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71005-0005 - Bronze Ware Craftsman N. Nogawa, Kyoto, 1890s

Kyoto 1890s
Bronze Ware Craftsmen

Artist Unknown
Publisher Unknown
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Kyoto
Image No. 71005-0005
Purchase Digital File
Author

Four bronze ware craftsmen at work in the workshop of Noboru Nogawa (能川登) in Kyoto, founded in 1825 (Bunsei 8). Nogawa acted both as a manufacturer and dealer and ran a very popular shop on 35 Shijo Otabicho, as well as showrooms in the Kyoto Hotel and the Miyako Hotel, the city’s most exclusive hotels.

Although there is surprisingly little documentation on the company, it appears to have been well-known at the time. It exhibited at several large overseas exhibitions between 1893 (Meiji 26) and 1910 (Meiji 43) and the Kyoto shop was listed in A Handbook for Travellers in Japan written by the famous British Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850–1935) and telecommunications specialist William B. Mason (1853-1923). First published in 1889 (Meiji 22), this was for decades the most authoritative English language guide on Japan.

Nogawa bronze vases
Bronze vases created by the Nogawa studio in Kyoto.

In advertising, the company introduced itself as “a manufacturer of bronze and fine art wares,” which included garden items, birds, animals, human figures, Buddhas, gongs and bells, vases, lanterns and small pieces. Nogawa also sold cloisonné ware, damascene works, ivory carving, lacquer ware, pearls, prints and Satsuma ware.1

Intriguingly, at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), many Japanese were just about throwing items like these out with the garbage. It actually took an American professor of philosophy and political economy by the name of Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853-1908) to rekindle Japan’s interest in its treasures. Fenollosa helped found the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy and the Imperial Museum, assisted in drafting the law for the preservation of temples, shrines and their art treasures, and made the first inventory of Japan’s national treasures (国宝, Kokuho), apparently a word that was introduced by him.

Japan was grateful, Fenollosa was decorated with the orders of the Rising Sun and the Sacred Mirror.

Nogawa Trademark
Nogawa’s trademark features the hiragana character no (の) with three vertical lines signifying the kanji character for river (川, kawa, or gawa in compounds). Sadly, many dealers and auction houses misorient the trade-mark in their photographs, showing it upside down or at a 90% angle.
Nogawa Advertising
Nogawa advertising featuring the distinctive trademark sign.
Buddha Statue
This Buddha statue sold at auction in 2008 included a receipt from the Nogawa company, dated 1934 (Showa 9). The engraving on the bottom (晴峯作, Harumine-saku, Work by Harumine) differs from the Nogawa mark, but individual craftsmen working for Nogawa usually signed their work with their own name. Photos courtesy Austin Auction Gallery.

Because of the lack of documentation, Nogawa metalwork was long identified as being from the Hattori Co. It was only during the early 2000s that experts discovered that the distinctive mark they had believed as belonging to Hattori, was actually Nogawa’s trade-mark. It features the stylized hiragana character no (の) with three vertical lines in the background signifying the kanji character for river (川, kawa, or gawa in compounds). This is effectively pronounced as Nogawa.2

This new discovery meant a drastic evaluation of Nogawa’s small but productive workshop. Undoubtedly, as a result more Nogawa pieces have been discovered.

It is truly fascinating to realize that all over the world there are beautiful items bearing this mark —a mark often probably even unknown to the current owner— and that they were all made in the small workshop shown in the above photograph, maybe even by one of these four men.

Map of Kyoto, 1928
1928 "Map of Kyoto and Vicinity with Shopping Directory": 1. Nogawa workshop; 2. Shijo Ohashi bridge; 3. Yasaka shrine; 4. Miyako Hotel.

This English language map published by the Miyako Hotel lists the Nogawa shop and its location, underlining how established the company was.

The map is not dated but contains markings for the “Grand Exposition in Commemoration of the Imperial Coronation,” which dates it to 1928 (Showa 3) when an exhibition for the coronation of Emperor Showa (Hirohito) took place in Kyoto. The pen markings were made by or for the foreign visitor who used this map.

see current map

The Google Map shows the approximate location of where the Nogawa shop used to be. Nearby are a McDonalds and a Mos Burger. How times have changed…

Update

About four years after I wrote this article, Georgiy Shoulga created a site about handcrafted Japanese cigarette cases. It features a page about the Nogawa studio, incorporating some of my text. Click on “Marks” to see photos of the signatures of craftsmen that worked with Nogawa. I can highly recommend his well-organized site.

Notes

1 Schneider, Fredic T (Winter 2004). Meiji Japan’s Hattori Co. no more. N. Nogawa Bronze Company and its Mark., Daruma, Japanese Art & Antiques Magazine, Issue 40: 46-47.

2 ibid.

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Updated

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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Kyoto 1890s: Bronze Ware Craftsmen, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/253/bronze-ware-craftsmen

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The N. Nogawa shop at the same address was still in operation as late as November 1935. A British tourist picked up a card from the store in that month.

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(Author)

Thanks, Michael. I have also seen N. Nogawa receipts for the 1930s. I haven’t seen anything yet from after the 30s, though.

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Do you recall anything about the Buddha figure you posted an image of? I have a similar one that was brought by my family from Japan in the 1930s. They lived in Kobe and I had always thought it was from there, but appears identical to the photograph.

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(Author)

Unfortunately Buddha statues are outside my area of expertise, so I highly recommend contacting someone with knowledge of them. Incidentally, Buddha statues like these are not really rare; having a contemporary invoice or receipt can make a big difference.

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thanks for your help. I know it is inscribed extensively on the base, but aside from the の I can’t read Japanese characters. I will have to photograph it and send it to someone / do more research. I had planned on photographing it today anyway for a blog post. :)

thanks again.

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(Author)

You’re welcome, Mike. I just had a look at the photo that you shot of your Buddha statue. It is a beautiful minimalist shot; I love how you angled your shot and how you included the tree trunk. It actually looks like it is a huge statue on a mountain.

I see that you are based in London, Ontario. Spent a month in the Waterloo-Kitchener area in 2000, and also visited London at the time. Really loved it there.

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Thanks for your help I found a Nogawa vase in a dump 38 years ago.

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@David: Yes, the Japanese used to throw away beautiful treasures in those days. Friends of mine even built a business on collecting Japanese antiques on thrash day. Thankfully, those days are gone and people have become a little bit more careful. Nowadays these kind of things are sold on Yahoo Auction…

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Hello…literally today I found a miniature bronze vase with 3 cranes standing in water with a few reeds that bears the makers mark as shown above for $1.25. How can I find out if it is real?
Thanks, Damon

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(Author)

I am afraid that I don’t know where you can find an appraiser familiar with Nogawa’s work. You could try contacting Kogire-kai.

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Hi. I have aquired 2 vases with the nogawa mark on bottom and a signature on both pieces. 11 inches tall. One has birds flying by the moon. The second birds r walking in water and they have red on their crest( I think u would all it crest) the second is also missing the bottom that would hold water or whatever in vase. Any info on history or worth today would be greatly appreciated

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Nice work. FYI- there are actually four people in this image.

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