Posted by : Guido Schiller on Sun Nov 26, 2006
Topic : The Honj˘ Masamune


The S˘shű 相州 (also called Sagami 相模) tradition was established by Shint˘go Kunimitsu 新藤五国光 in the late Kamakura period. His known swords with inscribed dates show that he was active at least between 1293 & 1334 AD. Kunimitsuĺs Hamon are Suguha in Nie, his Jihada is rich in Jinie with swirling Itame forming Kinsuji. Among his pupils were two of the most famous names among Japanese sword smiths: Yukimitsu 行光 and Masamune 正宗.

Masamune had enormous influence on sword making throughout the country. His success was in part due to the fact that he carefully selected his iron, forging together different kinds of steels to give improved strength and hardness. He also successfully tempered blades at a higher temperature than anyone before him, resulting in brilliant Nie. The high temperature usually causes the blade to become extremely hard and brittle; however, he is also credited with "inventing" stress relief, thus avoiding those undesired effects.

The Jigane is complex with varied hues in the Jihada, rich in Jinie, with both bright and dark pools of Chikei. The Hamon is predominantly Notare with Midareba, deep and intense with varied lines of Inazuma, Sunagashi and Kinsuji. The effect is not unlike the work of Yasutsuna of H˘ki 伯耆安綱 in its extremes of activity, and it is thought that Masamune may have consciously emulated him.

Although Masamune worked mainly during the Kamakura period (1185 ~ 1333 AD) when one of the characteristic of swords was the pronounced tapering down of the width towards the point, Chű-kissaki and Koshi-zori or deep Torii-zori, he also produced swords at the beginning of the Nambokuch˘ period (1333 ~ 1392 AD) and consequently we see swords of him with an overall wide Mihaba, shallow Torii-zori and ď-Kissaki.

Because blades actually signed by Masamune are exceedingly rare, a theory was developed at the end of the 19ĺth century that Masamune never existed at all. In the sword books of the Muromachi period the scarcity of signed blades by Masamune is accounted for by the explanation that his work was so absolutely distinctive that there was no need for a Mei. However, it is more likely that the reason lies in the fact that Masamune was employed by the Kamakura Bakufu (administration); many of his swords were made for the use by the Sh˘gun, and it would have been presumptuous and contrary to all normal practice - at that time - for him to have signed them. Another reason is simply that Tachi were of such great length that they have been cut down to a convenient size for wearing in Uchigatana-koshirae, and have therefore lost the inscriptions that were on the original Nakago.

A number of signed Tant˘ are extant which are demonstrably by the same hands. Those blades that still retain his signature are inscribed with two characters - MASA 正 MUNE 宗 - except the Tant˘ "Daikoku Masamune" that bears the signature "Masamune Saku 正宗作".

Masamune is perhaps the most famous of all Japanese smiths. The distinguished scholar and statesman Kanera Ichij˘ (1402 ~ 1481 AD) recognized Masamune as one of the great men of modern times, and praised him as a smith whose blades were equal in quality to the sharp weapons of the Buddhist guardian deity Fud˘ himself. Masamuneĺs Hamon is usually described as refined and leisurely at the same time, his Kinsuji looking like lightning in the clouds, and his Nie like bare patches in partially melted snow.

There is not much known about Masamune the man - at least not much verifiable. At least we know his real name: according to the Nihonshi Kojiten 日本史小辞典, he was born Okazaki Gor˘ 岡崎五郎. He's supposedly the son of T˘sabur˘ Yukimitsu 藤三郎行光, therefore also called K˘mitsushi (when the character for "child 子 [of]" is added to "Yukimitsu 行光", the resulting three Kanji are read "K˘mitsushi行光子"). No explanation is given as to when and why he chose Masamune as his art name. He evidently later became a lay priest (Nyűd˘ 入道), and therefore is commonly called Gor˘ Nyűd˘ Masamune 五郎入道正宗.

However, the thesis that Masamune was the son of Yukimitsu is nowadays refuted by scholars, it being much more likely that they were fellow students of Shint˘go Kunimitsu.

The Yagi-Bushi 八木節 ("bushi" is an old fashioned, story-telling song) gives a colorful description of Masamune's life. The story goes that Yukimitsu, while passing through Ky˘to, had an affair with an innkeeper's daughter, resulting in little Masamune. Being born out of wedlock, Masamune is teased by the kids in the neighborhood, and decides to look for his father. He travels to Kamakura where he tries to become an apprentice of Yukimitsu, who has a hard time choosing from all those who apply for being his student. Masamune shows him the dagger that his mother gave him, and Yukimitsu recognizes it as his own work - he had left it with Masamune's mother as a farewell present.

This apparently made up Yukimitsu's mind, and he embraced the son he never knew of and saw before, making him his apprentice. Unfortunately they didn't live happily ever after. Yukimitsu died, and Masamune became Kunimitsu's student.

Well, so much for an interesting story at the camp-fire ů

Swords by Masamune were very highly regarded throughout Japanese sword history, and 39 are listed in the Ky˘h˘ Meibutsuch˘ (not counting Yakemi). The Daimy˘ of the Edo period saw it as a matter of prestige to own a Tant˘ by Masamune or Awataguchi Yoshimitsu 粟田口吉光. When a new Sh˘gun succeeded his predecessor, it was the custom to present him with a sword made by Rai Kunimitsu 来國光 or Shint˘go Kunimitsu 新藤五國光 since Kunimitsu 國光 can be interpreted as "may the country prosper" (or, rather, "shine"). At important birthdays like the 61'st, 70'th or 77'th, swords from the Enju 延寿 school or Toshinaga 俊長 were presented; those Mei can be taken to mean "long life".

The demand for blades by above mentioned smiths obviously couldn't be met by the already existing swords, and therefore forgeries became abundant. However, the underlying idea behind this was that "it's the thought that counts", not the intention to maliciously deceive the receiver of the gift. This doesn't mean that a sword buyer didn't fall for a Gimei now and then, but the Daimy˘, for example, usually had no qualms presenting a probable forgery to the Sh˘gun, who accepted the blade without showing the bad taste of questioning its authenticity, and mostly presented it back to the giver on a suitable occasion.

Important swords were constantly exchanged as gifts, used as bribes, or given as rewards. Receiving a sword from ones lord was an honor beyond its monetary value. Toda Ujitetsu, one of the generals of Sh˘gun Tokugawa Iemitsu, was once given the choice between a Tant˘ by Masamune and an increase of his annual stipend by 30,000 Koku (one Koku is 180 liters of rice, the amount needed to feed one person for a year, and used as a means to calculate income) - Toda unhesitatingly chose the Tant˘.

"Meibutsu 名物" are items that are recorded in the Ky˘h˘ Meibutsuch˘ 享保名物帳 ("genealogy of famous things of the Ky˘h˘ era"), compiled by Honami Mitsutada 本阿弥光忠 in 1719 at the behest of Sh˘gun Tokugawa Yoshimune 徳川吉宗. It was the first time that other items than tea utensils, lacquer work, paintings and ceramics were listed as Meibutsu; the swords recognized as such are described in three volumes and an appendix:

1. (上) 68 swords by the Sansaku 三作 (ôthree [greatest] makersö) Yoshimitsu 吉光 (T˘shir˘ 藤四郎), Masamune 正宗 and Yoshihiro義弘 (G˘ 郷),
2. (中) 100 swords by other smiths
3. (下) 80 Yakemi 焼身 (blades that lost their Hamon due to being exposed to fire), and
4. (追記) 25 additional blades.

All swords in the Meibutsuch˘ are made not later than the Nambokuch˘ period, and only about one hundred of them are still in existence today. The high number of blades that are forged in the S˘shű tradition reflect the popularity these swords enjoyed with the Daimy˘. It can be safely assumed that more than a few swords with doubtful attributions are listed, or that in other ways don't merit their status as Meibutsu, because the Honami were under a lot of pressure to be "politically correct". It would have been unthinkable for them to offend any of the high-ranking owners in declaring their sword a fake, or of inferior quality.

The Meibutsuch˘ isn't actually very helpful in getting a lot of information about those famous swords; basically only the sword owner, and a brief description including the measurements, are given. Oshigata are not included, but there's quite a collection of them made by the sword smith ďmi no Kami Tsuguhira 近江守継平 (Nidai 二代), who was the keeper of arms for Sh˘gun Yoshimune at that time.

One of Tsuguhira's Oshigata is of the Honj˘ Masamune 本庄正宗, a sword of legend and mystery. This Oshigata was drawn in ink, and doesn't seem to be very accurate - Oshigata back then weren't as sophisticated as they are nowadays.

Honj˘ Echizen no Kami Shigenaga 本庄越前守重長 ("Shigenaga" is also sometimes written 繁長) was one of the generals serving under Uesugi Kenshin 上杉謙信 and Uesugi Kagekatsu 上杉景勝. During one of the Uesugi campaigns, Shigenaga attacked and overthrew the Dewa Sh˘nai 出羽庄内 castle which was held by Daih˘ji Yoshioki 大宝寺義興. After the siege, Shigenaga was approached by Tozenji 東善寺 (or 東禅寺) Umanosuke 右馬介, a retainer of Daih˘ji, under the pretense of showing him some captured heads. Umanosuke attacked Shigenaga, and managed to cut the latter's helmet in half - seriously wounding him - before he was finally overcome and slain by Shigenaga.

The sword that was used in the assassination attempt turned out to be made by Masamune, and had sustained some chips on the edge from cutting Shigenaga's helmet. How it came into the possession of Umanosuke in the first place is unknown - the original owner certainly wasn't in the condition to answer questions anymore.

Shigenaga kept it as a war trophy, and later it was sold to Toyotomi Hidetsugu 豊臣秀次. It then went to Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉, Shimazu Yoshihiro 島津義弘, again to Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu 徳川家康, Tokugawa Yorinobu 徳川頼宣, and finally Tokugawa Ietsuna 徳川家綱. It remained in the Kii 紀伊 branch of the Tokugawa family, the last known owner being Tokugawa Iemasa 徳川家正 at the end of WWII.

It is said that the Honj˘ Masamune was one of the treasure swords of the Tokugawa, and that it symbolically was presented to each succeeding Sh˘gun when he took office from Ietsuna on. On May 29, 1939 it was designated as a Kokuh˘, or national treasure (but technically speaking, it isn't a Kokuh˘ anymore. In 1950 all former national treasures were re-assigned as Jűy˘-Bunkazai, and had to be submitted again to regain their Kokuh˘ status. The designation of the 14 pre-war Kokuh˘ that were "lost" after WWII is therefore void).

Although the sword is said to have had the original length of 3 Shaku 8 Sun when Umanosuke attacked Shigenaga, at the time of it becoming a national treasure the description by the Japanese National Museum in Ueno reads as follows:

Gyobutsu 御物 Honj˘ Masamune ("Gyobutsu" nowadays refers to items in the possession of the imperial family, but in the Edo period it meant property of the Sh˘gun).
Suriage Mumei, Nagasa 2 Shaku 1 Sun 5 1/2 Bu (65.2 cm), Sori 1.7 cm
Shinogi-zukuri, Iori-mune, wide Mihaba, thin Kasane, Kissaki-nobiru (= ď-Kissaki), Shinogi-ji narrow, high Shinogi.
Ko-Itame-Hada, fine Ji-Nie, Chikei and Tobiyaki. Hamon in Ko-Nie forming ď-Midare and Ko-Midare, having Kinsuji and Ashi, B˘shi is Midarekomi.
There are no Horimono, the Nakago is ď-Suriage, the shape of the Nakagojiri is Kengyo, and there is one Mekugi-Ana.
The width of the Hamon was polished down, there are chips (Hakobore) in the Ha and battle marks (Kirikomi) on the Mune.
The Koshirae is a Momoyama period Uchigatana-koshirae, the Tsuka has black SamÚ, indigo-blue Tsukamaki, the Menuki are pairs of three Kiri, the Tsuba and Fuchi have a Kiri and Kiku motif, the Kozuka and Kogai Kiri in gold.

As stated above, the Honj˘ Masamune lost its signature - if it ever had one - due to the shortening. The rumor that it is signed is probably due to there being *another* Honj˘ Masamune: an Ubu Zaimei Tant˘ owned by the Honj˘ family. Not a Meibutsu, an Oshigata can be found in Imamura Kash˘'s 飯村嘉章 "Yűmei Kot˘ Taikan 有銘古刀大鑑".

Besides the description in the Meibutsuch˘ and later at the designation as a national treasure, both Imamura Ch˘ga and Honami K˘san inspected the Honj˘ Masamune in 1880 and 1943 respectively. Well known and respected connoisseurs, they didn't find it - its historical value not withstanding - artistically very appealing. As with many other swords owned by powerful people and attributed to Masamune, some doubts about its true maker remain.

The Honj˘ Masamune, along with 14 other swords, was submitted to the Meijiro 目白 police station in December of 1945 by Tokugawa Iemasa, following the order of the occupation forces to surrender all swords. It is reported that the swords were handed over to a Sgt. from the 7'th Cavalry Regiment on January 18, 1946. What happened to the sword thereafter is open to speculation, its whereabouts remain unknown until today.

Although quite a few swords were brought back to the US by American servicemen as souvenirs, those blades were usually collected on the battlefield, or simply bought. However, once they were officially recorded, their fate was usually sealed, and they were destroyed. On the other hand, it's not unheard of that some of the swords that were reportedly "surrendered" to the authorities later found their way back to the original - or a new - owner in the confusion and turbulent days after the war.

Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan by E. Papinot
Masamune - Nihont˘ no Tensai to sono Keifu published by the Sano Art Museum
Nihonshi Kojiten published by Yamagawa Shuppansha
Nihont˘ K˘za Vol. II by Homma and others
Nihonto Newsletters by Albert Yamanaka
Swords of the Samurai by Victor Harris and Nobuo Ogasawara
The Japanese Sword by Kanzan Sat˘
T˘ken Meibutsuch˘ by Tadao Tsujimoto
Yűmei Kot˘ Taikan by Kash˘ Imamura

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