Nakagawa Issho

period Late Edo (ca. 1860)
designation NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu
menuki 3.3cm x 1.6cm, 3.3cm x 1.55cm
kozuka 9.8cm x 1.4cm
kogai 21.2cm x 1.25cm
price $8,800

The two greatest makers of tosogu at the end of the Edo period were Kano Natsuo and Goto Ichijo. Ichijo had many talented students, and I've been told in Japan that the reason for this was that Ichijo had a gentle personality and Natsuo was very hard on his students. Each of them pursued excellence in their own way, it seems to be like fire and water.

Ichijo's great students were Araki Issai Tomei, Funada Ikkin, Nakagawa Issho, Hashimoto Isshi, Wada Isshin, and Imai Nagatake. Each of these students received the Ichi (一) character from Ichijo when they elevated to mastery in tosogu artistry. While it is arguable that Kano Natsuo was the greatest of his era and maybe the greatest of all time, Goto Ichijo was probably the greatest teacher, as he had many more talented students than these great masters.

Nakagawa Issho (中川一匠) was born as Naojiro, in 1828 or 1829 as the second son of Nakagawa Katsutsugu. Katsutsugu was a retainer who produced tosogu for the Matsudaira family in Tsuyama, one of the branches of the greater Tokugawa family. Issho's original name was Katsuzane (勝実), as he began training with his father at 12 or 13 years old. He left the Nakagawa workshop to join Goto Ichijo in Kyoto when he was 21 years old in 1849.

Goto Ichijo was commanded to come to Edo by the Shogun in 1851. Issho followed him and assisted in the production of tosogu for the Tokugawa Shogun.

As a testimony to his skill, he received the Ichi character by Ichijo at the young age of 25, and changed his name to Issho (一勝). This seems to be a pun on his original name taking an alternate pronunciation of Katsu and shifting it to the second character of his new name. Issho was particularly talented and is said to have substituted for Ichijo at times. There are some works that are signed by Issho in which he proudly wrote that he was a student of Ichijo and it shows the fondness he held for his teacher.

Issho emulated style of Goto Ichijo faithfully and is known for fine carving. Ichijo liked the style of coiled dragons and used clouds and water which were traditional themes of the Goto school, as well as breaking free and making highly original work. However, he always had strong, traditional technique. This reference work of Ichijo below shows one of the styles that Ichijo pioneered and Issho emulated. Once understood, it is very easy to recognize the hand and teaching of Ichijo when seen.

Between 1854 and 1860, Issho returned to his father's workshop it seems with the expectation he would inherit the Nakagawa school on his father's death. He was however overlooked when the Nakagawa school turned over its leadership. His younger brother Katsuyuki who studied with Ichijo as well and became Itteki, ended up as the master of the school.

There is the theory that, the reason he did not succeed, was because he was the son of a concubine of Katsutsugu and so Itteki – whose craftsman name was Katsuyuki (勝敬) – had to become the official head of the family. However, in the second year of Bunkyū Isshō changed the characters for his name from (一勝) to (一匠). He died on the ninth day of the fourth month of Meiji nine (1876) at the young age of 48. Markus Sesko, Kinko Kodogu

Issho came back to Edo in 1860, and in 1862 is when Issho changed his name but not the pronunciation. We know him by the final spelling he chose (一匠). There is maybe something to read into this, because Ichi is the numeral one, and Sho for 勝 means victory or a winner. So maybe it was rather a proud seeming name, and after the loss of the headmaster-ship of his school to his younger brother, he adopted the character 匠 for Sho which simply means artisan.

Somewhere around this time he adopted his older brother's second son Yoshizane (義実) and trained him, and seems to have given him one of the characters of Issho's original name. His student Yoshizane went on to study with Kano Natsuo and united the Ichijo and Natsuo schools. Issho only lasted 15 years in Edo before dying at the age of 48 in 1876.

He passed away in Meiji 9 (1876). Issho was one of the best carvers in the Ichijo school and this [different reference mitokoromono] was made in Meiji 3. At this time, Issho was 42 years old and is technique follows the Ichijo school's famous style of work with traditional iebori and has a very sophisticated and refined look. [...] These show the Ichijo school's excellent sketching technique and very delicate refined tagane zukai (chisel work) and judging from the quality of this work, this could be a gift for the emperor's family. NBTHK Token Bijutsu magazine

Issho is held in high regard today, his work inherits and represents Goto Ichijo's style and technique very well. The NBTHK has written that Issho's fineness in carving is something that is only seen with Ichijo's teaching. His work has passed Juyo nine times to date.

Issho Mitokoromono

A mitokoromono is a set of tosogu made for three places on the sword (though there are four elements, the pair of menuki go together). Since its founding, the Goto school made dragon tosogu, and mitokoromono are one of their archetypal items of manufacture.

Issho mixed shakudo and gold to nice effect in this mitokoromono, and the carving of the dragons is super fine. The condition of this set is mint, it appears to have been carefully mounted then never used after this. There is just a little bit of pitch left under the menuki and only extremely minor wear marks on the back. So little that I would also not be surprised if the set was not used but only remained in a box since it was made. The finishing is careful and microscope, and it is really nice to see something handed down in this kind of condition.

Most of Issho's work is signed, why this one is not is a bit of a mystery, but there is a possibility of custom order during the time that he and Ichijo were working together in Edo for the Shogun, and the signature was left off as a courtesy. The set has still passed Tokubetsu Hozon with the NBTHK and the attribution made firmly to Issho.

There is a temptation to use something like this for mounting, but due to its immaculate condition I would recommend leaving it in the box and enjoying it as it is.

For those unable to afford Ichijo work, Nakagawa Issho is as close as you can get to the work of the great master. Given that Issho made both items for the Shogun and the Imperial Family, it can be understood that his skill is extremely high and his work is very precious. This mitokoromono which represents the style well of Ichijo's school, would be a fine addition to any collection.

They come in a custom fit box as shown below.