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Question of the day regarding Koshirae mix-n-match


MHC
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Hello all,

 

Query from a relatively new to the scene collector/admirer.

 

I've been viewing a lot of swords with complete Koshirae and can't help but notice that very few, if any really, have a complete theme. Maybe the Fuchi & Kashira match, but rarely does the Tsuba share the same theme. Then there is the saya which almost never matches anything, and the Menuki are simply all over the place, no rhyme or reason.

 

My OCD is bouncing off the red zone, I simply can not image that a properly fitted sword/Koshirae would not share a flowing continuous theme for all items. Sometimes the parts are a close match {i.e. waves pattern, but even then rarely does the style of each item match exactly. Sure I realize that over the years things get lost, changed, damaged and even styles change.

 

What bothers me the most, are comments like "Beautiful complete Koshirae", or "stunning attention to detail", when all I see is a Koshirae that is a mix-n-match mess, with zero continuity and form. I would think the artist would want all items to be "autumn leaves" or "shell fish" or "plum branches with flowers" or "cherry blossoms" or "pine trees" etc., etc.

 

I think I probably just need to get over it, but..........am I the only one that thinks this way? Is this a true sign of a rookie entering the scene?

 

Mark

 

 

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53 minutes ago, MHC said:

.....I would think the artist would want all items to be "autumn leaves" or "shell fish" or "plum branches with flowers" or "cherry blossoms" or "pine trees" etc....

Hi Mark,

this is your personal feeling so you can look for a KOSHIRAE that fits for you. These do indeed exist, e.g. the wave motive; just have a look into OMORI KODOGU, or HANDACHI mounts. But in general, the Japanese taste is not always comparable to ours, so sometimes items are combined that - in our imagination - do not fit, but they match in another culture's context. Sometimes legends or historical events are in the background we do not immediately recognize from the items. Other motives are classical combinations, like bamboo and sparrow, tiger and bamboo, crane and turtle, the SENNIN and their symbols, the seven Gods of luck with their respective attributes a.s.o.

It is the same with the way Westerners think they should display Japanese swords. We (well, not me) have a tendency to show all we have and present swords openly on a stand, while the Japanese (with the exception of museums) usually keep these things hidden in a TANSU, well protected from the elements as well as from the curious looks of (rare) visitors (or even family members!). 

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Dear Mark, to add to Jean's excellent response, I'd say that in the Japanese aesthetic, a koshirae with the same image on every part in the same color metal would be considered very boring and unartistic.  As Jean points out, "matching" in koshirae can often be different but coordinated colors and themes that consist of images that appear completely unrelated to those who do not know or understand the connections.  In addition, many koshirae parts were handed down or gifted, so having all the parts be exactly the same was not only undesirable, it was often impossible.  For those of us who are a little OCD, many things about the Japanese aesthetic can be disconcerting.  For example, the way that Japanese often place the subject far off-center (while most Western Art tends to plop it down in the middle) - see Matt's outstanding kozuka below...  However, with study and understanding we can come to appreciate the "flow" and coordination behind the seeming chaos. 

 

 

 

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We should also not forget that:

- items were often lost / broken / replaced / sold 

- dealers from Meiji period onwards to the present day regularly sell Tosogu separately as they have realised they can make more money that way

- when a high-end tsuba is sold separately (which was a part of an en suite koshirae), and that is one of the most often done divestments, then dealers sometimes try to substitute something which broadly fits but is a different metal or configuration or just a different level of quality. A culprit with often put-together koshirae is Aoe Japan. 
- over the lifetime of a sword, it probably saw a number of different koshirae to suit the tastes of its respective owners. The truly en suites are normally in richer / important / Daimyo families. Those had the means and will to preserve the package intact. In fact, after Daimyo started selling off the family jewels ( between Haitorei and postWWII impoverished Japan) there have been various “sets” that have passed through quite high papers with the NBTHK. When I look at the published ones, indeed often the elements complement each other rather than replicate the same motif 

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And indeed, most "Koshirae" today you'll see on sites such as Aoe Japan are patchworks bought by the kilo, and fitted to the blade by filing inside of the tsuka. The reason is obviously business: swords with koshirae sell better than single swords. The biggest difference between Japan and the West is that the Japanese see these items are naturally separate, whereas we Westerners seek the full package. 

 

Preserved high-level Koshirae from late-mid to late Edo tend to follow a single theme, or more specifically a single story with motives following tradition. You'll find flowers and shishi, waves and marine life, dragons and clouds, tigers and bamboo, chinese sages at different moments of their journey, dragonflies and pond foliage, deities with auspicious symbols, etc. More often than not, there is a real fable to each and it needs to be read in context. Each piece contributes to the whole. The closer you get to Meiji, the more conspicuous the expression, the greater the relief, the more daring the interpretation. In the wake of Somin's creative (and norm-shattering) genius, offspring schools specialised in certain themes: birds and foliage for Ishiguro, waves and marine life for Omori, etc. 

 

Early to mid edo, conventions were much stricter. There you'll see most often Clan Mons and formal attires. Sometimes multiple Mons are present to celebrate a particular union between clans, such as weddings and new allegiances. Another classic come to us from the early Goto masters, where formalized designs were repeated with little (but significant) variations between the early masters. 

 

Then you have Higo, which was its own world really. Higo had a classical form of mix-and-match: you'll see Ko-Goto Mitokoromono, often sea themes, with F/K and Tsuba by a Higo master. These reflected the austere tastes of the tea ceremony, and for many it is an acquired taste. 

 

For the Shoguns of the early days, mix-and-matching did occur quite frequently. A nobuie tsuba with solid gold F/K comes to mind. Not everyone was allowed to play with such formal things! A good way to think about Koshirae is in terms of sumptuary laws. Only few were allowed to do this, and the rules became quite formalised over time: you simply weren't allowed to go with the fashion of your choice at the Shogun's court. Treasured swords had multiple koshirae for different occasions, reflecting the social code of the time and the rank of the wearer. See here for an example - one koshirae for the most formal of occasions, and one for the more relaxed setting. 

 

Older koshirae of the muromachi and nanbokucho period often had flower motives engraved, the so-called Ezo and Ko-Mino classical themes. 

 

Unfortunately, the curse of knowledge makes it that once you've gained familiarity on the topic, you never quite can get satisfaction back from those patchwork koshirae. Beware! 

 

Finally, the tradition of "boxing" tosogu didn't start with 20th century collectors: Old Daimyo families did box their precious Ko-Goto Mitokoromono, and these were accepted as gifts for special occasion - and spare part for the fabrication of new koshirae. In old family catalogues, you'll see remnants of this practice, with vast collections of Tosogu preserved in boxes and documented by the Goto family for their provenance, makers, and various notes. Nowadays, breaking up a Koshirae to make an extra million yen on the sale of the box breaks my heart, but financial incentives being what they are - and with sufficient time - it is probably the case that the few remaining Koshirae will suffer the same fate at some point in the future. Pity! 

 

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41 minutes ago, Valric said:

Old Daimyo families did box their precious Ko-Goto Mitokoromono, and these were accepted as gifts for special occasion - and spare part for the fabrication of new koshirae. In old family catalogues, you'll see remnants of this practice, with vast collections of Tosogu preserved in boxes and documented by the Goto family for their provenance, makers, and various notes. 

 

 

See here:  https://markussesko.com/2018/11/07/goto-soroi-kanagu/

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@Valric    :bowdown:  Chris will lead the sermon today.

I couldn't have said it better.

 

PS. Question to Chris:  Do locals get a discount on Rolex? I'll trade you 2 good Hayashi for one of the Olive Green Perpetual.

 

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Well thank you all. Todays classroom was both enlightening and disheartening.

 

During my childhood, I grew up with a great friend that was Japanese, his home was of western design, but his parents went all out to make the inside and the landscape impeccably Japanese. So this is the main basis I have from a young age, about Japanese aesthetics. The house was beautifully austere, with everything exactly in it's place and surgically clean. No detail large or small was overlooked, everything blended absolutely perfectly, and the flow of the house matched the daily routine, from waking, to dressing, to bathing, to eating and to evening family gathering.

 

So jump 40 years into the future, and I start down this road that is Nihonto, only to find my pre-conceived notions now dashed.

 

Ok, I'll get over it, and start learning a thing or two about this arena, but I don't have to like it....... ;}

 

Thanks again everybody, and I wish Brian the best of health with his Covid recovery!

 

Mark

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Dear Mark, no reason to be disheartened.  Everything that you said about your Japanese family friends is generally true of the Japanese and their culture.  However, that doesn't necessarily extrapolate to absolutely uniformed tosogu....  From a Japanese perspective, tosogu and koshirae perfectly match your descriptions of your memories (perfection, attention to detail, everything in its place).  However some of those attributes may not match your "Western" perspective (e.g., "everything in its place" may be different "places" in different cultures...)

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Hi Mark,

Bit late to this but I waited and waited until I could achieve what I thought of as a matching koshirae. I purchased a daisho koshirae with a dragon theme. All fittings are shakudo- fuchi kashira match but the dragons are in different positions  and I strongly suggest they were made by the same hand- mumei. The menuki are the same - made by same hand , different poses and sizes for the dai and the sho- may even be the same maker as fuchi kashira - need papering! Also tsuba are a matching set but are a different maker as style of features on dragon heads vary from the others  and background is not nanako as the F/K- when I get some decent pics I will post. Mind you It has taken me nearly ten years to find this daisho but I am extremly happy with them- my unicorn!

I have other koshirae and have always been disappointed on the mismatched fittings- even though I greatly appreciate the craftsmanship of each piece. My feeling is that unless a koshirae was special order they are nearly  always mismatched due to the many reasons already discussed. But they are out there! ps. Hope the poor pics I have at present load.

Regards 

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At the risk of ending up with two sets of koshirae that might be deemed "boring", I'm going to forge ahead and try to find at least complimentary pieces to make up the complete package for the 2 naked swords I'm working to complete.

 

#1 is a Wak, and getting the Kinko grasses Tsuba with complementary grasses/heron Fuchi/Kashira, and heron menuki (not shown).

#2 is a Katana and getting the orchid Tsuba, with as of today, no other items yet acquired.

 

Maybe, just maybe...I'll come around to a more Japanese appreciation mind set, as time goes by....but I'm already 63, so a change better start happening soon..;}

 

Mark

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Ok, a little more in depth set of questions.

 

When one assembles their Koshirae, do you generally delve into the individual meanings portrayed in each items design, and then assemble the pieces so a "meaning or story" is conveyed?

 

Do you try to find all items that date around the same time as each other?

 

Or is that getting too esoteric and impractical (not to mention difficult)?

 

Does any of that really matter in this day and age, or does everyone simply go with aesthetics?

 

Mark

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Mark,

I have heard of collectors having tried to complete a DAISHO set to their taste all their life (without happy-end....), so take this a bit like a ZEN way!  
It is not only (but to a good part) a question of money but of patience and time. I have found that collectors are very different in their respective goals. Some don't mind having their 'project' waiting in the TANSU drawer, others are eager to display the complete sword. A very personal thing!

The other side is, that most of us are not raised with and in the Japanese culture, so we might lack the sense of 'what belongs together'. But I don't see a problem in combining items in our actual state of knowledge and aesthetic development as long as the TOSOGU are of appealing quality. It may only be for a lifetime, and anothet collector/owner might finish what we started.

By the way, I like your TSUBA (second photo) a lot!  That looks very nicely balanced and artfully executed! I think these plants are grass lilies ( Anthericum liliago). Beautiful in my Westerner's opinion...:)

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Hello Mark

 

In my early days of my collector career I have put toghter this set. It is made purely by my western taste. I put together what are probably Mito fittings coming from different sources. I think of it as my Frankenstein set. 

fitting-0029-02.thumb.jpg.b4eecf0d0bbe357b7c879e3bcf44b44c.jpg

 

Any comment is of course welcome

 

Best regards

Luca

 

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On 7/13/2021 at 3:50 AM, MHC said:

few, if any really, have a complete theme. Maybe the Fuchi & Kashira match, but rarely does the Tsuba share the same theme

 

Also consider the possibility that the "theme" is something you aren't aware of (but was common to a Japanese gentleman of the 1700 or 1800s). A theme can be something quite complicated. The theme may be "fittings made by metalworkers who come from my province", or "fittings representing a theme from Japanese literature" (but whose cohesion is lost to us westerners). Recently there was a tsuba posted that showed a rabbit, the moon, and waves - three things that would seem to be totally random. But then we discover that they are connected to a historical literary source, in addition to having connotations of good luck and prosperity. 

 

I think most people who could afford to order or assemble their own koshirae, would probably be fairly sophisticated, and the fittings they choose would/might reflect that sophistication. This is the long way of saying what George and Jean say in their posts above. 

 

I also agree completely with Mark when he mentions the unlikelihood of a set of fittings staying together through the centuries, unless it is a specific set like the Gotō mitokoro-mono fittings that are collected as a sub-genre by themselves. (A great example from the Sanō museum, below)

 

https://www.sanobi.or.jp/bijutsukan/collection/sword_fitting.html

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Dear Mark,

 

In building on Steve's comments, it can be very rewarding to study and understand Japanese themes when building your koshirae.  For example, I think that your second tsuba is an orchid (I do see how it looks like a Lilly, but in this case, it is the way that Japanese usually depict orchids - see sumie orchid below).  Why would a Samurai want an orchid on his tsuba?  Was he a florist?  Did he just like flowers?  Did he just want a “pretty” tsuba?  I don’t think so…  As you probably know, through much of history, Samurai were not allowed to wear jewelry and their clothing was fairly uniform.  In addition, their interaction was very regimented.  Therefore, one of the only ways that a Samurai could show his personality was through his koshirae/tosogu (after all, it was their swords that defined them).  So why an orchid?  The ancient Japanese had a well-know theme called the Four Gentlemen which consisted of orchid, bamboo, plum & chrysanthemum and, when combined, symbolized uprightness, purity, humility, and perseverance against harsh conditions.  So perhaps this tsuba was originally intended to be combined with other tosogu that depicted bamboo, plum & chrysanthemum.  To me that would be a logical reason for a Samurai to have an orchid on his tsuba…

 

Of course, you can dress up your swords any way that you want, but if you desire to have something more authentic, then you need to study the culture/themes closely and choose something that “speaks” to you.  You don’t want your two swords to end up looking like these guys… (who thought they understood the culture they were emulating…)

 

 

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Thank you George, that is very insightful information about the 4 gentleman theme, I like it.

 

Anybody know of a written source that outlines themes/stories/fables and their meanings in the Japanese culture from days gone by?

It would need to be in English as my Japanese is nonexistent.

 

Mark

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Dear Mark,

 

Brian has done an excellent job of collecting links to many free resources.  See the link below.  While a little dated and not comprehensive, Joly's Legends (the first link in Brian's list) provides a good alphabetical reference for themes related to Japanese/Chinese legends.  However, Joly doesn't include themes like the Shikunshi - the Four Gentlemen (i.e., the Orchid on your tsuba)  because its not a "legend".  I haven't found anything in English that has a more comprehensive list than Joly, but maybe someone else can offer something better.

 

 

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Hello George,

Found this online, and thought this could be another reason to have an Orchid on a Tsuba.

 

"By the early 17th century, the orchid flower was a symbol of respect and admiration in Japanese culture. Orchids became so revered in Japan that growing orchids was sometimes considered a noble art form. In particular, dendrobium orchids were grown by Japanese royalty for their fragrance and beauty. 

Another orchid that has a special place in Japanese culture is the Neofinetia falcata, also known as the wind orchid. These orchids are sometimes popularly called samurai orchids, mainly because samurai were known to grow them as symbols of bravery and peace."

 

Probably just trying to rationalize my western likes....but what the heh.

 

Mark

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Nice Mark!  I think you are on the right track.  If either of those themes appeal to you (the Four Gentlemen or Bravery/Peace), then I think that you would have greater choices of tosogu to bring together to form an "authentic" koshirae.  Much better (in my opinion...) than simply trying to find tosogu that exactly match your existing tsuba in subject, metal and style.  So for example, if you like the bravery/peace theme, you could find other tosogu (in complementary color/style) with that meaning like Idaten - the God of Peace (who is usually depicted as a brave warrior).  A well trained Samurai would be able to understand the unified theme and how the parts fit together.

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