In Chapter 10, we told you about our visit to view the Mokume-Gane tsuba at the British Museum in London. We shared the sentiment of those who, a hundred years ago, came across the tsuba in Japan and were moved by their magnificence and beauty. In this chapter, we will tell you about the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which we also visited on the same trip.
The Ashmolean Museum is located in Oxford which is about an hour by train from London. As you all know, the town of Oxford is where the University of Oxford, a world-class institution on a par with the likes of Harvard University, is located. It has a college system whereby students and teachers live and study within a college, of which there are 39 making up the university. Their buildings are spread across the center of town, boasting gothic architecture going back to the 12th century. The overall impression is of great history and overwhelming beauty.
The Ashmolean is the museum of the University of Oxford. It is the oldest university museum in the world, having been founded in 1683. Its collections are very broad ranging including everything from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art. There is also a Japanese collection which even features a tea ceremony room! There is an actual tea ceremony held there once a month, and it always draws a big crowd.
Let us move on to our study of the mokume-gane tsuba in their collection. We had contacted the curator of Japanese art in advance, and we were to view three mokume-gane tsuba and four guribori tsuba. Museum curators in Europe and North America have great academic knowledge, study the items in the collections, and are in charge of planning exhibitions. They are on a par with university professors in Japan.
We were met on the day of our visit by Clare Pollard, the Curator of Japanese Art. Her specialty is Japan’s Meji era crafts but she has broad knowledge of Japanese art as a whole. She was a delightful, smiling lady who spoke Japanese and had conducted her own research at the Tokyo National Museum in the autumn of 2000. In addition to showing us the tsuba that day, she also took us around the vaults and exhibition halls, and we ended up spending an entire day there.
The various pieces were laid out on a table covered in felt and a layer of silk paper to avoid scratches, as had been the case at the British Museum.
We were finally in the presence of the actual pieces and started examining them and taking measurements. We began with the three mokume-gane pieces.
This is a rather small mokkô-shaped tsuba. It was probably for a small sword. The color on the tsuba is outstanding with a bright red copper achieved by niiro-chakushoku with copper sulfate. The other color is black shakudo (a combination of silver and copper). The beautiful mokume-gane pattern carved out on a small surface makes it a very interesting piece.
A large tsuba covered in countless round wood grains. It alone weighs 123.5 grams, hinting at a pretty heavy sword overall. It is very similar to a tsuba in the collection of the Baur Foundation Museum in Switerland.
This is a highly unusual decorative tsuba. It is a tsuba that required a great deal of work, with the main mokume-gane part in three colors to which another metal was affixed, and the rim of the fuchi also being in three colors. One can but wonder about the dandyish samurai who owned it, and his flamboyant taste!
The time just flew by as we examined the pieces, measured them and took detailed photos.
We will tell you about the four guribori pieces and visiting the exhibition halls in the next chapter!
Mokume Gane pieces such as sword guards have been collected as works of art by foreign collectors since the Meiji era. Many of these are now part of the collections of the world’s great museums. On this occasion, we would like to tell you about the Mokume Gane pieces which are part of the collections of the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The British Museum is located in London, England, and boasts the largest number of collection pieces of any museum in the world. It holds about eight million pieces, including many excavated artifacts and works of art that were collected during the heyday of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many famous cultural assets and works of art are on display including the Rosetta Stone which played a major role in the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as ancient Egyptian mummies and a Moai from Easter Island.
The Mokume Gane pieces which we determined to be in the collections of the British Museum are not normally on display but are kept in the storage vaults. These pieces came to be part of the British Museum collections upon the death of Collingwood Ingram (1881-1981). He was an ornithologist and also a plant collector. During Queen Victoria’s reign, in the second half of the 19th century, he brought back many ornamental cherry trees from Japan and their beauty led to a boom. Mr. Ingram visited Japan three times, collecting Japanese cherry trees, a subject on which he became a global authority to the extent that his nickname was “Cherry”. So, he had a deep connection with Japan and became a great collector, particularly of netsuke, but also acquired Mokume Gane tsuba. It is possible that we were the first Japanese in almost a century who were able to admire these items that had crossed the ocean along with cherry trees.
We conducted this visit after obtaining permission from the Department of Asia for people from the Mokumegane Research Institute to come to England for a study visit. On the day we visited in mid-June, there were already many people gathered in front of the main entrance before opening time. Visits to the British Museum are free for people from all over the world, and there are boxes for donations. Much of the cost for the upkeep and exhibition of these precious objects comes from donations. We also made a contribution and then immediately headed to the designated place for our research at opening time.
We were a little nervous when we knocked on the door of the research department which is located beside the Asian art exhibition halls, but we were welcomed with a smiling face by Daryl Tappin. She is an assistant collections manager in care and access for the British Museum collections. She explained to us the outline of the warehouse and preservation methods, and she also gave us some details on other museums in Britain with Japanese collections. She was most kind and the day proved very useful to our research.
The table was entirely covered with felt so as not to damage any of the items, and there was a further layer of fine paper on top of the felt. There was a digital microscope and measuring instruments had also been brought in for us. We put on the rubber gloves that had been provided and started our research.
A sword tsuba made of Mokume Gane had already been displayed on a broad study table. There was one Mokume Gane tsuba as well as a tsuba with decorations similar to Mokume Gane. We experienced a moment of delight on seeing for real the Mokume Gane tsuba which we had only see through images on the web!
We were finally able to pick up the tsuba and take detailed measurements of its size and weight. Many tsuba appear flat at first sight but they are made so that the central part is thicker, the thickness and hitsuana are measured radially in a total of 24 spots from the center of the tsuba to the rim. Every part was also photographed using the digital microscope.
As a result of this, we made discoveries that had not been apparent from just looking at web photos! It is often the case that the fuchi portion of the surface and side of the back and front of the tsuba are made separately, but with this tsuba, the Mokume Gane sheet for the surface was worked, as is, for the fuchi too. You can probably see from the illustration how the Mokume Gane pattern continues on to the sides. It requires extraordinary technical skill to create the fuchi as though it had been wound subsequently, from one same sheet without breaking the Mokume Gane pattern.
In addition, what looks like flea-bitten traces on the surface and back of the tsuba was in fact produced by hammering a steel mold on top of the Mokume Gane sheet. This can be deduced from the way the Mokume Gane patterns is continuous. Furthermore, the inside of the molded pattern was decorated using a chisel with an indented tip called a nanako. Through close examination on this occasion, we were able to understand how the changes in the various types of flea-bitten traces were achieved by combining different sizes of mold, and admired this outstanding manufacturing technique.
Mr. Ingram who brought this tsuba to England was an ornithologist and a botanist. It is likely that he admired the delicate skill of the Japanese in showing nature, such as the patterns made with Mokume Gane and the flea-bitten expressions, and fell in love with them. Through our examination, we felt once again how truly outstanding pieces go beyond time and borders, in spanning the centuries.
At the Ashmolean Museum that we also visited in Oxford on this trip, there were seven Mokume Gane and guribori tsuba. All of them were extremely interesting, and they included decorative techniques that are not to be seen elsewhere. As the person in charge of Japanese art also showed us relevant documents and vaults, we will share details of these in further chapters!
Each year, our president, Masaki TAKAHASHI undertakes the reproduction study of an Edo period Mokume Gane piece. His quest, as he does this, is to see how the craftsmen of the time used Mokume Gane techniques to produce their works, and what their frame of mind was as they did so. As he looks at the name of the craftsman of the period inscribed on a sword tsuba, he delves into the relationship between the craftsman and the technique of Mokume Gane as he attempts to reproduce both technique and expression.
In this chapter, we will introduce the process of such a reproduction study so that readers can get something of a feel for the process.
This particular reproduction is of a mid to late Edo period piece signed Shoami Moriaki, residing in Yoshu Matsuyama.
This is the work of the Iyo Shoami school which was located in modern-day Matsuyama, in Ehime Prefecture. Those of you who are familiar with Mokume Gane will doubtless recognize the Shoami name. This is the very same Shoami as in Shoami Denbei who manufactured the kozuka which is considered to be the oldest piece of Mokume Gane. This was a renowned name among metal craftsmen. This school sprang up in the late Muromachi period as metal and tsuba craftsmen, and eventually split into more than 20 branches, including in Kyoto, Iyo, Awa, Aizu, Shonai and Akita. Shoami Katsuyoshi was also famous in the late Bakufu and Meiji periods.
This tsuba by Shoami Moriaki is rather large within the framework of sword tsuba. The shape of the tsuba is descrtibed as “saddle flap” (aorigata), with the width of the lower part rather wider than that of the upper part, giving it a stable shape. Saddle flaps are part of a horse’s equipment and were leather flaps that would be placed on the horses’ body to protect them from mud. Warriors would be familiar with that shape which is why the expression was also used for tsuba shapes. There are also various other tsuba shapes such as fan-shaped (gunbaigata) and quince shaped (bokegata). We will introduce these on another occasion.
Let’s take a closer look at this tsuba’s Mokume Gane pattern. There is an intricate patterns that covers the entire surface of the tsuba. Could it be the light of the moon at night or perhaps sunshine filtering through foliage reflecting on a gently flowing river, a hard to define, ever-changing pattern. The large and small round burls, known as tamamoku, covering the entire surface, seem to be connecting the drift of the river flow. With copper, shakudo and silver as materials, the landscape is one of interweaving vermillion, black and silver, giving the effect of algae and rocks at the river bottom being visible through the water surface.
That is the concrete landscape and image that the artist wanted to show. In order to do this, he used Mokume Gane techniques, so that Mokume Gane played nothing more than a supporting role to the artist. If one looks back over the history of Mokume Gane tsuba, the Shoami Denbei kozuka that was mentioned earlier, as well as the tsuba made by Morikuni of the Iyo Shoami school, the older the work the more detailed the pattern and the greater use of Mokume Gane as a technique to bring to life the landscapes and views of the world that the artists wanted to show in the tsuba.
Kozuka by Shoami Denbei
Tsuba by Morikuni of the Iyo Shoami school
The years went by and, looking at the tsuba of the late Edo period, they are mostly made of fixed patterns. The boar-eye (inomegata) polished Mokume Gane tsuba such as the one signed Masataka is such an example.
Boar-eye polished Mokume Gata tsuba signed Masataka
The extremely detailed and intricate patterns requires high-level technique, but the pattern of the design is achieved by steady carving in a prescribed fashion. The Mokume Gane technique is entirely being used as the technique to carve the pattern. It was probably standardized with efficiency and productivity in mind. Of course, everyone recognizes it as a piece that embodies Mokume Gane techniques in bringing to life a beautiful pattern. But the technique of Mokume Gane can go beyond that to show something deeper.
This piece by Moriaki is very much in the style of the Iyo Shoami school, looking at first glance like a design that has been made into a pattern, but you can see the traces of how the artist in Moriaki elaborately created the landscape that he wanted to draw.
In carrying out reproduction studies, examination of this type of tsuba leads to imagining the feelings and the aim of the artist, and the manufacturing process is carried out with that same image in mind.
The first step was to determine the metals used from their color, and finding out in which order the various metals were stacked. The pattern that appears to be a flat surface is broken down to its levels by sight, and it is not easy to determine that order correctly in cases where there has been repeated carving and flattening. The next step is to take measurements of the tsuba. Data is obtained on the number of sheets and the thickness of each metal sheet that make up the pattern. This analysis is so that the pattern can be carved initially in a tsuba mold that is smaller than the finished product so that when the final product is flattened and stretched, it is the same size as the original.
The next step is to copy the pattern onto tracing paper from an image that has been reduced from the original tsuba image, and the pattern is then copied on to the metal billet that has been prepared. The billet is made from stacking metal sheets of the thickness that was determined earlier and heat bonding them.
A circular shape is the first thing to be carved. The carving is done carefully while observing the size of the pattern and how the layers appear in the original tsuba. This is because, depending on the depth of the carving and its angle, the color and surface of the pattern will look different on flattening.
Once the carving is complete, the tsuba is heated and the repetitive job of stretching it to the size of the original is undertaken. The pattern is complete when the surface is quite flat. It is then cut to the shape of the original tsuba.
Once the carving is complete, the tsuba is heated and the repetitive job of stretching it to the size of the original is undertaken. The pattern is complete when the surface is quite flat. It is then cut to the shape of the original tsuba.
The tsuba which was reproduced on this occasion is if the “fukurin” type in which the outer circumference is also made of Mokume Gane. A long and thin billet is carved in the same way, and then stretched flat, and then wound around the edge of the central part of the tsuba.
The front and back of the tsuba are both covered in Mokume Gane and the last thing to be done, depending on the shape of the tsuba, is to inscribe the signature.
The final process for finishing consists of niiro process patination. We will tell you about patination on another occasion but there is a process of soaking in grated daikon radish before boiling in copper sulfate that was a must in the past and is still so today.
There is absolutely no magic in any of this as it is a chemical process that gives a delipidization effect, but it is not quite comprehensible, even in this day and age.
The niiro patination time will vary according to the materials used. The changes in color should be checked from time to time, and care is taken to avoid contact with air.
On completing the reproduction project, what is felt is how the artist used Mokume Gane techniques to bring to life a certain kind of landscape. It is not a collection of patterns that were carved at random but the elaborate manifestation within a tsuba of an image clearly held in the eye of the artist using the attributed of Mokume Gane.
In the Mokume Gane Textbook that was edited by our president, Masaki TAKAHASHI, there are also some works of MOKUME GANE made by overseas artists.
James Binnion is one of those artists. He has been studying Mokume Gane independently in the United States for over 30 years.
He was featured in a recent TV program entitled “Sekai! Nippon Yukitai Jin Oendan” (The World! Cheering on those who want to go to Japan!), and the Japan Mokumegane Research Institute, of which Masaki TAKAHASHI is director, fully cooperated with the recording. On the day of the recording, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom under a perfect blue sky. Mr. Binnion, who was visiting Japan for the second time, and his wife, were impressed by the beauty of Japan’s nature.
Mr. Binnion had only ever seen one original example of Mokume Gane, the products that had been born of the techniques of the Edo period, and that was the Yoshino River Tsuba at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He was able to see many Mokume Gane pieces during this visit and so enjoyed his trip to Japan a great deal.
On the day of the recording, the first item to be introduced was a sword with Mokume Gane fittings which he picked up and examined with great interest, and he even held it to his side in Samurai fashion.
The piece itself is extremely rare in that the elements such as the fuchi, kashira, kawaragane and kojiri are made of the same Mokume Gane pattern and have been preserved along with the sword’s sheath. Also, the tsuba dates from the latter part of the Edo period and is signed Shoami Morikuni, residing in Matuyama, Iyo province, made of Bombay Black Wood (Tagayasan). It is an unusual four square pattern Mokume Gane.
Takahashi went through the history of Mokume gane, starting with the guribori works which were at the origin of Mokume gane and going through to Edo period pieces.
The pieces viewed were not just tsuba, but included items such as yatate and kettles, and both Binnion and Takahashi, as Mokume Gane artists themselves, marveled at the skill of these craftsmen, and both felt the scale of the challenge in pursuing these techniques.
The difficulty in bonding stacks of different metals and then, after the further process of creating the pattern, the great skill required to form a three-dimensional object. On seeing for himself a variety of Edo period pieces with different patterns, Binnion was able to get something of a feel for the creative process of people in ancient times. Mr. Binnion has devoted most of his life to producing Mokume Gane. After seeing part of the collection on this visit, he was delighted and expressed the intention of coming for a return visit.
On the same day, there was also a separate filming of collection items, with detailed close-ups of Mokume Gane patterns which was most interesting, as the actual images doubtless will be. Please make sure to catch it on television.
The program was aired on Monday, April 23, on TV Tokyo group channels.
The website for the program (Japanese only) is at: http///www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/nipponikitaihito/
In the previous chapter, we introduced our research and studies concerning Mokume Gane pieces both in Japan and overseas. In this chapter, we would like to tell you about the history of Mokume Gane with an emphasis on Japan’s metal craft as it related to personal accessories.
The origins of jewelry are said to go back to the Paleolithic age, about 12,000 years ago. The evolution was from objects made of stone to those made of bone, shells and wood, as seen in the Jômon period. In those days, it was not so much a question of elegance. Rather, they were used as symbols of authority, or in festivals, or as signs of belonging to a clan, and so evolved very much as tools with a strongly social significance. From the Yayoi period onward, glass, gold, silver and gilt bronze were added to the mix but jewelry continued to circulate, not as ornaments, but having powerful political or religious overtones.
In later periods, various crafts were also introduced from the continent, and developed apace with changes in people’s customs and patterns, playing a major role in forging Japanese culture. In particular, it was metal craft that developed independently with the advent of a warrior society in which the sword symbolized the spirit of the warrior. And it was over the 250 years of peace during the Edo period that the art of Japanese metal craft truly flourished. With fewer armed conflicts during the Edo period, the sword went from being a weapon of war to a thing of beauty that was used as an ornament.
The oldest piece of Mokume gane in existence is a kozuka (the handle of a small knife)*1 made by Shoami Denbei, residing in Dewa Akita. It is outstanding by the elegance that comes from the combination of gold, silver, copper and shakudo.
The techniques for manufacturing personal accessories developed during this period of peace which saw changes in the warrior society as well as the flowering of the merchant culture. The use of these items, starting with kiseru, inro and netsuke, became widespread among warriors and merchants alike. Everyone is now familiar with the typical scenes of merchants with an inro looped around their belt and smoking kiseru that are so common in period dramas. Much effort was put into coordinating the various items, and pieces have come down to us showing the particular humor of the merchant culture that combined the chic and the amusing. Mokume Gane also came to be used in daily accessories such as kiseru and yatate (portable writing boxes) *2. A variety of metal working techniques that had been honed in sword-making, such as the technique of sawing, or openwork, inlay that inserts different colored metals, just as in marquetry, were liberally used.
Times, however changed dramatically with the advent of western culture during the Meiji era, and in the 9th year of Meiji (1877) the law forbidding the wearing of swords was passed. The craftsmen who had made a living as swordsmiths turned to making hanging personal accessories or were encouraged to produce pieces for export to make a living. The techniques of Mokume Gane died out for a time following the Haitôrei Edict (prohibiting the wearing of swords) and even came to be known as the “ghost techniques,” but the later enthusiasm and efforts of modern aficionados successfully revived them.
At Mokumeganeya, we have been making a systematic effort to collect, preserve and study the precious techniques of Mokume Gane. We have also overseen the compilation of the Mokume Gane Textbook, and are working to distribute it widely.
At Mokumeganeya, each year, we work on the reproduction of a famous sword tsuba. The work that was presented in April 2017 at the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords’ Shinsakuto (newly made swords) exhibition, is a reproduction of a Meiji era work “Mokume Gane tsuba, signed Toshinobu, residing in Matsuyama.” Following the win in the “Effort Prize” category for the 2015 reproduction of the tsuba from the Baur Foundation Museum of Far Eastern Art in Switzerland, this reproduction was also awarded the same prize.
Reproduction by TAKAHASHI Masaki of Mokume Gane tsuba, signed Toshinobu, residing in Matsuyama
The tsuba which was reproduced on this occasion is the property of the NPO, Japan Mokumegane Research Institute. It is a piece made by YAMAMOTO Toshinobu in Matsuyama, Iyo Province (the current Ehime Prefecture), during the Meiji era. It is an extremely important piece as it is a two-sided Mokume Gane tsuba that is part of the koshirae for a long and short sword. The front and back of the tsuba represent “night” and “day.” They seem to be somewhere between the realistic and impressionistic, and offer an artistic representation of “night and day.”
“Mokume Gane tsuba, signed Toshinobu, residing in Matsuyama”
Collection of the Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
The materials used on the “night” surface are shakudo and silver. Shakudo is an alloy made of copper and gold and, at first sight, appears no different in color from pure copper, but the chemical boiling bath patination process turns it a bluish black. The back “day” side is made of shakudo and pure copper. The patination of the pure copper turns it a reddish brown.
Front – Before Patination
Front – After Patination
The chemical boiling bath patination consists of boiling for a period lasting from several dozen minutes to several hours in a mixture with cupric sulfate and rokusho, leading to oxidation of the surface and an associated change in color. Deliberate oxidation of metals to achieve desired colors is an age-old patination process, and pieces such as the Meiji era “Night and Day” have survived over a hundred years with their beautiful color unchanged.
During the late Edo period, sword craftsmen also put their hand to manufacturing everyday utensils used by townspeople such as portable writing sets (yatate) and smoking pipes (kiseru). Mokume Gane was also widely used in design during the Edo period. There are also numerous Mokume Gane works that were produced during the Meiji era for export or as souvenirs. This chapter introduces some such pieces from our collection. Please enjoy seeing some products other than the Mokume Gane sword tsuba that you are all familiar with.
1. Guri Incense Container
Ming dynasty China Lacquer
This piece is particularly decorative even among guribori works.
* Incense containers are used to store incense. These are used during the tea ceremony.
2. Small Metal Kettle
Late Edo period Shakudo, Copper
A cute small kettle
Entirely made of Mokume Gane, apart from the knob on the lid.
3. Yatate (portable writing set)
Late Edo period Shakudo, Copper
A Yatate was a portable writing set. Its small ink container made it possible to write with a brush when away from home.
Entirely covered in Mokume Hane. Even though it is standard in shape, the use of Mokume Gane gives it a natural feel.
4. Tonkotsu (Tobacco Box) With Netsuke
Late Edo period Lacquer
This is a very rare guribori tobacco box. Tonkotsu were used to carry tobacco. The origin of the name “Tonkotsu” remains unclear
5. Tonkotsu With Kiseru Pipe Holder
Late Edo period or early Meiji Era
These are very unusual lacquer items depicting Gigaku masks
These rare pieces are the product of the culmination of guribori design. They are thought to be specially commissioned pieces ordered by an amateur who was a real dandy.
6. Kiseru pipes with a mosaic pattern
Mid to late Edo period
Gold, silver, shakudo, shibuichi, copper
Two types of pipe that were made using Mokume Gane, damascening, inlaying, and carving techniques to give the effect of metal marquetry. Both the color combinations and colors are modern, giving them an air of glorious gracefulness.
After winning the Good Design Award in 2015, “Tsunagaru Katachi” (linked shapes) went on to receive a Red Dot design award in 2016, one of the three most prestigious product design awards in the world.
There were 5,214 entries from 52 countries for the 2016 Red Dot design awards, with 1304 winners. Major global companies such as Apple, Nike and Dyson have been frequent recipients of the award in the past. Winners from around the world gathered at the awards ceremony. The winning products, including the “Tsunagaru Katachi” wedding rings, were on display at the Red Dot Museum which is housed in the redesigned decommissioned Zeche Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On the occasion of attending this award ceremony, we also visited Germany’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (museum of fine, applied and decorative arts). Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city, after Berlin. The central theme of the museum, which has a 140 year history, is to be a “museum for arts and industry.” The museum has an ongoing perspective on design as it has evolved apace with technology.
The museum’s approach is to display old and new art and design under the same roof, for the benefit of today’s artists and crafts people. At the time of our visit, there were exhibitions of Nike shoe design as well as Hokusai’s “Manga.”
The aim of this trip was to visit the museum’s far eastern collection. There were many swords and tsuba on display, and there was also a tea ceremony room.
The museum has one of the world’s leading collections of art nouveau, which was heavily influenced by Japonisme, reflecting its direction. Guribori pieces are on show in the Far Eastern portion. These are the lacquer guribori works that are at the origin of Mokume Gane.
The feeling from seeing the combination of eastern and western, of old and new, in this museum was very much in the spirit of “Tsunagaru Katachi” (linked shapes). It is the power of present-day works that are the result of the fusion of tradition and innovation. Mokumeganeya will continue to adopt this approach in what it makes.
Every year, we at Moukmeganeya reproduce a famous Edo period tsuba and enter it in the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords’ Shinsakuto (newly made swords) exhibition. Our reproduction entry for 2015 was featured in the “Bi no Tsubo” (Pot of Beauty) program on NHK national television in January 2016.
Reproduction of Wakashima Mokume Gane Ji-Tsuba
Signed: Masamichi, resident of Kofu
Later part of the Edo Period – Shakudo/copper
The tsuba that is the subject of this essay is part of the collection at the Design Museum Denmark in Copenhagen, and was examined by us in the spring of 2015. The museum has a fine collection that covers not just Denmark’s history from the Middle Ages to modern times, including works by famed Danish designers such as Arne Jacobsen and Hans J. Wegner, but also includes a large international collection.
The museum, which has in its possession a large number of other tsuba from the Edo period, gave us special access to its storage facility during our visit, so that we could examine the Mokume Gane masterpiece. There are several photographs of this tsuba, obtained with the cooperation of the museum, in our book, “The Mokume Gane Textbook.”
The particularity of the tsuba that was reproduced on this occasion lies in the intricate curves that seem to flow. The pattern is unusual in Mokume Gane, with the speckling that seems to expand and flow. Randomness plays a major part in creating Mokume Gane patterns, but this kind of pattern cannot be achieved without planning and effort on the part of the craftsman.
Within the framework of this reproduction study, it was very important to conduct the proper analysis to reproduce this pattern, and great care was needed in the carving work to create the pattern. The delicate and lovely Mokume Gane that is represented in the confined world of the tsuba speaks of outstanding technique. Even in Denmark, a country known for its design, people are doubtless captivated by it.
In the first part of this chapter, we talked about the connection between Mokumeganeya president TAKAHASHI Masaki and the tsuba by TAKAHASHI Okitsugu which is at the Boston Museum of Fine arts. On returning to Japan after studying the Yoshino River tsuba which had traveled all the way to that museum, TAKAHASHI Masaki decided to make a reproduction of it. This chapter will introduce this reproduction process.
The greatest characteristic of both the Yoshino River and Tatsuta River tsuba is their totally unique concrete representation of cherry blossom flowers and red maple leaves using Mokume Gane. In Mokume Gane, tools such as “Tagane” chisels are used to carve the multi-layered material, with the designs being produced by obtaining color through a hammering process in which lower metal layers are brought to the surface. It is therefore close to impossible to set and obtain pre-defined patterns with this process, and earlier studies have clearly shown that carving is used for pre-defined patterns. This particular reproduction undertaking aimed to further these studies.
It was possible through observation of the tsuba to determine which metals had been used as well as the layering. A detailed look at the pattern also gave indications as to the manufacturing process. Based on this information, the reproduction proceeded as described below.
These two tsuba by TAKAHASHI Okitsugu represent not just a “technique to make a pattern” but are works that lifted up the process to representing images. By decorating the entire surface of the tsuba with Mokume Gane waves, it became possible to reproduce the eternal flow of the river stretching out to infinity. They are outstanding works through which he sublimated the technique by producing a design that could only be manifested through Mokume Gane.
There is a detailed explanation regarding the process used in this reproduction study in TAKAHASHI Masaki’s doctoral thesis on “The Decorative Interpretation Possibilities in Mokume Gane Jewelry.”
Please find below an abstract of the relevant parts of the thesis. For further details, please refer to the thesis itself (Japanese only).
Reproduction Study 3
Mokume Gane Yoshino River Tsuba Signed TAKAHASHI Okitsugu – The Bigelow Collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Middle part of the Edo period Shakudo and Shibuichi H73.0x W69.0xT5.0mm
Mokume Gane Tatsuta River Tsuba Signed TAKAHASHI Okitsugu, collection of TAKAHASHI Masaki
From times of old, the cherry blossoms on the Yoshino River and the red maple leaves on the Tatsuta River have been favorite topics that have been written about in classics such as the “Manyoshu”, “Kokin Wakashu” and “Shin Kokin Wakashu.”At some stage, these beautiful landscapes transcended reality and leapt into the world of images. What Okitsugu wanted to convey of these landscapes within his tsuba was the “fusion of expression and technique,” taking Mokume Gane into totally new frontiers with these works. Despite the complications entailed in the 8-sided shape, he carefully applied the same material to the totality of the surface, even including the interior of the hitsuana, and by covering the entire tsuba with the design of the flow of the river, he succeeded in making anyone looking at it see the infinity of the river’s flow within the tiny confines of a tsuba.
The pattern was produced using Mokume Gane that was made of shibuichi and two kinds of shakudo. The streamline shape that represents the flowing water covers the entire surface and, and the works are beautifully balanced with the cheryy blossoms on the Yoshino River tsuba and the red maple leaves on the Tatsuta River tsuba (Plate 15). In addition, the speckling in the pattern gives variations in the river flow design and, as a result, the flow of the river seems to change and has great depth. And then, on the inside of the hitsuana, the variegations that cover the entire surface turn into a different, simpler Mokume Gane than the remainder of the surface. The number of layers was deduced as a result of observations of the surface. If one looks closely, there are several places where one can perceive the cross-section of the layering, such the brim of the hitsuana and the brim of the variegations. And from the structure of the variegations applied to the inside edge of the hitsuana, the cross section of the layering is exposed, and it was possible to see the structure of the layering. The pattern of the Mokume Gane variegation in the front and back of the tsuba and on the inside of the hitsuana is different, but making assumptions based on observation of the front surface pattern, and taking into consideration the fact that it might be unavoidable to use different materials, the conclusion was that the same materials were used in the same number of layers. It was possible to ascertain, from close observation of the way the materials are revealed in the pattern, the order of the manufacturing process. Both the cherry blossoms in the Yoshino River tsuba and the red maple leaves in the Tatsuta River tsuba, are made of just shakudo, and a layering is revealed that seems to surround the shapes of the cherry blossoms and red maple leaves, so that they seem to blend into the surrounding flow of water. From this effect, it was concluded that the cherry blossoms and red maple leaves were carved first with a chisel, followed by the creation of the flowing water. As the same effect can be seen in the speckled pattern, it could be ascertained that the cherry blossom design and the Tatsuta river design were elaborated at the same time.
The greatest characteristic of these two tsuba is the concrete representation of the cherry blossoms and the red maple leaves, which is absolutely unique in the world of Mokume Gane. Basically, Mokume Gane consists of carving the layered materials using chisels or other tools, with a forging process to create a pattern by bringing out the colors of the layers that are underneath. Creating concrete patterns using this process requires great skill in technique, and it is fair to say that making a pattern of complex set designs is close to impossible. However, the author previously proved it by engraving, as reported in the results of the test that was carried out as part of the research report in his book “The Mokume Gane Textbook.” That study was meant to further research on the process of making Mokume Gane, presenting the challenge of reproducing the entire tsuba. Examination showed that that it was a three-layered structure, and in order to gain the full benefits in reproducing the details of the design by engraving, the work was done after the three layers were fused. First, the figurative blossoms were engraved on the fused layers, followed by the circular patterns, and then the patterns that reproduced the flow of the river, in order. This is because if you start by carving the background flowing pattern, it will have an influence on the figurative patterns. The pattern appears as a result of carefully carving out the metal to the level of the indentation. The final step is to wind the same material around the rim and the hitsuana, so that it was possible to experience how, with the entire surface totally covered in Mokume Gane, an image of the flow of a large river could be obtained within the tiny world of a tsuba.
The Results of the Reproduction Study
The Mokume Gane Yoshino River tsuba, made by and signed with TAKAHASHI Okitsugu’s seal, is an outstanding piece within the world of sword fittings made with Mokume Gane techniques, in its combination of technical skill and sensibility. It is the embodiment of a Mokume Gane that went beyond just a technique to make patterns, to a technique to reproduce images. What needs to be emphasized is the elaborateness of creating this design. He was successful in depicting the endless flow of the river on a vast scale with a pattern of waves, imaging and designing an infinite expanse using Mokume Gane that covers the entire surface of the tsuba. In this is depicted the majesty of nature, not by achieving a pattern out of a simple figure, but through the spatial effect of the minute gaps in the metal layers that make Mokume Gane what it is, plus the energy of the material experienced by condensing the density of time. It is no exaggeration to say that, in fact, these scenes can be depicted as such because of Mokume Gane. The condensing of time and energy within the manufacturing process is totally in tune with the themes that are depicted, such as the passing of time and the dignity of nature, and tie in to the inevitability of technique and image. TAKAHASHI Okitsugu’s Yoshino River tsuba (signed TAKAHASHI Okitsugu) is a magnificent example of the realization and surpassing of the technique in a design that could only be realized with Mokume Gane.