|The Hole In Our Perception |
by Robert E. Haynes (Nov. 1995)
I hope the whole of you read, and took to the center of your being the two articles by our esteemed Vice President, Peter Bleed, who deserves our heartfelt encomium. "SOME THOUGHTS ON THE HOLE THING", and "WHAT WILL JAPANESE SWORD COLLECTING BE LIKE IN 2020", that appeared in the J.S.S. of U.S. NEWSLETTER, volume 27 number 5, September-October 1995, pages 2-5. To quote from page two "...we should begin thinking about what we can do to keep our hobby alive and interesting. I'd really like to read some philosophical pieces pointing American collectors in a new collecting direction." Well I do not know if I can even come close to more than a parry of the "whole thing", but here is a stab at the transforation of the "HOLE" problem.
As most of you are well aware my study and interest in the blade is secondary to that of the fittings. Despite my lack of knowledge of blades, or perhaps because of it, I can view that field of study with a jocundity of spirit. In my view the blade collector tends not to see the forest for the trees. The minutia of the surface clouds the view of the blade as a whole. In trying to determine that which kantei is supposed to tell you, the true aesthetics of the blade are forgotten. Kantei can tell you the what and why of the blade, but it tells you little of the true aesthetic value of the blade. To know what a blade is, or is not, and to forget that it is an art object that must be held to all the criteria applied to any art object is surely to lose sight of the forest. After all, the base society in Japan is called Nihon BIJUTSU (art, the fine arts) Token Hozon Kyokai. Which is usually translated as The Society for the Preservation of Japanese ART Swords. So one way we might get a better view of the whole is to return to the basic concept of appreciating the blade for its beauty as an object of fine art FIRST, and what it is determined be by kantei second. Do not think I single out the student of the blade to apply these ideas, for the student of fittings should take heed of the application of the rules and laws of fine arts in his field of study as well, and perhaps to an even greater extent, for in many cases what is praised as a masterpiece, or great fitting is in reality a very poor ART object. In fact the aesthetics of fittings was not a priority of either the maker or the wearer, and later the collector, until the time of Akiyama who thought that the beauty of the piece should have prime importance, this despite his classic Neo-Confucian upbringing. These ideas were brought to full fruition by Dr. Torigoye, who was the first sword and tsuba expert to apply Western rational empirical teaching to the study of sword fittings, which is put forward in his introduction to tsuba; "Intrinsic Value of Tsuba". First published in his "Tsuba Geijutsu Ko" (Okayama 1960). Geijutsu is another term for the arts, or in this case the art of the tsuba. A translation of this introduction can be found in the bulletin of the Northern California Japanese Sword Club for March-April 1995. The ideas expressed in this introduction were as rare in Japanese studies of fittings in 1960 as they seem to be in the West to this day. Perhaps we have to find the whole picture of the study of both the blade and its fittings if we are to "keep our hobby alive and interesting".
To this end we should have articles and group discussions on the art of the Japanese sword and its fittings when ever those interested in this approach can get together. Perhaps at the Chicago, or other national "show", such an idea might be initiated. Its worth a try. I certainly will propose this idea to the Northern California Club directors in the hope that we may introduce group discussions and round table exchange of ideas at the San Francisco "show" next year. Though some will say I have a "hole" in my head for even proposing such an idea. I am sure that others will, and can, come up with ideas a whole lot better than these, but at least we seem to have a start on the hole thing.
Naturally the idea of round table discussions presupposes that there be communication between collectors and students. It has been my experience that much of the information asked for, by those few who ask at all, is confined to what name to apply to a piece and what value it has. We should hope the serious student would want to go beyond this point, but very few seem to. Even those who are serious students seem to stop their quest for knowledge with the available information all of us have aquired over the years of our study. Fifty years ago it was very difficult to acquire even a modicum of the available knowledge held in Japanese books and known by Japanese experts. Today much of the available knowledge is in English and can be very easily acquired by the beginning student. Instead of the twenty or thirty years one had to study to be at a level with the student in Japan, who had acquired the same knowledge in five years, or less, the student in the West today can gain all the available knowledge in the same time as the student in Japan. What this means is that there is a parity for all students of the sword and its fittings on an international bases. This may have taken fifty years or more to achieve but now that it is the case the student today should not act as if he had only a small portion of the available knowledge on which to rely. Naturally not all students will take advantage of this present day bonanza of knowledge. Dr. Torigoye told me of students he had who studied with him for twenty five years or more who knew no more in their twenty fifth year than they did on their first day of studies, but that can be the same the world over. What I find surprising is that so few today are willing to go beyond the available knowledge in their studies. This also seems to be a world wide phenomenon. The student of both the blade and its fittings seems deathly afraid to indulge in speculation, doubting the dogma, or even seriously re-evaluating the available knowledge, all of which need to be done. The student in Japan has a long tradition of never doubting the teacher and accepting all he is told with blind faith. This is a legacy of the Edo period Neo-Confucian reverence for the parent as teacher.
The tradition of the West is just the opposite so one can hope that our empirical heritage will mesh with the traditions of the East and allow both to find new answers. The questions must be voiced before they can be answered. My suggestion to the student of today is learn all there is to know, in any language, and then start asking all the questions you find unanswered from the available knowledge of your studies. Some seem to have taken this approach already but they are far too few. The sacred cow method of study is over. A revolutionary study of the blade and tsuba should take place. From the writings of Shuichi Kato we will find the reason for the need of such a revolution. In his book: Form, Style, Tradition; Reflections on Japanese Art and Society: Kodansha International, paperback edition 1981, translated by John Hester; one will find a concise evaluation of the artist and his art. "The age which in Japan gave rise to the integrated artist-society relationship in its most typical form was the Fujiwara (late Heian 931-1192) period. The condition of alienation emerged in characteristic form in the Kamakura period, the shift from one to the other taking place with dramatic clarity. The alienation of the artist which began in the Kamakura period persisted in most respects throughout the Muromachi period, until the Edo period - more specifically, from the latter half of the seventeenth century on - the artist began once more to be integrated into society." The integrated artist in Japanese society, as you see in the statement above, not only happened after the ninth century, but before it as well. Five hundred years before the Fujiwara period in the Kofun Bunka Jidai (200-500 A.D.) the sword and its fittings, and the artists who produced them, were a very integral part of the society. This is why the sword blade and its fittings are such an important art form before Japanese recorded history. The art of the Japanese sword stretches over a two thousand year history and has an aesthetic tradition almost unbroken during that period. The only two other art forms in Japan with a comparable history are ceramics and lacquer, and the fires used two thousand years ago to form ceramics could have been the same ones to form the blade of that time. Shuichi Kato says: "In short, an art of the senses, an art of sensual delight which was polished to an ineffable peak of perfection within a world of delicate emotional nuances and carefully planned hedonism." Kato was speaking of the art of the Edo period but it applies just as well to the Kofun period. He continues: "they equated an art which lived on in their own minds alone with the whole world, and developed a theory of art as an end in itself." This before writing, or the arts of China were introduced, a pure Japanese fine art. With the introduction of Buddhism (ca. 538) and Chinese culture of the Tang Dynasty (645 to 710, also known as the Asuka Period) along with it, the whole complexion of the, until then, purely native arts underwent the dramatic change that continues to this day. In 794 the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto, and with that move the art of the sword and its fittings was to flourish in Heian-Kyo for the next one thousand two hundred years. During the early Heian Period (794 to 930) as Shuichi Kato says: "an artist could still take a Michinaga (Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027), as his ideal. In the Kamakura period, no such thing was possible with Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), the first Kamakura Shogun, even though his position may be likened to that of Michinaga during the Fujiwara period." Now we have the birth of the art of the sword blade and its fittings as we know them today. This art was born through and within the court aristocracy and the great swordsmiths of the day were creating an art form to please the most demanding and aesthete society in the world at that time. This is when, as Kato says: "The transition from the centralized society of the aristocracy to the feudal society of the samurai which took place in the later half of the twelfth and first half of the thirteenth century could only mean the end of the world for an aristocracy for whom 'the world' signified the court." This world of the court also produced an Emperor who "made" blades, Go-Toba (11841198) which was the ultimate accolade to any art form and the high point of court participation in the blade as a fine art. From this time on the aesthetics of the art of the blade and its fittings would be the virtu of the warrior class and not the imperial court. Shuichi Kato continues: "The artists, who found themselves in effect under samurai authority while at the same time bearing on their shoulders the whole weight of the tradition of Heian art, were keenly aware of their estrangement from the society around them." It was not until the new "court of the Shogun" was born that this estrangement was relieved by generations of artists who no longer had imperial court patronage. This also marked a great change in the aesthetics of the blade and its fittings. Gone were the elegance, delicacy and refinement of the "court" sword, used more for ceremony than battle, and in its place was born the blade of pure function, utility, and power that also was a fine art fighting weapon. The swordsmith at this time "equated an art which lived on in their own minds alone with the whole world, and developed a theory of art as an end in itself".
"The Kamakura period, in short, was an age in which the artist was alienated from society; among the results of this alienation were the emergence of a new awareness of history and artistic tradition, the idea of art for art's sake, the ideal of the artist as a man leading a life of seclusion from the mundane world, and a transcendental art bound up with the newly emerged sects (and arts) of Buddhism. All these had been unknown during the Heian period up to the mid-twelfth century. The new Buddhist sects (including Zen Buddhism) of the Kamakura period, with their severely transcendental nature, and the transcendental art that began to emerge in the same years soon vanished, never to be reborn throughout all the course of Japanese history." This is why for many the Kamakura arts are the most pure, and this includes the blade and its fittings. The Kamakura period began to brake the chains of the Heian period. The rigidity of art and life, so dear to the Heian heart would not be seen again until the strict Neo-Confucianism of the Edo period. This also is why we can not separate the art object from the period in which it was made. We have to have as clear a grasp of all aspects of the history of the period in which a piece was produced to see the pure aesthetics of the object itself.
"The same state of affairs persisted in most respects during the Muromachi period. The contact with China which began in the Kamakura period exerted a great influence...on the relationship between the artist and society in the Muromachi period." This contact with China, which was reopened by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) in 1401, took the form of "trade" with respect to the sword. In fact the single largest number of export items sent to China, and to Korea, in the Muromachi period were swords, pole arms and related materials. To the extent that over 150,000 mounted swords were sent to these countries, in the hundred and forty three year period from 1404 to 1547. This trade was first conducted by the Bakufu and the Buddhist temples, but soon the Hosokawa and Ouchi daimyo joined the great temples in this venture. Not to be out done when great profits were realized, the Imperial Court got in to commerce and wanted their share of the "sword trade", at least its profits. Naturally the court and even the daimyo did not directly engage in "trade" which they considered far beneath them, but it did set the president for the future age of open merchant business that by the later Muromachi period (1500) was in full swing. This mass production for export produced, as one would expect, since a mounted sword had to be finished every two days, a flood of ever declining quality, until even the foreign buyers began to see the persistent decline in the quality of these blades. The aesthetic quality of these blade was commensurate with the artistic efforts used in their production. This was the first instance where commerce strongly influenced the art of the Japanese sword, for the worse. It was not to be the last. The art of the Japanese sword was not always the pure artistic motivation for its production. Expediency at the expense of art had reared its ugly head in the production of the blade, and its fittings. I doubt that a collector today would turn down one of the blades by a "famous" smith of this period even if it were ugly. In this respect I once owned a "famous" Nobuie tsuba illustrated with a rubbing in the NOBUIE TSUBA SHU, number 64, and though genuine and thought valuable, it is a very ugly tsuba with no aesthetic merit in either its ungainly shape or gross design. The metal is of quality but that is all. Even "great" masters could have their bad days. I soon got rid of it, and today it is "juyo" despite its lack of artistic value. Be careful for even "masterpieces" can be bereft of the true aesthetics of the blade and its fittings.
The Muromachi period had a dichotomy within the various arts it produced. On the one hand the artists were still burdened with the "whole weight of the tradition of Heian art", particularly in the area of the swords and fittings produced for the Imperial court. This "tradition" exists today. At the death of the last Emperor and the coronation of the present Emperor the required ceremonial garb was that worn in the Heian period, including the swords. The Emperor was carrying a period Heian sword from the family collection, but most others were carrying a newly made Heian style mount, most made by Japan Sword Co., Ltd., so this "Heian tradition" has lasted over a thousand years. The other areas of the Muromachi period that show this tradition are the brass inlay tsuba of the period. Which we call Onin, Heianjo, etc. They conformed to a rigid design pattern and were produced for hundreds of years. But during this period a light of individualism was beginning to shine. It was a period of nonconformity in which there were few, if any rules, and the old autocratic rules could be broken without reprisal from society when the artist showed his emancipation from the past. In fact the period from 1400 to 1600 produced some of the most individual artists of any period of the sword fitting arts. Naturally today most of the pieces produced by these artists do not conform to the strict schools and styles mentioned above, and do not conform to the present- day laws of kantei with their Neo-Confucian rigid heritage. This freedom from the domination of Heian-Kamakura tradition, even though by only a few artists, produced exceptional works that are great masterpieces by anonymous artists. These nonconforming artists did not last into the Edo period after 1650. By then Neo-Confucianism was in full control and the Buddhist controlled art of the Muromachi period was over. I wonder if these elements, so strong in the art of the fittings, are to be found during this same period in the art of the blade? A comparison of the two would be very welcome.
I have not mentioned the Momoyama as a separate period, for the art of the blade and its fittings was a continuous growth from 1500 to 1650. The dichotomy of the mid Muromachi period did not end in the Momoyama period but in the early Edo period, for the reasons mentioned above. It is interesting to note that there is one man who is most responsible for this change to the Neo-Confucusian rigidity in the art of the blade and its fittings. He was Arai Hakuseki (1656-1725) who wrote the Honcho Gunkiko (1709), which is contained in the English translation of THE SWORD AND SAME by Henri L. Joly & Inada Hogitaro, privately printed (1913), reprint by Charles E. Tuttle Co. N.Y. 1963: of which book eight deals at great length with the sword. Joyce Ackroyd in her LESSON'S FROM HISTORY, Arai Hakuseki's Tokushi Yoron 1712 (Ancient Japanese History, University of Queensland Press, 1982), says of the Honcho Gunkiko: "...a very appropriate work for the study of a military potentate (Tokugawa Ienobu, 1662 to Nov.7, 1712), describing as it does every type of Japanese weapon and military equipment and its history and containing a meticulous examination of the assertions of the two hundred authorities it lists."
Since Hakuseki had the ear and education of the Shogun, as his appointed provenance, he could form the philosophy of the Shogunate, which extended to the construct taken by the artists and their art. This power of Hakuseki could not have taken place if Neo-Confucianism had not already been firmly in place from before the beginning of the Edo period. The artist as part of the politics of the early Edo period is best seen from an event that took place in 1634. Herman Ooms in TOKUGAWA IDEOLOGY; Early Constructs, 1570-1680 (Princeton University Press, 1985, page 107) says: "In 1634 (Tokugawa) Iemitsu (1603-1651, 3rd Shogun) transformed his two-month-long progress to Kyoto into the most dazzling display of Tokugawa political and economic power ever seen. He paraded over 300,000 warriors (equal to the size of Kyoto's population) through the capital." (Since each samurai wore two swords it would mean that 600,000 swords were carried in the parade, plus tanto, yari, naginata, bows and arrows etc., probably close to three quarters of a million weapons!) "Yet, on this most blinding of occasions, some Kyotoites, sixty-eight years after Ieyasu had changed his family name to Tokugawa, scornfully referred to Iemitsu as the third Matsudaira shogun (Matsudaira sandaime no shogunsama)." This was the foundation on which Hakuseki built his control and strict Neo-Confucian philosophy. We also learn from this event that it was possible in the early Edo period for enough artists to be formed to produce the equipment for one parade of 300,000 warriors! This is what made the art of the Edo period what we see today. It took the merchant, now patronized by the Shogunal court, as much as by the ability of the artist, to produce this vast array of arms. It is safe to say that by the time of the death of Hakuseki in 1725 (Kyoho 10) the art of the sword and fittings of the Edo period had become totally dominated by the merchant and those who could afford to patronize the smith of blade and tsuba. Their taste was not that of the samurai of old and it was very far from the taste of the court of old. Theirs was a nouveau riche appreciation of the history of the art of the blade and its fittings confined to the surface configuration and decoration. They did keep the artist of the blade and fittings alive, at the cost of his art. Shuichi Kato sums up the Edo period best when he says: "The Tokugawa period from the mid-seventeenth century on was unique in that it saw the artist integrated into the larger society without the use of religion as a catalyst...the period demonstrates at least four features which.. .are first, the bureaucratization of the samurai; second, the rise of the merchant class; third, the emergence of intensive agriculture, and...fourth, national seclusion. ..the samurai of the Tokugawa period were not called on to make war. What was required of them instead was administrative work within a complex bureaucratic organization. It was a paradox of the Tokugawa system that at the very time when it required not so much martial valor as administrative ability it should have maintained a rigid social hierarchy which forced it to use the samurai, the uppermost of the four classes in that hierarchy, as its administrative officials." It is sad to say that the art produced to satisfy the taste of these samurai-bureaucrats was as mundane as the administrational jobs they performed. All was show; for there was no telling art produced for the blade for the hundred year period from 1750 to 1850. "It was under such circumstances that bushido, the way of the warrior, was first rationalized and codified. Specific mention of bushido as a readiness to die a noble death first came to be made at a time when there was no need whatsoever for any samurai to die by the sword", unless it was by his own hand and in the name of "honor" more of fantasy than of reality of old and later trivialized by a Kabuki play carrying the deed to absurd lengths. The supreme example of this fantasy cum reality world was played out, and is exemplified by, the events known as the Chushingura. An historical incident of 1702 when 47 ronin of the Ako clan, as loyal retainers of Kira Yoshinaka (n.d.) took revenge, in the form of assassination, on Asano Naganori (1667-1701), who had compelled their lord to commit seppuku. By 1706 this incident was a Bunraku play and in 1748 was staged at the Kabuki theater as Kanadehon Chushingura as written by Takeda Izumo (1691-1756). By 1750 the samurai-bureaucrats and merchants cum samurai could best interpret the values of bushido as a vicarious participation in a stage play. Unfortunately this flaccidity of martial spirit carried over into the artistic taste of both the merchant and the samurai. The merchant, especially the sake brewers and distributors, who had also been the pawn brokers and money lenders since Muromachi times, could afford to buy and patronize the artists who appealed to their meretricious taste. The samurai who now tried to emulate the styles set by the rapacious instincts of the merchant, were seen to wear ridiculous and vulgar approximations of samurai art parodying the values of old now set by their parvenu betters. This one-upmanship continued until about 1850, when those artists who had worked in this tasteless attraction to wealth alone, tried to call a halt to the excesses of overblown poor taste. A revival period ensued that tried to get back to the true value of sword fittings. The Muromachi and Momoyama period taste and aesthetics were revived in fittings in the style of Nobuie, Yamakichibei, the katchushi, tosho and other undecorated plates with a fine simple iron surface. This lasted until the Haitorei edict of 1876. After that with the foreigner arriving to buy the fittings and blades now unwanted by the populous, either merchant or samurai, and finding that there was not enough to go around even when paying exorbitant prices for castoffs, mostly from the merchant class who now dressed in European style, the artists of the period saw a chance to revive their art. They now catered to the Victorian taste of the foreigner and made fittings that not even the Meiji merchant would wear. In fact many were never intended to, and could not be, mounted on a sword. Not a very pretty picture for the end of the two thousand year history of the sword and its fittings. It is only in the last fifty years that blade and fittings artists have returned to the true art of the sword and its mountings.
I hope this answers the philosophical points raised by Mr. Bleed, expressed in the quote in the opening paragraph of this paper. It does address by perception of the way that history, the teacher and the student should share the respective areas that each commands and that when they are integrated into a whole we should finally be able to have a complete perspective of that future of the fine arts of the blade and its fittings in the year 2020.
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