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Japanese Swords | Bringing the Historic Sword Making of Emperor Gotoba Back to Life

The new project brings together the greatest swordsmiths of this era, all of whom have been designated as master smiths, to build the first modern Gobankaji since 1939.

JAPAN Forward

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Important Cultural Property Tachi. (Chrysanthemum Mon) Kiku Ichimonji Tokugawa Art Museum. 13th century, Kamakura period.

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This year is the 800th anniversary of Emperor Gotoba’s defeat in the Jokyu Rebellion (1221) by the Shogunate and his subsequent exile to the Islands of Okinoshima, in today’s Shimane Prefecture. While he lost the battle, Gotoba’s exile marked the beginning of the emperor’s greatest contribution to Japanese culture: the sword making of the Gobankaji.

Now, celebrating Emperor Gotoba’s historic contribution, a group of modern swordsmiths and experts has come together to preserve the crafts, skills and associated arts involved in bringing Japanese swords to life. They are forming a new swordmaking Shin- (new) Gobankaji project. 

Watch key moments of the October 16 Shin-Gobankaji inaugural ceremony here:

(Purchase Related Goods, Make Donations: At this link)

The Shin- Gobankaji 

The new project brings together the greatest swordsmiths of this era, all of whom have been designated as master smiths during the Heisei era (1989-2019) to build a modern Gobankaji, the first since 1939.  The location is Oki Shrine, in Shimane Prefecture, not far from the site of the original Gobankaji.

There is a sense of urgency about the project. Since 2006, the number of licensed swordsmiths has declined to less than 200 licensed smiths today. Of those, less than 30 of those work full time as swordsmiths. The others supplement their incomes by making other sharp-edged items, such as sushi knives, and other edged tools. 

Shin Gobankaji Ceremony (Photo by Sugimoto Satsuki,)

Additionally, the number of scabbard craftsmen, and habaki (important collar fitting) craftsmen has become dangerously low, with very few new apprentices entering the crafts. 

Shin-Gobankaji Project founder, Japanese sword specialist Paul Martin (56) commented on the urgency shared by those involved: “As we are the current generation, we bear the responsibility of ensuring support and the passing of these treasures of intangible crafts, history, and culture onto future generations.” 

National Treasure: Emperor Gotoba (Jono) Minase Jingu Collection

Who was Emperor Gotoba and Why does it Matter?

Leading up to the rebellion in 1221, Emperor Gotoba invited some of the best smiths in the land to come and make swords with him in monthly rotation at the imperial palace. These smiths became known collectively by the honorific name of the Gobankaji. 

Today we can identify swords said to be made by Emperor Gotoba, or at least quenched, because they bear a hairline engraving of a chrysanthemum in the base of the blade. They are commonly referred to as Kiku-Gosaku (Made by Imperial Hand). 

This use of the chrysanthemum is thought to be the origins of the imperial crest. 

Kiku-Gosaku sword said to be made by Emperor Gotoba 13th century). Important Cultural Property Tachi. (Chrysanthemum Mon) Kiku Ichimonji Tokugawa Art Museum.

There are approximately 15 of these blades still in existence today. However, some have lost the engraving, or the blade has been shortened, with the carving now in the tang. One of the existing blades was also in a fire, resulting in the loss of its hamon (pattern of the hardened edge). 

Despite the lack of hard evidence, Gotoba’s effect on Japanese swords is profound. It is regarded as no coincidence that sword making in the Kamakura period (1185-1332) is seen as the Golden Era of Japanese sword making. Therefore, it could be argued that the reason Japanese swords are so famous throughout the world is due to Emperor Gotoba’s participation.

Showa Gobankaji Member, Takahashi Yoshimune, performing a forging demonstration at Minase Shrine (1939). (Courtesy of the Paul Martin photo collection.)

The Original Gobankaji 

The original Gobankaji was made up of smiths from the Yamashiro (Kyoto), Bizen and Bitchu (Okayama Prefecture) provinces. 

Their existence ー and evidence of Gotoba’s sword making ー is recorded in Japanese oldest extant sword record book, the Kanchi’inbon Mei-zukushi, written in 1423. However, it is written in the Mei-zukushi itself that it is a copy of an older record that was written in 1316. 

There is a further list of twenty-four smiths of the Gobankaji in later sword record books. However, most books refer to the Mei-zukushi. 

Emperor Gotoba Forging Swords: by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Circa 1840

It lists the participating smiths as follows.

First and Second Months
  • Norimune of the Ichimonji School. Bizen province.
  • Sadatsugu of the Aoe School, Bitchu province.
Third and Fourth Months
  • Nobufusa of the Ichimonji school, Bizen province.
  • Kuniyasu of the Awataguchi school, Yamashiro province.
Fifth and Sixth Months
  • Tsunetsugu of the Aoe school, Bitchu province.
  • Kunitomo of the Awataguchi school, Yamashiro province
Seventh and Eighth Months
  • Muneyoshi of the Ichimonji school, Bizen province
  • Tsuguie of the Aoe school, Bitchu province. 
Ninth and Tenth Months
  • Sukemune of the Ichimonji school, Bizen province.
  • Yukikuni of the Ichimonji school, Bizen province.
Eleventh and Twelfth Months
  • Sukenari of the Ichimonji school Bizen province.
  • Sukechika of the Ichimonji school, Bizen province.

Oki Shrine, Ama Town, Nakanoshima, Oki Islands.

Oki Gobankaji

Following Gotoba’s defeat in the Jokyu Rebellion, he took tonsure and was exiled to the Oki islands for the rest of his life. However, it is said that he was looked kindly upon by Hojo Regent, Yasutoki, and he sent swordsmiths in bi-monthly rotation to the island for Gotoba to be able to continue his interest in swordmaking. 

The smiths became known as the Oki-Gobankaji and are listed in the Ko Kon Mei-zukushi (1661) as:

First and Second Months: Awataguchi Norikuni

Third and Fourth Months: Awataguchi Kagekuni

Fifth and Sixth Months: Awataguchi Kunitsuna

Seventh and Eighth Months: Bizen Yoshimune

Ninth and Tenth Months: Bizen Nobumasa

Eleventh and Twelfth Months: Bizen Sukenori

Site of Emperor Gotoba’s Funeral Pyre and Grave.

Showa Gobankaji

1939, was the 700th anniversary since Gotoba’s death. At the same time, Oki Shrine was constructed close to the site of Gotoba’s funeral pyre and grave. Emperor Gotoba’s spirit was then enshrined there. 

In recognition of Gotoba’s contribution to swordmaking, twenty-five representative smiths from the period forged twenty-five swords. Fifteen were devoted to Minase Shrine, and ten to Oki Shrine. 

The ten swords are on permanent display at the Emperor Gotoba Museum close to Oki Shrine. This group of smiths became known as the Showa (1926-1989) Gobankaji. 

Oki Shrine

(10 smiths, 10 swords)

  • Horii Toshihide
  • Ikeda Yasumitsu
  • Kajiyama Yasuyoshi
  • Nakao Tadatsugu
  • Moritsugu Norisada
  • Imai Sadashige
  • Takahashi Yoshimune
  • Gassan Sadamitsu
  • Yoshihara Kuniie
  • Sato Akinori

Minase Shrine

(15 smiths, 15 swords)

  • Kajiyama Yasunori
  • Watanabe Kanenaga
  • Takahashi Sadatsugu
  • Akimoto Akitomo
  • Kotani Yasunori
  • Murakami Yasunobu
  • Koyama Nobumitsu
  • Fujita Tadamitsu
  • Shibata Ka
  • Miyaguchi Toshihiro
  • Inoue Sadakane
  • Ishii Akifusa
  • Endo Mitsuoki
  • Ki Masatsugu
  • Katsumura Masakatsu
Master Swordsmith and Heisei Gobankaji member, Sadatoshi Gassan sensei. 

Ensuring a Continuum of the Art of Japanese Swords 

For this occasion, master swordsmith Sadatoshi Gassan, the 5th generation head of the Gassan school of sword making of the Osaka line and son of Living National Treasure swordsmith Sadaichi Gassan, a member of the Showa Gobankaji (1939), is among those bringing the new Gobankaji to life. 

He will be accompanied by his own son, Sadanobu, explaining: “Just like Emperor Gotoba inspired the original Gobankaji, a project like this associated with the memory of the Emperor continues to inspire future generations of smiths.” 

Japanese sword expert Paul Martin

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See key moments of the Inaugural Ceremony at this link.

Purchase Related Goods, Make Donations: At this link

Be Part of the Crowdfunding: At this link

See the full SHIN-GOBANKAJI Inaugural Ceremony event of October 16 at this link.

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AT THE TOKUGAWA ART MUSEUM, NAGOYA

There is a sword attributed to the hand of Emperor Gotoba currently on Display at the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya until December 12, 2021.

The sword was owned by Tadanaga. the third son of Tokugawa Hidetada. It was then passed to the 1st Generation head of the Owari Tokugawa clan, Yoshinao, and became a prize possession of the Owari Branch Family.  It was later devoted to the mausoleum of the 4th Generation head, Yoshimichi, in Kenchuji Temple on the event of his death by his son, the 5th Generation head, Gorota. The sword later came back into the Owari Tokugawa family in the Meiji period.. 

Important Cultural Property Tachi.  (Chrysanthemum Mon) Kiku Ichimonji Tokugawa Art Museum.  

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Author: JAPAN Forward