The Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna

The first story is about the conquest of the theving mountain demon Shutendōji (酒呑童子) and the sword which subserved this task. The origins of this legend are hidden in the darkness of history but according to the definition of a legend, it is probably based on certain real-existing actions which were later transformed and extended by dramaturgical tricks to keep it fresh and vital. At the time of the origins of this legend – we are in the middle of the 11th century (which corresponds to the middle Heian period) – many robbers and highwaymen terrorized the routes leading to Kyōto and it was reported that again and again women and young girls were kidnapped.

The Neo Confucian scholar and philosopher Kaibara Ekiken (貝原益軒, 1630-1714) pointed out in his examinations on this subject that the legend might go back to an adaption of the “Legend of the White Monkey” (白猿伝, jap. Hakuen Den, chin. Báiyúan Yún) of the Chinese politician and author Jiang Zōng (江総. jap. Kōsō, 519-594). In this story, a white monkey kidnapped the wife of a traveller. The latter went searching for her and came eventually to the hidden cave of the monkey. The traveller came back the next day with wine and a rope, made the white monkey drunk, tied him up and killed him.

The oldest extant written or rather pictorial record of the Legend of Shutendōji is the so-called Ōeyama Ekotoba (大江山絵詞, Illustrated Story on Mt. Ōe), which dates to the Nanbokuchō period (1336-1392) and is now preserved in the Itsuō Museum (逸翁美術館, Ikeda, Ōsaka Prefecture).

Before we enlarge on the actual sword mentioned in the heading of this chapter, I would like to relate the “Legend of the Conquest of Shutendōji” (Shutendōji Monogatari, 酒呑童子物語). As mentioned, it deals with a thieving demon who terrorized the mountainous area of the Ōeyama in Tanba province to the north of Kyōto.

Thus the complaints of the local people reached even the emperor who ordered Minamoto no Yorimitsu (源頼光, 948-1021) to deal with this situation. Just as a passing remark, Yorimitsu had already finished several robbers, rebells, and rogues upon order from the emperor. So he took his four generals, the so-called shitennō (四天王) Sakata no Kintoki (坂田公時), Watanabe no Tsuna (渡辺綱), Urabe no Suetake (卜部季武), and Usui Sadamitsu (碓井貞光), and set out to the Ōeyama. The party was joined en route by Fujiwara no Yasumasa (藤原保昌) and all six climbed up the path disguised as Buddhist mountain ascets. During ascent they came across three old men who – as it turned out later – were actually likewise disguised Shintō deities.*2 From them they received three magic items: a helmet, a rope, and a bottle of anaesthetizing vine. When they reached the top of the mountain, Shutendōji held a huge banquett for his vistors, in the course of which human flesh and blood was served. But they tried not to get exposed and thus ate the horrifying meal, and at the end of the “dinner,” Yorimitsu offered Shutendōji and his men some of the vine they brought.

Soon they fell asleep, Shutendōji was tied up, and the party started to kill the thievy gang. When Shutendōji was decapitated by Yorimitsu, his head flew through the air and tried a last time to bite Yorimitsu in the head, but the magic helmet withstood this demonic attack.

And so the sword with which Yorimitsu killed the demon got its name dōjigiri (童子切, lit. “Dōji Cutter” or “Dōji Slayer”). And today it designated as national treasure (kokuhō, 国宝) under the name Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna.

A written evidence for the very name Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna is already found in one of the oldest extant sword books, the Nōami Hon Mei Zukushi (能阿弥本銘尽).*3 Therein it is written that Sakanoue Tamuramaro (坂上田村麻呂, 758-811) once offered the blade to the grand shrine of Ise and that Yoritomo had a dream that he was allowed to use the blade especially for the task to kill the Shutendōji. Well, the blade bears the signature of the swordsmith Yasutsuna (安綱) from the province of Hōki who is quoted in all old sword records ad having been active in the Daidō era (大同, 806-810). But from the point of view of workmanship and from comparisons to other early smiths it becomes obvious that it dates much later, likely to the early 11th century. This would agree completely with the dates of Yorimitsu but Yorimitsu but not with Sakanoue, and so the legend of Yorimitsu´s dream and his reference to the sword and him being “chosen” for this task proves to be a mere fiction.

However, the whereabouts of the sword after Yorimitsu´s “act” are unclear. But the swordsmith Ōmura Kaboku (大村加卜) who worked for Matsudaira Mitsunaga (松平光長, 1616-1707) – later more about him – tells in his essay Kentō Hihō (剣刀秘宝)*4 quite a phantastic story: “Yasutsuna himself once decided to offer the sword to the seafloor ´Palace of the Dragon King´ (ryūgū, 竜宮), threw it into the waters, but it was swallowed by a whale. Several hundred years later the sword was found in the belly of the whale, in some miraculous way not rust! Again some several hundred years later it came into the possession of Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞, 1301-1338), the general of the Nanbokuchō period who was a loyal retainer of the Southern Dynasty. Yoshisada mounted the sword in his campaign against Kamakura but when he was en route to the latter, he was thwarted by the flood at Inamuragasaki (稲村ケ崎) which lais to the southwest of Kamakura. In order to move faster, he offered his beloved sword to the sea to return it to the Palace of the Dragon King, and lo and behold, the flood drew back spontaneously for about ten chō (~ 1.1 km) So he was in the end able to occupy Kamakura.”

It is likely that Ōmura Kaboku mixed the sword up with the onikiri (鬼切, lit. “Demon Cutter ) which was indeed in the possession of Nitta Yoshisada. The Edo-period scholar Arai Hakuseki (新井白石, 1657-1725) wrote on the other hand that the dōjigiri was a heirloom of the Settsu family (摂津) which were advisers*5 of the Muromachi-bakufu. The Settsu are in direct lineage from Minamoto no Yorimitsu, and thus another theory that the sword was given towards the end of the Muromachi period by the Ashikaga-shōgun Yoshiteru (足利義輝, 1536-1556) – quasi the “employer” of the Settsu family of advisers – to Oda Nobunaga (織田信長, 1534-1582) becomes plausible. Well, from Nobunaga, the sword went to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1537-1598) who ordered Hon´ami Kōtoku (本阿弥光徳, 1553-1619)*6 to make drawings and a catalogue of all swords in the family possession of the Toyotomi. The resulting work Kōtoku Katana Ezu (光徳刀絵図) does contain a drawing of a blade of Yasutsuna but it is not the als Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna which is today preserved in the Tōkyō National Museum.

Hideyoshi gave the sword to Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康, 1542-1616), who left it to his son and successor as shōgun Hidetada (秀忠, 1579-1632). When Hidetada´s nephew Matsudaira Tadanao (松平忠直, 1596-1650) married Hidetada´s third daughter Katsuhime (勝姫) in Keichō 16 (慶長, 1611), the sword went as protective dowry (mamori-gatana, 守刀) into the possessions of the bride. Another theory sais that it was a present from the father-in-law to the son-in-law Tadanao.

And here the story becomes somewhat confusing because a transmission of the Tsuyama branch of the Matsudaira family (later more) sais that Tadanao´s father Hideyasu (秀康, 1574-1607) – who was the second son of Tokugawa Ieyasu – was granted with a sword of Yasutsuna when he was adopted in Tenshō 18 (天正, 1590) by Yūki Harutomo (結城晴朝, 1534-1614) of Shimōsa province. This Yasutsuna was a heirloom of the Yūki family and the transmission in question sais that this sword was actually the famous Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna. Transmission or not, the inscription (sayagaki, 鞘書) on the sheath of the sword (shirasaya, 白鞘) for the mamori-gatana of Katsuhime reads as follows:

Dōjigiri ni-shaku roku-sun go-bu (童子切 弐尺六寸五分, “Dōjigiri, 80,3 cm”), and on the back side: Habaki-moto nite yaku issun, yokote nite yaku roku-bu han, kasane-atsusa ni-bun (鎺元にて約壱寸 横手にて約六分半 重ネ厚さ弐分, “at the base ~ 3,03 cm, at the yokote ~ 1,97 cm, thickness ~ 0,6 cm”)

On the basis of the handwriting we can say that the sayagaki was done by Katsuhime herself and further that it dates about to the time when their under-age heir was entrusted to her after Tadanao was banned to Hagiwara (萩原) in Bungo province due to a faux pas in Genna nine (元和, 1623). This heir was the already mentioned Matsudaira Mitsunaga, the employer of the swordsmith Ōmura Kaboku. It is recorded that the young Mitsunaga woke up every night crying, plagued with nightmares. The doctor of the fief diagnosed the so-called disease kan no mushi (疳の虫)*7 but neither medication, nor therapies or even prayers or lucky charms helped. One of the servants suggested to lay the dōjigiri to the side of Mitsunaga´s cushion during the nighttime. This was first brushed aside but later it was clinged even to the most absurd ideas. But from the night the sword was layed close to the cushion of Mitsunaga, the nightly crying fits stopped immediately. This story spread fast and soon the people believed that the dōjigiri was possessed by a fox ghost, a then “well-known” phenomenon which was called (kitsune-tsuki, 狐憑き).

As an adult, Mitsunaga became lord of the Takada fief (高田) in Echigo province but due to his involvement in the fief-intern disturbance called the Echigo Disturbance (Echigo-sōdō, 越後騒動) between 1679 and 1681, he was banned in the first year of Tenna (天和, 1681) to Matsuyama (松山) on the island of Shikoku. Seven years later he was pardoned and he was allowed to return to the Matsudaira residence in Edo. During the time of his exile, nobody cared about the treasure swords in the possession of the family and so the dōjigiri was affected by so-called koma-sabi (胡麻錆, lit. “sesame rust”).*8 When Mitsunaga had returned to Edo he ordered the official responsible for swords to bring the dōjigiri to the Hon´ami family for a new polish. When the official headed out early in the morning to the Hon´ami workshop in Hirokōji (広小路) in Edo´s Ueno district (上野), he encountered an unusual number of foxes between Kanda (神田) and Yanaka (谷中). The neighbours of this area immediately established a connection to the sword in question and that the foxes came to personally guarantee the safety of the dōjigiri. And it was no coincidence that shortly afterwards the neighbouring house of the Hon´ami caught fire. Once again a fox appeared, this time a white one, who was wallowing on the roof of the Hon´ami house out of pain and agony. Seeing this, one member of the family realized that of all saved swords, the dōjigiri was still in the polishing workshop. And becaue of this warning a servant was able to rescue the famous blade, but the white fox had disappeared.

After his pardon, Mitsunaga was – in comparison with his relatives, the ruling Tokugawa family – fobbed off with a relative low income of 30.000 koku. In the tenth year of Genroku (元禄, 1697) his adopted son Nobutomi (宣富, 1680-1721) succeeded as head of the family and was made sixth daimyō lord of the Tsuyama fief in Mimasaka province with an income of 10.000 koku. With this, he established the Tsuyama branch of the Matsudaira family. Nobutomi had the dōjigiri tested by the sword tester Machida Chōdayu (町田長太夫), with the result that it cutted through six stacked bodies of convicted criminals and even hit the ground beneath them. This is of course sheer exaggeration because not even the best sword is able to cut through six human bodies. The recorded „result“ of this cutting test should just point out the exceptionality of the dōjigiri in the possession of the Tsuyama-Matsudaira family.

Due to the great Meireki fire which raged in Edo in 1657, also the Tsuyama residence was burnt down to the ground and a theory sais that the Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna suffered a fire damage (yake-mi, 焼け身) in this course. If that were the case, a blade with a newly applied tempering (called yaki-naoshi 焼き直し or sai-ha 再刃) would not have did so well at a cutting test more than fourty years later. And moreover, such an immeasurable precious treasure sword would had been rescued first of the flames. Anyway, the blade does not show any signs of a newly applied hardening. During the Jōkyō era (貞享, 1684-1688), the dōjigiri was compared by the Hon´ami family with another famous sword, the so-called Ishida-Masamune (石田正宗), where the former was rated as being of superior quality.*9 At the latest at this examination, the Hon´ami family which were sword polishers and appraisers since centuries would have detected a re-tempering or a fire damage.

Later shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751) ordered Hon´ami Kōchū (本阿弥光忠) in Kyōhō four (享保, 1719) to register the most famous swords of the country (meibutsu, 名物). The new work called Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō (享保名物帳) lists of course also the Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna and further it is also one of the “Five Great Swords (tenka-goken, 天下五剣).*10 On January 23rd 1933, the dōjigiri, then in the possession of Viscount*11 Matsudaira Yasuharu (松平康春), was designated as national treasure. After World War II, to be more precise in spring of 1946, the sword sold by the Matsudaira family and went for then 80.000 Yen to the sword dealer Ishiguro Kuro (石黒久呂) who saw a big business with the collector and president of the Nakajima Aircraft Company, Nakajima Kiyoichi (中島喜代一). However, the deal was cancelled because with the end of the war, the basis of existence of the aircraft manufacturer broke off and so it was eventually bought by the sword collector Tamari Sannosuke (玉利三之助) for 100.000 Yen. From Tamari it went into the possession of Murayama Kanji (村山寛二) who pawned it in 1951 to Watanabe Saburō (渡辺三郎) for 500.000 Yen. Murayama wasn´t able to buy it back, Watanabe died unexpectedly, and so a long legal dispute followed. The Supreme Court of Judicature decided in 1963 for a composition with the result that the dōjigiri was officially purchased by the Bunkachō (文化庁), the Agency of Cultural Affairs. Today it is preserved in the Tōkyō National Museum. It has a splendid tachi-koshirae of the Momoyama period (see picture 2) and in addition a identically lacquered and ornamented sword box. The mounting goes either back to the time when the sword was owned by Tadanao or was made a little bit later when it came into the possession of Mitsunaga.


kokuhō Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna, mei: “Yasutsuna,” nagasa 80 cm, sori 2.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, deep koshizori, funbari, ubu-nakago


itomaki-tachi-koshirae of the Dōjigiri-Yasutsuna


*1 The characters of his first name can also be read as Raikō.

*2 Another version of this legend sais that the six went before to a pilgrimage to the three shrines Iwashimizu-Hachimangū (石清水八幡宮) in Kyōto, Sumiyoshi-taisha (住吉大社) in Ōsaka, and Kumano-jinja (熊野神社) in Wakayama Prefecture where they got the three magic items from the local deities.

*3 This work was compiled by Nōami Shinnō (能阿弥真能, 1397-1471) an published in the 15th year of Bunmei (文明, 1483). His successors copied, edited, and enlarged it until Eiroku twelve (永禄, 1569).

*4 Lit. “Secret Treasure Swords.” It was also published under the name Tōken Hihō (刀剣秘宝).

*5 The accurate name of this post was hyōjō-shū (評定衆).

*6 The Hon´amis were the official sword appraisers and polishers of the Shōgunate.

*7 Kan no mushi are nervous problems at children which are said to be caused by parasites (mushi, 虫). The symptoms are as at Mitsunaga nightly crying fits.

*8 A not very deep, punctual rust which gives a blade the appearance of being sprinkled with sesame seeds.

*9 Even today, the dōjigiri is considered the best extant blade of Yasutsuna.

*10 The other four blades are the Mikazuki-Munechika (三日月宗近), the Ōtenta-Mitsuyo (大典太光世), the Onimaru-Kunitsuna (鬼丸国綱), and the Juzumaru-Tsunetsugu (数珠丸恒次).

*11 After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and other reforms, the feudal system was repealed but many of the earlier daimyō and persons of high rank received as a kind of “trade-off” europeanised titles of nobility.

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