JSSUS Newsletter Volume 8, no.1, 1969

The articles on this page originally appeared in JSSUS newsletter Volume 8, no.1, 1969.  

The Kodogu (Sword Fittings) of Kano Natsuo - Page 19


by Albert Yamanaka

The one name that comes to mind when late Tokugawa and early Meiji sword-fittings are discussed is that of Kano Natsuo. Take

Although some believe Goto Ichijo to be a better craftsman, and others feel that Unno Shomin is better, the majority believe that Natsuo is the man, and this writer is a firm believer and supporter of this opinion. Natsuo's work definitely transcends the work of his contemporaries. Take the shape of the tsuba (guard). Natsuo simply did not produce any bad shapes. Every single type of tsuba shape this man produced surpassed by far those of his contemporaries, as well as those of some of his predecessors. He paid extreme care and attention to such places as the mimi (ears, meaning the edge of the guard), seppadai (base for the seppa on the tsuba--seppa are the spacers inserted to separate the sword guard from the handle and blade), and the hitsuana. (Hitsuana are the oblong holes on both sides of the seppadai; sometimes only one hole being present. These holes allow the kozuka and the kōgai to be removed from their scabbard fittings when the blade is sheathed. The kozuka is a short utility knife found in the side of the scabbard. The kōgai is a long metal skewer, about the same length as the kozuka, used by samurai to dress their hair and is found on the opposite side of the scabbard from the kozuka.)

The thickness of Natsuo's tsuba, without question, are all "good," i.e., the proportion of the thickness to the style and shape is conceived and executed for maximum aesthetic effect.

However, this man's greatest strength lies in his tsuba design. One will note that any tsuba by Natsuo is very simple in design--a simplicity that at the same time has a great effect. Close inspection brings one to see that, although the motif is simple, the utmost thought and care has been put into the design and the intricacies within the work are comparable only to the masterpieces of Cellini.

Natsuo, further, did his outstanding work in iron. Most of the kinko (metalsmiths) of the later Tokugawa period worked in soft metal and stayed away from the extremely difficult-to-work iron medium.

Natsuo seems to have preferred working in iron, how- ever. True, he did some work in soft metal, but he did not try to show his skill by extravagant overworking of the softer material.

Natsuo's work in soft metal is perhaps even more simple than his work in iron. In the design motifs of Natsuo's work, one may notice a startling parallel with painting. All the motifs of his tsuba, kozuka and menuki (small metal orna- ments found under the silk wrapping on the tsuka) are the same as found in Japanese paintings.

His work has all the right perspectives; nothing is out of place. This is the result of his early training, shortly after which he took an interest in kodogu and decided to make it his life work.

In the 11th year of Tempo (1840), when he was 13 years old, he became a student of Ikeda Takatoshi of the Otsuki school of kodoqu. He also started seriously studying painting under Nakajima Raishō and calligraphy under Tanimori Tanematsu, both outstanding in their respective fields at the time. Having had this very good foundation, the fruit of his early training naturally showed in his work. The writing inscribed on his tsuba and other works is excellent, the result of his training in calligraphy

In comparing Natsuo with his contemporary, Goto Ichijo, Ichijo's works are too cluttered and have no order. He tries to show off his skill, and indeed succeeds, but the result is overworked. Also, on careful inspection, Ichijo's work lacks perspective. For example, a tree on a distant mountain will be too large, a pondweed in back of a bird will be larger than those in the foreground, an insect in the foreground will be smaller than those in the background, and though the design motifs have taste, there is no balance to the whole.

It is truly hard to find fault with Natsuo's tsuba. His early work seems to be a little on the gaudy side, but his later works are without fault. We recall a conversation we had with Amiya (Kokura Soemon) Sensei. We asked who he thought was the most outstanding of all the smiths, and his reply was Yokoya Somin, that no one comes even close to Somin. Then we asked who he thought was second and he stated that after Sömin there was Natsuo and a few others. By a few others he meant Nara Toshinaga and Joi. So we asked further, "What do you think about Yasuchika?" He didn't say anything to this question.

Since that time we have tried to find out why Amiya considered Natsuo so outstanding, and little by little have come to appreciate his greatness. We think this is the general belief held by most people who have really seriously studied kodōqu.

There is one odd thing about Natsuo. There are no known works of Natsuo with a dragon or lion motif.

Natsuo is said to have commented that these were two subjects that he could not master. However, there is one skill among his many in which he excelled: his execution of katakiri bori, i.e., carving on soft metal with a very sharp instrument, giving a sort of etched effect. He did many works in katakiri bori on copper plates as ornamental plaques, and his skill in this probably equals that of the great Somin. After the Meiji Restoration, when wearing of swords was prohibited, many craftsmen turned from their old trade to something new, and Natsuo made many of these plaques during this period.

He did some katakiri bori in kozuka, but we have not heard of any in tsuba. Some, like Kuwabara Yojiro, a great admirer of Natsuo, have gone so far as to say that Natsuo's katakiri bori style surpases that of Somin. In any event, the katagiri bori of Natsuo are masterpieces of art.

Natsuo was the son of a Kyoto rice merchant named Fushimi and was named Jizaburo at birth. When he was seven years old he was adopted by Kano Jizuke, a sword dealer, and when he was twelve he became a student of Okumura Shōhachi. He stayed with Okumura for a few years where he received training in the difficult art of making menuki, kozuka, nanako (a series of round dots uniform throughout the surface of the tsuba, kozuka or kogai, sometimes referred to as "fish roe" by collectors in the West), carving waves, kebori (an- other name for katagiri bori), gold and silver filling and other soft metal filling.

However, he was not satisfied with his kebori, so he became a student of Ikeda Takatoshi, the son of Ikeda Sanetaka and the student of Ōtsuki Mitsuoki. It was under Ikeda Takatoshi that he received his training in katakiri bori, and it was also about this time that he started studying calligraphy and painting as mentioned previously.

Nakajima taught Natsuo the intricate painting style of the Maruyama school of painting, and the results are evident in his work.

The dates in Natsuo's life are as follows:

1828 April fourteenth, born to Fushimi, named Jizaburo.

1834 Adopted by Kano Jizuke.

1840 Entered the workshop of Ikeda Takatoshi and re- ceived the name Jyuro. Stayed five years, during which time he also studied painting and calliraphy. 1845 Left the workshop of Ikeda.

1846 At nineteen, started a shop of his own in Kyoto.

1854 At twenty-seven, came to Edo and established himself at Otamagaike, Nagatomi-cho in the Kanda district

1855 Moved his shop to Sakuma-cho.

1869 At forty-two, in April of this year, received an Imperial Decree commissioning him to do all the metal work for a tachi (a sword carried suspended by two cords at the waist with the blade edge down), for which he received one tale of linen and one hundred yen.

In July, received an order from the Government Mint to design coins for the new government's monetary system.

1871 At forty-four, received another Imperial Decree to do the metal work for a tanto (dagger).

1875 In September, received the title of Chief Designer for the mint.

1879 At fifty-two, he received an order to make a copy of the famous han (seal) which the Chinese Han Dynasty Emperor sent to the then Japanese Emperor. 1881 Received first prize for metal work at the Trade Fair in Tokyo.

1890 Became an instructor at the Tokyo Art Academy at the age of sixty-three.

1893 Received another Imperial Decree to do the metal work for another tachi.

1898 February third, died at the age of seventy-one.

Of the number of people who flocked to Natsuo, some of the noteworthy were:

Kagawa Katsuhiro

Masuda Tomo

Nakazato Norinaga

Nomura Katsumori

Tsukada Shukyo Ikeda Takao Katsuno Fumio

and also Natsuo's sons, Fuyuo, Akio and Haruo.

Of the three, the eldest, Fuyuo, died when he was twenty-five, and the second, Haruo, died when he was only twenty. However, the third son, Akio, lived to take after his father, eventually becoming a metalcraft art instructor at the Art Academy.

During Natsuo's lifetime, when the works of other smiths were being sold for a few pennies and older works could be had for a very small sum, his work was already being sold for large sums. One reason for this is that Natsuo himself asked high prices but, shortly after he came to Tokyo, his prices were still very low.

Before Natsuo's death, a Frenchman was reported to have paid five thousand yen for an iron tsuba with a carp design. About the same time, an American is said to have paid twenty-five hundred dollars for a tsuba of about the same size. This was in the 1890's when the Japanese yen was worth about the same as the United States dollar. I am told that twenty-five hundred dollars in the 1890's was a fantastic sum of money. Even today, to pay a like sum for a tsuba in the West would be unthinkable, though in Japan it is done every day.

At an auction in Ōsaka shortly before Natsuo's death, a kozuka was sold for ten-thousand yen and a tsuba for nine- thousand yen, suggesting that during Natsuo's lifetime his works were already valued at unimaginable sums. Since Natsuo's works brought such fantastic prices it is only natural that there would be forgeries--and there are many.

Of all the tsuba makers that are forged, the one who leads the list is Kaniye; then comes Nobuiye, Yasuchika and then, probably, Natsuo. His works were already being copied during his lifetime, with his student, Tsukada Tomoo, leading the list of copiers.

Probably all of his students made copies of his work to earn a little extra spending money. Even to this very day, Natsuo's tsuba are being forged not too far from Tokyo.