The life of a royalist swordsmith

Before I pass on to another topic I would like to go back to the royalists mentioned in the previous stories. One smith of whom we know that he was faithful to the emperor was Nobumasa (信正), civilian name Takei Heizaburō (武井兵三郎). The first generation of swordsmiths with the name Nobumasa of that lineage was active around Kansei (寛政, 1789-1801), in the castle town of Kōfu (甲府), in Kai province. The lands around the castle, i.e. the Kōfu fief (甲府藩) of the same name, were under the control of the bakufu from the Kyōhō era (享保, 1716-1736) onwards. Here one speaks of a so-called tenryō (天領), a fief which was not ruled by a daimyō but by the Tokugawa-bakufu itself. Accordingly, the income of the fief ended up in the treasury of the bakufu too.*1 Before that the Kōfu fief was under the control of the Tayasu family (田安), one of the three branches of the Tokugawa clan,*2 but their changes in taxation lead to a great peasant revolt in Kansei four (寛政, 1792). As such tenryō lands were mostly ruled by hatamoto (旗本, lit. “banner men”) coming from Edo in alternate attendance, it was not very attractive for swordsmiths to settle there because these hatamoto still had their centre of life in Edo and mostly commissioned Edo-based swordsmiths for new blades.

Due to this revolt, the bakufu government did not enjoy a good reputation in that area. As in other regions of Japan too, local people thought that the bakufu was incompetent, greedy for money, and was only lining its own pockets. However, the second generation Nobumasa married a woman from Sano (佐野, present-day Sano City in Tochigi Prefecture) from Shimotsuke province and moved there. Signed blades are only known from the third generation of this lineage onwards. They refer to the castle town of Sano, like for example a wakizashi with the mei: “Yashū Sano-jōka ni oite – Takei Nobumasa saku” (於野州佐野 城下・武井信正作, “made by Takei Nobumasa in the castle town of Sano in Shimotsuke province”).

At the time of the third generation Nobumasa, the Sano fief (佐野藩), with its income of 16,000 koku, was ruled by Hotta Masatsugu (堀田正頌, 1842-1896).*3 The smith thought that the techniques of his school were insufficient and went to Edo to study under Suishinshi Hideyo (水心子秀世), the son-in-law of the famous master Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀). He was young and full of enthusiasm and maybe also the anti-Tokugawa spirit of his home town played a role in his joining the so-called sonnō-jōi movement (尊皇攘夷). This movement – translated as “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians!” – was of a social nature, and with the appearance of Commodore Matthew Perry’s (1794-1858) ships in 1853, the national seclusion policy of the Tokugawa was questioned. At the same time the Imperial court demanded the bakufu to take all necessary measures to ward off a potential Western suppression.


Woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniteru (歌川国輝) from 1891. It shows Takeda rebels from Mito under the sonnō-joi banner.

The fact that the bakufu was powerless against the foreigners, despite the will expressed by the Imperial court, lead to efforts to replace the Tokugawa regime by a government more able to show its loyalty to the Emperor by enforcing the Emperor’s will. One of the climaxes of the unrests was the so-called Tengu Rebellion (Tengu-tō no ran, 天狗党の乱) of 1864 which broke out in Mito province. The bakufu opponents founded the Tengu party (Tengu-tō, 天狗党) and marched westwards with Kyōto as their target. In the third month of Genji one (元治, 1864) Fujita Koshirō (藤田小四郎, 1842-1865), the leader of the Tengu party, entrenched himself with his men for one and a half months quite close to the forge of Nobumasa. Because Fujita needed more supporters for his “project” he convinced Kawatsura Toraichirō Yoshimichi (川連虎一郎義路, 1841-1864) to join his army.

Yoshimichi was the eldest son of the local village head and commander of the nōhei troops (農兵), samurai working as farmers in times of peace. He had participated in the assassination of Ii Naosuke (井伊直弼, 1815-1860) by the sonnō-jōi men, i.e. in the so-called Sakuradamon Incident (Sakurada-mongai no hen, 桜田 門外の変) of 1860, and was a renowned swordsman despite his young age. But Yoshimichi was betrayed by the elder of the Sekiyado fief (関宿藩) which he originally served. The veteran bushi was angry because one “from among their own ranks” was now fighting against the bakufu. With the information from the elder the shōgun immediately ordered the execution of Yoshimichi.

The swordsmith Nobumasa heard of the judgment and, together with Yoshimichi, he hatched the plan to take the latter to Edo because it would be easier for him to hide in the anonymous masses. Nobumasa had visited Edo a couple of times and so he knew some secret paths into the capital. Unfortunately the plan backfired and Yoshimichi was discovered, caught and executed while he was out for a stroll in the red-light district in Susaki (洲崎).

Well, a more “family-friendly” version of this tradition says that he was visiting the Susaki shrine (洲崎神社) and was caught there. Because nobody wanted to perform the execution at the shrine, he was taken to the close coast. There he desperately tried to defend himself against the 15 men before he was finally killed. Nobumasa witnessed the whole incident from a hiding place, but as he was alone and being only a smith, he wasn’t able to help his friend. When the bakufu bailiffs left he recovered the topknot which had been cut off by one of them in exuberance. He took the topknot to Yoshimichi´s father and told him, with tears in his eyes, of the unsuccessful plan.

After this incident Nobumasa was more than ever determined to support the sonnō-joi movement. For the moment he went underground at the village school (gōgakkan, 郷学館) of Kokufu Yoshitane (国府 義胤). This school was founded by Yoshitane´s father Yoshiaki (義明) in Yokobori (横堀), very close to the forge of Nobumasa. Soon it became an educational centre for children throughout the region. Yoshitane himself was a sinologist, physician and martial artist. Nobumasa told him about his background and it turned out that Yoshitane shared his convictions, so he erected a little forge for him in the garden of the school and even paid for his raw materials. It is said that Nobumasa forged there more than 30 blades until the end of the Tengu Rebellion in the first month of Genji two (1865). Surely they were all made with the spirit of the sonnō-joi movement in mind. Out of gratitude he forged an excellent daishō for Yoshitane which bears the following signature: “Kōyō-shi Takei Nobumasa + kaō – Keiō-san hinoto-u mōka kore o tsukuru – Shimotsuke Yokobori ni oite – Gōgakkan” (甲陽士武 井信正・慶応三丁卯孟夏造之・於下毛與古保里・郷学館, “made by Takei Nobumasa, a retainer of Kai province, at the beginning of summer in the third year of Keiō [1867] at the village school in Yokobori in Shimotsuke province”).

This daishō is today designated a cultural property of Tochigi prefecture (see picture below), not only because of the superior quality but also because of the local history. Nobumasa used different characters for the place names, namely for “Yokobori” (與古保里 → 横堀) and for “Shimotsuke” (下毛 → 下野). Yoshitane, on the other hand, recommended Nobumasa to his friends and so we know of an almost identically signed katana which he made for a certain Shinmura Gizaburō Tomonaga (新村儀三郎智長) from Yokobori. A short anecdote exists for this blade, namely a fortune teller prophesied Tomonaga: “Those who own this sword will be cursed!” But Tomonaga replied simply and concisely: “If this is true, I want the sword more than ever!”


katana of the daishō by Nobumasa, nagasa 69 cm, sori 1.4 cm


*1 The Tokugawa family owned most of the feudal land during the Edo period. In the 17th century their total income was about 4 million koku. The wealthiest daimyō, the Maeda, made “just” 1 million koku. Incidentally, during the Edo period the term bakuryō (幕領) was used. Tenryō describes in a the narrower sense the lands which came back into the emperor’s possession in the course of the Meiji Restoration.

*2 Called go-sankyō (御三卿). The other two were the Hitotsubayashi (一橋) and the Shimizu family (清水).

*3 The Sano fief also shared the fate of been under Tokugawa/bakufu rule several times, i.e. to become tenryō. Masatsugu was in control of the fief given to the Hotta family from 1854 until the abolition of the feudal system in 1871.

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