Bokuto (Doctor’s Swords): The Karol Ashken Collection
By Karol Ashken : Excerpt from Daruma 7
Over the years Karol Ashken and his wife have collected a variety of Japanese artifacts: kiseruzutsu (pipe cases), sword ornaments (tsuba, kozuka, menuki), mizuire (water droppers) and porcelain netsuke. Here are some of the comments he makes on bokuto as his collectible of choice.
“They all gave us a great deal of pleasure, but the first few bokuto won us over. Perhaps because they combine many of the characteristics and beauty of the others, or because they are almost always wood, or because they are so difficult to find. Add to it a pinch of mystery in the paucity of background information, thus an incentive both to imagination and research; lastly, that to people of relatively limited means a quality bokuto is more affordable than a fine netsuke or inro.”
“Sabre de médecin japonais: il n’a pas de lame et consiste simplement en un morceau de bois laqué ou sculpté, avec plus ou moins de décoration et courbé légèrement en forme de poignard” is the reference for bokuto in V. F. Weber’s, Ko-Ji Ho-Ten, published in 1923. (Japanese doctor’s sword: it has no blade and is merely a piece of lacquered or sculpted wood, decorated to a greater or lesser extent and curved like a dagger.)
That is all that this authoritative 2-volume book, the bible for collectors of Japanese or Chinese artefacts, has to say about one of the most fascinating forms of art produced by Japanese artists and craftsmen in the 17-19th centuries. There is a longer dissertation in the Meinertzhagen card index covering a number of aspects, but as no sources are mentioned, I suspect they derive mainly from informed guesswork. There are one or two sentences in other reference books. Last but not least an article by G. Wilhelm in 1988 in The Bulletin Franco-Japonais, reprinted in English translation in 1990 by the Netsuke Kenkyukai Study Journal.
The scarcity of reference sources perfectly matches the difficulty of finding the objects! Taking London as an example, with its regular Oriental art sales through Sotheby’s, Christies and other well-known auction houses, I remember only 3 bokuto appearing in the last 7 years, and only a few surface through established dealers. Compare this with the thousands of netsuke, sagemono generally, and in a related field “real” swords, sold yearly!
From time to time one hears of a bokuto sold in Paris, or Cologne, or New York,—and surprisingly, they are available only very occasionally in Japan. They are, therefore, not only objects of great beauty, many made by some of the greatest netsuke carvers, but they also appeal to the hunting instinct of those of us who find it exciting to search for the rare, difficult, and may I say it—exclusive collectibles.
The only dispersal of bokuto in substantial numbers—around 130—came from the Reubell Collection in France in 1933. I know of no other sales (except a few ex-Behrens collections) of more than one or two. Very few museums or private collectors boast more than a very limited number of pieces. The British Museum has one, albeit a very beautiful one, by Toyomasa. But there are also advantages in scarcity: no fakes I know of, none made specially for export as happened to netsuke, inro, etc.
Karol Ashken lives in Surrey, England after retiring from work in London. You can read the complete article by purchasing Daruma 7 from our Back Issues page.