The maven of Japanese sword fittings

by

Contributing Writer

The special exhibition “Pinnacle of Elegance: Sword Fittings of the Mitsumura Collection” at the Nezu Museum offers a fascinating look at the collection that Toshimo Mitsumura (1877-1955), a wealthy businessman, amassed at the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Mitsumura’s passion for swords is reflected in the portion of his collection that the museum acquired — an array of 1,200 sword fittings and blades from the 13th to the 19th centuries.

For this exhibition, a total of 130 fittings and other items are on display, including sword blades and lacquered wooden scabbards. Nezu Kaichiro (1860-1940), founder of the museum, purchased much of the Mitsumura collection in 1909, resulting in this repository becoming part of the museum’s holdings.

As Japan modernized in the late 19th century, the country witnessed the dismantling of the samurai social class. Legislation forbidding the wearing of swords in public was passed and guns began to replace them. Mitsumura’s patronage, curation and amassing of his collection was a labor of love that ensured that exemplary works of sword making and sword fittings survived to be cherished by future generations.

Part of what makes Mitsumura’s story fascinating is that he was not content to be simply a connoisseur and collector. He trained as a photographer to document his collection, commissioned works from master craftspeople to help support them and carefully curated and cataloged his collection. He researched the provenance of each item and published the results in a four-volume tome “Tagane no Hana” (“Flowers of the Chisel”), a seminal reference work on the history of Japanese sword fittings.

A range of metal fittings and sword guards with various decorative schemes depicting flowers and birds, landscapes, human figures and animals are on display. For the samurai who possessed these items, the intricacy and use of precious materials indicated the owner’s discriminating taste and thus they were important social markers. Such works stand among the best craftsmanship of their time.

The metal sword guards (tsuba), which make up the bulk of this collection, would have been attached between a sword’s hilt and its blade to keep the user’s grip from slipping. They were typically crafted in round, oval or square shapes and embellished in many ways, including fine engraving and gold and silver inlay for visual contrast.

One piece to note is an elaborate pair of black iron sword guards by metal smith Matsuo Gassan (1815-75), depicting Zhongkui, the Demon Queller, a figure renowned in Chinese folklore for being powerful enough to capture a demon. On one guard Zhongkui, a carved relief, chases after the demon, with details inlaid in gold and silver. He’s extending his hand threateningly, while on the second sword guard, the scared demon runs away. The piece’s skillful execution demonstrates Matsuo’s ability to effortlessly convey the story with elegance and humor.

The finesse of the craftsmanship you will witness at this exhibition is astonishing. It conveys the enormous skill that went into creating these masterpieces of metalwork, and it leaves the visitor with a true appreciation of the talents that Mitsumura so admired and treasured.

“Pinnacle of Elegance: Sword Fittings of the Mitsumura Collection” at the Nezu Museum runs until Dec. 17; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en