Elegant Unno School Menuki

The Unno school stands in a shining light of magnificence. The masters that emerged from this school were the students and progeny of unquestionably some of the finest and highly regarded artisans not only of their time, but of all time. Their talents adroitly navigated a radically changing art environment due to Japan’s departure of the feudal system and an increasing fraternization of Western and Eastern cultures due in no small part to the Art Nouveau movement in Europe. Sword craftsmen had to diversify into sculpture and jewelry markets to keep the lights on as swords became the symbol of an obsolete time no longer respected or enjoyed. The need for excellent décor for the wealthy foreign aristocrats had eclipsed the needs of the Daimyo, whom as they lost their feudal importance, now were scrambling to segue into new occupations.

Of course, one cannot study the Unno school without paying due attention to the great Unno Shomin. Shomin was born in Mito province in 1844 to Unno Denemon. His first study as a fittings craftsman was with his uncle, Shodai Unno Yoshimori, and he later continued studies in other mediums such as painting and calligraphy. He also studied metalworking with another elite Mito craftsman, the great Hagiya Katsuhira, whom himself was also a student of Shodai Yoshimori. With Japan’s transition out of a feudal structure with the Meiji Restoration and Hatorei, sword craftsmen were effectively cast into unemployment. Shomin took on whatever commission was available and spent time making and engraving things such as tobacco pipes, vases, jewelry, etc… He persevered in metal working and changed gears, making sculptures and decorative arts. The sculpture considered to be one of his most significant works, and a sea change in Japanese art, was his sculpture of Ranryu-o the Gagoku dancer in 1890, which he entered into the Third National Industrial Exhibition in Tokyo. It won high praise and critical acclaim, launching him into more recognition and successes, and he was appointed a judge for the very same exhibition several years later. He enrolled in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts where he studied under the luminary maker, Kano Natsuo, then became an assistant professor, then professor, and in 1886 he was appointed as an Imperial Household Artist, or “Teishitsu-Gigei’in. This title was the precursor to today’s Living National Treasures. Shomin died in 1915 after struggling with health issues made worse by excessive drinking.

These menuki are attributed to the Unno School, which is to say that either Unno Shomin, students under his direction and supervision, or both, had a hand in their creation. Their composition is delicate and elegant with the metaphorical representation of the seasons in four plants; bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum, which are summer, autumn, spring, and winter, respectively. The symbology of these flora, like so many traditional themes of Japanese art, were inspired from classical Chinese art subjects. The theme dates back as far as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) and became a part of Korean, and Vietnamese art as well. Additionally, as most Chinese and Japanese art subjects go, they serve a dual metaphor as these four plants were also known as the “Four Gentlemen” or the “Four Nobles”, each one representing virtues that should be found in an ideal gentleman.

Bamboo for integrity, as it is tolerant by flexibility, but strong.
Chrysanthemum for courage and perseverance.

Orchid for humble beauty and elegance.
Plum for faithful hope.

Together they describe the noble character the true gentleman should maintain throughout the entire year, or more literally, at all times.

It is also interesting to note that in the art of Sumi-e, or black ink wash painting, the subject of the Four Gentleman is of such importance that to be considered a master of the medium, one must absolutely accomplish mastery in painting their representation.

In these menuki, we see the fine detail of multi-metal inlay for which Unno Shomin and his school were known. The bamboo combines the kiribori incisions to create the stalks with the leaves’ details in copper and shakudo on the gold base. The Chrysanthemum is illustrated in copper, silver, shakudo, and gold. The Orchid is created with shakudo, silver, and a bit of shibuichi, and the Plum with shibuichi, copper, and gold.

The base plates of these menuki are of a respectably thick and very evenly formed solid gold alloy. The posts, or “neashi” are of a type known as “Inyokan” where there is a male and female post. This design harkens back to the earlier eras of Japanese swords when the menuki were integrally used as mekugi to secure the sword blade in its tsuka. Creating and placing these on the menuki is not only a nod to the classical eras of Japanese sword crafts, but also entails a full measure of attention to quality and detail of workmanship by effectively finely finishing something that is unlikely to be seen or used in the manner by which they originated anyways. Many menuki have simple rectangular post placed somewhat awkwardly, or most yet have none at all. The meticulously placed star shaped chikaragane around the posts are yet another qualitative touch that immediately show the dedication to craftsmanship through details, and a hallmark Unno touch.

The faces of these menuki have some surface blemishes a light scratching to the plates. The scratching is very much less conspicuous in hand, but the lighting and techniques used for photographing them tends to magnify their appearance in the images. So, it is worth mentioning that they are not at all in what I would describe as damaged or compromised in condition but bear the result of contact through mounting style. The backs show that these menuki were indeed mounted as some pitch residue remains adhered. The fronts do not show a discoloration or wear that would be consistent with having been placed under a wrap. I feel these were likely mounted on a tanto or wakizashi directly on top of the samegawa without it wrapping over them (such as an Aikuchi koshirae), and the consistent nature of wear on the front would support my thoughts on this. The nature of Inyokan posts is also, by design tradition, made for tsuka of this type also, even though as mentioned before they are largely an aesthetic detail in this set. They are quite beautiful and a rare example of a school that is not often encountered. I do feel these could benefit from some gentle restoration to mitigate the hazing of small scratches, and certainly I could help arrange this service for a buyer.

  • Omote Measures: 3.15 cm x 1.5 cm
  • Ura Measures: 3.15 cm x 1.425 cm

They are accompanied by an NBTHK Hozon Tosogu certificate testifying to their authenticity and quality. It is held in a custom fitted palownia wood box with pillow. A fine and desirable addition to any collection.


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