History of Mokume Gane

The History of Mokume Gane


Mokume Gane’s 400 Year History

The history of Mokume Gane traces back about 400 years, to the beginning of of the Edo period, when Shoami Denbei, of Dewa Akita, came up with the idea of making Guribori sword guards (ill.1). Guribori is a technique that consists of layering different colored metals and carving them into arabesque or spiral patterns. Although there is a theory that Ainu tribal patterns were an influence, the general consensus is that its origins lie with Guri Chinese lacquer.

What is Guribori? >


Guribori – The Precursor to Mokume Gane

Guri is a type of lacquer carving technique in which multiple red, black, yellow and other colored lacquers are layered and then carved down to form arabesque and spiral patterns (ill.2).Imported into Japan from the Muromachi period, images of such items being treasured as tea ceremony implements can be seen in tea ceremony records of the time. Guribori is also known as the origin of Kamakura- bori.
There are well-known pieces, such a inro cases, from the latter part of the Edo period, made from domestic lacquer believed to have the same origins, which suggests that this type of pattern was already widespread back then.

Guri incense container


 Founder Shoami Denbei of Dewa Akita

The oldest extant mokume gane work is a Kozuka knife made by Shoami Denbei (ill.3). It is made with a technique to replicate wood grain by combining gold, silver, copper, and Shakudô, and isconsidered rare in its displayed skill and elegance.
The real name of Shoami Denbei was Suzuki Jukichi. After becoming apprenticed to Shoami in Edo and gaining some experience, he returned to Akita.
He then entered the service of the Satake Clan as a craftsman and produced many outstanding sword fittings for them. The years passed. From the middle of the Edo period, the Takahashi School carried on the mokume gane and Guribori techniques learned from the Akao School.

Kozuka knife attached to the sheath of a sword – Gold and silver mokume gane, signed
by Shoami Denbei.

Handmade manufacturing methods passed down to enthusiasts

The Takahashi family’s story is told as follows: “The Akao family was known for producing sword guards. The family’s founder, the samurai Zinzaemon Yoshitsugu was no exception. Second to Zinzaemon was Kobei Yoshitsugu who moved to Edo and founded the Edo Akao School. The third, Kobei Yoshitsugu, lived at the bottom of the Yushima Tenjin hill, as did the fourth Kobei Yoshitsugu. The fifth, Hidesaburo Yoshitsugu, lived in Yotsuya, and the sixth, Tashichi Yoshitsugu, lived in Nabemachi (Kanda). It was his pupil, Takahashi Ubei Masatsugu, who established the Takahashi school.” From The Art of the Sword, No. 612, An Introductory Class on Swords and Sword Fittings by Fukushi Shigeo.

In the “Kinko Tanki” document collected by Tanaka Ichigasai, the following is written as per Illustration 4.


Reproduced from the portion on Takahashi
Masatsugu in The Art of the Sword, No. 612,
An Introductory Class on Swords and Sword

Phantom techniques for decorating Samurai swords

Takahashi Ubei Masatsugu (henceforth referred to as Takahashi Masatsugu) is said to have been active during the Bunka and Bunsei eras. He was particularly known for his intricate and elegant Guribori.
It says in Kinko Tanki that “his forte was carving red lacquer”. His outstanding Guribori works have been handed down for posterity.

Guribori sword guard
Signed by Takahashi Masatsugu (Seal)

Genealogy of the Edo Akao School

Culmination of Mokume Gane with Takahashi Okitsugu

The culmination of the technique came with Takahashi Okitsugu. In his youth, he was known as Masaoki but, after being adopted by Takahashi Masatsugu, he changed his name to Takahashi Ubei Okitsugu (henceforth referred to as Takahashi Okitsugu) and became the second generation of the Takahashi School. His specialty was mokume gane, and he produced a number of very interesting works.
In particular, he went against the grain of the existing mokume gane techniques and tried new techniques in producing works such as the Yoshino River Tsuba and the Tatsuta River Tsuba (5). It is often said that Takahashi Okitsugu brought the mokume gane and Guribori techniques to their highest levels.

Guribori Tsuba Signed by Takahashi Okitsugu (seal)

Blossoming of “Made in Edo” Mokume Gane

Shibaimachi (mentioned in “Kinko Tôki”) is the area around modern-day Shimbashi, in Minato Ward, Tokyo. This is the area where Takahashi Okitsugu is believed to have been working diligently on his metal work.
During the time that the Takahashi School was active in the mid-to late Edo period, craftsmen such as Matsuo Gassan, Matsuoka Motoji, and Fukuchi Tadamasa were producing Guribori works. Ultimately, the techniques of mokume gane and Guribori went from being used only for sword fittings to being used in utilitarian articles as well, such as arrow holders and smoking pipes. Thus, they gradually spread through Edo’s popular culture into current use. Guribori also became widely used in accessories, such as inro and tobacco holders.


Tatsuta River Tsuba Signed by Takahashi Okitsugu (seal)


 Modernization of the “Phantom Techniques”

The Haitôrei Edict, enacted in 1876, banned the wearing of swords in public. Swords and sword fittings came to be considered as works of art, and many of the craftsmen who had been in the employ of clans found themselves jobless. Against such a background, the transmission of both mokume gane and Guribori techniques was interrupted for a time, and they eventually came to be called the “phantom techniques.” But mokume gane was revived thanks to the efforts of people who were deeply enthusiastic about the techniques. At present, the techniques are, one by one, being unraveled thanks to the efforts of various scholars. This motivation, just like the stacking of mokume gane patterns, has led to a revival
of mokume gane as a modern-day metal craft. The future is now looking much brighter for mokume gane.
In addition, at present, jewelry is also produced by applying the technology of wood grain metal and replacing metal with noble metal such as silver, gold, platinum, Some jewelry companies specialize in wood grain gold.


※Mokume Gane specialty jewelry brand: External site opens

History of Mokume Gane