Rankings in the Kinko Meikan

I was recently asked if there is a modern ratings system for fittings makers along the lines of Fujishiro’s saijo-saku through chu-saku ranking of swordsmiths. The answer to that question is yes.

I hadn’t thought of it for a long time, but Mr. Senichiro Masumoto and Mr. Kenichi Kokubo rate the artists recorded in their 1974 classic, Kinko Meikan. I found my translation by John Yumoto and Alan Harvie (1982-1988) and set out to refresh my memory. I’ve never been a major list enthusiast, but I made some notes and decided to put them here.

From Yumoto and Harvie: “Each artist in this book is rated according to his skill and contribution to the field of fitting making as “MEIJIN,” or super master; “MEIKO,” or great master; “JOKO,” or excellent artist; or “RYOKO,” or good artist.”

I made two passes through the translation looking for points of interest. I think that I captured all of the 4 star makers, but omissions are possible. Most of the 3 stars are listed below, but many among the bottom half are omitted. By far the majority of the entries in the book are the one star kinko artists, and I mostly picked out the tsubako listed among them instead.

The top of the heap is pretty much as expected. Recall that this is a meikan, so people like the early Goto masters who did not leave behind signed work are left out of the discussion.

Meijin (super master)

Kaneie, Nobuie, Umetada Myoju, Hirata Hikozo, Hayashi Matashichi, Hirata Hikoshiro Donin, Yasuchika, Toshinaga, Joi,  Somin, Goto Kenjo, Goto Ichijo, Natsuo

Most of the 4 star talent above have left works rated as juyo bunkazai/bijutsuhin. Hikozo and Natsuo have not, but most fittings enthusiasts would agree with their inclusion among the top rank. Kenjo also has not, although Yujo and Joshin have. Kenjo may be serving as a sort of family representative here in addition to his own merits.

Meiko (great master)

Shodai Yamakichibei, Nakai Tomotsune, Goto Eijo, Goto Teijo, Goto Tsujo, Shozui, Hamano Noriyuki, Ishiguro Masatsune, Omori Teruhide, Iwamoto Konkan, Otsuki Mitsuoki, Ichinomiya Nagatsune, Okamoto Nasoshige, Tanaka Kiyotoshi, Jochiku, Tsu Jinpo,  Unno Shomin

Hamano school founder Shozui has left us a jubi rated tsuba, but he necessarily ranks below the Nara sansaku including the genius Yasuchika with an astounding 12 jubi/jubu works (if I kept count).

Nakai Tomotsune is certainly a leading light from Choshu, but it was surprising to see him ranked this high. Hoan is listed in the Kinko Meikan, but is not rated and so does not appear here. Among the three stars are of course the founders of the important machibori kinko groups.

Joko (excellent artist)

 Nidai Yamakichibei, nidai Jingo, Hayashi Tohachi , Hayashi Shigemitsu, Kamiyoshi Fukanobu, Sadahiro, Hazama, Kunitomo Teiei, Umetada Shichizaemon Shigeyoshi, Shoami Denbei, Shoami Masanori,  Akasaka Tadashige, Goto Renjo, Yanagawa Naomasa, Someya Tomonobu,  Tanaka Kiyoshige,  Funada Ikkin, Araki Tomei, Haruaki Hogen,  Washida Mitsutoki

It is interesting that Goto Renjo (10th gen) is given two stars where Goto Teijo (9th) and Tsujo (11th) get three. Renjo seems to enjoy higher status today. Most of the later Goto generations and some of the sideline families are also in this rank. Also interesting is that Shigemitsu gets held back a grade from his position following Matashichi. Sadahiro gets pride of place in the rank above most of his tsubako brethren that follow.

Ryoko (good artist)

Sandai Yamakichibei, sandai Jingo, Nishigaki Kanpei, Misumi Koji, Saotome Iesada, Kinai, Fukui Jizaemon, Toda Hikozaemon, Kishu Teimei, Iyo Shoami Morikuni, Shoami Shigenobu, Bizen Suruga, Tetsujin, Hirado Kunishige, Jakushi, Sekibun, Naokatsu, Norisuke

There are some solid iron smiths in here, but also quite a range in quality. It’s a broad category. It’s surprising to see Misumi Koji and Sekibun down at the bottom. There’s even a translator’s note next to Sekibun reading “should be higher.” We all have our preferences and even our axes to grind.

Again, there are many one and two star kinko artists that I’ve glossed over out of necessity and interest.

There are inclusions, omissions and inconsistencies enough to puzzle over, but I think I can set them aside to be revisited in another 20 years or so. There’s nothing like a good question – thanks for listing.

Stamped Ko-Kinko Tsuba

Continuing on from the last post with a complex early yamagane tsuba featuring stamped decorations, here are three examples with the more typical single plate construction. The first is a small guard with many kokuin.

6.00 cm H x 5.30 cm W x 0.38 cm T
Yamagane with traces of black lacquer

The decoration includes kiri, kiku and hishi mon along with “star” or “snow flake” shaped stamps on a polished ground. Many are incompletely punched or partially erased. Despite the profuse decoration the effect is fairly subdued.

back side, upper left
back side, upper right

My guess is that the original surface was not entirely lacquered but was left in the low spots for contrast. This type of work is also seen in the late Edo period.

This guard has a hako gaki by Sasano-sensei attributing it to Ko-kinko. The inside of the box is below for those interested.

The next guard is much larger and in addition to stamps has colored metal inlay and overlay. The ground also has a tooled texture. While there is also urushi, the overall impression is anything but subdued.

8.87 cm H x 8.29 cm W x 0.38 cm T

Again there are kiku and kirimon with hanabishi and other flowers. Rather than the often seen description of “mon chirashi,” the kanteisho accompanying this guard describes the motif as bukan chirashi meaning something like scattered heraldry. The sukashi motif is not described, but is often identified as a shishi or sometimes as rising smoke.

the reverse
backside top

This decoration is most similar to the first guard. The plate is stamped and lacquer is applied and remains in the low spots. Here the kiku has a thin gold highlight added.

backside right

Here a similar kiku plus a sakura blossom with added gold. The flower at the right is inlaid and carved brass with a gold overlay.

front side top

Another is inlaid in a dark silver-colored alloy.

front top left
front top right

The hanabishi is also in inlaid and carved brass, with the gold overlay getting out of bounds.

At first glance the next guard looks like it could have carved decoration, but it appears to be stamped. I’m not sure about the motif, it looks like a nimbus or sunburst. Some mushrooms have gills that look somewhat like this. There’s also a biological resemblance there that I don’t think was known before the invention of the microscope…

8.45 cm H x 7.87 W x 0.36 cm T

This tsuba is the same shape as the one above and is almost the same size and thickness. The tagane around the nakago ana are also similar. I have to wonder if that’s just a coincidence or these could have come from the same workshop.

Looking closely at the stamping around the kozuka ana suggests that it is not a later addition. There is no trace of the “heads” of the stamping continuing around the seppa dai or any of the “tails” coming from the outer edge.

Front side kozuka ana

There are traces of the gold lacquer on top of the lead plug shown above suggesting that the coloring is a later addition or at least was refreshed at some time after the ana was filled.

Back side kozuka ana

The variegated colors on this plate are interesting and unusual. My guess is that they came with age rather than being the original patina.

Ko-kinko Sukashi

An early ko-kinko tsuba with kikusui and choji motif.

7.08 cm H x 0.49 cm T
the reverse
waves and droplets with chrysanthemum flower
clustered cloves, slightly offset on the two sides

More openwork than is usual for ko-kinko. The detail in the carving holds up even under a microscope, which is seldom the case. Sophisticated work in design and execution. In this case the ana is a safe bet to be original, if slightly altered. I’m left wondering what the rest of the mounting looked like.

Late Muromachi Ko-kinko

A return to the more elaborate end of the early soft metal tsuba spectrum with another small shakudo nanako example made with very different technique from the recently posted early Muromachi example.

6.82 cm H x 0.55 cm T Autumn flowers and grasses with both inlaid and overlaid metals

Kikyo (bellflower) at the top left and Nadeshiko (pink) at bottom left. The zufu describes the other flowers as Kiku, but the shape of the leaves are different than usual for chrysanthemum. Aster is another possibility, but given that there are karakusa on the back with different leaves maybe the kiku blossoms aren’t meant as a literal representation of the plant.

The reverse. The kozuka ana is original, but presumably enlarged into the seppa dai.
Jakago motif mimi, seen later on Umetada tsuba

Update: Reader question about jakago. See photos by Satomi Grim below. Its use as a purely decorative motif probably has a bigger life than its literal meaning, but it started as a sort of basket weave construction used to hold rocks in place to stabilize river banks (enthusiastically replaced by concrete in modern Japan). In this tsuba it might imply that the plants are growing along a river bank or may just be there for its own sake. The same form is used in domestic baskets, packaging, etc., as well.

Jakago じゃかご - Stone Basket

(end of update…)

detail view with suaka zogan

Both sides of the seppa dai have small patches of what would at first just appear to be wear, but looking closely are metal overlay.


Occasionally on early kinko guards there are a few rows of nanako sown on the seppa dai that appear to be a test to get a feel for the material before starting in on the main part that will be seen. This isn’t the same, but might it be something related?

Going through Mr. Lundgren’s book recently I came across a very similar tsuba I had forgotten.

Lundgren tsuba at top

It looks very likely to me that it by the same individual. That is interesting enough, but note that on the backside seppadai there is also a “test patch” but in a color that relates to metal on that tsuba. The front side seppa dai has been modified to the point that it’s hard to say if it also has one.

Could this have been a final check of the preparation work to ensure that the adhesion of the iroe to the ground would be good before proceeding with the main work? That was a relatively new technique at this time but would soon replace uttori zogan.

It would be interesting to compare the two in person… any ideas?

Early Muromachi Ko-Kinko

Continuing the micro-theme of early and opulent, this time in shakudo nanako with uttori zogan. This guard is rather small, but extremely thick and obviously was mounted on a robust blade.

6.46 cm H x 1.07 cm T
The reverse
Again- over 1 cm thick with an undecorated rim. No sign it has been cut down or mounted with a fukurin.

Detail views of some of the plant motifs. Usually flowers are shown realistically but leaves, stems, seeds, etc. are often omitted or substituted by generalized karakusa type motifs. Here each plant is represented fully and accurately.

Omodaka (arrowhead) at right and Hishi (Eurasian water caltrop) in center – water plants in the water.
Yamabuki on the left (Japanese Keria var. picta)
Asago (morning glory) at left and Tachibana (citrus) at right
Once again, that botan (peony) motif in a different technique

It would be interesting to know what this was mounted on. Was it this thick for weight alone, for aesthetics and/or conspicuous consumption (it’s solid shakudo)? A published description speculates that it may have been a tachi guard converted for koshigatana or uchigatana use, but if so in its original state all of the floral motifs would be growing upside down and the water would be in the sky.

The small size, thickness and shape do recall some early tachi guards, and while I don’t think it was one, there may have been some allusion there. Was it mounted on a koshigatana that was worn paired with a tachi?

In any event, a good opportunity to study some of the better early Muromachi period nanako and uttori work on a guard that has it all turned up to 11.

Update: A reader mentioned that it may be that the guard was mounted on a tachi or kodachi in the present orientation. Given the large sekigane and heavy work on the seppa dai it is possible that the original nakago ana pointed the other way and that its original outline was lost in later remounting on a much thicker blade. If it originally had no hitsuana, it is very fortunate that none of the original decoration was cut in half when they were added.

A Hiko-no

7.12 cm H x 0.50 cm T (don’t know how it got to the bottom of the pile so quickly)

I like coming across these early kinko guards that look like they may have been the inspiration for Hirata Hikozo’s work. The color of the alloy combined with the lacquer along with the fukurin and carving have much the same flavor although Hikozo refined them all and built on it.

I had always thought the tagane were also original to these pieces, but a friend pointed out that they may have been added as an upgrade toward Hikozo’s tagane mei. It’s certainly possible, but I also see them on guards around the same age that I think would really take some imagination to try to pass off as Higo. For example:

7.72 cm H x 4.2 mm T

They’re also seen on some iron Saotome tsuba, but the rest of the work is quite different, so probably no direct connection.

Setting Hikozo aside, note that the surface of this one is not covered with nanako or even worked with a ring-shaped punch. Each circle is made up of a series of tiny punch marks. I wonder if this was a country guy’s imitation of nanako or something original and maybe earlier.

Not nanako, but it had to have been a lot of work. Maybe the nanako punch was developed as a time saver.

In this case the fukurin is needed to finish the three layer construction of the plate. Unlike the typical san mai guard, the shakudo here is only a thin foil. There is (of course) a specific term for this that I’ve forgotten. A microscope view inside the kozuka ana is here:

It appears to be quite a tight bond without signs of solder. I don’t know how it was done. Yes, I labeled the photo incorrectly way back when, it really is the inside of the kozuka ana.