Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ninagawa Noritane, the kogo, and the end of the Samurai

Inscription, inset: Tetsu
Sometimes, a single piece of information can make all the difference. I was looking at a dealer's listing for a little kogo -- a small incense box used in the Japanese tea ceremony. It was black and gold lacquer, but the black had faded somewhat on the outside and was now a pleasant brown colour. On its base was a tiny three-line Japanese inscription cut into the lacquer. The dealer provided a translation:

Ninagawa Noritane / Tenth year of Meiji / philosophy (tetsu)

Now, to do justice to Ninagawa Noritane (1835-1882), would take more space than I have here. He was a distant relative of the Meiji Emperor and served in a number of positions in the government. To say that he knew a lot about traditional Japanese culture would be an understatement. Perhaps he knew more than anyone. He was sent by the Emperor, in 1871, to have the abandoned Edo Castle photographed. It was destroyed by fire the following year. He also recorded much of Japan's important cultural objects.

He was the foremost expert on Japanese pottery, publishing the standard work on the subject: Kwan-Ko-Dzu-Setsu (French Edition)  in 1876. He both collected and dealt in such material. Although he never left Japan, he heard that the British Museum was starting to collect fine examples of Japanese porcelain, so he wrote to Augustus Wollaston Franks, sending him a couple of pieces of pottery as a gift, and explaining that, while Japanese porcelain was popular in the west, the Japanese had imported the ideas from China, and porcelain was something that they made for export. The Japanese much preferred pottery, and much of this looked rather "rustic" and "amateur" to western eyes. The sort of thing that might have been made by a child on the first day of a pottery class. It was, however, masterfully made -- the best potters working to get it just right with
donated to the British Museum by Augustus
Wollaston Franks
the absolute minimum of the motion of their hands on the potter's wheel. So he explained that if the British Museum wanted to represent Japanese culture, then they had better display the pottery, not the porcelain export products. They listened, and he helped them to build their collection from his stock. He did something similar with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

He started three museums, himself, one of them eventually becoming the Tokyo National Museum. 

Ninagawa Noritane
Photo: Public domain
Yet, there was also something innocent and charming about him. I think it was an American visitor who dragged him off to a photographer to have his portrait done. Although they had other business to take care of afterward, Ninagawa Noritane insisted that they should visit his mother's house to show her the picture. It was the only time he was ever photographed.

He retired in 1877 -- the tenth year of Meiji, and history records that this was due to ill health. The dealer from whom I obtained the kogo reasoned, thus, that the kogo was likely a retirement gift, as it was dated to that very year. He also thought that the cryptic word philosophy in the inscription, was in the literal sense "a lover of wisdom", and it spoke of Ninagawa's vast knowledge of the subjects that he loved. Apparently, the word "philosophy" was a relatively new word to the Japanese language, and they likely had their own spin on it. The dealer's explanation made sense, but there were a couple of things that got me thinking, and I knew that I had to buy the kogo at once -- even though it was far from inexpensive.

As some of you might have guessed from the title, 1877 was the year of the Satsuma Rebellion, and this was the end of the Samurai. Perhaps you have seen the movie, The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. If not, here is an official trailer:

A thoroughly enjoyable movie but not, ahem, totally accurate.You see a nineteenth century army going against a feudal Japanese Samurai warrior and his people. The Samurai looking more like something out of Shogun than a 19th century rebel.

1877 French magazine illustration showing the Last Samurai
Note the French uniform

Public domain

Of course, I save the best for last! Here is the kogo. The dealer was unaware of what the subject matter meant. If you saw the Tom Cruise movie, you will remember that as the last samuarai was dying on the field, the wind was blowing all of the blossoms from a nearby cherry tree. A cherry tree blooms for only a very short while, and then the blossoms fall.

Fallen cherry blossoms -- the subject of the kogo decoration, is the symbol of the Samurai: lives that were glorious but often somewhat short. The symbolism was used again during the Second World War, but then for the kamikaze pilots--young men who turned their aircraft into missiles.

It would seem, from all of this, that Ninegawa Noritane did not retire "for health reasons". In fact, he did quite a lot of things after 1877, and when he died in 1882, it was not due to a long illness at all. He fell victim to an outbreak of cholera -- a common occurrence in that day.

The Meiji Emperor wanted to bring his country out of its feudal past and into the modern world. He succeeded and he opened up his country to the west. An earlier Emperor, sensing that a member of his government was sympathetic to his enemies -- even if a relative, would not have allowed him to retire. He might have been executed or made to commit Seppuku if he were a Samurai. No one could deny that Ninegawa Noritane was a traditionalist, and the Samurai were steeped in such tradition. The evidence of the kogo rewrites history in a far more believable fashion.

Next time, another piece of Bizen ware -- with a twist.


  1. intresting piece john,the japanese culture/history is really fascinating.pride and honour is so important to them.

  2. Thanks, Kyri, and it's true what you say. Although I thought it was an attractive object -- it was the history that made it irresistible!

    The arrangement of the cherry blossoms reminds me of one of the layouts of stepping stones in a Japanese garden. The workmanship exhibited in many Meiji objects is phenomenal!