Pinnacle of Elegance (鏨の華)
– Sword Fittings of the Mitsumura Collection (光村利藻)
(1877 – 1955)
Please click the images of this posting to enlarge them.
When thinking of swords, many people in the West may initially think of murder weapons – or, with a less offensive mind, of defensive weapons. The European days when swords and rapiers were carried for more “decorative” purposes or to indicate a social rank, are long gone.
It’s a bit different in Japan, where only in 1876 an imperial decree prohibited carrying swords in public – even the samurai lost their right to wear a sword (katana) in public along with the right to execute commoners who paid them disrespect. However, during the two centuries before, during the so-called “Edo period” (1603-1868), a basically peaceful time in Japanese history, swords had already become rather a symbol of masterly craftsmanship and blacksmithing. And even today: Nobody who ever worked with a knife made of folded steel will be happy with common kitchen knives.
Often it is forgotten that the art of creating a sword doesn’t stop with forging a magnificent blade, also not with a gorgeously decorated sheath and the status it gives its bearer. The sword fittings are usually just as artful as the rest of the tool – first of all the sword guards. And some of the most beautiful examples of this art can now (3 November 2017 to 17 December 2017) be seen at the Nezu Museum (根津美術館 / ねづびじゅつかん), representing the core of a collection of the founder of the “Mitsumura Printing Company” (光村印刷株式会社), Toshimo Mitsumura (光村利藻 / みつむらとしも) – one of the most important (if not the most important) and most comprehensive collections of its kind. It is regarded as one of the two largest collections of swords and sword fittings.
Originally the collections comprised about 3,000 works of art, which Toshimo Mitsumura had collected in a fairly short period of time (from 1897 to 1907). In order to prevent that those precious items vanished to overseas (where even then a keen interest in Japanese swords existed) in an uncontrolled fashion, Kaichirō Nezu (根津 嘉一郎 / ねづかいちろう) (1860 – 1940) took over the complete collection in 1909. In our days, the remaining 1,200 parts form one of the most important collctions of the Nezu Museum.
Let us have a look at the present exhibition (the numbers of the exhibits are following the numbering during the current exhibition – not the numbering applied in the exhibition catalogue).
A Remarkable Sword Fittings Collection
Pair of Sword Fitting Sets with Millet Design
Artist: Tōmei Araki (荒き東明) (1817-1870)
Edo era, 19th century (private colleciton)
Tōmei Araki was a fittings maker from Kyōto. He devised a technique of carving realistic looking millets in gold. These pieces are outstanding examples with the gold millets accentuated by the jet-black “shakudō” (赤銅 / しゃくどう), a copper-gold alloy.
Pair of Collar and Pommels with Phoenix and Qilin Design
Artist: Nagatake Imai (今井永武) (1812-1882)
Edo era, 1857 (Nezu Museum)
Have a look at the fine detail revealed under the magnifying glass.
Sword Guard with Stream and Carp Design
Important Art Object
Artist: Yashuchika Tsuchiya (土屋安親) (1670-1744)
Edo era, 18th century (Nezu Museum)
Yasuchika Tsuchiya, along with Toshinaga Nara and Jōi Sugiura, are known as the three master fitting makers of the mid Edo period. This iron ground sword guard features a scene of a carp, carved in sukidashi, swimming against the current.
Set of Two Sword Fittings with Sleeping “Hotei”-Design
Important Cultures Property
Artist: Sōmin Yokoya (横谷宗珉) (1670-1733)
Edo era, 17th – 18th century (private collection)
Sōmin Yokoyas liked to create designs that broke with tradition, and introduced a new style to the fitting world. These tiny sword hilt ornaments show adorable depictions of “Hotei” peeping out from a bag (furoshiki), and the detail shown under the magnifying glass is amazing.
Sword Guard with Rooster Playing on Drum Design
Artist: Nanpo Kikukawa (菊川南甫)
Edo era, 18th – 19th century (Nezu Museum)
Pair of Sword Guards with Confucius and Followers Design
Artist: Tomoyoshi Hitotsuzanagi (一柳友善)
Edo era, 1825/1826 (Nezu Museum)
Swort Hilt Ornament with Racoon (tanuki) Design
Artist: Tsuneyo Yabu (藪常代)
Edo era, 19th century (private collection)
Swort Hilt Ornament with Demon and Kshitigarbha Design
Artist: Mitsuhiro Ōtsuki (大月光弘)
Edo era, 19th century (Nezu Museum)
Normally, terrible demons would be exorcised by a monk reciting a Buddhist prayer. However, this swort hilt ornament depicts a demon who has been homorously dressed as a monk and is even reciting the Buddhist prayer. On the back of the sword you can see Kshitigarbha (Bodhisattva), wearing a lotus leaf on his head and playing the flute.
While the demon is made from iron, the Ksitigarbha is made from a copper-gold alloy called “shakudō” (赤銅 / しゃくどう).
The tiny details make the work of art look larger than it actually is.
Pair of Sword Guards with Zhongkui and Demon Design
Artist: Gassan Matsuo (松尾月山) (1815-1875)
Edo era, 19th century (Nezu Museum)
When these two sword guards are placed together, they tell the story of Zhongkui (on the large sword guard) chasing a demon (on the small one). The design does not conform to the rules of sword guard making as it is made for apprectiaton only. It is said that the maker had a carefree personality, and did not pay heed to trivial things.
Short Sword (wakizashi)
Artist: Hiromitsu (廣光)
Nanboku-chō-era, 14th century (Nezu Museum)
Hiromitsu’s swords are wide without a ridgeline, and have a uniquely hardened edge pattern. It is said that Hiromitsu was a student of the master smith Masamune when he was in his late years, and it is thought that he refined the large undulating wave hardened edge pattern of his master.
Publishing and Exhibition
Pair of Sword Fitting Sets with Desecenting Buddha and Bodhisatvas Design
Important Cultural Property
Artist: Ichijō Gotō (後藤一乗) (1791-1876)
Edo era, 1824/1825 (private collection)
This masterpiece pair of matching sword guards feature a Bodhisatva who welcomes the dying. The red base plate is a kind of copper called “hiiro-dō” (緋色銅 / ひいろどう) (scarlet copper). Mitsumura selected this work which belonged to a wealthy family to appear on the first page of volume one of “Tagane no Hana” (one of his most famous publications). This tells us that Mitsumura edited the book objectively without any personal preference.
Sword Guard with Zhang Guolao-Design
Artist: Yasuchika Tsuchiya (土屋安親) (1670-1744)
Edo era, 18th century (The Japanese Swords Museum)
This sword guard is from the Kiyonaka Kuroda collection and was published in volume 4 of “Tagane no Hana” by Mitsumura. The soft facial expression of Zhang Guolao is evenidence of Tsuchiya’s workmanship.
Woodblock print (Ukiyo-e) – Reproduction of a Classical Masterpiece
Artists: Tetsunosuke Tamura (田村鉄之助), Toshimo Mitsumura (光村利藻)
Meiji era, 1904
Mitsumura was requested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to display at the World Exposition in St. Louis (USA) in 1904. He decided on a bold project to proudly present Japan’s woodblock printing technology by reproducing a large size classical masterpiece painting in actual size. The painting selected for the task was the National Treasure 12th century masterpiece painting of the Ninna-ji in Kyōto. Twenty-two cherry woodblocks make a total of fourty-three printing blocks, carved from actual size photographs of the painting.
Toshimo Mitsumura: Patron of Arts
After wearing swords in public became illegal according to an imperial edict in 1876, sword related crafts got into a decline. Many craftsmen turned to other crafts, like jewelry and ornaments, and some of the sword and fittings making techniques were lost. As soon as at the end of the 19th century there were only a few masters left in this craft. During this time Mitsumura began to compile his collections. Like no other he understood the importance of preserving the art of forging blades and creating beautiful fittings. That is why he also supported the craftsmen wherever he could – mostly by ordering replicas of classic works. This way, he was also able to enrich his own collections with particularly artful specimen.
Storage Cabinet for Small Knife Handles
Artist: Takachi Yanai (柳井多吉) (1848?-1920)
Meiji era, 1887-1906 (private collection)
This storage cabinet hold a tolal of sixty decorative knife handles (six in each of the ten drawers). It is said that, because of the huge number of special boxes that Mitsumura ordered for his whole collection, the woodworker, Takichi Yanai, was rarely able to return to his home in Himeji for then years.
Artist: Sadakazu Gassan (月山貞一)
Meiji era, 1905 (Nezu Museum)
According to the inscription, the sword was commissioned by Mitsumura in 1905, when Japan was celebrating its victory at Port Arthur. It has a carving of a kurikara dragon on the front, and Acalanatha and his attendants on the reverse. The blade is the culmination of Gassan’s skill and strength. The exquisite wavy pattern of the hardened edge is in the style of Masamune, the master smith of the 14th century. The year after this blade was made, Gassan was designated as an Imperial Craftsman.
Artist: Yasumitsu (康光)
Muromachi ega, 15th century (Sen-oku Hakuko Kan)
The smiths of Osafune village in Bizen province (present day Okayama prefecture) were the most dynamic force of the Kamakura to Muromachi eras (12th to 16th century). The “tachi”-blades of this era display a shape that began to show a noticeabel curvature in the upper part of the blade.
Pair of Sword Mountings with Rice Sheaves and Wild Goose Design in Makie Lacquer
Above: Artist of the metalwork: Hidekuni Kawarabayashi (川原林秀国) (1825-1891)
Below: Artist of the metalwork: Gassan Matsuo (松尾月山) (1791-1876) and others
Edo era, 19th century (Nezu Museum)
The scabbard of the long sword has a ishime (stone design) ground with rice plants design, and agricultural theme fittings. The short swort mounting has scenes of pine forest and a large depiction of a flying goose.
As a pair, the mountings are a combination of symbols of autum. The hilts are wrapped in blue lacquered deer skin.
Short swoard (wakizashi) in Silver with Mounting with Wave Design in Makie Lacquer
Artist: Sword: Takao Ikeda (池田隆雄) (1850?-1933)
Artists: metalwork: Mitsuyoshi Gotō (後藤光美), Tokuoki Sasayama (篠山篤興), Sōmin Yokoya (横谷宗珉), Nagatsune Ichinomiya (一宮長常) and others
Meiji era, ca. 1905 (Nezu Museum)
It appears that Mitsumura would select favorite fittings from his collection, and then have them assembled on a newly ordered set of mountings. This luxury set of mountings in particular was a favorite of his.
Sword- (katana) -Mounting with Chrysanthemum Design in Makie Lacquer (with Silver Sword)
Artist: Silver Sword: Takao Ikeda (池田隆雄) (1850?-1933)
Artist: Metalwork: Shōmin Unno (海野勝珉) (1844-1915) (scabbard) and Hidekuni Kawarabayashi (川原林秀国) (1825-1891) (mounting)
Meiji era, ca. 1905 (Nezu Museum)
The silver blade has an engraving of a poem by Prince Naruhito (1818-1842). The meaning of the poem has been illustrated in an opulent chrysanthemum design on the scabbard and matching fittings.
And should have this small variety of exhibits have roused your interest, have a look for yourself! The “real” thing is always much more fascinating that some tiny pictures on a website.
Also don’t miss:
“Introductory Talk by Paul Martin”
on 10th December 2017 during which you can learn the most astonishing details about the world of samurai swords:
Addresse of the Museum:
Closed on mondays
Open from 10 am to 5 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm).
Adults: 1.300 Yen
Students: 1.100 Yen
For groups of 20 and more people discounts are available..
And if you visit the Nezu Museum, you should definitely reserve some time for a stroll in the magnificent garden of the museum. For further details have a look here:
In the Garden of the Nezu Museum of Art (根津美術館)
– Unexpected tranquility just next to the fashion district of Minami Aoyama (南青山)