Inspired by the wasps on the Japanese Grip Enhancers (Menuki) with Wasps and Fans, this lesson focuses on communicating through words and movement. After exploring the purpose of the grip enhances in the samurai tradition and characteristics of wasps, students will use wasp sounds and movements to play a word game and listen to a story about wasps.
Intended Age GroupEarly childhood (ages 3-5)
Length of LessonOne 30 minute lesson
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- explore the purpose and meaning of the grip enhancers in the samurai tradition;
- describe and perform sounds and movements wasps make; and
- listen and share about what they observed.
- Begin by leading the group in making buzzing sounds. Play a recorded buzzing sound.
- Explain to the children it is time to become flying, buzzing wasps. Have everyone fly and buzz to an area where they can “land” on the floor.
- Once they have gathered, ask students: Did you want to be a wasp?
- Display or hand out the image of the Grip Enhancers (Menuki) with Wasps and Fans. Encourage children to share their observations about the art objects and to focus on the detail of the wasp.
- Show the diagram of the wasp and talk about its various parts. Use and spell the word wasp multiple times, as well as other words like “buzz,” “sting,” “wings,” and “fly,” while holding up the index cards with the applicable word, or write words the children come up with on the board. Point out the areas of the wasp associated with these words.
- Show children the size of the grip enhancers by passing around something similar in size. Explain that the grip enhancers are small so they could easily be tucked into the material around a sword grip. Briefly explain the role of the samurai as a guard or protector. Refer to the About the Art section for this information.
- Ask how the characteristics of a wasp would be something the samurai, as a protector of his community, would like to embody. Explain that the grip enhancers were made to send strength with the samurai. Talk about the fan on the grip enhancers and how wasps need air and wind to help them fly.
- As a transition, use a Japanese fan to fan air on the children. Have students stand and wiggle their bodies a little and warm up their voices with more buzzing sounds. Explain that the fan is meant to give them air to fly, just like it helps wasps to fly.
- Next, explain that they are going to play a wasp game. Show them the W-A-S-P letters on the floor. Have them take turns using their wasp wings and buzzing noises to land on each letter as the word W-A-S-P is spelled. (Place letters around the room in advance. Working in small groups is recommended).
- Once each child has spelled the word “wasp” in the game, have the group gather together. Introduce the book you chose about wasps and explain that when they hear the word “wasp” they can make a wasp buzzing sound.
- Summarize the lesson with a review of the vocabulary words and then have children fly/buzz to their next activity.
- Small object similar in size to the grip enhancers (like a pendant, athlete’s metal, or a large coin)
- Japanese fan (or other fan will work too)
- Diagram of a wasp
- The words “wasp,” “buzz,” “wings,” “fly,” and “sting” on index cards that you can hold up during discussion of wasp and observation of the wasp diagram
- White board or projector to write words on
- Recording of wasp or buzzing sounds and a way to play the recording
- One or more sets of large “W-A-S-P” laminated letters (8½ by 11 inches)
- Storybook about wasps, such as Brent Sampson’s One Wacky Wasp (Outskirts Press, Inc., 2010)
- About the Art section on Grip Enhancers (Menuki) with Wasps and Fans
- Color copies of the grip enhancers for students to share, or the ability to project image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
These menuki [meh-NEW-key] were made in the mid-1800s during Japan’s Edo period, a period of over 250 years of peace. Menuki, or sword grip enhancers, were accessories that accompanied a sword and helped a samurai’s grip and hand placement on the sword. Originally, the pieces like these were made by the same artisans who made the sword blade, but by the Edo period, many of these accessories were made by a separate specialist or group of specialists. We don’t know the name of the metalsmith who made these menuki, but it is clear that he had extensive knowledge of how to work was very skilled in working with multiple metals and knew how to create detailed sculptures on a small scale. He made the grip enhancers out of gold, silver, and a metal called shakudo [shah-coo-DOE], which is an alloy (mixture) of gold and copper, and is black colored. Each metal or alloy melts at a different temperature and some metals are easier to shape than others. Such knowledge was only part of what the craftsman had to know in order to make one of these small metal sculptures.
What Inspired It?
The craftsman who made these grip enhancers must have wanted to delight the samurai, or warrior and member of the Japanese military aristocracy. The craftsman included many tiny details—details so small they seemed marvelous. Grip enhancers were part of a sword’s fittings. The fittings included the hilt (handle), the scabbard (blade cover), the tsuba (sword guard), and menuki (grip enhancers). Grip enhancers came in pairs and they needed to be small and because they had to fasten onto the sides of the sword hilt, or handle. They were held in place and partially covered by silk braiding that was wrapped around the hilt and over the grip enhancers. Initially, grip enhancers were used to cover bamboo pins (like small pegs), which went through the handle and held the sword blade firmly inside the handle. They also created bumps on the handle that allowed the samurai to get a firmer grip. Eventually, however, they became more important as decoration, and though they would eventually be covered up by a silk cord that wrapped around the hilt, the artist still had to impress the samurai buyer with his miniature sculptures.
A samurai warrior often had several pairs of grip enhancers and each pair signified something about his values and interests. Even though these small art works were almost hidden from view, the owner would know that underneath the silk braiding, there were grip enhancers symbolizing something important to him.
A diagram of a samurai sword’s fittings:
Two examples of sword guards in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
We believe the insects on these grip enhancers are wasps, but they could be another flying insect. Though we have not found any specific reference or meaning assigned to the symbol of a wasp, the fact that they are a stinging insect may make them appropriate for a samurai warrior. The two insects are posed differently–the wings of one wasp are separated while the wings of the other overlap.
During the Edo period, it was common for educated men and women to carry fans. The artist decorated the fans by incising, or cutting into the metal, to create plant designs.
These grip enhancers are made of shakudo, a gold and copper alloy which can be treated to get a purplish-black surface color. The insects are covered with a thin layer of gold. Gold is a malleable metal, meaning it can be hammered into very thin sheets and then shaped by the artist.
These grip enhancers are each 1 3/16” long. It takes great skill to work on such a small scale. Notice the tiny details on the insects–the eyes, antenna, segmented abdomen, and detailed wings.