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San'in Travels: Oki-no-Shima and the Exiled Swordsmith Emperor Gotoba





Part 1: Traveling the San’in: Orochi and the Mythical Origins of the Sword

Part 2: Japanese Swords: ‘Tatara,’ the Traditional Iron and Steel Culture of the San’in


In the concluding part of my three-part article on traveling around the San’in region of Japan, I travel to Naka-no-Shima. It is an island in the cluster collectively known as Oki-no-Shima, where the cloistered Emperor Gotoba was exiled almost 800 years ago, following his defeat in trying to restore power from the military government back to the imperial court.



Despite his remains being exhumed and returned to the mainland in the Meiji period, his grave remains on Oki-no-Shima to this day, along with the site of his former residence. It was a well-visited tourist spot during the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-1989) periods.


Oki-no-Shima is a group of small islands a three-hour ferry ride from either the ports of Shichirui in Shimane prefecture, or Sakai Minato in Tottori prefecture. The winters can be rather extreme and the ferry service can be cancelled when the weather is at its worst.



Emperor Gotoba and the Go-bankaji



The 82nd Emperor Gotoba was born on the 15th day of the 7th month in the 4th year of the era of Jijô (1180). His birth name was Takahito, but he is most commonly known by his posthumous name, Gotoba. He was the fourth son of Emperor Takakura, and the grandson of Emperor Goshirakawa. His mother, Shichijô-in Shokushi, was the daughter of Fujiwara no Nobutaka (1126-1179). Gotoba ascended the throne during the Genpei War and reigned as emperor from 1183 through 1198.


In academic circles, Emperor Gotoba is mostly well-known for his commission of the Shinkokinshu—a Kamakura period tome of court poetry—and his leadership during the Jokyu-no-Ran uprising. However, in the Japanese sword world he is well-known for being a great patron of sword making and even said to have partially made, or at least quenched, them himself.


It is recorded in the Masu-Kagami that Gotoba had an eye “better than that of a man of the way.” Whether or not he actually took part in sword making and to what degree is debatable, but it is generally accepted that his influence raised Japanese sword making in the Kamakura period up to the pinnacle of excellence for which it is recognized today.


It is said that Gotoba had a swordsmith’s workshop built at the imperial palace and enlisted some of the best swordsmiths in the land on a rotational basis. These smiths of imperial appointment became known as the Go-bankaji.



Swords that are said to have been forged or quenched by Gotoba bear a finely-engraved 16- or 24-petal chrysanthemum on the surface of the blade beneath the habaki (collar). It is also said that this engraving is the origin of the imperial crest. Blades that are said to have been quenched by Gotoba are respectfully referred to using honorific terminology, such as Gyo-saku, Gosho-yaki, or Kiku-go-saku.


There are also many references to Gotoba’s sword making in Japanese literature. Many of these references are questioned as these kind of war tales also tend to contain elements of fiction. The earliest extant record of Gotoba’s sword making activities is in the Jokyu-ki:


Rokurozaemon no Jô was wearing a tachi said to be ‘Goshoyaki’ at his hip. Goshoyaki are swords made by the smiths Tsuguie, and Tsugunobu, but quenched by the hand of Gotoba himself. Courtiers, nobles, and sons of the North and West, people whom the emperor favored were presented with these swords. When Rokurozaemon no Jô was leaving the capital, he said that “I will wear this sword for this battle.” This was the tachi he was wearing in this incident. (Yasuaki Matsubayashi, trans., Jôkyû-Ki (Gendai Shichosha, Tokyo, 1982), 87)



Additionally, in one version of the Taiheiki, a blade made by Gotoba is passed from Kusunoki Masashige to his son in their moving farewell before Masashige makes his last stand at Sakurai.


As Masashige wiped his tears, he handed his son the sword that had been made by the Emperor Gotoba and bestowed upon him by the Emperor Godaigo. They then parted in opposite directions. All of the warriors that had witnessed the exchange were moved to tears. (Tadashi Hasegawa, trans., Taiheiki (Tokyo, Shôgakusha, 2008), 153)


The earliest extant meikan, or sword record book, with details of Gotoba’s sword making and the smiths that formed the Go-bankaji, appears in a book that has been designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. The only copy left in existence is at the Kanchi’in at Toji Temple, Kyoto (Kanchi’in bon Mei-zukushi). It is stated in the text that it was reproduced from an original text dated 1316. The copy is dated 1423 and it records the genealogies of swordsmiths from the age of the gods until the end of the Kamakura period. Many subsequent sword compendiums through the ages also list slightly varying versions of the Go-bankaji.


Following his defeat at the Jokyu uprising in 1221, Gotoba took tonsure at his villa in Minase (now Minase Shrine) as a symbol of his submittal and repentance. Before shaving his head, he summoned Fujiwara Nobuzane to paint his portrait, which he sent to his mother along with a lock of his hair. A week later he began his exile, setting out from Kyoto to Oki Island. Despite his being exiled for rising against the military government, Hojo Yoshitoki took pity on him and sent smiths to Oki Island in bi-monthly rotation. This legend is still strong among locals on Oki Island, along with many other aspects of Gotoba’s life there.




The Gotoba Effect in Recent History


Gotoba and his sword making regained prominence in the late Edo period. There is a print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) depicting Emperor Gotoba taking part in sword forging. The print could have been produced as part of the imperial restoration movement, looking for men of virtue to serve a revived imperial house.


In 1873 Emperor Meiji requested that the remains of Gotoba be reclaimed from Oki Island. It was a symbolic gesture that signified that Gotoba and the court’s long struggle against the Bakufu was over. In 1888, the politician Koteda Yasusada (1840-1899), a former samurai of the Hirado clan and a top kenjutsu student of Yamaoka Tesshu, presented the shrine with a broken down bellows (fuigo) that was said to have been used by Emperor Gotoba during his time on Oki island. The inside of the lid of the presentation box includes an inscription by Yasusada.



During the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods, there were many visitors to the site of Gotoba's grave. Still, today, many of the old sepia photograph postcards of the era can be found.


In 1939, to celebrate the completion of the newly-built treasure hall and the 700th anniversary of Gotoba's death, 25 of the nation’s top swordsmiths, known as the Showa Go-bankaji, forged dedication swords that were donated to Minase (15 swords) and Oki (10 swords) shrines.


One of the Showa Go-bankaji was Gassan Sadaichi, who later was appointed a Living National Treasure. Sadaichi returned to Oki Shrine in 1975 with his son, Sadatoshi (now a master smith himself), to perform a dedication forging display in front of the shrine. Other modern smiths, including Yoshihara Yoshindo, and members of the Kato family have also made dedication swords for Oki Shrine in memory of Emperor Gotoba.


Today, very close to Oki Shrine and Gotoba’s grave site stands a small Gotoba Museum that displays many of the dedication swords, as well as and other artifacts about the history of the Oki Islands.




Paul Martin is a Japanese Sword Specialist.




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