Jizai Okimono

Articulated Metal Sculptures

By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

Jizai Okimono (Articulated Metal Sculptures) (2016) by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Snake with Flexible Parts, Jizai-okimono by Myōchin, photo by Kimura YouichiOriginal Source: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

Its free-flowing body and realistic appearence belie the fact that this snake made entirely of metal. The body is made from more then 250 cylindrical parts that move freely and enable the shape to be changed into any arrangement of flowing curves or tight coils. Small, articulated metal figures of this type are called jizai okimono (literally "free decorative object"). They typically have moveable bodies, arms, legs and even antennas.

Snake with Flexible Parts, Jizai-okimono by MyōchinOriginal Source: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

Jizai okimono were first made in the mid-Edo period (1615-1868). There are still many uncertainties as to the origin of jizai okimono, though inscriptions on some indicate that they were being made by the beginning of the 18th century. A dragon with moveable parts in the Tokyo National Museum collection has an incised inscription below its chin reading, “A day of good fortune in the 6th month of Shōtoku 3 (1713) a Mizunotomi year, Made by Myōchin Kisōzai, age 31, living in Kanda District of Edo, Musashino Province.” Another jizai okimono has an inscription dated 1753. These suggest that armorers (kachu-shi) first made jizai okimono. Originally these skilled craftspeople fashioned armor, sword guards, and equestrian equipment. Myōchin, the man whose name was inscribed on the aforementioned dragon, came from a famous family of armorers extending back to the Muromachi period (1392~1573). Although at that time they worked mostly in the Kantō area, by the Edo period they had spread over the whole country from Hirosaki (Aomori Prefecture) in the North to Kōchi in the South. 

Mantis, Jizai-okimono by Takase KōzanOriginal Source: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

There are various theories as to why armorers first began making jizai okimono; one theory is that they were originally made as souvenirs for the daimyo. By the mid Edo Period under prolonged bakufu rule, Japan became a stable and peaceful place. Constant orders for armor were unnecessary in a world without threats of immediate war. This is when the armorers started giving souvenirs to the daimyos in hopes that they would choose them the next time they needed to replace their armor. One suggestion is that the jizai-okimono were objects devised to advertise the artisan’s skills and thus attract the daimyos’ interest.

Shrimp, Jizai-okimono by Takase KōzanOriginal Source: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

At the end of the Edo period (mid 19th century), Westerners who came to Japan took an interest in the jizai okimono, which became popular souvenirs. As with netsuke, it was the detailed workmanship of these articulated figurines—at which Japanese excelled—that captured the hearts of the Westerners. Then after the turmoil died down in the Meiji period (1868–1912), the metal smiths and armorers lost their jobs due to the prohibition of swords and the introduction of a more Western lifestyle. In this context, they turned their attentions to the production of jizai okimono, and the tradition flourished.

Bee, Jizai-okimono by Tomiki MuneyoshiOriginal Source: Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

Many jizai okimono still exist by the metal craftsman Tomiki Muneyoshi from Kyoto, and Takase Kōzan (1869–1934) who learned his skill from Tomiki. Takase Kōzan, originally from Kanazawa, first worked at a trading company in Kobe, which made him excellent in sales management. In 1893, Takase started his own independent business in Kyoto. At the end of Meiji, his work was bought by the Crown Prince and then through the Taishō period (1912–1926) and early Shōwa period (first half of the 20th century), Takase continued to show his work in many expositions. At the time, in response to the high demand and many orders they used a workshop production system. Evidence of this can be seen in the molds for making a spiny lobster. which have been passed down in Tomiki’s workshop. They must have tried using molds in order to mass-produce jizai okimono.  In this way the jizai okimono makers prospered. With the decline in the vogue for Japonisme, however, and the outbreak of the First World War, their role in export crafts ended. At present only two craftsmen are left who make jizai okimono. One, Tomiki Muneyuki, is a descendent of the Tomiki family; the other, Mitsuda Haruo (born 1980), is a descendent of Tomiki’s disciple.

Blueprint, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Making a Jizai Okimono

First, a real butterfly is dismantled and measured to create a detailed blueprint.

Cuting out a metal plate, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Next, metal is cut out according to the blueprint made from the butterfly. Various metals such as copper, copper alloys, iron, gold and silver are used to make jizai okimono; for this butterfly, red copper is used.

Hammering the pattern, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

The wing parts are affixed on black resin. Then patterns are made on the wings by beating.

Body of butterfly, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

The legs and body are made.

Assembling the parts, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

After assembling the finished parts, the figure is finely tuned for movement. A different metal (crude copper, in this case) is cut to fit and inlaid to create the red dots in the butterfly’s wings.

Niiro, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

A dramatic color change is induced by dissolving copper sulfate and patina in water and then boiling the metal in the solution. This process is called "niiro". With the exception of gold and silver, which do not change, the metals change color due to this treatment: red-copper changes to black, copper-silver alloy (shibuichi) changes to gray, and crude copper to a red-brown.

Elegance (detail), Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Combined with an amaryllis, a subtle and profound jizai okimono is completed.

Elegance, Jizai-okimono by Mitsuta HaruoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Jizai okimono is a traditional craft cultivated since the Edo period, which grew out of Japan's long tradition of in metalwork technology. Sculpted with uncompromizing quality and with various playful atrributes

, jizai-okimono have a charm that does not fade. Even now, learning from the excellent works of their predecessors, the makers of jizai-okimono continue to innovate, unique modern technology making possible pieces that are finer and more realistic then ever.

Credits: Story

Photo & information provided by Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, Mitsuta Haruo

Text by Matsubara Fumi

Movie by:Takayama Kengo, A-PROJECTS

Exhibition created by Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory Nagasawa Kana

English translation by Miyo Kurosaki Bethe

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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