Yamanba-giri

The Yamanba or Yama-uba is the name of a yokai from Japanese mythology. The so-called “Mountain-hag” could appear as a young woman, and had supernatural powers. They would offer shelter to travellers, then at night change shape to their true form and eat them according to some stories.

Two famous swords took their name from a tale of killing one of these yokai, the first being by Osafune Chogi in the mid 1300s, and the second being an utsushi (faithful copy) made by Horikawa Kunihiro at the end of the 1500s. Both of these blades still exist today and are both ranked Juyo Bunkazai.

Myoga san of Tsuruginoya.com put these extensive descriptions into his site (the original article is here). As they provide interesting historical flavor that we don’t usually get to read in English, I thought it would be an entertaining and educational read so had them translated by Markus Sesko.

Yamanba-giri Chogi

Yamanba-giri Chōgi is the nickname for a sword by Bizen Chōgi that was according to tradition used to kill a demonic mountain witch (i.e. yamanba) in the Togakushi mountains of Shinano province. In Tenshō 14 (天正, 1586), Nagao Akinaga (長尾顕長) the castellan of the castles of Tatebayashi and Ashikaga in Kōzuke province, received this sword as a present from Hōjō Ujimasa (北条氏政). In the second month of Tenshō 18 (天正, 1590), Akinaga ordered Horikawa Kunihiro to make a copy of the Yamanba-giri Chōgi and on the third day of the fifth month, he ordered Kunihiro to shorten the original blade but also to carefully record its relevant history on the tang.

However, there is also the tradition that the blade had already been ō-suriage mumei at that time and that Kunihiro was just ordered to add the relevant history via a kiritsuke-mei.

The blade is in shinogi-zukuri, has an iori-mune, is ō-suriage, has a wide mihaba, and a deep sori. Both sides show a bōhi which ends in hisaki-agari. The kitae is a ko-itame that is mixed with mokume and that features plenty of ji-nie. The hamon is a ō-gunome-midare whose valleys are mixed with ko-midare. The midare show roundish yakigashira and along the habuchi we see fine nie and nioi-ashi. The bōshi is on both sides a vivid midare-komi with a rather pointed kaeri. The tang is ō-suriage, has an Ichimonji-jiri, a flat kaku-mune, three mekugi-ana, and bears a kiritsuke-mei.

It is said that Chōgi was like his Bizen colleague Kanemitsu one of the Ten Students of Masamune. As far as extant signed swords are concerned, signed long swords of Chōgi are extrelemly rare whereas relative many signed tantō are extant. The Yamanba-giri Chōgi is with its wide mihaba and magnificent deki a textbook example of a Sōden-Bizen work and with the perfectly healthy jiba some say that this is one of the very best extant work of Chōgi extant.

Kunihiro who shortened the Yamanba-giri Chōgi was born in the Furuya (古屋) neighborhood of the town of Aya (綾町) in southern Hyûga province. Several of his ancestors have been swordsmiths but it seems that he was merely a retainer of the Itō (伊東) family until the middle of his life and became only a swordsmith thereafter.

Hideyoshi’s army was surging forward to the area in the third month of Tenshō 18 (天正, 1590) and so Akinaga prepared for protecting Ashikaga Castle and ordered his brother Yura Shinano no Kami Kunishige (由良信濃守国繁, 1550-1611) to hold Odawara so that he was also able to have a certain control over that castle. It was two months into the campaign and the Hōjō forces expecting defeat every day that Kunihiro shortened in Ashikaga Castle the Chōgi blade and it is likely that whilst facing his potential end, Akinaga had Kunihiro add the kiritsuke-mei to its tang. However, the Hōjō surrender unconditionally and with the castle and the surrounding lands confiscated, Akinaga became a rōnin. Thus Kunihiro lost his local employer and decided to proceed to Kyōto to continue his sword making craft. The exact whereabout of the original Yamanba-giri Chōgi become unclear after that time and it seems to reappears for the first time in chronicles of the Owari-Tokugawa family wherein it is stated that it had a Hon’ami Kōjō (本阿弥光常) origami from the third day of the third month of Enpō five (延宝, 1677) giving it a value of 15 gold pieces but that it was re-evalued in the sixth month of Enpō nine (延宝, 1681) to 150 gold pieces 2 ryō 1 bu as it was to be worn by the second Owari-Tokugawa head Mitsutomo (徳川光友, 1625-1700). The relevant entry and the old sayagaki read:

Utensils and Swords Register of the Chûshō (中将, hereditary title of the Owari-Tokugawa heads) (1652-1731): suriage Chōgi blade, no origami, sixth month of Enkyō nine (延享), year of the cock [This must be a typo and mean Enpō nine (延宝, 1681).]

Sayagaki: “Jin ichi no nanajûkyû” (仁壱ノ七拾九, Jin 1079) Bizen no Kuni Osafune sword, suriage mumei, nagasa 2 shaku 3 sun 6 bu, origami from Enpō three (延宝, 1675) with a value of 15 gold pieces

The old sayagaki bears the number by which the sword was registered and stored within the Owari-Tokugawa family. Its first character Jin refers to the Five Confucian Virtues, Jin Gi Rei Chi Shin (仁義礼智 信), and we are facing here a determined order that was also used to mark differentiations in rank or value, i.e. starting with Jin as highest and ending with Shin as lowest of five differentiators. Thus within the Owari-Tokugawa vault, the Chōgi was number 1-79 of swords of the highest category.

The then castellan of Ashikaga was Nagao Akinaga who was for some time a retainer of the Odawara Hōjō family. The Hōjō were one of three families who were trying to rule the Kantō region, the other two being the Takeda (武田) and the Uesugi (上杉). The Takeda were the first of them to be destriyed and the Hōjō were eventually wiped out by Hideyoshi. Nagao Akinaga was not at Odawara when the Hōjō were defeated in Tenshō 18 (天正, 1590) but remained in Ashikaga. It is said that he committed seppuku when the Toyotomi forces attacked Ashikaga but recent studies have revealed another tradition, namely that he did not commit seppuku but escaped to the Chiba region where he died of a disease but after a natural span of life.

The Chōgi blade that was nicknamed Yamanba-giri was presented to Nagao Akinaga when he pledged loyalty to the Hōjō. It seems that it was a quite long blade and Kunihiro shortened it in Tenshō 18 (天正, 1590) and added a suriage-mei, recording its provenance that it was presented to Akinaga when he had officially proceeded to Odawara Castle. The blade is today owned by the Owari Tokugawa Reimeikai Foundation. One part of the mei reads “Kyûshû Hyûga-jû Kunihiro no mei o utsu” (九州日向住国広銘打). It can be interpreted as suriage-mei as mentioned, i.e. with Kunihiro as “shortering organ” of the blade recording the original content of the tang plus the provenance, or as kiritsuke-mei meaning that there had never been a signature in the first place and Kunihiro just recorded its provenance.

Anyway, Kunihiro made a copy of this Chōgi which is today designated as a jûyō-bunkazai. It bears a smallish mei that reads “Kyûshû Hyûga-jû Kunihiro saku” (九州日向住国広作) on the omote, and “Tenshō jûhachinen kanoe-tora nigatsu kichijutsu Taira Akinaga” (天正十八年庚 寅弐月吉日平顕長) on the ura. This blade is referred to as Yamanba-giri Kunihiro. One might think that it was this blade that killed the Yamanba but in my opinion, the name or nickname rather refers to the original of Chōgi as the Yamanba-giri. Therefore I think it is better to refer to the original as Yamanba-giri and to the copy as Yamanba-giri Kunihiro.

Dr. Sato Kanzan

The Tōken Dan (刀剣談) (published by Takase Ukō [高瀬羽皐, 1853-1924] in 1910) refers to the Owari-Tokugawa family’s Chōgi as follows:

Whilst appreciating some famous meitō with a friend of mine from Nagoya, for example the katana Mutsumomo-Chōgi (六股長義, also read Mutsumata-Chōgi) from the possessions of the Ōkubo family, we came to talk about another matchless meitō of this smith, namely the Chōgi from the Owari-Tokugawa family. Back then I had not yet seen the Owari-Tokugawa Chōgi but my friend told me that it is truly a great masterwork and as long swords of Chōgi are very rare, this blade and the Mutsumomo-Chōgi are anyway special.

Then a few years ago my friend and I were investigating the battle sites of Okehazama and Nagakute and it was arranged to see some meitō from the Tokugawa family, thus finally also the famous Chōgi from the Owari branch. The sword was once worn by the bushi Nagao Shinrokurō Akinaga (長尾新六郎秋長) [Akinaga is quoted here with a different character for Aki and a different first name (Shinrokurō → Shingorō] who belonged to the Sano (佐野) family of Shimotsuke province. It is said that Shinrokurō was the younger brother of the famous warrior Sano Tentokuji Fusatsuna (佐野天徳寺房綱, 1558-1601) but the Sano genealogy only lists one brother of Fusatsuna and that is Sano Masatsuna (佐野昌綱, 1529-1574). There is also the theory that Akinaga was an adopted son of the Sano family who ended up living in Ashikaga in Shimotsuke province but his name does not appear in the Nagao family either. So we really don’t know much about this person but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to doubt the authenticity of the inscription on the tang that records his name. Anyway, Nagao received this sword from the Odawara-Hōjō family and as it was very long, he had it shortened to about 2 shaku 4 sun by Horikawa Kunihiro who happened to stay in Shimotsuke at that time in the course of his musha-shugyō pilgrimage. Chōgi’s character for Chō [at the time remained?] at the very tip of the tang so it seems that the original length of the blade was somewhere around 3 shaku. Kunihiro faithfully added the provenance of the sword when he shortened it. It is truly of an outstanding deki but we have no clue how it ended up within the Owari-Tokugawa family.

Yamanba-giri Kunihiro

Now the provenance of the copy, the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro, is described in detail in the catalog to the 2014 exhibition Horikawa Kunihiro to sono Ichimon (堀川国広とその一門). Below is a quote from the passage that deals with Kunihiro being a yamabushi: [Translator’s note: In this text, the copy of Kunihiro is referred to as Yamanba-giri and the original by Chōgi just as Chōgi.]

Tenshō 18 (1590) is a very important date for understanding Kunihiro’s career. The jûyō-bunkazai Yamanba-giri is from that year and so is a jûyō-bijutsuhin wakizashi signed on the omote “Nisshû-jû Shinan no Kami Kunihiro” (日州住信濃守国広) and on the ura “Tenshō jûhachinen hachigatsu hi Yashû Ashikaga-gakkō ni oite” (天正十八年八月日・於野州足利学校). The former was made on order by Ashikaga castellan Nagao Shingorō Akinaga and there exists a jûyō-bunkazai katana of Chōgi that was presented to Nagao Akinaga by the Hōjō family on the third day of the fifth month of that year where Kunihiro recorded that fact of being a present via a kiritsuke-mei. [Another full quote mei of the Yamnabagiri-Chōgi’s omitted here.] Nagao Akinaga was the second son of Yura Narishige (由良成繁, 1506-1578). He had an older brother, Yura Kunishige (由良 国繁, 1550-1611), and a younger brother, Watarase Shigeaki (渡瀬繁詮, 1555-1595). Akinaga was married to the daughter of Masanaga (長尾政 長, 1527-1569) [Typo: Masanaga’s name is actually written with the character (当) for Masa.] from the Ashikaga-Akao family of Shimotsuke province (present-day Tochigi Prefecture) and became his heir. As stated in the mei, the Hōjō presented this Chōgi katana to Akinaga when he visited Odawara Castle on the 21st day of the seventh month of Tenshō 14 (1586) when he pledged his loyalty.

Somewhat later Toyotomi Hideyoshi began his campaign against Odawara and his army marched into the Sagami plain on the third day of the fourth month of Tenshō 18, besieging Odawara Castle and starting a war of attrition. Nagao Akinaga and his older brother Yura Kunishige were holding Odawara Castle where they were placed under the command of Hōjō Ujiteru (北条氏照, 1540-1590) and ordered to secure the Takegahana (竹ヶ鼻口) entry (according to the Ashikaga city history). Well, the Hōjō surrendered on the fifth day of the seventh month and Ujimasa and Ujiteru committed seppuku six days later. Ujimasa’s son Ujinao (氏直, 1562-1591) was spared but exiled to Mount Kōya (高野山) where he died the following year and so the Hōjō clan was destroyed. As Nagao Akinaga was with the Hōjō, his Ashikaga Castle and the adjacent lands were confiscated and he was put under the control of Satake Yoshinobu (佐竹義宣, 1570-1633) (according to the Ashikaga city history). His whereabouts after that are unknown but a tradition says that he wandered around and died in Genna seven (元和, 1621) due to an illness (according to the Ashikaga city history).

As for the Yamanba-giri that is dated with the second month of Tenshō 18 and the Chōgi with the kiritsuke-mei from the third day of the fifth month of that year, there were traditionally the two approaches that all that either happened in or around Odawara Castle or in Ashikaga, Nagao’s own lands. But when we take into consideration the historical facts and the then already very much ongoing preparations for war at Odawara, it seems rather unlikely that the copy was made there. Also, so far we have assumed that Kunihiro was invited by Nagao Akinaga himself. But when we assume that the initial contact with Akinaga was made via the Ashikaga School and further that all meetings of Kunihiro and his commissioner took place at the school, than we no longer have to be doubtful about military preparations and operations and might accept that the copy and the kiritsuke-mei were done at the school.

When the Yamanba-giri was made in the second month of Tenshō 18, Nagao Akinaga was still in Ashikaga Castle and was not departing for any front. Thus it is safe to assume that he met with Kunihiro locally and that the Chōgi was shown to him there. But the siege of Odawara Castle started in the fourth month of that year and if Akinaga left Ashikaga to take position in Odawara, it seems logical to assume that he would have taken the Chōgi that he once received from the Hōjō with him. So how can then Kunihiro have added the kiritsuke-mei on the third day of the fifth month? It seems namely also impossible that Akinaga handed over the sword to Kunihiro and then departed for front without it. But maybe the following scenario was the case: At the time the kiritsuke-mei was added, the Hōjō were internally negotiating what to do next (these negotiations went down in history as Odawara Conference). Nagao Akinaga had just pledged loyalty to the Hōjō and as he was someone schooled by adversity in many battles, he was surely determined and proud to fight the Hideyoshi army for his lords. And a strong symbol for this loyalty was the Chōgi he has received from the Hōjō and therefore it is possible that Akinaga had sent it to Kunihiro to immortalize all that background on its tang (before it was too late).

The common theory says that the Chōgi katana has been a tachi when Akinaga received it from the Hōjō and that Kunihiro shortened it via ō-suriage on the third day of the fifth month of Tenshō 18. But it rather seems that the Chōgi has been presented to Akinaga already as an ō-suriage katana and that Kunihiro was adding the kiritsuke-mei to an unsigned blade. Reasons for this assumption are as follows:

  • In the case a person performs an ō-suriage and adds whatever record after the shortening, i.e. a so-called suriage-mei, this inscription does start with “Honsaku …” as seen on the Chōgi but is usually followed by phrases like “kore o suriagaru” (磨上之) or “kore o agaru” (上之) that refer to the shortening. There is no indication to a suriage in the mei whatsoever and Kunihiro just added the supplement “mei o utsu” (銘打, lit. “signature applied or chiseled”).
  • What is striking about the tang is its patina as it does not go over the kiritsuke-mei as the kiritsuke-mei seems to “sit on” the patina. Or in other words, the patina of the tang looks older and does not match the patina of the kiritsuke-mei, which is relative crips by the way, what suggests that the latter did not start to develop patina at the same time as the former.
  • Also we have to take into consideration the kiritsuke-mei as a whole. That is, if Kunihiro had shortened the blade he would have been able to finish the tang to a certain degree to fit his needs and distribute the signature evenly, using the entire nakago. But at the Chōgi, the signature is packed and incoherend and even switches and goes into the hi. Also it clearly avoids the third and lowermost mekugi-ana and the entire inscription suggests that Kunihiro wasn’t very comfortable with the available space on the tang.
  • The tang has three mekugi-ana and even if the second, the middle one was added some time after the kiritsuke-mei was added, it would make no sense for Kunihiro to add another mekugi-ana at the time the ō-suriage was carried out and go with his mei around it. Thus it seems that the blade had been shortened, unsigned, and had two mekugi-ana when Kunihiro was adding his kiritsuke-mei.– Dr. Sato Kanzan

When the Itō were defeated by the Satsuma (島津) forces, Kunihiro managed it to escape safely with the eight year old Itō Mancio (伊東満 所) to Bungo province. The forge where he and students like Kunimichi (国路) allegedly made swords for the time being is still extant in the town of Hiji (日出), present-day Ōita Prefecture. After that, Kunihiro became a yamabushi but did not give up sword forging and set off for the eastern Kantō region where he eventually ended up in the Ashikaga School (足利学校).

The 8th head of the school, the monk Sōgin (宗銀), came from the same village as Kunihiro and it is assumed that it was he who invited the smith to come there. At that time, the school was in the administrative jurisdiction of the castellan of Tatebayashi Castle, Nagao Akinaga. In the eighth month of Tenshō 16 (天正, 1588), Hōjō Ujimasa (北条氏政) made his relatives Ujikatsu (氏勝) and Ujitada (氏 忠) attack Tatebayashi Castle, claiming that Akinaga was not following his orders.

Akinaga was well prepared and was not about to give in easily but with the help of a monk from the local Morinji (茂林寺), peace was made and Akinaga was transferred to Ashikaga Castle. The genealogy of the Tanaka (田中) family says that when Tatebayashi was besieged, Kunihiro was made commander of an ashigaru unit, achieved several outstanding achievements, and was therefore awarded with an official letter of appreciation and a yari made by Yoshihiro (吉広). Sōgin had died the year before but if still alive, we can assume that he surely would have been very proud of his compatriot.

When Odawara fell, Akinaga’s lands were confiscated and the Kunihiro copy ended up in the possession of the Hōjō retainer Ishihara Jingozaemon (石原甚五左衛門). Ishihara was now looking for a safe place, took his pregnant wife, and left for Shinano province. Near Komoro (小諸) his wife was going into labour and so Ishihara had to place her with an old woman at a close hut to proceed to Komoro and get some medicine. But when he returned to the hut, he saw that his wife had already given birth but that the old women was eating the new born! So he was going to kill her with the Kunihiro but when he cut on her, the old woman vanished into thin air. And this is how the blade got the nickname Yamanba-giri. When later the Battle of Sekigahara was about to begin, Ishihara was in the camp of the Ii (井伊) family. With the Ii was also a certain Atsumi Heihachirō (渥美平八郎) and as his katana was broken, Ishihara sold him his Kunihiro.

The Atsumi became poor after the Meiji Restoration and the sword was pawned at a soy sauce dealer named Kitamura (北村) from Nagasone in Hikone province. From Kitamura it was bought by a former local Hikone samurai named Mii (三居) who treasured the blade but in 1920, it was eventually bought by the then kokuhō Shinsa member Sugihara Shōzō (杉 原祥造). After WWII, it was designated as a jûyō-bunkazai and is regarded as one of the greatest masterworks of Horikawa Kunihiro.Now at the Kunihiro Kai (国広会) that was held in 1926, the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro was not on display and it is also not featured in the 1927 published Horikawa Kunihiro Kō (堀川国広考). However, it is introduced in the 1928 Shintō Meisaku Shû (新刀名作集) and the 1935 Shintō Oshigata Shû (新刀押象集).

Back when I wrote the Kunihiro Taikan, I had in mind to write something definitive and final on Kunihiro. My elders often talked about the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro and all of them referred to the sword as Yamanba-giri of the Ii family, that it was unfortunately destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake from 1923, and that all we have left to work with is the oshigata drawn by Sugihara Shōzō. And as also Honma and most other experts were following that approach, I included that oshigata in my Kunihiro Taikan and explained that the blade was once a heirloom of the Ii family and that it was destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake. So this was not just my theory. Well, several decades later (in fall 1960) and all of a sudden, it reappeared again. It was when a descendant of a former Ii retainer approached Honma sensei and said that he has this Kunihiro that was bought from the Ii family and that he wants to know more about it. And when I heard of that, I was very eager to see this blade and yes, it turned out to be the Yamanba-giri Kunihiro.

Now I think that when Sugihara Shōzō examined the blade, it was still within the Ii family but was after that, and before the earthquake, given to one of their former retainers as some kind of reward. The person who received it had absolutely no knowledge about swords and when is descendants were in 1960 about to build a house and needed money, they decided to sell the sword and assumed that it was once bought from the Ii and not received as a gift.” [Translator’s note: When the then owner, being indeed a descendant of a former Ii retainer, offered the blade for sale, the Nagoya-based collector Takahashi Tsuneyoshi (高橋経美) was about to buy it. However, it was eventually bought by Ise Torahiko (伊勢寅彦) from the film department of the Japan Sumo Association who was a big collector of Kunihiro and with Satō Kanzan co-author of the 1962 published Horikawa Kunihito to sono Deshi. It is said that Ise Torahiko sold Takahashi Tsuneyoshi a Kotetsu to make the deal with the Kunihiro happen. The jûyō-bunkazai designation was received in June 21st 1962 and I think that it was Ise Torahiko who submitted it. Also I think that the statement that Sugihara Shōzō actually bought it is wrong.]

– Dr. Sato Kanzan

The blade is of a magnificent sugata, is in shinogi-zukuri, has an iori-mune, a wide mihaba and wide sakihaba, a thin kasane, a low shinogi, a narrow shinogi-ji, an ō-kissaki, and a pronounced sakizori. The kitae is a standing-out itame that is mixed with mokume and that tends to nagare all over. It appears as zanguri and we see chikei, plenty of ji-nie, tobiyaki, and much muneyaki. The hamon is a notare-based ō-midare in nie-deki that is mixed with box-shaped gunome, ashi, connected yō, and synagashi. The nioiguchi is rather tight and the bōshi in midare-komi with tobiyaki on both sides and hakikake at the tip. There is a hi on both sides that runs into the bōshi. The tang is ubu, has a kurijiri, faint sujikai yasurime, and one mekugi-ana.