Stylish somethings for the boys of Edo

by Yoko Haruhara

Accessories used to adorn men’s clothing in the Edo Period (1603-1867) are currently showing in an exhibition at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, titled “Tsuba, Inro and Netsuke.”

Though women’s fashions of the period have received considerable attention, the no less intricate accessories worn by men — including inro (lacquerware medicine boxes), carved netsuke (toggles), and tsuba (metal sword guards) — have often been given short shrift. Now, this display of more than 120 small treasures reveals both the dandyism of upper-class samurai and the genius of the artists behind these sophisticated creations.

Japanese clothing at this time did not have pockets, and when, in the 15th century, inro were imported from China, they caught on fast, being principally used to store medicine. By the beginning of the Edo Period, however, they had become merely decorative, and were suspended from obi sashes using silk cords. The ends of the cords were then secured with a netsuke, usually made of ivory or animal bone. A bead called an ojime was used to adjust the length of the cord.

The wearing and coordinating of accessories was, in itself, an art for the Edo gentleman. The proper pairing of inro and netsuke showed excellent taste, and care was taken to match the decorative motifs of each.

Those motifs were drawn from popular stories, folk tales, proverbs and myth. Showing here is an inro depicting one of Japan’s most celebrated folk tales, “Saru-kani kassen (The Feud of the Monkey and the Crab),” which tells of a crab’s revenge on a monkey that tricked it into trading a delicious rice ball for a persimmon seed.

The front of the inro shows the crab happily surveying the fruit-laden tree that has grown from its persimmon seed. The fruit is represented by inlaid orange coral, and the tree’s shining leaves are iridescent mother-of-pearl. The back of the piece shows three monkeys, hands linked, reaching down from a tree, with the lowest monkey stretching out to pluck the fruit from the crab.

The gold-and-silver wooden netsuke that accompanies the inro is in the shape of a loquat, harmonizing with the design of the netsuke as the loquat was believed to be one of the monkey’s favorite fruits.

An elaborate technique called takamaki-e was used in crafting this inro. This method consists of sprinkling gold, silver and copper powder onto wet lacquer; the design is then built up in many additional layers of lacquer and powder. Owing to the extravagance of the materials used, only a wealthy gentleman could afford to own a work such as this by the renowned artist Jokasai. One of the most prized craftsmen of the day, Jokasai was retained by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The exhibition also highlights metalwork, featuring such items as sword guards, grips and hilts. These items, though practical, were also highly embellished. One mid-Edo sword guard shown here emblematizes the famous Chinese fable with the motto “Know thyself.”

The story tells of a mantislike insect that, unaware of its tiny size, challenges a large carriage wheel to a fight. The design is well suited to the circular shape of the sword guard, the iron, open metalwork showing a mantis and a wheel in relief, with inlaid copper adorning the wheel.

Swords became increasingly ornamental during the Edo Period’s long years of peace. However, with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the abolition of the samurai class at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), fashions changed drastically. A law passed in 1871 forbade the wearing of swords, and Japanese gentlemen began to adopt Western clothing. The production of inro, netsuke and tsuba waned as demand for these items rapidly dwindled.

The exhibition, therefore, is an evocative glimpse of the heyday of Edo Period iki (sophistication), revealing the elegance with which samurai gentlemen conducted their lives.