The Swords of Sôshû

by Jim Kurrasch

In the history of Japan there were many well noted important swords, those of Sôshû had a very good representation of these. In 1714 (the 4th year of Kyôho) the Kyôho Meibutsu Cho was written, by the Honami, at the order of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was a set of 3 books which listed the best swords that Japan had. The first book contained the blades by the “Nihon Sansaku”. “The Nihon Sansaku” were Etchu Matsukura Go Umanosuke Yoshihiro (16 blades), Awataguchi Toshiro Yoshimitsu (16 blades), and Goro Nyudo Masamune (41 blades in the first book and 61 total blades in the three books). Toyotomi Hideyoshi had choosen these as supreme sword smiths, so their blades had a elevated status. The second book contained 100 blades of other smiths. And the third book contained 81 blades that had been excellent but had been ruined or lost. This book also contains 29 additional blades. These books also contain information about many other Sôshû blades. 21 Sadamune + 3 more burnt, 5 Yukimitsu + 7 more burnt, 2 Shintôgo Kunimitsu, and 1 Hiromitsu. This brings the number of Sôshû blades to 100, which is over 1/3 of the blades in this set of books. There are also a number of blades by Sô-den smiths such as the 10 students of Masamune, and the 3 students of Sadamune.

So the fact that Masamune was in the Nihon Sansaku, and his blades were listed in the first book of the Kyôho Meibutsu Cho gave some special status to him and his blades. Many of his blades have a noted history, and very interesting stories about them.
‘Fudo Masamune’ is a tantô of 8 sun 6.5 bun, with a carving of Fudo on the Omote, as well as gomabashi, and kurikara on the ura (at this point only the gomabashi are present on the back). This is one of the very few existing signed blades were the signature is not in question. Lord Hidetsugu bought this blade for 500 Kan, and later gave it to the Shogun Ieyasu. Then it was given to Lord Toshiie. Later Lord Toshitsune gave it to Lord Ieyasu (after retirement?). After that it was handed down in the Owari Tokugawa. This shows how blades traveled between the Japanese lords.

The ‘Hocho Sukashi Masamune’ is one of the famous Masamune kitchen knives that makes people think that he made these very long wide blades. Masamunes tantô tend to be slim, and elegant. On this blade there is gomabashi carved in sukashi (cutout). After the restoration (1919?) this blade was purchased for 10 Hiki in a antique store. The value at that time was about 14¢ US. Even with the inflation since then, that comes up to very little, now days.

The ‘Honjo Masamune’ which was the Katana passed between generations of the Tokugawa, as a symbol of the Shogun, was taken as a Trophy of War (not by a Tokugawa). In the late 16th. century it had split the helmet of Shigenaga, one of the generals of Uesugi Kenshin, prior to Shigenaga killing it’s owner Umanosuke. Shigenaga had a deep wound on his head, but he survived. To make matters worse for the Honjo Masamune, when Umanosuke attacked Shigenaga he was already carrying several ‘trophy heads’ so that blade probably had already made many severe cuts that day.Shigenaga examined it and it had some chips but was still sound.

Kenshin did not wind up with the blade, Shigenaga did. I assume that Kenshin was smart enough to not push around his major supporters too much. Unfortunately for Shigenaga in Bunroku (1592 – 1595) Uesugi was required to care for the Fushimi Castle. He sent Shigenaga to do this. Shigenaga did not have the money, so he had to sell the Honjo Masamune. The price was 13 Mai = 13 O-Ban = 13 large gold coins. Hidetsugu (Hideyoshi’s younger brother) was the buyer.

When one considers that in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho the Wakasa Masamune was valued by the Honnami at 1,000 Mai. And the Shikibu Masamune was valued at 700 Mai. But in Shotoku (1711 – 1716) the Shikibu Masamune sold for 2,375 Ryo (Mai?). And the price for a good sword went for about 10 Mai. Then when one remembers that Hideyoshi was the one who started the Masamune craze, the plan plot becomes clearer. Own a Masamune and the Shogunate was going to see that you would end up with money problems, and wish a quick sale of it.

Anyway this Masamune went from Shigenaga, to Hidetsugu, to Shimazu Hyogo Yoshihiro, who gave it to Ieyasu. It was given to Ietsuna when Yorinobu retired (1667). After Ietsuna, the forth Tokugawa Shogun, it was passed to the each following Shogun as part of the Ceremony.

The ‘Kotegiri Masamune’ is a katana that gained it’s name when it cut the steel mail off the arm of a opposing Samurai at the Battle of Toji in Kyôto. It was used by Asakura Ujikage for this cut. Asakura Yoshikage was defeated by Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga took this sword and had it shortened. It passed through sevral other hands and in 1615 came to the Maeda clan, who passed it down through generations until 1882. In 1882 Emperor Meiji visited the Maeda and was given this sword. Emperor Meiji was a very well known sword collector, so was this another example of the person in charge claiming all of the ‘good toys’?

There are a endless amount of stories, and tales concerning Nihonto. Also there are a great many blades with names. As time goes on I am sure more will be given. If you want to find out more quicker I suggest that you buy a copy of Albert Yamanaka’s ‘Nihonto Newsletter’ from the Northern California Club. The price is about $75 for the unbound edition, and about $125 for the bound. This really is a excellent reference source. And it contains almost 2,000 typed pages (yes almost 2,000 = no typo).