|Echoes, Enigmas, and Empiricism |
by Robert E. Haynes (Nov. 1993)
First we must define the title of this paper. The echoes are that vast amount of information that has been handed down to us by the written and spoken word of the many sensei during the last hundred years. The enigmas are what we are left with after digesting the words of the masters. With luck we may apply empiricism to this knowledge and find a rational empirical new approach to the study of the fittings of the Japanese sword. Naturally this will mean that we have to start our studies all over again. Retain what is valid and try to build again on our observation and understanding of the history and relationship of the objects themselves. To do this we must hold again in our hand and eye those pieces that we may have seen before but should now look at without the echoes of the past.
It has been over thirty years since I held many of the most famous tsuba in my hand at the Ueno Park Museum. At that time, with the help of Dr. Torigoye who was with me, I tried to see what constituted their greatness, unfortunately I had been a collector for only 14 years. Even though this was at the end of my years study with Dr. Torigoye I had not enough knowledge to see what distinguished these tsuba from the many I had held in my hands up to that time. Now thirty years later I think I have enough knowledge to understand the importance of these tsuba. I would need to hold them again and perhaps a whole new understanding of my studies would be revealed to me. I can say that I hope some day this will be possible. Let us now try to work from the available knowledge and see if we can arrive at some answers to the many questions that have not been touched by the experts of the past (those echoes again).
We have yet to see a book from Japan that adequately addresses the metal work and history of the Kofun Bunka Jidaio There are many scholarly archaeological publications but none that deal with the military weapons and their relationship to both Korea and China. While I was a student of Dr. Torigoye we had a picnic trip to the mountain top behind the city of Okayama. There are many Kofun tombs there and many have been opened and the contents dumped in the local temples. In one of these temples I was looking through a box of small metal objects taken from one of the tombs. In it I found a yamagane (maybe even bronze) kogai slightly shorter than the later examples. Where the decoration is placed on the later kogai there was a narrow slot that was the only decoration. The shape and ear spoon were as we see today. Naturally I was greatly excited. I found Dr. Torigoye and asked him to see if anyone at the temple could tell us if this kogai had been found with or even near a sword in the tomb. The "officials" said that no such records had been kept and all they knew was which tomb and when it had been found! Well it may not prove that the kogai was used on the mounting of a sword at this time but it does show that they DID exist at that time in their present form. I have a photo of the piece which I will publish some day. Now we have to find the true date and origin of the kozuka, or at least a Kofun mounted sword that will show the true origins of these fittings. In this respect I should relate another incident in regard to the Kofun sword. I was with John Yumoto in Tokyo in 1982 and we were at the Ueno Park Museum. A famous director of the museum was with us. I asked him if I could see some of the many Kofun swords in the collection of Ueno Park. He told me to go to the archaeological wing of the museum and look as much as I wanted. In one case I found a sword in fine condition with the hilt and handle in tact. Where the same would be on a later sword there was a rectangular solid gold thin plate about two by six inches (5 X 15 cm.). The surface covered by large raised dots, punched from the reverse. These gold plates on both sides very closely resembled the same plates we see today. This type of gold work with raised dots, but punched from the face of the plate can be found in many examples of Chinese Tang period gold and silver Work. I was told that the Kofun material had never been cataloged and there were no photos. All of this is very typical but it makes the history that I mentioned very difficult to write.
One should keep in mind that the metal work of the Kofun period was highly sophisticated and the workmanship was equal to that of the metal artistry of the later Tang Period in China. Also contrary to what you may think there are many thousands of examples of the swords and others metal work of this Period. In the temple I mentioned above Okayama city I saw hundreds of swords in bins in this one temple alone. Naturally the finest examples of this metal work is contained in the great tombs of the "emperors" of the period, but these can not be opened so we have little idea of the finest quality of the Kofun workmanship. One more impediment to history.
We can move on to the metal work of the 8th century and the art to be found in the Shosoin. Here we do find important books on these art treasures in both Japanese and English. There is not the space here to cover this area but we should note that this is the time of the height of the Tang period in China. The quality of the metal work of this period is only equaled and hardly surpassed by later periods. What is important to the history of the Japanese sword is the fact that if the metal art of this period was equal to the best ever produced in Japan then why could we not expect this quality to continue to be made in later centuries. It was, but we have not found the pieces to the chain that links these periods together. In this respect it should be noted that one of the reasons we have, and see, so many examples of the work of the Kofun period and the lack of many examples from later periods is a simple one. This total disinterest in the Kofun period has saved its art work. We can see this in the many examples of mountings and related material from the 10th to the 14th centuries that are kept, but neglected, in temples and shrines, and the many examples that are kept in secret having been stolen from these temples and shrines. I had an opportunity in 1970 to see one of these "secret" collections. I was taken to the home of a collector on the outskirts of Tokyo for a private viewing. I was shown a marvelous group of mounted swords dating from the Nara to the Kamakura periods, I was overwhelmed by the beauty, quality and craftsmanship of these koshirae. Many of the types and styles I had never seen illustrated in any book. It was a revelation to know that the workmanship of this long period had been consistent, and that the artists during these hundreds of years were craftsman equal to any that lived in later periods. It is most unfortunate that we will never see any of these, or any of the other pieces in the "secret" collections, illustrated in any book. At the time I always carried a Polaroid camera to record important objects in such collections. As you might guess I was NOT allowed to photograph a single piece from this collection.
In this respect I think it should be noted that there are many secret collections in Japan, not because the owners have stolen objects in them, but because they just do not want "anybody" to see their collections. They also do not care if the clubs, societies or groups (N.B.T.H.K. etc.) ever see or record even one object from their collections. Many of these collectors are also the most notable authorities in their field of art. I was taken by Dr. Torigoye to see a collection in Tokyo in 1960. This gentleman had been a collector for many years. He had one of finest collections of armor in private hands, but we had come to see his collection of tsuba. Dr. Torigoye had told me that I would have to ask for specific types, schools or artists examples because there were thousands of pieces in the collection and we only had time to see the few I requested. I was shown Kaneie, Nobuie, early soft metal fittings, and a few other areas I requested. Each of these groups was one to five trays full of about twenty pieces each. By the way, YES, they were ALL genuine. None of these pieces have ever been illustrated in a book and they never will be during the life time of this collector, for he feels that the only ones who should enjoy them are fellow collectors who are as serious about their collecting as he is.
This brings up another point. It explains why we see the same objects illustrated in so many different books. The reason is that these are the examples that are available for illustration and that a great many others are not and never will be available, to the societies and groups who usually publish these books. This is why the study of the fittings of the Japanese sword is so limited in its scope and one has to go to Japan to see and hold the vast amount of pieces that will never be part of the study we are familiar with as seen in the source books we think contain the best examples a collector has for study.
We are getting away from the subject at hand, but these incidents do show us why the study of the early fittings is so difficult.
The Nara period, that we have been discussing, also produced many objects of metal that were as fine as the armor and swords of the period. The "marriage" of the artists of this period is to be found in the metal work made for the many temples and shrines of the period. This is why there is a relationship, probably as close as working in the same shops, between the sword fitting artist and those who made pieces for statues and alters. This relationship has not been explored yet but when it is we should see why the artistic quality of this period was so high. We do know that the most able and renowned artists were chosen to work for the monks and abbots. The court paid for this art work, maybe not with their money, but their authority acted as the source of the patronage of the period.
We should move on to the Heian period now. This is the most difficult period to discuss. Many art forms seemed to reach their zenith at this time and the sword and its fittings were certainly among them. What we see illustrated in the "books" and discussing are some of the finest metal art produced in Japan at any time in its history. The problem is that these examples are of mostly historical pieces worn by those of the highest rank in court and government. What was the ordinary soldier or civilian wearing? We know very little of this. If we had a good picture of the swords and fittings of the lower ranks we would be able to know what the fittings of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods were really like. The other obvious problem is that not many of these ordinary every day examples were saved, but there are a few, and these few tell us that they were of higher workmanship than we think, if we are to judge by those examples labeled Nambokucho or Muromachi period. I am going to leave much of the rest of the discussion of this problem to John Harding who is working on the subject.
As background notes to the study John Harding is conducting we should be aware that the Heian period was the high point of the power and patronage of the Imperial Court. It was they who set the fashions and dictated what was correct. The swords and fittings of the period reflected the elegance and life style of this age. The military were only involved at the edges of this society and the best they could hope for was lower third court rank. They wore a very different style of sword mounting than did the court. Where we can see these styles for ourselves is in the Yamato-e Emaki hand scrolls such as the Genii Monogatari Emaki, Shigisan Emaki, Bandainagon Ekotoba, and the Cholu Giga. Though many of these hand scrolls depicted early periods, the swords and armor were represented in contemporary Heian style. At the suggestion of John Harding, Sasano Sensei wrote about the relationship of these scrolls to what we know of Heian and Kamakura period fittings, in the English introduction to; To Sogu no Kigen, Tokyo 1979. This book is very important to the study of this period. Again I think we will have to leave the study of the Heian period at this point.
The Kamakura period should be covered by itself for here is the crux of the relationship of the dating periods from the past to that of the last twenty years.
One can see that this paper has raised far more questions than it has answered, but that was the point when I gave it its title. There must be some collectors and students of the fittings of the Japanese sword who have their own ideas on the subjects raised in this paper, I hope that we will hear from them before too long.
|Return to Index to Articles - Go to Home Page - Email to Shibui Swords|