Tokugawa Ieyasu and the sohaya no tsuruki

This story happened in the early Edo period. Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康, 1542-1616) – in the meanwhile an old man – was able to look back to a very successful career. He managed it to survive all of his greatest rivals, guaranteed himself a giant power advantage after winning the Battle of Sekigahara in Keichō five (慶長, 1600), and with the fall of Ōsaka Castle, also the entire Hideyoshi clan was wiped out. On the 21st day of the first month Genna two (元和, 1616), that means about half a year after the successful campaign against Ōsaka, he probably ate too much sea breams fried in sesame oil, served to him by Chaya Kiyotsugu (茶屋清次, 1584-1622), a merchant who worked for the bakufu. Because after that meal, his chronic stomach complaints worsened rapidly. First Ieyasu tried some household remedies but also none of the panacea of the best physicians of the country was able to relieve his symptoms. The physicians had given up hope and Ieyasu – realizing that his death was near – began under pain making all necessary privisions for his passing and the time afterwards.

On the first day of the fourth month, he sent for the Tendai priest Tenkai (天海, 1536-1643), the Rinzai priest Sūden (崇伝, 1569-1633), Honda Masazumi (本多正純, 1565-1637) – son of his favoured vassal Honda Masanobu (本多正信, 1538-1616) – and other persons. He decreed that he should be buried on the Kunōzan (久能山, Shizuoka Prefecture) and further that a large accessible pagoda (tōdō, 塔堂) should be erected in Nikkō (日光, Tochigi Prefecture). On the 15th day of the same month he called the chamberlain (o-nando-ban, 御納戸番) Tsuzuki Kagetada (都築景忠) to his sickbed. Ieyasu´s voice – once that loud that he was able to command an entire army – was now so weak that he was hardly understood, but he ordered Kagetada to bring him the sword sohaya no tsuruki (ソハヤノツルキ), put it out of the storage box, and draw to it. Ieyasu continually stared magnetized at the sword and – keeping his thoughts for himself – sent also for the city magistrate (machi-bugyō, 町奉行) and excellent sword tester Hikosaka Mitsumasa (彦坂光正, 1565-1632). Whe the latter arrived Ieyasu ordered him: “When there is a person condemned to death in the prison, the sword shall be tasted on him. If not, no further tests should be made with this sword.” Mitsumasa did as he was told and came back shortly afterwards: “I tested the sword and easily it cutted through the body and stuck even in the ground underneath. A truly terrifying sharp blade.“ Ieyasu rose crawling from his bed and requested Mitsumasa to hand him over the sword. He swang the drawn blade several times through the air and with utmost satisfaction he said weakly, more to himself than to the persons around: „This sword will protect my children and children´s children.”

The next official act was that he sent for the gate keeper (jōban, 城番) Sakakibara Kiyohisa (榊原清久, 1585-1646) and ordered him: “After my death my body should be consecrated to the Kunōzan that I will be able to protect my country forever as a tutelary god.” Everybody did as was they were told and each one Tōshōgū (東照宮) – a Shintō shrine dedicated to the now tutelary god Ieyasu (Tōshō-Daigongen, 東照大権現) – was erected on the Kunōzan and in Nikkō. One year later Ieyasu´s son Hidetada (秀忠, 1579-1632) had the Nikkō-Tōshōgu extended and the mortal remains of his father transferred there.

Kiyohisa escorted the procession and when a stop was made in Hōjō (北条, Fukuoka Prefecute) on the peninsula Izu, he took an afternoon nap. Ieyasu appeared to him in his sleep and suggested him to change his name to Teruhisa (照久).*1 In Japan it was said that a dream has something to do with an exhaustion of the internal organs*2 and Kiyohisa thought this as a proof that Ieyasu had still not left his heart. Deeply moved he followed the recommendation of his former lord and changed his name to Teruhisa.

Another order of Ieyasu shortly before his death was that the soyaha no tsuruki should be positioned in the Kunōzan-Tōshōgū with its tip to the west because in his wise foresight he saw that there were still potential trouble spots in the western provinces. Events proved him right because twenty years later – in the tenth month of the 14th year of Kan´ei (寛永, 1637) – the Shimabara Rebellion (Shimabara no ran, 島原の乱) broke out on Kyūshū. This was a bitter setback for the supposed peaceful time so far since Sekigahara and the rule of the Tokugawa family, and so Ieyasu appeared once more in Teruhisa´s dream. This time he rebuked him why the soyaha no tsuruki was still in the treasury and that it should be brouhght to the front line as fast as possible. Teruhisa runned down fastly from the Kunōzan – he was still holding deathwatch there for Ieyasu on orders of Hidetada – purified his body in the sea, runned up the mountain again, got the mentioned sword, and brought it to the front line at Shimabara. The rebellion was crushed among much bloodshed and insiders attributed the success of the Tokugawa forces also to the sohaya no tsuruki because it served as a shintai (神体), an object possessed by a deity, in this very case Ieyasu himself.

But let´s come to the sword itself. According to transmission, Minamoto no Yoritomo granted it once to the progenitor of the Mishuku family (御宿) who got his name from the place Mishuku in the Suntō district (駿東) in Suruga province where he had his lands. When Mishuku Masatomo (御宿政友, 1566-1615) fought at the Siege of Ōsaka at the side of the Toyotomi and was killed, it is said that his son Genzaemon Sadatomo (源左衛門貞友) handed the sword over to Ieyasu, as a kind of „compensation“ for fighting for the wrong side. According to another theory, the sword went from Katsurayama Nobusada (葛山信貞), the sixth son of Takeda Shingen (武田信玄, 1521-1573), to Nobusada´s cousin Masatomo. Masatomo´s father Mishuku Tomotsuna (御宿友綱, 1546-1606) was namely a retainer of the Katsurayama family and in addition guardian of the under-age Nobusada.

Shingen on the other hand is a descendant of the Kai-Genji lineage (甲斐源氏),*3 and so the loop would be closed. However, some say that the sohaya no tsuruki is a work of the swordsmith Mitsuyo (光世) who worked according to transmission around the Shōhō era (承保, 1074-1077) in Miike (三池) in Chikugo province. The “problem” is the signature with the supplement utsusu-nari (ウツスナリ, lit. “copy”) on the back side of the tang. First of all, the complete signature of the sword in question (picture below):

front side: “Myōjun-denji sohaya no tsuruki” (妙純傅持 ソハヤノツルキ)

back side: “utsusu-nari” (ウツスナリ)


Signature on the front side of the tang.

If it is a copy, which sword served as model? In the Hakken-gū (八剣宮), a sub-temple of the Atsuta-jingū (熱田神宮) in Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture), a sword is preserved which was once worn by Sakanoue Tamuramaro. Documents of the shrine note the name of this sword with the characters (楚葉矢の剣) which read also as sohaya no tsurugi.*4 Legend sais that Sakanoue had him forged a short but sturdy sword to pit himself against the likewise short, broad, and obviously very robust warabite-tō (蕨手刀, see picture below) worn by the northern Ainu tribes.

But the shape (sugata, 姿) of the sohaya copy could also go back to the peculiarity of the supposed swordsmith Mitsuyo, who made – unlike other tachi from the late Heian, early Kamakura period – rather short and broad blades like it is seen on the famous Ōtenta-Mitsuyo (which is described in the next chapter) too.

Another theory sees the background in the signature sohaya in a somewhere completely different area, namely in a religious background. The katakana syllable ya (ヤ) was quoted in old documents often as ka (カ), for example seen in the Man´yō Shū (万葉集) from the 8th century. In the old pronunciation the inscription sohaya reads then as sowaka, and sowaka is the Japanese term for the Sanskrit word svāhā. Svāhā is an auspicious interjection in spell wordings of esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō, 密教) and means about “Hail!” or “Thus it should be!” Representativs of this theory suggest that there is the possibility that the copy of the sohaya no tsuruki goes back to a lost or destroyed blade whose signature on the tang was that rusted that the copying smith interpreted the inscription sohaka as sohaya.

Well, no definite answers to all those question can be given but it is more likely that the blade is a copy of the Muromachi period (1336-1573) which regarded by later sword appraisers as a work of Mitsuyo. The reason for this assupmtion is – besides of the workmanship – the supplement “Myōjun-denji” in the signature. Denji (伝持, or in the old version 傅持 like it is noted in the tang) is a term from Buddhism and means “to protect/keep the transmitted teachings and rules.” As mentioned before, one transmission says that the sword comes from the Takeda but there is no member of this family which Buddhist name as a monk (hōmyō, 法名) was Myōjun. But we can make a find at Saitō Toshikuni (斉藤利国, ?-1497), military governor (shugo, 守護) of Mino province. He and several other members of his family used all the character myō (妙) in their Buddhist monk names. Toshikuni was known as a sword lover and when he recided one day in Kyōto, he was presented by the Imadegawa family (今出川) with a tachi of Bizen Kanehira (備前包平). This supports also the assumption that he himself had him made a copy of a certain sword and had his Buddhist monk name inscribed on the tang. But we can only speculate about the smith of the copy. When the order came from Saitō Myōjun Toshikuni it is very likely that it was a craftsman from Mino province, and here, the contemporary Mino smiths Izumi no Kami Kanesada (和泉守兼定, No-Sada) and Kanemoto (兼元) are possible who for their part were famous for their excellent copies of famous blades (utsushi-mono, 写し物). This approach is also supported by a further aspect, namely that Saitō Toshikuni was an ally of the Suruga-based Imagawa family (今川). Katsurayama Nobusada´s adoptive father Ujimoto (葛山氏元, 1520-1573) was a vassal of the Imagawa, and Imagawa Yoshimoto (今川義元, 1519-1560) was married with Takeda Shingen´s older sister Jōkei´in (定恵院, 1519-1550). So we have many possibilities how a copy of a Mino smith ordered by Saitō Toshikuni a.k.a Myōjun came later into the possession of the Mishuku family.


warabite-tō, nagasa 52 cm, sori 0.4 cm


jūyō-bunkazai Sohaya no tsuruki, mei: “Sohaya no tsuruki Myōjun-denji – utsusu nari,” nagasa 67.9 cm, sori 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, ikubi-kissaki


*1 With this he allowed him to use one character of his name as a tutelary god, namely shō (照) in Tōshō-Daigongen, which reads also as Teru.

*2 Yume wa gozō-roppu no tsukare (夢は五臓六腑の疲れ)

*3 This is the Minamoto branch of Kai province. It was founded by descendants of Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (源義光, 1045-1127) after the latter was made governor of Kai province.

*4 Tsuruki is the unvoiced version of tsurugi which means “sword.” The character for tsurugi is (剣), or in one of the many old, nowadays unused variations (劍), (劔), (劒), (剱), or (釼).

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