Before we begin, Iwant to give you a brief background to this article. Those who follow me on Facebook and members of the NMB might know by now that I am very lucky and grateful to be on the team that contributes to the new Samurai Art Museum in Berlin, Germany. I still owe my loyal readers a detailed write-up on the job but in a nutshell, I am in charge with the catalogization of all the objects in the Janssen Collection and working hard to get that done as we speak. In this course I came across an item that I want to introduce here because it is the first time I saw a collaboration like that, but more on that later. Suffice it to say, the quality level of the collection is truly impressive. When you face a collection that comprises nearly 600 objects as the Janssen Collection does, it is usually that you have a mere accumulation of “artefacts” with only a few outstanding items that are of special interest. In the Samurai Art Museum, it is exactly the other way round, i.e. it seems that there is an endless pool of highly interesting objects to pick from for a closer examination, the object introduced in the following being one of them.
It is widely known that the stylistic/scholastic origins of the Tosa-Myōchin group of tsuba artists were the Akasaka School from Edo. Accordingly, Tosa-Myōchin tsuba are often strongly resembling Akasaka-tsuba and we know numerous works where Tosa-Myōchin artists were providing the forged iron ground plate for Akasaka and other tsuba makers. If you are long enough into the subject of samurai related (art) objects you will know that the name Myōchin equals armor making. I will not go into too much detail in this article but it can be said that the Edo-based Myōchin School was the thriving and most important lineage of armor makers throughout the entire Edo period. Those fiefs who were able to afford it made sure that their best armorers received training from the Myōchin masters in Edo and as the main line gave master students the permission to bear the Myōchin name, the school branched out significantly over time, the Tosa-Myōchin group forming one of these branches.
I am writing Tosa-Myōchin group because there was not a single school in the strict sense of the word. That is, there were three different families who made up the Tosa-Myōchin group, the Kawasaki (川崎) family whose armor making goes back to the master-student relationship of their member Munetoshi (宗利) with the 24th head of the Myōchin main line, Myōchin Ōsumi no Kami Munesuke (明珍大隅守宗介) during the Kyōhō era (1716-1736), the Ichikawa (市川) family which is linked to the Myōchin main line via a master-student relationship with the 26th generation Myōchin Nagato no Kami Munemasa (明珍長門守宗政), and the Nomachi (野町) family whih emerged from these two local Tosa-Myōchin branches. The Kawasaki family was the lineage that was very actively involved in tsuba making as the Ichikawa was focusing on armor production and the Nomachi family on for example the zōgan inlay on rifles and the production of smaller metal objects like tobacco pipes etc.
Now when it comes to tsuba making, we actually don’t know who Kawasaki Munetoshi’s master was, or if there was a master at all, Fukushi sensei for example assumes that maybe Munetoshi just brought home some tsuba which were very popular at that time in Edo and tried to recreate them back in Tosa, what he was of course totally capable of as a professional armorer. Many of his works resemble 4th generation Akasaka Tadatoki (忠時) and Tadashige (忠重) tsuba but we also know some which look like Ko-Akasaka or Kyō-sukashi by the way. That said, I have to explain the then situation of the nation to understand one of the motifs of Munetoshi also making tsuba. The Edo period experienced a peak in the Genroku era (元禄, 1688-1704) which goes back to the economic stability the Tokugawa Shogunate had brought but when that bubble burst, the bakufu and the fiefs realized that they could not carry on as they were until Genroku times. In short, everyone was looking out for additional sources of income, and craftsmen now increasingly going over to two-pronged approaches is only understandable. But it has to be stressed that things like that were very much regulated, i.e. the fief had to give their employed craftsmen permission to make, and first of all to sell works which do not correspond to their actual profession. So tsuba production was really an option for certain fiefs to improve their financial situation a little bit. In other words, a “normal” fief-employed craftsman had an annual salary, often accompanied by an additional stipend, and for that, he had to provide the fief with what they required him to make. As indicated, every business at the side required permission and violating that by selling under the counter could be severely punished.
Back to topic and fast forward 100 years. The 4th Tosa-Myōchin master, Muneyoshi (宗義, 1791-1867), was the first where we can confirm an “official” master-student relationship with the Akasaka School, and that is in his case with the 1st generation Akasaka Tadanori (忠則). He actually went to Edo without permission and details about his impressive career can be found in the soon to be published second volume of the Tosogu Classroom. But this brings us to the actual work that I want to introduce here. It is a Saiga-style okitenugui-nari kabuto with embossed eyebrows and furrowing on the mabisashi and decorative kirigane applications along the lateral plates and the top plate. The bowl is signed “Akasaka Tadanori – Doshū Myōchin Ki no Munenaga” (赤坂忠則・土州明珍紀宗長) (see picture below).
Munenaga was Muneyoshi’s adopted son. He was born in Tenpō ten (天保, 1839) and succeeded as 5th head of the Tosa-Myōchin School two months after Muneyoshi had died, to be precise, he succeeded on the 27th day of the fourth month of Keiō three (慶応, 1867). Unless we assume that Munenaga was active under that name before he succeeded as head of the family (his real first name was Yoshitsugu/Ryōji, 良次) we are pretty much able to narrow down the production time of this helmet to the two years from Keiō three to the end of the Boshin War in 1869. This late production time also suggests that it was the second generation Akasaka Tadanori who had his hand in this collaboration, not the first one who had trained Munenaga’s adoptive father Muneyoshi. This brings us back to my initial commect about this being the first time I see a collaboration like that, namely an Akasama master also participating in armor making and not other way round of Tosa-Myōchin artists making tsuba. Looking at the helmet, I assume that probably Munenaga did the forging and assembling of the iron plates and maybe Akasaka Tadanori provided the decorative kirigane, i.e. the lozenge elements that sit under the rivets, or maybe they split up the forging work for the plates, although that seems rather unlikely to me. Also very interesting is the interpretation of the helmet itself because that very form, a Saiga-style okitenugui-nari kabuto, was mostly in fashion during the Momoyama era. In bakumatsu times namely we usually see a return to classical armors of the Kamakura and Nanbokuchō times, at least when it comes to higher ranking traditionalist bushi. So it is fascinating to see that a local samurai had himself made a helmet that so to speak followed an “outside of the box anachronism” within then arms and armor currents.
Anyway, I want to study that item more closely the next time I am at the museum and talk to my armor friends so please bear in mind that this article may receive some update in the future.