Art

The Edo samurai knew how to look sharp

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

‘The World of Edo Dandyism: From Swords to Inro” at the Nezu Museum is a splendid collection of Edo Period (1603-1868) swords and sword accessories that includes blades, scabbards and metal fittings, as well as decorative sets of inrō (pill boxes) and netsuke (carved toggles). The exhibition looks back to a fascinating period of Edo history when prosperous samurai and merchants sought out the most stylish outfits and accessories that would establish them as refined men.

The attention to detail involved in the creation of these swords and accessories was analogous to the emphasis Western dandies of the same era placed on elaborate clothing and decorative embellishments. What distinguished the Japanese sensibility, however, was its aesthetic focus on seasonal elements, such as fanciful depictions of flowers, animals and mythical stories. Scabbards, swords and metal fittings were decorated with motifs that included depictions of ears of rice, wild geese in flight, tigers and dragons.

What led to these elaborate decorative practices? The Edo Period was a time of extended peace that lasted more than 250 years and witnessed the rise of a thriving urban culture. The Japanese sword, which represented the soul of the samurai, was no longer needed as a utilitarian weapon, and so it became an expensive ornamental object to be worn with pride, but never used in battle. For the stylish Edo samurai, swords and accompanying accessories embellished in silver and gold were the key distinguishing features of their outfits, representing both high social status and personal refined sensibilities.

Though there were rules for wearing swords — long and short swords were to be worn on the left side, while the inrō needed to be tucked into the sash on the right side — the Japanese gentleman had numerous opportunities to personalize his wardrobe. He would select items from his own collection of decorative scabbards and other personal accessories, which he would carefully coordinate to suit the social occasion.

The exhibition provides a glimpse of these unique characteristics of the Edo gentleman’s wardrobe. Visitors are first met with a dazzling display of swords, which is specially lit to allow close viewing of the blades’ fine metalwork, engraving and patterning. One of these is a unique wakizashi (short sword), the work of the 17th-century swordsmith Shigetaka. Engraved using the sukashi-bori (openwork carving) technique, parts of the background have been carved away to reveal a raised relief design of a dragon wrapping itself around a sword and attempting to swallow it.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the collection of tsuba (sword guards), the metal fittings attached between hilts and sword blades to prevent the grip from slipping onto the blades. These include tsuba created by the master craftsmen Goto Ichijo (1791-1876) and Kano Natsuo (1828-1898), both of whom were acclaimed for the intricacy of their designs. One guard crafted by Kano features a blooming peony motif carved in jet-black iron. The exquisiteness of the design lies in both its delicacy and its precision, providing the illusion of softness and natural beauty of the real flower it illustrates. Each petal appears in relief and the center of the blossom is embellished with gold inlay.

Perhaps the most famous accoutrements of the Edo gentleman, aside from his sword, were the inrō and netsuke. The inrō, a lacquered pill box small enough to fit into the palm of the hand, would be paired with a decorative netsuke toggle. On display at the exhibition is a beautiful 18th-century inrō stand that demands attention. A dizzying assortment of inrō hang from it, replicating how it would have originally looked in the gentleman’s home. Clearly the owner of this stand must have enjoyed displaying his prized inrō collection.

The spectacular inrō in this exhibition include one by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) that depicts the Chinese tale of “Zhong Kui the Demon Queller,” who, according to legend, was so powerful that he was able to capture a demon. The inrō, which has Zhong Kui standing victorious on one side and the demon on its reverse, is enclosed in a case the shape of a cage. The bamboo bars of the cage are made of mother of pearl and the rest of it is lacquered to have the appearance of rusted iron. When inside the case, the demon on the inrō is seen trapped behind bars. The artist’s playful spirit, skill of execution and ability to illustrate the narrative in such a clever manner make this a remarkable piece.

Wandering through the exhibition it’s easy to imagine the flourishing culture that provided the backdrop for the Edo gentleman’s elevated sensibility. Its artifacts reveal both the pains such men would take to remain at the height of fashion, as well as the refined skills of the artisans who strove to produce items of beauty and singular distinction in this golden period of Japan’s craft traditions.

“The World of Edo Dandyism: From Swords to Inro” at the Nezu Museum runs till July 20; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en