Artist not known, Japan
mid-1800s, Edo period
1.563 x 1.688 in
Gift of Julie Seagraves and Richard Kimball, 1986.469
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
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, pieces like these were made by the same artisans who made the 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 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 nigurame [knee-goo-RAH-me], which is an alloy (mixture) of copper, tin, and lead. 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 may have made these grip enhancers for a samurai who had a particular interest in decorating his sword for New Years during a year of the rat, one of the Asian zodiac animals. He 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. For the owner of these pieces, the miniature scenes of rats and mochi cakes, a favorite food for celebrating the New Year, were important symbols.
A diagram of a samurai sword’s fittings:
Another pair of grip enhancers in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
Two examples of sword guards in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
In Japanese culture, rats were seen as industrious and admired for their ability to find food even in hard times. They are one of the twelve Asian zodiac animals that make up Japan’s 12-year lunar calendar, which was adopted from China. According to this calendar, a person born in a given year will reflect certain characteristics of the animal for which that year is named. People born in the year of the rat are thought to be charming, industrious, and thrifty, but can also be fussy, stingy, and quick-tempered. The rat also serves as a companion and messenger for Daikoku, the god of wealth, and thus has become a symbol of riches and plentiful harvest.
Note the different positions of the rats in the grip enhancers. The gold rat on one menuki is perched near the mochi cake, while the brown rat in the other menuki is on the ground.
The oval mound in the center of this grip enhancer represents a mochi [MOE-chee] cake. Mochi is made out of pounded rice that is formed into softly rounded cakes and is then steamed. It is traditionally eaten during the Japanese New Year and other festivals. Mochi cakes are soft when you bite into them and have the texture of a jelly bean. They are made in many flavors.
The round shape with spiral etching in the center of this grip enhancer represents a hollowed out tree stump, used for pounding rice to make mochi. The hollowed tree trunk formed a large bowl. Steamed rice was placed in the bowl and people from the village gathered together to pound the rice with thick wooden pounders, like very large hammers. Traditionally, making mochi is a group activity. The tree stump in this grip enhancer is decorated for a festival with fern fronds and plum blossoms.
These grip enhancers were made of nigurame, a dark brown metal that is a mixture of copper, tin, and lead. Gold and silver were also used to create various details. Each metal or alloy must be handled differently. Gold and silver are precious metals and are known for being malleable, which means they can be hammered into thin sheets and easily shaped by the artist. Notice how tiny the metal details are.
These grip enhancers are each 1 9/15” long. It takes great skill to create such detailed sculptures on such a small scale.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- As depicted in the Menuki, the Japanese used hollowed tree stumps as a base to grind rice for mochi (rice cakes). Bring traditional rice cakes for children to taste and a pestle and mortar with rice to grind.
- The scene depicted in this Menuki is like a miniature world. Ask students to create their own miniature world in same dimensions as the Menuki (2-3 inches).
- In Japan the rat represents is seen to have industrious and thrifty traits. It is also admired because it is always able to find food, even in hard times. Have children think of other animal traits and describe them.
- Discuss the Rat Zodiac sign. Have students choose Japanese Zodiac signs that represent them and then depict this sign in an art project or creative writing exercise.