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One of the most comprehensive and superb museums in Japan is a privately endowed non-profit museum not far from the center of Nagoya. While there are other private museums throughout Japan, the Tokugawa Art Museum is a gem in many ways as it is basically a collection of family heirlooms – the family in this case being the Owari branch of the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The family’s art collection, painstakingly collected over many generations, was bequeathed to the family run non-profit Tokugawa Reimeikai Foundation in 1935. It is the third oldest privately-endowed museum in Japan.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and became shogun in 1603, key family members of the Tokugawa clan were placed in strategic locations to ensure the continuity of the Tokugawa Shogunate. One of the most important locations of all was the Owari district. As with Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Ieyasu was always highly concerned with security. Following the death of two of his sons and a suspicious fire at Sumpu castle believed to be due to arson, he decided to take no chances. From 1610 he built an enormous new castle in Nagoya ensuring a domain of great wealth and security would guard the eastern approaches to the pass of Sekigahara, both the Tokaido and Nakasendo highways, and the vast rice production area of the Owari plain. These days, it is Himeji Castle that draws the crowds, but until the firebombings of 1945, Nagoya Castle with its golden shachi decorating the roof of the main donjon, and its beautiful Ninomaru palace was considered asthetically and architecturally more stunning. It was also apparently significantly larger. When completed, his 9th son Yoshinao entered Nagoya castle and his family and descendants governed the Owari province (Nagoya and district) right through the Edo Period until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Yoshinao’s descendants became known as the Owari branch of the Tokugawa. No other family maintained closer family nor political ties to the Tokugawa shoguns ruling the country from Edo (now Tokyo), and no other feudal lords possessed lands and domains as rich or as strategic as Owari.
During the centuries of their rule, the Owari branch of the family collected an incredible collection of art, luxury items passed through the generations as heirlooms, and many other furnishings. The most important items of course are the objects inherited from Tokugawa Ieyasu himself. The Owari also collected, utilizing their immense wealth and prestige to purchase or commission works, while many other pieces were brought into the family as gifts or as part of the dowry of brides. All of these items were retained by the family after the Meiji Restoration, and were bequeathed to the museum upon its establishment in 1935. The importance of the collection as an integral component of Japan’s art heritage was further augmented when the collection survived the devastation of the B29 firebombing raids of July 1945 and the turbulent aftermath of WWII almost completely intact. As a result, the Tokugawa Art Museum owns rare masterpieces such as almost all of the few remaining existing sections of the 12th century Illustrated Tale of Genji. The collection includes 10 designated National Treasures, another 52 objects registered as Important Cultural Properties, and no less than 45 other items designated as Important Art Objects.
Apart from the sheer quantity and range of objects, the distinguishing characteristic of the Tokugawa Art Musuem collection is that having been treasured by the family throughout the centuries, each of the items is in superb condition, and is accompanied with extremely detailed documentation. No other collection in Japan provides such comprehensive records. For historians, the Tokugawa Art Museum is simply a gold mine. For example more than 3,000 scrolls belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu are preserved in the library, the Hosa Bunko. These items formed the bulk of Ieyasu’s private library – the Suruga Oyuzuribon. Each was preserved through the generations, and the literary treasures were augmented by the members of the Owari branch with many the scrolls of many old Japanese classics, important works in both Chinese and Dutch (rangaku) and many old charts, surveys and maps of immense historical importance.
The collection is presented in themes, each occupying a separate section of the large museum: Swords and Weapons, Tea, Luxury items, Noh theater, Personal artifacts, The Tale of Genji, and in the last section special exhibitions. The sheer size of the collection of the Tokugawa Art Museum ensures thats only a small fraction of the treasures are on display at any given time, so if you find yourself in a position to visit on a regular basis you will have the chance to view different pieces each time.
Swords, Armour and Weaponry:
The first section of the collection is dedicated to antique swords and other weapons of the samurai. They include swords passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms, rare swords made by famous craftsmen, and beautifully decorated swords and furnishings. It is important to remember that the Tokugawa were warriors, and came to their position of power through a mixture of military, political and diplomatic prowess. The sword was more than just a weapon, it was a symbol of power, a symbol of station, of a way of life begun by each generation of warriors from the early childhood. Perfectly preserved, this is one of the best collections in the world.
The way of tea:
During the 15th century, the leaders of the Ashikaga Shogunate developed highly stylized and elaborate procedures for the serving of the new powdered tea technique adapted from the Asian mainland. A century later, these were developing into extravagant affairs such as the massive Kyoto tea party of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (not to mention his gold tea house). This soon gave way to a new wave known as wabi.
Popularised largely by tea-masters such as Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), wabi countered the extravagances with simplicity. The use of rustic materials & austerity became popular with the warriors and then with the townspeople. These two social groups (of vastly different social standing) were those who benefitted most from the long reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The construction of simple tea houses, often with thatched or shingled rooves became popular, as did collection of tea utensils and implements. The Tokugawa Art Museum includes a cut-away version of a shingle roofed tea house built in the sukiya style. It is interesting, though a visit to the beautiful Urakuen gardens and historic Joan tea house – a national treasure built by Oda Uraku, the brother of Oda Nobunaga, located next to the famous castle gives a better idea of the structures. What is interesting about the museum’s display is the collection of utensils and implements. The use of rustic materials (as if in their natural state) to build a humble, intimate room or thatched-hut in which to serve guests tea, as seen here, is the hallmark of sukiya style. This appreciation of the asymmetrical and “natural” grows out of an aesthetic quality known as wabi. Wabi places value on the beauty and spiritual refreshment to be found in simplicity and spontaneity. far re- moved from mundane concerns of rank and power. Tea-master SEN no Rikyu (1522-91) largely introduced wabi into the practice of tea. Under the Tokugawa, wabi tea became an official part of daimyo functions and ceremonies, such as the reception of a shogunal visit. The late 17th century heirs of Rikyu established schools of tea to codify and spread wabi taste. Personal style and innovation were replaced by tradition and above all by the connoisseur-ship of old objects. Daimyo expended great efforts to create memorable tea- house and garden settings at their castles or Edo mansions and vied in the collection of tea utensils and art objects. Pieces that had belonged to the Ashikagas or great tea-masters were especially treasured and given pedigree labels like meibutsu (“distinguished object”).
The main rooms were used for official, administrative and ceremonial purposes. Here the lord issued orders or received guests at banquets. The lavish gilt decoration and arrangement of space served to enhance his status and authority and are in the shoin style. This architectural style developed under the Ashikaga shoguns in the 15th century and takes its name from the ornamental windowed alcove with desk (shoin). The rooms had tatami-mat flooring and were separated from each other by decorated wall panels (some sliding). Along with a shoin, the innermost audience chamber (hiroma) featured a raised section for the lord to sit. a large alcove and a section of staggered shelves to display art works. Strict customs and rules, which also originated in the elegant practices of the Ashikaga shoguns, dictated not only the ornamentation but the choice and arrangement of art for a shoin setting. Thus the most desirable objects were, first, items actually owned by the Ashikaga, known as Higashiyama-gomotsu (“honorable objects from the Ashikaga palace at Higashiyama”) , and second, other objects from China (Karamono) in the Southern Song, Yuan and Ming dynasty tastes.
Noh is a sophisticated musical drama that relates a felicitous or often tragic story. A masked protagonist performs in dance and song, with one or two others in unmasked subsidiary roles, accompanied by a chorus, drums and flute. Shorter comic play called Kyogen are interspersed to enliven a full performance. Noh’s restrained conventions of movement and texts full of poetical allusions achieved much of their present form by the mid-15th century under the enthusiastic patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns. The warrior elite patronized Noh in the 16th century when many warlords were accomplished amateur performers. Noh drama in the Edo period became the official entertainment of the shogun and daimyo. Noh performances were obligatory at ceremonies and festive occasions throughout the year and to celebrate special events. Most daimyo families had a stage and a collection of Noh and Kyogen costumes, masks, and simple props to use whenever professional actors were called in. The amateur tradition continued. Practice in singing the texts was part of the education of any lord, and many are recorded as being talented dancers.
On exhibit are various furnishings and items of personal use, amusement, and cultivation for the daimyo and his household. In contrast to articles in Chinese taste used in the official, formal chambers, most private effects and art works destined for the inner living- quarters were of Japanese design and tradition. Their sumptuous decoration and craftsmanship, especially the gold of maki-e lacquer, reflect however the power and influence of their owners. Most articles of actual daily use no longer survive. Many items on display formed part of the trousseau which well-born and status-conscious ladies brought with them on marrying into the Owari Tokugawa family. The specially commissioned sets of furnishings and implements, food utensils, toiletry articles, games and other objects like palanquins, while ostensibly functional, were carefully stored and handed down as heirlooms. Many bear the aoi crest of the Tokugawa. For the warrior elite, a cultured and artistic education came to rank with military skills as the generations of peace continued. Familiarity with the Heian courtly tradition was required. For example, the elaborate shell-pairing games and incense identification sets have rules and design motifs based on literary themes, pre-eminently from The Tale of Genji. Skill at playing musical instruments was also considered important. The collecting and enjoyment of art engaged many. Most lords and ladies practiced calligraphy and painting. The Owari Tokugawa, like other daimyo, both treasured the art which had been handed down, and patronized contemporary painters, particularly of the Kano and Tosa schools. This room gives a representative sampling of the artistic taste and legacy of the Edo period.
The Tale of Genji:
The twelfth century Illustrated Handscroll of The Tale of Genji ranks as a masterpiece in Japanese art and the most famous object in The Tokugawa Art Museum collection. Scholars believe that aristocrats originally commissioned twenty scrolls of text and painted illustrations from calligraphers and artists at the imperial court in Kyoto. Chosen were the lyrical and emotional high-points of the romantic novel, The Tale of Genji, which had been written nearly a century earlier by MURASAKI SHIKIBU, a court lady. Only sections from three of the scrolls handed down in the Owari Tokugawa family and from one scroll long held by the Hachisuka family (now in the Gotoh Museum) survive today. These are the earliest known paintings, and in fact earliest extant text, of The Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji proved a central current in the culture and visual arts throughout the Edo period. Painters, particularly working in the Japanese style (yamato-e), such as the Tosa school, found in it endless inspiration. The early twelfth century National Treasure is too vulnerable to light and air to be continuously on display. Therefore this exhibit space has been organized to present aspects of both the original masterpiece and the Edo tradition through later versions, photographs, modern reproductions and a video program.
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