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Goin’ Japanesque!

Decorative Patterning in Swords, Armor, and More: The Art of Japanese Inlay

Among the variety of inlay techniques used across the world, what make Japanese inlay special are the consummate care of the artisans who perform it and the unique Japanese patterning employed. Today we’re going to examine the items of Japanese craft that inlay (called zōgan in Japanese) is used to decorate. Top photo:


What is Inlay?


Inlay describes a techniques for decorative craft in which a material like silver, gold, ceramic or wood is inserted (inlaid) into a base materials like metal, wood, or ceramic. The Japanese word for inlay is zōgan, which uses the kanji 象 (zō) and 嵌 (gan). Readers who know their kanji may be shocked to see the character for elephant (象), but this does not refer to elephants or ivory: instead, it refers to another use of the character to mean “decorate.” The character 嵌 (gan) means to insert.


Many great masters of the art of inlay lived during the Edo period, with one particularly famous style being the kyozōgan of Kyoto.


Inlaid Works of Japanese Make

1. Japanese Swords (Nihontō)


Inlay is used on the ornamental mountings (koshirae) of Japanese swords, which includes the hilt (tsuka), the scabbard (saya), and the guard (tsuba). As you probably know quite well already, the battle-hardened samurai of old also valued beauty and coloration, as well. In fact, among the antiques of the nation you can find a great number of gorgeously ritzy items done in traditional Japanese patterning.

2. Armor (Yoroi)


This is where inlay really gets to shine, and inlaid armors often also included the family crest (kamon) among their details.

3. Nested Boxes (Jūbako)


Jūbako can be lavishly opulent to the extent that people suspect there may be some among the legendary Buried Treasure of the Tokugawas. These nested boxes also feature in the tale of Urashima Taro, who opened one only to be aged in an instant.
Related: 8 FolkTales of Japan: Momotaro “The Peach Boy” and More

4. Netsuke

There are examples of items decorated with inlay among these kimono ornaments, as well. Just as with regular netsuke, they are used for fastening on the belt of the kimono.
Related: Netsuke: Indispensable Item for Edo Kimono Fashion


For those interested in the historical products of Japan we’ve looked at today, be sure to take a trip out to the Oedo Antique Market, held about twice a month. As the largest antique and curio market in all of Japan, it is already quite famous overseas as well. Stories come out regularly of shoppers making off with priceless treasures and rare goods at shockingly low prices.

Related: Satsuma Buttons: An Innovated Edo-era Fusion of East and West

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