Unno School MenukiUnno School

periodMeiji (ca. 1870)
designationNBTHK Hozon Tosogu Menuki
omote4.05 cm x 1.6 cm
ura4.15 cm x 1.5 cm
price$6,000 -new-

Six decades are nothing but a dream when I am awakened by the morning sound of the chisel in the approaching spring. Unno Shomin

Unno Shomin, born in 1844, was the last great master of sword fittings. He began his study under his uncle Unno Yoshimori, and then Hagiya Katsuhira. His last study was under the harsh tutelage of Kano Natsuo. Through his life he won prizes in the Meiji period for his metalwork and was also a judge for various exhibitions.

Shomin had a high opinion of himself, he decided to wear swords like a samurai, he hosted drinking parties, maintained a hobby of bonsai which engaged his students in some manual work on a daily basis, and liked to take a carriage in to the workshop. He chose the name Shomin himself as his goal was to exceed the work of Yokoya Somin, one of the all time great geniuses of metal craftsmanship.

In my personal opinion, I have never seen such a beautiful kozuka. Kubo Yasuko, writing in the NBTHK Token Bijutsu about a Shomin work

Like his teacher before him, he was appointed as an Imperial Court Artist, and was given the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

Markus Sesko has some interesting historical references on Shomin and rather than try to cherry-pick highlights, I suggest to read the following two articles as they are informative and interesting.

As can be seen from these, the struggle to run a workshop after the rapid societal changes of the Meiji period was real. As these artists age more and more they depend on their students for prep work, and keeping their students fed and paid required constant nagging directed at clients (hmmm I think I can sympathize).

Shomin became a professor at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts like Natsuo did before him, and unfortunately towards the end of his life he developed a lot of health problems, made worse by drinking too much, and as written above by one of his students during the day the entire workshop had to shut down so he could sleep.

In spite of this, his genius was very high and his work technically brilliant and beautiful. After Natsuo he was the best of his time. His workshop also made other metalwork, such as vases and fans, and this diversification can be seen as an attempt to deal with the economic reality of the transformed Meiji society (i.e. when swords are banned it's very hard to make a living making sword fittings). Shomin ultimately died at the age of 72 in 1915.

There are eight Juyo and one Tokubetsu Juyo item by Shomin that have passed through the NBTHK. Given the late time period, and the relatively low output from his workshop due to the times and the diversification of their efforts, this is quite a total. The Tokubetsu Juyo work, I believe is the most modern work out of all Nihonto related craftsmen, swords and tosogu both, to achieve this rank.

Boxed Shomin school menuki
Hozon Unno School MenukiUnno School Menuki BacksUnno School Menuki Origami

Hozon Unno School Menuki

These menuki are products of the Unno workshop as the NBTHK has attributed them to the Unno Ha. Shomin left behind various talented workers among his sons and students, such as Unno Kiyoshi who became a Living National Treasure, and Unno Shomei. They are likely to be earlier works of the school I think rather than works of his students after his death or late works of the workshop.

The later works when he became very famous are signed and were often commissioned by millionaire tycoons of the time and become less related to actual use in swords. As well the work of the students was directed at various things like vases and moving his bonsai in and out of the workshop as he became old and fragile.

These menuki bear a little bit of wear marks and show that they were used, so likely come from before the Meiji sword ban, so are likely works of Shomin and his early students when he was starting out.

The flowing style is very eye catching and singles them out immediately as different from contemporary and earlier work of other artists. They are made of solid gold with various colored metals on top, something Shomin is known for, so these were made for high quality mounts of the time.

To have a signed work by Shomin himself is something very expensive and exclusive, so for those who do not have an opportunity to find such a piece, these are a good choice as they illustrate well the reasons why Shomin and his school were famous.

They come in a custom box, and are ranked Hozon by the NBTHK with no doubt about the attribution to Shomin's school.