The story of the Yasutsugu (康継) lineage starts with the birth of the first generation, Ichizaemon (市左衛門), who is believed to have been born around the middle of the sixteenth century. His place of birth was in Shimosaka (下坂) of Shiga-gun in the province of Omi. Omi is next to Mino and contains Lake Biwa. Yasutsugu (康継) was born into a sword making family headed by his father, Hironaga (廣長), reputed to be the last descendent of Yamato no Kuni Senjuin (大和国千手院). Though his father was from Omi, he was trained in the Mino (美濃) tradition.
Yasutsugu’s (康継) early training was in the Senjuin style of Yamato (大和) as well as the Mino (美濃) tradition. His first signature was Echizen Ju Shimosaka (越前住下坂). Later he started experimenting with the Sôshû (相州) tradition and he became adept in all three traditions. During Bunroku (1592-1596) he received the title of Higo Daijô (肥後大掾) About this time or around the beginning of the Keicho era (1596) he moved to Echizen Province and settled in Fukui.
Throughout Japanese history, many swordsmiths flourished when they came under the patronage and protection of the local feudal lords. Yasutsugu (康継) was one such swordsmith. Whether by chance or intent, he became noticed and supported by Matsudaira Hideyasu (松平秀廉), who was the third son of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). Hideyasu (秀廉) was the Daimyo of Echizen province and as such was in a position to be of great help to Yasutsugu (康継). As has often been the case throughout history who one knows is often as important, or more important, that what one knows. There were several contemporary swordsmiths of greater skill than Yasutsugu (康継) (i.e. Umetada (埋忠), Hankei (繁慶), Kunihiro (国広)), but because of the patronage of Matsudaira Hideyasu (松平秀廉), Yasutsugu (康継) became known to Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) and Tokugawa Hidetada (徳川秀忠), the first two Tokugawa Shoguns.
By the fifth year of Keicho (1600) Yasutsugu (康継) was well established in Echizen (越前). His patronage by Hideyasu (秀廉) secured his livelihood and allowed him the freedom to produce swords in a variety of styles. About this time, using the Echizen (no) Kuni Shimosaka (越前下坂) signature and the Higo Daijo Fujiwara Shimosaka Echizen (no) Ju (肥後大掾藤原越前住) signature, he began to produce utsushi-mono (reproductions) of famous Soshu-den (相州伝) works of Masamune (正宗) and Sadamune (貞宗) as well as Awataguchi Yoshimitsu (粟田口吉光) and others.
One may ask why would Yasutsugu (康継) make reproductions (a nice word for forgeries) of these famous smiths. The answer is that he was probably asked (ordered?) to by his sponsors, Hideyasu, Ieyasu, and Hidetada. We must remember that throughout Japanese history and up until today, gift giving is an integral part of the Japanese culture. In those days, especially, a very appropriate gift or reward for service was a sword. The more famous the sword the better. For the Tokugawa family, swords made by Yoshimitsu (吉光) and his descendants were thought to be especially auspicious. Of course, there was a finite number of “real” ones around to be used as gifts. Therefore, it was necessary to “create” a few extra from time to time. The recipient was probably fully aware that the sword was not the “real thing”. It truly was the thought that counted especially since it was not uncommon for the same sword to be re-gifted back to the donor at some suitable future date.
Around the 11th or 12th year of this same period of Keicho (1606-1607), Yasutsugu’s (康継) fame reached the point that he was called to Edo (Tokyo) to share his forging skills with Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). About this time Yasutsugu (康継) was given the privilege of using the character “Yasu” (康) from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s (徳川家康) name. Thus, from that point on, he changed his name to Yasutsugu (康継). About the same time (some feel it was a few years later) he was given the additional privilege of carving the Hollyhock crest (Aoi mon) on his blades. These privileges were given in perpetuity to Yasutsugu and his descendants. Thus the Yasutsugu (康継) swordsmiths became the kaji of the Tokugawa Family.
Earlier I raised the question of what made Yasutsugu’s (康継) fame and fortune seem to spread disproportionately to his skill when we compare him to some of his contemporary smiths such as Umetada Myôju (埋忠明寿) and Horikawa Kunihiro (堀川国広). About this time, non-oriental foreigners made their presence felt in Japan for the first time. Things from the “West” were new, exciting, strange, and highly sought after. Yasutsugu (康継) was one of the first advocates of using nanban tetsu (foreign steel) in his swords. He proudly incised this fact on the nakago of his later works. It was new, it was exciting, and there is no doubt that this use of foreign steel helped spread his fame.
The first generation Yasutsugu (康継) was also adept at the art of saiha, the re-tempering of blades that had lost their tempered edge in a fire. Since this was the end of the Sengoku Jidai (the age of the country at war) there were still battles being fought and many important blades were being damaged. This was especially true after the summer and winter campaigns at Osaka Castle in 1615. Many of the famed Meibutsu-cho owned by the Toyotomi family were damaged in the burning of the Osaka castle and were re-tempered by Yasutsugu (康継).
One also cannot but help to notice that many of the blades by the first generation Yasutsugu (康継) contain wonderful, skillfully done carvings (horimono) on the blades. While it is believed that Yasutsugu (康継) carved his own early blades, the most famous and beautiful of the carvings on his blades were done by the famous Kinai family of carvers. They were skilled in carving a variety of subjects on swords.
Yasutsugu (康継) worked in Echizen and Edo as was the custom with the Tokugawa family in those days. It was much like the practice of Sankin Kodai (alternate year attendance) that was required of the Daimyo of the country. He died in seventh year of Genna (1621) probably in his 70’s.
Upon the death of the first generation Yasutsugu (康継), the family mantle was taken up by his son, Ichinojô. His original signature was Yoshisuye and it was officially changed to Yasutsugu (康継) in 1623, the ninth year of Genwa (元和). It was at that time that he received the official shogunate order to move to Edo on a permanent basis. This was two years after his father’s death.
Nidai Yasutsugu (二代康継) made swords in the same style as the first generation. Some say that his ability was nearly the equal of his father’s. While all do not agree, there seems to be a consensus that he was without a doubt a close second and certainly the best of the generations to follow the shodai.
As an interesting side note, there is a belief that during the prime of his life, the second generation Yasutsugu (二代康継) became associated with a gang of yakuza. It is noted that even though he was associated with a yakuza gang, he died a natural death. Later in life Nidai Yasutsugu (二代康継) became a lay priest and took the name of Yasuyoshi (Kôetsu). Maybe he sought to repent his wild youth with the yakuza?
The Nidai made swords until 1645, the second year of Shoho (正保) and he died on February 15 of the third year of that same era (1646). His death caused a rift in the family that was solved in a most interesting manner.
At the time of the death of the Nidai Yasutsugu (二代康継), his son, first called Umanosuke and later Ichinojô, was still too young to assume the succession. Despite this fact, he was supported for the succession by the students of the Nidai and the Shogun’s Arms Office. His succession was opposed by the younger brother of the Nidai, who was the third son of the Shodai Yasutsugu (初代康継). His name was Shirôuemon and later, Ichiuemon. He lived and worked in Echizen.
The dispute was handled in a most unusual manner. It was decided that there would be two Sandai Yasutsugu (三代康継). Umanosuke, when he came of age, would assume his father’s mantel and become the third generation Yasutsugu working permanently in Edo, while Shirouemon would remain in Echizen and become the Echizen third generation. Thus from this point onward two things happened. First the practice of alternate year’s service was permanently ended. Second, the Yasutsugu (康継) lineage of swordsmiths was split into two distinct branches, the Edo branch and the Echizen branch.
Edo Sandai Yasutsugu (江戸三代康継), the oldest son of the Nidai was called Umanosuke (馬助), later he was called Ichinojo. Though his work resembles that of the first two generations, his jitetsu can tend toward a very fine mokume and his hamon can become exuberant. Though his work is generally thought to be inferior to the first two generations, some of his finer swords are considered by some to be very close in quality to the earlier generations. Like his grandfather, he was skilled at saiha (re-tempering) and he re-tempered many fine blades that had lost their hamon in fires.
Echizen Sandai Yasutsugu (越前三代康継), the third son of the first generation Yasutsugu (初代康継) founded the Echizen branch of the Yasutsugu (康継) family. He was born Shirôuemon (四郎右衛門) and later was called Ichiuemon (市右衛門). He became the Echizen Sandai (越前三代康継) upon the death of his older brother, the Nidai. His style of workmanship resembles that of the first two generations. It is generally considered that the quality of his work is equal to that of his nephew, the Edo Sandai. The Echizen Sandai worked permanently in Echizen during the Kanbun (寛文) and Enpô (延宝) periods. He died in 1683, the third year of Tenwa (天和) on New Years.
The two branches of the Yasutsugu (康継系) school continued for many generations. The Edo school continued through eleven generations. It is generally agreed that the only two smiths of the last eight generations that were of note are the fourth and the eleventh generations. The fourth generation had the advantage of being trained by the third generation, a quality smith. In addition, the fourth generation left several works in which he collaborated with the well-known smith, Izumi (no) Kami Kaneshige (泉守兼重). The fourth generation’s working period was from 1675, the third year of Enpo (延宝) to 1684, the first year of Teikyo era (貞享).
Details about the succeeding generations of Edo Yasutsugu (江戸 康継) swordsmiths are limited, but here are a few miscellaneous facts. The fifth generation was born in Shimosaka. His first name was Ichinojo. He died at the age of 52 in 1734, the nineteenth year of Kyohô (享保). He did not leave many works. The sixth generation was also born in Shimosaka. His first signature was Motoyasu (元廉). In the winter of 1734 he formally assumed the family leadership. His signatures were generally two character Yasutsugu (康継). He died in 1746, the third year of Enkyo (延享).
The seventh generation of the Edo line assumed the mantle of leadership of the school upon the death of the sixth generation in the fall of 1746. He also used the name, Motoyasu (元廉) before taking leadership of the school. He died in1768, the fifth year of Meiwa (明和). The eighth generation worked from the Meiwa (明和) era (1764) until the Bunka (文化) era (1804). The ninth generation worked around the Bunka (文化) era (1804). Like some of his predecessors, he used the name Motoyasu (元廉) at first.
The tenth generation worked around the Bunsei (文政) era (1818) The Edo eleventh generation is best known for the large volume of work he left. He strived to re-capture the quality and style of the early generations. He worked from the Tenpo (天保) era (1830) to the Keio (慶応) era (1865).
The Echizen line continued through nine generations. There were no smiths of significance after the Echizen Sandai (third). Here are a few facts about the later generations. The fourth generation was called Kichinosuke. He later became known as Ichizaemon. He was adopted into the family. He died in 1724 the ninth year of Kyoho (享保).
The fifth generation was first known as Takeuemon. He died around 1748 in the Kanen (寛延) era. The sixth generation also used the name Takeuemon in his early years. He retired in 1776, the fourth year of Ansei (安政). The seventh generation retired in1800, the twelfth year of Kansei (寛政). The eighth generation retired in 1832, the third year of Tenpo (天保). Finally, the ninth and last generation of the Echizen Yasutsugu line died in 1879, the twelfth year of Meiji (明治).
Thus I have presented a brief history of the Yasutsugu Kei (family). You will note that in the preceding and following pages, I make ample use of expressions such as, about this time, probably, usually, most often, and the like. The reason is not from a lack of conviction; rather, from the fact that if we have learned one thing from the study of Japanese swords, it is that there are no absolutes. When one uses many sources to assemble a paper such as this, one finds many conflicting theories as to dates, styles, facts, etc.
History is just that, history. We are dependent on what has been written by both historically contemporary authors and subsequent authors. In the world of swords, unfortunately, information is not always freely given nor should it be unconditionally taken as fact when it is received. We are often dealing with time periods which contain scanty historical records thus creating room for speculation. After a period of time, what was speculation can often become accepted as fact.
Therefore, please accept this paper as an attempt at compilation of many sources pertaining to the history and characteristics of the Yasutsugu school. It was not written to be a definitive source of knowledge, but rather another tool to be used in the process of learning.