The lost writing-box lid

The following story is about Kuniyoshi (国吉), the master of Tōshirō Yoshimitsu of whom we read about in the last but one story. Kuniyoshi is traditionally dated around the Hōji era (宝治, 1247-1249) and like his student Yoshimitsu he was first and foremost famous for his superior tantō blades. One day he was visited by a noble old man in his forge in the Awataguchi district in north-eastern Kyōto. The stranger was well-dressed but especially the walking stick attracted the attention of Kuniyoshi. It was namely a so-called hatozue (鳩杖), lit. “dove cane,” which was awarded by the imperial court to meritorious followers when the reached the age of eighty. This walking stick was decorated with a dove head at the handle. The choice of a dove goes back to the observation that those birds never choke on their food. And this was wished to very old persons too because death of choking is one of the biggest killer at this age.

“A noble person,” thought Kuniyoshi and bowed deeply. The old man mentioned the reason for his visit with a quiet voice: “I need a 2 shaku 3 sun (~ 69.7 cm) measuring ceremonial sword (ken, 剣). Money is no object.” “Your wish is my command. It might take 37 days for sure until the sword is finished.” The man just nodded at him and left.

Kuniyoshi arranged an exact timetable because by no means he wanted to disappoint the old man. The other thing he was kind of nervous was that he never forged such a long ceremonial sword. “Normal sized” ken measured commonly less than 2 shaku (~ 60.6 cm). As mentioned, he forged mostly tantō, followed by long and curved tachi. But after all, he succeeded and the sword turned out to be a masterwork.

After the 37 days the man came as agreed, again with his dove cane. Kuniyoshi handed him over the sword and the customer examined it thoroughly. “Excellent! It was for sure not an easy task to forge this blade.” As a payment he gave Kuniyoshi the lid of a writing-box with a staple of 100 gold pieces on top of it. The smith was very pleased with the extremely generous payment, bowed to the ground as deep as possible, and thanked the old man.

Some days later the high priest of the Sumiyoshi shrine (住吉神社) was just at checking the treasure chamber of the shrine. He noticed that the lid for a very precious writing-box was missing. He looked for it but was not able to find it. He called for all priests under his command so that they could look for the lid together but – as if bewitched – the lid had disappeared even the treasure chamber was locked. So they saw no other option as to prey for an oracle about the whereabouts of the lid.

And really, one of the three deities*1 to whom the Sumiyoshi shrine was dedicated, answered: “The first step is to visit a certain Awataguchi Kuniyoshi.” This was kind of puzzling but the master swordsmith was no stranger in Kyōto. Kuniyoshi flinched when the priests explained him the facts. He told them from the old man who ordered a long ceremonial sword and payer 100 gold pieces, handed-over on a writing-box lid. And when he showed the lid to the priests, it was really the one missing from the treasure chamber. Kuniyoshi told them also about the dove cane and the priests agreed that it must had been an incarnation of one of the three Sumiyoshi deities.

Of course the story spread like wildfire and the “fact” that even a deity ordered a sword by Kuniyoshi contributed greatly to the fame and subsequently to the business of this smith. Another famous blade of Kuniyoshi is the Nakigitsune (鳴狐, see picture below), lit. “howling fox.” The blade is at the one hand especially precious because it bears a complete signature of Kuniyoshi, including his honorary title (Sahei no Jō, 左兵衛尉), and on the other hand because it is an important mosaic piece for the studies on the chronological develompent of the uchigatana (打刀). The uchigatana was a shorter sword worn at the beginning of its emergence by lower ranking soldiers, at a time when high-ranking mounted bushi still wore the bow as main weapon on the battlefield. Regarding swords, those high-ranking warriors wore a tachi combined with koshigatana (腰刀). The latter was used for self-defence in hand-to-hand battle or – when there was enough time – for committing seppuku.

The koshigatana was also worn in peaceful times, thrusted through the belt of civlian garments, and increasing in length over the years. Roughly simpliefied, the uchigatana was later adopted by high-ranking warriors as their main sword and from the middle to the end of the Muromachi period, it was paired with the shorter wakizashi (脇指) to the well-known daishō sword pair (大小). Now there are several theories about the exact processes of this development or rather from which sword developed from which kind of sword. The Nakigitsune-Kuniyoshi is insofar very interesting because it shows that high-ranking bushi – only a person of this status was able to afford a blade of the quality level of a Kuniyoshi – ordered already at the end of the Kamakura period blades which were considerably shorter than the tachi and clearly longer than the koshigatana.

The Nakigitsune-Kuniyoshi was handed-down within the Akimoto family (秋元), the daimyō of the Tatebayashi fief (館林) in Kōzuke province. The first generation which was entrusted with the government of this fief was Akimoto Nagatomo (秋元長朝, 1546-1628), a retainer of the Usesugi family. But it is not recorded when the sword came into the possession of the Akimoto family.


jūyō-bunkazai Nakigitsune, mei: “Sahei no Jō Fujiwara Kuniyoshi” (左兵衛尉藤原 国吉), nagasa 54.1 cm, sori 1.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, sakizori, ubu-nakago



*1 The three are: Sokotsutsu-o no mikoto (底筒男命), Nakatsutsu-o no mikoto (中筒男命), and Uwatsutsu-o no mikoto (表筒男命), altogether known as Sumiyosh-sanjin (住吉三神).


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