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Census of a Feudal town

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  • Census of a Feudal town

    Swordsmiths and Other Craftsmen in Edo Society

    Whilst re-reading ‘Everyday Life in Traditional Japan’ by C. J. Dunn (Batsford, London,1969) a while ago I came across a few snippets of information that I hadn’t noticed before. Although it is a rather simplistic book, it is well worth a read and gives a good idea of life in Edo period Japan. The passage in question struck me as being rather interesting since I have never seen anything similar published anywhere. It concerned the craftsmen working in the town of Tsuyama in the province of Mimasaka, now Okayama Prefecture. The details came from a census taken in 1665. Just as an exercise I decided to see how much I could expand this data.

    The entry in Dunn’s book reads:
    ’In 1665 there were in this town nearly 1000 houses occupied by warriors of all ranks, including foot-soldiers, with about 4000 other houses in which lived townsfolk of all sorts. There is a list of the craftsmen in the town: they include three blacksmiths, eight sword sharpeners, four silver-smiths, three scabbard-workers, two lacquerers, two shaft-makers, and one worker in cypress wood. All of these were specialists in the manufacture of equipment for the warriors, but there were other craftsmen more generally employed. There was one dyer, but no less than 98 sake-brewers, as well as 222 carpenters, 37 sawyers, 6 plasterers, and an unspecified number of coopers, shinglers, thatchers, paperers, tobacco-cutters, tilers and mat-makers.’

    Using Google maps I found that Tsuyama lies in a bow formed by the Yoshii river to the north of Okayama and is ringed by mountains. It was this river that was said to have devastated Osafune in Bizen province some years earlier. I have always been a bit suspicious about this since it happened during Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s ‘sword hunt’ and being a centre for the mass production of swords, the destruction of such a centre and its inhabitants could be seen as a ‘fortunate accident’. Obviously Tsuyama has grown considerably since 1665, but it is evident that the plains on either side of the river would have provided good fertile agricultural land during the Edo period. Using Wikipedia I learned that in 1600 Tsuyama was originally called Tsuruyama and formed part of the territory ruled from Okayama by Kobayakawa Hideaki, one of the major defectors at Seki ga Hara, whose action saved the day for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Because, Hideaki died without heir in 1602, the domain was confiscated by Ieyasu and given to Mori Tadamasa.

    It is worth noting at this point that there were two unrelated families called Mori. In Japanese it isn’t a problem differentiating them because they use different kanji in their names. The family we are concerned with here used the kanji 森for their name and a crane for their kamon (as now used by Japanese Airlines) The other Mori family had sided with Ishida Mitsunari at Seki ga Hara, although they didn’t do much fighting. They ruled Nagato province at the southern end of Honshu and used the kamon of ‘three dots and a dog’s bone’ and a secondary one based on the arrowhead plant.

    Mori Tadamasa was the younger brother of the more famous Mori Ranmaru who was page to Oda Nobunaga. Prior to his transfer to Tsuyama, Tadamasa had lived in Kawanakajima, the old battle-ground of the Takeda and Uesugi clans. This transfer was a reward for the role played by the Mori family at Seki ga Hara. In addition to the domain, Tadamasa was granted a stipend of 186,500 koku of rice per year. Once installed in Tsuyama, Tadamasa set about building a castle around which the town grew, starting the work in 1604 and completing it in 1616. Called Kakuzan-jo, it was an impressive fortification that rivalled the nearby castle of Himeji, and was designed to dominate the route through the valley. Tadamasa died in 1634, the tenure being taken up by his son Nagatsugu who held the castle until 1674. Hence it was during the occupation of Tsuyama by Mori Nagatsugu that the census was taken. In 1698 the Mori were moved out, for a reason I have been unable to determine, and the domain given to Matsudaira Nobutomi. In 1871 the castle was dismantled and all that now remains is the base of the main tower and a few outworks.

    As the census states there were some 5000 houses of which 1000 were occupied by warriors of all ranks. This range of bushi would include the clan elders, who would own mansions in the town, individual houses occupied by the higher-ranking samurai and barracks in which would live the low ranking samurai and common soldiers. Mori Nagatsugu, as Daimyo, would live in his palace built inside the walls of the castle itself. From this bald statement it is difficult to determine just how many bushi there actually were since we do not know how many lived in the barracks. A reasonable estimate would seem to be about 1,500 to 2,000 in total.

    Amongst the remaining 4000 houses three are described as being occupied by ‘blacksmiths’, or workers in iron and steel. At least one of these was a swordsmith. Nihon To Koza tells us that Mimasaka, in contrast to Bizen, was never a great sword making centre but there was one smith working there at that time who used the name Kanekage and who worked in the sue Seki style. In the Sho-Shin list of smiths, a Kanekage is listed as working in Mimasaka in 1616, which ties in rather nicely. From I obtained the following: ‘Kanekage was a descendant of Naoe Shizu and moved from Mino to Tsuyama’. It would seem that this smith is a perfect match for one of our ‘blacksmiths’. One swordsmith doesn’t seem much for such a large military community, but it was a period of peace and the demand for swords by the bushi would be quite small. Swords are accumulative and if they were not being broken in war would last for centuries. In all probability much of Kanekage’s work would have been making the increasingly popular wakizashi both for the bushi and for the merchant class who were growing wealthier at this period.

    Sword maintenance was another matter and there were no fewer than eight sword polishers and three scabbard makers. Again I have to fall back on probabilities and approximations, but it would not be unreasonable to estimate there would be around 2500 long swords and 2500 short swords in the town. Allowing 14 days to polish a long sword and say 6 days on average for a short sword or a tanto, this equates to some 50,000 man-days of work to polish all the swords. In reality, some swords would not need polishing so we can probably cut this down to 40,000 man-days of work that was needed. Given this labour was equally divided among the 8 polishers, working for 6 days a week, the yearly total would be somewhere around 2,400 of man-days of available polishing capability – a capacity that would allow each sword to be polished about every 16 years or so. It would be normal for a new scabbard to be made each time a sword was polished; this would require about 950 scabbards a year, each of the three scabbard makers turning out approximately 315 scabbards per year, nearly one each working day. There were also two lacquerers who no doubt would be employed to finish the scabbards so they would be having to deal with one and a half scabbards a day. What are described as silversmiths would in reality be workers in soft metals, producing amongst other things, kodogu. Since the Genroku period was one of luxury, no doubt much of their work would be in making sword mounts for the merchants.

    The makers of spear shafts indicates that the han produced its own staff weapons. Perhaps, and this is pure speculation, but it is possible one of the other ‘blacksmiths’ was in fact a maker of spearheads. We know that some swordsmiths made spearheads and naginata, but some were undoubtedly made by specialists who did not make swords. No doubt the scabbard makers and lacquerers were also involved in making the saya and lacquering the shafts of these weapons.

    The third ‘blacksmith’ may have been an armourer. Almost certainly the Daimyo would send to Nara and have his armours made there either by people like the Iwai or the Neo. In fact one of the Mori armours, made by Iwai Yosaemon of Nara, was included in the diplomatic gifts sent by Tokugawa Ieyasu as a gift to King Louis XIII of France. In 1613 Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga left Japan to negotiate trade with the Pope and King Philip III of Spain. Although the French had made no diplomatic contact with the Japanese, the gift for the French King seems to have been included because Ieyasu knew they were important players on the European political scene. That the gift reached its ultimate destination in Paris is revealed by entries in an inventory of the Royal Collection and the fact that it still survives in the Musée de l’Armée. The Mori armour in the gift also appears in a painting done in 1687 by Le Brun (1619 – 1690), on the ceiling of the ‘Hall of Mirrors’ in the Palace of Versailles. How Ieyasu came to be giving such an armour is uncertain, the Mori were allies so it cannot have been captured in battle. We do know Ieyasu was the source of the gift since a letter was written by Date Masamune stating that the Tokugawa had supplied all the armours in the diplomatic gifts.

    Leaving aside the Daimyo himself, the other bushi would need armour and that would need maintenance. Being so soon after the Sengoku Jidai there would be a great deal of surplus armour about, but it would still need re-lacing and re-lacquering from time to time. If our third ‘blacksmith’ was indeed an armourer, he would work in conjunction with the lacquers, the dyer and other textile workers to keep the armours in good condition.

    So, if nothing else, I have learned more about the Mori family of Tsuyama and gained something of a picture of how the craftsmen of the Edo period catered for their military clients. What is clear is the division of labour among specialists, many of whom would be very much cottage workers performing some small task on products made by others. Almost certainly these craftsmen would have had plenty of orders to fill, getting paid was a different matter – the bushi were notoriously bad at paying and it would have been unwise to be too insistent.
    Ian Bottomley - UK

  • #2
    Really interesting write-up. Have been to Tsuyama to watch Piers and the other members of the Okayama Teppo Tai doing their matchlock display.
    The old castle walls are amazing surrounded as they are by a huge number of cherry trees.
    I think your thoughts about every day life in a medium-sized castle town during the Edo-period is pretty spot on.
    One could probably argue that one of the blacksmiths were indeed a gunsmith or at least knowledgeable in forging barrels.
    Having done quite a lot of research on the subject I know that the latter part of the 17th century was all about long-range firing. But at the same time, the economic downfall was slowly setting in, forcing a lot of domains to focus on other areas, to the horror of the samurai. This might also be the reason, as you stated, for the low number of swordsmiths active in Tsuyama at the time of this census.
    Piers have done sone snooping around up there. Perhaps he can add something to this topic.

    Jan - Sweden


    • #3
      Finally, I got around to reading the whole article. Should've done this earlier, I really enjoyed it! Thank you Ian
      David Mueller - Germany


      • #4
        Ian, that stirs up so much that I cannot answer at once, except to say that I very much enjoy your expositions of Tsuyama (did you once live there in a former life?), and I have now learnt more about the place from you. I have a friend there who owns an old tea shop; the business originally upped roots and moved lock stock and barrel from Gifu with the Mori family at the beginning of the Edo Period. Another friend is the elder Ando, a well-known swordsmith living in Tsuyama. Once a year the members of the Tsuyama branch of the NBTHK proudly hold a sword display there in the centre of town, and their pride in the tradition of the place is clear to see. Yesterday at our sword show in Okayama we welcomed some of their members.

        Once I have marshalled my thoughts a little I hope to come back to this thread and help flesh out some points or answer some of your questions above.

        Addition. Regarding the Tsuyama Mori 森 and the Yamaguchi Mohri 毛利 it is not only the Kanji that are different but the pronunciation which is instantly recognizable for Japanese people. Indeed they are confused when we Westerners get this wrong.

        A. Mori is a short, sharp o sound, as in 'off'. Think Morry, like "sorry!" for the Tsuyama clan.

        B. The 'more' powerful Mohri (or Mouri) clan of Yamaguchi in the south-west is pronounced like "Moorish" for the Moors, so I have taken to writing their name as Mohri in Romanization, to help reflect the long first sound.
        Piers D - Japan / UK


        • #5
          Intersting... Tsuyama certainly played a role in armor-production, Ian, the floor is yours! ;-)
          Luc Taelman -


          • #6
            Photograph of old Tsuyama Castle taken by Matsudaira Kunitada around 1870.


            Piers D - Japan / UK


            • #7
              Looks like a stunning castle. Reminds me a bit of Himeji. Shame that the orginal castle didn’t survive until today.
              The stone steps from where you fire your matchlocks during exhibitions, is a classic example of samurai castle design.

              Jan - Sweden


              • #8
                Actually I found another one the other day at a friend’s house. He said he found the photograph in Ushimado by the sea, with no provenance, and had a copy made. This is a copy of that one with a little tweakery.
                This must be later because the thatched houses now have tiles...?

                Last edited by Teppotai; 10-17-2019, 03:46 PM.
                Piers D - Japan / UK


                • #9
                  Yes, funny detail with the tiled roof. As a lot of the castle was destroyed 1873, the picture must have been taken prior to that.
                  Again, a very impressive castle. The ramparts stretch over a very large area.

                  Jan - Sweden