The Nagashino and other Ichimonji

We are back again in the turmoils of the Sengoku era or, to be more precise, in Mikawa province in the spring of the third year of Tenshō (天正, 1575). Takeda Shingen´s son Katsuyori (武田勝頼, 1546-1582) had marched into the Shitaragahara plain (設楽原) with about 15.000 men and besieged Nagashino Castle (長篠城) because he saw that their supply lines were threatened. Two years earlier, and because of Shingen´s death, Ieyasu had been able to conquer the castle from the Takeda and installed Okudaira Nobumasa (奥平信昌, 1555-1615) as castellan who had before served the Takeda in their conquest of Mikawa province. Instantly Katsuyori ordered the execution of three Okudaira hostages (see footnote 4 of this story) for this breach of loyalty. As Nobumasa was now besieged by Katsuyori, Nobunaga and Ieyasu sent a big force of 38,000 men as support, but it was first and foremost the matchlock guns of the Oda-Tokugawa-Okudaira alliance that had a decisive influence on the defeat of the Takeda troops.


Portrait of Okudaira Nobumasa.

Nobumasa fought bravely and defended the castle without any major losses. Impressed, Nobunaga granted him the character Nobu (信) from his name, whereupon the castellan changed his name from the former Sadamasa (貞昌) to Nobumasa. But more important for the latter was the accompanying sword present, namely a masterly Fukuoka-Ichimonji blade (福岡一文字, see picture below) which bore the signature for “one” (Jap. ichi, 一) as it was common for certain smiths of that school. This character – or single more or less horizontal stroke – gave the school it´s name because “Ichimonji” means “character (for) one.” And according to the context of the battle, the blade was nicknamed Nagashino-Ichimonji (長篠一文字).


kokuhō, tachi, mei “Ichi” (一), nagasa 70.9 cm, sori 3.0 cm

A greatly shortened Ichimonji blade which eventually lost its signature is the meibutsu Nansen-Ichimonji (南泉一文字). It is nowadays designated jūyō-bunkazai and is preserved in the Tokugawa Museum of Art in Nagoya. The nickname of this fine piece goes back to the following tradition.

Muneyoshi (徳川宗睦, 1733-1800),*1 the 9th generation of the Owari-Tokugawa family, ordered his sword official to find out more about the provenance of the blade in question. He compiled a report where he stated that it was once owned by the Muromachi-shōgun but does not mention when or how it came into the possession of the Ashikaga family. The latter however had it polished, but when the blade was stored on the sword rack in the polisher´s workshop, an unlucky cat bumped into the rack and was cut in half by the falling piece. This incident reminded the then sword official of an anecdote by the Chinese Zen priest Nansen (南泉, chin. Nánqúan, 748-835).

One day the monks around Nansen were arguing about a Zen problem. Nansen grasped a cat, held it up in the air and asked: “If any of you is able to say anything appropriate I will spare this cat. Otherwise I will kill it with my sword.” All the monks were shocked and tried hard to come up with “Zen-appropriate” wisdoms. It turned out that nobody was able to impress Nansen and so he killed the poor animal. When the best student returned home that evening, Nansen told him what had happened earlier. Thereupon the student took his sandals and layed them on top of his head. “If you had just been there today I would have been able to spare the cat!” Nansen knew that his student was deeply enlightened because he had given up all delusive thoughts and forced “Zen-appropriate” thinking about enlightenment.


jūyō-bunkazai, katana, meibutsu Nansen-Ichimonji, nagasa 61.5 cm, sori 1.8 cm

So the blade was called Nansen-Ichimonji and went later by unknown paths into the collection of Hideyoshi who bequeathed it to Toyotomi Hideyori. The latter in turn presented it to Tokugawa Ieyasu in the third month of Keichō 16 (慶長, 1611) when they met in Kyōto´s Nijō Castle. This is how it is mentioned in the sword register of the Toyotomi family called Toyotomi Ke Katana Chō (豊臣家刀帳). After Ieyasu´s death the blade went to Yoshinao (徳川義直, 1601-1650), the founder of the Owari-Tokugawa family, who made it an important treasure sword of this branch of the Tokugawa. The Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō mentions the provenance of the sword as follows: Ieyasu → Yoshinao → the 2nd Tokugawa-shōgun Hidetada → Yoshinao. But the records of the Owari-Tokugawa does not mention this “detour” via Hidetada. Interesting is that the second generation Owari-Tokugawa, Mitsutomo (徳川光友, 1625-1700), had the blade mounted as a wakizashi, that means it was at the latest shortened to its present length during his time.


kokuhō, tachi, mumei, meibutsu Nikkō-Ichimonji, nagasa 68.3 cm, sori 2.3 cm

The picture above shows the so-called Nikkō-Ichimonji (日光一文字). The name goes back to the fact that the sword was once obtained by Hōjō Sō´un (北条早雲, 1432-1519) from Nikkō´s Futarasan-jinja (二荒山 神社). Later it came into the possession of the Kuroda Josui (黒田如水, 1546-1604) who played an important role in the negotiations between Hideyoshi and the Hōjō after the defeat of the latter during the Siege of Odawara in 1590.

Also listed in the Kyōhō Meibutsu Chō is the so-called Dōyo-Ichimonji (道誉一文字) which received its name from its former owner Sasaki Dōyo (佐々木道誉, 1296-1373)*2 who had helped Ashikaga Takauji to suppress the revolt of emperor Godaigo (後醍醐天皇, 1288-1315). But the tracks vanish after Dōyo until it turns up later in the collection of the Owari-Tokugawa family. Some records say that the family received it as a gift from the Ikeda family (池田) but returned it somewhat later. From the Ikeda it went to the Nanbu family (南部) whose 43rd generation Toshiatsu (南部利淳, 1884-1930) presented it to emperor Shōwa when he visited the former lands of the Nanbu clan in 1928. Today it is still a gyobutsu (see picture below).


gyobutsu, tachi, mei “Ichi,” meibutsu Dōyo-Ichimonji, nagasa 80.0 cm, sori 3.8 cm

An Ichimonji blade which bears the signature of an individual smith – namely of Yoshifusa (吉房) – is the so-called Okadagiri (岡田切, see picture below). Yoshifusa was one of the most outstanding representatives of the Fukuoka-Ichimonji school and, according to tradition, was active around Hōji (宝治, 1247-1249).

After the Battle of Shizugatake, Nobunaga´s son Oda Nobukatsu (織田信雄, 1558-1630) ended their alliance with Toyotomi Hideyoshi by first choosing an indirect way. When the construction of Ōsaka Castle was finished in 1573, Hideyoshi invited all of his allies to the new stronghold. The primary aim was to find out who was still loyal to him and who was not. When Nobukatsu did not show up this was equal to a breach of loyalty but Hideyoshi did not want to lose this important general and so he requested the Nobukatsu-retainers Okada Shigetaka (岡田重孝, ?- 1584), Tsugawa Yoshifuyu (津川義冬, 1545-1584) and Asai Nagatoki (浅井長時, 1569?-1584) to persuade their lord to attend the gathering. But Nobukatsu saw himself confronted with a supposed conspiracy. On the sixth day of the third month of Tenshō twelve (1584) he in turn invited these three retainers to his castle at Nagashima (長島城), in Ise province, and killed them. According to tradition, Nobukatsu killed Okada Shigetaka himself and thereupon called the blade „Okadagiri“. Later the piece was owned by the Masuda family (益田) who were one of the elders of the Chōshū fief (長州藩). The Masuda eventually presented the Okadagiri to emperor Meiji. Incidentally, the action of executing the negotiators resulted in the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute (Komaki-Nagakute no tatakai, 小牧・長久手の戦い) and with the return of Nobukatsu into Hideyoshi’s ranks.


gyobutsu, tachi, mei “Yoshifusa,” meibutsu Okadagiri, nagasa 69.1 cm, sori 2.1 cm


*1 His name is also read Munechika.

*2 His actual name was Takauji (高氏). Dōyo was his priest name.

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