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園部芳継 Sonobe Yoshitsugu
Early 19th Century

By Richard Mantegani

Menuki (hilt ornaments): They are a ho-bird and kirin done in shakudo, with fine inlay and overlay (iroe-e/zogan) detail in gold and silver. Both pieces are unsigned (mumei).

Menuki: Lengths: Heights:
Ho-Bird 4.3 cm
Kirin 3.0 cm

Kogai (hair-pin): The kogai is composed of shakudo with a gold nanako panel showing a minogame (a turtle-like beast) in high relief using shakudo, gold and silver. The reverse is completed in a 'cat-scratch' etching and signed Sonobe Yoshitsugu with kakihan (seal) inscribed.
Length: 21.2 cm. Width: 1.1 cm.

Kozuka (small knife handle): The frame is shakudo with a gold nanako panel set into it. The design depicts a shakudo dragon (ryu) grasping a jewel (tama). All highlights are completed in gold overlay. The reverse again shows the 'cat-scratch' file marks, and is signed Tanso Yoshitsugu [made this] on a summer day in Bunsei [1818-1829]. Sword fittings are rarely dated, so this mito-koromono must have had some special significance or importance for Tanso Yoshitsugu to do this.
Length: 9.8 cm. Width: 1.5 cm.

A mito-koromono is by definition a set of precious "things for three places" [on the mounting of a Japanese sword]. It consists of menuki, kogai, and kozuka, usually by the same maker and of a matching or closely related design or theme. In this case, the subject depicted is four of the "divine beasts" from Japanese mythology. They are the dragon (ryu), phoenix (ho), turtle (minogame), and kirin, which is a beast combined from several animals. An exquisite set of scabbard accessories and handle ornaments such as these, were almost always custom-made to order for swords worn by high ranking daimyo or royalty. A fine mito-koromono can tell much about the wearers rank and social position. You might say that mito- koromono were symbols for that; a sort of samurai warrior's 'scepter'. Fashioning such important sword fittings was work usually reserved for the very best master tosogu/kodogu makers.

Yoshitsugu, founder of the Sonobe family of metal workers was born in the fourth year of An'ei (1775). He was taught his craft by Tanaka Yoshiaki, who was a pupil of Goto Mitsutomo. Yoshitsugu developed his skills quickly, winning great praise from his teacher. His early work was of a quality that impressed the many Goto family artists he met while he was studying with the Tanaka school. He was offered, but refused the chance to inherit the Tanaka family name and gained his professional independence starting the Sonobe group around the year 1813 [Bunka 10]. He trained his own sons, Yoshihide and Hidetada, and was permitted a continued association with the mainline Goto. They were a great influence on his style and technique. Copper/suaka, shakudo, nanako, gold, silver and shibuichi were used to form beautiful examples of kodogu. Menuki, kogai, kozuka and tsuba are favorite items he often produced. Favorite subjects included many from the plant and animal kingdoms. Divine beasts, zodiac animals, peony, chrysanthemum, and pine, are some of the classic designs used for fittings produced by Sonobe Yoshitsugu and his students.

In general, work done by [den] Yoshitsugu is not as rigid in form as the mainline Goto School often is. It is life like and animated, with great attention given to fine detail. These traits can be easily found in each of the illustrated pieces. Clearly Yoshitsugu had his own ideas about the direction he wished to take with his life and art and did it to a high level of success. Sonobe Yoshitsugu, who went by the art name of Tanso continued to prosper until his death in 1842, [Tenpo 13].

This mito-koromono comes with a kiri-wood storage box that contains a signed letter from Dr. Kanzan Sato issued at the National Museum in Tokyo and dated April 13, 1951. The document carefully describes each item and declares them an "outstanding masterpiece" of Sonobe Yoshitsugu.