Swordsmithing in the Edo Period

Irvine 19 Compressed.jpg

This woodblock print from the series Gekkō Zuihitsu depicts the Heian period swordsmith Sanjō Munechika as he forges the Ko-Kitsune for the Emperor Ichijō, with the Shintō deity Inari and a troop of ethereal foxes lending their aid. Ogata Gekkō, ca. 1887. From The Japanese Sword, 19. Irvine, Gregory. The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. First Edition. Trumbull, Connecticut: Weatherhill, Inc., 2000. Print.



This woodblock print, made by Ogata Gekkō in his 1887 series called Gekkō Zuihitsu (Miscellaneous Sketches by Gekkō), is called Inariyama Ko-Kaji: The Swordsmith on Mount Inari. In the lower right, the famous Heian-period swordsmith Sanjō Munechika forges the Ko-Kitsune (Little Fox) blade for the Emperor Ichijō. Meanwhile, on the left side, Inari, “the Shintō deity regarded as the guardian of smiths and metal workers,” takes up another hammer to assist Sanjō while an “ethereal” troop of foxes – “the earthly messengers or manifestations of Inari” – observe in the background, lending their divine presence to the blade’s creation.(1)

It is difficult to think of a weapon more iconic than the Japanese sword. It has a “continuous history of some 1,500 years” and “over 12,000 swordsmiths and 3,000 makers of sword-furniture."(2) It has been seen as “the physical manifestation of a kami” or divine entity.(3) And for many, both Japanese and otherwise, “The sword is the soul of the samurai,”(4) a symbol of that paragon of honor and chivalry who lived “to use [his] sword at a moment’s notice to kill, or be killed in the service of his master.”(5) Therefore, when Tokugawa Ieyasu established a shogunate which would effectively rule over Japan for the next two and a half centuries, it seemed only natural that he emphasize the idea of military preparedness – in the very first article of the 1615 Buke Shohatto or Laws for Military Households, samurai are told, “In time of peace, do not forget the possibility of disturbances. Train yourselves and be prepared."(6)

Irvine 33 Compressed.jpg

This woodblock print from the series Hyakunin Isshu shows the Emperor Go-Toba, dressed in full court regalia, assisting in beating out the sunobe for a new blade. Ogata Gekkō, ca. 1887. From The Japanese Sword, 33. Irvine, Gregory. The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. First Edition. Trumbull, Connecticut: Weatherhill, Inc., 2000. Print.



Throughout history, as forgers of what was arguably Japan’s most symbolic weapon, swordsmiths were among the highest-ranked in the artisan status group. Although technically inferior to agricultural laborers, blade-makers, along with crafters of sword-furniture and mountings, were highly respected; “Some artisans were even given the right to carry one sword and were almost, but not quite, granted samurai status."(7) In fact, “even samurai and court-nobles, not to mention some of the Emperors themselves, did not disdain to undertake the forging of a blade. The Emperor Go-Toba…declared the making of swords to be an occupation worthy of princes, and a few blades of his forging are still preserved in Japan."(8) Indeed, the process of sword-forging over the years developed into a set of ritualistic, quasi-religious practices – for instance, in the final stages of forging, the swordsmith donned a “ceremonial costume,” purified himself and prayed daily, cooked his food with a “sacred fire,” and forwent “sexual intercourse, animal food, and intoxicating drink.”(9) To return to the Inariyama Ko-Kaji above, the connection between swordsmithing and the divine seemed obvious at the time – for what weapon could be more vital to the way of the samurai, more exalted, and more sacred than the sword?

Robinson Plate 19 Compressed.jpg

Images of a wakizashi blade signed "Yasutsugu of Echizen at Yedo in Musashi province," a katana blade signed "Hankei," and another wakizashi blade signed "Nagasone Kotetsu Nyūdō." From The Arts of the Japanese Sword, Plate 19. Robinson, B.W. London, Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited, 1961. Print.




And in fact, quite a few fine-quality blades were made during the Edo period (ca. 1603 – 1868). However, Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate was essentially peaceful, with few violent conflicts of any note. Consequently, the Edo period is mostly characterized as a time when swords were “superior in quantity rather than quality."(10) For example, Suishinshi Masahide, one of the best swordsmiths of the time, was “scathingly alluded to by his contemporaries” for “running what almost amounted to a factory for sword-blades…with Suishinshi himself as ‘manager of the forging department’ and his pupils running a ‘ghost forging branch.’"(11)

Irvine 96 Compressed.jpg

An image of "a wooden scabbard with decoration of dark matt and fine mother-of-pearl lacquer on a dark red ground; metal mounts of silver, with details in gold, all on the theme of Fuden and Raiden, the wind and thunder gods." Ca. 1800. From The Japanese Sword, 96. Irvine, Gregory. The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. First Edition. Trumbull, Connecticut: Weatherhill, Inc., 2000. Print.




Several factors appear to have contributed this decline in standards. First, despite governmental emphasis on military preparedness, the fact remains that in peacetime, there was little motivation to refine the arts of war. Why labor extensively over a blade no one would ever really need except for ceremonies and special occasions? Indeed, “in every field of art, family tradition was faithfully observed. Sword makers were no exception, and consequently second generation in a family was obedient and inferior to the first generation, third generation to the second.”(12) In contrast, despite sumptuary laws prohibiting “showy fashions and the purchasing of expensive lacquerware,” there was “a great increase in the demand for fine decorative sword fittings” – not for the samurai class, whose prosperity had greatly dwindled over time, but for rich merchants and other wealthy peasants “who had acquired the right to carry a sword” and wanted to display their prestige as prominently and ostentatiously as possible.(13) In short, the practical need for swords diminished over decades of idyll, to be replaced by a desire for status-flaunting.

Matchlock Gun Compressed.jpg

A matchlock gun made of iron, wood, and ivory from the Edo period. "Matchlock gun (teppo)." Asian Art Museum. San Francisco, California, 2012. Accessed November 22, 2014.  http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/artwork/matchlock-gun. Web.

Second, it was becoming increasingly clear that the sword was rapidly becoming obsolete. Even before the Edo period at the 1575 Battle of Nagashino, Oda Nobunaga defeated his rival Takeda Katsuyori through the use of Western matchlock rifles. The “honour, tradition and the martial abilities of the individual warrior, together with his prized swords and fine armour counted for little in the face of the gun,” which any “common foot-soldier” could wield regardless of status.(14) Consequently, even though there was a “small number of well-known swordsmiths [who] were active and affluent,” as Edo period peacetime dragged on, more and more were forced into “borderline poverty."(15) Thus, under the Tokugawa shogunate, the art of swordsmithing remained a revered profession, but not necessarily a profitable one. And although the sword did still carry a great deal of metaphorical weight, in the face of guns and other modern weaponry, their practicality grew steadily more limited, leading to a stagnation of ideas and inspiration.

Irvine, Gregory, The Japanese Sword, 18. The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. First Edition. Trumbull, Connecticut: Weatherhill, Inc., 2000. Print.

2 Robinson, B.W., The Arts of the Japanese Sword, 8. London, Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited, 1961. Print.

3 Irvine, 18.

4 Ibid., 8.

5 Ibid., 8.

6Buke sho-hatto. In Sources of Japanese History, 206 – 208. Ed. David Lu. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

7 Irvine, The Japanese Sword, 74.

8 Robinson, The Arts of the Japanese Sword, 25.

9 Ibid., 25.

10 Homma, Junji, Japanese Sword, iii. Ed. The National Museum. Japan: The Kōgei-sha, 1948. Print.

11 Robinson, The Arts of the Japanese Sword, 23 – 24.

12 Homma, Japanese Sword, 64.

13 Irvine, The Japanese Sword, 95.

14 Ibid., 58.

15 Kapp, Leon, Hiroko Kapp, Yoshindo Yoshihara, Modern Japanese Swords and Swordsmiths, 37. First Edition. New York: Kodansha America, Inc., 2002. Print.

Swordsmithing in the Edo Period