Thou shalt not shorten me

Uesugi Kenshin (上杉謙信, 1530-1578), one of the most prominent military leaders of his time, felt one day for whatever reason compelled to have one of his Ichimonji blades shortened. The Ichimonji school emerged in Bizen province around the beginning of the Kamakura period. This province gave rise to many excellent master smiths since the late Heian period. Those early smiths are referred to as the Ko-Bizen School (古備前, lit. “early Bizen school”). From the middle Kamakura period the Ko-Bizen smiths were joined by the Osafune school (長船) which flourished until the end of the Muromachi era. But in this long tradition, the Ichimonji school with their congenial masterworks marked undoubtedly the culmination of all Bizen smiths. One trademark of the Ichimonji school was that their blades were mostly signed just with the character for “one” (jap. ichi, 一) and this is also the origin for the name of the school: “Ichimonji” means “character (for) one” or in the wider sense just “line” or “stroke.”

Thus one day Kenshin brought the blade to the house polisher of the Uesugi family who should carry out the shortening. He asserted that he will set about doing this as soon as possible and because it was already late in the evening, he stored the blade in the sword drawer (katana-dansu, 刀箪笥) and went to bed. Exhausted by the hard work he felt asleep quickly but had a strange dream in the middle of the night. There was a beautiful princess crying heartrendingly, begging the polisher not to hurt her. At the next morning the polisher (togi-shi, 研師) started his work as usual but he was not able to forget the unsettling dream. Towards the end of his work day, it was time for the Ichimonji of Kenshin and he started to file off the end of the tang. But as it was again rather late, he put aside the blade in the drawer unfinished. Again the princess appeared in his dream, this time the more desperate and under tears she beseeched the polisher: “Please stop hurting me!” In his dream he asked her name. “I am called Tsuru and I know that it is your order but please stop hurting me!”

Right at the next morning he went to the person responsible for the swords of the fief (on-koshimono, 御腰物) to tell him about his strange dream and to ask for advice. With frightening they found out that both of them had the same dream and they agreed that it has something to do with the Ichimonji blade in question. It was decided that works on the blade should rest until their lord Uesugi Kenshin had returned to the fief. As not to evoke any harm, he then decided that the blade should be left as it is and called in henceforth Himezuru-Ichimonji (姫鶴一文字).

There was a sword appraiser (kantei-ka, 鑑定家) called Hosoya (細屋) working for the Uesugi family who had studied under the Hon´ami family in Edo. Ten years after Kenshin´s death he compiled an oshigata collection of the blades in the possession of the Uesugi family in which the Himezuru-Ichimonji is mentioned in the following way:

Himezuru-Ichimonji nari. Jōjō, hyakkan, mine Ichimonji nari. Yakiba ō-midare nari.


“Himezuru-Ichimonji. Of highest quality, worth 100 kan, signed*1 ´Ichimonji´. Pattern of the tempered edge in ō-midare (large waves).”

The Himezuri-Ichimonji is nowadays preserved in the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum (Yonezawa-shi Uesugi-hakubutsukan, 米沢市 上杉博物館, Yamagata Prefecture) and is designated as jūyō-bunkazai. It is interesting that the depiction of the tang in the oshigata collection of the Amiya family (Amiya Oshigata, 網屋押形) shows only three of the now four peg holes and that the tang is in addition 2 cm longer as the present one. That means that the blade was shortened later regardless of Tsuru´s pleading.

However, Kenshin transmitted this sword to his heir Kagekatsu (景勝, 1556-1623) who was actually the son of his older sister because Kenshin himself had no children. Another sword which went from Kenshin to Kagekatsu is the famous Yamatorige-Ichimonji (山鳥毛一文字), lit. “mountain bird plumage Ichimonji,” called after its very flamboyant temper line reminding on the magnificent and dense plumage of a mountain bird. In the sword records of the Uesugi family the characters for the blade´s nickname are also quoted with their Sino-Japanese reading Sanchōmō.

Kagekatsu was as Kenshin a renowned sword connoisseur and compiled a list of the 35 best treasure swords of his collection, called Kagekatsu Kō Ote Erabi Sanjūgo Koshi (景勝公御手選三十五腰). Also interesting is that Kenshin had both Ichimonji blades mounted with identical koshirae (see picture below). Such an uchigatana-koshirae without tsuba is called aikuchi (合口).*2 In this chapter we learned that high-ranking bushi wore up to the Muromachi period koshigatana as companion swords (sashizoe, 差添え) to their tachi. Experts assume that Kenshin and other contemporary warriors wore quite long uchigatana as sachizoe to their tachi which were mounted without tsuba and thrusted through the belt like koshigatana. The reason for this practice are probably to be found within the permanent changes of turbulent Sengoku era: When the actual war sword – the tachi – was handed over to sword carriers in the camp, a higher-ranking general or military commander was then still able to call upon a “full” long sword in a case of emergency.


jūyō-bunkazai Himezuru-Ichimonji, mei: “Ichi,” nagasa 71.5 cm, sori 2.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, relative broad mihaba, koshizori, chū-kissaki, three mekugi-ana (one of them plugged)


kokuhō Yamatorige-Ichimonji, mumei, nagasa 78.3 cm, sori 3.2 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, deep koshizori, funbari, ikubi-kissaki, ubu-nakago


The two mountings, those of the Himezuru-Ichimonji on bottom, and of the Yamatorige-Ichimonji on top. Both mountings are designated together with their blades as jūyō-bunkazai or kokuhō respectively.



*1 The term mine (美禰) mentioned here, in some places at this oshigata collection written with the characters (見禰), is somewhat unclear in this context because it stands for the back of a blade mine (峰・嶺) or mune (棟). In the usual syntax of describing swords in earlier years, the signature is mentioned at this very place and so this part was translated as “signed ´Ichimonji´.”

*2 At such a mounting, the collar of the hilt (fuchi, 縁) meets (au, 合う) directly the mouth of the scabbard (koiguchi, 鯉口).

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