Soshu Masatsugu

period:Middle Muromachi Koto (ca. 1500)
designation:NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token
nakago:ubu, one mekugiana
mei:相州住正次 Soshu ju Masatsugu
nagasa:42.5cm
kasane:6.5mm
sori:1.2cm
motohaba:3.15cm
nakago nagasa:12.95cm
price:-sold

The Soshu tradition is maybe the most celebrated tradition in Japanese swords. Certainly it is the most popular outside of Japan and inside Japan it is the primary rival for the love of collectors with the Bizen tradition. Soshu begins with the establishment of the Shogunate in Sagami province Kamakura town during the middle 1200s. A call went out from the Shogun to Awataguchi Kunitsuna, Saburo Kunimune, and Fukuoka Ichimonji Sukezane and Suketsuna to come to Kamakura and make swords for warriors. Their style would remain true to their schools, but after them would come Shintogo Kunimitsu, a son or student of either Saburo Kunimune or Awataguchi Kunitsuna and possibly taught by both. His work was primarily Yamashiro Awataguchi in style but he modified it by putting emphasis on chikei and nie activities in the hamon and he came up with something special. Today we consider him to be the founder of the Soshu tradition.

The most famous smith of all time, Masamune, is the pinnacle of sword craftsmanship, bringing the art of nie to its ultimate conclusion. He represents the second generation of Soshu, his teacher being Shintogo Kunimitsu. Together with Yukimitsu and Norishige, Masamune would bring together the Yamashiro tradition handed to him by Shintogo together with Ko-Bizen and Ko-Hoki influences to make something new and without peer in terms of beauty at the end of the Kamakura period. His fame is second to none, and in the Edo period many grand master swordsmiths were placed in his immediate shadow as students. These are known as the Masamune Juttetsu: the 10 disciples of Masamune.

We know now that some of these smiths come from the wrong periods of time to be associated with Masamune, but many of them we still have strong arguments to associate with Masamune such as Shizu and Go Yoshihiro. Masamune's immediate line would continue with his son Sadamune and then the Nanbokucho masters Hiromitsu and Akihiro.

These three smiths were part of a sea change in sugata where the production of tanto halted in favor of an elongated tanto or possibly a shortened uchigatana that had a length between 30cm and 50cm. These we now call wakizashi though their function at the time may have been the same as tanto were previously. It was a close in fighting weapon, possibly to back up a yari used on horseback where the size and shape may have lead to a function similar to a cavalry saber of closer to the modern era.

These wakizashi were made in hirazukuri (flat on both sides) or katakiriba (flat on one side with a shinogi on the other). The Hasebe smiths who were Yamashiro smiths but fell into the sway of the Soshu tradition and Nobukuni who we believe was taught by Sadamune made many swords in this style too. Rounding things out we see Takagi Sadamune (the second generation Sadamune or possibly Soshu Sadamune in his retirement) and the students of Shizu in Mino province (the Naoe Shizu group) also making this style. Soshu became so prevalent that it even derailed production in Bizen, the center of swordmaking for centuries, as the Bizen smiths adopted Soshu styles and techniques.

The swords of Sadamune and Nobukuni in particular tended to feature a lot of Buddhist horimono and were quite striking examples of the unique Soshu blades being made at the time. Akihiro and Hiromitsu, along with Hasebe Kunishige would become famous for hitatsura, extending the hamon to cover the entire blade.

The hitatsura hamon was an extension of earlier work by Masamune, Yukimitsu, Norishige and Go Yoshihiro that showed hardening artifacts in the jihada above the hamon. These we call yubashiri and they appear as clouds of nie and are quite striking. Akihiro and Hiromitsu advanced the technique that caused this previously, possibly as a side effect, and turned it into their primary goal for production. The steel of Akihiro and Hiromitsu though quite beautiful, especially with the hitatsura, was a half grade less beautiful than the generation that came before them though. After their time the Soshu smiths who inherited from them were never able to capture the same type of activity in the ji though they tried. This may point to the material they were using being exhausted or else the techniques being lost in the Muromachi period.

The Soshu tradition and the influence of the Soshu smiths would continue to echo down through the centuries however as the best smiths of every era to come all sat down and made their attempts to copy Soshu style works.

Yosozaemon Sukesada and Sengo Muramasa, both grand master smiths, in the Muromachi period would both make very powerful Soshu style works in hitatsura copying Akihiro and Hiromitsu but flavored with their own local material and technique. After the Muromachi period the works of Sadamune and Shizu were a fixation of smiths in the Umetada and Horikawa schools, especially at the very beginning of the Shinto period. Famous smiths like Hizen Tadahiro before settling into his final style made copies of Soshu work, in particular the hirazukuri type of wakizashi Sadamune was famous for, and from time to time would return to the influence of the Soshu tradition. The great smith Hankei made Norishige the focus of his craft, Shinkai (the “Masamune of Osaka”) and Kotetsu copied Go Yoshihiro.

Last but certainly not least, the peerlessly talented and greatly troubled smith Kiyomaro (the “Masamune of Yotsuya”) emulated Masamune and is said to have flown into a rage at his work being held in less regard. His initial self-chosen name was Masayuki which is thought to be a combination of Masamune and Yukimitsu. Kiyomaro had the family name of Yamaura which also has its root in Soshu with the Tsunahiro line of smiths.

Each one of these smiths is hailed today as a true grandmaster but none of them were able to perfectly succeed in replicating the greatest works of Soshu which were limited to a 100 year period between the original work of Shintogo Kunimitsu and the last works of Akihiro.

There is a saying that the brightest light burns shortest and this is something that seems to have been true of the Soshu tradition.

Soshu did continue in an unbroken line to the present day however, though their skill never approached the greats of the past. After Hiromitsu we have a succession of smiths taking names like Sukehiro, Hirotsugu, Tsunahiro, Masahiro, Hiromasa and Masatsugu. The main line of Soshu was carried by the name Hiromasa inheriting through Hiromitsu which became Tsunahiro in the mid 1500s when Yamaura Tsuramuki was given the character Tsuna () by the daimyo Hojo Ujitsuna of Odawara who was a major sponsor of the Soshu smiths of the time. Since that time the Tsunahiro smiths continued working in their forges in Kamakura and it is possible to go there today and order a sword from the 24th generation Tsunahiro. (Note that this has been reported as Masahiro in the past, but the Yamaura family documents state that it was Hiromasa who became Tsunahiro).

When Ieyasu rose to power he crushed the Hojo at Odawara and this had the effect of scattering the Soshu smiths and caused much of the demise of the Soshu tradition. The Tsunahiro line continued to work though, they took a bit of a back seat through the Edo period. Great smiths such as Kotetsu took learning from the Tsunahiro line who faithfully handed down what they knew of the Soshu tradition and used that to perfect their work. After the crash of skill and technique at the end of the Shinto period, Suishinshi Masahide made a point of restoring and promoting the koto traditions throughout Japan. He took his learning as well from the Tsunahiro line, from the 10th generation Tsunahiro. Within a few years became fairly skilled with the Soshu tradition. He handed it off to great smiths like Naotane and his own student Masatsugu who made fine work in Soshu style. The average student can overlook them easily because of these big names flashing around in the Edo period but the Tsunahiro smiths stayed true to what they knew and continued to produce Soshu style works and for this we should be thankful as it sparked a lot of great work for which they get little credit.

Masatsugu Wakizashi

This is a really great Soshu Masatsugu work from around 1500 ranked Tokubetsu Hozon by the NBTHK. There are a couple of smiths who sign with this name, and though Fujishiro does not rank this particular Masatsugu he falls in around the Jo-saku level of skill and his work is quite rare now. Masatsugu appeared around the same time as the Hiromasa who became Tsunahiro, so was likely a cousin. There were two lines that appeared out of Hiromitsu, the first descending through Hiromasa, and the second through Yoshihiro (not Go, but a smith who is now lost) through two generations of Hirotsugu to Masatsugu, so Hiromitsu would be five generations back as a great-great grandfather or great uncle of some sort.

This wakizashi holds true to the great Soshu style of the Nanbokucho period, in hirazukuri form and just the right length, emulating the longest of the Nanbokucho period works. This work follows more closely the tradition of Sadamune in style rather than Hiromitsu as it does not have hitatsura but shows off a lot in the area of horimono and has the rolling notare hamon seen in Sadamune works in the upper and gunome in the lower. There is a lot of kinsuji which appear to form nijuba in place as well. In the nakago we see the typical shape of Soshu blades from the early and middle Muromachi period, this is the same shape as we get from Tsunahiro and the other smiths in this group. The sori is deep as well.

The entire sword is evoking Buddhist warrior spirit, and the sugata feels particularly sharp due to its shape and completely intact nature as it is in really good condition. On the omote side the blade has a suken which is the symbol of Fudo Myoo the deity responsible for justice and punishment of evildoers. Above the suken is a bonji, this is a Sanskrit character carried over from India with Buddhist teachers and used often in swords. We most often see Fudo Myoo mentioned again but in this case the bonji is to Dainichi Nyorai.

Dainichi is the central deity of Esoteric Buddhism, this is the type of Buddhism beyond the reach of normal people and to those who can crack the wall of knowledge it would invite the expert to Buddha-hood himself. The founder of the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism is the monk Kukai in the 9th century. The Japanese call this Mikkyo, the secret teaching. Quoting from him:

Because the secret storehouse is so profound and mysterious it is difficult to manifest with brush and ink. Thus it is revealed to the unenlightened by adopting the form of images. The great variety of postures and mudras are the effect of Buddha's great compassion. With a single glance, one becomes a Buddha.

We tend to think of Buddha as “the” Buddha but Buddha-hood is open to any who can successfully achieve the path of enlightenment. What Kukai is saying is that it's not possible to convey the instructions to follow this path by means of words and phrases, but one has to study symbols and gestures or poses (mudras) which reveal the path (a common tenet with the practice of yoga).

On the omote side of this sword there is an inscription in horimono. Often times we see these swords which have been dedicated to shrines with this kind of inscription, and usually they are an invocation to Hachiman. This is different in this sword too, as the phrase is stated as:

南無大師遍浄金剛

Namu Daishi Henjō Kongō

“Homage to the great master, the universally illuminating and indestructible one.”

This is in fact the mantra of Kukai, and is an appeal to Dainichi Nyorai who is named in the bonji on the ura of the blade. Dainichi is the Japanese synonym for Vairocana and is the embodiment of emptiness (sunyata) which is the most important and difficult concept laid out for warriors by the great samurai Miyamoto Musashi in the Book of Five Rings. To understand this principle, there are only examples, such as: a cup is of no use from the material it is made of, but it is the emptiness inside it which can be filled that is its true use. A house is of no use without the emptiness inside it, and the emptiness in a wall can be a window which lets in light or a door which allows you to pass through. Emptiness is necessary in order to learn (an open mind) and curiosity comes from not understanding something (a form of emptiness) and the desire to learn about it and fill the void like the cup being filled with tea. Emptiness is necessary when facing your enemy, to be filled with fear or have your mind occupied by thoughts is to be defeated before you begin. You need to be empty and at peace in order to adapt to and defeat your enemy. Musashi was an expert in this department, and his ability to fill his opponents with confusion or rage was a primary ability above and beyond simple swordsmanship that lead to his astounding number of victories.

From these two inscriptions we can see that the warrior who commissioned this blade was a follower of Kukai and Shingon Buddhism and we can see too that it has serious spiritual applications in the pursuit of the warrior's lifestyle. This particular sword is in excellent health as well. Usually horimono that have seen five centuries of use and abuse show the signs of being polished down substantially but these are in top condition and the sword does not narrow at all as it passes up from the nakago. It's possible that this piece then was indeed dedicated to a shrine and as such was held out of use for most of its life, being discovered again in modern times. It was not mounted and remounted, and the signature is made clear and everything is just about how it was when it was made originally.

The signature is clear and made with a thin chisel, this is something that is seen in Shizu Kaneuji and Fujishiro writes that the koto smiths often made fine signatures to avoid hardening in the nakago which could cause a fracture. In the Shinto period when swords were no longer being used in constant combat we see signatures become more elaborate and deeply engraved and this may be putting the sword at more risk of breakage but was something that seems to have helped them market swords and show off their skill.

The blade itself is beautifully made in o-mokume mixed with itame, and shows ji nie throughout along with bright nie in the hamon. Its exceeding level of health and faithful rendition of the Soshu tradition as well as the interesting horimono I think make this a really great and unusual collectible. I really enjoy these Soshu hirazukuri wakizashi and to have one is to really have something that shows one of the pillars of the Soshu tradition.

This sword has recent Tokubetsu Hozon papers from November 2014 and prior to this it carried the sayagaki and a paper from the expert Shibata Mitsuo. Shibata was a student of Fujishiro Yoshio, who is one of the primary references that we use today to research swords. Fujishiro Yoshio was a sword dealer and expert, and his brother Fujishiro Matsuo became a Living National Treasure sword polisher. Shibata went on to become a dealer himself and wrote many books on Japanese swords.

Sayagaki

  1. 相州住正次
    Sôshû-jû Masatsugu
  2. 刃長壱尺四寸有之
    hachô 1 shaku 4 sun kore ari
    blade length ~ 42.4 cm
  3. 地刃共に健全と同作中の良刀なり
    jiba tomo ni kenzen to dôsaku-chû no ryôtô nari
    both ji and ha are kenzen (healthy/good) and this is an excellent sword among all works of this smith
  4. 昭和五十乙卯弥生 喘喜堂光
    Shôwa gojû kinoto-u yayoi – Zuikidô Mitsu
    March 1975, year of the hare – Zuikidô Mitsu (art name of Shibata Mitsuo)