Kano Natsuo Menuki

Kano Natsuo

periodLate Edo (1868)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu Menuki
mei夏 · 雄 — Natsu · o
measurements2.4 cm x 2.4 cm
price -sold-

The last famous master of sword fittings was Natsuo who had transmitted this art from the old to the new Japan and saved it from Europeanization. Shinkichi Hara

Before I begin, Markus Sesko’s Kano Natsuo: His Life, His Art, and His Sketchbooks is the main source for my research on Natsuo. This is a really excellent and in depth book on Natsuo, and with the space available here I am basically paraphrasing what Markus has written. I highly recommend buying this book if you are a collector of sword fittings. Markus brings so much information to this field, it is a great idea to support him by buying a copy (you can follow the link above).

Kano Natsuo is along with Goto Ichijo one of the top two craftsmen of the end of the Edo period and is likely at the head of the list. He is the last of the great artists of sword fittings and some would say the greatest. By the time he died he had accumulated many followers and craftsmen working under him (over 60), was appointed to be Imperial Craftsman, made custom orders for Emperor Meiji, took on a professorship at the Tokyo National University, and sealed his place in history. Today his work is third overall on the list of Juyo tosogu makers with 70 (Goto Ichijo has the most with 74, and Joshin second with 71). Natsuo though ranks in first place of all tosogu makers at the Tokubetsu Juyo level with ten such ranked masterpieces. The Kinko Meikan also gives him the highest rank of Meihin.

Fushimi Jisaburo was born in Bunsei eleven (1828) in Kyoto to Fushimi Jisuke, a rice dealer. He was adopted at seven years old by the sword dealer Kano Jisuke and took his last name. Four years later, Kano Jisuke died and at twelve years old Jisaburo started an apprenticeship with the kinko artist Okumura Shohachi (奥村庄八) who was a kinko artist from the Goto school. With this training Jisaburo learned about the traditional materials, methods and themes that were common in Goto Iebori (house carving).

Kano Natsuo Menuki Natsuo CarpKano Natsuo Menuki Carp Kozuka
Carp by Natsuo

When Jisaburo was fourteen years old, he also studied under Ikeda Takatoshi (池田孝寿) from the Otsuki school who were very advanced artisans in machibori (town carving) which had been developing the art in non-traditional forms, themes and materials. At the age of fifteen he took on the the art name Toshiaki (寿朗) being granted one character from his teacher’s name.

At the same time, he learned classical Chinese under Tanimori Shigematsu (谷森重松) and painting from Nakajima Raishō (中島来章, 1796-1871) from the Maruyama-Shijō school (円山四条). His training as a painter (an art in which he also excelled) and in classical art would have great influence in his design of his themes and subject matter.

At eighteen years old Natsuo (still signing as Toshiaki) became an independent artist and opened his own shop. He took inspiration in this time period from Ichinomiya Nagatsune, Otsuki Mitsuoki, the early Goto craftsmen, Somin, Yasuchika and Nara Toshinaga by making utsushi (reproductions) of their works. In this way he studied their style and craftsmanship and continued to develop his own skill and style. From this point on he would continue to study and develop on his own without any master.

When I was twenty-two or twenty-three I experienced a first sense of maturity when carving kozuka with the motif of a tiger carrying his cubs over the river [note: two of them are extant today] and fuchigashira showing hares and waves, as these pieces were so much praised by everyone who saw them. Kano Natsuo

In 1849 at the age of 22 he would change his name to Natsuo.

Edo Career

At the age of 25, Natsuo moved to Edo where he lived a humble existence and continued to develop his craft. Shortly after this in 1855 the Great Ansei Earthquake destroyed his house and forced him to rebuild. By 1864 Natsuo was married, had a child, and had several craftsmen working for him in his shop and had to move into a larger abode.

Imperial Koshirae
The Suiryuken
The Suiryuken

In 1869 his profile had risen to the point where he was asked to make items for the new Emperor Meiji who had taken power from the Tokugawa Shoguns. In 1872 in particular Natsuo received a commission from Emperor Meiji to make mounts for the meibutsu Ryusuiken sword, at the time 1,200 years old and thought to be the property of Emperor Shomu. The sword was taken out of the Shosoin repository and Natsuo made its koshirae. After this the name of the sword was changed to Suiryuken due to the fantastic mounts with dragons and waves he made for the blade. The blade is now Juyo Bunkazai.

As well the Imperial Mint asked him to design the new coinage that replaced the Tokugawa era coins. At the age of 51 in 1877, Natsuo received a court rank and now had 22 people working under him in his workshop.

By 1890 he now had 64 craftsmen working under him and the workshop had expanded again. He was now producing other fine art objects not associated with sword fittings. In 1890 he became professor at the Tōkyo School of Fine Arts. Early the very same year Natsuo was appointed to the rank of teishitsu-gigei´in (帝室技芸員, Imperial Craftsman), the forerunner of the later ningen-kokuho (Living National Treasure). In 1891 he was one of the first judges who was used to survey Japan and begin classifying important art objects, which was the origin of items becoming classed as Kokuho (National Treasure), Juyo Bijutsuhin (Important Art Object), and Juyo Bunkazai (Important Cultural Object).

Natsuo died in Meiji 31 (1898) at the age of 71 after having his court ranking elevated to sixth grade and his grave is at the Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo.

His contemporaries described him as not really well-built and of average size and weight but having a very kindly expression upon his face and a Kyoto dialect. It is also said that his appearance became steadily more elegant and graceful as he grew older. Friends said that he was very polite and always stood up and interrupted his work to welcome a visitor personally instead of ordering a student to do so unlike many other masters. Regarding his thoroughness, it is said that when he was going to make a silver vase with a pine motif in katakiribori, he spent almost a whole year on the sketch, and when it was time to start the work, he again discarded the final sketch and started from new. So he ended up with a whole box full of sketches just for this one vase. He also usually made two or three test signings before he actually chiselled the Mei onto the finished work, and we know from people who knew him that even then it took him sometimes three such approaches until he was satisfied with the signature. Well, he executed the character for “Natsu” (夏) right from the beginning of his career in the cursive manner (夏) and it remained rather unchanged throughout his entire career, but he constantly “experimented” with the character for “o” (雄), and so it is assumed that his frequent use of hiragana and/or katakana syllables like in (なツを) or (なつを) for “Natsuo” goes back to this dissatisfaction with the harmony of the two characters on the finished work. Markus Sesko, Natsuo

Kano Natsuo Tsuba Sketches

During his life, Natsuo maintained sketchbooks as mentioned above, and thankfully copies were preserved and are available now. This allows a rare opportunity to see how his sketches evolved into finished designs. In this he was inspired by Ichinomiya Nagatsune. Nagatsune also maintained a sketchbook for his ideas, and Natsuo was able to obtain this. As a result we see Natsuo developing on Nagatsune's ideas, techniques and materials.

In particular, [Natsuo] admired Nagatsune’s work, and collected his sketch books, and he supposedly studied these all of the time. This kozuka uses Nagatsune’s special style which has a one quarter polished surface or ji, and has katakiri-bori, and he used all kinds of colors with a gold hirazogan (high inlay) technique. This shows Nagatsune’s elegant style, and has Natsuo’s famed empty spaces, and has simple sharp curves, and this shows poetic and fantasy images. Iida Toshihisa, NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Kano NatsuoKano NatsuoKano NatsuoKano Natsuo
Tokubetsu Hozon Kano Natsuo MenukiKano Natsuo Menuki Natsuo TaikanKano Natsuo Menuki Origami

Kano Natsuo Menuki

These wonderful menuki of Natsuo require a little bit of decoding as they have a lot of symbolism. The representation is of the mirror Yata-no-Kagami that is one of the three items that compose the Imperial Regalia of Japan. These objects are used to coronate a new emperor. The other two are the Sword: Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Jewel: Yasakani-no-Magatama. They represent the three virtues of Valor (sword), Wisdom (mirror) and Benevolence (jewel). Nobody has seen the original mirror for centuries however, and the existence and appearance of all three objects is kept under tight wraps. The mirror is supposed to be quite large and in the Ise Grand Shrine, though there is an implication it may have been burned in 1040.

One of the menuki in this set is solid gold and represents the back of the Yata-no-Kagami, and the other is in seido or shibuichi with a gold back and represents the front of the mirror. When mounted then they form one object with the back and front of the mirror facing in the correct directions.

The smooth surface of the mirror is showing a crow, and to note as this is a mirror this is showing a reflection of a crow. The crow is made in silver, which Natsuo knew would blacken over time. The crow represented here is the Yata-no-Karasu, which by tradition appeared in the sky sent by Ameratsu to guide the first Japanese Emperor Jimmu to Yamato. Once there, having defeated all his enemies, he began the unbroken chain of Emperors until the present day. It's also a little play on words as both of the names of the mirror and the crow begin with Yata-no-Ka.

These two primary symbols are closely tied to the Imperial dynasty and as well, mirrors have a symbolic meaning of truth (since a mirror simply shows you what it sees, it cannot lie). The crow has another symbolic meaning, one of renewal as they cleaned battlefields of the dead and began the return to serene nature after war. The butterflies on the back of the mirror are symbols of transformation as the butterfly is the product of metamorphosis throughout its life. The name of the mirror implies an eight-lobed shape, and this number eight is also auspicious as they reference the eight spokes of the Dharma wheel and the Eight-fold Noble Path. Similarly the crow in question here, Yata-no-Karasu is the Eight-span Crow, and it was said to have three legs though those may be hidden as in Natsuo's version.

So in these menuki we see symbols of the first Emperor, guidance from Ameratsu, the Imperial dynasty, renewal, transformation, wisdom and truth. Given Natsuo's working period, my conclusion is that these were made to commemorate the end of the Tokugawa era and the ascendancy of the Meiji Emperor and an auspicious new beginning for Japan. So my guess for date of construction is Meiji 1.

These menuki are published and documented in the Natsuo Taikan, an important reference book on his life’s work. The entry from the Taikan is translated below and the many references in this set. The Taikan has a listing for construction dates of his works, but no date was provable to the authors so none is listed there for these menuki.

No. 118. Yata-no-kagami (八咫鏡) motif, signed: Natsuo (夏雄)

Gold, katachibori, sukidashibori relief, kebori engravings, ginzōgan

Mythology has it that Amaterasu was given the Yata-no-kagami mirror when she was hiding in the Ama-no-Iwato cave, which then subsequently became part of the Three Sacred Treasures. On the other menuki, we see the Yata-no-karasu (八咫烏) crow inlaid in silver and accented with kebori engravings. It is said that when legendary Emperor Jimmu got lost on his journey from Kumano to Yamato, the Yata-no-karasu crow was sent from heaven to guide him. The back of the mirror menuki is decorated with the sukidashibori relief of arabesques and butterflies. A work that is full with profound meaning. Natsuo Taikan

Emperor Jimmu - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi ca. 1880
Emperor Jimmu - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi ca. 1880

These menuki are also pictured in the Kano Natsuo Meihin Shu in which they are photographed while mounted. These authors described the crow as a dove which seems to be an error. Regardless it is noteworthy for showing the mounted menuki.

Natsuo Meihin Shu

No. 73. *Menuki* with *Yata-no-kagami* (八咫鏡) motif

Gold, katachibori, ginzōgan, Signed: Natsuo (夏雄)

One mebuki depicts a dove inlaid in silver and accented with kebori engravings. The back of the mirror of the other menuki is decorated with the sukidashibori relief of arabesques and butterflies. A very tasteful and excellent work. Kano Natsuo Meihin Shu

Menuki Backs

Because of the symmetry involved in the design, there is a question as to the appropriate orientation. Usually the artist’s mei will be on the bottom side of a menuki, but in this case the points of the petals go down. Natsuo seems to have marked the backs of these menuki in order to represent the proper orientation. I’ve used this orientation in my photographs, which is different from both of the books above.

Nagatsune’s Sketchbook
Nagatsune’s Sketchbook

One other interesting note refers back to Natsuo’s ownership of the original sketchbook made by Ichinomiya Nagatsune. Natsuo held Nagatsune in the highest regard and carefully studied his work, and we can find his spirit throughout Natsuo’s repertoire.

In this case, I found these sketches made by Nagatsune on page 110 of his sketchbook. I think they may have been one source of inspiration in the creation of these menuki.

There are not so many Natsuo menuki around for people to collect. A lot of the time Natsuo works are quietly made available and then pass to private collections without people knowing they ever changed hands. They are very easily recognizable to all as the handicraft of Natsuo, and will be a welcome addition to any collection.

These menuki come in a custom fit box, with gold lacquer on the front indicating they are the Yata-no-kagami menuki of Natsuo. It has an old shifuku as well.