Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

Shimosaka Sadatsugu

periodEarly Edo (ca. 1630)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token
nakagoubu, two mekugiana
mei越前国下坂貞次
Echizen no Kuni Shimosaka Sadatsugu
uramei(立葵紋) 重胴及度々未世剣是也
(Tachi-Aoi Mon) Kasane-do oyobi tabi-tabi Masse no Ken kore nari
nagasa73.6 cm
sori1.9 cm
motohaba3.25 cm
sakihaba2.3 cm
kissaki3.8 cm
nakago nagasa10.85 cm
nakago sori0.15 cm
price -sold-

Shimosaka Ichizaemon is the founder of the Echizen Shimosaka line of swordsmiths and we know him best under the name he adopted later in life, Yasutsugu. His family had been engaged in swordmaking in Shimosaka Village, of Sakada district in Omi province. His father is thought to be a smith named Hironaga and his grandfather was Kanemasa. Kanemasa is thought to originate from Mino, and there is another Shimosaka smith named Kanesaki. Given his name, he may also be a son of Kanemasa, and also signed Echizen Shimosaka so another possibility is that this was the art name of Ichizaemon.

Omi province borders Echizen province, and Shimosaka Ichizaemon is thought to have made the move around 1596 to Echizen and it may be that the whole Shimosaka school made this move. In 1600, Yuki Hideyasu was sent to Echizen by Tokugawa Ieyasu and allowed to change his name to Matsudaira Hideyasu, and there he founded the Echizen Matsudaira clan.

Hideyasu had a complicated history. He was originally named Tokugawa Ogimaru and was born in 1574 to one of Tokugawa Ieyasu's concubines before Ieyasu's rise to the shogunate. His existence was hidden from Ieyasu's wife, and Ieyasu leaned on his loyal retainer Honda Shigetsugu to shelter her while she gave birth.

Shigetsugu was a man in which Ieyasu had great faith, and by the end of his career he was a general in the Tokugawa army. Shigetsugu as a warrior had earned the nickname of Oni Sakuza (鬼作左). This name is something he earned in battle, and means something like the Lone Demon, so from this we can get an idea what he was like on the battlefield.

After Nobunaga's death and the resulting struggle for power between Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ogimaru was sent as a hostage to Hideyoshi as part of the 1583-1584 peace agreement between the two. Honda Shigetsugu had to give up his son Narishige to the hostage situation, though Narishige was allowed to return one year later. Narishige had established his own strong record on the battlefield fighting for Ieyasu, and was said to have some laconic wit to him.

This type of hostage holding was done under the formality of adoption, so Ogimaru changed his name to Hasheba Hideyasu, using Hideyoshi's surname at the time. His new personal name combined characters of his adopted and biological fathers. He would later be adopted into the Yuki clan and became Yuki Hideyasu with a fiefdom of 110,000. In 1600 when Ieyasu granted Hideyasu control of Echizen, was also allowed to reconnect to the Matsudaira clan which had given birth to the Tokugawa. As founder and daimyo of the Echizen Matsudaira his fief was massive with a production of 670,000 koku. Shortly after this, in 1602 Ieyasu granted Honda Narishige a tiny fief of 2,000 koku in adjoining Omi province.

Though Shimosaka Ichizaemon is written as coming to Echizen before Hideyasu, it may be that it was Narishige's presence in Shimosaka's home province of Omi that was the initial contact and sponsored the move to Echizen as Hideyasu and Narishige had so many connections through their fathers and being hostages together.

Transfer to Edo

At the time of Hideyasu's death in 1607, his son Matsudaira Tadanao at the age of 12 inherited Echizen province. The income of the province had grown to 750,000 koku.

On this same year or the year after, Ieyasu summoned Shimosaka Ichizaemon to Edo and asked him to make swords there. As he had an existing relationship with the Matsudaira in Echizen, this resulted in Shimosaka splitting his time between Edo and Echizen. It is thought however that he spent the majority of his time in Edo. Ieyasu was quite thrilled by this swordsmith's work and granted him the Yasu character from his own name, and this triggered Shimosaka to change his name to Yasutsugu. Around the same time, Ieyasu also granted him the right to use the Aoi hollyhock mon on his works. These were engraved into the nakago of the swords made to order by the Tokugawa.

In the years of 1612 and 1613, there was some monkey business going on with the Echizen fief and retainers taking advantage of the youth of Tadanao. Ieyasu seems not to have been happy with this, and sent Honda Narishige to Echizen as Karo (elder advisor) to the 18 year daimyo. From this we can see the respect that Ieyasu had for Narishige, as this basically put his grandchild under Narishige's supervision. In this move, Narishige and was given Maruoka castle in Echizen along with a much improved 40,000 koku income. It is likely at this point that he received the title of Hida no Kami to go along with his castle and new fief. He in turn, spent money supporting and sponsoring the Shimosaka school, and requested a great number of master works from Yasutsugu.

Tokugawa Aoi mon (L) Honda Narishige Tachi-aoi mon (R)
Tokugawa Aoi mon (L) Honda Narishige Tachi-aoi mon (R)

It's not clear exactly when Narishige came into contact with Yasutsugu, but his new position and income allowed him to take up the sponsorship of Yasutsugu during his returns to Echizen province. Yasutsugu experimented with Nanban Tetsu (foreign steel, imported from Europe), and Narishige requested many great works from Yasutsugu including copies of famous swords. Narishige had been granted the use of a mon based on the three-leaf hollyhock Aoi mon of the Tokugawa, and this mon is called the Tachi-aoi mon (standing Aoi).

He like Ieyasu, granted Yasutsugu the right to use this mon in his works. We never see it used without the Aoi mon however, and it is always positioned to the inferior of the Tokugawa mon. In this Narishige would seem to be expressing deference to his own patron Ieyasu.

When both of these mon are present, they indicate custom made by Honda Narishige and Yasutsugu wrote into the nakago of these that they were Among the property of Hida no Kami. It's not clear if Narishige had these made as gifts or out of his own interest as a retired warrior who saw the wars of the end of the Muromachi period first hand. But they usually mark the finest work of Yasutsugu. Sometimes Narishige's orders featured only the Aoi mon, and sometimes no mon at all. And the Tokugawa orders do not list a customer, but simply show the Aoi mon. This use of the Aoi mon was granted to the generations of Yasutsugu who would follow Shimosaka Ichizaemon.

It can be seen by these various privileges that Yasutsugu was held in very high regard by Ieyasu and Narishige both. During the final battles between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans in 1614 and 1615, Yasutsugu would even follow Ieyasu to the field and oversee work on swords. Honda Narishige would attend those battles as well.

We have to bear in mind that during this time the Shimosaka school remained in Echizen and Yasutsugu would have brought students with him to Edo when he worked there.

After the defeat of the Hideyoshi and the burning of Osaka castle in 1615, Ieyasu put Yasutsugu to work retempering the grand masterpieces that had unfortunately lost their hamon to this fire. Among these works were famous pieces by Yoshimitsu, Sadamune and other great smiths. Yasutsugu often made utsushi (faithful copies) of these, and sometimes made many copies of the same sword. In the current period, Yasutsugu's copies are all we know of some of those original swords as the originals are now lost. It's my belief that these utsushi were made as test beds in which he could experiment with hamon in order to assure himself of what the final product would be before beginning work on the semi-destroyed masterpieces.

Ieyasu died in 1616, and by 1621, Matsudaira Tadanao was shirking his duties to the Shogunate out of spite and in 1622 tried to have his own wife poisoned.

The second Shogun Hidetada was not amused and reacted by banishing Tadanao to Bungo province, giving him a massively reduced income of 5,000 koku and Tadanao was forced into the priesthood as a result. Tadanao's son Mitsunaga was not allowed to inherit and sent off to the Takada domain in Echigo. Tadanao's brother Tadamasa who had a good record fighting on the battlefield was now given a shot to not screw it up and became the daimyo of Echizen.

Narishige was also rewarded by Hidetada at this point by granting him the status of an independent daimyo and his income was increased to 63,000 koku.

In 1621 Yasutsugu died, and about two years later his son Yoshisue changed his name to Yasutsugu and inherited the school. This seems to be roughly around the time of the banishment of Tadanao. He like his father took up work in Edo and continued the tradition of using the Aoi mon in his works. The relationship with Honda Narishige however seems not to have transferred to the nidai Yasutsugu as we never see Narishige's mon or name mentioned on the nidai's work. The nidai continued all of the traditions of shodai Yasutsugu however, used the Aoi mon, experimented in Nanban Tetsu, and also copied masterpieces such as the Ataki Sadamune though he mostly stuck to original works.

Fujishiro ranked the Shodai at Jo-jo saku, but he has many works that are Tokubetsu Juyo, and several Jubi and two Jubun. With this and the great regard he was held in during his time, I think this is one of the instances where Fujishiro is off a little bit, as it is all in keeping with the highest ranking.

Shishi Sadamune utsushi by Yasutsugu
Shishi Sadamune utsushi by Yasutsugu

Utsushi-mono

Baichiku Sadamune utsushi by Yasutsugu
Baichiku Sadamune utsushi by Yasutsugu

Shodai Yasutsugu was an expert at copying koto blades, and was also employed to retemper important swords attributed to smiths like Sadamune that had been burned in fires and had lost their hamon. In style, he was was able to produce swords in Soshu, Bizen, Yamato, Yamashiro and Mino traditions. Yasutsugu's works feature both faithfully copied horimono and those of his own invention and sometimes the utsushi would be more like inspired works in terms of this and the hamon. He often worked in foreign steel (Namban Tetsu) and recorded this when he did so in the nakago.

Kinai Bori

Yasutsugu is said to have performed his own horimono but also employed a specialist engraver from the Kinai school. We see work of Kinai in swords of both the first and second generations of Yasutsugu as well as Shimosaka Sadatsugu and Shimosaka Sadakuni. These horimono are often very interesting and are specific to the Shimosaka school, making them easy kantei points.

Kinai refers to Shodai Kinai Ishikawa who moved from Kyoto or Omi to Echizen. Kinai did this horimono engraving until his death in 1681, but he left behind a school which eventually turned to tsuba making and continued for many generations.

There is a story which says that the shodai of the Kinai moved to Echizen from Kyoto or Omi. Backing this up, there is a piece with a mei of GOSHU KINAI [Goshu is the alternate name for Omi], and compared to a piece with a mei of ECHIZEN JU KINAI it is far removed in time.

Therefore, whatever the case may be regarding Kyoto, it is appropriate to believe that he moved to Echizen from Omi. Originally the shodai Kinai was a token kirimonoshi (sword engraver), and we occasionall see horimono engraved by the hand of Kinai, such as sukashi in a frame, Taki Fudo (a Buddhist deity), kurikara ryu (dragon around a sword) and such works in Echizen Yasutsug, Sadakuni, and other master swordsmiths of Echizen. For example, it is not in the shodai Yasutsugu, but in a wakizashi by the nidai with a nengo of Kanei 5 (1628), there is a soemei of DO KUNI KINAI HORU KORE [Kinai, of the same province (Echizen), carved this]. Therefore, we can surmise that the activity of this school was from before the Ishikawa Kinai who died in Enpy 9 or the Takahashi Kinai who died in Genroku 9 (1696). In contrast to the delicacy of the Umetada dragons, these are masculine.

Moreover, he did not forget elaborateness, he forms a separate class, and was an eminent craftsman who originated the Kinai engraving method. However with the moving of Yasutsugu to Edo, he did not go with him, but stayed in Echizen as of old, and his descendants changed over to tsuba craftsmanship, but it is not certain at which generation of Kinai they began making tsuba. Nihonto Koza

A sample of Kinai work is seen on the Baichiku Yasutsugu to the right. You should take close note because it is the same theme as in this sword and the same horimono artist. There are several Juyo Token by Yasutsugu showing this particular theme (Juyo 5, Juyo 22, Juyo 24, Juyo 33 - Tokuju 14) and one by the nidai (Juyo 15).

This particular horimono theme is copied from the Meibutsu Baichiku Sadamune (梅竹貞宗). Baichiku is the alternate pronunciation of Umetake which means Plum and Bamboo and is the description of its horimono. It's difficult now to find the original of this sword, it may have been lost and I am still researching it. Shodai Yasutsugu copied the Baichiku Sadamune several times, with his best work passing Tokubetsu Juyo. Sadatsugu had copied the same horumono several times on his works, so it was a popular target for utsushi. Though I can't find the original, it seems to have been given by Tokugawa Ieyasu to Nagasaka Charikuro Nobumasa.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

When the nidai Yasutsugu moved to Edo in 1623, Kinai remained in Echizen, which means that the blades must have been shuttled back and forth for horimono before finishing. The same would have been true for the first generation Yasutsugu. It's an interesting point as it lets us understand the effort undergone for creating swords at this time, that is, that it was not beyond them in the 1600s to ship swords across the country in order to have the right artisan perform his work.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

Shimosaka and the Aoi Mon

The swords of Yasutsugu from the early part of his career are signed Shimosaka and some use his title of Higo no Daijo, and some time after being granted the right to use the Aoi mon they become signed Yasutsugu. Shimosaka was also used by the nidai Sadakuni and by Sadatsugu.

The exact timing of when Yasutsugu was given the right to use the Aoi mon by Tokugawa Ieyasu is subject to some disagreement. Some say at the same time as the name change, and others cite a few years later. Not all blades carry the Aoi mon, however we find it on close to 50% of the Juyo Token from the first three generations, so it would seem to mark these blades as carrying extra significance. The Nihonto Koza cites old sword books on this matter:

Yasutsugu was granted the use of the Aoi mon in Keicho 8 (1603), but the shodai did not indescriminately apply the mon.

At the same time the Nihonto Koza describes a sword made in Keicho 10 (1605) or 11 (1606) that was made on occasion of Yasutsugu being granted the Aoi mon and the Yasu character. So, these two dates in the Nihonto Koza disagree.

As mentioned above, sometimes the mon of Honda Hida no Kami Narishige is found on these works, inferior to the Aoi mon.

When Narishige became an independent daimyo in Echizen province, he continued sponsoring the Shimosaka school and we can see custom orders he placed with the smith Shimosaka Sadatsugu. These works no longer featured the Aoi mon, but placed the Tachi-aoi mon in the superior position formerly occupied by the Aoi mon. They no longer featured inscriptions about Hida no Kami himself. So in this, he seems to have now modeled his own sponsorship similar to how Ieyasu had sponsored Yasutsugu. As mentioned above, the nidai Yasutsugu seems not to have continued any particular relationship with Narishige but stayed very close to the Tokugawa. There is just one I can find currently that says it belonged to Honda Shichizaemon on the nakago, but his mon is not on this and the Hida no Kami title is omitted. It is dated 1621 and aligns with the death year of the Shodai.

It is the case that Ieyasu and Hidetada had dispatched Narishige to supervise the mess in Echizen province that Tadanao was making. And after this his own power only grew. By 1643 Narishige retired and passed the control the Honda family to his son Shigeyoshi, and Narishige would die in 1647.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

The Honda Swords: Shodai Yasutsugu

During my study of Yasutsugu while preparing this article about Sadatsugu, the special association with Honda Narishige became very clear and has some implications for this sword and possibly for the relationships of these various Shimosaka swordsmiths. All of the Honda Swords by Yasutsugu bear an inscription saying that the daimyo Honda Hida no Kami owned them. Some of these blades bear a special inscription that indicates they have a name, and this name was used repeatedly. The reason for this is not clear just yet but I make some speculations below. This inscription is 末世劔 which reads as a nickname (in Japanese, called a ): Masse no Ken The characters mean literally: Final Age Sword, or maybe better put in English, Sword of the Last Days. More on that follows below. These works also had cutting tests performed on them, and these seem to be early tests that predate the Edo testing families. The inscriptions are by the smith himself indicating that the sword had cut through multiple stacked bodies, and this process was repeated many times, and as such the sword had earned its name.

Shodai Yasutsugu never used Narishige's name on the works that Narishige sponsored, but indicated that the sword was Among the possessions of Honda Hida no Kami on these examples.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

Honda Mon Group

There are seven Juyo Token by shodai Yasutsugu that bear a secondary mon of Honda Narishige in the bottom of the ura, with the Tokugawa Aoi mon in the upper of the omote. An eighth is also a wakizashi listed in a book, seemingly without papers. Items nine and ten are Jubi katana, and the eleventh is a Jubi wakizashi in hitatsura that looks like a Hiromitsu utsushi. Observations:

  1. 3 are katana, and eight are wakizashi.
  2. 3 have gone on to Tokubetsu Juyo.
  3. 3 are Jubi.
  4. 7 bear exquisite horimono.
  5. All of them specifically mark their place of origin being Edo.
  6. All feature a citation to Honda Hida no Kami being the owner in the signature.
  7. All feature the mon of Honda Narishige in the nakago.
  8. The number of blades being eleven is close to the number of years Yasutsugu spent in Edo (which is either 9 or 10 based on every other year, beginning in 1603).
  9. Five of these are Masse no Ken.
Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

Honda Mei Group

In addition to this I noted the following blades stated as owned by Honda Hida no Kami, but have no mon at all, and were made by shodai Yasutsugu with the following additions. I will note them by their characteristics:

  1. There is a tanto copy of Yoshimitsu (inscribed as such by the smith).
  2. There is another tanto copy of the meibutsu Oyako Toshiro Yoshimitsu (inscribed as such by the smith).
  3. There is a katana copy of Sadamune (stated by the NBTHK).
  4. There is a tanto copy that looks like Shizu.
  5. There is another Juyo katana with the Masse no Ken inscription.
  6. There is one wakizashi not papered by the NBTHK in 2005, and was in the Museum of Japanese Sword fittings. It has the most simple horimono of the group, a plum tree with blossoms, the Masse no Ken inscription, and is the only one made in Edo for Honda Narishige without his mon. I will call this the Plum sword.

Aoi Mon Group

Finally there is one Juyo sword with Aoi mon by itself, and three Jubi. These swords bear a note that they were owned by Narishige in the mei. The three Jubi are all Masse no Ken as well, and one of them is a copy of the Ataki Sadamune.

The Honda Swords: Nidai Yasutsugu

Nidai Yasutsugu has one sword among the Juyo Token that mention Honda. This is not laid out the same as the swords above. It does not have the Masse no Ken inscription, and instead of saying they are among the possessions of Honda Hida no Kami, instead it states the name Honda Shichizaemon. This sword is made in 1621 which is the year the Shodai died and was maybe the last sword that Honda Narishige asked the Yasutsugu smiths to make.

Detail of Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana
Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu KatanaShimosaka Sadatsugu Katana Papers

Tokubetsu Hozon Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana

Now that you have gotten through all of the background above, we can speak more to the swordsmith Echizen Shimosaka Sadatsugu. Fujishiro ranks him at Jo-saku for superior workmanship and places him working in Echizen at 1624. He seems to have died around 1644. He was said to be a son of a resident smith Kanetsune and originated in Echizen Ichijodani. This Kane name again we see related to earlier Shimosaka smiths and traces back to Mino.

Sadatsugu bore the right to use Hyuga no Daijo and Hyuga no Kami which are seen on some of his works, and at times has been mistaken for two different smiths as a result of this. Some of these blades mention Shimosaka, and some don't, which is part of the problem.

Sadatsugu is said to have started out by signing Sadamichi. There are a couple of truths that we can usually rely on, and that is that a strong teacher-student relationship in nihonto usually is accompanied with the sharing of one or both characters of the teacher's name with the student. The typical example would be MasaMUNE to SadaMUNE. For this reason, I have a bit of trouble believing that Sadamichi will be the son and student of a swordsmith named Kanetsune, and then end up in charge of a completely unrelated and very successful smith's forge.

I speculate the following: Higo no Daijo Sadakuni who seems to have been a bit elder to Yasutsugu was working in Echizen already at this time, is highly ranked and based on the teacher-student relationship of names, I think it possible that Sadamichi was a son or student of Sadakuni originally. As well, there seems to be some kind of relationship, possibly as brothers or in lineage, between Sadakuni (elder, or teacher) and Yasutsugu (younger or student), which would also strengthen this theory by basically making these smiths part of one extended family. The eventual inheritor of Sadakuni, the nidai Sadakuni, also signs signs in the pattern of Yasutsugu and Sadatsugu, using Echizen Ju Shimosaka Sadakuni. I think the evidence probably indicates that this group was fairly intertwined and the lineages somewhat commingled. The workmanship would also appear to support this as does the use of Kinai engraving.

Sadatsugu was likely signing as Sadamichi for some period of time in the early 1600s, and Sadakuni is supposed to have died in 1615. This leaves a gap of 6 years wherein I think Sadamichi was taken on as a student by Yasutsugu. By the end of this period, he receives a character from his new teacher's name and becomes Sadatsugu. This doesn't actually work out exactly right as these smiths use a different tsugu character, but Sadatsugu's first character character sada means upright; constancy; righteousness, and his tsugu has a literal meaning of order; sequence; next. Tanobe Michihiro sensei is fond of his own art name Tanzan, taking the zan character which was used by his teacher Kunzan (Dr. Honma Junji). The alternate reading of zan is yama and it means mountain. Tanobe sensei's art name then reads literally as research mountain, reflecting his position as head researcher at the NBTHK at the time he took the name.

I think it's not a coincidence that Yasutsugu's student is Sadatsugu as a homonym and when you look at the name it seems to read to me as faithful follower and would seem to follow the same theme. It is possible then that he never received the tsugu of Yasutsugu but changed his name when his teacher died but did not presume to take the same tsugu character. Instead with this name he indicates he was a faithful follower of Yasutsugu through the homonym and reading, and possibly also of his patron Honda Hida no Kami.

This would explain his appearance on/around 1624 around the time Yasutsugu dies, but embracing all of the hallmarks of the Yasutsugu school in full swing and skill. He is considered after all as one of the primary students of Yasutsugu and the NBTHK cites him as being influential.

This family crest in the Tachi-Aoi design belonged to Honda Awa-no-kami Narishige who sponsored Shodai Yasutsugu, founder of the Echizen Shimosaka school. Therefore, it could be that this blade was also commissioned by the local governor and sword patron. It was admitted as Juyo Token in 1981. NBTHK Token Bijutsu English

Sadatsugu uses the Honda mon prominently as can be seen in this sword and in Juyo reference works, and as I stated previously this would indicate that he had a good deal of control at the forge after the death of the shodai Yasutsugu; especially given the fact that the nidai Yasutsugu never used it along with the shodai making such a point of it on his most exquisite works. I cannot find any Juyo blades by the nidai Yasutsugu that carry the Honda mon, and with it being associated with chumonuchi to Honda Narishige, it makes me actually doubt information that he continued the alternate years service in Echizen. Rather as the Shodai was thought to actually have spent more time in Edo than in Echizen, this at least I think is the case of the nidai or possibly that his connection to Echizen was only trivial.

There just is no longer any connection to Narishige present in the blades after his departure date of 1623, while it is there and obvious for Sadatsugu so we know that the sponsorship funds were directed away from the Yasutsugu line and to Sadatsugu. I feel that a reasonable theory is that the school was split and everyone would make more income, as well as save on expenses, with Sadatsugu remaining in Echizen and the nidai Yasutsugu remaining in Edo. This would allow them to exploit business in both regions much more efficiently rather than not being present in one location half the time. I think also that the fact that Sadatsugu seems to have gained this strong relationship with the Echizen daimyo, but could not use the Aoi mon, would confirm him to be related closely enough to the nidai Yasutsugu so as to take over responsibility of the forge but not a son of Yasutsugu so unable to use the Aoi mon. This would satisfy some kind of brotherly relationship between Yasutsugu and Sadakuni, making Sadatsugu and the nidai Yasutsugu cousins. His origin with the name of Sadamichi remains congruent with this theory.

This is a katana of the 1st generation Echizen Hyūga no Kami Sadatsugu (日向守貞次). There are on the one hand works of Sadatsugu which show magnificent Kinai-bori, but on the other hand also such like this which shows the standing aoi crest of Honda Hida no Kami Narishige (本多飛騨守成重, 1572-1647) who was a karō elder to the Echizen daimyō and a supporter of the swordsmith Yasutsugu (康継).

The accompanying soe-mei “kasane-dō oyobi tabi-tabi masse no ken kore nari”, which means “[this blade] cut repeatedly through stacked bodies and shall thus be nicknamed Sword of This Final Age”, is also found on blades of master Yasutsugu and as also the signature is similar in style to Yasutsugu´s Shimosaka-mei, we can be positive that Sadatsugu was an influental swordsmith in the direct vicinity of Yasutsugu. This katana shows an oustanding deki among all works of Sadatsugu and also the characteristic features of that smith, i.e. in direct comparison to Yasutsugu a hamon with a more conspicious amount of chōji. [Note: this sword was listed by Seiyudo for 6,500,000 yen]. NBTHK Juyo Token Nado Zufu

Juyo Shimosaka Sadatsugu example made for Honda Narishige with Kinai Bori and Masse no Ken inscription
Juyo Shimosaka Sadatsugu example made for Honda Narishige with Kinai Bori and Masse no Ken inscription

Like his teacher Yasutsugu, on some of his blades the horimono of Kinai can also be found. The NBTHK states above that these horimono are magnificent, and this sword would be one such example. They are not frequent, and none of the Juyo Token but for the one shown here had any special horimono. The horimono on this example follow the same pattern as this blade, but do not extend the full length. This blade however features full length horimono similar to an example in the Yasutsugu Taikan. The Taikan example however lacks the Honda mon. And it is strikingly similar to those found in several of the two-mon blades of Yasutsugu as shown in the first example above, which I think seals the attribution to Kinai.

There are in total five Juyo Token by Shimosaka Sadatsugu with one being a yari with the Hyuga no Daijo Fujiwara Sadatsugu mei. Three of the four katana bear the mon of Honda Narishige like this blade does. Like Yasutsugu, not all blades seem to carry the mon, so it seems to have been used in special circumstances. As I showed above, every time shodai Yasutsugu used this inscription or the Honda mon, it was a work that he also inscribed as the property of Honda Higa no Kami. I believe that when his student emulated this, it was for the same reason, that these are dedicated blades for Honda Hida no Kami and so feature his mon. Again his rationale is not entirely apparent for making these, if it was for his collection or to use as gifts.

Honda/Shimosaka Timeline

I've constructed the following timeline according to various references, Juyo translations, and basically whatever I could read in swords and signatures, as well as my own theorizing about Sadatsugu (those are followed by an asterisk, I was tempted to use blinking text but discretion is the better part of valor).

  • 1584 — Hideyasu and Honda Narishige given as hostages to Hideyoshi.
  • 1596 — Shimosaka Ichizaemon established in Echizen. Higo Daijo Sadakuni also established along with other Shimosaka smiths.
  • 1600 — Battle of Sekigahara. Hideyasu becomes daimyo of Echizen. Patronage of Shimosaka school begins from Hideyasu for 40 koku of rice.
  • 1602 - Honda Narishige given first income of 2,000 koku.
  • 1603 or 1607 depending on references — Shimosaka Ichizaemon summoned to Edo, receives Yasu character from Ieyasu, becomes Yasutsugu and works every other year in Edo for Ieyasu.
  • Sadatsugu working under Sadakuni under the name Sadamichi at this time. *
  • Honda mei group blades are made here. *
  • 1607 — Hideyasu dies, Tadanao takes over as daimyo. Yasutsugu given right to use Aoi mon. Begins working alternate years in Edo.
  • Masse no Ken katana, Aoi mon katana made here, first Edo tribute Plum sword made after those two in this timeframe. *
  • Yasutsugu given right to use Honda mon, begins using it on special orders / gifts to Honda Narishige. *
  • 1613 — Tadanao placed under supervision of Narishige. Narishige is granted fiefdom of Maruoka (40,000 koku), Maruoka Castle in October.
  • 1615 — Sadakuni dies (year is uncertain). Sadamichi begins working under the name Sadatsugu. *
  • 1621 — Yasutsugu dies, Yoshisue becomes the nidai Yasutsugu. Makes blade for Honda Shichizaemon (Narishige?).
  • 1622 — Tadanao exiled. Tadamasa made daimyo of Echizen.
  • 1623 — Narishige's income increased to 63,000 koku. Nidai Yasutsugu moves to Edo, begins using Aoi mon on his work. Never uses Honda mon.
  • 1624 — Sadatsugu's official work period begins.
  • Sadatsugu given right to use Honda Narishige mon on certain swords and also makes use of the Masse no Ken inscription.
  • 1644 — end of Sadatsugu's work period.
  • 1647 — Honda Narishige dies.
Example with full Kinai bori but no Honda mon, from the Yasutsugu Taikan
Example with full Kinai bori but no Honda mon, from the Yasutsugu Taikan

Masse no Ken: Sword of the Last Days

The three Juyo Sadatsugu that have the mon of Honda Narishige also carry the same inscription as this sword, which is an extended version of what is present on Yasutsugu above. It has been an item of fascination for me, as the message is somewhat dark. It reads in total:

重胴及度々末世劔是也
Kasane-dō oyobi tabi-tabi Masse no Ken kore nari.

This translates as, This blade cut repeatedly through stacked bodies, and as such this is (named): Sword of the Last Days. This is to begin with, an early cutting test as was practiced in Echizen by Yasutsugu. The character used for ken (劔) from the chinese jian and is a different character from the Buddhist ken (剣) which can also be used as a general purpose word for sword.

The upright Aoi (Tachi-Aoi) crest in the nakago represents Honda Hida-no-kami Narishige, who was the top-ranking karo serving the Echizen clan (a branch family of the Tokugawa) and patron of Yasutsugu. This Sadatsugu blade also has the same commending inscription that is present in Yasutsugu's works. As it says the blade is worth treasuring for endless generations, even Yasutsugu's works bearing it are only select ones, not to mention Sadatsugu's. This masterful piece is one of his three works all of which have the the Juyo Token designation. NBTHK Token Bijutsu English

The NBTHK notes here that Yasutsugu used this phrase to denote special blades and that this inscription was a note to treasure the sword. There is a missing item in this reading though, which is that the phrase is using this somewhat antique Chinese character for sword reading as jian.

This 末世劔是也 phrase is antique Japanese and reads in Chinese as Mòshì jiàn shì yě and in Japanese as Masse no Ken. Moshi (末世) and Masse in Japanese refer to the Final Age or Last Age of the three ages Dharma in Buddhism. The whole phrase means This is a sword for the Last Age.

In the first age, the Age of True Dharma, or the Former Day of the Law, is the period which surrounds the Buddha has he lives and before he passes to Nirvana. The Age of Simulated Dharma, is a period of one thousand years following his death, where it is possible to follow his teachings and still achieve enlightenment, though the teachings are fading and only resemble the truth. The third period is the Latter Day of the Law, or the Age of Degenerate Dharma, where the truth has been lost, society is in collapse. The world will be filled with war and evil, and asura (demons) walk the land. For people in this period, there is no more hope of enlightenment and rebirth, though there is hope still of salvation.

Masse is used interchangeable with Mappo, and seems to be equivalent to the End Times or Last Days in the Christian faith, especially since when the Final Age is over, the Wheel of Dharma will turn and the Future Buddha will rewrite the world with a new world based on enlightenment. This makes the reading to be very dark and somewhat apocalyptic, implying that the end of society, all things right and true, and the world itself would soon come. So I feel that the best reading of the name as a result is Sword of the Last Days in order to capture the feeling that this represents.

The Lotus Sutra states:

At the horrible time of the end, men will be malevolent, false, evil and obtuse. They will imagine that they have reached perfection when it will be nothing of the sort.

During the Heian times, it was believed that the Final Age was approaching, and during the centuries of wars that would follow, beginning in the Kamakura and leading up to the battle of Sekigahara, it might have been very easy to believe that this transformation was underway.

When we couple this name of the sword along with its cutting test, it can be seen as impactful, that this was a sword for the End Times, with tested cutting ability and custom ordered for a daimyo.

In particular, when we look at Narishige's personal history, it can snap further into focus. This was a samurai who fought in battles, losing once to what would seem to him to be the forces of evil and being given over as a hostage. Eventually he rose up in power, served his lord faithfully and was rewarded while he saw the Echizen Matsudaira daimyo removed in disgrace. He seems to have survived and done a good job in spite of what was around him, but I could see him agreeing with the sentiment that you need a worthy blade in a time filled with corruption, evil and incompetence, all of which he had seen and lived through. It makes perfect sense to see his mon accompanied by this inscription.

The Yasutsugu Taikan has an entry devoted to this inscription. The summary indicates that the literal reading is agreed, and that the take home fact from it is that they were the blades that the swordsmith himself felt were his top work. The author has then assigned a meaning that it should be a sword to be handed down in perpetuity.

Masse no ken — Mainly seen on works of the first generation Yasutsugu, but also on some blades by the second generation and Shimosaka School smiths, we frequently find inscriptions like Masse no ken kore nari (末世劔是也), Masse no Ken kore nari (末世ノ剣是也), Masse no ken (末世之剣) and similar types. [Translator’s note: Note the explicite mention of the particle no in some of these cases that tell us the proper reading of Masse no ken.]

Masse is a term from Buddhism and means “Age/world where Buddhism has declined,” that is, it refers to degenerate period in history or a decadent age. Such inscriptions can be interpreted as Yasutsugu using humble language and refraining from open pride of his works to refer to corresponding blades destined to be made for such times. However, we also find inscriptions of the type Masse no takara/hō (末世宝) and therefore it appears to be more appropriate to interpret the inscription as “fine sword that shall be handed down in perpetuity.” Consequently, blades with such inscriptions can be regarded as works the maker has utmost confidence in, and in terms of the blades that I have seen personally, the inscriptions are indeed mostly found on outstanding masterworks. That is, they are not found on early works, but on works made after the smith had received the permission to engrave the hollyhock crest on his tangs and had changed his name to Yasutsugu, which underlines the aforementioned interpretation of the smith being confident in his blades being masterworks appropriate for being handed down in perpetuity.

As indicated, such inscriptions are also found on a few works of the second generation and of smiths who appear to have been Yasutsugu’s students, e.g., Shimosaka Sadatsugu (下坂貞次) and the first generation Yamashiro no Kami Kunikiyo (山城守国清). These blades all aim at the first generation Yasutsugu’s works, but apart from these examples, such inscriptions are no longer found with any of the later generations of Yasutsugu. The exact reasons and circumstances for Yasutsugu using these terms, however, remains unclear.

I would point out that these blades with this inscription in the Shimosaka school are strongly associated with Narishige's custom orders as mentioned above, and that his custom orders stop with the single blade made in the year of the Shodai's death. In fact I wonder now if that blade was partially made by the Shodai and then left to complete after his death by the nidai.

Conclusion

To the sword itself, the horimono shown on this sword are extremely unusual on a katana, covering it from machi to yokote and bearing the hallmark style of Kinai as seen in Yasutsugu and referred to by the NBTHK as present on this smith's works. The craftsmanship of the sword is also excellent, with a gorgeous nie hamon with thick nioi deki and many activities. It is an exciting artwork and exceptional will offer a lot of enjoyment for its future owner.

Because there are only five Juyo, and Shinto are very difficult to pass, this one too would likely be hard to get through Juyo. On the other hand, there is precedent as seen with the Juyo example above. Since none of the five Juyo bear all of the features of this sword, nor does the example in the Yasutsugu Taikan, I think it is a coup to be able to have this one with every feature. I think it stands with the Juyo examples given this fact. As the NBTHK indicates, these blades were special orders for Honda Hida no Kami Narishige, and are things to be treasured.

This listing is particularly heavy with some connect-the-dots of my own. However there are a lot of mysteries opened up by the behavior of these smiths and a lot of data fits nicely together like puzzle pieces. I think it makes a lot of sense when gathered together as a whole. Regardless of this, Sadatsugu is indeed placed among the best of his line, along with the nidai Sadakuni and Tsugutoshi and the NBTHK cites him as an doubtlessly related to Yasutsugu.

Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana Koshirae Left
Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana Koshirae Right

This rather massive sword is also accompanied by fine quality Bakumatsu period koshirae, in gold and shakudo. This style I think is called omeshi kojiri 御召鐺, or denchu kojiri. It is intended for wear in the palace and the shape is intended to evoke an older style with a tiger's tail attached.

The shape of such a koshirae begins with a typical oval cross section and then becomes faceted as we move down the body of the koshirae.

Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana Koshirae Detail 1
Shimosaka Sadatsugu Katana Koshirae Detail 2

It is a very impressive display item to show off one of the famous early Shinto period schools and can stand in any collection. I think it's just a great package, unique and complete, and one to be proud of. Together, with name, exquisite horimono, cutting test, and koshirae, I think this sword stands as possibly the smith's masterpiece. I'm very pleased to be showing it here, and perhaps it can protect you too, in the final age or any accidental zombie apocalypse.

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