In times of peace, how do highly skilled makers of armour fill their time? This was the plight of the Japanese metalsmiths during the Edo period.
Jizai Okimono translates literally as ‘move freely decorative object’. They are small articulated iron figures of animals, but can also be made from copper, silver and gold alloys. Fully articulated of both limb and body, this enables them to imitate all the movements of their natural counterparts – and it was these that arms makers created both to demonstrate and maintain skill in quiet periods. Even the scales on dragons are reminiscent of Samurai armour.
They represent craftsmanship of the highest quality. The earliest known dated example is a dragon bearing a line-engraved signature of its maker Myochin Muneaki dated 1713, during the middle Edo period.
Manchester Museum also has an impressive dragon, and the magic is in the movement!
Filmed as part of the Objects in Mind project, this is a great example of how the museum can provide enhanced access to its collection, with an object too fragile to be handled regularly. Conservator Irit Narkiss and Curator of Living Cultures, Stephen Welsh, discuss the luck dragon from the Living Cultures collection.
It was made in nineteenth century by Miochin Munetane. The Miochins were a manufacturing dynasty renowned for their arms and armament and were established in the twelfth century. Miochin Munetane was working in either the Edo or Meiji period. Dragons were important in East Asian religion and mythology, they represent bodies of water, lakes, oceans and rivers; they also bring rain and are responsible for flooding. There are many temples in China and Japan dedicated to dragons.
It is little wonder that these intricate and lifelike sculptures became some of the most collected objects from Japan by European collectors. After the Meiji Restoration the Samurai were disbanded, leaving high quality carvers and metal workers unemployed, these workers became makers of traditional goods and crafts for export, in response to huge demands for goods from the West.
Robert Wylie Lloyd (1868-1958), a mountaineer from Rochdale was one such collector, who certainly had exquisite taste and an aesthetic eye, described as a connoisseur of fine arts. He also had a keen interest in bugs! He became renowned in Entomology societies for his collection, which on his death in 1958 he bequeathed to Manchester Museum. At this point his fine art collection was also distributed, with the British Museum receiving 50 Turner watercolours. But then again, Manchester Museum didn’t come off too badly, receiving over 1,000 Japanese objects including a tachi long sword, and the Luck Dragon and several articulated iron models – some of them so lifelike that they could rival the real deal!
Another of Robert Wylie Lloyd’s bequests is on display on the Living Worlds gallery in the ‘Symbols’ case;
This jizai okimono, also signed by Munesuke, is used in this display to illustrate the ways in which people use nature symbolically, drawing on characteristic qualities of species. Snakes have been used to represent treachery in some cultures, while in others fertility, renewal and rebirth. Sometimes they are feared, and at other times worshipped.
The real beauty of these objects is in their animation, when they seem magically to come to life!
By Michelle Scott
Discussing The Luck Dragon – Jizai Okimono (2014) YouTube video, added by Manchester Museum [Online] (above).
Logunov, D. and Merriman, N. (eds.) (2012) The Manchester Museum: Window to the World, London, Third Millennium.
Okimono Project (2011) Western Influence on Okimonos [Online]. Available from: https://okimonoproject.wordpress.com/2015/05/16/western-influence-on-okimonos/
Tokyo National Museum (2011) Jizai Okimono – Articulated iron figures of animals [Online]. Available from: http://www.tnm.jp/modules/r_free_page/index.php?id=573&lang=en
Welsh, S. (2012) ‘Collecting Cultures, Making Connections’, in Logunov, D. and Merriman, N. (eds.) The Manchester Museum: Window to the World, London, Third Millennium, p. 46-57.