THE TAXONOMY OF THE JAPANESE TERMINOLOGY OF KOSHIRAE CRAFTSMEN AND THEIR RELATED HISTORY.*
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
January 24, 2004
I. Introduction: Division of labor in koshirae making.
A craftsman who does mounting is called "koshirae-shi."
Historically, finely specialized division of labor in making mounted Nihon-to was the norm in Japan when there still was a real demand for Nihon-to as weapon samurai and their symbol of status. In the past, "koshirae-shi" did always make saya and tsuka core and put most of the mounting furniture (called "koshirae kanagu" or "kodogu") such as fuchi-kashira and tsuba, as well as horn parts (i.e., koiguchi, kurikata, kojiri, kaeshi-zuno if needed) on the wood cores (i.e., saya and tsuka) based on specific requirements. However, they did not do lacquering or "tsuka-maki" (i.e., handle wrapping) themselves but sent those saya and tsuka cores with other parts to other specialized professionals. For instance, habaki was always and still is made and fitted by professionals called "shirogane-shi," lacquering was done (and still is most often done today) by professionals called "nu-shi" (also called "nuri-shi," though "nu-shi" was the original name), and handle wrapping was and is still done by professionals called "tsukamaki-shi." There even had been a specialized group of professionals called "samekise-shi" (i.e., same wrapper) who only put same-gawa on the tsuka core (or on the saya core) before it was sent to "tsukamaki-shi" (or to "nu-shi" for lacquering in case of saya). Of course, there has existed a specialized craftsmen called "kumi-himo-shi," who make fine artistic sageo and tsuka ito. In this sense, "koshirae-shi" in the past was more like a conductor of an orchestra who also played just a couple of major instruments.
II. Decline of the Division of Labor.
Today, since the demand for mounted Nihon-to is much smaller than in the past, many of specialized Nihon-to related professions are very much extinct. Therefore, most "koshirae-shi" must do much more than what they used to do, including things that used to be done by other professionals. Especially in the West, where specialized Nihon-to related professions did not exist, ones who professionally mount Japanese (style) swords must do most of the mounting work. In the U.S., we often see multi-talented craftsmen who are originally "togi-shi" (i.e., polisher) but are also "koshirae-shi" at the same time. However, such "all round" multi-task craftsmen are more of a Western phenomenon. In Japan, they are extremely rare, if any exists... (That is one of the major reasons why it takes so long and costs so much a Nihon-to enthusiast ever wants to have a custom koshirae made to his/her blade in Japan..)
III. "Kin-ko," Koshirae Kanagu Specialists.
Now, the term "kin-ko" means something close to "gold/silver smith" in English, as "kin-ko" originally and literally means "craftsmen who work on metal" (in this context, the word "kin" means "metal" but not "gold" specifically) to make artistic objects. In the context of Nihon-to crafts, "kin-ko" loosely refers to those metal craftsmen who make any of the koshirae kanagu (including fuchi-kashira, menuki, tsuba, habaki, seppa and shitodome) and/or also perform artistic file work and/or engravings on them.
On the other hand, "shirogane-shi" (i.e., "shirogane" literally means "silver") in the context of Nihon-to crafts, used to refer to a group of professionals (actually a sub-category of "kin-ko") who actually made all the metal cores or "semi-finished" kanagu. The only exception to this "all kanagu in a semi-finished form" would be those "kin-ko" who were specialized in making "kin-ko tsuba" because they were and still are called "tan-ko" (i.e., tsuba craftsmen)and have been separated from "shirogane-shi" in classification. Those "semi-finished" blank kanagu were later to be sent to another sub-group of "kin-ko" who were more specialized in artistic engraving/file work (called "chokin-shi") or who were specialized in artistic coloring (called "iro-age-shi") (Toyoda, 1994).
IV. "Shirogane-shi" and "Chokin-shi": Two sub-categories of kanagu specialists.
In other words, those metal workers whom we casually and loosely call "kin-ko" actually consisted of at least but not limited to the following two major sub-groups/categories of craftsmen:
(a) "shirogane-shi" who historically made all the kanagu but mostly in semi-finished form that were later to be finished by other sub-groups of "kin-ko" who performed highly artistic file work, engravings and coloring; [E.g., Katsuyoshi Toyoda, who could and did in fact make all the koshirae kanagu and performed highly artistic engravings/file work also by himself, but specialized in mostly making artistic habaki and seppa - I believe he was already deceased at the end of Showa era.]
(b) "chokin-shi" who historically finished what was already made as semi-finished blanks by "shirogane-shi" by adding artistic file work and/or engravings, but might have not actually made the kanagu themselves. As many Nihon-to and kodogu collectors know, the prime examples of comprehensive and artistic "kin-ko" who "reportedly" made virtually all kanagu and also performed artistic file work and engravings were Goto Yujo and Umetada Myoju, who also happened to be a skilled blade smith and regarded today as "the father of Shin-to"(Toyoda, 1994).
Additionally, those craftsmen who were specialized in artistic coloring of "almost finished" kanagu (that were already given file work and/or engraving) were called "iroage-shi." And "iroage-shi" was not usually included in the broader category of "kin-ko" but considered a separate group of craftsmen because they usually worked on many other metal art than koshirae kanagu...
V. "Shirogane-shi" vs. "Chokin-shi": Umetada and Goto Yujo.
Now when it comes to habaki and seppa, what is interesting (and confusing to many) is that there is historical evidence that even the work of highly regarded all-around "kin-ko" such as Umetada and Goto Yujo often shows clear signs of *their only adding the final file work or engraving on what was obviously made by other craftsmen (i.e., "shirogane-shi") as semi-finished products* (Toyoda, 1973). Therefore, according to Katsyoshi Toyoda, one of Japanís most highly regarded artistic "shirogane-shi," even Umetada Myoju and Goto Yujo were more likely to be "artistic file workers and engravers" (i.e., "chokin-shi" in the sub-category (b) above) for the most part, rather than "shirogane-shi" (even though they most likely have possessed actual skills and talent to make artistic kanagu from scratch).
VI. Modern "Shirogane-shi" As Habaki and Seppa Specialists.
What is even more confusing is that some of highly skilled "shirogane-shi" were also multi-talented craftsmen who could (and were in a sense forced to) also perform finishing file work and/or engravings on the semi-finished blank kanagu they made. A good example of such multi-talented "shirogane-shi" was Katsuyoshi Toyoda, who could and did in fact make all the koshirae kanagu and performed highly artistic engravings/file work also by himself because after the Meiji Restoration, there were increasingly fewer "kin-ko" and "chokin-shi" who were specialized in finishing the file work and engravings on kanagu. However, even Toyoda was more specialized in making mostly artistic habaki and seppa and some tachi-kanagu (only when specifically asked for by his clients) because the demand of making new fuchi-kashira in the traditional manner was minimal at best. Toyoda (1994) also admitted that it was a real shame that remaining "shirogane-shi" in Japan began more and more narrowly specialized into making only artistic habaki but little else...
Anyway, ever since the Meiji Restoration and the demand for Nihon-to diminished significantly, most of the "kin-ko" who were specialized in making and artistically engraving fuchi-kashira and menuki were extinct because there was not enough continuous demand to support such a specialized profession. Therefore, those collectors and martial artists who wanted koshirae for their blades either used (and still are using) existing antique kanagu or reproduction kanagu. Even so, the demand for habaki still continued at least modestly because for every newly made Nihon-to (i.e., shinsaku-to) there was a need for a newly made and custom fitted habaki. For this reason, those who continued to learn the traditional kanagu making as "shirogane-shi" (but not as "chokin-shi") after the Meiji Restoration mostly learned to become habaki (and seppa) specialists who also performed *by necessity* artistic file work and engravings on the habaki they make (such as Toyoda who was born only 30 years after the Meiji Restoration)....
Today, there are very few new but highly talented "kin-ko" in Japan who are making fuchi-kashira, menuki and tsuba and also performing artistic engravings on them. However, habaki is still continued to be made and artistically finished *mostly* by a specialized sub-group of "kin-ko" called "shirogane-shi." In this sense, "shirogane-shi" in Japan today has very much become the synonym to "habaki-shi" (i.e., habaki maker).....
Toyoda, Katsuyoshi. (1994). "Shirogane." In Tadashi Oono (Ed.), Nihon-to shokunin shokudan. [The tales from Nihon-to craftsmen]. (1st Ed.). Pp. 132-140. Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN 4-7694-0051-9.
* Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on old Bugei Sword Forums.
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.