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 to by his sponsors, Hideyasu, Ieyasu, and Hidetada. We must remember that throughout Japanese history and continuing 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.
We present here an excellent tantô by the first generation Yasutsugu. It is mumei and it bears a shu-mei (lacquered attribution) done by none other than Kanzan Sato, one of the founders of the NBTHK. It is also in a shirasaya with a sayagaki by Junji Honma, another of the founders of the NBTHK. Thus, we have this tantô authenticated by the two foremost sword experts of the 20th century. It also bears NBTHK Tokubetsu Kitcho Tôken papers and NBTHK Koshu Tokubetsu Kitcho Tôken papers both dated in April of 1978. This tantô was formerly in the collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton, a collector of great renown and is so indicated on the papers.
This lovely tantô is hira-zukuri in shape with a mitsu-mune. The length is just under 12 inches or 30.3 cm. The overall shape is wide and thin which harkens back to the sugata of the mid-Nanbokuchô Enbun era. The jihada (forging pattern) is ko-mokume mixed with o-itame with abundant ji-nie and chikei throughout which are combined with dark areas creating what is known as Echizen-gane. There is also ji-nie throughout particularly next to the mune creating an almost utsuri like effect.
The hamon (forging pattern) is a gentle rolling notare mixed with ko-gunome midare with abundant nie and sunagashiwithin. There is also kinsuji here and there along its length. The bôshi is midare-komi ending in an elongated pointed hakikake tempering style with a long kaeri (turn-back).
The nakago is ubu (unshortened) and made in a funagata shape. The omote (front) has the two character mei, Yasutsugu, done in red shu-mei and the ura (back) has the mei, Kanzan with his kakihan also done in red shu-mei. The fact that red lacquer was used instead of gold indicating and confirming that the nakago is ubu.
This tantô has excellent Kinai carved horimono on both sides. The omote (front) has a beautifully and detailed carving of a dragon and the ura (back) has a variation of naginata style hi carved.
This tantô was formerly part of the collection Dr. Walter A. Compton, one of the foremost Japanese sword collectors of the 20th century.