Museum Dictionary

Bronze Mirrors with Handles in Japan

Most of you probably have mirrors made of glass at home. In Japan, however, mirrors made of bronze (copper mixed with tin and lead) were used until the Edo period (1615-1868). These mirrors had a design on the back side, while the front was gilt with tin and beautifully polished to create a reflective surface. You can still see your face in some of these early bronze mirrors even now.

Today, I would like to talk about bronze mirrors with handles (known as e-kagami in Japanese). Japanese bronze mirrors have a history of nearly two thousand years, starting in the Yayoi period (300 B.C. to A.D. 250). Most of the early mirrors were round. Handled mirrors appeared somewhat later in the latter half of the Muromachi period (1392-1573), around the beginning of the sixteenth century. Examples of handled mirrors are found much earlier in China during the Song dynasty (12th-13th century) and in Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), around the 15th century. Some of these early mirrors with handles from China and Korea were brought to Japan. Especially notable are Korean handled mirrors with a design of scattered chrysanthemums on a concave surface. Several of these with the same shape have been found in temples and shrines in various regions of Japan.

  • Handled Mirror with Scattered Chrysanthemums on Concave Surface
    Handled Mirror with Scattered Chrysanthemums on Concave Surface
    Kyoto National Museum

Among early Japanese mirrors with handles is a type that has a tier where the handle is attached to a round mirror (see Mirror with Pines, Bamboo, and Cranes). Can you see how this shape closely resembles that of the same area of the handle on Korean handled mirrors?

  • Handled Mirror with Pines, Bamboo, and Cranes
    Handled Mirror with Pines, Bamboo, and Cranes
    Kyoto National Museum

Although I previously used the term of handle, these handle is originally had a somewhat different function. In Okazari ki, a record on the Ashikaga shogun collection, which shows an illustration on how to decorate the alcove (tokonoma) of a formal reception room (zashiki), we can see a handled mirror hung from a pillar in the left corner of the alcove. Apparently, it was used like a wall-hanging mirror that we use today.

Decorative arrangement of alcove as seen in Okazari ki
Decorative arrangement of alcove as seen in Okazari ki.

Whether these mirrors were made in Korea or Japan is uncertain, however, they were probably used in the same way in both countries. Hanging mirrors with a hole at the end of a short handle were widespread during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), shortly before the Joseon dynasty, and perhaps the handled mirror with scattered chrysanthemums on concave surface may have also been used as a hanging mirror. If this were the case, Japanese handled mirrors were influenced by Korean mirrors not only in shape but also in the way they were used.

By the way, have you ever looked at yourself in a small mirror and thought that you might like a bigger one because of the confined range of the small one? Mirrors in Japan at first only measured about 10 centimeters in diameter, but they increased in size to about 12 to 18 centimeters in diameter during the Edo period (1615-1868). Towards the end of the 17th century, there came to be large mirrors with diameters measuring about 24 centimeters. Some say that the enlarging of mirrors was because women’s hairstyles became bigger and fuller.

At any rate, with the enlarging of mirror surfaces, the motifs on their backs increased in variety. Popular themes also seen in other decorative arts, such as kimono, lacquered utensils with sprinkled metal design (makie), and ceramics, came to be vividly depicted on mirrors as well. Celebratory motifs—such as the pine, bamboo, and plum, the crane and turtle, and the nandia plant (which was used in a wordplay meaning "to divert hardship")—appeared to be practically indispensible in people's lives.

  • Handled Mirror with Nandia
    Kyoto National Museum

A mirror with one's family crest may signify the self assertion of the family or individual who used such a mirror. A mirror with a scenic motif, such as Mount Fuji and the pine grove of Miho or the eight views of Omi, may express one's desire to see these famous sights or to travel. Perhaps it can be said that the motifs on handled mirrors truly reflected the heart of the Edoite!

Text by Tomoyasu Kubo, Department of Applied Art

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