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METALWORK BY THE KOMAI COMPANY OF KYOTO
When, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was virtually forced to trade freely with the Western world, the Japanese discarded, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the semifeudal state of the previous three hundred years. Among other changes, an open market economy was introduced for the first time. This had a profound effect on craftsmen (as, indeed, on everyone else) who had now to make their work without the support of their patrons the daimyo; to choose their market and make appropriate goods, which they then had to sell. Meiji Government policy encouraged the ‘art-crafts’ as demonstrations of Japanese skill. There was as yet no real manufacturing system; each master would work with a few assistants. In addition the government encouraged the participation in the great international World Fairs that were such a prominent feature of the time by supporting commissioning companies who ordered the finest work from the craftsmen. The adoption of Western-style laws and customs led to such decrees as that banning the wearing of swords in 1876. This, of course, had a spin off in a lack of work for large numbers of highly-skilled metalworkers.
Unless these metalworkers could adapt to the new demands of a market that was increasingly dominated by foreigners, they could not survive in their metier. It is remarkable how many made this change; not
immediately, perhaps, but gradually.
One of the most characteristic types of Meiji Period (1868-1912) metalwork is that of the Komai family of Kyoto, whose highly detailed damascened work is quite distinctive.
The Komai Company was supposedly founded in 1841, but it was only when Komai Otojiro I became head, in 1865, that the company began to make the wares for which they were to become so famous. The workshop, under the leadership of Komai Otojiro (father and son) specialised in intricate inlaid work of gold and silver into iron. The technique favoured by the workshop was kinsujizogan the inlay of strips of gold or silver into graved lines on the iron body; later they were to use nunomezogan which involves the inlay of thin sheets of gold or silver onto a roughened ground. In a promotional brochure of about 1915, Komai Otojiro II (Otojiro I retired in 1906) called his workshop the ‘pioneer of damascene work’ and describes the process of the lacquering of the characteristic black ground, which required some forty firings in the kiln and subsequent burnishing. Using these techniques, the Komai style passed through approximately the same evolutionary sequences as did the styles used by other branches of Meiji decorative art; elaborated overall pattern-making moved into elaborate borders surrounding an increasingly pictorial central motif. Most of these central motifs illustrate stories from Japanese history or mythology. The Komai family retains a number of design books in which can be found drawings for many of their works. In spite of their great popularity, the name Komai is rarely found in the lists of exhibitors in the great World Fairs, because the company exhibited under the name of the commissioning company Ikeda. These commissioners would exhibit the work of a number of companies and it would be they who also received many awards and prizes. The Ikeda company are recorded receiving many such prizes, some of which were certainly for work produced by Komai. A list of some of Komai’s many awards from both national and international exhibitions is recorded in their promotional brochure.
For further details concerning Komai see Malcolm Fairley, Victor Harris and Oliver Impey, Meiji no Takara, Treasures of Imperial Japan, Metalwork Part I (London, 1995).