Ii Naosuke’s Treasure Forgotten for 89 Years

In my high school history textbook, there were only 4things that were associated with Ii Naosuke (1815 – 1860):

  • Tairo (大老)… He became a Tairo, which is a very high-ranking post in the Tokugawa Shogunate late in the Edo Period. 
  • Harris Treaty… He signed this treaty with the US without the Emperor’s consent.
  • Ansei Purge… He executed so many young ambitious samurais who were against signing the Harris Treaty.
  • Sakuradamon Incident… He was assassinated in response to Ansei Purge.

My impression of Ii Naosuke was simply that he was a cold-blooded oppressor in the Tokugawa Shogunate, whose about 260-year reign would end shortly after his death (1868). 

Only after I started to practice tea ceremony did I learn that Ii Naosuke was an enthusiastic and accomplished tea practitioner.  “Chanoyu Ichie Shu” written by him is widely read and referenced among us students of tea ceremony.

After his assassination, Hikone-Han, (a feudal domain for which Ii Naosuke was the feudal lord), and also Naosuke’s family, had to endure disgrace for a long time.  Little wonder why one of his treasures, a set of 12-month tea containers, commissioned by him and made by the famous lacquerware craftsman Nakamura Sotetsu the 8th, was never shown to the public until 1949, four years after World War II ended.

Based upon “Poems on Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months” by a foremost Waka poet Fujiwara no Teika (1185 – 1333), each tea container is decorated with urushi lacquer paintings of flowers and matching birds.  No two containers look the same, no two containers apply the same lacquer technique.  The shape and size of each container is well thought of.  For example, a shallow tea bowl is used in the summer.  The matching tea container for June, therefore, is relatively tall.  In the winter, a deep, tall tea bowl is chosen.  The matching tea container for December, therefore, is short and flat. 

Research indicates that only Ii Naosuke, with his depth knowledge of understanding of tea ceremony and classic Waka poems, could have been able to conduct this meticulous planning. 

The same research also indicates that it’s possible that Ii Naosuke did have an opportunity to see the completed set, but most likely he never had a chance to actually host a tea gathering using these containers.

In 1980s, three veteran lacquer craftsmen took on a project to make near-perfect emulations of the tea container set.  The same techniques, the same shapes, sizes, the same design as much as possible were adopted.  Called as “Utsushi,” this type of emulation work of master pieces is widely conducted for tea utensils. Only a subtle difference is made, to show respect to the old master craftsmen.

I was fortunate enough to find one such “Utsushi” set on a net auction.  It has become my treasure.  Every month I will cherish each container, thinking of Ii Naosuke.


flower: Bridal Wreath (Deutzia crenata)

bird: Lesser cuckoo

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