Ishiguro Masayoshi KoshiraeIshiguro Masayoshi

periodLate Edo (ca. 1830)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu Koshirae
mei石黒政美作 - Ishiguro Masayoshi saku
price -sold-

This early nineteenth-century master who studied under Naoyoshi of the Sano school and Masatsune of the Ishiguro family, has reproduced on this small field, with technical perfection, a picture glowing with the color and beauty of spring in its exuberance. Description of a Masayoshi tsuba, Japanese Sword Mounts

Ishiguro Masayoshi was born in 1772 with the name Shōzō (庄蔵), and was the adopted son of Okamoto Yūsen. Yūsen was a doctor from Satsuma province who was trained in Western style medicine.

When Masayoshi began his apprenticeship, he started out first as a student of Sano Naoyoshi (佐野直美 or 直好) of the Yanagawa school, itself a branch of Somin's Yokoya school. After this he trained under Masatsune. Both of these masters granted him one character of their names which is how we got to Masayoshi.

Masayoshi is generally considered the highest skilled of the Ishiguro school. He is rivalled only by his fellow student Masaaki, who both outshone their great teacher Masatsune.

Ishiguro Masayoshi [...] together with his fellow student Masaaki (政明), formed the unrivalled pair of this school. NBTHK Token Bijutsu Japanese

The maker of these metal pieces, Masaaki, was a pupil of Shodai Ishiguro Masatsune - He and Ishiguro Masayoshi were the most skillful representatives of the artists in the Ishiguro school. NBTHK Token Bijutsu English

The Ishiguro school took the design of soft metal tosogu handed down to them tfrom Somin, to a place never seen before. Their detailed representations of plants and animals are second to none and they are known for luxurious and gorgeous designs full of life and beauty. These ideas were planted by the school founder Masatsune, and then his students took them to the next level. The Ishiguro harmonized with the tastes of the time and their work mirrors contemporary paintings of natural scenes.

Masatsune was succeeded by two following generations. The artisan known by the name Koretsune was the second son of the Shodai (first generation). The most outstanding artisan who came out of the Shodai's studio was Masayoshi, born An'ei 1 (1772).

Masayoshi did not merely faithfully inherit his master's elaborate style and workmanship but further advanced such characteristics, in his pursuit of aesthetic perfection, to create the effect of viewing the most richly colorful painting spread out fully in the composition. His motifs were numerous in variety and included the bird of prey, autumn grasses with butterflies, peony flowers and a golden pheasant, a pine tree and longtails, and so on. The design were presented on the shakudo-nanako ground or on the (copper) suaka-ishime ground where fine chisel engraving and coloring created by the use of various metals such as gold, silver, shakudo, suaka and rogin, were executed to produce the gorgeous tsuba. It is a shame that these pieces went somewhat too far in the pursuit of technical elaborateness, but the outcoming dazzling brilliance was the most outstanding skill of this artist.

NBTHK Token Bijutsu English

Menuki Left

Masayoshi is thought to have had a close relationship with the Satsuma Shimazu clan, as he made tosogu for Satsuma style koshirae and modern opinion is that he was the Satsuma Shimazu clan's okakae smith (working directly for the daimyo) though he remained resident in Edo. As well Satsuma was his province of birth.

Since historical times, the Satsuma clan had a reputation for producing very serious or dedicated warriors. This is illustrated very well in the mid-Edo period by the clan's original Jigenryu kenpo school. This school's style focused their sword fighting techniques on the first stroke: the idea was to hit with a very intense stroke which was likened to tearing the air, and just one stroke was intended to kill their opponent. This was a very cruel fighting style. Most of Satsuma's koshirae are made to support this fighting style. The tsuka are thick and long, there is not much tapering in the center of the hilt (ryugo); the fuchi is thick, the same as the kashira; most of the koshirae do not use same skin; the tsukamaki style is usually hira-maki (use of two strings) or katate-maki (use of only one string) and there are usually no menuki. The school's philosophy is that a sword is a weapon for attacking the enemy, and not for protecting yourself.

From this, the function of the tsuba is only to protect the swordsman's hand from slipping, so many of their tsuba are small. In addition, the school's teaching was not to use a sword rashly, and usually the saya and tsuka were tied together with a string. When a katana was drawn, the katana with saya was withdrawn from the obi and then used to attack an enemy. Adapting to this fighting style meant that the Satsuma koshirae didn't have orikaeshi shaped tsuno (hooks), but just a smooth bump-like projection to make it easier to pull out the saya from the obi.

NBTHK Juyo Tosogu

There are currently 28 items by Masayoshi that are Juyo and six Tokubetsu Juyo Tosogu. This is an extremely high count. Only Kano Natsuo and Goto Ichijo have more Tokubetsu Juyo to their name.

Masayoshi used some variations in stroke styles for his signature, so close study is needed on any particular example. His works appear in various museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walters Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Victoria and Albert museum and many Japanese museums. Single tsuba by him can fetch prices in excess of $80,000 and I once viewed a daisho set of tosogu that was priced at 20 million yen (at the time, $200,000).

He used the gō Jugakusai (寿岳斎), Jugakusai (寿寉斎), Jurōsai (寿老斎) and Juōsai (寿翁斎) and died in the second year of Bunkyū (1862). As a side note, his son Shuki (1807-1862) became a well known painter and used the family name Okamoto which came from his father's birth name. He showed strong influence from his father's tosogu work.

Ishiguro Masayoshi Koshirae KashiraIshiguro Masayoshi Koshirae Fuchi MeiIshiguro Masayoshi Koshirae Origami

Tokubetsu Hozon Ishiguro Masayoshi Koshirae

This is a very rare remaining issaku koshirae by Ishiguro Masayoshi with the theme of dragonflies. The dragonfly in Japanese is tombo (蜻蛉) and in the Muromachi period kachimushi was its name (勝虫). These characters for literally mean Victory Bug and gives us insight into how the bushi of the time admired the dragonfly.

Bushi had observed the nature of the dragonfly to attack, and always move forward to the prey. It's also said that dragonflies were harbingers of the kamikaze that destroyed the Mongol fleets during the Kamakura period when they attempted to invade Japan. The dragonfly is a highly mobile insect due to highly specialized wings, and also the fastest, being able to achieve speeds over 50kmh (33mph). For all of these reasons, it became an auspicious symbol and is used throughout Japanese art.

The Ishiguro school perfected the artistic representation of birds and primarily worked in shakudo ground. This is an unusual example of Masayoshi's work since it is in iron ground and unusually represents dragonflies. Among his Juyo work I can find one other example of dragonfly menuki but no sets. The tsuba for this set also contains saya dome ana which are two holes in the tsuba, used for stringing or wiring the sword onto the koshirae. This is a feature found on tsuba destined for use in Satsuma, and corresponds with Masayoshi's reputation as making tosogu for the Satsuma Shimazu clan. The purpose of wiring the tsuka to the saya was to prevent the quick and easy use of the sword, and so make it harder for hot blooded young samurai to get into blood spilling fights. Anyway the iron ground, unusual theme and Satsuma attributes seem to me to indicate that this must be a specific order to suit the preferences of a high ranking customer.

One aspect that boxed tosogu always lose is that you can never see the big picture, or the intended final presentation of the artist. It's like looking at a dress without a model in that dress. You can appreciate the design and the materials and the construction, but until someone has that dress on you will never truly appreciate the intention of the designer because a dress was made to be worn.

Tosogu were made to be mounted and in this case, the final mounting job includes magnificently done makie with gold and abalone shell. These colors compliment the design of the dragonflies as gold flakes are used in the upper and green abalone in the rest and it mirrors the construction of the dragonflies with their gold eyes, and the gold and green in the wings. Tsuka wrapping is another art form which is under appreciated, and the choices made here display the menuki beautifully and the colors harmonize with the presentation of the insects. There is a Juyo daisho by Masayoshi that shows this exact construction of saya with ribs, and indicates that they were either making these saya in house or routinely used a high level outside artisan to mount the tosogu. Since the vast majority of Ishiguro work has been unmounted and boxed, this is a really rare set both due to the theme and the fact that it remains mounted and shown as the artist intended. Furthermore the brilliance of the design can be fully comprehended by looking at the legs of the dragonfly menuki, which appear to grasp the ito of the tsuka. These details would be lost if this were in a box.


Masayoshi as mentioned specialized in birds and we see these as well as shishi and botan being used most often in the Ishiguro school. Close study of the menuki will show that there are pterostigma cut into the wings which is a special cell at the end of dragonfly wings that is an evolved feature to reduce vibrations along the wing and improve the insect's speed. That he cut these in, shows that even though dragonflies were not a common theme, he took care to carefully study real examples and faithfully reproduce what he saw. It points out his careful nature and again corresponds to his reputation.

Menuki Right

The menuki are quite large, at 5 cm and the entire koshirae seems to be designed around them as the highlight element. They are likely signed underneath on gold plates as was his habit, but it's not possible to discover this now without a surgical scope. The tsuba, and fuchigashira are both signed and carry forward a beautiful marsh scene of perched and flying dragonflies.

When I acquired this set in Japan there was quite a bit of accumulated grime on the tosogu and some careful cleaning has brought out the details again. In particular the wings of the menuki still show detail at 10x magnification and they completely blow me away. It is very likely that the tsuba's condition can be further improved by care from a specialist and I would recommend that the future owner pursue this, and submit this set to Juyo. The papers are fairly recent at Heisei 24 (2012) indicating that it has not been available on the market over a long period or tried often at Juyo already.

Regardless of that, this is a very rare thing and masterpiece issaku mounted tosogu by a top artist is a real asset for any collector of beautiful objects.

Koshire Left SugataKoshire Right SugataTsuba Side by SideFuchi LeftFuchi RightKurigata