Tōshirō Yoshimitsu

In the last chapter we read about the ascribing of monetary values to blades and smiths where also the name Tōshirō Yoshimitsu was mentioned. This swordsmith belonged to Kyōto´s Awataguchi school and is traditionally dated to the Shōgen era (正元, 1259-1260). He is considered as one of the most outstanding representatives of the Awataguchi school and was regarded with Masamune and his student Gō Yoshihiro as one of the “Best Three Smiths” (the so-called sansaku, 三作) during the Edo period. In the Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō he is represented with 16 blades which places him in terms of quantity on the third place in this work.*1

The following legend took place at the time shortly after the warded-off invasion of the Mongols, that means at the end of the 13th century, when the reconstruction of the Tamon hall (Tamon-dō, 多聞堂 or 多門堂) had begun. The hall was destroyed by fire with the Kurama temple (鞍馬寺) in the first year of Daiji (大治, 1126). The temple complex of Kurama lies about 15 km to the north of Kyōto and was founded in 770 or 796 – according to the particular tradition – on the mountain of the same name for the protection of the imperial capital. The temple houses a wooden statue of the deity Bishamonten (毘沙門天) which is designated as national treasure. Another name of Bishamonten is Tamonten (多門天 or 多聞天), and this was the origin of the name of the hall where the statue was once placed.

For the reconstruction a great many of iron nails were needed. Many of the temples in Nara, for example the Tōdaiji (東大寺) or the Kōfukuji (興福寺) maintained smiths of their own who made swords or halberds for the warrior monks (sōhei, 僧兵) but also tools like saws, axes, planes, and all the bits and pieces like naisl for the maintenance of the temples.

The Kurama temple did not have own smiths and so the master builder sent errand boys to the near Kyōto to give orders to the corresponding craftsmen. Among those errand boys was a young man who was sent to the swordsmith Tōshirō Yoshimitsu, back then already famous for his tantō, to pick-up pre-ordered nails. Many times he had to commute between the Kurama temple and Kyōto but so he had the chance to watch how the master forged his blades. To own such a tantō one day, this was the greatest wish of the young man. One day he mustered up the courage to ask the smith: “Master Tōshirō, I have to commute between the Kurama temple and Kyōto every day. This is a bad and dangerous route full of highwaymen and robbers. Could you please forge me a tantō that I am able to defend myself? In return I will bring you wood for firing the forge for free as long as the construction works on the Tamon hall are going on.” The smith knew of the dangerous routs to Kyōto and moved by the honest request of the young man he accepted. From that day forward he brought him daily new wood even it was raining or snowing and even when there were nails to pick-up. After three years the Tamon hall was finished but not the tantō for the hard-working errand boy.

Emphatically he reminded Tōshirō Yoshimitsu of his primise but he just boldly brought a piece of steel in the length of a dagger out of the forge, replying tersely: “I only came so far.” He hammered three or four times on the piece of steel and put it aside. The young man was protesting: “I struggled with my part of the agreement for now three years. It´s s shame that you not even thought about fulfilling your part of the agreement…” Yoshimitsu realized that he was wrong and said: “Well, when you come back tomorrow your tantō will be finished.” And indeed, the smith handed him over a beautifully forged blade when the young man visited the forged on the next day.

One of his errands brought the man into an area called Ichinohara (市原野) which is about three kilometres to the south of the Kurama temple. Already the monk Kyōsan (慶算, 1138-1213) of the local Miidera (三井寺) complained about that the area stopped being save for a long time.

It is unknown of the young man had known of Kyōsan´s complaints but on the way back he had to shelter from a approaching storm under a cedar. It did not take long and he fell asleep when a huge spider came lowering down from a branch of this tree. The spider saw the man as prey and spinned him with her spider threads. But when she tried to pull him up the tree, the tantō draw itself and cutted the young man out of the deadly cocoon. The spider repeated this gruesome game persistently several times until a mounted vassal of the Isshiki family (一色)*2 passed by from his pilgrimage to the Kurama temple. He jumped from the saddle, drove away the spider, and freed the young man; but he was immediately fascinated by the tantō with its magical powers. The spider´s prey had not noticed what was going on in his deep sleep and so the warrior told him in what danger he was all the time. And then he broached the subject of the tantō: “I know of no man who owns such a dagger. Is it all right with you when I show it to my lord Isshiki and informing him from the whole incident?” The young man consented and quickly they rode both to Kyōto. The lord was astounded and decided spontaneously to give him 1.000 hiki (疋) for the tantō. 1.000 hiki was equivalent to 10 kan, that converts to 2,5 ryō. We have read in the chapter about Ishida Mitsunari´s Masamune that the average annual salary of a simple hanshi was about 3 ryō. And so the offer of the lord must had surely exceed the salary of the errand boy. The deal was made and the Isshiki lord called the blade of Yoshimitsu Kumokiri-Tōshirō (蜘蛛斬り藤四郎, lit. “spider cutter/ spider slayer Tōshirō”).

Now to a different legend about a blade of Yoshimitsu. After the decisive battle at the Minatogawa (湊川) in Kenmu three (建武, 1336), the attempt of emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐, 1318-1339) to give all the political power back to the imperial court had finally failed. Go-Daigo´s most loyal retainer was Kusunoki Masashige (楠木正成, 1294-1336) who – facing his near death – committed seppuku away from the major battlefield. One of the military leaders who caused the downfall of Kusunoki was – according to the late Nanbokuchō-period epos Taiheiki (太平記) – a certain Ōmori Hikoshichi Morinaga (大森彦七盛長, exact dates unknown). Overwhelmed by the rewards and promotions after this achievement he enjoyed life to the full where he was especially attached to the sarugaku play (猿楽)*3 and women (he was widely known as lecher).

When he was on the way to the spring festival of the Konrenji (金蓮寺, Iyo province) in the fifth year of Ryakuō (暦応, 1342), he encountered a beautiful young lady standing at the riverbank. Hikoshichi could not resits and asked her for fun if he should carry her on his back over the river. Unexpectedly she flirtatiously looked at him and climbed on his back without blushing. Hikoshichi´s father was a hunter from Tosa province and so he was used to carry deer or wild boards home on his back, compared to that young lady was so to speak like a feather. But when Hikoshichi had entered the river for some metres she became heavier and heavier with every step. He turned his head to see what wa going on but saw that she had turned into an about two metre measuring demon with bloodshot eyes, a huge mouth, and two horns.*4 Hikoshichi tried to get rid off the demon but the latter grabbed him on his topknot and pulled him into the air. By heavy resistance he eventually managed it not to be pulled higher and both fell into a muddy rice field.

Hikoshichi´s servants had watched the entire scene and when the rushed to help they saw that the demon had stolen the life energy of their master. He had an open-mouthed, blank, and expressionless look, and the demon shouted down from the heaven: “I am Kusunoki Masashige´s spirit of vengeance! The matter at the Minatogawa is not yet clarified…”

Back then the fear of spirits of vengeance of persons who died in mysterious circumstances or who died a violent death was omnipresent and so Hikoshichi askes the priests of his lands to hold a posthumous requiem mass to appease the spirit of Masashige. Once again it has to be mentioned that there are several versions of this legend going round, and according to the dramaturgic inerpretation of a later Nō or Kabuki version, the story is set in different areas of the country or the identity of the spirit of vengeance is a different one. In addition, Kusunoki Masashige was later turned into an ideal of an emperor loyalist, and Ōmori Hikoshichi came out quite badly in Edo-period performances.

On another day some itinerant monks were touring this region, asking with their sarugaku play for some alms. Hikoshichi visited one such performance but he was bored that there were neither young nor beautiful women to be found in the countryside. He sat nevertheless down behind the „best choice“ as suddenly a fierce storm came. Everybody tried to find shelter from the cloudburst and when the young woman in front of Hikoshichi stood up and turned around, she had turned into a demon which stretched its hand out to grab the tantō he had girded. But Hikoshichi was able to react, turned to the side, draw the dagger, and cut the demon in the hand. He yelled and escaped through a gap between the dark clouds. After this incident Hikoshichi became depressive and lethargic and went to bed earlier and earlier. The servants were concerned about his condition and tried to obtain informations on the demon so that they were able to help him. They concluded that it was maybe either the spirit of vengeance of Kusunoki Masashige or of his daughter Chihaya-hime (千早姫), coming back to earth to get back the tantō which was stolen by Hikoshichi after Masashige´s suicide.

And so additonal guards were positioned every night in front of Hikoshichi´s bed-chamber but this of course did not represent a permanent solution. One of the retainers had the idea to ask a Zen priest to spend all night long in zazen meditation in front of the bed-chamber because it was told that spirits of vengeance were afraid to near to persons in such a state of mind. After the exchange of some alms a priest was willing to do as suggested and so also the demon had to switch to “plan B.” Turned into a spider he lowered himself from the roof at midnight and tied together the topknots of the sleeping guards with his spinning thread. Now turned into female demon again he went to Hikoshichi´s bed, grabbed him on his neck, and flew with him into the jet-black night sky.

Tied to each other the guards lost valuable time when they heard shortly afterwards an impact at the roof. The eldest in the group ordered a young vassal of Hikoshichi to climb the roof with a torch and he should find – more death than alive – their lord, giving the death rattle: “The demon has stolen my dagger. This is a serious disgrace for a warrior and it does no longer make any sense to live on…” The young man still tried to cheer him up but Hikoshichi was already dead. Suddenly a loud laughter could be heard from the sky and an object fell down in the garden of the residence. Carefully they approached and in the light of the torches they saw a skull to which the tantō was bound with a rope. The men agreed that thus must be the skull of Kusunoki Masashige and that the spirit of vengeance had now retaliated.

The tantō in question was a work of Tōshirō Yoshimitsu and went later into the possession of the Ashikaga-shōgun. There the piece was highly regarded under the name Hōchō-Tōshirō (包丁藤四郎). Hōchō means actually “kitchen knife” and is used for a broad tantō blade.*5

But with 2 cm in width, the Hōchō-Tōshirō is a rather slender tantō. The name goes back to another connection with the aforementioned term, namely to hōchō-dō“ (包丁道) or hōchō-shiki (包丁式), the “way or respectively the rite/method of the kitchen knife.” This way/method describes the strongly ritualized art of cooking or preparation where a fish is divided only by the ose of a kitchen knife and two long chopsticks (manabashi, 真魚箸). Once the famous cook Taga Takatada (多賀高忠, 1425-1486) is said to have carved a crane with this tantō of Tōshirō Yoshimitsu, thus the nickname Hōchō-Tōshirō.

Later the blade went to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and subsequently to Uesugi Kagekatsu, Tokugawa Hidetada, Ieyasu, and finally to Yorinobu (徳川頼宣, 1602-1671), Ieyasu´s tenth son and founder of the Kii branch of the Tokugawa family. Later it remained family-owned by the Tokugawa but suffered a fire damage when parts of Edo Castle were burned in the third year of Meireki (明暦, 1657).

There was another tantō blade called Hōchō-Tōshirō in the possession of the Tokugawa family, which is actually quite broad (see picture below). And the Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō lists in the chapter “Fire Damages” (shōshitsu no bu, 焼失之部) also a tantō with the nickname Hōchō-Tōshirō. However, it is not fully identified if this entry refers to the former blade mentioned above but it is very likely because the second, broader one is designated as jūyō-bijutsuhin and does not show any hints of a fire damage or re-tempering. Either the names were mixed-up over time or just both blades were called the same way Hōchō-Tōshirō.


jūyō-bijutsuhin Hōchō-Tōshirō, mei: “Yoshimitsu,” nagasa 21.8 cm, hira-zukuri, iori-mune, broad mihaba, thin kasane, tang slightly shortened


Finally, let´s stay briefly at Yoshimitsu. One of his most famous blades – the so-called Hirano-Tōshirō (平野藤四郎, see picture below) – is today owned by the imperial family (gyobutsu, 御物). The names goes back to the tradition that once Kimura Shigegori (木村重茲, ?-1595), a vassal of the Toyotomi family, bought the tantō from the very rich merchant Hirano Dōsetsu (平野道雪, his first name can also be read as Michiyuki) and presented it later to Hideyoshi. From Hideyoshi the piece went to Maeda Toshinaga who gave it later to the Tokugawa-shōgun Hidetada. The latter on the other hand presented it to Maeda Toshitsune (前田利常, 1594-1658) who was married to Hidetada´s daughter Tamahime. At the end of the Edo period the Maeda family donated the tantō to emperor Meiji.



gyobutsu Hirano-Tōshirō, mei: “Yoshimitsu,” nagasa 30.1 cm, uchizori, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, relative thick kasane




*1 He is only “beaten” by Masamune with 39 and Sadamune with 19 blades.

*2 This would match because the Isshiki family was founded by Ashikaga Yasuuji´s (足利泰氏, 1216-1270) son Kōshin (公深, ?-1330) when he was appointed as administrator of the Isshiki fief in Mikawa province. But the other point is that Kōshin must had stayed in Kyōto at that time because Isshiki is about 100 km to the east of the capital – to far from riding there so easily to show the lord a tantō.

*3 A forerunner to the later Nō play.

*4 In another version of the legend Hikoshichi sees the horns in the reflection on the water surface.

*5 Famous for this nickname are two very broad tantō of Masamune which are both called Hōchō-Masamune.

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