The Search for the Mysterious Sword “Kotetsu”
By now, many are aware of Kondo Isami. The broad faced bull of a man with a sharp, piercing stare. He was the head of the Shinsengumi, a secret police force appointed by the Shogunate to subdue unrest in Kyoto and bring unruly samurai groups back under the iron thumb of the Tokugawa. Ironically, Kondo never seemed to be very capable when it came to shinai-kenjutsu, or practice bouts fencing with bamboo swords; but was a force to be reckoned with when a genuine katana needed to be drawn. He once famously proclaimed, “I will be more like a bushi than any other bushi.” It may be this mentality that led to his love of weapons, and predominantly among them, swords.
Yagi Tamesaburo’s “Shinsengumi Ibun” as cited in “Shinsengumi to Katana” by Ito Seiro, Tamesaburo tells us of when he and his father would run into Kondo that “he would always have something to say and smile, although he was not a man for idle talk. On the occasion that he would speak with my father, as it seemed he had a liking for swords, it would either be about swords or spears that they spoke” (Ito 31). So, just what sort of blade would this “bushi among bushi” with an eye for blades carry as his own? That is not as simple a question as one may think.
What is a Kotetsu?
During the last fading years of the Edo Period, many sword schools in the North had lost their cutting edge (pun is the author’s own) with swords as the need for combat ready weapons had faded and the main requirement for many swords of the era was the aesthetic qualities. However, a man born Nagasone Okisato (later Nagasone Kotetsu), a sword smith in the Nagasone smithing school, was different. In the article ‘The Life of Isamu Kondo, Director General of the Shinsengumi, with His Beloved Sword “Kotetsu”?’ He is described as “… a master swordsmith of the Nagasone Forge group in Edo. The Edo period had completely lost touch with warfare, but Nagasone Okisato spent 20 years making swords that were extremely sharp. The Nagasone Kotetsu has a presence that makes the viewer tense, and even though it is a sword from the Edo period’s new sword period, the iron is soft like an old sword.” (The Life of Isamu Kondo, Director General of the Shinsengumi, with His Beloved Sword “Kotetsu”?).
Kotetsu, or 虎徹 in Japanese, was the assumed name of the smith and thus, also the names given to his swords. The two characters that comprise the name certainly lend to understanding the nature of weapon this man hoped to create; the first character means “tiger” while the second means to “pierce” or “run through” It is no wonder such a weapon would be adored by a bushi who was “more bushi than any bushi.” However, there is more to this story that this. In fact, this is where the story becomes interesting. Where, in fact, did Kondo Isami get this Kotetsu, if in fact his sword was a genuine Kotetsu at all? We know that by October of 1863 Isami already had the daisho that he believed to have been Kotetsu in his procession through a letter he had written (Ito 10). We also know that he used at least the daito during the infamous battle at the Ikedaya Inn in June, 1864 due to a second hand account of the incident carried to Musashi No Kuni (present day Tokyo and parts of Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures) to a representative of that area also states that Nagakura Shinpachi, Okita Soji, and Todo Heisuke all had swords that did not survive the incident; either being bent or having their blades badly chipped (Suzuki 10). We know he had this sword and that he believed it to be a Kotetsu, but then where did he get it?
Kondo Isami’s Sword in History
We know that by October of 1863 Isami already had the daisho that he believed to have been Kotetsu in his procession through a letter he had written (Ito 10). We also know that he used at least the daito during the infamous battle at the Ikedaya Inn in June, 1864 due to a second hand account of the incident carried to Musashi No Kuni (present day Tokyo and parts of Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures) to a representative of that area also states that Nagakura Shinpachi, Okita Soji, and Todo Heisuke all had swords that did not survive the incident; either being bent or having their blades badly chipped (Suzuki 10). We know he had this sword and that he believed it to be a Toratetsu, but then where did he get it?
In Shinsengumi to Katana, Ito brings us an account from a serial publication ran by the Tokyo Mainichi Newspaper in 1910, “The Sword of Chivalry – Kondo Isami.” In this series, it says that is 1864, on New Years Day Isami and another Shinsengumi member, Yamanami Keisuke, were patrolling the streets when they saw suspicious characters entering a residence. (Ito 14) They confronted the men who turned out to be thieves. A fight ensued leaving the intruders either captured or dead. It would turn out that this residence was a villa belonging to the very wealthy Konoike family, who would then thank the men and offer a sword to Yamanami Keisuke whose sword had been damaged in the fight. It then (somehow) ended up in the hands of Kondo Isami. This sword was the Kotetsu (Ito 15).
So, is that all there is to it?
This is one possible explanation. It does seem likely that a wealthy family would not only process such a famous piece by a renowned smith, but also that they would be able to happily bestow it on someone such as how we are told. The question does arise as to why the sword given to Keisuke, whose sword had been damaged, would then suddenly end up in the hands of Isami, but then again, being a superior, an absolute bull of a man, and the fact that he had an eye for swords may have given Keisuke a reason to offer it freely to Isami; or he may even have been given a bit of a nudge in that direction.
Another explanation comes from the same “The Sword of Chivalry – Kondo Isami” in which an anecdote is told of an interview with Saito Hajime, another very prolific figure in the Shinsengumi mythos. The interview was actually done with Saito Goro, who was indeed Hajime, but he had changed his name several times following the Meiji Ishin to keep a discreet figure, least he be brought up on charges for his part before and during the chaotic reconstruction. The story goes that, “Saito bought the sword from an antique shop in Kyoto for three ryo but either gave it or sold to Kondo because it seemed to be well suited for cutting (Ito 16). He also states that while the sword was unsigned, upon using it in combat and being impressed with its resilience, Isami proclaimed that it must be a Kotetsu and loved the sword (Ito 16).
Kondo’s real sword, Kotetsu’s imitation
So, it would seem that no matter which way he came about processing the blade, the provenance for the blade was not quite what you would hope to certify the item in the modern world. In fact, the legitimacy of the blade may have unfortunately been recently unraveled. According to an article published by the Sankei News, in June of 2020 a daito katana in a shirasaya was put to auction (Sankei News). It had been in the procession of a Meiji Period politician named Kaneko Kentaro. It was said that Isami had given the sword to the Nakamura Family of the Kanagawa-shuku rest station. Kaneko then acquired the sword from this family. On the saya was written “Kondo Isami’s Katana.” The sword had been appraised by experts who concluded that although this was not a Kotetsu blade, it is highly likely that it was indeed Kondo Isami’s sword. Selling for what many would consider an unbelievably low price of only 950,000 yen (approx. 8,715.00 USD) the sword has moved on to a new owner, though this time one who knows full well it is not a genuine Kotetsu blade.
Regardless of whether it had been the grateful Konoike family who unknowingly gave the sword to the Shinsengumi, or if had been a quick flea-market pickup by Saito Hajime leading to Isami to proclaim the swords lineage based on its strength and cutting edge alone, we can say now that, at least if the sword that was auctioned was indeed the sword in questions, that the sword was not of the famous Kotesu Smithing School. If only the NBTHK had been around perhaps things would have been different for Isami and his love for the word, or perhaps some things are better left unknown.
Itō Seirō.新選組と刀. Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2016.
“新撰組局長・近藤勇が愛刀「虎徹」と歩んだ生涯とは？.” Rekishiplus.com, https://rekishiplus.com/?mode=f14.
Suzuki, Tooru.再現・新選組見直される青春譜. Sanshūsha, 2008.
Inc., Sankei Digital. “ネットオークションに近藤勇の愛刀「虎徹」 明治の政治家、金子堅太郎所蔵.” 産経ニュース, pub01, https://special.sankei.com/a/life/article/20200608/0001.html.