Hikoshirō Sadamune (彦四郎貞宗)

The best Masamune's disciple and his most talented and dedicated successor.

Sōshū Sadamune (相州貞宗) was Masamune’s best disciple and his most talented and dedicated successor. Unarguably, Sadamune followed his mentor’s style more accurately than anyone else, enriching it with his own characteristic elegance and refinement, and, in that way, created his own distinct and unique style. Sadamune’s birth name was Hikoshirō (彦四郎); there are two versions of his ancestry found in ancient books. According to one version, Sadamune was Masamune’s own son; this theory is presented in the following sources:

- In the Shinsatsu Ōrai (新札往来, 1367);

- In the Kanchi-in Bon Mei Zukushi (観智院本銘尽).On the first page of this manuscript, in the first column we find the name Masamune (正宗), followed further down by Gorō Nyūdō (五郎入道), and directly below that, Sadamune, accompanied by Hikoshirō Saemon (no) Jō (彦四郎左衛門尉). That, without doubt, indicates their direct bloodrelationship; in other words, a father son relationship;

- In a source by Takeya Ri’an (竹屋理安, 1589), where Sadamune is named as Masamune’s eldest son. Furthermore, the source states that Sadamune was born in Takagi (Ōmi Province), where he returned later to live for the rest of his life.

According to another version, Sadamune was born in Ōmi Province (近江), which was also referred to as Gōshū (江州), in a place called Takagi (高木); his father’s name is not known. Later, Sadamune moved to Kamakura, where he became one of Masamune’s disciples. Due to his considerable talent, Sadamune became the best of these disciples and later was given the honor of being adopted by Masamune. Furthermore, Sadamune was granted the right to incorporate the second kanji Mune (宗) from his mentor’s name into his own smith’s name.

Some sources state that the Yasu (野洲) region of Ōmi Province was the place where the master was born, while pointing to Takagi as the place he came back to at the end of his life. That is not, in fact, a contradiction but simply an insignificant inaccuracy. The full name of Sadamune’s place of birth is the Takagi settlement, situated in the Yasu region of Ōmi Province. That is the way Sadamune’s birthplace is described in, for example, the Kokon Kaji Bikō, and it serves to prove, again, that ancient sources were not always exact in their treatment of facts.

It should also be noted that older sources mostly uphold the first version, while more recent ones (e.g., Kotō Meizukushi Taizen (古刀銘盡大全 —1792) keep to the second one, which states that Sadamune was Masamune’s adopted son. That source asserts that during the Gen’ō era (元応, 1319–1321), Sadamune was about 20 years old; he was born in Takagi Gōshū in the 1st year of the Shōan era (正安, 1299) and died in his 51st year in the 5th year of the Jōwa era (貞和, 1349). Almost all sources confirm that Sadamune was born in Ōmi Province and differ only in the matter of his blood relationship to Masamune. If Masamune was indeed Sadamune’s father, the fact that Sadamune was born in Ōmi Province becomes difficult to explain. Ancient sources preserve the notes on Masamune’s numerous trips around the country; however, no information survived that would point to him staying in Ōmi for any period of time. There’s not necessarily any logical inconsistency here, if you take into account certain women’s possible migration from place to place, but it serves no purpose to theorize further on this matter, due to the lack of verifiable information.

Very rarely, some ancient books mention official titles used by various smiths from time to time. Some references to Sadamune’s official title have indeed survived, but sources differ on what exactly that title sounded like. The Kanchi-in Bon Mei Zukushi asserts that Sadamune’s official title was Saemon (no) Jō (左衛門尉). As was previously stated, this information is found in the first column of the very first page. However, due to that part of the manuscript being rather poorly preserved, it is barely legible and allows for a number of different interpretations. Besides, certain well-recognized authors, such as Fujishiro Yoshio (藤代義雄) in his book titled Index of Japanese Smiths, note that the title Saemon (no) Jō is often confused with the title Sahyōe (no) Jō (左兵衛尉). Both titles have similar meanings and both were derived from the concept related to defense of the left-side gates of a castle. It is difficult to say for sure which official title out of the two belonged to Sadamune, because no swords or oshigata of signed swords using either title have survived. We can only guess that the main Sagami line used Sahyōe (no) Jō as a hereditary title, because it was used by Awataguchi Kunimitsu. If that was the case, Sadamune could have inherited the title only if he were a direct descendant of the main Sagami bloodline. Thus, any documented evidence of the true official title used by Sadamune might serve as strong circumstantial evidence of his ancestry and especially of his direct relationship (or lack thereof) to that bloodline.

It is very important to ascertain Sadamune’s exact parentage. We can say for sure that only later, after moving to Kamakura, did Sadamune start to study the smithing techniques of the Sagami School. If we assume that Masamune was his adoptive father, any information on his natural father would help illuminate the techniques of the school that Sadamune had begun to study. Unfortunately, ancient manuscripts hold no exact answer. We can only guess that if Sadamune started his apprenticeship in Ōmi, his early development as a smith was influenced by two schools: Rai and Bizen. The most skilled and influential smith in Ōmi Province around Sadamune’s time was Mitsukane (光包) from the Tozu (戸津) settlement. Ancient sources state that he was born in 1278 and died in 1349. Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊, probably meaning the second generation) and Bizen Nagamitsu (備前長光) are mentioned as Mitsukane’s teachers. Therefore, it is quite possible that from an early age, Sadamune was familiar with techniques used by those schools. At a minimum, while still living in Ōmi, he began his apprenticeship under their influence.

Later, after moving to Kamakura, Sadamune started to follow the style of the Sagami School. Generally speaking, it is of no particular importance whether Masamune took his son, who had been born in Ōmi Province, to Kamakura, or whether Sadamune moved to Kamakura on his own and, thanks to his talent, became Masamune’s disciple and eventually his adopted son. The fact remains that Sadamune used to be Masamune’s disciple. Besides, some sources, such as the Kiami-bon Mei-zukushi (喜阿弥本銘尽), assert that Sadamune was the only disciple who personally studied with Masamune. All the others were only taught under his general oversight, while having different direct teachers.

Figure 1. Oshigata naga-mei Sadamune. Kōtoku Katana Ezu Shūsei, 1970, p. 34; Umetada Meikan, 1968, p. 46/2; Kotō Meizukushi Taizen, Volume 8, p. 23/2 (Meibutsu “Nagamei Sadamune”).

<.....> Analyzing old manuscripts that include oshigata of Sadamune’s swords, we come to the conclusion that the apex of Sadamune’s career most likely fell during the last decade of the Kamakura and the first decade of the Nanbokuchō period. In other words, it started in 1323 and ended in 1343.

Figure 2. Examples of Sadamune’s signatures on long swords and ko-wakizashi. Tōken Kantei Hikketsu, Hon’ami Yasaburo, 1905, Kotō, Volume 3, p. 37; Umetada Meikan, pp. 42/2 and 43/2; Kōtoku Katana Ezu Shūsei, p. 35.

Regarding the matter of Sadamune’s signatures, we can derive exact information only from the same surviving oshigata that are included in ancient sources. While doing that, we should hope that at the time of their creation, they were based on the real, authentic works. In that regard, the most valuable one is the oshigata of the ko-wakizashi that is included in the Kōtoku Katana Ezu Shūsei, which was signed with two kanji, 貞宗 (niji-mei), and was not dated. Similar examples of signatures can be found in the Kōzan Oshigata and in the Umetada Meikan. Most of the surviving oshigata, including the one for the Sadamune long sword, were signed in the naga-mei style: “Sagami (no) Kuni-jūnin Sadamune” (相模国住人貞宗) and dated. Swords signed with “Sōshū . . .” cannot be considered authentic. There are also some examples of long sword oshigata signed in the naga-mei style and not dated. 

Taking into account that information, as well as a significant number of surviving authentic swords made by Sadamune, unsigned but with nakago in their original shape, we can assume that Sadamune very rarely signed his works. A large number of old oshigata also refer to unsigned tantō with ubu nakago. Most likely, the master added signatures in the niji-mei style on his early works. That assumption is currently impossible to confirm, because no such swords survived, and we cannot draw conclusions based on the oshigata alone. If Sadamune signed his works in the naga-mei style, he almost always added the dates he made them. All these features are characteristic of the way the Sagami School smiths signed and dated their works. It seems that Sadamune was following the traditions started by the school’s founders. 

It is noticeable that some kind of horimono is always found on Sadamune’s works. Among the horimono subjects, we may encounter suken (素剣); Sanskrit symbols, bonji (梵字), of various forms; some types of rendai (蓮台); and kuwagata (鍬形), lotus flowers. The most common are futasuji-hi (二筋樋); bō-hi (棒樋) are less common; however, all types of hi on Sadamune’s long swords often ended after the yokote. Only the most skilled engravers were allowed to add horimono on the blades forged by the greatest smiths; therefore, all the engravings were not only of the highest quality, but were also made with fine taste and elegance. There is a theory that Daishinbō or some of his disciples engraved horimono on swords created by Sadamune, as well as on those by Yukimitsu and Masamune. <.....>

The main characteristics distinguishing Sadamune’s work are as follows:

Sugata: All the surviving katana have their nagasa shortened to the length of 71–72 centimeters, with a slightly elongated kissaki. The mune is an iori-mune, although blades with a mitsu-mune are also known. The main feature of a katana sugata is that they were all made during the transition between the Kamakura and the Nanbokuchō period. Earlier works might have a narrow mihaba and standard proportions. The majority of Sadamune’s swords have a wide mihaba and were made in the dabira-hiro (太平広) style. Tantō and ko-wakizashi vary from modestly sized ones made in the classical style to long and wide ones.

Jitetsu: The best hada made in the entire history of Japanese smithing, when it comes to beauty and quality. A classical ko-mokume hada (nashiji) is dense, bright, and deep, with chikei, yubashiri, and a great degree of nie activity in the ji area. The same hada characteristics are also observed in tantō, with their average quality being even higher. The steel is slightly bluish in color, sometimes with a light reddish tint.

Hamon: It is based on long, calm notare waves, which are sometimes broken by areas of gunome and midare variations. Along the entire line, strong and uniform nie are observed with a high density of kinsuji, inazuma, sunagashi, and tobiyaki spots. areas are extremely rare. Sometimes, standalone spots of certain hardening elements are observed, representing spawning hitatsura and ōgi-ba (扇刃). Some tanzaku (短冊) elements are observed in the monouchi area.

Bōshi: Only slightly undulating midare-komi or notare-komi; a few works feature a ko-maru-kaeri. The majority of Sadamune’s swords show a heightened activity and concentration of nie in the bōshi area, compared to the rest of the blade. Nijūba (二重刃—the second parallel habuchi line) also appears, as well as tama (玉) elements in the yokote area.

Horimono: All swords, long and short, have horimono in the form of bō-hi, futasuji-hi, ken, gomabashi, kurikara, rendai, and so on. On long swords, the hi ends after the yokote. All engravings are finely made, in stark relief, and clearly visible. The engraver was Daishinbō or possibly some of his disciples; it looks as if the engravings were made at the same time as the sword, not added later. It was the high quality of jitetsu that allowed such beautiful horimono to be added: the metal was free of even minuscule hidden defects, such as hollows or any foreign particles.

Nakago: There are no nakago with signatures or ubu among tachi and katana extant: all of them are shortened and unsigned. Many have nakago saki (茎先 —“point”) made in the kengyō type. However, we cannot say that this form was the most common for long swords. At the same time, for tantō and ko-wakizashi, nakago-ubu and a shallow kengyō were typical. He made tachi with a roundish nakago-mune and short swords with a kaku nakago-mune. The tangs of Masamune and Sadamune can be distinguished via their taper, but it is necessary to have experience to do so. 

Figure 3. Sadamune's elements of activity layout. Kokon Meizukushi Taizen, vol. 5, p. 18/1.

(excerpt from Chapter 6, pp. 132-159, of the Japanese Swords: Sōshū-den Masterpieces )

Original content Copyright © 2019 Dmitry Pechalov