Echizen Sadatsugu KatanaEchizen Sadatsugu

periodEarly Edo (ca. 1630)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Token
nakagoubu, two mekugiana
meiEchizen no Kuni Shimosaka Sadatsugu
uramei(Mon) Kasane-do oyobi tabitabi Masse (no) Ken kore nari
meitoMasse no Ken: Sword of the Last Days
nagasa73.6 cm
sori1.9 cm
motohaba3.25 cm
sakihaba2.3 cm
kissaki3.8 cm
nakago nagasa10.85 cm
nakago sori0.15 cm

Shimosaka Ichizaemon is the founder of the Echizen Shimosaka line of swordsmiths and we know him under the name he adopted later in life, Yasutsugu. He is ranked as Jo-jo saku by Fujishiro and begins his work at the very end of the Muromachi period. He works comes primarily from the Edo (Shinto) period. He was employed by Yuki (Tokugawa) Hideyasu who was one of the sons of Shogun Ieyasu and the Daimyo of Echizen.

Hideyasu had been born to a concubine to Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1674 before Ieyasu's rise to the shogunate, and was originally named Tokugawa Ogimaru but his existence was hidden from Ieyasu's wife. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1584, Ogimaru was given in adoption to Hashiba Hideyoshi essentially as a hostage as part of the peace settlement. Ogimaru took the name Hashiba Hideyasu some time after this, combining the names of his adopted and biological fathers. Through his life he earned recognition on the field of battle as an able leader in the assault on Buzen-Iwaishi, the pacification of Hyuga, the siege of Odawara, and in the invasion of Korea. After Hideyoshi sired a son, Hideyasu was given to adoption to the Yuki clan in 1589 and took over its 111,000 koku holdings. After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he exchanged this fiefdom for one in Echizen of 670,000 koku and became Daimyo of the province. In 1604 he took on the Matsudaira surname, re-establishing his connection to the Tokugawa clan, and subsequently died in 1607. So from these dates of the end of his life, we can assume that his relationship with Yasutsugu must begin shortly after 1600.

We know that in 1603 Shimosaka Ichizaemon was summoned to Edo to work directly for Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu. It was at this juncture that he assumed the name Yasutsugu, the Yasu character being granted by Shogun Ieyasu. In 1607 he received the right for himself and his line to use the Tokugawa Aoi mon in his swords , and we find it usually engraved into the nakago. So it can be seen by these privileges that he was held in very high regard, and after this time he worked alternate years in Edo and Echizen, serving the Shogun and his son. He died in 1621, and two years later his son Yoshisue having changed his name to Yasutsugu on his father's death, took up residence in Edo.

oshigata Shodai Yasutsugu was an expert at copying koto blades, and was also employed to retemper important swords attributed to smiths like Masamune 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 styles. The copies he made of koto masterpieces featured horimono he made himself, and he copied them faithfully though he would impart hamon of his own design in these blades. He often worked in foreign steel (Namban Tetsu) and recorded this on his works.

Kinai Bori

The swords of both generation of Yasutsugu as well as Shimosaka Sadatsugu and Sadakuni often feature unique and interesting horimono which make them instantly identifiable as works of his school. These are said to have been made by Kinai who moved from Kyoto or Omi to Echizen. This artist would be the Shodai Ishikawa Kinai who died in 1681. He was eminiently talented, unto being called in a class all his own. We know his work because he signed some of Nidai Yasutsugu's blades as the horimono artist. A sample of Kinai work is seen to the right. You should take close note because it is the same theme as in this sword. 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). Really, the unique nature of Kinai's horimono makes for an easy kantei from a long distance to early Echizen when we see it applied on these swords.

This particular horimono 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 the 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 it several times and Sadatsugu had the horimono copied several times on his works so it was a popular target for utsushi. But perhaps now it is lost in time. It seems to have been owned by the Honda clan

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 gone for the first generation Yasutsugu. It's interesting as it points out the effort undergone for creating swords, that it was not beyond them to ship swords in the 1600s across the country in order to have the right artisan work on them.

The Kinai engraving method is named after the Shodai Kinai, and with some generation the craftsmen moved over to making tsuba rather than katana horimono, possibly starting with the second generation and extending through the sixth.

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 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. It's not uniformly agreed as a result when a blade is signed Shimosaka without Sadakuni, Sadatsugu, Yasutsugu, etc. following it, just who the smith was even before getting to outright editing of the signature. But generally we consider Shimosaka to be Yasutsugu.

A few years after he changed his name he seems to have been given the right to use the Aoi mon by Tokugawa Ieyasu, but not all references agree on the exact timing. Some say at the same time as the name change, and others cite a few years later. Not all blades carry the Aoi mon, it is on close to 50% of the Juyo Token of the first three generations behind, so it would seem to carry some significance when it was used. 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 in the front piece describes a sword made in Keicho 10 (1605) or 11 (1606) that was made on occasion of him being granted the Aoi mon and the Yasu ji. These dates disagree obviously.

On a small number of these blades, a second mon can be found which is based on the Aoi hollyhock. This is fairly rare to see the two-mon Yasutsugu works and whenever found, the second mon is presented on the lower part of the ura. This mon is the symbol of Honda Hida no Kami Narishige (1572 - 1647), who was the son of Honda Shigetsugu, and a samurai vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Narishige went along with Hideyasu as a hostage to Hideyoshi in 1584, and after the battle of Sekigahara, in 1602, Narishige became a minor daimyo on his own with a small fief of 5,000 koku. In 1613, Matsudaira Tadanao, the son of Hideyasu and husband of Tokugawa Hidetada's daughter Katsuhime became daimyo of Echizen after Hideyasu died. At this time Narishige was appointed karo (primary advisor) to the daimyo. Tadanao from all respects seems to have been weak and poorly regarded, was eventually exiled in 1622 and had also plotted the murder of his wife. From this I feel like Narishige was probably the real power in Echizen, as Tadanao didn't ever amount to much in power and ended life as a priest.

After Tadanao's exile, two events ocurred. His brother Tadamasa took over as daimyo, and at the same time Narishige saw his income increase to 63,000 koku and was awarded his own lordship over Maruoka. It seems to me from this, and his mon being on the Yasutsugu and Sadatsugu swords, that it is likely that Narishige remained as the true and stable power behind the scenes in Echizen after Hideyasu died with token governance from Hideyasu's children. In 1643 Narishige retired the headship of his family to his son Shigeyoshi, and died in 1647.

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 I think what we know about the relationships of these various swordsmiths. All of the Honda Swords 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 name: Masse no Ken or Masse no Tsurugi. I've also been given a reading as Matsunojitsu no Ken. The characters mean literally: Final Age Sword, or as I interpret, "Sword of the Last Days." More on that follows below.

Shodai Yasutsugu never used Narishige's name, but indicated that the sword was Among the possessions of Honda Hida no Kami on each of the following swords.

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, and the Aoi mon in the upper of the omote. An eighth is also a wakizashi listed in a book, seemingly without papers. Observations:

  1. One is a katana, and seven are wakizashi.
  2. Three of the eight are also Tokubetsu Juyo.
  3. All but the book blade bear exquisite horimono.
  4. All of them specifically mark their place of origin being Edo.
  5. All feature a citation to Honda Hida no Kami being the owner in the signature.
  6. All feature the mon of Honda Narishige in the nakago.
  7. The number of blades being eight 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).
  8. Three of these are Masse no Ken.

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 a katana copy of Sadamune (stated by the NBTHK).
  3. There is a tanto copy that looks like Shizu.
  4. There is another katana with the Masse no Ken inscription.
  5. 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 sword with Aoi mon by itself.

The Honda Swords: Nidai Yasutsugu

Nidai Yasutsugu has only two swords among the Juyo Token that mention Honda. These are not laid out the same as the swords above. They do not have the Masse no Ken inscription, and instead of saying they are among the possessions of Honda Hida no Kami, instead they state the name Honda Shichizaemon. Both of these swords are made in Genna 7 (1621). This is the same year that Shodai Yasutsugu died, interestingly enough. They do not bear the Honda mon either.

Tokubetsu Hozon Echizen Sadatsugu KatanaEchizen Sadatsugu Katana Papers

Tokubetsu Hozon Echizen 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 and he seems to have died around 1644. He was said to be a son of a resident smith Kanetsune and originated in Echizen Ichijodani. He 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 apparently 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.

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 by Yasutsugu and 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.

He 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 in spite of his father 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. 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. I feel simply that the business was split up and basically everyone would make more income as well as save on expenses by 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.

Like his teacher Yasutsugu, on some of his blades the horimono of Kinai can also be found. They are not frequent, and none of the Juyo Token I reviewed had any special horimono, nor have I seen any on the handful of Sadatsugu blades I have encountered in my life. The NBTHK though does state that magnificent Kinai horimono are found on his work in the 28th Juyo volume though the blade in particular they were reviewing does not feature any. This blade however, does, 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 for these.

sword picture There are in total five Juyo Token by Sadatsugu, and of these five (one being a yari), three bear the mon of Honda Narishige similar to this blade. 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. In the case of the wakizashi to the right, we have an Echizen Yasutsugu that has both Aoi mon and Honda Narishige's mon, as well as an inscription indicating that Yasutsugu made the it specifically for Honda Higa No Kami, and as well it carries a name saying that it is named Masse no Ken.

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.
  • 1600 — Battle of Sekigahara. Hideyasu becomes daimyo of Echizen. Honda Narishige made minor daimyo. Patronage of Shimosaka school begins from them for 40 koku of rice.
  • 1603 — 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), builds 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 two tribute blades 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. Nidai Yasutsugu never uses the 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.

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:

Kasane-dō oyobi tabitabi 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." Ken is a type of blade we often associate with ancient period, massive, straight blades. This character can also be translated as "ken", which comes from the chinese "jian" and is a different character from the Buddhist ken which can also be used as a general purpose word being sword.

To understand the meaning of the phrase Masse (no) Ken, which is literally "Final Age Sword", we need to look at the Three Ages of Dharma in Buddhism. 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 fearsome cutting ability that had been tested. It is something to keep you on the true path as well as could happen during the Age of Degenerate Dharma when surrounded by evil and lies. 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 in triumph, and served his lord truly assisted in governing Echizen and but then finally had to make up for the weaknesses in governance from both of the former daimyo's children. In my mind, this personal history had to feel to him like he was the one with his finger in the hole of the dike, trying hard to beat back the failing wisdom and lack of enlightenment of those around him, including those responsible for ruling. 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, and it makes perfect sense to see his mon accompanied by this inscription.

Echizen Sadatsugu Katana Koshirae

To the sword itself, the horimono shown on this sword are out of this world, 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 outstanding, with a gorgeous nie hamon with thick nioi deki and many activities. Sadatsugu seems to have pursued Soshu Hiromitsu or Go Yoshihiro with this work. Both of these smiths make vivid nie o-choji hamon, and in both of these smiths we see a very restrained and mild hitatsura as one of the forms. Particularly with Go there is a work style where there are tama and yubashiri throughout that do not form a full hitatsura but mature near the kissaki. I would not call this particular sword hitatsura but in the monouchi there is tempering near the shinogi and some tama which float free of the yakiba. This style is also present in the single daito that exists today by Hiromitsu. Sadatsugu's teacher Yasutsugu had access to many of these top works by these smiths, from which he made copies, due to his relationship with the Shogun and his students while assisting him in their duties in the workshop had to have been exposed to the same swords. Certainly though Sadatsugu found inspiration from the choji of Hiromitsu in this sword. It is an exciting artwork and exceptional will offer a lot of enjoyment for its future owner.

Because there are only three Juyo, and Shinto are very difficult to pass, this one too would be very hard to get through Juyo. However since none of the three Juyo bear all of the features of this sword, I think it is a coup to be able to have this one and I think it is superior to the Juyo examples for self evident reasons. I really have to believe that a blade like this, with all of the special features, has to be the best effort of the smith and crafted for a special reason. I believe it to be made for Honda Hido no Kami Narishige, which is the reason for featuring his mon and this special name for the sword, and I think I've backed up that rationale in depth.

This listing is particularly heavy with theories. 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.

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. 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.