Metal as a material is both elemental and elevated. It must be quarried out of the earth and purified by fire, then molded and cooled with time and skill. From spear heads to smartphones, this laborious process has for millennia produced civilization-defining technology. Metallurgy as a craft demands much--equipment, skill, patience--in exchange for the opportunity to create lasting art.
Metalsmithing techniques first came to Japan from China and Korea during the Yayoi Period, around the fourth century BC. Because of the skill required to master this art, smiths soon became the most renowned ancient artisans. More than any other craftsmen, they appeared frequently in myths and legends, and their technical prowess was even reputed to be divine. The most striking gifts they have left us are the dōtaku, ancient bronze ceremonial bells that range from 3-10 feet in height.
Invaluable in its contribution to the Japanese metal tradition was copper. Known as akagane, or “the red metal” in Japanese, copper had two important advantages over its two valuable rivals of silver and gold. The first was its natural abundance in the Japanese archipelago; the second was its use as the chief component of bronze. After Buddhism came to Japan, demand grew for beautiful and durable ceremonial implements like candle holders and statues. Bronze fit these requirements- it was ideal for casting sculptures because it expands slightly when cooling, taking the exact pattern of the most intricately carved mold. Its sturdiness meant the material was immune to fire and water deterioration– common ailments to shrines made of wood and paper.
Under temple patronage, metal artisans flourished. Their creations became symbols of status within the upper class, and their artistry filled shrines and palaces throughout Japan.
When artistic tastes changed and wood replaced bronze as the material of choice for religious statuary, the copper industry shrank. The remaining smiths diversified into the common market, producing domestic goods from door fastenings to mirrors. When Japan opened to Western trade in the Meiji Period, its bronze industry revived significantly. Today, Toyama Prefecture's Takaoka City has a thriving bronze industry, with some estimating that 95% of Japan's output is produced here.
Modern bronze artisans, heir to a 2000-year heritage, are now largely focused on producing home decor. Throughout the centuries, bronze has been both elevated and elemental: a primitive material that has made up everything from shrine statues to doorknobs. After all this time, the goal of these artisans has not changed: to elevate modern everyday life using that most ancient of materials.
In Takaoka City stands one lasting reminder of the city's rich craft heritage. In 1745, it was home to one of three Great Buddhas of Japan, made of wood and gilded in gold. Impressive as it was, the structure burned down after two successive fires in 1900. Its replacement, a bronze colossus reaching nearly sixteen meters, is a symbol of the city’s artistic heritage and a reminder to preserve what we value.
WORDS BY KYLAN SCHROEDER
ARTWORK BY JENNY NIEH