The following story is based on the Nō play Kokaji (小鍛冶). Even if this most famous of all legends around the swordsmith Munechika is known since centuries we are unable to track back its author or its time of origin. The oldest written record of the play dates to the second month of Tenshō six (天正, 1578), a production of a certain Kongōdayū (金剛太夫) performed at the Ishiyama-Honganji (石山本願寺, Settsu province) which was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga only two years later. But it is assumed that the legend of Munechika and the fox was already performed as Nō in the Muromachi period. Well, the legend itself takes place in the reign of Emperor Ichijō (一条天皇, 980-1011, reg. 986-1011), who had a strange dream that suggested him to have him forged a sword. The very next day he sent his envoy Tachibana no Michinari (橘道成, exact dates unknown) to the forge of Munechika which was located in the eastern part of Kyōto, at the third horizontal major axis (Sanjō, 三条). Michinari got off his oxcart and said: “Are you the swordsmith Munechika? The emperor had selected you personally to make him a sword. And you should begin with the forging work immediately!” “I am honoured that such a prestigious task is transferred to me but I don´t have an assistant at the moment which must help me at forging such an excellent masterwork worthy of the emperor.” “If that is true you should look for an assistant!,” replied the envoy harshly and took his leave.
With great sorrow to fall out of favour with the emperor Munechika went straightaway to the Fushimi-Inari shrine (伏見稲荷大社) which is located – as the name suggests – in the southeastern suburb of Fushimi, only ten kilometres from his forge, to pray for divine assistance. It was already dusk and when he strided through the numerous red-lacquered gateways of the shrine, a boy came out of the half-light and said: “You are Kokaji Munechika from Sanjō, aren´t you?” “How did you know my name? I haven´t seen you before!” But the boy did not answer his question and continued: “You came because you got imperial orders to forge a sword for the emperor, don´t you?” The smiths stared totaly confused at the strange boy but went down on his knees: “Yes, it is all true but I don´t have an assistant who is indispensable for such a task!” “I fully understand that you are concerned but I can calm you because when you have cleaned and purified your forge in accordance with the old rules I will be there to work as your assistant,” said the boy and vanished as fast as he has appeared.
As early as the next morning, Munechika prepared everything for this new project. He underwent the ritual washing, put on a white garb similar to those of a Shintō priest, and purified the platform with the anvil in front of his forge by surrounding it with shimenawa ropes with gohei.1 When he spoke a prayer for divine assistance, the boy appeared from behind the forge silent as a fox and now Munechika realized that it must be Inari-Myōjin (稲荷明神), the god of fertility, rice, and agriculture whose messenger appears in the shape of a white fox. Very humble the smith got onto the ground. “You asked for help and I will give it to you!,” spoke the deity Inari with dignified voice. The forge was fired and soon both started to forge and fold the steel. But the young boy acted as no human assistant could act: Without a single oral instruction by the smith he was able to know when, where, and with which force he had to support him with his hammer blows. The blade turned out to be a great masterwork and of gratitude to the assistance of the deity Munechika signed the front side with his name Kokaji-Munechika (小鍛冶宗近), and in addition the back side with Kogitsune (小狐) which means “little fox.” But as soon as he had chiselled the very last stroke of this signature, the boy had vanished. The next day the swordsmith proudly handed-over the sword nicknamed Kogitsune-maru (小狐丸) to the envoy Michinari.
So much for the theory or rather the Nō play. It is unclear how far emperor Ichijō was actually involved in this legend but as Munechika is traditionally dated to the Eien era (永延, 987-989), at least the chronological factor is coherent. The earliest written record of the Kogitsune-maru dates to the late Heian period, and already back then it was a treasure sword of the noble Kujō family (九条). In the records of the family we read that it was worn by Fujiwara no Kanenaga (藤原兼長, 1138-1158) on the 28th day of the twelfth month Ninpei three (仁平, 1153) at the official accession to office as Councillor (chūnagon, 中納言). Kanenaga was the heir of Fujiwara no Yorinaga (藤原頼長, 1120-1156), and also Yorinaga´s second son Fujiwara no Moronaga (藤原師長, 1138-1192) wore the Kogitsune-maru when he succeeded as chūnagon shortly afterwards on the 25th day of the eleventh month Kyūju one (久寿, 1154).
Two years later – in the first year of Hōgen (保元, 1156) – it came to the Hōgen Rebellion (Hōgen no ran, 保元の乱) of the same name which was about a dispute of the Imperial succession and the degree of control exercised by the Fujiwara family who had become hereditary Imperial regent (kanpaku, 関白) during the Heian period. It is said that Shinzei (信西, 1106?-1160),*2 the son of Fujiwara no Sanekane (藤原実兼, 1085-1112), wore the Kogitsune-maru at that time. But it is unclear how the sword came from the possessions of the Kujō family*3 to Shinzei and back, because in another entry of the family chronicles of the 15th day of the eighth month Ōan three (応安, 1370), it is mentioned that the sword is once again in the possession of the Kujō family. This entry says that the Kujō residence was stroke by a lightning, and when the then kanpaku regent Kujō Tsunenori (九条経教, 1331-1400) drew the Kogitsune-maru and held it into the air to drive away the thunderstorm, he was himself stroke by another lightning via the tip of the sword. But if this story is true, then the sword must had been destroyed or at least heavily damaged at that time.
One tradition says that the Kogitsune-maru made later its way to Echizen province. Even the eighth Tokugawa-shōgun Yoshimune (徳川吉宗, 1684-1751) took the hints of this tradition seriously, because we know of extant documents of Kuze Shigeyuki (久世重之, 1659-1720) – a member of the then bakufu cabinet – that Yoshimune made inquiries about the sword at the Kasugamyō-jinja (春日明神社) in Awaga (阿波賀) in Echizen province. We learn from the reply of the shrine that they owned a 2 shaku 2 bu (~ 61.2 cm) measuring blade with the niji-mei (二字銘, two-character signature) “Munechika” whose shirasaya bore the inscription “Kogitsune-maru kage” (小狐丸影). But older documents say that the blade was mounted in a magnificent koshirae with mother-of-pearl inlay.
But irritating is the addition kage which refers to a so-called kage-uchi (影打ち). A kage-uchi is a second blade made sometimes by the swordsmith at the same time he makes the actual blade for his customer. After the final polish he then decides which one is of better quality, the inferior work is kept by the smith and is not signed. So it is rather unlikely that Munechika signed this blade with a niji-mei and that a kage-uchi from the Heian period was preserved as (sacred) relic in a shrine until the middle Edo period.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that several shrines own swords with the name Kogitsune-maru, so for example the Hachimangū (八幡宮) in Kōfu (甲府, Yamanashi Prefecture). But this blade is a 3 shaku (~ 90.9 cm) measuring ō-dachi which is absolutely unthinkable for a Heian-period emperor or aristocrat which preferred substantially shorter and more slender blades. Also the records of the possessions of the old Isonokami-jingū (石上神宮)*4 in Nara mention a sword called „Kogitsune-maru“ which should be stored in a sealed chest. But the shrine does not give a permission to check its treasures and so this entry can´t be verified.
A later mentioning of the sword in connection with the Kujō family dates to the Momoyama period, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi tried to advance his career by obtaining the clan name of Fujiwara. Hideyoshi addressed the nobleman and chancellor (daijō-daijin, 太政大臣) Konoe Sakihisa (近衛前久, 1536-1612) and asked for an adoption. But Kujō Tanemichi (九条種通, 1507-1594) was strictly against this, arguing that the three hereditary sanctuaries of the Fujiwara family – a portrait of Kamatari (鎌足, the founder of the Fujiwara clan), a Lotus-Sūtra of the Tendai high-priest Eryō (恵亮), and the sword Kogitsune-maru – are still in the possession of the Kujō branch and this makes the Konoe branch inferior and not able to make decisions about an adoption of Hideyoshi. However, the protest of Tanemichi didn´t help and Hideyoshi was adopted by Sakahisa in the 13th year of Tenshō (1585).
Well, the whereabouts of the sword Kogitsune-maru are still unclear down to the present day. The most famous blade of Munechika is the so-called Mikazuki-Munechika (三日月宗近). The name has the sword from the crescent-shaped (mikazuki, 三日月) temper elements which accompany the hamon in the lower area of the blade. As mentioned along this story, the Mikazuki-Munechika belonged to the “Five Great Swords” (tenka-goken, 天下五剣), and it is designated as national treasure since 1951. Today it is preserved at the Tōkyō National Museum (see picture below).
The earlier owners of the Mikazuki-Munechika are obscure but at least since the Muromachi period it was in the possession of the Ashikaga family. It is said when Matsunaga Hisahide and an alliance of the Miyoshi family attacked the Nijō Palace (二条御所) in the eighth year of Eiroku (永禄, 1565), the then shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利義輝, 1536-1565) defended himself with this sword until his death. After the attack, the so-called Eiroku Incident (Eiroku no hen, 永禄の変) it went with other Ashikaga treasures in the possession of Miyoshi Masayasu (三好政康, 1528-1615) who presented it later to Hideyoshi, from which it went to his pricipal wife Nene (ねね). After her death as nun called Kōdai´in (高台院) in the year 1624 the Mikazuki-Munechika was presented to shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada. From that time until the end of the feudal era it was continuously in the possession of the Tokugawa family as one of its most precious treasures.
kokuhō Mikazuki-Munechika, mei: “Sanjō” (三条), nagasa 80.0 cm, sori 2.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, deep koshizori, very pronounced funbari, ko-kissaki, ubu-nakago
*1 Gohei (御幣) are plaited white paper streamers. Such gohei-hanged shimenawa are used to mark sacred precincts.
*2 Shinzei was his name as Buddhist monk. His real name before was Fujiwara no Michinori (藤原通憲).
*3 Yorinaga was the uncle of Kujō Kanezane (九条兼実, 1149-1207), the founder of the Kujō branch of the Fujiwara family.
*4 In this shrine the holy sword Futsunomitama no tsurugi (布都御魂剣) with which once Susanoo no mikoto (素戔嗚尊) killed the eight-headed dragon Yamata no orochi (八岐大蛇).