Copyright © 2001 & 2002 John C. Loring

 

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On the town with a kiseru – the personal smoking ensemble.  It’s a bit redundant to speak of going out of the house with a kiseru in 19th century Japan, a bit like speaking of going out wearing clothes.  When one left the home one left with a pipe and the necessary accessories.  Compare these two street scenes, a century apart:

 

“He draws from his girdle a Japanese pipe-case and tobacco pouch combined; pulls out of the pipe-case a little brass pipe with a bowl scarcely large enough to hold a pea; pulls out of the pouch some tobacco so finely cut that it looks like hair, stuffs a tiny pellet of this preparation in the pipe, and begins to smoke.  He draws the smoke into his lungs, and blows it out again through his nostrils.  Three little whiffs, at intervals of about half a minute, and the pipe, emptied, is replaced in its case.”  Lafcadio Hearn (aka Yakumo Koizumi), Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, 1894.

 

“In Tokyo’s Asakusa district it is still possible to see traditionally clad Japanese carrying and using the personal smoking set, changing the components with the season.  The pipecase is often thrust into the back of a man’s obi … the embers from the previous pipefu1l are emptied into the smoker’s hand and used to light the next smoke.” William and Betty Parker 1984.

 

Lacking pockets in their clothing, Japanese, especially women, often carried small objects in the sleeves or upper folds of their kimono, robes or inside their obi (waist band).  In terms of smoking articles this would be a kiseru (sometimes in a cloth or leather sleeve) and kizami-tabako, perhaps in a tatohgami, which in turn would be in a tabako-ire (a small paper, cloth or leather pouch for tobacco) or if the kiseru was longer then the pouch  the pipe would be carried between the pouch opening and the flap, the flap keeping the pipe in place).  Initially, a cord (himo) might be wound around the tabako-ire to keep it closed, but by the 19th century tabako-ire had  closure clasps.  For a woman this  ensemble was sometimes referred to as a memochi.   It is said that this style was also favored in the 17th and 18th century by samurai and the male nobility and in the late 19th century with the coming of western men’s clothing styles, men of all classes might carry  tabako-ire ensembles of this sort in one of their pockets. 

 

The better known ensembles, at least to collectors however, are those that were worn by men through the 19th century hung from their obi.  Lacking pockets, Japanese men most often carried sagemono, small objects, hung from their obi, waist band,  on a pair of cords, himo, kept together by a small oval guide with a single hole, ojime, through which the himo was threaded.  Typically the himo  passed underneath the obi and was kept from slipping free by a netsuke (the 'u' is silent), a toggle.  The most common sagemono were pipe cases, kiseru-zutsu, and tobacco carries, tabako-ire, if a pouch, or tonkotsu, if a case. 

 

A man’s  personal smoking ensemble was typically carried in one of three fashions: 

 

A sage tabako-ire ensemble which appears to be the oldest style, had a netsuke attached to two himo pairs, one pair  passed through an ojime and ended with either a tabako-ire or tonkotsu and the other pair held a kiseru-zutsu with or without an ojime in between.  The himo passed behind the obi, kept in place by the netsuke above with the kiseru-zutsu and tabako-ire or tonkotsu dangled below. It should be noted that while this ensemble style was meant to hang from the obi,  men are frequently pictured in prints, sculpture and photographs carrying the ensemble by hand by the netsuke and one can find derogatory 19th century accounts of wealthy merchants ostentatiously flaunting a prized ensemble in this manner while walking down the street.  (An older  variation of this type of ensemble would also have a flint pouch, hiuchi-bukuro,  either on a third himo pair or acting as the netsuke.)

 

A koshizashi tabako-ire ensemble, which appears to have become increasingly popular during the 19th century,  had a kiseru-zutsu at one end of the himo, either a tobako-ire or tonkotsu at the other end and an ojime in between.  In this style ensemble the kiseru-zutsu acted as a netsuke.  Most often the pipe case was thrust behind the obi with the tobacco carry dangled on a short himo in front rather then below the obi.  However, with delicate cases the case might have been hung in front of the obi with the himo passing behind the obi, as in a sage tabako-ire ensemble, and the tobacco carry hanging below. (Paintings and prints from before the 19th century sometimes show koshizashi tabako-ire ensembles with a tabako-ire held by a himo wrapped around the pouch.  I suspect that this is not so much a variation of style but an indication that tabako-ire did not yet have a closure clasp.)

 

A third style, actually a variant of the sage tabako-ire, came into favor in the late 19th century, apparently led by trend setting kabuki actors.  This style had a large manju netsuke at one end of a multi-stranded metal chain, a decorative, fixed ojime (looking more like a napkin ring then a typical ojime) and a tabako-ire at the other end.  Either the tabako-ire would  hold both kizami-tabako and a small kiseru or alternatively a tsutsu of the same material as the tabako-ire would attach at the ojime (as opposed to the netsuke) and hang at a slant behind the tabako-ire. 

 

In these ensembles the ostensible purpose of the ojime was to keep the himo threaded through it together and thereby keep the tobacco carry from opening.  However,  functionally this was largely necessary only for a tonkotsu or an early tabako-ire lacking a clasp,  otherwise the ojime was essentially decorative and occasionally omitted.

 

It is said that prior to the 19th century, nobles and samurai generally did not wear these ensembles because they interfered with the carrying of weapons and inro.  However, paintings and prints from prior to the 19th century indicate that this was not always the case and it certainly was not the case in the latter part of the 19th century when even the emperor was seen wearing a smoking ensemble out-of-doors.

 

While the functional purpose of the personal smoking ensemble was to carry smoking necessities, the ensembles served a larger purpose. For the wealthy in a society where men did not wear jewelry and only nobles and samurai were allowed to wear swords, a beautifully and expensively decorated personal smoking ensemble became an important status symbol.  This importance only increased after the 1870s when nobles and samurai were similarly barred from wearing weapons.  And for all classes regardless of wealth, the decoration choices for personal smoking ensembles allowed for individual expression in a conformist society.  Indeed, it is that quality and individuality of decoration that makes the personal smoking ensemble and its constituents  particularly collectable sagemono.    

 

The average person of course would make up an ensemble on his or her own, but the wealthier would have it assembled by the fukuro-monoya,  a pouch and purse maker, who acted as a general contractor with all the necessary artisans and who might present the completed ensemble in a hakogaki, a custom box certifying the artisans who made the various components, or if the ensemble was made by only one or two artisans, in a tomobako, a box signed by the artisans themselves.  When the ensemble was made up of the same materials  it was called a tomozutsu.  But in fact the Japanese were not particularly concerned with keeping a smoking ensemble intact, rather they would freely change components to fit the occasion, the season, or personal taste.  Indeed the individual expression inherent in the ensemble was very much to the point:

 

“I used to collect the different components, one by one, when ever I found a really good one.  Then I would select a suiguchi and gankubi and have a pipe made, pick out a pipecase to match it, then an ojime, and finally a tabako-ire with certain kanagu.  I had a shokunin (artisan) put them all together.  There are very few set in my collection that were already assembled.  I had them put together just the way I wanted them.” Katsura Bunraku, a late 19th century raconteur whose personal smoking ensemble collection is now displayed at the Tokyo Tobacco & Salt Museum.

 

Lastly, while the focus of this paper is the utilitarian, as opposed to the artistic side of Japanese tobacciana, a note about signatures applicable to all tobacciana elements is appropriate.  In the early period into the 18th century, it should not expected that any of these elements will be found signed.  No matter how finely executed they were simply considered every day objects, not objects of art.  Further, in that early period and well into the 19th century, many of the finest artisans were retainers of the upper classes.  When they crafted a piece in such a capacity, often their best work, that piece was rarely, if ever, signed.  Consequently unsigned pieces may be simply quite ordinary or alternatively of the very finest quality.    A signature can have an equally ambivalent meaning.  While a significant portion of quality 19th century pieces were signed, as signing became more the custom, so too were many of the common place.  Moreover, towards the end of 19th century  some pieces, most especially netsuke, were specifically made for export to the West.  These pieces were invariably signed, indeed fine older unsigned pieces collected for export sometimes had 'fake' signatures added prior to export.  The foregoing is but a glimpse at the complexity of signatures (or the lack thereof) on Japanese tobacciana  but in short, first, last and foremost the rule to follow is that a piece must be judged by its intrinsic quality and not the presence or absence of a signature.

 

I turn now to the individual components of a pipe ensemble.  

 

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Copyright © 2001 & 2002 John C. Loring