by Robert E. Haynes (Feb. 1997)

To belabor the puns a while longer. This is not a hard subject, if one has more than a facile ability, in their perception, and are cognitive of what they see. Teach yourself to see deeper, than the all too obvious, surface. Naturally I am speaking of the ability to master the comparative judgment of the aesthetic quality of iron. The apparent surface constitutes most of what needs to be found, when judging the work of the kinko artists. Thus you can comprehend that iron is extremely difficult to judge, without training yourself first. The beginning student is going to say; "teach me". I only wish that I could. I can help one to train themselves to observe beyond the obvious percetion, but the ability to perceive more than the surface will be up to the student to learn for himself, by himself, over many long years of persevering. We will all approach the ability to see from very different backgrounds. In some cases, such as having been trained in fine art, the ability to see is part of the quality of the artist. Everyone can ultimately learn to see an object beyond the surface, and into its depths.

Now I will try and give you as much of the history of how I learned to judge an iron plate tsuba as I can, without having the object in hand. As I have mentioned in other papers, when I first held a tsuba in my hand I did not have a clue as to what I was seeing. The surface was obvious as an art object, and the configuration of the plate seemed to be no problem. Thus I had the surface of what I was looking at under control, I thought. Then I watched John Yumoto look at a tsuba. I realized I had seen nothing, and I knew nothing about how to look at a tsuba. Even with the many years of my background in art training I needed to learn to see all over again. I asked John how he had learned his ability to see the fine points of an iron tsuba. He told me that as a teen-ager in Okayama, he was taught his regular high-school classes by Dr. Torigoye, but he also gave him lessons in the fine points of fittings. Naturally Dr. T. had been taught by Akiyama Kyusaku how to study a tsuba. It would seem that Akiyama taught himself, during his more than 75 years of study.

I placed myself under the tutelage of John, who was very understanding of my endless questions. My first question was what did he see when examining a tsuba. He said my lessons would begin as follows. First take an iron plate tsuba in my hand and try to see more than the surface. I did this, but could only see the obvious. I asked, how do I begin to see. He told me that the first thing that one has to determine, is the age of the tsuba. I tried to do this, but found I had only a vague reference point to judge the age. I must tell you that I have been developing my ability to judge the age of iron tsuba for the last forty years. I think I am getting close to perfecting this ability. Do not be discouraged by my example. You can certainly see the age in chunks of say, one to two hundred year periods. Anyway, you must develop this ability first. Next try to see the "quality" of the iron. Is it well folded? How hard, or dense, does the plate seem? Can you see any of the folding lines? How much hammer work does the plate show? Are the irregularities of the plate surface natural, or created by the maker, as the plate was finished. Then comes the hard part. Try to see beyond the surface. This is where your real training will begin. One can judge the plate quality by seeing into the surface and feeling the hand of the artist who made the plate. The next area is by far the hardest ot all, to judge the aesthetic quality of the iron, and the aesthetics of the finished product. That is where your years of self training will come in. Naturally this will not happen with the first tsuba one lays their hand on.

In my early training, under John, it became easier each day. I have held thousands of tsuba in my hand during my fifty years of study, and you must do the same. This all helped, but it still took many years before I felt I was making a judgment that was correct. Even today I will see iron plate tsuba that I feel are beyond my abilities to see or understand. Today they are the ones that interest me the most. For they will advance my knowledge of judgment, when I understand, and solve, their subtleties. When one does come to understand the iron plate tsuba, its beauty far surpasses that of any kinko work.

Which brings us to the study and appreciation, of the all too facile, kinko fittings. To begin such a study one has to have some knowledge and understanding of the Goto artists and their linkage to their Edo period offspring, the Machibori Kinko. The mastery of the study of the Goto is the work of a life time. We can not go into it here. It is enough that you learn some of the qualities of the Goto work, and how they directly relate to those same characteristics when seen in Edo period kinko work. For what you are dealing with, in the study of kinko fittings, is the ability of the artist, as far as the surface decoration is concerned. The quality of his design, carving skill, use of inlay metals, and overall surface sensibility. You do not have to learn to "see into the plate metal" as you do with iron plate. The age of a piece will fit into the three hundred years of the Edo period, so for the most part, a piece can be early, middle or late Edo, as far as its age is concerned. Rather than learning to judge the aesthetics of the plate metal, you must learn to judge the aesthetics of the individual artist. When you have mastered the work of an artist, to the extent, that you can identify his work without seeing his signature, you have mastered kinko fittings. That leaves your ability to judge the authenticity of his signature. This takes time and patience, and a good eye to discern the details of an artists hand.

Which brings up a point not mentioned in most of the books used to identify a correct signature. If an artist made only a few pieces in his life time, or had a short working period, his signature will have few variations from those recorded in the books. If the artist worked for many years, and made a great many pieces, in many styles and techniques, then there can be as much variation in the signature as you see in his work. The signatures for these artists are not always those shown in the books. You must judge their work, not by the signature, but by their ability, as shown in the growth of their skill over the many years of their production. To learn this simply takes time, and your proficiency as a detective. Naturally many kinko artists worked with iron plate, but such iron had more of the characteristics of soft metal, than the iron quality mentioned above. You will find some kinko work on fine iron plates, but these plates were made by the Edo period artists who were still able to make iron of the quality that earlier periods possessed. This is why I say kinko judgment is easy, when compared to learning to judge a superior iron plate.

You will have noticed that I have said nothing, so far, about soft metal plate tsuba made before the Edo period. These pose a problem, almost as great as the study of iron plate tsuba. Unfortunately, very little attention has been paid to these tsuba. Most of the old, and new books, use the same early names, which are very general in nature. Such as Ko-Kinko (old soft metal tsuba), Ko-Goto (old Goto fittings), Tachikanagu-shi (old tachi fittings maker work), or other terms which are nothing more than labels invented to cover a whole field of tsuba art that has never been adequately studied. Much of this neglect stems from the general lack of interest in this area of the art of fittings. There seem to be two reasons for this neglect. The first, is that Akiyama did not take a great deal of interest in these types of fittings, and wrote very little about them. All subsequent authors followed his bent. The second reason, is that the Goto of the Muromachi period, so overshadowed all other soft metal artists that they seemed unimportant by comparison, and that all study of the early artists has been exclusively devoted to the Goto. I feel that a great deal can be learned about all the fittings made before the Edo period, both iron plate and soft metal, through a study of early soft metal fittings. Even though this is now my field of study I feel as much at sea as when I tried to judge my first iron plate tsuba. I have no one, it seems, to guide me, and I can only guess, by what I see, if I am making sound judgments. When I feel I have more facts than theories, then I will try to report on what I have learned.


Return to Index to Articles - Go to Home Page - Email to Shibui Swords