Nara School TsubaNara School

periodEdo (ca. 1700)
designationNBTHK Hozon Tosogu Tsuba
measurements7.8cm x 7.7cm
price$6,500 -new-

If we were to break the Edo period Tosogu artisans into three general groups, we would have the traditional lineage of the Goto and their satellite artisans first. We would then have the Yokoya who descend from Somin, himself a Goto artisan who broke the mold of the Goto traditions and thus is the origin of most of the major machibori schools. Thirdly we would have the Nara school which is thought to be founded by metal artisans who were involved in the construction of temples and shrines, in particular the Nikko Toshogu and the Edo Kanei-ji where some of the Shoguns are interred.

The school founder is said to to be Toshiteru who worked from around 1600 up to his death in the 1629, though he may not have made any tosogu. As per the school name, had his origin in Yamato Nara. They worked for the Shogunate as did the Goto, as can be seen from their efforts in constructing shrines to honor the remains of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The various metal objects and ornaments on these shrines would be the art forms that fell under their domain.

We also know from extant documents that the Nara family or school basically split into two lines, namely those of the kazari-shi [i.e. metalworkers] and those of the nuri-shi [i.e. lacquer artists], whereas the former used the hereditary first name Shichirōzaemon (七郎左衛門) and the latter Hachirōzaemon (八郎左衛門). But both lineages worked for the bakufu and the former ran the production of sword fittings as a sideline. This separation in the field of functions, as well as the work on the mentioned temples, is also mentioned in the Sōken-kishō. Markus Sesko, Kinko Kodogu

In practice the first tosogu maker is thought to be Nara Toshimune, and his son Toshiharu is the first one to really solidify the Nara style. He worked until the age of 85 and worked throughout the middle 1600s.

There were two Nara Toshinaga smiths, signing with different kanji. The third mainline master used 利永 and his work was eclipsed by the second Toshinaga who signed 利寿.

This second Toshinaga is probably the Nara school's greatest craftsman, working from the late 1600s until the early 1700s. His renown is such that he is grouped as one of the Nara San Saku together with Tsuchiya Yasuchika and Sugiura Joi. He is one of only a few tosogu artists who has work that achieved Tokubetsu Juyo, and as well as Juyo Bijutsuhin and Juyo Bunkazai. As a side note the group of makers who have achieved Jubi are: Hikozo, Goto Joshin, Goto Tokujo, Goto Ichijo, Sugiura Joi, Kaneie, Matashichi, Umetada Mitsutada, Umetada Myoju, Kikuoka Mitsuyuki, Kano Natsuo, Shozui, Somin, Nara Toshinaga, Yasuchika, and Kanshiro Nagahisa. Those achieving Juyo Bunkazai are: Donin, Ichijo, Kaneie, Matashichi, Myoju, Nobuie, Somin, Goto Yujo, Goto Teijo, Nara Toshinaga, and Yasuchika. So from this list you can see that the number of smiths who obtained both rankings is quite small (Myoju, Ichijo, Somin, Kaneie, Matashichi, Yasuchika and Toshinaga).

Kano Natsuo, Yasuchika utsushi
Kano Natsuo, Yasuchika utsushi

As Nara Toshinaga is one of the all time greats, it is natural that the school peaked around this time. However Sugiura Joi who was likely his student and first signed using the name Nagaharu, and afterwards changed to Joi. As can be seen from the list above, he also is one of the very few makers who have obtained both Juyo Bijutsuhin and Juyo Bunkazai levels in tosogu. Working at the same time as Joi is Yasuchika, another artist of the Nara school. Yasuchika's work is relatively peerless as he was both immensely talented and built a distinctive style and school (Tsuchiya). Furthermore he was one of the primary influences on the great master Kano Natsuo. Shozui who is also listed above, is another maker of the Nara school who went on to found his own school (the Hamano school).

The main line of Nara continues with the fourth master Toshimitsu, and after this Toshikatsu, and then the 6th generation master Toshinao. Toshinao was hired back by the Shogunate as a metal artisan and as a result apparently left his tosogu work unsigned. Following him was the 7th and last mainline master Toshitsune who worked up into the Meiji period.

Nara school works frequently use copper for the ground than shakudo as the Goto and Yoshioka schools would do (though shakudo works do exist). Tsuba by Toshinaga are almost all iron and there are kozuka in shibuichi as well as copper, and brass is another metal that is used in this school.

Taking their inspiration directly from nature, the Nara artists depicted birds and insects, flowers and trees, with a grace which makes one marvel at the complete mastery which these metal-craftsmen had over their tools and the unresponsive mediums with which they had to work. Historical and legendary subjects made their appeal to many, and these are portrayed in detail, generally amid natural surroundings of real beauty.

Joi's work is characterized generally by the use of a recessed relief or intaglio relievato which gives the effect of the object rising out of the metal. His surface treatments are remarkable, especially in the case of copper-bronze... The Japanese Sword and its Decoration, Field Museum of Natural History

Hozon Nara School TsubaNara School Tsuba Origami

Nara School Tsuba

This katana tsuba is rather cleverly made in lacquered copper in the form of woven bamboo as is found on Japanese basketware.

The principles of wabi are linked to those of shihui and ideas of refined austerity, all of which aspire to the ideal of creating simple objects free of unnecessary distraction. Evidence of how the material was worked is a way of showing the 'hand of the maker' and imperfections and irregularities are welcomed as a link between the natural and human worlds, as perfection is rarely found in nature.

It was desirable for artifacts to be simple enough for their function to be obvious, and for the function of an object to suggest its form. Basketware is a good example: the bamboo from which it is made is easily identified, and close to its natural state; the technique of weaving is also obvious. A lacquer container would be placed inside such flower baskets to hold water. The baskets are practical objects adapted from larger, coarser items used in fishing and farming. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England

The effect is really quite impressive and endearing. On top of the weave is a shakudo theme of a bird in a plum tree, with gold, silver, and brass highlights. I'm not exactly sure which bird this is, the though possibly mythical. If anyone recognizes it please let me know and I will update this listing and cite you.

Update: Andre Cappel wrote to me with the following explanation:

Regarding the bird on the Nara School Tsuba The bird shown on the Nara School Tsuba is supposed to be a mystic hōō bird. This mystic bird is originally known in Chinese mythology as fenghuan. As the japanese mythology is often using elements of the Chinese mythology the chinese fenghuan bird is in japanese mythology the Hōō bird.

I think that the bird on the Nara School Tsuba is a Hōō bird, because the tail consists of 5 tail feathers. In chinese mythology the fenghuan bird has 5 tail feathers which are coloured in 5 colours – white, black, red, yellow, and blue. The five colours of the tail feathers represent the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

A similar theme was also directly used by Natsuo as when modelling the work of Yasuchika in the example above. Natsuo in fact made an interesting statement about Yasuchika: beginners should never study him. Natsuo implies that a lot of territory has to be crossed, mastered and internalized before one is ready to begin to consider the work of Yasuchika.

In the case of Natsuo's work he used a crow in the plum tree, due to a saying that the crow never forgets his parents. In this way he is paying extra homage to Yasuchika as a guiding light in his own work.

Though this tsuba is certainly not by Yasuchika it falls within the group of works that were made by the smiths in the Nara school, influenced by Yasuchika and Joi as can be seen in the theme and the material. It's a tasteful and beautiful work that can be enjoyed by any collector and comes in its own custom fitted box.

Tosogu Box