. This enraged Kunitsuna’s younger brother Haga Takatake (芳賀高武, 1572-1611) who was of the opinion that there are enough members of the Utsunomiya family around who could be adopted by Kunitsuna instead. So Takatake took things into his own hands and wrote Hideyoshi that all adoption proceedings should be cancelled immediately. In parallel, he paid Hōjō Shō’an a visit, dragged him onto Kyōto’s intersection of Shijō and Kawara, and decapitated him.

Learning of that, Takamitsu immediately returned to Shimotsuke province and his castle of Kaminokawa (上三川城), which was soon after besieged by Takatake whose army set fire to from all sides whereupon Takamitsu had to retreat to the temple that was located in the outermost region of the castle where he and 15 of his men eventually committed seppuku. Well, this whole drama got even worse when Asano Nagamasa, in charge of Hideyoshi’s giant land survey, discovered irregularities in Kunitsuna’s report on the income of his lands (in short, Kunitsuna was allegedly making much more money than he stated his lands are yielding), which were then confiscated by Hideyoshi. Also, he banished Kunitsuna to Bizen province where he was placed under the supervision of Ukita Hideie (宇喜多秀家, 1572-1655).

At some time in the future, I will try and see if I can get access to the provenance research that was carried out related to this sword. As the kinzōgan-mei explicitly states “worn at the time when serving the Utsunomiya in Ōsaka,” I can imagine that there is some written entry (or letter) extant which mentions that the sword in question was received by someone as a gift, possibly a farewell gift, when Imaizumi Takamitsu rushed back to Shimotsuke to face Haga Takatake. If the research only revealed that the sword was with Takamitsu at some time, the kinzōgan-mei would be worded like “worn by Imaizumi Takamitsu, retainer of the Utsunomiya family,” or just “worn by Imaizumi Tajima no Kaji Takamitsu” etc.

Tameshigiri with a ko-wakizashi

At our NY Token Kai meeting at the Met last month, I was were briefly talking about cutting tests (tameshigiri) with some of the attendees as one of the blades on display, a wakizashi by the third Edo Yasutsugu (康継) generation, has one inlaid in gold. The question came up about cutting test extremes, e.g. the maximum number of bodies that were ever cut through (seven on a katana by Kanefusa, 兼房). On this occasion, I brought up that I even remembered seeing a short ko-wakizashi cutting through a body but couldn’t recall the maker on the spot. Doing some digging, I eventually found the blade that I was thinking of. It is a ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of mere 38.5 cm (15.1”) by the first generation Nobukuni (see picture below).


Picture 1: jūyō, ko-wakizashi, mei: Nobukuni (信国), kinzōgan-mei Kuroda Chikuzen no Kami-dono go-shoji – Dō-otoshi kirite Nakahawa Saheita + kaō (黒田筑前守殿御所持・胴落切手中川左平太「花押」), nagasa 38.5 cm, sori 0.6 cm, motohaba 3.35 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


The type of cut used is not mentioned but this was common at the time of expert sword tester Nakagawa Saheita (中川左平太, ?-1653) as tameshigiri were yet not standardized. However, there were already specific terms for cutting through/off limbs etc. so it can be said that the blade did cut somewhere through a torso (, 胴). Now the blade is obviously not a tantō and does have some substance, but still very impressive, isn’t it?

Well, shorter blades were often tested with a special test hilt (kiri-tsuka, 切り柄) which are said to have been in use since the Momoyama period (1573-1600). In a document named Yamano-ryū Ryōdan no Maki (山野流両段之巻) from the second year of Kan’ei (寛永, 1624), we find recommendations on the length of kiri-tsuka depending on the length of the blade that was going to be tested. The entry that qualifies for the blade introduced here states that for a blade with a nagasa between 1 shaku 5 sun and 9 sun (45~27 cm, 17.7~10.6”), the kiri-tsuka should measure 1 shaku 4 sun or 1 shaku 5 sun (42 or 45 cm, 16.5 or 17.7” respectively) long. That is, such short blades were tested with hilts about as long as the blade itself.

Some of these early kiri-tsuka were just tightly wrapped whereas others were reinforced by metal bands. Later on, the famous Yamada (山田) family of sword testers came up with sophisticated, more ergonomical kiri-tsuka reinforced by metal rings and hold in place by a mekugi and a wedge instead of a habaki (see pictures below).


Picture 2: Various forms of kiri-tsuka.


As stated in the kinzōgan-mei, the blade was once owned by Kuroda Chikuzen no Kami, which may refer to Kuroda Yoshitaka (黒田孝高, 1546-1604) or to his son Nagamasa Kuroda Nagamasa (黒田長政, 1568-1623), although in most cases, it refers to the latter. I wrote about a similar reference to a Kuroda ownership here. Also lead tsuba, so-called tameshi-tsuba (試し鐔), were sometimes used to add weight to a blade that was going to be tested in order improve the result. The Nezu-ryū (根津流, 17th century) of tameshigiri recommends that for tantō measuring less than 9 sun 5 bu (~ 28.8 cm, 11.3”), a tameshi-tsuba weighing somewhere between 250 and 300 monme (940~1.125 g) should be used. For ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of about 1 shaku and 5 or 6 sun (45~48 cm, 17.7~18.9”), the tameshi-tsuba should weigh 150 to 200 monme (560~750 g). So our Nobukuni ko-wakizashi would be somewhere in between.

As for kiri-tsuka and cutting tests in general, much more detailed info can be found in my Tameshigiri book. And that should do it for today.


Picture 3: Kuroda Nagamasa.

NY Token Kai Meeting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So yesterday, March 31, 2019, I had the honor of moderating a study meeting of the local sword club NY Token Kai here at the Met. With 43 participants (if I counted correctly, plus five staff), it was very well attended and the Art Study Room that we had set up for the meeting was maxed out but not overcrowded. From the feedback that I have received on the spot and later last night via email and text I think I am confident to say that this first NY Token Kai meeting at the Met was a great success! Feedback, positive and negative, is highly welcome, so please use the comment section below.


Now I made “Echizen Yasutsugu and the Shimosaka School” the topic of this first meeting. Background for my selection was that I had to find an area within our collection that is representative in terms of both quantity and quality. Our department is in the possession of about 15 Yasutsugu/Schimosaka School swords from which I picked the best five, five because this is the traditional number of what would be at a sword appreciation meeting (kanshō-kai, 鑑賞会) in Japan. No kantei this time, but I want to do one at a future meeting.


So the meeting started with my talk about the mentioned topic, which I explored from a more historic point of view rather than just narrating the workmanships of all Shimosaka masters and Yasutsugu generations. As you know, I always like to provide background information and connect the dots and so I refrained from mechanically reciting ko-itame this and gunome that if you know what I mean. In parallel to the five blades which I will introduce below, we were unboxing two of the boxes that house fittings by each of the Gotō generations (I have written about one of them here). Well, rather one of them … I had physically checked them both last Friday to see their interior but when we got them off the cart we learned that one box had magically locked itself over the weekend. Our conservators tried to pick the lock but no luck (or rather not the right tools present that day). However, we did find the keys to all the boxes today, so everything is fine and we were discussing the possibility of having some of these boxes (our department owns four) on display in our galleries.


Now the following five blades were put out for study:

  1. mumei wakizashi Higo Daijō Sadakuni (肥後大掾貞国)
  2. hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi signed “Echizen Yasutsugu” (越前康継), Shodai
  3. wakizashi signed “(Aoi-mon) Yasutsugu nanban-tetsu o motte – Bushū Edo ni oite kore o tsukuru” (「葵紋」康継以南蛮鐵・於武州江戸作之), with gold inlay cutting test, Edo-Sandai
  4. katana signed “(Aoi-mon) Yasutsugu nanban-tetsu o motte Bushū Edo ni oite tsukuru” (「葵紋」康継以南蛮鐵於武州江戸作), Edo-Sandai
  5. katana signed “Echizen-jū Hyūga no Kami Fujiwara no Sadatsugu” (越前住日向守藤原貞次)


Between looking at the blades, or rather waiting in line to do so, and checking out the Gotō box(es), there was plenty of time for conversation I felt that everyone was having a great time. Before I am adding some more pictures and I would like to thank the club and its members for making a donation to our department (it is much appreciated by all of my colleagues), my dear colleagues Catherine Chesney, Sean Belair, and Ted Hunter for their assistance, and also of course the head of our department, Pierre Terjanian, who gave the green light right from the first time when I checked out the possibility of holding a NY Token Kai meeting at the Met. My sincere gratitude to all of you!










Honda Shigetsugu’s letter

When Honda Shigetsugu (本多重次, 1529-1596) was in camp at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, he wrote a brief letter to his wife, using the classical 5-7-5 syllable Haiku form for the middle part, the actual message:


Ippitsu mōsu: Hi no yōjin – O-Sen yasasuna – uma koyase! Kashiku…

“This will just be a short note: Be careful about fire, don’t let O-Sen (their son Senchiyo, later Narishige) loose weight, and feed well the horses! Yours sincerely …”

At first glance, this letter may appear to just contain some heartless orders by a ruthless Sengoku warlord, but Shigetsugu (not sure if he will survive the battle and ever see his family again) knew that his wife will understand the true meaning behind his words, which is: “As I am in battle, all domestic responsibilities are with you my dear, so take care that everyone, including all servants, pays attention so that nothing catches fire. We have five children but our oldest son Senchiyo will become my heir. Thus, if it comes down to that certain members of the household have to step back, it should not be him. Also, take good care of the horses as our lives as warriors are depending on them on the battlefield. Yours sincerely …”


The Ashikaga Takauji Armor

As my recent Facebook post on the Ashikaga Takauji armor gained some traction, I thought I better recap the provenance/details of that ō-yoroi in a post here. Before we start, I would like to mention that the detailed research on the armor referenced here was carried out by Mr. Ogawa Morihiro (小川盛弘), Special Consultant Emeritus of The Metropolitan Museum of Ar, in the 1980s. Also, for more high-res pictures of the suit, please check out the museum’s website here.

The armor in question (14.100.121b-e).

For the most part of its life, which spans over almost 700 years of existence, the armor is thought to have been preserved in the Shinomura Hachimangū (篠村八幡宮), located in former Tanba province, just on the Western outskirts of Kyōto (close to the present-day town of Kameoka). When Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358) was heading from Kamakura to Kyōto to fight the army that Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇, 1288-1339) had just raised in Hōki province in another attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate, he stayed for ten days at that very Shinomura Shrine to pray for victory in battle. Tradition has it that he donated the armor in question to the shrine to appease Hachiman, the God of War. He indeed win by the way and you can easily google the history of events.

Takauji2Portrait of a mounted warrior, long believed to depict Ashikaga Takauji.

Now we have to fast forward 570 years as the earliest thing we know for certain brings us to around 1902~1903, which was when the Kyōto-based antique dealer Ide Zenbei (井手善兵衛), who ran a store named Jidai’ya (時代屋) on Kyōto’s Shijō Street, bought the armor from the local Matsui (松井) family. Ide then sold it to Bashford Dean on July 19, 1905 for 1,200 Yen (about $17,000 today) who in turn gave it as a gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1914 whose first Arms and Armor Curator he had become two years prior. We neither know when the armor left the Shinomura Hachimangū and came into the possession of the Matsui, nor if it went directly from the shrine to the family or through “detours.” 

There exist detailed drawings of the armor which mention Matsui Kyōsaku (松井杏朔), a physician in the service of the Kameyama fief (亀山藩), the domain in which the Shinomura Hachimangū was located, as its owner. There are fief records extant which indeed list Matsui Kyōsaku as a physician, namely for the year Tenmei five (天明, 1785). Thus, it appears that the armor was already owned by the Matsui family as early as by the late 18thcentury. Incidentally, a member of the Matsui who died in Tenpō 13 (天保, 1842), who may have been the same person as Kyōsaku, donated the substantial sum of 120 silver pieces to a local temple, which tells us that the family was well off and therefore perfectly capable of owning such an armor. Another possible scenario: The armor was owned by the shrine but given into the custody of the Matsui family, probably patrons of the Shinomura Hachimangū as well, for safekeeping. After several generations, the lines between the actual owner and the safekeeper had become blurred and the maker of the drawings erroneously identified Matsui Kyōsaku as owner. And by another 70+ years later, when Ide bought it, the Matsui were assuming the armor was in their possesion. By the way, the drawings bear the “Matsuoka Library” seal and so it is assumed that they were done by Matsuoka Yukiyoshi (松岡行義, 1794-1848). Yukiyoshi was a retainer of the Kurume fief (久留米藩) in Chikuzen province, a scholar of court/military practices, and was also engaged in armor making, hence the detailed and precise drawings of the ō-yoroi in question.

Takauji3Inside of Bashford Dean’s house in Misaki.

Back to when Dean bought the suit. There exists a photograph from the inside of the house that Dean had built himself at Misaki (Kanagawa Prefecture, about 40 miles to the south of Tōkyō) which shows the armor put up on a chest. The two sode which were associated with the suit are hanging on the left wall and the helmet was put on a helmet stand but placed on a table on the other side of that room (shown in another photograph). In his studies, Mr. Ogawa has pointed out that neither the sode nor the helmet are original to the suit, although being very close in production time and interpretation (one sode however, the right one, was completely different and was deaccessioned by the museum later). Interestingly, the very sode and helmet are depicted in Matsuoka’s illustrations, so they are associated with the armor from at least the late 18th, early 19th century onwards. The whereabouts of the right sode are unknown. 

The left sode in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (14.100.50).

Also, the period photograph shows that the armor was fixed up before it was shipped to the US, e.g. the front and rear segments of the kusazuri had become completely separated from the a nd the bottom suso no ita of the right front segment was missing (and replaced accordingly). As mentioned, Dean gifted the armor in 1914 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the rest is history. Since then, it has been studied and published multiple times (e.g. by the famous grand scholar of armor, Yamagami Hachirō, 山上八郎) and in 1986, the city of Ashikaga, the place of origin of the clan of the same name, had commissioned master armorer Myōchin Muneyuki (明珍宗恭, 1917-2011) with creating a replica of the entire suit. 

Photograph from before the armor was fixed up (with the sode attached).

Finally I want to address the interpretation of the armor. It comes under the classification of a shiroito tsumadori ō-yoroi (白糸褄取大鎧), an “large classical armor laced in white with color accents.” It features a sendan no ita and a kyūbi no ita and the front of the dō is covered with a very impressive tsurubashirigawa that depicts the deity Fudō-Myōō (不動明王, Acala) and next to him Kongara-Dōji (矜羯羅童子, Kimkara) and Seitaka-Dōji (制多迦童子, Cetaka), his two boy servants. Ō-yoroi of this age are extremely rare, even more when they preserve, like the example in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, parts of their original lacing. It boils down to less than 40 specimen and if the armor had remained in Japan, it would today be designated as a jūyō-bunkazai, an Important Cultural Asset.

Detail of the tsurubashirigawa.

Last but not least, the background for my Facebook post was that our Department for Arms and Armor had to check the transportability of the armor for an upcoming interdepartmental loan and when everything works out as planned, the suit will be reunited with its helmet (although not originally together but “married” for at least 200 years) and displayed in an exhibition later this summer. I will of course make an announcement here and on my usual social media channels, so stay tuned.

The Yamatorige/Sanchōmō (山鳥毛)

Many of you who follow the “sword news” have surely heard that the city of Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, is currently attempting to purchase the famous national treasure sword Yamatorige/Sanchōmō-Ichimonji in order to bring it home to where it was once made more than 700 years ago. The city has started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and please follow the links below (the second one is to the official Facebook page) if you want to contribute and know more details about the project.



I also want to link below to the article Paul Martin, who is on board with the project, has written for JAPAN-Forward (Sankei Shinbun) that also gives you an overview of what it is all about.



Now in my humble article here, I would like to provide some more historical background and sum up the provenance of the sword. The first time the sword appears on the scene, as far as extant historic records are concerned, is the mid-16th century. The sword register of the Uesugi (上杉) namely, the Uesugi-ke Tōken Daichō (上杉家刀剣台帳), states the following on how it came into the possession of the family:

“When Uesugi Kenshin (上杉謙信, 1530-1578) (then named Nagao Kagetora, 長尾景虎), set out in the tenth month of Kōji two (弘治, 1556) to Kōzuke province where the local castellan of Shiroi Castle (白井城) and relative of Kenshin, Nagao Norikage (長尾憲景, 1511-1583), presented him with a sword by Kanemitsu (兼光). The sword was nicknamed Sanshōmō/Sanchōmō, either because its hardening pattern resembles a forest fire (shō, 焼) on a distant mountain (san, 山), or because it resembles the beautiful tail feathers (mō/ge, 毛) of a copper pheasant (yamadori/yamatori/sanchō, 山鳥).”


Uesugi Kenshin (left), Uesugi Kagekatsu (right)


So, already the Uesugi records are aware of the ambiguity of the blade’s nickname and some even interpret it as “mountain that appears to be on fire due to the evening sun” or as “resembling the controlled burning of dead grass on a hillslope (yamayaki/sanshō) in spring (in order to stimulate growth).” However, that ambiguity goes to a certain extent back to how Kenshin’s son Uesugi Kagekatsu (上杉景勝, 1556-1623) recorded the blade when he made his famous list of the 35 greatest treasure swords in his possession (he had inherited the blade afer his father’s death). That is, Kagekatsu used the archaic way (山てうまう) (see picture below) to note the term Sanchōmō, i.e. teu (てう) being an archaic hiragana variant of chō(ちょう) and mau(まう) of (もう). So without kanji characters, the exact meaning is unclear.


The red arrow marks Kagekatsu’s Santeumau notation.


In short, Sanshōmō became Sanchōmō and the latter then also became Yamatorige, with no one being able today to say with certainty what the actual origins of that nickname are. To me personally, the hamon of the blade sure looks more like fire but with some imagination, I can also see the resemblance to the staggered, graded tail feathers of a copper pheasant (see picture below). Also, as you may have noticed in the above quote, the blade was once attributed to Osafune Kanemitsu and handed down within the Uesugi family as such. When Emperor Meiji visited the Uesugi on their lands in Yamagata in Meiji 14 (1881), he was shown the Sanchōmō/Yamatorige as he was known to be a great sword lover, which was then still labeled as Kanemitsu.



Then in 1937, when Count Uesugi Noriaki (上杉憲章, 1876-1953), the then head of the Uesugi family, received the satus of a jūyō-bijutsuhin (Important Art Object) for the sword plus its mounting, it got attributed to the Ichimonji School, which is appropriate because the blade does indeed look much much more like an Ichimonji/Fukuoka-Ichimonji than a Kanemitsu work (well, Kenshin and Kagekatsu had a liking for Kanemitsu so this may have played into the provenace but that is a topic for another post). Three years later, the sword was designated as a jūyō-bunkazai (Important Cultural Property) and finally in 1952 as kokuhō (National Treasure). Now in the kokuhō designation, the owner of the sword is listed as Okano Taromatsu (岡野多郎松, 1900-?). Okano was one of Japan’s biggest sword collectors in the mid-1900s and owned a large number of jūyō-bunkazai and kokuhō blades. So Uesugi Noriaki, or his family, obviously sold the sword some time between 1940 and 1952 to Okano. The sword was then featured in the catalog to Okano’s collection, the Bizan Aitō Zufu (備山愛刀図譜), published in 1958 by Satō Kanzan in. Ten years later, in 1968, it was on display at the National Treasure special exhibition of the NBTHK where it was introduced as being owned by Okano Mitsuhiro (岡野光弘), who I assume was Taromatsu’s son.


The Sanchōmō in its present condition.

The Sanchōmō when it was designated as a kokuhō in 1952.

Koshirae of the Sanchōmō.


In recent years, maybe three or four years ago if I remember correctly, the current owner (of whom I do not have any information) made the attempt to sell the sword to a museum, institution, or facility located either where the blade was made or were the former lands of the Uesugi were. Eventually negotiations were made with the city of Jōetsu, Niigata Prefecture (former Echigo province and thus historical Uesugi territory), but the deal was cancelled in 2017. And this is where Setouchi City comes into play as one of the owner’s desired destinations of where the sword should be preserved for posterity. As indicated at the very beginning of this post, please refer to the links to get the first-hand information of Setouchi City and all parties involved.

For some additional reading on the Sanchōmō/Yamatorige and its place within the Uesugi family, please see my alternative Sword Legends site here.