Japan

Celebrating Boys in Japan

After the Nagaizumi-Whanganui Sister City Friendship Centre closed in 2015, the Whanganui Regional Museum received a donation of many of the objects it had housed. Cataloguing these objects required some research into Japanese culture and traditions.

1. Lacquered box

The lacquered box. Ref: 2015.32.51g

One of the most intriguing is a beautiful black lacquered box which has a fitted removable lid and six legs with five sides. Each leg has a brass cap engraved with leaves on four outer edges. All corners have etched brass corner protectors. The inside of the box is lined with patterned white paper. It contains a Gogatsu Ningyo, a samurai warrior doll complete with an elaborately decorated tachi (sword), a yumi (bow and arrow) and two folding lacquered screens, also with decorative corners. There was also a wooden plaque with Japanese characters and a length of green cotton felt with a flowered silk brocade border.

2. Samurai doll

The Gogatsu Ningyo, Samurai doll. Ref: 2015.32.51a

Putting the doll together was a little complicated as he came in many pieces. A head is covered by an ornamented helmet, shoulder plates, shin guards, upper leg plates and fur boots. He sits on a lacquered pedestal.

In Japan, Gogatsu Ningyo are used on 5 May every year at the Tango-no-Sekku festival, to wish for the healthy growth of boys. The armour, helmet, sword and bow and arrows were once worn by brave warriors and hence the desire for strength and good health. This tradition originated in a ritual using sweet calamus (a plant used both medicinally and to make fragrances), held at the Japanese Imperial Court more than 1,200 years ago to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that sweet calamus had strong power because it was among the first plants to sprout in early spring. Later in the feudal era, this ritual evolved into a ceremony to pray for good fortune for boys and success in wars, and then gradually spread among the common people as a festival for children.

Families with sons also celebrate this day by flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori. In Japan, carp are known to be strong fish that can leap up waterfalls. The koinobori symbolise parents’ wishes for their sons to be as strong as carp. The Museum also received two windsocks as part of the donation. They are each three metres long and painted in shades of blue and pink. In Japan today, koinobori are commonly flown above the roofs of houses where children live, along with the biggest black koinobori, coloured black, for the father, the next biggest, in red or pink for the mother and an additional smaller carp of a different colour for each child in decreasing order by age.

 

Kathy Greensides is a Collection Assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Japanese gentlemen’s fashion accessories

Japanese gentlemen's fashion accessories I

Kathy Greensides, collections assistant, has come up with a selection of Japanese netsuke.  The word is pronounced net-skeh (or something like it) and they are small carved ‘toggles’ used to attach a bag or container to the (male) wearer’s obi or sash. The bag or container would be the Japanese version of the sporran, the traditional male garments not being equipped with pockets.

The first netsuke date from the 17th century and evolved from being purely practical to becoming quite decorative. Kathy says she has seen a lot of them on Antiques Roadshow, many made of ivory. Of those chosen by Kathy, two are made of wood, four of ivory, and all sculpted elaborately. “I was going through the ethnology collection and I came across them. As I said, just because I’d been watching Antiques Roadshow … they’re really valuable and quite intricately carved. Some of them were worth thousands of pounds, especially if they’ve got a signature on them.  I just thought they were really beautiful objects, and the detail … I’m a very detailed person; I like doing cross stitch and very tiny work so when I saw this I thought … it’s my kind of thing.”

A netsuke in carved ivory mask form

A netsuke in carved ivory mask form

The two hardwood specimens are preserved beautifully and have a patina, which speaks of many years of use. Their carved faces shine, giving them a ‘mask’ look. Of course, they do not always depict faces but can be of many different designs, as illustrated by the ivory versions.

An internet search revealed that there is an International Netsuke Society, based in the US. It has a website and the FAQ section is especially illuminating if readers are interested.

The age and provenance of these particular specimens is unknown, but one of the ivory pieces bears writing, possibly the signature of the artist. All we know is that the museum has them, they were probably made in Japan … and that is about it. Perhaps a Midweek reader can shed more light on these netsuke?

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in January 2011, and reproduced wit permission of the publishers.