Among the crests that have been handed down for generations in Japan, there are family crests that are now being used as logos.
Among the Kozuka owned by Mokumeganeya, there are some from the Edo period with family crests.
The origins of family crests go back to the aristocratic society of the Heian period, when natural motifs came to be used decoratively in clothing and furniture items, and repeated use of favorite patterns developed into that family’s emblem. Also, in the warlike society that preceded the Edo period, it is said that they were used to tell different Daimyo warlords apart, and to differentiate between friend and foe on the battlefield. Patterns were used that were simple and easy to distinguish from a distance. And as the merchant culture of the Edo period evolved, they came to be used more widely as Kabuki actors and townspeople competed to be fashionable.
Around that period, there was also a trend to go beyond the precious family crests that had been transmitted for generations towards a broader derivative use in which they were enjoyed as ornamental patterns.
It is said that the logo monograms seen on famous overseas leather products also have their roots in these Japanese family crest derivatives.
The kozuka that was introduced above can be said to be one such example of a family crest derivative.
The two crests made of gold inlay in finely chiseled areas, stand out against the background of the complex and intricate Mokume Gane pattern.
The fan pattern is the same as the family crest of the Satake Clan of Akita Prefecture for which the originator of Mokume Gane, Shôami Denbei, worked.
One can say that depending on how it is used, Mokume Gane can be either on the frontline or in a support role in decorative arts techniques.
Types of Mokume Gane Pattern
The patterns of Mokume Gane are created by carving and twisting layers of metal. Because it is hand-made by craftsmen and the same patterns cannot be reproduced, each and every product can be described as unique. In this chapter, we will look at the specifics of individual pattern categories.
To start with is the Mokume Gane of the Akita Shôami school, the creators of Mokume Gane. Its particularity is the combination of diagonal stripy patterns that seem to be flowing with rounded burl-like patterns in colorful combinations of gold, silver, copper and shakudo.
The ingenious combination of carving and twisting produced patterns that made for the highly skilled early Mokume Gane.
Patterns created by Shôami Denbei are also being used in Mokume Gane jewelry and are very popular.
This is the kind of pattern most commonly seen in the Mokume Gane tsuba of the Edo period that are still in existence.
An intricate and elegant pattern was created by randomly hammering down the metal layers to flatten them.
The characteristic of the Mokume Gane made in the latter part of the Edo period by Tsunetada who lived in Bushu Kawagoe (the modern-day town of Kawagoe) was the Tamamoku pattern. Tamamoku refers to the burl pattern in wood and is a highly prized, beautiful pattern, developing layers of concentric swirls. The Tamamoku effect is achieved by carving the layers of differently colored metals into a circular shape which is then flattened. Tsunetada covered the entire surface of different-sized tsuba with Tamamoku, creating vibrant patterns.
In the case of Takahashi Okitsugu who worked in Edo, his uniqueness lay in his ability to represent realistic artistic landscapes in which even the passing of time could be felt within the small surface of a tsuba. He actually showed cherry blossoms and red maple leaves floating in a river. He was the one who took Mokume Gane from a technique to create patterns to one that could represent actual images.
This distinctive pattern by Okitsugu came to be used in the Mokume Gane tsuba seen in the latter part of the Edo period. The irregular superimposition of carved fine, vertical stripes resulted in a regular pattern, making Mokume Gane technique entirely into a technique for patterns.
We will conclude by introducing a very important Mokume Gane pattern.
The Shôami school spread and was active nationwide, and among these, Shôami Morikuni, a tsuba manufacturer of Iyo (the current Ehime Prefecture) left a rare square crest pattern for posterity. The pattern was achieved in the standard Tamamoku manufacturing method by carving down layered metal, but the surface of the tsuba is covered irregularly with both large and small square shaped crest patterns, giving a bold and virile impression. This is a very particular pattern of which there are no other examples.
It is said that Mokume Gane patterns are born of the conversation between the craftsman and the metal. Each and every pattern that is born of the combination of the intention of the maker and randomness is unique in the world.
The Use of Precious Metals in Mokume Gane
With the shift in the use of Mokume Gane which was made from gold, silver, copper, copper alloys in the Edo Period, to current times when it is used for decorative purposes, it was essential to transition to precious metals such as various colors of gold and platinum. This is because of the disadvantage in the loss through friction on copper alloys of the colors that are achieved with thin films that are applied to the surface using boiled color patination.
Mokumeganeya representative director TAKAHASHI Masaki obtained his doctoral degree on the subject of Mokume Gane. We will introduce here an outline of the portion of his doctoral thesis, “The Possibilities of Decorative Expressions in Mokume Gane Jewelry”, on the possibilities of precious metals in Mokume Gane.
In the second chapter of this PhD thesis, these decorative effects were verified by manufacturing color samples in which precious metals were substituted in the pattern on an Edo period tsuba that he had already reproduced. As a result, the first thing that became clear was the possibility of a new technology to naturally blend the hues of different metals in Mokume Gane. The colors of the precious metals that are frequently used in jewelry are gradations of gold, silver and copper. Mokume Gane could in fact bring out intermediate nuances.
The next point which was addressed is the renewed perception of the depth of Mokume Gane’s essence, which is a construction of patterns by interweaving materials. In producing the color samples by substituting precious metals, the combinations made it so that where the shades of adjoining precious metals were close, it was not possible to see the differences in pattern with the naked eye. Therefore, a method was developed to better define the color boundaries and enhance the decorative effect through a very slight corrosion of the metals. By enhancing definition through corrosion of Mokume Gane which is created by twisting, carving and then flattening the metal materials, a construction can be achieved that creates a pattern in which the interwoven metals support and bring out one another, creating a new outlet for the energy that is inside.
The slight difference in elevation brought about by the corrosion does not just have the effect of defining the shades in color more clearly, but also shows the undulations of the boundaries according to the order of the layering, which is a clear record of the time involved in the manufacturing process.
One could say that the patterns in the Mokume Gane jewelry made with precious metals represent both the intricate colors and also the time it has taken to achieve them.
Rôgin/Oborogin and Karasugane/Ukin
These are names of metals from Japan’s past. They refer to colors. They achieve something similar to the delicate nuances of color found in nature. They speak of the refinement of the Japanese who found so many different names for them.
During the Edo period, in addition to gold, silver and copper, mokume-gane was made using uniquely Japanese alloys such as shibuichi and shakudo. Patterns could be created thanks to the differences in color of these metals. Since, in their raw state, these copper alloys look no different from copper, it is hard to see the difference when they are layered with silver and copper and twisted or carved. It is with the final traditional technique known as boiled color patination that the color changes and that the intricate mokume-gane pattern becomes visible.
“Oborogin” is the name given to shibuichi after the boiled color patination. The term “Oboro” comes from “Oborotsukiyo” which refers to spring nights with a hazy moon, resonating with the actual color. The name suggests a layer of mist upon a brightly shining moon. The alloy consists of one part silver to three parts copper. “Karasugane” is another name for shakudo. The name comes from the resemblance to a crow’s feathers when wet. It is an alloy of copper and gold, with the proportion of gold varying from 1% to 5%.
Boiled color patination is a method whereby copper sulphate and Rokusho pigment are mixed with water, brought to the boil, and then boiled until the color is achieved.
When the boiling process is carried out, the surface must be polished so that there is not even the slightest irregularity nor any oxide film. To achieve this, the alloy is dipped, just before boiling, in water mixed with finely grated daikon radish, a method that has been transmitted unchanged from olden times.
The patinated alloy that has changed color has a thin film on its surface. You could say that it is a rusted surface. If this thin film is rubbed too hard, it will gradually disappear, so it is covered with either wax or a thin film of transparent paint. This is what makes it a challenge to use in modern jewelry.
At Mokumeganeya, we have been working on developing our technology in using gold and platinum, rather than copper alloys, in order to enhance the attractiveness of mokume-gane in modern times. Since the pattern is produced by the colors of the actual metals that are used, our aim is for mokume-gane patterns that you will be able to enjoy each and every day as you wear the pieces. We are making further efforts with regard to the layering of these precious metals, and that is what we will be discussing in our next chapter.
In the previous chapter, we introduced Shôami Denbei who created the concept of mokume-gane, and his gorgeous mokume-gane work. In this chapter, we would like to tell you about “guribori” which is linked to the advent of mokume-nane techniques.
It is said that mokume-gane techniques originated in the early Edo period, in the guribori tsuba created by Shôami Denbei. In guribori, different colored metals such as copper and shakudo are stacked alternately and fused, then arabesques and spirals are carved in so that the metal layering design is visible in the carved parts. There is a theory that this may have been influenced by the folk patterns of the Ainu, but it is generally believed that the roots lie in the Chinese lacquered “Guri.” This chapter will be devoted to “guri.”
Tsuba by Akita Shôami Signed Shôami Denbei residing in Dewa, Akita Middle of the Edo period Shakudo
Photographed fom Tsuba Taikan by Kawaguchi Wataru (Tôken Shunju)
The technique of applying the sap of the Japanese sumac tree to utensils is known as lacquering. Guri is one of the ancient lacquer techniques of China. Nowadays, most people are familiar with the likes of Wajima lacquer or Tsugaru lacquer, with tableware or gold makie works of art. Coating wooden utensils with lacquer makes them resistant and long-lasting. In ancient China, it was common to coat multiple layers of lacquer onto wooden items to achieve considerable thickness, and then carve this into three-dimensional patterns. These swirling patterns that looked like continuous warabi bracken were called guri. The arabesque patterns which had spread around the world since ancient times were further refined with abstract heart or swirl patterns appearing. Through the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, this Chinese lacquer came to Japan at the same time as Zen Buddhism, and was prized for use in tea utensils or incense containers. In Japan, the swirl patterns were called “kurikuri” which is how it came to be known as guri. The sound came to depict the pattern.
Guri wreath patterned tea bowl stand Song Dynasty Lacquer Property of Toyo National Museum ©Tokyo National Museum
Subsequently, this was imitated in Japan to carve designs on wood and apply lacquer to make Buddhist altar objects, becoming the origin of Kamakura-bori. There are masterpieces among Japanese made lacquer inro from the latter part of the Edo period believed to be of similar origin, showing us that such patterns circulated widely at the time.
Inro and netsuke Latter part of the Edo period lacquer Property of Mokumegane Research Institute
And going further back in China, it is said that the technique known as ”Saihi” which was mostly seen during the Southern Song dynasty is at the origin of guri. In this, yellow and orange coatings were applied alternately, with the final surface layer being black, and, as geometrical patterns were carved out, delicate layers of colored lacquer became visible. There are only a very few pieces still in existence. Both the Tokyo National Museum and the University Art Museum of the Tokyo University of the Arts have several pieces in their collections.
So, please take another look at the guribori tsuba made by Shôami Denbei. There is no doubt that the swirly pattern carved into the metal layers resembles the guri technique. And the reason why Denbei’s guribori is called the ancestor of mokume-gane lies in the similarity of the technique in carving down the layered metal. The greatest characteristic of the guribori of the Akita Shôami school, which started with Shôami Denbei, is its full three-dimensional effect. The carving is bold but there is refinement within the scale and massiveness giving it the characteristics of being an ancestor. It is also well-rounded, giving an impression of the same level of outstanding technique seen in the Southern Song dynasty incense containers
Guribori incense container Meiji period lacquer Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
Shôami Denbei further developed this guribori technique and created the mokume-gane technique that produces the gorgeous patterns such as those we described in the previous issue. He was able to produce intricate patterns by carving and twisting the layered metal billets and then pounding them down with a hammer.
Further advances in guribori technique were not immediate and happened in the latter part of the Edo period. Takahashi Masatsugu who was a craftsman specializing in sword tsuba was active during the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1829), and left elegant and refined guribori pieces for posterity. Subsequently Masatsugu’s adopted son, Takahashi Okitsugu, specialized in guribori and mokume-gane. Looking at the magnificent existing sword fittings by the Takahashi school, starting with Masatsugu and Okitsugu, it seems appropriate to say that this was the pinnacle of guribori and mokume-gane techniques.
Guribori tsuba Signed: Takahashi Masatsugu (hanaoshi) Middle of Edo period Silver, copper, shakudo Property of Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
Guribori tsuba Signed: Takahashi Okitsugu (hanaoshi) Middle of Edo period Copper, shakudo Property of Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
At Mokumeganeya, we have adapted the technique of guribori, with its long history, to modern times, and are putting our all into producing wedding rings that our customers can wear forever.
Reference documents: Tokyo National Museum Masterpiece Gallery
In the last chapter, we told you about Shôami Denbei who made the kozuka which is acknowledged to be the oldest and most beautiful example of Mokume-Gane. The CEO of Mokumeganeya, Takahashi Masaki, made a reproduction study of this Mokume Gane kozuka signed Shôami Denbei, made of gold, silver and other metals, and an Akita Prefecture designated cultural property, in 2003 in order to elucidate this outstanding design that was particular to Shôami Denbei and not seen elsewhere. We will give an overview of this project here. This represented the first such study of the design techniques of Edo period Mokume Gane. Below is an excerpt from the study thesis.
The first step was to enlarge a photograph of the Kozuka knife and trace the pattern in order to find out how many types of metal has been used and how they had been stacked. Within the detail of the pattern, the intricate changes in the materials, reminiscent of the fine contour lines on a map, are laid out within a framework of as little as one millimeter square. The technique of Mokume Gane consists of first carving down a metal stack, or billet, using tools such as a chisel, and then creating the pattern by using a hammer to forge it flat. By using this process, the order of the metal layers remains the same whichever portion is extracted to reveal the pattern on the surface.
It became clear, as a result of the observation, that the order of the layers was reversed at the boundary between the A portion and the B (copper) portion of the pattern. Comparing the trace drawing to the contour lines showed that this was not a simple reversal in the order of the layers, and that the metal layer before and after the displayed “copper” was the same layer. This led to the thinking that, before creating the pattern, some sort of particular process was used so as to reverse the order of the layering in part. Further observation of the C portion confirmed that the layers were reversed with (c) as a boundary and that, furthermore, these were in the same order of layering as the A portion.
It can be assumed from these results that the reversal in the layers is something that happened with regularity. A more detailed analysis of the close-up clearly showed that the reversal in the layers occured alternately as original Mokume Gane patterns in segments of the streamline shape.
The order of the layering was determined to be the 16 layers of copper, Shakudô, gold, copper, Shakudô, silver, copper, Shakudô, gold, copper, Shakudô, silver, copper, Shakudô, gold, copper. It can be supposed that these metals were layered, forged into a billet, and then underwent a twisting process.
The results of the analysis show that after fours counts of twisting of the surface, the back, the surface and the back, the billet was then flattened using a hammer. It is through this process that the twisted pattern that is at the origin of Shoami Denbei’s unique Mokume Gane pattern came up to the surface.
The actual reproduction study was done based on the results of this analysis.
1. Following verification by tracing the pattern, 6 sheets of copper, 5 sheets of Shakudô, 3 sheets of gold and 2 sheets of silver were prepared.
2. The sheets were stacked in order and heated, becoming fused. They were then hammered down in order to produce a rectangular billet.
3. The billet was then slowly and carefully twisted four times, surface, back, surface, back, while paying attention to the order of the layering.
4.The billet that had undergone twist processing was then repeatedly carved and hammered down until it was flat, and the pattern was revealed.
The end of the reproduction study
The thing that very much came to mind at the end of the reproduction study is that these unique patterns are at the root of the original Mokume Gane technique. The point is that this way of revealing patterns goes beyond “something that is produced randomly.” It is the solid manifestation of the culmination of a very refined technique by Shoami Denbei who turned the random into the natural.
Even the patterns that are graceful and fresh at first glance require in their making minute attention and careful work. The reproduction made it possible to experience how the details of the idea that started as a glimmer in the creator’s eye became feasible as a pattern. The insatiable quest of Shoami Denbei for the possibilities in Mokume Gane techniques was clearly felt.
Mokume Gane evolved as one of the techiques in manufacturing tsuba for swords. At Mokumeganeya, we also produce tsuba jewelry that is inspired from the shape of these original sword tsuba. Particularly popular is the tsuba jewelry inspired by the gorgeous ornamentation on the tsuba from the Shôami school.
This chapter will focus on those tsuba as a way of introducing Shôami Denbei, the creator of Mokume Gane, as well as Akita Mokume Gane.
Mokume-Gane Tsuba – unsigned – early Edo period – Shakudo, copper, gold and silver
The tsuba shown here features a four-sided shape known as “Yotsu Mokko” which was quite popular as a tsuba shape during the Edo period. It is reminiscent of a cross –section of a melon with its myriad seeds, it was used as an auspicious shape tied to bountiful progeny. The Mokume Gane pattern, made of gold, silver, shakudo and copper is outstanding in its design. The color combination, coupled with the gold brim, is gorgeous, making it an unusual piece in Mokume Gane where the effect is generally more sober. The design which combines round Mokume Gane spheres within the stripe pattern was achieved using the same methods as for the kozuka (handle fitting for the small sword worn along with the large sword) which is said to be the oldest example of Mokume Gane.
Akita Prefecture designated cultural property – Kozuka – Gold, silver, shakudo, pure copper – signed Shôami Denbei residing in Dewa, Akita
Replica item by Takahashi Masaki
Shôami Denbei (Suzuki Denbei Jukichi 1651-1728) who made this kozuka was the person who invented the concept of Mokume Gane.
The origin of the name “Shôami” lies in the school’s origins in a famous Kyoto family of metalworkers which spread all over Japan during the Edo period. Denbei apprenticed with Shôami in Edo and, after finishing his training, he was employed by the Satake Clan in Akita where he produced numerous outstanding sword fittings. He then founded the Akita Shôami school. Even though the Shôami school expanded widely to Shônai, Aizu, Edo, Bizen, Iyo and Awa, it was the Akita school which prospered most with its new techniques of guribori and Mokume Gane.
Producing the tsuba that is shown here required a pretty large metal base, and the technique to fuse the four different layers of metal without them melting into one another required great skill. Going on to combine three Mokume Gane billets was also a challenging technique yielding an even more intricate pattern. This particular type of gorgeous Mokume Gane that uses a base combining gold, silver, shakudo and copper is categorized as “Akita Mokume Gane” and there are no other cases of a similarly skillful technique and refined elegance.
This tsuba is also featured on the Mokumeganeya website.
From the end of the Bakufu period into the Meiji Era, the foreigners who visited Japan were fascinated by Japanese art and brought many objects back home with them. Many of these were later donated to museums. Mokume Gane pieces are also in the collections of many museums worldwide. Chapters 10 to 13 featured the items in the collections of the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum, the museum of the University of Oxford.
This chapter will feature the Mokume Gane pieces in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Mokumeganeya has published “ Textbook of Mokume Gane” through its NPO, the Japan Mokumegane Research Institute.
The publication is a textbook which systematically addresses the history, culture, works, and techniques of the traditional art of Mokume Gane. Many pieces that are featured in the collections of museums overseas, such as the V&A, are included. The opportunity on this visit to see these pieces with our own eyes was a great joy!
The V&A was founded in 1851, the same year as the Great Exhibition was held in London, and the museum opened its doors in 1852, as a museum of decorative arts and design, featuring a collection spanning 5000 years of human creativity from all over the world. Its current palatial home was completed in 1909.
The main entrance of the V&A
The museum’s exhibits cover more than 140 rooms, and it is considered to be world-leading in the quality of its collections and their depth. Just like the British Museum, entrance is free. The inner courtyard which is surrounded by majestic buildings offers a space for relaxation where children can enjoy water games.
The inner courtyard
The design of the exhibition spaces differs according to the contents. Silver items, for example, are displayed in a palace-like setting.
The silver exhibit
In addition to the exhibition spaces in which gorgeous ornaments from Europe’s medieval period are elegantly displayed, the display areas themselves are to be enjoyed.
In the “Japan” exhibition space, the design takes into account Japanese architecture, with the display cases featuring Japanese “Ranma” transoms.
Front view of Japan room
Inside view of Japan room
The lighting in the Japan room is particularly soft, partly to preserve the pieces on show, but also perhaps to show how Japan prizes the beauty of shadows. The exhibit includes displays ranging from the Edo period and Meiji era to modern times, presented in various categories including “tea ceremony”, “lacquer” and “ornaments”
Japan room – 1
There were many tsuba and swords on display in the “Samurai” corner
On taking a closer look, there it was, somewhere in the middle! The guribori tsuba signed Takahashi Okitsugu! And there was also a Mokume Gane tsuba.
Guribori tsuba close-up
We have a similar tsuba to the guribori tsuba made by Okitsugu, but in Mokume Gane, in the collection of the Mokumegane Research Institute. Guribori was the technique in which the tsuba makers of the Takahashi School were most skilled. Among them, the carvings by Okitsugu combined both elegance and substance to achieve outstanding solidity. As was shown through the Yoshino River Tsuba in the first chapter of this “Discovering Mokumegane” series, Mokume Gane is not just a technique for making patterns, but was taken to the level of representing images by Okitsugu. One can confidently say that he was also unsurpassed as an expert in crafting guribori.
n the Mokume Gane tsuba, a simple iron substrate has been inlayed with Mokume Gane. Aside from the hitsuana which is the hole through which the Kôgai (the tool that was used for fixing hair) was passed, there is Mokume Gane inlay of a gourd and another, indistinct, long shape. These scattered little accents find a balance in the midst of the large tsuba. With the reverse side of this fun shape featuring a very intricate and challenging Mokume Gane pattern, this item conveys the sense of humor of the craftsmen of the time.
In addition the set of ornaments on the black scabbards for large and small swords that were displayed in the middle, with deep guribori fuchi and kurigata, were doubtless on display to show the quality of the design brought out on the elegantly simple black lacquer finish.
Close-up of large and small swords
And in the corner displaying handicrafts from the end of the Bakufu period, there was a gorgeous Mokume Gane vase.
Vase display close-up
The Textbook of Mokume Gane features a picture of this vase that was provided by the V&A, but it only shows one side of it. On the occasion of this visit, we were able to see the other side at last!
It is a beautiful piece which harmoniously combines highly decorative ornaments in cloisonné, lacquer, mother of pearl and gold inlay, with a Mokume Gane pattern.
As this is a collection which brings together pieces from all over the world from the perspective of decorative arts and design, each and every piece on display in the “Japan” room is exquisite and finely decorated, and one can go on admiring them without ever tiring of them. (Japan room inro)
Looking at sword tsuba, the proportion of pieces made of Mokume Gane within the framework of everything produced by metal craftsmen at the time was very small, but they are featured in the V&A’s display. This helped us realize once again that this is due to their assessment of the beauty and depth that can be seen in the Mokume Gane techniques.
In the previous chapter, we described the pieces that we were able to view during our visit to the Ashmolean Museum, which is the museum of the University of Oxford. There were numerous technically outstanding pieces, such as the tsuba with the three-dimensional chrysanthemum flower pattern. We hope that you were able to get a feel for the beauty of these pieces through the close-up photographs.
The curator of Japanese Art, Dr. Clare Pollard, was kind enough to show us round the storerooms and the exhibition areas also. We would like to focus on these in this chapter.
The storerooms are located in the vicinity of the exhibition areas. In order to preserve the precious pieces so as to transmit them to future generations, it is vital to control the humidity and temperature to protect the pieces from mold and rust, as well as from cracks due to an overly dry environment. For this reason, the pieces are kept separately according to their materials. This is because the ideal temperature and humidity for organic items made of paper or wood and those made of metal are not the same. Even though it would ideally be best to keep tsuba and other sword fittings in separate storage areas from ceramics, they are in fact kept separately in humidity controlled cases.
Cases featuring humidity control labels.
We were not able to visit some of the storeroom areas. Given the sheer number of pieces, Dr. Pollard has not yet been able to catalog everything. The entire collection is not available on the web either, and there may well yet be some undiscovered Mokume Gane pieces, such as fuchi and kashira, among the sword fittings! We left the vaults till later in anticipation of further research.
The Ashmolean Museum features exhibits from all over the world, including a magnificent Japan exhibit.
We mentioned in Chapter 11 that there was a tea ceremony room where tea ceremonies are held once a month. There were explanations on the structure of this tea room on a large panel.
The exquisite construction within a confined space showed off the artistry of the Japanese Sukiya (tea room) construction technique.
Dr. Pollard told us that visitors showed great interest in Japanese culture, and so she made a great effort to provide in-depth explanations of the exhibits. Would they happen to know how an Inro was worn? It was suspended from the obi, using a netsuke to hold it in place. All of this was illustrated so that people could see, with Inro and their netsuke hanging from a bar in the display.
Dr. Pollard also supervises the prints and Japanese paintings and rotates the exhibits once a month. She explained enthusiastically that there is even a corner where visitors can actually take the exhibits into their hands, so that they can familiarize themselves better with Japanese art. After we had spent several hours studying the tsuba, she then graciously guided us through the exhibits until closing time.
This visit helped us understand how much beautiful traditional Japanese artifacts, starting with the Edo period Mokume Gane tsuba, are appreciated and loved by people in other countries.
We at Mokumeganeya will continue our studies on the Mokume Gane pieces that have been handed down from the Edo period, and will strive to continue to transit, not just the pieces themselves, but also these precious techniques.
We will continue from our last chapter to tell you more about our visit to study mokume-gane pieces in the collection of the Ashmolean, the museum of the University of Oxford. In addition to the three mokume-gane pieces that were introduced in the previous chapter, the museum also has four guribori tsuba, guribori being considered the origin of mokume-gane.
The museum has a total of 1286 tsuba, including the pieces we studied, in its collection, and the largest portion of 1264 pieces was collected by Sir Arthur H. Church (1834-1915). Born in London, he was a scientist and devoted to collecting Japanese tsuba. In his later years in particular, he collected avidly and was systematic in his approach. As a result, his collection was very complete and his texts on these tsuba have even been translated into Japanese. On this visit, we were also able to view a catalogue of the Sir Arthur H. Church tsuba collection written in 1925 by Albert James Koop (1877-1945). This is a hugely valuable work that has never been published. The contents are in English but were later bound in Japan in the Japanese “watoji” style.
The Ashmolean Museum has an excellent website. The Eastern Art department includes, in addition to the regular collection, detailed explanations based on Koop’s catalogue. According to this, Sir Church was particularly taken with botanical and geometric designs which explains the limited number of pieces depicting people or animals.
This might explain why all of the guribori tsuba he collected were relatively unusual, with very rare pieces depicting chrysanthemum flowers not seen anywhere else.
Although many round or mokkô-shaped guribori tsuba were carved with arabesques, this piece represents a three-dimensional chrysanthemum flower with the 16 petals all carved in guribori.
The lines of the layering make one think of the numerous overlapping petals of a chrysanthemum flower, and the tiny embossed pattern in the hitsuana bring to mind the heart of the flower. Even as a tsuba made for a sword, it looks really quite cute.
This piece is presented as the “chrysanthemum tsuba.” The combination of silver and shakudo is rather modern in appearance, with a very sharp design.
This is a guribori tsuba, but if you look closely, the entire surface of the tsuba is not covered in the arabesque patterns, the free curves are drawn in guribori carving, and the use of the two-color effect of black and red on the surface makes it a very unusual piece that shows an elegant flashiness. Looking at it with our modern eyes, it seems to be a western decorative piece and one wonders what the Edo craftsman had in mind in thinking up this “design.” Isn’t it fun to let your mind wander?
Here is the fourth guribori tsuba. Its round arabesque carvings are of a relatively commonly seen pattern.
The English title for this tsuba is “Tsuba with scrolls” but in Japan, the standard term for “scrolls” or arabesques is “karakusa (palmette) pattern.” This has been used for a very long time as an auspicious decorative pattern showing entwined vine as representing vital force.
In studying these seven mokume-gane and guribori pieces on the occasion of this visit, we spent an entire day taking detailed measurements, examining the various parts closely, taking photos, looking at documentation and visiting the vaults and exhibition halls. Next time, we will tell you about our visit to the vaults and exhibition halls with curator Clare Pollard.
You will find the website of the Eeastern Art department at the Ashmolean museum here: