by Robert E. Haynes (1993)

A member of the British Token Kai wrote a short while ago: "Haynes was the first in the West to use the term MASTERPIECES to designate certain sword fittings". I thank him for the complement, but I was NOT the first. Dr. Junji Homma preceded me by many years. Most collectors today are too young to remember the first book on tsuba of importance published after the war.

In 1952 The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords, C/O The Tokyo National Museum Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan, published a loose leaf book, signed by Junji Homma, Litt. D., Managing Director, that was titled in Japanese:


(kaisetsu hen, which translates as text section). Meisaku shu can be translated as a collection of masterpieces (meisaku shu is best translated as LITERARY masterpieces). A selection of masterpieces should should use the term: MEISAKUSEN, see Nelson, page 286, number 1170, under 7 strokes for second kanji. Or maybe even better would be the term, YUHEN, "A Masterpiece", see Spahn/Hadamitzky, page 1421, under 6f9.10, 2nd kanji, 12 strokes.

In 1952 there was a rapprochement between the budding collectors of Japanese swords and fittings in Japan and the West, that I am sorry to say is not the case today. In any event, the book in question was published as a full bilingual work with the English text of excellent quality. The reverse cover of this text section was titled: MASTERPIECES OF JAPANESE SWORD GUARDS. Thus you see the first use of the word masterpiece, in English with regard to the fittings of the Japanese sword.

Because so few copies of this book were published it is almost pointless to try and discuss the pieces illustrated. I will say, that FAR from all the examples, were masterpieces!

Thus we come to the point of this paper. What is a masterpiece with regard to the fittings of the Japanese sword? And, even more to the point WHO designates which objects ARE truly a masterpiece? One would have thought that from all the other papers I have recently written it would be VERY clear what was meant by a masterpiece. Such would not seem to be the case!

The aesthetics of this subject are complex because we do not have a ready base to judge the objects of another culture that has its own rules and regulations with regard to the art within its system. The culture in question has made a fetish of the obfuscation it relishes when the westerner is bewildered by the art he is not prepared to understand. Naturally this becomes even more bizarre when the westerner is asked to judge the art areas he is not supposed to have anything to do with. Do not be taken in by all this esotericism.

If one has a well grounded knowledge of the art in question then one can make just as valid a judgment as the so called experts. The key word here is knowledge. One must form a wide and well understood base to make his OWN judgments. Most of the collectors and students in the West have the language difficulties and lack of contact with their fellow students in Japan to contend with which makes an open and free exchange of ideas very difficult, but then I must say that at this time there is very little exchange of ideas in the West either.

Now back to masterpieces. One can make an informed opinion of the quality of a given piece without being concerned with how such an idea might fit into the rigid form handed down from the past masters. We are so conditioned by the sensei syndrome, "That we might not be correct in our judgment" that we end up without a judgment we can call our own. It is always safer to repeat what one has been told, than to have an original idea, right or wrong. Do not be intimidated by the PAST. It is the future we should be concerned with, not what was said a hundred years ago by those who we may, or may not, respect as authorities. This is such a young, and vast field of inquiry, that almost all new ideas will be of value. After all we have only been at this for a hundred years.

Forty five years of that hundred I have spent trying to determine what constituted a MASTERPIECE. When I began collecting I had no idea of the importance or worthlessness of any given piece. Then I began owning and studying the prewar books from Japan. It soon became clear what the experts in Japan thought was a masterpiece. As I had no clear ideas of my own I used these Japanese sources to determine the course of my collection. By the end of the first twenty years of collecting I had formed about five or six hundred tsuba that were as close as I could find to those I saw in the Japanese books. The one book in particular that I used for my guide was the Furukawa-Wada collection. Around 1965 or so I had formed a collection that was a mirror image of a Japanese collection. In fact on one of the visits that Dr. Homma and Dr. Sato made to the U.S., I had an exhibit of my collection for them to see. I asked Dr. Homma what he thought of my pieces, and he said "That they were as fine as he would see in a tsuba exhibit in Tokyo". I was crushed! I thought perhaps I had done something better! Well all this only proved that from 1950 to 1970 you could buy and afford to form a collection of tsuba that was a duplicate of what one would find in Japan. I had formed my "one of everything collection". I am proud to say there were even a few "masterpieces" in it. BUT, I had formed what I thought I was supposed to have, not a collection that represented my feelings, thoughts or slight knowledge. I must say that today, since that collection has been spread to the four corners of the world there are very few of the pieces that I miss. Only about a dozen out of 600. Not a very good average for a "personal" collection.

As the years rolled by I staid under the influence of what I was supposed to like. But, I would see pieces that did not fit into the formula from Japan. Some of these pieces I thought to be as fine as the "masterpieces". Why were they not considered as fine? As we all know it is not rational logic that will answer this question, but fallacious reasoning repeated a hundred times over a hundred years to each generation of students who have never had a thought of their own. Unfortunately none of this changes the irrational standards that are applied to determine what is a masterpiece. Much the same charge could be made against the standards used for such judgments in the West, but at least they would have the individual stamp of the person who made them and not the group stamp of an anonymous unquestioning pre-set iron clad mold.

One solution to what is a masterpiece was formed by Akiyama Kyusaku (1843-1936). During his years of research and collecting he would study the tsuba in his small collection by hanging them on nails hammered into the post of his tokonoma. About ten or twelve at a time. As he wrote or worked near by he would observe and study these tsuba each for its own merits and as a group. When he found one wanting in aesthetics or any other quality he would remove it and put another in its place. By the time he died, at age 93, he still had about ten tsuba on the post. As far as he was concerned they represented the ten best tsuba he had owned in his many long years of collecting. These were not the only tsuba that Akiyama studied during his life time. When he died he had a collection of over four thousand rubbings of tsuba he had seen. This collection of rubbings he gave to his last student, Dr. Torigoye. (1)

(1) During W.W.II Dr. Torigoye moved to what he thought was a better and safer location in Okayama Japan. Unfortunately the area he moved to was in the direct line of the bombings. His house was destroyed. He saved most of his fitting collection but his books and the collection of Akiyama's rubbings were burned in the fire. Ironically the house he moved from survived the war. Dr. Torigoye told me that one of the great losses to future students was that these rubbings were destroyed before they could be published. As a footnote, he also told me that many of the original tsuba, these rubbings were made from, were also destroyed in the war. So now we have neither.

This solution to what is a masterpiece is the exception for the scholars of the past. Unfortunately these free and open ideas of aesthetics used by Akiyama were not to be used by his successors. They formed rules and published pieces they said were not only masterpieces, but were the only masterpieces to be considered by the collector or the student. Today these rules and regulations prescribe what is published from collections and museums the world over. All pieces that do not conform are disregarded and not even considered worthy of study or attention. Naturally this is very limiting to the future study of sword fittings. Today when an "unworthy" piece is published many say "why did you bother", or "there is nothing to be learned from examples like those". There is something to be learned from EVERY piece you see. We can not have closed minds if our studies are to progress.

This discussion of masterpieces brings up another question. How is it applicable to sword blades? Has anything been written and who would say that a blade is a masterpiece? I hope someone will tell us how the fittings and the blade are interrelated in this respect. If the blade is truly a work of art then a full discussion of the aesthetic correlation must be set forth. The important point of this paper is that through knowledge one can gain the ability to see a masterpiece for oneself. In that way the judgment is not some anonymous paper, box or certificate that proclaims a piece to be what is written, but the objects may stand on their own and be masterpieces for all to see.


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