Japanese Art – Metalwork

The development of metal-work has also a long history. Already in the proto-historic period, excellent work in armor, sword and bronze mirrors were produced, and a large number of fine examples are preserved in the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum. In Fig. 49 there is reproduced one of the proto-historic cuirasses.

It is formed chiefly of horizontal plates of iron, very skilfully forged, taking the shape of a solid corselet the right front of which opens on a hinge to admit the body of the wearer. The sword from the proto-historic period is also remarkable for its practice and ornamentation. It has a straight back and only one cutting edge. The handle and scabbard are beautifully decorated with gilt copper in repousse work. In some cases the pommel of the sword is modelled into a ring, in which is often represented the head of a phoenix or dragon-head, as will be seen in the example shown in Fig. 50.

In the 8th century much finer swords were produced by the influence of the advanced decorative art of the Tang Dynasty of China.

In the Shoso-in treasury in Nara are preserved a number of highly decorative swords (Fig. 51). The finest of them is the sword once worn by the Emperor Shomu. The metal fitting attached to this sword is exquisite in gilt filigree work inserted with gems.

The craft of the Japanese swordsmith developed intensely in the 13th century ; and fine, practical blades were made by such eminent swordsmiths as Awataguchi Yoshimitsu and Rai Kunimitsu.

Armor-making also made wonderful progress in the 13th century. The finest kind of Japanese body-armor is called great armor or O- yoroi, and was worn by a general. It consists of several pieces of scale armor made of small iron scales which are lacquered black or gilded, and then laced with colored threads. When completed it is highly decorative, being lavishly ornamented with gilded metal fittings and colorful lacing, as may be imagined from the illustration (Fig. 52).

Now let us see something of the important metalwork in bronze mirrors produced in different ages. The earliest bronze mirrors were found at several sites dating from the bronze age. The mirror has a geometric design on its back. In the proto-historic age, many bronze mirrors were produced, and they are excavated from burial-mounds throughout almost the entire land of japan. They are Chinese mirrors of Han or Six Dynasties. However, among them are found copies of those Chinese mirrors which were made in Japan. They are circular, and their backs are ornamented with Chinese legendary figures and animals in relief, as will be noticed in the reproduction of one of the representative examples owned by the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum.

However, much more artistic bronze mirrors were produced in the 8th century owing to the influence of Chinese mirrors made in the Tang Dynasty. Many fine examples of this kind of mirrors are preserved in the Shoso-in treasury at Nara. They are either disk-shaped or of the eight-petalled flower form, both held by cords attached to the knobs at the center of the back. As to the technical process, some designs are cast in the same mould ; but others are incrusted with designs cut out of gold or silver plate on a lacquer ground. The designs are composed mostly of animals, douds, birds, flowers, landscapes and legends. An example of exquisite workmanship will be seen in our reproduction of one of such mirrors preserved in the Shoso-in treasury at Nara. Around the middle knob is represented water in fine silver gilt. Along the water are represented land and mountains in gilt, and on the land a saint is playing music. In the sky, cranes are flying about amid floating douds. The design represents the state of ideal happiness conceived by Chinese saints. Such an exquisite design was never made for the mirror after the 8th century. After the 10th century bronze mirrors became much smaller, and their designs were simplified and Japanized,

Contemporary metal-work is making remarkable progress in technique and design, and some superb examples will be seen in the annual exhibition of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy (held in autumn in Ueno Park), and another annual exhibition held (in spring) under the auspices of the Department of Commerce and Industry.