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The Kamakura Period – the Golden Age of the Japanese Sword

History buffs are probably familiar with the epic winner-take-all story of the Heike and the Genji, the two powerful clans who vied for supremacy in Japan at the end of the twelfth century. What isn’t as well known is that in early times as clans of near-equal power their relations were quite cordial.

As the power of the two clans increased these relations became more fraught. Of interest in the story of Tanegashima is the fate in Kyoto of Taira Nobumoto, great grandson of the powerful Heike patriarch Taira-no-Kiyomori. As the power and influence of the Genji began to eclipse that of the Heike, young Nobumoto's situation in the capital became shaky, and in what was perhaps a nod to previous good relations between the rival camps he was adopted as a son by a senior Genji lord, Hojo Tokimasa, in order to protect him. After his adoption Taira Nobumoto took on the Genji name Hojo Tokinobu.

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'Kunimune', a Bizen Saburo sword owned by
Tanegashima's ruling family in the Kamakura period.
(Tanegashima Development Centre)

The presence at the Kyoto court of the young Heike was likely to become problematic, but Hojo Tokinobu/Taira Nobumoto's new family connections spared him the same fate as many of his clan. Instead, he was installed as lord of Tanegashima and its neighbouring islands – an honoured position with new, rich territories but safely removed from the centre of power. Thus began the island’s long association with Kyoto. Even today, the local Tanegashima dialect is similar to Kyoto’s and unlike that of Kagoshima, the old land of Satsuma, just 43 kilometres away by sea. The history is a little murky, but it is sure that Tanegashima's nobles continued to have privileged access to Kyoto.

The important point is that the young lord wasn’t exiled alone. His retinue included men of learning and culture, craftsmen and artisans who brought with them the culture and skills of the capital. For our story, the most interesting were the sword-makers, who arrived with the highest skills at the beginning of a period recognised as the pinnacle of sword-making culture. They couldn’t have been too unhappy to follow their young master from the capital as they found themselves on an island with a virtually inexhaustible supply of high quality iron sand, and plenty of wood for fuel.

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