A Look into Three Pieces of Japanese Art
University of Utah
Throughout time many great pieces of art have been made from all kinds of materials available to people. Some works are made to last throughout time, while others are doomed to fall, and yet some are rebuilt from their remains. Some are meant to be functional to us in daily life, and some are meant to be functional to open our minds when we see them. The three pieces that I have chosen to discuss all have the same protagonist: Japanese life. While these three pieces can in no way come close to defining or summing up what Japanese life is, they can be symbolic towards small pieces of japans history and culture. From an instrument of decoration to destruction, the samurai sword will forever hold a piece of Japanese culture. The sword in particular I have chosen to highlight is called the Honjo Masamune. You may think it odd for a sword to have a name, however I shall explain why they do. With the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, there was left in its place a feeling of hollowed emptiness of what once was. This sensation is captured no better than with Onishi Yasuaki’s installation, called Reverse of Volume RG. Out of this emptiness was seen hope for the future, a need for honoring those that died, and the reconstruction. Like a literal phoenix from the ashes, the Fukusai-ji Temple is a perfect embodiment of this concept. Before I go into detail on the latter two of these, let me give you some more information on just what the sword meant to the Japanese on a cultural and individual level, and why a sword is given its own name.
War, death, destruction, power… These are all terms that can be symbolically connected to the sword. But to Japanese, the sword holds much more than these things. More than just sharp pieces of steel, the sword also symbolizes honor, pride, respect, and even beauty. A Samurai carries two swords at nearly all times, a Katana and the shorter Wakisashi (or sidearm). It is a Samurai’s duty to keep his sword sharp, clean, oiled (for water and humidity protection), and all around well-maintained. When a sword is taken from its sheath it is handled with extreme respect. Rarely is the blade touched by the skin, a medium such as a small cloth or the sleeve of the Hitatare (robe) is used instead. As moisture is an enemy of steel, causing it to rust if exposed to the oxygen in water for too long, it is considered rude to breathe onto a sword when inspecting or looking at another’s sword. Certain swords, such as the Honjo Masamune, have been carried into, and were used in, successful battles. A sword that has proved its worth in battle would traditionally be given name shortly after as a way of honoring and respecting the sword. Although, that is not to say that it can’t be given a name if it did poorly. As you can see with the Honjo Masamune, the sword was takes as a prize by Honjo Shigenaga after he defeated its previous owner, which could explain why it is called the “Honjo” Masamune. Owning a named sword was also a source of pride for the samurai. If it was earned by the samurai, it showed a status of past success in battle. Alternately, if they were given a previously named sword, it was considered a high honor to receive a named sword as it showed value of your skills/accomplishments as a warrior by your Master. The mere name of certain swords, that had slain many men in several battles, could strike fear into an opponent. Such was the power of their respect for a sword. A sword that has been forged and polished by a master swordsmith is a beautiful piece of art. Often these swords will have script engraved into them of such things as the swordsmith’s name or the intended owners name, a word or phrase, or even the name of the sword. The handles of these swords can even be decorated with cord, leather, metal or other materials. A sword can be personalized for an individual or even personalized for a family if it is to be decorative inside the...
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