Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗)

The best swordsmith in Japanese history.

According to the Kotō Meizukushi Taizen, Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗) was born in the 1st year of the Bun’ei era (文永, 1264) and died in the 2nd year of the Kōei era (康永, 1343) at the age of 81 (there is an arithmetic error in the source). During the Shōō era (正応, 1288–1293), he was in his 25th year, and during the Kenmu era (建武, 1334–1336), he was about 70 years old. At age 75, he came to the province of Mino, and at age 77, he returned to Kamakura. Masamune was either the adopted or the natural son of Yukimitsu and was a disciple of Shintōgo Kunimitsu and probably also of Saburō Kunimune. During his long life, he taught many smiths the sophisticated Sagami techniques. He played a key role in the school’s creation and in the development of its tradition. Some sources specify the name he received at birth as Okazaki Gorō (岡崎五郎) or as the family name Okajima (岡島).

In modern Japan, the name Masamune became a kind of synonym for quality swords and an expression of the highest level of craftsmanship. In Japan, he is known to almost everyone, even to those not familiar with the history of smithing. However, despite Masamune being a well-known legend, his name is still surrounded by a mystery unsolved since ancient times. In the history of Japan, no other smith has had more books and articles written about him and more research conducted on his life and works. Compared to other masters, people assume that we know everything about Masamune, down to the smallest details of his life—if it is possible to claim this about a master who lived 750 years ago. Nevertheless, many difficult and uncomfortable questions related to his creative activity are resolutely put aside at present. In fact, it is almost as if they were under an unofficial ban.

One such topic is a theory that Masamune did not exist in the form that we know him. In his time, Imamura Chōga (今村長賀, 1837–1910) set forth and substantiated this radical point of view. Some reputable researchers, such as Uchida Soten (内田疎天, 1871–1952), agreed with it, to a greater or lesser extent. A discussion of this theory during the Meiji era resulted in a serious dispute between Imamura Chōga and Hon’ami Tadataka (本阿弥忠敬, ?–1897). Their discussion contains interesting arguments on both sides and provides us with much more information about the creativity of great masters of the Sagami School than would a simple retelling of the standard history of Masamune, which can be found in any description of the Sagami School. Therefore, a detailed statement about these arguments and their analysis is extremely important in studying the work of masters of the Sagami School, especially Masamune.

<.....> Nevertheless, it should be noted that in the Sekiso Ōrai (尺素往来), the Kanchi-in Hon Mei Zukushi (観智院本銘尽), the Shinchō Ki (信長記), and the Sōgo Ōzōshi (宗五大草紙) of the Muromachi period, the name Masamune can be found many times. The first mention of Masamune in extant sources is in the historical document titled Sekiso Ōrai, which was written by a noble courtier named Ichijō Kaneyoshi (一条兼良, 1402–1481). There, the genealogical line appeared as follows: Bizen Saburō Kunimune (備前三郎国宗), Kondōgo Nakajirō (近藤五仲次郎), Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (五郎入道正宗), and Magoshirō (孫子四郎). This line seems quite unusual, but, if you look closely, you can find that Kondōgo is most probably Shintōgo (新藤五) Kunimitsu, and Magoshirō is Hikoshiro (彦四郎) Sadamune. Such inaccuracies are due to the fact that it is often difficult to recognize some kanji in old books, as many of them are written in a similar way and were confused with one another. The first “specialized” source where we can find the name Masamune is Kanchi-in Hon Mei Zukushi, which has been repeatedly cited (compiled in 1423 on the basis of documents known since 1316). In the chapter devoted to Shintōgo Kunimitsu, we can see the first genealogical line of the Sagami School, where Masamune is placed next after Yukimitsu, as his successor.

It is necessary to note a very important document, discovered only recently in 2017: Ryūzōji Bon Mei Zukushi (龍浩寺本銘尽). The document is dated 1351 and is formally the earliest published source where the name Masamune occurs. The genealogy here is presented in the following form:

Supplement to Chapter 5, p.110 of the Japanese Swords: Sōshū-den Masterpieces book

Figure 1. Ryūzōji Bon Mei Zukushi.

In many books, both old and modern, that describe the evolution of the Japanese smithing art, we can find many variants of the genealogy of the Sagami School’s masters. However, the most interesting and consistent version seems to be that in Uchida Soten’s book titled Dai Nihon Tōken Shinkō (大日本刀劍新考, 1939), on pages 448–449. It can be conventionally referred to as Kunimune’s line. It presents a slightly supplemented genealogy: compared to that of Uchida Soten, it mentions two additional smiths, Akihiro and Yoshihiro (do not confuse the latter with Gō Yoshihiro!). This genealogical chart of the Sagami School’s main line does not include every smith of the school. In old sources, we can find more names of masters who worked in this tradition and who were disciples of great and well-known masters of this school. However, the Sagami School genealogy is seldom presented in enough detail to include such rare names as Tsunamitsu and Shigemitsu. It should also be noted that this “tradition” of forgetting the names of certain smiths from this school is now translated as a total absence of works attributed to these masters, which cannot be said about appraisers of the swords in the past. Hon’ami experts did not ignore these names, and, as an example, we can mention a tachi (Jūyō No. 60), having an origami by Hon’ami Kōchū and attributed to Yoshihiro (吉広). The existence of this origami makes us think about the master to whom this sword would be attributed, if Hon’ami’s evaluation document had not survived.

The composition of the so-called Masamune no Jittetsu (正宗の十哲)—Masamune’s ten best disciples— was determined in different ways at different times and by different specialists. In modern literature, its composition is uniform and includes the following masters: Gō Yoshihiro (江義弘), Saeki Norishige (佐伯則重), Bizen Kanemitsu (備前兼光), Bizen Chōgi (備前長義), Hasabe Kunishige (長谷部国重), Sekishū Naotsuna (石州直綱), Chikuzen Samonji (筑前左文字), Yamashiro Rai Kunitsugu (山城来国次), Mino Shizu Kaneuji (美濃志津兼氏), and Mino Kinjū (美濃金重). This list did not always consist of ten smiths: sometimes it was supplemented by Kongōbyōe Moritaka (金剛兵衛盛高) and, at one time, it did not include Rai Kunitsugu, Naotsuna, or Chōgi (Nagayoshi). Therefore, summing up the data in old sources, we can assume that there were seven masters, namely: Gō Yoshihiro, Norishige, Kanemitsu, Kunishige, Samonji, Kaneuji, and Kinjū. According to virtually all sources, from old to modern ones, they were Masamune’s disciples at various times. Because of their “indisputability,” it is these masters whom we discuss in this book (Japanese Swords: Sōshū-den Masterpieces).

Figure 2. Dai Nihon Tōken Shinkō (大日本刀劍新考). Uchida Soten (内田疎天), 1939, p.448. [Supplement to Chapter 5, p.112 of the Japanese Swords: Sōshū-den Masterpieces book]

When analyzing the chart introduced above, you can see that it includes some names that are seldom mentioned in books describing the emergence and development of the Sagami School. However, there is no doubt that these masters really existed and worked in the style of the school. In particular, there were at least two masters named Masamune and two masters named Yukimitsu in the school’s history. To date, it is impossible to find works of some of these “unknown” Sagami masters. For various reasons, works by these masters did not survive or have not been classified into a separate group by NBTHK experts and are attributed to other masters of the Sagami School.

In general, the problem of “unknown” masters of the school is very complicated and virtually impossible to study at present. First, we need to answer one apparently simple question: how many masters worked at the Sagami School in Kamakura at any particular time? In practice, however, the simpler the question, the more difficult it is to answer. Old sources provide no statistics on the total number of smiths belonging to a particular school, especially with a breakdown into senior teachers, teachers, disciples, and apprentices. We have to be satisfied with snippets of information. For instance, there is evidence that after a severe flooding and/or landslide in 1591, which apparently happened at night, the settlements of Osafune, Fukuoka, and Hatakeda were almost completely destroyed. According to different sources, as a result of this natural disaster, from 1,000 to 1,500 smiths perished, but several families of smiths survived. Consequently, we can assume that in such a big center as Osafune, about 500 smiths must have worked.

Surely, extending these numbers to the Sagami School of the Kamakura period would be too big an assumption, but we must bear in mind that chronicles give us only a few more than 20 names of the school’s masters during 100-plus years of its evolution. Therefore, it is rational to assume both the existence of several generations of smiths and a total number of 50 to 200 smiths concurrently working in the forges of the school at any moment in time. History tends to record the names of only the great masters, but this does not mean that works of unknown makers did not survive. It is quite possible that their works exist in our time in an unsigned form, possessing many essential characteristic features of the Sagami School. That is why we should be very cautious and even critical when talking about the attribution of swords by great masters of the Sagami School, both nowadays and in the past.

Figure 3. Kyōgoku Masamune (京極正宗), zai-mei: Masamune. Family heirloom of the Kyōgoku clan, daimyō of the Marugame fief; was handed over to Emperor Meiji as a gift from the Kyōgoku family. Since then, it has been kept in the Imperial Household Agency.

As for Masamune’s smith name, it can be stated with a high degree of certainty that it existed prior to the appearance of the master who is considered the founder of the Sagami School and the best smith in Japanese history. Moreover, swords existed with Masamune’s signature in the style of niji-mei, which belonged to works of the “earlier” Yagorō Masamune. Some of them survived in old oshigata, and, to date, they are confused with samples of signatures of the “later” Masamune. Surely, it is impossible now to carry out a complete revision of history, as well as study the swords themselves to understand who in fact made them and when they were made, but we can assume with a high degree of probability that there were two different Masamune. One of them was a son of Kunimune, and the second was a son of Yukimitsu and then a disciple of Kunimune. Later, they were considered one and the same smith. In the Kokon Kaji Bikō, we can find data about as many as eight smiths from the Kotō epoch who bore the name Masamune. This confirms that the name was widespread at that time. Moreover, it is likely that such a “miscategorization” occurred not only with Masamune, but also other representatives of the school. When accurate information was not available about two or more masters with the same name, experts sometimes chose the simple method of considering them one person.

<.....> Furthermore, we note one more evident fact: if we consider the Sagami School in general, it does not appear as a “dynastic,” closed structure, like many other smith schools that were inaccessible to masters not related by kinship. Yukimitsu, Sadamune, and Masamune—the three greatest names in the history of the Sagami School—had no direct kinship with its founders. All of them were smiths who came from outside, from various other provinces, and it is quite possible that they were already accomplished masters. It is very likely that Sagami in the Kamakura period was a center of attraction for talented smiths, who took worthy positions in the hierarchy of the school not because of their origin, but due to their skills. This was the basis of the school’s rapid development and flowering, whereas the fact that in the Muromachi period the school became “traditional,” as all other schools were, was the cause of its decline. Over time, the Sagami School became a completely rigid structure, where knowledge was passed strictly to the eldest son, who took his appropriate place in the hierarchy, regardless of the level of his talent. That hermetic structure did not allow for any fresh infusion of talent and trends. It focused only on preserving the knowledge gained from previous generations. Because of the limited talent and skills of certain representatives of the school, this knowledge could not be reproduced in full and therefore was gradually lost. This began after large-scale hostilities took place in Kamakura in the summer of 1333. During these events in June, after the siege of the castle, Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞) captured the city, and the government system of regents from the Hōjō clan was abolished. As a result of these events, the capital was transferred to Kyōto, and for a long time Kamakura remained a rather unstable and dangerous place that threatened the authority of the central government residing in the new capital.

If we put together all the separate data collected from different sources and present in the biographies of various smiths of the Sagami School, we can see that all of them left the school and, consequently, Kamakura at about the same time. However, we also note the presence of certain “political” motives for why the masters left the school. Yet in virtually all cases, most chronicles explained that the masters left the school because it was the end of their training period with Masamune, and they needed to return to their native provinces. The fallacy of this reasoning is evident when we look at the example of most masters. There are credible reports that they worked in Kamakura for several decades, wanted to remain there, and did not limit themselves to any predetermined period of staying there, related to the length of their studies. The training itself could not have lasted that long, and one thing is quite clear: as long as Kamakura, with its vibe and the ingenious masters who worked there, provided an opportunity for creative growth, prominence, and, finally, profitable work, accomplished masters did not intend to leave this place. On the contrary, they strove to work in the center of the smithing world of that time.

It seems quite natural that the changes that occurred in Kamakura’s status and the rising instability in this region completely destroyed the current atmosphere of creativity in Sagami and in other schools. As a result, many smiths who had worked with Masamune and other great masters of the school moved to other provinces:

- Norishige and Gō Yoshihiro returned to their native province of Etchū,

- Samonji moved to the island of Kyūshū,

- Rai Kunitsugu and Hasebe Kunishige went to Kyōto,

- Kaneuji and Kinjū moved to the province of Mino, and

- Chōgi and Kanemitsu returned to the province of Bizen.

There is also no doubt that Sadamune, in turn, moved from Kamakura to Takagi (in the province of Omi). This happened most likely due to the influence of the above-mentioned factors. Moreover, as indicated at the beginning of this chapter, old sources contain reports that Masamune also went to Mino for two years at this same time. Among the Sagami masters who belonged to the main line, only Hiromitsu and Akihiro did not leave Kamakura. With respect to them, there is absolutely reliable information that they lived and worked mainly in Kamakura and did not change their place of residence. The circumstances in which they tried to maintain the existence of the school were most likely quite difficult. For example, there is available information proving that Hiromitsu was poor (see the corresponding chapter on this smith). This testifies to the difficult financial situation of the school, and keeping up the previous tempo of its development was hardly possible.

<.....> After this explanation of these facts and our conclusions, you can imagine the difficulties faced by NBTHK experts when attributing works associated with the name Masamune. To date, there are 81 works of the Jūyō category and higher attributed to this smith. This collection includes 32 swords of the Jūyō Tōken category, 20 swords of the Tokubetsu Jūyō category, 10 swords of the Jūyō Bijutsuhin category, 10 swords of the Jūyō Bunkazai category, and 9 swords of the Kokuhō category. As an important additional fact, it should be noted that 39 works in this collection (i.e., about half of them) are marked by Hon’ami kinzōgan-mei or shumei or by origami that were also issued by a member of the Hon’ami family. In this situation, realizing that NBTHK experts, who adhere to a kind of “corporate ethics,” are very tactful in expressing their opinion about swords attributed by the Hon’ami, we should also be cautious about researching and studying works associated with Masamune. We can use an alternate method of evaluation: buke-mekiki, assessing the general quality of a work in all its particular aspects. Nevertheless, we must understand that a conclusion that a work was made by “Masamune,” which was arrived at by taking into account all factors, would mean no more than “a work by some great master of the Sagami School of the highest class.”

Figure 4. A signature by Masamune and elements of activity layout. Kokon Meizukushi Taizen, Volume 5, p. 17/2.

The pricing policy currently established in the Japanese sword market confronts us with the highest prices for works of the so-called popular masters. In this case, the price is primarily formulated by considering the master’s fame, sometimes scandalous, and is not always based on the sword’s quality. It is no secret that all other things being equal, works by Masamune, Kiyomaro, Kotetsu, and Gō Yoshihiro will be the most expensive on the market. Sometimes, with regard to Masamune, the available documents that accompany a sword do not conclusively authenticate it as Masamune’s, but the dealer convinces a potential buyer to pay a “Masamune price” for a work by Shizu Kaneuji, if it was produced with the highest degree of artistry.

To date, no one has taken the liberty of making a final decision about the phenomenon of Masamune, taking into account the great respect people have for him, fully deserved in Japan and worldwide. Yet it would be wrong if we didn’t consider the facts stated herein when evaluating his works, or if we suppressed or ignored these controversial issues. In this matter, people should arrive at their own opinions and form their own attitudes. <.....>

In the Kokon Meizukushi Taizen (Volume 3, pp. 13/2,15/1), the main features of Masamune’s works are described as follows:

“His tachi have a somewhat narrow shinogi-ji and a mitsu-mune with a wide top face. The kissaki is elongated. The kitae is silky itame and the steel is purplish-blue and brilliant. The yakiba is a midareba or a notareba, which may start (in the machi area of non-shortened swords) with a narrow yakidashi with some tobiyaki. The ha is nie-laden and also ara-nie appear and interpretations in midareba may show tanzaku-ba in places. The nie are compared to snow that has fallen on bamboo leaves. At a midareba or hitatsura, the ji is bluish and the ha whitish and full of nie. A notareba rather features mountain-shaped or thin hangetsu elements and may also show angular chōji at the yakidashi. Some elements of the ha widen and resemble an open fan (ōgi) and tama-like elements can appear in the ji. An ōgi-ba is usually seen around 1 shaku (~ 30 cm) from the habakimoto area, or about 2 or 3 sun (6~9 cm) in case of short swords. Roundish tamaba are usually seen within the bōshi. Short swords are relatively thin but wide and have a mitsu-mune with a wide top face. When it comes to the signature, it is mostly tachi and short swords in suguha that are signed and blades tempered in midareba are only rarely signed and their mei varies in size. The tangs of tachi have a roundish, and those of short swords an angular mune. The yasurime are shallow sujikai at tachi and those of short swords rougher but also sujikai. Tachi and short swords may feature horimono like hi or ken and blades with no engravings at all are rather rare. But it has to be mentioned that the Uji’i (雲林院) tachi does not have any engravings.”

In Ōseki Shō (reprint, 1978, p. 23), the distinguishing features of Masamune’s works and his signature are described more briefly:

"The yakiba of this blade is whitish and nie-laden, the ji is clear and resembles the face of a cutin-half pear. The color of the ji is blackish and moist and looks as if snow has fallen on it. The nakago-mune is angular, yasurime there are sujikai tip of the tang is angular and angled at the right. Gorō Nyūdō resided in Akaike (赤池), in Owari Province for a brief period of time. Note that the lower hook of the central vertical stroke of the lower (示) radical of the character for “mune” reaches the upper horizontal stroke."

(excerpt from Chapter 5, pp. 108-129, of the Japanese Swords: Sōshū-den Masterpieces )

Original content Copyright © 2019 Dmitry Pechalov