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[Hidden Wonders of Japan] Shogun Ieyasu’s Treasured Battlefield Sword Originated in Spain

Little attention had been paid to the beautiful gilded leather sword scabbard. But now it’s surprising history is revealing Ieyasu’s relations with the West .

The Sankei Shimbun

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During the Edo period but after Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s death, his armour and sword, which he wore on battlefields, were enshrined in the treasure house by the shogun’s tomb at Nikko Toshogu Shrine.

One of the treasures, the “kinkara-kawazutsumi-tachi”, is a sword scabbard wrapped in “kinkara-kawa”, or tanned calfskin leather with patterns carved into it and gilded with gold. Because it does not have a sword blade, the artifact was stored in the Toshogu Treasure House (also in Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture) and had not been publicly displayed.

Recently, however, it was discovered that the scabbard was made in Spain in the 16th Century to early 17th Century, and has its own historical value. 

It joins the oldest existing mechanical Western-style clock in Japan, housed in the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine (Shizuoka City), as an important historical artifact revealing the relationship between Ieyasu and Spain in Edo-era Japan. 

Ieyasu’s Beautiful Sword

Details of the find are to be introduced in Nikko Toshogu’s soon-to-be published newsletter, Dai Nikko

The handle of the “kinkara-kawazutsumi-tachi” is 28.7 cm long, and the length of the scabbard is 81.0 cm. According to the Toshogu Odogu Tomegaki, a record book that describes the treasures housed at Toshogu in Nikko, the scabbard is said to have been used by Shogun Ieyasu. 

Although some of Ieyasu’s favorite swords are well known, such as the national treasure “Nikko Sukezane” which was gifted to him by Kiyomasa Kato, and Kamakura era’s master swordsmith Kunimune’s national treasure sword, the “Kunimune,” the swordless scabbard “kinkara-kawazutsumi-tachi” had not been the subject of any detailed discussion, until now. 

It was during a special exhibition ‘Momoyama – 100 Years of Tenkajin’ held at the Tokyo National Museum from October to November 2020, that the kinkara-kawazutsumi scabbard came under the spotlight. 

The scabbard’s profile was raised because the origin of the gilded gold leather was revealed through the work of Motoki Sakai, senior researcher of the Tokyo National Museum. 

Last February, Sakai noticed a difference between the semicircular and floral patterns on the kinkara-kawazutsumi scabbard and those made in the Netherlands with various colors depicting animals and plants in a pictorial style, which were popular during the Edo period. In June of last year when he contacted a leather conservation center in the UK, Sakai was informed that the kinkara-kawa was “probably produced in Spain in the 16th to early 17th century.” 

Furthermore, research into some European archives led to the discovery of documents discussing a similar piece of gilded gold leather among a collection of 16th century artifacts at a museum in Catalonia, Spain. The pattern on the leather is called a damask weave which is said to be influenced by the dyed textiles made in Damascus, Syria, a popular fabric in Europe at the time. 

This led to the theory that kinkara-kawa was produced in Spain in the 16th to early 17th century, and brought to Japan sometime in the early 17th century. The leather was most likely processed for Ieyasu around the same time. 

On another note, the kinkara-kawa has features that were quite practical, such as waterproofing and reinforcing the scabbard. “I think the logical harmony of its practicality as a weapon, and the artistic decorativeness are to Ieyasu’s taste,” Sakai said, adding that was his opinion. 

Ieyasu’s Clock and an Opening to the West

Learning the period when the kinkara-kawa was produced, Mr. Sakai explains, “It was most likely brought into Japan through negotiations between Ieyasu and Spain. If not, then at least [negotiations] with other countries.” 

Although many equate the Edo era with the image of Japanese isolationism, initially Ieyasu was an advocate of opening diplomatic relations with foreign countries. The mechanical Western-style clock housed at the Kunozan Toshogu, referred to as “Ieyasu’s clock,” is evidence of this. 

In 1609, an accident occurred where a Spanish ship was lost and ran aground off the coast of Chiba Prefecture. Lord Ieyasu greeted the rescued crew with courteous hospitality and sent them home on a small sailing ship. Later on, the clock was given to Ieyasu by King Phillip III of Spain as a gift. The clock was made in 1581 by Hans de Evalo, a clockmaker who served King Phillip III’s father, King Phillip II.  

According to ‘The 400 Year Miracle of Ieyasu’s Clock’ (Heibonsha publishers, in Japanese, 2013), a book written by Hidekuni Ochiai, the chief priest of Kunozan Toshogu, Ieyasu’s aim was to have mining engineers dispatched from Spain in order to advance the production technology of gold and silver mines in Japan, which were under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate. According to the book, “It was evidence that Lord Ieyasu was trying to open a window to the world by actively promoting mutual exchanges.” Simultaneously, as commander he also wanted to stabilize the financial base of the shogunate.     

Trade between the two countries continued until 1624, as symbolized by Ieyasu’s clock. Then the shogunate severed diplomatic ties with Spain and prohibited the Spanish from visiting Japan. Many decades later, a 2012 survey by a curator at The British Museum proved the rarity of Ieyasu’s clock. 

Sakai, having concluded his research on the “kinkara-kawazutsumi-tachi”, looked back and said, “I was able to sense Lord Ieyasu’s broad view of the world and his great achievement of creating an era of peace.

The two treasures gifted from the distant land of Spain will allow us to be reminded of the appeal of the history preserved at Nikko Toshogu and the Toshogu museum


About kinkara-kawa:(gilded leather): 

Kinkara-kawa is a special kind of tanned calfskin with patterns carved into the leather. In Europe, where it was produced, the leather was often used to decorate walls and furniture. Japan began importing the decorative product in the 17th Century, primarily from the Netherlands, which produced gilded leather characterized by numerous colors and patterns such as flowers and birds. Cigarette cases made with the gilded leather, which were very expensive, became popular among wealthy townspeople. There were also some limitations made with Japanese washi paper, called kinkara-kawawashi

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(Read The Sankei Shimbun story at this link.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun