This story has its origins around the swordsmith Kunihiro (国広) who founded later in his career in Kyōto´s Horikawa district (堀川) the very successful Horikawa school of the same name and became thus known as one of the so-called “founders” of the shintō (新刀),*1 the “New Sword.” Kunihiro, whose first name was Tanaka Kintarō (田中金太郎, 1531?-1614), was not only a swordsmith but also a samurai serving the Itō family (伊東) which controlled parts of Hyūga province on Kyūshū. After the downfall of the Itō in the year 1577, Kunihiro traveled as a swordsmith through several provinces of Kyūshū until he appeared at the famous Ashikaha School (Ashikaga-gakkō, 足利学校) in Shimotsuke province in the 18th year of Tenshō (天正, 1590). According to tradition, the Ashikaga school was founded already in the early Heian period and was with more than 3,000 students towards the end of the Muromachi period the biggest academic center of Japan. But why came Kunihiro all the way from Kyūshū to the eastern Kantō area? Some say that he seeked refuge from the turmoils going still on back then on Kyūshū. In addition, the then head of the school – the Buddhist priest Sōgin (宗銀) – came from lands of the Itō too. Sōgin took over the management of the school in 1579 and it is likely that they knew each other already from their time on Kyūshū.
The lands on which the Ashikaga school was runned were under the control of Nagao Akinaga (長尾顕長, 1556-1621),*2 a retainer of the Odawara branch of the Hōjō clan and then lord of Tatebayashi Castle (館林城). But the boldness and military power of Nagao were a thorn in the side of Hōjō Ujimasa (北条氏政, 1538-1590) – the then head of the Hōjō and lord of Odawara Castle (小田原城) – who tried to get rid off Nagao by accusing him falsely of a disregard of courtesy to the Hōjō family. Ujimasa placed each 20,000 men at the disposal of his brother Ujitada (氏忠, ?-1593) and his nephew Ujikatsu (氏勝, 1559-1611) and ordered them to regain Tatebayashi Castle. The buildup of troops spread like wildfire among the population of the local Ashikaga district because it was thought when the Hōjō were able to capture the castle they will not halt and conquer the entire district. And so a quite respectable army was levied there too. Kunihiro, who was able to look back on some achievements from fightings on Kyūshū, was entrusted with the command of an ashigaru unit.
Initially it seemed to be an easy victory for the Hōjō but it turned into a ten-day siege of Tatebayashi Castle. The high priest of the local Morinji temple (茂林寺) was already viewing the piles of corpses in his inner eye and strongly pushed to negotiations. With this request he came at the right moment because the Hōjō-samurai got sick of the besieging. In addition it turned out that they were bluffing concerning the number of their troops. Nagao Akinaga agreed in handing-over the castle to the Hōjō without a fight but for that he wanted to be appointed as lord of Ashikaga Castle (足利城). After this incident Nagao rewarded the population for their support and also Kunihiro got an official letter of appreciation and a yari of Sōshū Yoshihiro (相州吉広) who was a student of Hiromitsu who was introduced in this story.
But the overall situation in the Kantō was still unstable because shortly later – towards the end of the 17th year of Tenshō (1589) – was at making plans to finally destroy the Hōjō completely. Ujinao (氏直, 1562-1591), son of Ujimasa and the last head of the Hōjō clan, scheduled a big family conference which ended in the decision to barricade in Odawara and to face a siege.*3 All remaining retainers were ordered to Odawara Castle and in this case also Nagao Akinaga was “consulted,” appointed with the defense of the northwestern part of the castle. In this part of the castle the forge was located and Nagao – seeing his near end – called for Kunihiro to make him a special sword for his last battle.
After his oath of allegiance to the Hōjō in the 14th year of Tenshō (1586), Nagao Akinaga was granted by Ujimasa with a sword of Chōgi (長義).*4 Kunihiro made a copy of this Chōgi blade (see picture below) and chiselled the name of Akinaga as its owner. The signature of the utsushi-mono reads: “Kyūshū Hyūga-jū Kunihiro saku – Tenshō jūhachi-nen kanoe-tora nigatsu-kichijitsu – Taira Akinaga” (九州日向住国広作天正十八年庚刁貮月吉日平顕長), “made by Kunihiro from Hyūga, Kyūshū – on a lucky day on the second month Tenshō 18 , year of the tiger – Taira Akinaga.” Hideyoshi´s siege of Odawara started in the second month of the 18th year of Tenshō and so this signature corresponds exactly to the historical facts.
Interesting is that also the original blade of Chōgi bears a signature applied by Kunihiro, namely “Honsaku Chōgi – Tenshō jūhachi-nen kanoe-tora gogatsu-mikka – Kyūshū Hyūga-jū Kunihiro no mei o utsu – Tenshō jūyon-nen shichigatsu nijūichinichi, Odawara-sanpu no toki shitagau yakata-sama kudashi-okare nari – Nagao Shingorō Taira no Ason Akinaga shoji” (本作長義天正十八年庚刁五月三日ニ九州 日向住国広銘打天正十四年七月十一日小田原参府之時従屋形様被下置也長尾新五郎平朝臣顕長所持), “Original by Chōgi – signature applied by Kunihiro from Hyūga, Kyūshū, done on the third day of the fifth month Tenshō 18, year of the tiger – [the blade was] granted on the 21st day of the seventh month Teshō 14 together with a residence for the following to Odawara – owner [of the blade] Nagao Shingorō Taira no Ason Akinaga.”
The question is now what where the backgrounds of this signature, and in the following I would like to speculate about why Kunihiro added this signature to the original blade of Chōgi. It could be possible that Kunihiro was ordered to shorten the blade and to mention explicitely the original maker and the then owner. Or the blade was presented to Nagao already as shortened Chōgi and he ordered Kunihiro to add the signature in question. But obviously the copy (dated second month) was made before the signature was added to the original blade. And it is also obvious that the copy was modelled on the already shortened blade because both show about the same length and proportions. It is rather unlikely that Nagao had him made a shorter but otherwise identical copy of his original Chōgi. The most likely explanation is that Nagao had him made an utsushi-mono in the second month of Tenshō 18 and when the situation developed to the disadvantage of Odawara – the siege ended in the seventh month – he called for Kunihiro again for a signature, to have him as owner and the backgrounds of the granting immortalize on the original blade.
jūyō-bunkazai katana, mei (see text above), nagasa 71.2 cm, sori 2.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, ō-suriage, broad mihaba, thin kasane, deep sori, ō-kissaki
jūyō-bunkazai Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro, mei (see text above), nagasa 70.6 cm, sori 2.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, broad mihaba, thin kasane, ō-kissaki
However, the siege ended without bloodshed. The surrender of the Hōjō was followed by the usual executions and punishments, many committed seppuku, Nagao Akinaga´s lands were confiscated and he himself was put under the control of Satake Yoshinobu (佐竹義宣, 1570-1633), lord of Ōta Castle (太田城) in Hitachi province where he died later lonely but peacefuly. The original blade of Chōgi is nowadays preserved in the Tokugawa Museum and is mentioned as in the possession of the Tokugawa family the first time in a sword register from the fifth year of Keian (慶安, 1652). Once again, the exact backgrounds of the way it came to the Tokugawa is unknown. Well, Satake Yoshinobu sided with Ishida Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara which meant a punishment and reduction of more than half of his lands. Later he supported Ieyasu at the siege of Ōsaka and so it is likely that the blade came this way from Akinaga over Yoshinobu to the Tokugawa family. The history of the copy and the associated ghost story was gathered and written down by Sugihara Shōzō (杉原祥造), a member of the sword association Chūō Tōken Kai (中央刀剣会), which had the chance in the 1920´s to examine the blade and draw an oshigata of it.
According to Sugihara, the copy of Kunihiro went after the death of Nagao to a certain Ishihara Jinzaemon (石原甚左衛門), a remaining vassal of the Hōjō. Ishihara´s income was quite trimmed and so he saw himself compelled to sell the blade. Together with his pregnant wife he set out to the next big town – Komoro (小諸) in Shinano province – when suddenly the contractions started. Far away from their destination he decided to carry his wife to the next valley where they had seen a column of smoke. But they found only a small almost ruined hut in which an old women with silvery-white hair lived.
“Madam,” asked Jinzaemon very polite, “can my wife rest in your warm hut until I have obtained some medicine in Komoro?” She replied with a scary grin: “It is an honour and pleasure for me.” Immediately he set off to Komoro at a run and several hours later he came back to the old hut, but from a distance, he heared his wife crying. He rushed through the door and saw that the old women was just on eating the newborn baby! He drew his blade by Kunihiro and cutted down at the witch but his blow was not fatal and so she was able to escape through an open window. This was followed by a mad rush through the thicket of the forest and Jinzaemon was able to follow her trail of blood until he reached a small fissure in a rock. Still with his bloody blade in the right hand he shouted in the crack: “You can hide but I will smoke you out!” He gathered all the leaves lying around and made a fire right in front of the fissure. Soon deep black clouds of smoke penetrated into the cave and soon the witch came out crawling. She tried to took Jinzaemon by surprise and flew over his head but as he was a trained warrior, he thrusted at her, slicing her body from the left to the right side. After this incident he called his blade Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro (山姥斬り国広). Yamauba (山姥) – also pronounced as yamanba – is a mountain crone found in Japanese folklore.
Shortly afterwards it came to the Battle of Sekigahara and Ishihara Jinzaemon, who had become a rōnin, went to Hikone (彦根) in Ōmi province because he hoped for being employed by the local Ii family (井伊). “Anything goes” was the matter of those days and when he should be able to achieve some victories or at least to display a great bravery, maybe he could expect a steady employment as official vassal of the Ii clan. When he made his approach he met an Ii vassal called Atsumi Heihachirō (渥美平八郎)*5 whose sword broke shortly before. “We samurai must stick together and so please accept my blade as a present,” said Jinzaemon, probably as act of ingratiation to the Ii, and handed him over the Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro. The Ii sided with Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara and Jinzaemon´s plan worked: he became a retainer of the Hikone fief under Ii Naomasa (井伊直政, 1561-1602).
Until the Meiji Restoration the blade remained in the possession of the Atsumi family but when the living conditions worsened for bushi, he pawned it at a local soy sauce dealer called Kitamura (北村). It came as it had to come and he was not able to buy it back and so it was bought by a certain Mr. Mii (三居). It was owned by him at least to the Taishō era (大正, 1912-1926) because it was him where Sugihara Shōzō had the chance to examine it. Today the Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro is privately owned in Tōkyō.
*1 The last two decades of the 16th century was a time of upheaval for Japan. The economy and culture focused the more on the constantly growing metropols of Kyōto and Ōsaka and this meant a strong attraction for artists, craftsmen, and of course swordsmiths too. So far the swordsmiths got their steel from local smelting works but now, due to the expansion of the transportation system, raw materials were available more or less everywhere in the country. This in turn led to a “thinning” of the forging traditions developed since the Heian period and so the early Keichō era (慶長, 1596-1615) meant a turning point from the centuries-old tradition of the “Old Sword” (kotō, 古刀) to the “New Sword.”
*2 With full name Nagao Shingorō Taira no Ason Akinaga (長尾新五郎平朝臣顕長).
*3 The name of this conference, the so-called “Odawara Conference” (Odawara-hyōjō, 小田原評定), has survived to this day, namely as a term for negotiations which drag on such a long time until it is too late for the right decitions. In the concrete case, the family conference of the Hōjō sat as long until the sieging army of Hideyoshi marched up right before the castle. But the besieged lacked nothing and so a comparison to the Congress of Vienna of 1814 suggests itself. The Field marshal and writer Charles-Joseph Ligne (1766-1814) characterzied the proceedings of the congress with the words: “Le congrès danse beaucoup, mais il ne marche pas.” (The congress dances, but does progress.)
*4 Chōgi, who worked in Bizen province, is traditionally dated to the Kenmu era (建武, 1334-1338) and was one of “Masamune´s Ten Students.”
*5 Here the story deviates from historical facts because according to records of the Hikone fief, Heihachirō – who had an income of 300 koku – died in the 14th year of Genroku (元禄, 1701). So it is impossible that he met Ishihara Jinzaemon right before the Battle of Sekigahara.