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by Alan Scott Pate

Musha-ningyo pair depicting Minamoto no Yoshiie and Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa
Figures: 20" and 15-1/2" Overall, Late Meiji Era, Circa 1900

The Japanese samurai, wielding a curved edge sword, executing astonishing feats of endurance and agility, has captured the Western imagination since Japan first opened its doors to the West in the mid 1800’s. This image, partially inflated through romantic and political conventions, has become one of the hallmarks of Japanese civilization as it is perceived by the outside world. Full-scale suits of armor, wood block-prints commemorating the exploits of these ancient warriors, and ningyô doll forms have long been popular as souvenirs for those traveling to this exotic land.

Within Japan, however, musha-ningyô (warrior dolls), far from being considered lightweight souvenirs or mementos conjuring up a certain nostalgia, have been culturally imbued with a significant amount of spiritual energy. Developed over centuries as a visual symbol designed to protect and purify the home from malevolent forces at the shift of seasons from spring to summer, musha-ningyô also represent a significant art form backed by centuries of development and evolution. Ranging from life-sized figures to those more easily displayed within the home, musha-ningyô were a ubiquitous presence in the homes of the imperial, samurai, as well as the merchant classes of the Edo period (1612-1868).

Linked in many ways to its cousin, the Hina-matsuri Girl’s Day display, in the annual round of celebrations, the musha-ningyô of Boy’s Day benefited from the talents of ningyô artists who constantly strove to create ever more interesting and involved figures, They not only exploited Japan’s own nostalgia and self-perception, but were a part of what might be considered a nearly inherent sense of one-upmanship and competition among both makers and consumers alike in the raucous cultural environment of the Edo period.

Maruhei Okiheizo emerged in the late Edo period as one of the premier ningyô ateliers in Japan. Designated an official supplier to the imperial household, Maruhei commissioned works from artists in nearly all genres: hina, musha, gosho, ishô, and, ultimately, the more playful forms of ichimatsu. They supplied seasonal figures to all levels of Japanese society which could afford these individually crafted pieces. Although the family records tracing their early origins were tragically lost in a fire which consumed the family temple in the 1860’s, we know that Maruhei entered the Meiji era as the undisputed leader in ningyô manufacture.

wooden storage box signature

Maruhei was the first of the large houses to begin labeling their own pieces, placing their mark on the simple wooden boxes which served as storage cases for the pieces when not on display. Until this time, individual craftsmen and ateliers rarely marked their pieces, part of the trend to view traditional crafts as not important enough to tout or boast of their creators.  Maruhei was a leader in the cultural movement of the day which sought to redefine some of these traditional forms, partially in reaction to new and overtly Western modes of evaluating art.

Minamoto Yoshiie - dragonfly Minamoto Yoshiie - painted details on cuirasse
Minamoto Yoshiie - rabbit fur boots Minamoto Yoshiie - helmet detail

The musha-ningyô set offered here dates from this period, a time when the art of the form was being declared and trumpeted. The storage boxes bearing the Okiheizo seal and signature indicate that they were a special commission. The attention to detail on every level mark these as having been accorded the highest level of artistry. Details such as the bone dragonfly (the indestructible insect) on the arrow quiver, the lacquer spare bow string coiled at his left hip, the heavy iron employed in the kabuto helmet, the painted details on the leather cuirass, the real rabbit fur employed on his boots, and the fine thickly chased metal accent pieces found throughout, raise this set to the highest level. The faces, with their slightly pigmented gofun surfaces, realistically rendered inset glass eyes, silk fiber hair and eyelashes, create an extraordinary sense of verisimilitude which also adds presence and power to this set.

Minamoto Yoshiie Minamoto Yoshiie - face detail
Minamoto Yoshiie - profile Minamoto Yoshiie - back

Minamoto Yoshiie (1039-1106) holds a particularly important place in Japanese history.  The Minamoto clan long held the important role as serving as the military arm for the emperor based in Kyoto, responsible for maintaining order in the countryside, and serving as a latent threat to individuals and their liege houses which might overstep their traditional place. Though descended from the imperial courtier lines, the Minamoto Clan by the 10th century was largely known for their military exploits. Known as Hachiman-tarô or the son of Hachiman (the god of war), Yoshiie earned his stripes early and became a renowned warrior at a very young age. From 1051 to 1087 he was largely engaged in subjugating the northeastern quarter of the country.  It was largely through the military victories and honorable comportment of Yoshiie that the Minamoto clan evolved into a cohesive and formidable power base within Japan, a fact which allowed them to ultimately wrest power from the imperial government and establish a military Shogunate in Kamakura in 1192 under Minamto Yoritomo.

Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa - profile
Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa - back Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa - Armor Detail

Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa (1045-1061), the second figure of the set, enjoyed only a brief military career, but was of such bravery that it earned him a revered seat in Japan’s pantheon of venerated samurai heroes. Fighting under Yoshiie’s banner at the Battle of Kanazawa in 1061, Kagemasa took an arrow through the eye. Undaunted, Kagemasa continued fighting, taking down his opponent, Toriumi Saburo, with an answering bow shot. He died there in battle at the age of 16! He was later lionized during the Edo period in a series of Kabuki plays and woodblock prints, further amplifying his legend and securing a place for him in the hearts and minds of the Edo period some seven centuries after his death!

Though an enduring presence in popular culture for centuries, it was not until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), a time when all symbols were marshaled to support the newly restored emperor, that Minamoto Yoshiie became a popular figure in the Boy’s Day pantheon. Unlike the later Minamoto warriors who vied against the institution of the emperor, Yoshiie was noted for his self-sacrifice and extraordinary contributions to defending the imperial house and family. As such, Maruhei’s striking rendition of Yoshiie offered here is very much in keeping with the zeitgeist of the times, reminding the populace of the importance of giving their earthly all to support the young Emperor Meiji, who himself became a popular Boy’s Day figure!

The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717

He received an M. A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.

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