Japanese Metalworkers in Meiji era

Metalworkers for Japanese Swords Fittings

The new Meiji Government was born in 1868, after 250 years of feudal Tokugawa reign. The metalwork was the craft most affected by this change. The metalworkers who had been employed by the shogun and the rest of the military ruling class in producing swords and their fittings suddenly found themselves without work. This was compounded by the government's 1876 order '廃刀令 Haitou-rei' bannning the wearing of swords.

There was a very limited demand for sword guards as art objects, but it was not sufficient to sustain a livelihood, and metalworkers were forced to explore other means to make use of their highly developed skills. They found it in the production of metal kimono accessories and tobacco containers, as well as decorative objects, vases, plates, incense burners, and cigarette cases fot export.

Governmental Promotion

正阿弥勝義_群鶏図香炉.jpgShoami Katsuyoshi, Incense burner with domestic fowls, 20cm, Sannenzaka Museum, Kyoto.The Japanese government also sought to promote domestic industry. Japan, which had been closed to the outside world for centuries, had no manufacturing industries to speak of, and its only potential exports were its craft products. The government forcused in paticular on the unemployed metalwork artisans.

At that time, the majority of metal objects produced in the West were bronze or silcer castings. The intricately engraved and inlaid products of many different metals - gold, silver, copper, shakudo, shibuichi, and so forth - produced in Japan were a great novelty. The Japanese government not only exhibited but also sold these objects at the many world's fairs and international exhibitions of the day, and thus succeeded in creating a powerful demand for them.

In order to encourage the continuity and development of such craft, in 1890 the government established the system of artisans designated as enjoying the patronage of the Imperial Household. This designation meant that the artist or artisan received substantial orders from the imperial family and the Imperial Household Agency, achieving level of economic security and social recognition.

At about the same time the Tokyo School of the Arts opened, and Kano Natsuo 加納夏雄 (1828-1898), the first metalworker to be designated an artist under the patronage of the imperial household, became the first instructor of metalworking there, transmitting his skills to many successors. This was a great source of encouragement to his fellow artists.

UnnoShomin.jpgUnno Shomin, Pair of vases with tiger and dragon, 38 cmIn subsequent years such leading Meiji-periodd masters of metalwork as
Unno Shomin 海野勝民 (1844-1915),
Kagawa Katsuhiro 香川勝広 (1853-1917),
Tsukada Shukyo 塚田秀鏡 (1848-1918),
were designated artists under the patronage of the imperial household.

Shoami Katsuyoshi 正阿弥勝義 (1832-1908) was also a highly accomplished metalworker though not so designated.

The Meiji era was a turbulent time for metalworkers, but though they faced such daunting challenges as the collapse of the warrior class and the opening of Japan to the world, they were able to employ their highly developed skills in fashioning sword fittings to produce imcomparable art objects in metal with great pictorial skill, and they deserve high praisesfor their efforts and abilities.

The metalworlers designated as under the patronage of the imperial household continued to win numerous awards at the international exhibitions. Their work was purchased by foreign collectors and museums, as well as commissioned the Imperial Household Agency as gifts for important foreign visitors. At the same time, many swords fittings made by anonymous artisans were exported by brokers (shokuhinka嘱品家) and found their way foreign collections.

Japanese Metal Brokers Active in World Fairs

Brokers made their debut when Japan took part in its first world's fair, the Vienna World's Fair of 1873. Brokers were individuals or companies that commissioned works from artisans and then exhibited own brand name. Some of the more active brokers of the period were;

the Kiryu Kosho Kaisha 起立工商会社
the Kanazawa Doki Kaisha 金沢銅器会社
the individual Ozeki Yahei 大関弥兵衛

Some of these firms had shops in Yokohama where they sold directly to foreigners. A few also had overseas branches.

Other company did not simply commission works from artisans but actually established their own workshops. The most important of these were;

Komai 駒井 in Kyoto
Jomi 紹美 in Kyoto

So it was that at the start of the Meiji period numerous brokers and workshops were established and, with a clear understanding of the tastes of their Western customers, employed many artisans who had formerly produced sword fittings.

Metalwork objects by Koami and Jomi still regulary appear on the auction blocks of London and New York. When piece with the Ozeki brand comes up for sale, the bidding inevitably heats up and it sells easily for from ten to twenty million yen.

Japanese curio distributors

TeaSet_1890_KuhnAndKomor.jpgFIVE-PIECE KUTANI PORCELAIN TEA SET Early 20th Century In egg shell porcelain with decoration of warriors in landscape settings. Consisting of two pear-shaped teapots, two sugar bowls, and a creamer. Height of teapots 8¼". Part of a service given by Emperor Hirohito to the heir of the throne of Denmark, Prince Knud of Denmark and HRH Caroline Matahilde, at the Imperial Court in Tokyo where Dr. Thomsen acted as interpreter. Retail marking of Kuhn & Komor, Hong Kong & Yokohama.Japan was closed to the world during the latter part of the Meiji Period when the Imperial government fortuitously invited the renowned British designer Christopher Dresser to visit the country in 1876. The purpose behind the invitation was to solicit his advice on matters of current European taste and resuscitate interest in trade with England. Liberty & Co., with whom Dresser was associated, became the principal retailer for Japanese decorative art in England and was largely responsible for introducing the wildly successful style Japonnaise.

One of the distribution channel to foreigners was through foreign visitors who bought furniture at curio shops in Japan. A trip to Japan was an attractive adventure for Westerners at the time. This is well demonstrated by the words which Alexander Knox (1818-1891), a leader writer for The Times, used to describe Japan, such as ìThis singular people, The Forbidden Land, and ìa sealed book. Typically, strangers in Japan spent their first morning in curio shops. The information on what to be done in Japan was fully laid out by guide books such as the annual editions of John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Japan.

For example, Murray’s handbook of 1913 listed two Foreign Stores for Japanese Works of Art in Yokohama;

Arthur & Bond
Kuhn & Komor

The book also listed several Japanese curio shops;

Samurai Shokai
Endo Art Furniture

Most curio shops were solely retailers, but some of them were actively engaged as manufacturer. For example, Arthur & Bond had their own factory, and Samurai Shokai offered financial support to a number of craftsmen to enable them to produce their own high quality products.

In addition, Yamanaka & Co., based in Osaka, the most prominent Japanese and Chinese antique dealer of the time, produced high quality furniture at their factory.

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